Garth stepped out of the shower and examined himself in the mirror. "I still don't look any different."
"Do you feel different?" Kiza asked from outside the doorway. "I mean, do you think you're supposed to look or feel any different?"
"Shouldn't I?" Garth asked. "My skull's been replaced with ceramics and nanotech is swimming through my bloodstream. I'm a Pendorian now, not a Samanite. I feel so... so normal."
"But you're still you," she said, edging past him to climb into the shower. "Nothing's changed about who you are, Garth." She closed the door and started the water flowing. From behind the glass door she said, "By the way, I called Nickolai and Furry. They said they'd be here to pick us up."
Garth combed himself down until he was satisfied his fur was at least ruly. Then he walked back to the bedroom he and Kiza had shared last night, and the night before. He felt strange, as if he were giving a lie to Kiza's telling her parents she was an Entalie', a homosexual. But stranger things had happened than a lesbian who liked men for a little while, he supposed. He remembered Furry telling him that Kiza would want to be rid of him the moment he started knowing "too much" about her. He wondered if two weeks, even two intense weeks like they had had together, was time enough for that to happen. Still, he had gotten to know her very well, and his Katckin form had become very comfortable next to her Mustelid one. He supposed it was possible they were reaching that critical stage where they did know "too much" and she began to feel uncomfortable.
He zipped the bag shut and finished dressing. As he was pulling on the new boots she had acquired for him to go climbing in weeks ago, he thought about how much this trip had and had not changed him. He wondered if the challenges left for him on Terra still held any attraction for him at all. He hoped so; he felt too young for the kind of anomie that takes Terran Lords and Ladies in their final years. He snorted as he thought about that, the pretentiousness with which the first-generation Saman Terrans called themselves "Lords and Ladies." Drug addicts and fools were more like it.
Kiza walked in naked and he looked up from where he sat on the bed and smiled. "Better dress fast," he said. "I've got to get moving. And Nickolai would know that, too."
She stood up in front of him and smiled. "If the AIs have anything to say about it. I think I'm going to miss you," she said.
He reached up and touched her belly softly, stroking downwards until his hand passed over her furred mound. "I'll miss you too."
"You mean it?"
"I mean it." He stood up slowly and pulled her close. "Now come on, let's go."
She nodded. A sound from outside distracted both of them, followed by a loud honk. "Come on!" Nickolai's voice rose from downstairs. "We've got less than an hour until the gangs are pulled!"
"See?" Garth said.
Kiza let him go and dressed quickly, tossing on a dress and a comfortable pair of slippers. They both ran down the stairs where Nickolai and Furry waited for them. "I got us a vehicle so you didn't have to muck about with the horses," Furry said. "It's not very quiet, but it's fast. Skii's driving."
"Great," Garth said. With a fatalistic air he said, "Let's go meet our doom."
"He got us here in one piece," Nickolai pointed out.
"That's half the battle." Garth grinned. "Come on." They tossed his bags into the rearmost compartment. The six-fan hovercraft had six seats as well, in three rows of two. Garth and Kiza took the rearmost, Furry sat in the center and Nickolai and Skii sat up front. Garth found it odd that his roommate had changed so much since their arrival here on Pendor. He seemed one of them. He felt different to Garth; interacting with Nickolai felt similar, but not the same. And somewhat he felt as if he were talking to Ken Shardik or Skii or some other Pendorian male.
He sighed. "Kiza, I didn't get to say good-bye to your family."
"I'll tell them you thought of them." She kissed his cheek warmly, her fur brushing up against his whiskers.
Skii looked busy for a moment, and the craft took off, flying over the open fields of grain. The rows rippled by underneath them, the roar of air and the buzz of rotors loud in Garth's ears. Every once in a while a crack would echo through the hovercraft, and once Skii said "Wow, they grow grasshoppers big out here."
He seemed to dive for the SDisk. The ground loomed close as the hovercraft banked suddenly, laying it's bottom flat to the surface of the SDisk and vanishing. Garth's stomach threatened revolution as the hovercraft's momentum seemed to reverse, heading up instead of down, and he realized with chagrin that he was gripping the armrest so hard his claws were extending and the tips were growing cold. "Whahoo!" Skii shouted from the front as he righted the hovercraft again.
Garth finally looked out the window. They were flying over water, and up ahead of them Shardik Castle grew larger and closer. Skii flew the hovercraft over the mountain range and confidently slid into the Castle's parking garage. "Wow," he said.
"Wow is right," Nickolai agreed. "Are you sure you had a backup every second?"
"Every second," Skii replied. "And I never felt it kick in once. See, I told you! I'm the greatest pilot on the planet."
"I think your father would disagree." Ken's voice echoed through the vehicle hanger bay. "You're driving is impressive, Skii, but you're to reserve it for displays and self-satisfaction. I've warned you about driving crazy, Dave or not."
"Don't get started with me, Skii. I'm not in the mood for it." He looked over at Garth. "So, my friend, you're leaving."
"Yeah," Garth said, looking down at his watch. "In about forty minutes."
"Terran," Ken added. "Okay, well. I hope you have a long and happy life, Garth. Take care of yourself. It's a different world from the one you left."
Garth looked up at Ken. "That's really it, isn't it? I don't feel different; it's the universe that's changed."
"That's part of it. The political reality is different too, you know. Whether people start flocking to the Hall or not is up to them." He turned and began walking out. "Coming?"
As they began following him to the SDisk, he noticed Furry limping. "What happened to you?"
"I broke my ankle yesterday," she said. "It's already healing, and the support for it is more than enough. It just hurts a little."
"I hope you're okay."
"Oh, sure," she said. "I'll be up an about in less than a week."
They SDisked to Parma station. Ken led them out into a large thoroughfare off of which several starship loading terminals jutted away from the station and into space. "It's not much of a send-off, I'm afraid." Only about a dozen humans, most of them ambassadorial staff from the Terran embassy if Garth read their badges correctly, stood there. "They've been shifting military and civilian personnel back and forth," he said. "So you're going with a civilian support group for their military staffing. I know some of them. Jerry!"
"Vatare' Shardik?" a voice echoed from the other end of the empty bay.
As the party drew closer, Ken waved. "It's me. How're you today?"
"Annoyed," the human admitted. Wearing a grey cloak that fell from his shoulders nearly to the floor, his face reflected the emotion he described. "It's back and forth, back and forth. What can I do for you?"
"Will you be back?"
"When the situation stables, I sure hope so." He looked around. "I like it here."
"I won't ask the obvious question."
"I won't answer it anyway."
"I didn't think so. Gerald Stalling, this is Garth El Baum. He's a tourist who seems to have lost his way home." Ken pointed at Garth, motioning him to come forward. "Garth, this is Gerald Stalling, an acquaintance of mine."
"Garth," Stalling said, reaching down with one hand from within his cloak.
"Gerry will do," Stalling said, smiling. "What's the scoop?"
"No scoop, Gerry," Ken said softly. "He's going home with y'all, and he's going home to stay. He's a Terran, and he likes it that way."
"This isn't a mission critical transfer, is it?"
"You could say that," Ken said with a grin.
"Should I ask about him?" Gerry said, indicating Nickolai.
"He can introduce himself, if he likes. Nickolai?"
Nickolai walked up and held out his hand. He smiled; he was almost exactly the same height as Stalling. "How do you do? P. H. Nickolai Dittrich."
"I... see." Gerry smiled. A chime sounded overhead, followed by a voice. "The Lamp is now ready for boarding. Destination, Terra. Please embark now."
"Well," Gerry said. "See you in a few, Ken."
"Say hello to the rest of the crew when you see them, huh?" Gerry nodded. Ken looked over at Garth and hold out his hand. "Take care of yourself, Garth."
"I will. Before I go, though..." He turned and walked over to Kiza, giving her a hug. Then Skii, and then Nickolai. "Take care of yourself, big guy."
"I will, Garth. You take care of yourself as well."
"I'll do my damndest," Garth replied. "I've always succeeded in the end, haven't I?"
"Somehow," Nickolai said.
"Hey!" Furry said, pouting slightly. "Don't I get a hug too?"
Garth smiled and gave her a friendly hug. "You take care of my roommate. He's your responsibility now. Make sure he picks his underwear up off the floor."
"I will," Furry smiled.
"Bye, all!" Garth said. He grabbed his bags and ran for the airlock.
"Bye, Garth!" he heard Nickolai shout. As the doors closed behind him, locking out his best friend, Garth reflected that now he felt different. He dropped his bags in the room an orderly directed him towards, then found his way to an observation port. On his way, he felt the soft jerk that indicated the ship had freed its mooring. Out the window, he saw the great bulk of Parma station and the Ring of Pendor falling away behind them.
Somehow, he knew that now Nickolai felt different, too.