"Are you going to hum that song all day? If so, I'm going to put in earplugs!"
"Huh?" I hadn't even been aware that I'd been humming. I stopped for a moment and hummed a few more bars of what had been left in my head, then blushed with embarrassment. "Oops."
She smiled at me with those glittering eyes of a Mustel. "That song is so OLD!"
I shrugged. "It's not like I meant to make that something of a species-wide anthem, you know."
"It still is in a lot of way," she giggled, trotting out into the tall grasses again.
There are few things sillier than watching a Mustel running through a field with a butterfly net. Sometimes the grasses grew over her head and all I could see what the wave of the net as she sampled the flying insects found on this corner of the planet. Every once in a while as I followed her I would hear an "oof!" or a "hey!" and once a "Come back here, dammit!" I tried not to laugh... too much. Still, I had picked a beautiful day to choose chaperone duty, with an alien sun illuminating lovely waves of grass and wildflowers running over hill and vale and disappearing into the horizon. And to my pleasure my companion was equally lovely, a mature female Mustel named Olivia who managed to put out a playful and energetic personality despite her four centuries of age. We clicked well on the 'cycle trip over, and although she seemed to be a little obsessive at collecting and filling her kill jars, I was enjoying spending my morning following her about these apparently infinite meadows.
Hours rolled by rapidly and she finally stopped and retraced her path back to me. "You're not helping, Ken."
"I'm supposed to help?" I asked. "I'm supposed to make sure that if you get hurt, someone's here to call for assistance. You're the one who said you'd rather have a 'ganic come along than use a seccor, and you got me. Besides, I know next to nothing about bugs."
She didn't correct me. I guess it shows my ignorance that I found that surprising. I asked her about it.
She shrugged. "'Bugs' is a convenient and accurate description. We don't even have a name for the planet yet, never mind how we're going to break up the kingdoms, phylum, ect. You know, 'insect' isn't even a subphylum, it's a superclass under the subphylum Uniramia to include the Myriapodia. Spiders are part of a different subphylum, Chelicerata. About the best we could agree is that these are by physiognomy some sort of local Phylum Arthropoda-- You're not really interested in this, are you?"
"Do you see anything in Class Mammilia I can examine up close?" I gestured over the meadow.
"Well, there's me," she pointed out.
"I'm sure I could examine you up close," I laughed. Was that a come-on? I took a drink from my canteen and said "Are you ready to continue onwards?"
"Yep." She took her net in hand.
"Good luck, great furred huntress."
"Very funny." She stood up and struck a mock-heroic pose. "What, Ho! On guard ye six-legged beasts of meadow! The terror of entomology, Olivia Larandi, is a'comin' for you!" She bounded off into the grasses again, leaving me to sputter with laughter into my canteen. I wiped the water off with my hand and gave chase. Although she was jogging through the grasses and I merely chose to walk, I managed to keep up with her, mostly because I would simply walk towards her while she would take a winding, hunt-and-seek path through the grasses, and because sometimes she stopped to put something into one of the hundreds of little jars she carried with her.
"It takes centuries to unravel the mystery of one world in all its depth," she said as she dropped a hard-shelled brown beetle into a jar. "Even now we don't know nearly one percent of what Pendor has to offer and here we are, thousands of light years away from the world of our birth, trying to figure out another." She looked up under her wide-brimmed safari hat. "I think it's going to be dark soon."
"That happens when the day is only seven hours long," I sighed. "It drives me crazy."
"You and me both," she complained . "Listen, I want to stay the night."
"How come?" I asked, curiously.
"Ken, a two-day cycle on this world is less than the length of a Pendorian day. We've both put in thirty-hour days back home, and I'd like to stay up all night and collect samples of nighttime bug life as well."
I pulled my uPADD and called Lance, advising him of our intentions. He said that was fine and would call back if there were any conflicts. "So," I said, "we're going to spend the night together."
She gave me a curious look, then nodded. "We have to head back to the 'cycles. I've got night traps in a couple of formats."
"Then let's head back." I walked in the direction the uPADD indicated. Climbing over one particularly tall hill we looked down on a misshapen hemisphere of a gnarled tree that was the only outstanding clump of vegetation in the whole world of unending yellow-green grasses. Sitting at the base of the tree, apparently unmolested but for a buzz of incurious insects, were our two 'cycles, one with a large trailer behind it. Olivia dove into the trailer and pulled out a couple of plastic cylinders each about the size of an average liter canteen. "How do you feel about climbing this tree?" she asked.
I looked up. The tree was very densely laid out with branches going everywhere. Plenty of handholds. "My ancestors were tree- dwellers. I think I'll do okay."
"Good," she said. "I need to put these at five different points, far away from each other, up in the tree. Could you do it while I set out the field traps?"
Picking up the first one, I examined it closely. "Just turn the bottom to activate it, right?"
She nodded. "And make sure you tie the top securely to the branch."
"I know my knots," I said.
She gave me that funny look again and said, "I'm sure you do, Shardik." With that, she picked up a sixth cylinder, larger than any of the ones she had assigned to me, and tromped off into the grasses again.
Climbing the tree was as easy as I had predicted, minus the annoying inconvenience of having to brush so many branches out of the way. I climbed out until I felt almost precarious, high in the branches of the tree, and tied down the first one. Then I retrieved the second, and found another spot.
On the fifth try, night had started falling with all the speed of a steel curtain. Olivia had returned several times while I was up in the tree and now was off again in the grasses somewhere, setting up another trap. I tied the fifth one and began making my way down when I miscalculated my footing. The branch I was using gave way and I pitched forward, landing painfully on the thick branch in front of me. "Oof!" I scrambled for control, but there was nothing to grab onto. I swung to left and slid off the branch, falling with a shout. Thinner branches whipped past me as I fell but they also slowed my descent. I landed with another "Oof!" As I tried to clear my head and brush away the leaves, my ankle throbbed painfully to get my attention. "Oh, Hell," I growled.
"Are you okay?" Olivia asked, bounding back through the grass.
"I twisted my ankle. It might be sprained." I pointed up. "I fell."
"I heard that." She looked up. "Still, you got the trap in place. The only question now is, how do we get it down? How bad's the ankle?"
Typical scientist. I'm lying here maimed and the first thing she's interested in is her work. "Get me the medkit from my bike, would you?"
She retrieved the instrument in question and handed it to me. A quick look through the neutrino imager revealed that the ankle had momentarily dislocated and returned, but nothing was torn. That didn't stop it from hurting immensely. "Get me a splintcuff, would you?"
"It's in the box next to you. I figured you would need it either way."
"Smart fem," I said, opening the box and programming the cuff for an ankle. It twisted itself into the proper shape and I eased it over my foot and into place. Then, with a touch to the medkit, it solidified into a functional restraint that would keep me from stressing the ankle. I sighed and leaned back against the trunk of the tree. "Ouch."
"Oh, come on," she said. "I thought your kind liked pain."
"That joke is so old!" I said, getting back at her for earlier.
"I was only joking," she pointed out.
"I know. But I'm as tired of hearing it as you are of hearing that stupid tune."
She looked down at the bright blue cuff about my ankle. "Do you want to head back and have a real doctor look at that?" She tapped the side of her head thoughtfully. I felt warmed by her concern. "I mean, I can come back and retrieve that traps. Or if they're too full I could reset them."
I reached up and took her hand. "Olivia, my lovely weasel, I am a real doctor. I just don't advertise that much. I think my ankle will be okay. I just shouldn't walk on it very much."
She nodded. "How are we going to get the traps down?"
"We'll shoot them."
"Trust me. I'm a really good shot, and none of them are more than five meters away. I could easily shoot the line down with my pistol."
Her expression told me she still thought that was an at least dubious proposition, but she didn't have anything better. As night fell we camped out under the tree, trading self-warming packages of field rations and cups of hot tea. "Sorry about your ankle," she said.
"Nothing to be sorry about," I said. "My stupid accident."
She sighed and looked down at her dinner. "Do you ever wonder," she began, "Why we're here?"
I figured she wasn't asking about why were on the expedition. "A lot," I started. "I don't have any answers yet. Well, I have a few, but they're all based on assumptions, not facts."
"I... I'm not really sure." For some reason, I felt very uncomfortable talking about this subject with her. "I mean, I think I'm here to make other people's lives worth living. And that very act makes my life worth living. But that's just an assumption, you know?"
"Does making a new species make everyone else's life worth living?"
I smiled uneasily. "I think so. It makes my life more worthwhile, at any rate. I want to bring beauty into the world. Beauty and intelligence and diversity and caring. Something I try to give every individual in a tliel, and even in the hrairs." I smiled and tried to change the subject. "Something I see I succeeded with in you."
She looked away, shaking her head. "You're an impossible man, Kennet Shardik."
"I like you, Olivia," I said, waving my hand dismissively. "You don't treat it as some sort of great honor that I'm your chaperone."
"It's nice to be liked, especially by you," she said. "But I know how you want to be viewed, and I know enough about you to appreciate your warts as well as your successes." Her eyes were thoughtful. "You've changed the subject."
I snapped my fingers. "Damn, I was hoping you wouldn't notice. Okay, Olivia, why do you think we're here?"
"I'm here... to find out what there is to life. I don't think there's an answer, Ken." She touched her chest, looking down. "If it weren't me, Olivia Larandi, saying these words to you, it would be someone else, maybe of a different species, saying them. I can't imagine my... my spirit is so unique that I'm the only one to ever have this privilege."
"No, you're not. Not now, not in the future either. I think you'll ask it of other people--"
"Already have," she interrupted.
"Yah, see? And other people will ask it of me. All we can do is accept each other's answers. I'm here to make the universe an interesting place from the center. Other people want to go to the edges to see what makes it interesting to them. I think, if there is a God, he wants his creation to live fulfilled."
She nodded, sliding up beside me to lean against the tree trunk. I put my arm around her and held her close. "Thanks," she said.
"What are you feeling, Olivia?"
"Awed." She pointed out under the canopy of the tree, out to the millions of stars that dotted the unpolluted sky. "All those stars out there, and every fiftieth or so has life. And every fiftieth or so that has life has sentience on it, or so it seems. Or had, I suppose, since I'm counting those four species that left us nothing but ruins. It's all one big wonder. I... I want to know it all."
I petted the top of her head, my hand trailing down to the small of her back, then back up to stroke again. "I do too."
"Ken?" she asked.
"Totally different subject, but... earlier you said that in me you saw beauty and intelligence and caring. Do you really?"
"I really do. Does it mean more, coming from me?"
"Yeah," she sighed. "It does... a little."
"Then I'm glad I could tell it to you." I let my hand stray down her back until I found her tail and followed that down as well. As I did so, I let my fingers close down and paid some close attention to the bone structure. "You're not a Nivali."
"No, a Frenata," she said. "It's not easy to tell the two apart."
"Apparently not, and to think I made you," I chuckled.
"That feels good." She looked up at me and said, "Would you be surprised if I told you I would like to sleep with you... but I'm afraid to?"
I paused for a second, thinking about my answers. "Surprised? I'm not sure. Some people do just because of who I am without knowing anything about me. Other people have better reasons. I wonder if you have a good reason or not. But why would you be afraid of me?"
"A couple of times today we... we made jokes about your being a sadomasochist. I tried that once and I didn't like it. I know how you folks are always talking about the difference between good pain and bad pain, but, to me, it just hurt. You know? I didn't like it and I didn't want it to hurt."
I tightened my arm around her to give her a reassuring squeeze. "Olivia, I don't expect everybody to like SM; I don't even expect a lot of people."
"But the way you talk about it is so convincing. About the challenges of the spirit and the journey of the flesh and all that. I mean, sometimes I thought there was something wrong with me because I didn't want to take that journey or face that challenge."
I leaned over and kissed the top of her head gently. "Olivia, everybody's challenges are different, and your... path, to use another esoteric term, is not the same as mine. Look at me." She raised her head slowly until our eyes met. "I would love to make love to you, my little weasel. Just plain old lovemaking. Which I do like very much."
A smile tugged on the corners of her mouth as she wiped away a tear with the back of one hand. She lunged and hugged me close, holding me tightly. "Thank you," she sighed.
I kissed the top of her head again, and she tilted her face back to reach her muzzle. Her tongue was narrow and soft, a little pointed thing caressing my face as she playfully licked my cheeks until I was laughing. "All right, already!" I giggled. She touched my chest with her hands, undoing the buttons of my flannel shirt and pushing it open. "Are you sure the... the bugs won't stick me?"
"As far as I know, none of them know to use their stinger against you as food; there are no animals, so they haven't evolved a way of extracting sustenance from creatures like us. So unless we make one angry, we should be perfectly fine."
"One stuck me when I first got here," I said.
"Coincidence. Very few bites have occurred since then. But they sure do swarm a lot. Sometimes I feel like they're watching us."
I nodded and pulled her close, crossing my legs to make a cradle of sorts and pulling her into it, face-up. I buried my face in her bellyfur, wiping my cheeks back and forth to get the feel of her fur against my face, then slowly leaned over and licked under her chin. She whimpered her pleasure, but at my touch or my compliance, I couldn't tell. Her hands found my hard-on through the cloth of my denim pants and pulled down on the zipper, seeking within. She found it pretty quickly, too.
She wiggled herself down to where she could get it into her mouth and close her little muzzle around it. As I watched, she closed her eyes and suckled on my cock like it was a new source of sustenance for her after many days of starvation. She was in an awkward position and to get more of it she literally lunged towards my crotch; I repositioned my legs to make it easier for her.
I scratched at her body slowly as he mouth did obscene and wonderful things to my erection. The wetness of her sucking trailed down to the base of my shaft and down my balls, and the tight stroking her tongue sent surges of pleasure into my belly.
Then she stopped. "Lift up your hips for a second," she gasped as she wiped her mouth. I lifted my hips as she asked and she pulled my pants down to my knees. "You're not going to be going anywhere real soon, so this is probably the best way."
She straddled my hips, spreading her short and stubby legs very wide as she lowered herself over my cock. She reached down with one hand and pulled my cock up until the head pressed against her lips and then slowly slid down onto it.
I could feel her tight, tiny hole straining to keep me out and I could feel the wetness of her juices and her saliva aiding in letting me in. Slowly she pressed down until her cunny gave way and allowed me to slip into her. "Yeah," she smiled. "Oh, that's good."
I grinned. "I'm glad you approve."
Her eyes reflected the soft light of our single lamp. "There are few things I adore more than the feeling of a mel inside me. And you're an added benefit."
"There are few things I adore more than the feelings of a sweet fem surrounding me," I replied. We leaned forward and kissed as she rose up off my cock, then slid back down again. Even she took as much of it into her as she could, she quaked with her passing pleasure and let out a muffled moan. "Did you just come?" I asked, surprised.
"Every time," she grinned, slowly sliding up again, then back down; again, her body shook with ecstasy. I was amazed, but I wasn't about to stop her. Her cunt was going into contractions that got my attention.
As she speeded up, her hands reached up to grip my shoulders, but I grabbed them with my hands and gave her more leverage. "I'll stop," she gasped, "when one of us can't go anymore."
"Either I'm going to come or you're going to pass out then," I said.
"That's... usually... what happens!" We made love faster, speeding faster and faster. Her hips were pounding against mine and little whimpers of pain came alongside the moans of pleasure; she was losing control of her strokes, going too deep. I worried about her by figured she knew how to take care of her own pleasure.
Our lovemaking reached frantic speeds and she was shouting with pleasure almost continuously. I felt my cock tighten and bind; it felt like I was being wrapped by my approaching climax. She was going into convulsions; her eyes had rolled back into her head and she was waving back and forth like an exotic dancer lost to the dance, and suddenly my screaming was joining hers as I came, shooting into her sweet and ecstatic body until my voice went hoarse from lack of breath and I just collapsed.
So did she. "My Gods," I whispered. I couldn't believe how tired I felt. "I'm going to need a nap after that!"
"I... already... do," Olivia panted. "Ohh, that was, that was incredible."
"I'm glad you liked it. I certainly did!"
She nodded slowly in agreement. "Let's... let's get a nap, at least."
Dawn came too early for both of us, part of the painful cycle that we had not yet adjusted to in the slightest. I groaned and rolled over, being careful to make sure that I didn't roll over onto Olivia. She raised her head and blinked. "Dawn, already."
"Yep. Damned short day schedule." I groaned and stretched and she did the same. For all my years, I appreciated her body all the same in the tight, tense pose she held at the end of her stretch.
A few minutes later she was peering over my shoulder. "Now, the spent casing is going to go that way, so just watch out for it if it does." She nodded. I aimed up into the tree, my pistol out at full arm's extension, one hand out, one hand pulling in to steady the muzzle. I thought about where I wanted the little yellow dot to go. There would be no drop on the bullet at all at this range. Both eyes open. I breathed, aimed, relaxed, and squeezed.
The bug trap fell to the ground, landing harmlessly in our pile of bedding. The other four were just as easy. Olivia examined the contents carefully, assured that they were in perfect condition, and packed them away in the trailer. After a short check to make sure that everything was stowed and stowed right, we took to the air and headed back to camp, real food, real beds, and real sleep.