A shout erupted from the laboratory prep room, "Dammit! No!," followed almost immediately by the clatter of metal upon a hard plastic floor. "Nyss?" Nance shouted, running into the lab. "Are you okay?"
P'nyssa looked up from where she crouched, picking up a small collection of metallic pointers and tweezers and the like. "Yeah, I'm okay," she replied. "Dammit, Nance, I'm a total klutz today. I can't turn around without knocking something over, and I don't even have a tail as an excuse."
Nance nodded, bending down to help her pick up the tools. "Nyss, as your personal assistant, as well as your best friend, I think you've been working too hard. Do us both a favor and go take a break."
"I appreciate it, Nance, but I don't..."
"Hush," he said, leaning over and kissing her forehead. "Get out of here, Nyss. Seriously. At the moment, nobody's critical, and nobody's going to die if you're not here. I understand the Terrans just opened up a place called 'Rosie's,' some kind of bar. Go rest. Please?"
She sighed, weighing her choices. "And what if I don't?"
"I'll kick you out of here on your ringdamned ass."
It was the answer she had expected from him. Nodding, she put down the tray she held and stood up. "Okay, I'll go."
She walked out into the hot, blazing sun of Battia II. So far, the summer had proven to be very warm, but the breezes that came down the mountains kept it from being oppressive. The humidity was a little lower than she was used to, which helped. She found the place Nance had mentioned.
From the outside, "Rosie's" (the quotes were very visible on the sign, as if they held some import to the Terran) was built with a distinctly different architecture from the usual plastic tenting- in-the-round.
A dark green rectangular tent with an elevated, 'A'-frame roof was held down in the dusty soil with long, manila-colored ropes. The tent billowed in the wind, and the cloth it was made of had a coarse, visible square weave. Despite the cloth construction, the door was made of wood, with a metal screen "window" for an insert. The sounds of loud rock-and-roll came from within. Her assessment was that this place was a replica of some cultural or historic artifact, and had obviously been patterned on something that had existed long before anyone had heard of 'taurs.
Anxiously, P'nyssa approached the door and pulled it open. The springs creaked noisily, and some of the patrons (not, she gratefully noted, entirely human) turned to look at her. She shook her head, wondering where all her courage had vanished too.
The floor was wooden, as was the bar to her left. Also made of steel piping and wood were the antique-looking tables and chairs scattered about the room. If a corner of the room had been reserved for a dance floor, P'nyssa couldn't see it. A box in one corner blared rock music at a barely tolerable volume and P'nyssa reflected that had never before heard music so poorly reproduced. She hoped that the poor reproduction was a deliberate part of the ambiance.
She found her way to the bar, looking around at the glass shelves arranged in front of a mirror and covered with an intriguing array of exotic liquors and other intoxicants in glass bottles. Some of the labels were positively lurid.
P'nyssa looked for a bartender, and found her. She was surprised to find a Terran Neorat instead of a Human. "Hi!" the Neorat said, meeting her glance, "What'll you have?"
"Uhm..." P'nyssa thought. Unlike Ken, she had never really had a taste for alcohol. "What's mild?"
"Mild?" the Neorat bartender replied. "Hmm." She rested a finger against the distinctive, cone-shaped muzzle in a gesture of concentration. "Depends. We've got wine, which you can mix with fruit juices or carbonateds to make a cooler." She grinned. "On the other hand, if you're going to be a while, I make a good margarita."
"I thought those had whiskey in them." P'nyssa didn't have much experience with intoxicants, and some that she had had been with somewhat self-destructive intent. She knew enough, however, to know that the word "whiskey" was reserved for more powerful blends of liquor.
"Only one shot. It comes with lots of juice and ice, though, so like I said, if you're going to be a while it's a good thing to cool you down on such a hot day."
"I'll try one."
"Good choice. You won't regret it." The Neorat vanished down below the bar for a moment, returning with a large plastic scoop full of ice. The sounds of pouring, blending, and chopping came from the rear counter, but P'nyssa's view was obscured by the Neorat's back. Eventually, though, she turned a dropped a centaur- sized ceramic mug in front of her. "All that?" P'nyssa asked. "How much is alcohol?"
"This much," the bartender replied, holding up a single shot glass. P'nyssa had seen Ken down nearly a dozen of those of whiskey when playing drinking games with Centaurs. He nearly always got sick after that. Why he thought such games were worthwhile was beyond her. She could understand his interest in sadomasochism far easier.
"It's very dilute, then," P'nyssa said.
"Yup. Drink it slow and you'll never feel a thing."
The music subsided gently as the hour waned, and it took P'nyssa slightly more than an hour to finish the drink the Neorat had poured for her. The crowd, meanwhile, flowed and ebbed. A few remained as the hour passed, and P'nyssa enjoyed herself watching them, especially the pair in the corner playing darts.
"You look familiar."
The words came from behind her, which startled her momentarily. She turned around and found the Neorat leaning on her elbows staring across the bar at her. "I do?"
"Yep," she replied, nodding briskly. "It's the white."
P'nyssa touched the albino fur that ringed her eyes with one mitten. "Lots of Tindals have these."
"Not on this trip. Just two that I know of."
P'nyssa decided to take the initiative and introduce herself. "P'nyssa Traken."
"Zah...?" She hadn't quite caught the name right.
"Zah-eed," the Neorat replied.
"It's very beautiful." The words seemed to startle the Neorat, and she immediately apologized. "I didn't mean to surprise you."
"You didn't," Zaid replied. P'nyssa was curious as to why Zaid said something that, even had she not been a telepath, was clearly a lie.
"Tell me something," P'nyssa said. "What's it like being a... uhm... a Neorat on Terra?"
Zaid shrugged. "It's not much different from being something else somewhere else, right?"
"But don't you still get looked down on a lot?"
"You mean, unlike your egalitarian Pendorian system?"
P'nyssa smiled. "Something like that. I understand that Neorats and Katckins still have some major civil rights problems back on Terra."
"Nothing we can't handle," Zaid replied. "I suppose it's the same thing as different races had a millennium ago. They just don't see the similarities because we're furry. You know, separate but equal has to be the case when we're talking about furtraps and drying chambers."
P'nyssa nodded. "We have tried, on Pendor."
"And you've had some interesting failures, too," Zaid replied. "The Ssphynxes didn't do so well, as I remember."
"I'm too close to Ken Shardik to be an impartial observer. I think he did everything he could. The fact that it took them a century or two to feel comfortable in public again was an accident, and if it happens again, we'll live with it."
Zaid nodded. "My turn to ask a question."
"Feel free," P'nyssa said. Her mind was already calling up the standard answers to the standard questions of what was it like to be Ken Shardik's lover, what was it like to be a Telepath, how did she function with such weak arms.
"Have you ever had to kill someone?"
P'nyssa blinked, surprised. "I don't understand the question."
"It's something about the way Pendorians think that's always bothered me. I guess the fact that I've got your ear makes me bold about it. On the one hand, you're all so cautious about your own lives, constantly updating your cybernetics and all that stuff, ensuring your longevity, stuff like that. On the other hand, you've got a social structure that advocates such an absolute sense of morality. Pendorians are either on or off. Dead or alive. But at the same time I've never met a Pendorian who's killed. I would think that by now someone in this party has had an opportunity. Maybe I should talk to your husband, er, I mean, coimelin."
"No, that's okay," P'nyssa said. "I doubt you'd get much of an honest answer out of him anyway."
Zaid grinned. "So, have you?"
"I...." P'nyssa sighed. "Yes, but not in the manner you're looking for. I'm not into emphasizing our cultural morality, although I could do it if I needed to."
"Come on," Zaid said. "I'm tired of standing up. Let someone else pour the drinks for a while. Let's find a table and talk. Wanna beer?"
"Another one of these would be better," P'nyssa said, playing with the straw in her now empty mug.
Zaid giggled. "You like those, huh?"
"Well, it made me feel warm, but not very drunk."
"That happens if you drink it slow. One more coming up. Find a seat somewhere."
A few minutes later Zaid joined P'nyssa at the table. "So, you said 'yes,' but you didn't seem to want to discuss it."
"It's nothing to really discuss," P'nyssa sighed. "It happened nearly a thousand years ago anyway. I was on Terra, visiting a hospital as part of some medical seminar. There seemed to be a big deal about my not being human, something about how could I present anything of value and why there wasn't a human keynote speaker for the Pendorian contingent."
"You killed someone in a hospital?"
"More like 'turned off,'" P'nyssa said, sighing and staring off into the distance. "He was a young boy, about fourteen or so. Far gone in his illness and couldn't communicate, but as a telepath I could hear him. And he really wanted to just... let go. Just let it end. He was in a lot of pain, and I could see a DNR on his status sheet. So I just..."
"Turned him off."
"Yes," P'nyssa said. "It was probably the most painless moment he'd had in weeks. I felt bad about it for years afterwards, though. I wouldn't let Ken take me to Terra." She smiled and sipped at her drink. "I still hope I did the right thing."
"Only you can judge," Zaid said. The comment sounded more flippant that P'nyssa would have thought appropriate for the discussion, and she gave Zaid a curious stare.
Zaid returned the stare, then blushed and turned away. P'nyssa felt no animosity from her, only a strange blend of confusions. "Zaid?"
"Sorry," the Neorat replied. "I'm just thinking."
"Why did you ask me that question?"
"Because... I had to kill someone once myself. A human, and it was the kind of situation Pendorians talk about when they're talking about their guns."
"Something like that. I guess I'll never know if he was going to rape me, or kill me. But I killed him first. Broke his neck, even."
"Well, I've only heard just a little bit of the story, but it sounds to me like you did what you had to do."
Zaid nodded, sipping from her beer. The label on the side of the bottle read "Battia II Beer." P'nyssa gestured towards the bottle and asked "Who's making that?"
"Oh, one of the technicians from Moscow. Guy named Anthony."
P'nyssa nodded. "Is it good?"
"Not bad," Zaid admitted. "A little full-flavored."
"I wouldn't know. I don't drink beer." She found that the second margarita had affected her far more than her first. Worse than that, she was starting to realize that her monogamy was getting to her. She found herself stealing glances at Zaid and wondering what this fascinating alien would be like in bed. And, even more, she felt... entranced by her companion's exotique. "Zaid," she said. "I was wondering if you have someone who would... miss you tonight."
Surprised, Zaid stuttered, "Um... No, I don't. Not really. I mean, I don't think so."
"You don't think so?"
Zaid threw her hands up in the air. "I've never had an offer like that before."
"I mean, I've never had sex with a female. I've never even had sex with a non-Neorat!" she whispered. Her whiskers drooped slightly. "I don't know if I could."
"Anyone can," P'nyssa said, smiling. She recognized that her judgment was slightly impaired, at least as far as her inhibitions were concerned. "It's if you think you might like it that's important."
"I don't know..." She looked aside for a moment. "Miss Traken, I really appreciate the offer, but I don't think I could right now. I don't want to."
Disappointment swept P'nyssa. She had so wanted to seduce Zaid, and now she'd blown it. She felt like blaming the alcohol, but reminded herself that she knew better than that. "Okay," she smiled, hiding her feelings underneath. "But if you ever change your mind..."
"Yeah, I know." Zaid took a sip of her beer. "So, can I ask you another question?"
"Go ahead," P'nyssa replied, girding herself for another weird question. But this time Zaid asked, "How do you function without fingers?" And for the rest of the night, she asked all the usual questions.
P'nyssa walked back into her tent around midnight and proceeded to pour herself into bed. A figure under the covers already stirred and looked up, blearily. "Hi."
"Hi, Aaden," P'nyssa said, slumping down against her pillow.
He leaned over and kissed her cheek softly. "Whew," he said. "What have you been drinking? You smell like Ken after a night at Rocchodain."
"I feel like it too, only I don't think I'm gonna get sick," she giggled. Then she frowned. "Aaden, am I a good person?"
"What kind of question is that?"
"Well," she said, "I was with someone earlier. Real pretty girl named Zaid. And we were sitting in that place called 'Rosies,' drinking stuff. She had beer, I was having... margaritas, I think they're called, and I tried to seduce her. I didn't do a good job--"
"Because you were drunk," Aaden interrupted.
P'nyssa nodded. "Because I was drunk, but for a few seconds I felt really bad because she turned me down. It was like I expected her to say yes just because I'm, well, P'nyssa Shardik. I just feel like there's this thing underneath my consciousness, you know, this egotistical monster that's just as bad as Ken's can be."
"P'nyssa, some people just aren't interested in women." He chuckled, and she giggled along, at what was quickly becoming a very important and personal joke between them. "Some aren't interested in Tindals. Maybe she gets turned off by doctors. I don't know."
"That's not the point, Aaden. I can handle rejection gracefully. This time, though, I didn't."
"Did you let her know how disappointed you were?"
"No," P'nyssa said. "But..."
"No 'buts,' Nyss," Aaden replied. "Listen, you know alcohol, along with being an intoxicant is also a depressant. I don't think you have much to worry about. As for your feelings, well, maybe it's better that you know they could be there, rather than letting them sit under the surface forever."
"I know," P'nyssa said. "But I..."
"Come on, Nyss. Come down here and get some sleep."
"Okay," she said, pouting. She slid into bed, curling up into a little ball. For a moment, the tent was silent. Then, Aaden turned over, wrapping himself around her, kissing the back of her neck and throwing his right arm over her midsection, cupping one breast.
She reached up and touched his hand. "Aaden?" she said.
"Thanks. For everything."