"Thank you for coming on such short notice."
"Not a problem, Madame President," I replied, glancing around the almost mundane-looking office. Ebele Zapata's name sounded like a combination of West African and Spanish-Mexican, but her eyes and face bespoke an inland Asian descent-- Tibet, or maybe Western Mongolia. She spoke perfect Anglic. And Quen. So much culture in one woman was probably necessary for the executive officer of the most populous and so most crowded solar system in all of known space.
I lied, however. Being asked to visit Earth on such notice did present its share of problems. The Ritacha project had entered the final stages and my absence, even for a couple of days, was not welcome. They didn't need me there, but the moral support I offered could make a difference. Even Aanji felt that way- she had strongly debated against my going to Earth on the grounds that the team needed its leader.
But other pressures have their side effects. Unity, only two years ago an unheard of gleam in someone's eye, had been initiated. Nazkrimpatul had already laid down the first of the three wire structures necessary for primary construction. In four years the other two cables would be down and then the real work would begin. For more than five decades the star itself would appear to disappear, to emerge from its cocoon a cold and lifeless ringworld. In the next century, however, Terra had the responsibility for transplanting life to it-- and believe me, life would take with a vengeance once started. We'd seen it on Mars in the third century. Terraforming, much to nobody's surprise by the time Terra tried it, was easy. Life could be a tenacious bitch.
"Nevertheless, I thank you for taking the time to see me." Her aide closed the door behind himself, leaving the two of us alone in her office. I had never met President Zapata before and my first impression was a kind one. I liked her already. "I have to talk to about a matter of some concern to the lTP security council."
I sat down in a chair facing her desk, crossed one knee over the other, and folded my hands in my lap. Despite the calm demeanor, I had no idea why she had summoned me here.
"And that is?"
"Are Darch and Sandahl real?"
I blinked. "Excuse me?"
She held up her own data terminal. "I have here some material collected through various media outlets. They indicate that one of the first things considered by your Alpha team was to allow the tubes of Darch, Erroll and Sandahl to fail on their own, thus turning your project into a small experiment in genetic archeology. By having survivors who have elected to throw in with you, you have a cause celebre', justification for stepping all over the academic process of assigning archaeological digs, justification for the largest terraforming project ever seen, and a way of re-creating the Ritans in whatever image you so choose."
She put the terminal down and folded her hands as I had mine. "As you can probably imagine, I have several committees ready to call for your head if any of this turns out to be in the least bit true."
I wanted to know who had leaked the story. I realized that it may have not been leaked at all-- the media had come up with a plausible scenario that painted me out as a villain again, a popular past time among the yellower press. Still, it bothered me that a big grain of truth lay under many of the assumptions I saw on her data terminal, even if she had it a bit backward. I thought for a brief moment about how to word it, then as usual went with the truth. "Darch and Sandahl are quite real. As all teams engaged in brainstorming will do, we considered what to do if Darch and Sandahl were to die, either at our own hands or by the failure of their equipment before we could start a rescue. Murder isn't something Pendorians do lightly, Madame President, and the discussion was shelved two seconds after we'd all recovered from our shock at the suggestion. It was a scenario, never studied seriously." I smiled wryly. "Although the idea of making 'droids of Darch and Sandahl to keep the media guessing was never discussed. That's an interesting take."
"It actually would have been easier if they had died. Their interests could well have held up the implementation of any rescue operation. If they had been unwilling to help with the cultural re- establishment group, we would have had to wait until they died. We took a risk in reviving them."
President Zapata considered that notion carefully. "Can we meet them?"
"You mean, bring them to Terra?"
She waved a hand at the window, indicating the gorgeous view of downtown Geneva. "There is a whole world out there, smaller and yet larger than your own, culturally many thousands of years older than yours, one you yourself have admitted you need to give your people a feel for history. Isn't it time that Darch and Sandahl saw where you really came from?"
I thought about it. On the one hand, it made sense. On the other, Sandahl was overloaded as to the wonders that just Pendor presented to him. Darch was another matter. "Asking them to come to Earth may be more than they're prepared for right now. I will ask. The time is short, however. We are anticipating a decant--"
"Yes, I know. January the first. God forbid I should step on one of your own traditions."
I smiled. "Thank you for being understanding, Madame President. I take it you will also be attending the re-opening of llerki a year later. Now, if you would like, I could arrange for a small team of your choosing to come to Pendor to meet them if they are not prepared to make the journey here."
She responded quickly. "That is a thoughtful offer. I'll pass it on to my people and we'll see what we can do."
"Good," I said. Crisis one ended. "On another subject.. Unity is scheduled to be open with a fully reduced, dense Martian atmosphere in about fifty years and the addition to a full Terran atmosphere fifty years after that. Your tenure is for twelve years between elections, and you were elected eight years ago, just before I left on the Battia expedition. Are you considering running again?"
"You like the way I govern?"
"You managed to make the Unity deal go through. You understood the necessity of Lebensraum. You managed to make others understand too." I thought about how curiously free I felt in using that word. I used it as I had intended with the classic colonial connotations behind it. Once, such use would have been taboo.
"I am considering it," she said, referring to my question. "Not seriously yet. It is still four years away. But yes, I will probably run for the office again."
Silence opened up between us as we both considered where to go next. The agenda had been met but I seemed to feel there was more going on here than met my eye. She closed the gap by saying, "I am having a large social tonight, beginning at seven PM. I understand you are under a great deal of pressure to make it home and complete your work, but you are welcome to attend if you like."
I thought about it. The trip between Pendor and Terra took less than six hours these days and the shuttlevan I used to fly from here to there had bedding in it. I could stand to lose the time. I closed my eyes and consulted my plan-book. I had room. Barely. Hera, I need a security escort for the evening.
The Pendorian AI to Terra replied, I have assigned officer K'Novaran to escort you.
I thanked her and opened my eyes. "I can make it," I told the president.
"Good. I shall make sure you are on the guest list. And I shall see about assembling an ambassadorial team to meet Darch and Sandahl."
"Is that all?"
I took that as confirmation that I could get out of there. I stood. "Thank you for your time, Madame President."
"And thank you for yours, Shardik."
"Of all the brain-dead reasons to haul my ass sixty million million kilometers! I can't believe someone thought it was so important that President Zapata and I had to shake hands on it personally!" I seethed and fumed while Nova tried to help me with my bow tie. "I can do it, I can do it."
She grinned. "I know. Most of the Pendorians who come to these shindigs can't. Here, let me."
I finally allowed her to tie the tie without my interference. I didn't mind being so close to such a lovely-smelling and -looking femFel, which made up slightly for my annoyance at such a petty incident. She knotted it calmly, examined my tuxedo to make sure everything was in place. "How do I look?" I asked.
"Acceptable. You'll look like every other male in the place."
"Maybe I should have the ring-and-star embroidered on the back, like I was in some youth gang from a couple centuries ago." I looked myself over. She was right. I would now look like every other male in the place. I didn't consider that a bad thing.
She, on the other hand, looked stunning, and would probably look like absolutely nobody else in the place. She wore the traditional silk bell-bottom pants that were a trademark of the furred species, and a long loose top with a ruffled plunging neckline. Both came in a shocking purple color that somehow exactly complimented her dark-brown fur. Quite unlike every other fem there, she wore no body jewelry, that fashion having come back into vogue again after a few decades.
Our appearance at the event did create the stir we'd anticipated. President Zapata had apparently failed to inform someone of my arrival as the security guards were quite strict about our invitation. I even registered a brief tickle in my eye as a retinal scanner checked me out. I wondered if it actually got anything useful off the heavily modified eyes of Pendorians who go for that kind of enhancement.
Nova led me into the grand ballroom, the usual sort of high-class charade. The usual tables around the edges, the usual dance area in the middle, the usual twin staircases going up, the usual overdressed waiters. "You're bored already, aren't you?" she asked with that sly smile only Felinzi and Mephits seem to be able to pull off consistently. Although I know a few Vulpin who do it with devastating precision.
"Now that you mention it, yeah. I am." I sighed. I hate these things. They're completely uninteresting to me. I should have gone home.
"Ah, Vatare' Shardik," President Zapata announced herself as she came up the stairs to where I stood. "I'm so glad you could make it. I thought for a moment you might have gone home."
"I thought about it, but decided against it." She looked quite the sight in her white dress with sheer lines that draped to the floor. As she walked, the fleeting glimpses of her dark-skinned legs against the white made her seem ephemeral and unreal.
Somehow, I managed to avoid being cornered for most of the evening. Maybe it was my lovely bodyguard. Felinzi have traditionally fulfilled the role' of bodyguard to people seen as being at risk when off-ring, and I have through no fault of my own always managed to be assigned with some of the lovelier varieties. K'Novara definitely qualified.
"Something's not right," she whispered in my ear as I sipped at a glass of ginger ale. I avoided alcohol at these events for all the usual reasons. "I can't quite put a claw on it yet."
"Urr-hurr," she nodded. "Something's up. It's the tension, maybe. This is your first visit since the ink dried on the Terra Transfer." I thought that a curious expression for her to use, but then realized that as an ambassadorial support staffer she'd probably heard it used many times before.
The band began a snappy tune, somewhat louder than the previous piece. That may have helped cover what happened next. Somewhere from the back of the room a hush came up over the crowd, one of those shocked quiets that covers everyone who comes into contact with it.
Time slowed to a crawl even before I saw the gun.
K'Novara shouted as she threw herself between me and the gunman, heading straight for him. I watched helplessly as he pulled the trigger on a late-model semi-automatic pistol. Being something of a gun enthusiast, I even recognized it-- a Heckler, Koch & Colt 10mm. An antique.
It made a roar like nothing else I'd heard in years. Not even the assassination attempt five years ago compared to this. Not the nuclear bomb. Someone else had thrown her life between me and my attacker. I never asked for this. I realized I didn't want this.
It roared again. Nova staggered. She looked like she was about to fall, but managed to stand her ground. Already in the corners I saw other security guards about to fall on the man, but she still stood, facing him. He fired again. I heard the click of the trigger, could see the action of the slide. She jerked painfully, twice, and this time the roars came in plurals- double-taps. He fired one last time before she fell on him with a scream that made my eyes want to bleed. I heard a tearing sound.
As if nobody would notice, time resumed its normal pace. My heart raced ahead uselessly, trying to get air to a body that already had enough and had no place to put the extra. A huddled mass of bodies moved and throbbed more rapidly than I could have imagined. Half a dozen service agents wrestled the gun from the assailant's hand. I fully expected him to SDisk out of there-- that's what I would have done at any rate.
Several of the emergency staff pulled Nova out from under the mass. She snarled at them in Felinzi, and I heard her say "I'm fine! Just a little bruised! Shardik, get these vultures off me!"
I shook myself, still in that hyperactive state where everything gets more than its fair share of attention. "Uhm... the young lady said she's fine."
"But sir! She just took six rounds from that pistol!" The orderly, a Katckin himself, gestured to her with both arms as if I didn't know the subject quite yet.
"And she said she's fine," I growled. "How she's fine, I'm not sure yet."
I looked down at her, offered her a hand, and helped her to her feet. She winced. "Are you sure you're okay?"
"Let me check," she said. She closed her eyes and ran her hands over her body. There were six bullet holes in her dress, and from each a small splash of blood pointed at the floor. "All in armored positions," she said. "Good."
"Reactive armor?" I asked, stunned. "Everywhere?"
"Well, not everywhere," she gasped. "Oh, that hurts."
"You took a big punch, Nova. We're going back to the embassy."
"Not arguin' with you, boss." She held her stomach. "I might not be okay after all."
Hera, one medical emergency inbound.
"I just spoke to the doc. He says you're gonna live."
"He told me that already too." She smiled up at me from the wheelchair. "First time someone else has had to catch a bullet for you. Glad it was me."
"It's not an honor, you know."
She shook her head as I knelt by her side. "That's not what I meant. I meant, there are other staffers here who aren't as tough as I am. They could have been much more seriously hurt than I was." With her hand she touched my cheek. "Glad my charge is okay. Not sure what we'd do without you."
I smiled wanly. "You'd go on with your lives like you always have. I don't interfere in many lives these days."
"Sure you don't." We both chuckled. "I'd like to get out of this chair. It was just some internal bruising from the force of the impact. I'm not crippled."
I stood quickly and helped her up to her own feet. Wrapping a protective arm around her, I led her back to her room in the embassy. Her little domicile looked like it belonged to someone much younger-- or perhaps someone much softer-- than K'Novara. Pastel pink and white dominated. The blankets were clearly old and familiar to their owner. A highly stylized and childlike cartoon of a cat, with a friendly smile and over-sized whiskers, occupied many a place in the room, on posters, the screensaver on her display, even a stuffed one on the bed I helped her get into. It reminded me of Tylia.
She lay down with a groan. "Thanks. Guess I'll be staying away from the rich foods for a couple of days."
"I guess you will at that," I agreed. "That was very brave of you. What if he'd hit your face?"
"Then we would have had a mess," she agreed. "Terrorists aren't very organized or well-trained these days, Ken."
"You make it sound like you miss the good old days, when terrorists had training camps and easy access to guns and transparent borders they could walk through any time they liked."
She shook her head. "No, nothing like that."
I looked around the room for a moment, trying how to get past the awkward moment. "I, uh, I want to thank you for what you did. Even if it was 'just your job,' it was quite amazing."
She touched my face. "It was my honor, sir." She seemed reluctant to say what she clearly wanted to say next. "But... will you keep me company tonight?"
I was surprised by the request. "You usually sleep alone," I pointed out, indicating a bedroom that was outfitted for only one occupant.
"I've never heard of Kennet Shardik being against being with someone 'as a matter of principle.'" We exchanged smiles at that. "I don't think I want to be alone tonight. I'm trying to be cavalier about it, but I was shot today. I don't want to be alone after that."
I nodded. It was well past midnight by now and I already had had a bad enough day that sleep, a chance to wash it all away and start again tomorrow, was more than welcome. I stripped off what remained of my blood-covered tuxedo and slipped into bed beside her. In the two minutes I had taken to do that, she had fallen fast asleep.
Sounds stirred somewhere beyond the heaviness of sleep, muffled as if heard through an ocean. A dull thud, physical pain, impact on my leg told me that something more than just noise was at work. I raised my head to see Nova jerking in her sleep as if she were being shot once more. Pained gurgles came from her throat, accompanied by the most animal growling I'd heard from a Felinzi in years. I thought I should wake her, or let the dream pass, when the dream woke her up for me.
"Nova... Nova, it's me. Ken."
Her head jerked around, her eyes whirling with uncontrolled adrenaline. "Va-- Vatare'?" She threw her arms around me, held me, cried on me. I could feel the tears running down my shoulder onto my chest, amazed at just how much one person could create. "I... I thought I'd lost you. I was afraid I wouldn't stop him."
"You did, you did," I said, holding her and patting her back gently. "You did, Nova. You're alive, I'm alive, he's probably mangled in some high-security hospital somewhere."
"I... I was so scared."
"I know, I know."
"I was so scared," she repeated. "I don't get scared!"
"Yes, you do. We all do." I had an annoying erection all of a sudden that wouldn't go away. "It's natural to get scared."
She couldn't seem to stop her tears and for a while she didn't seem to want to. I respected that-- I was glad to see her let at least this much out, although I knew that when she went in for Incident Assessment she would be seeing a therapist and more tears would come out then. That was part of the way the job worked.
She took in a large gasp of breath, held it for four counts, then exhaled explosively. "I think I'm okay now."
"Sure?" I asked.
"Yeah," she agreed. We lay down in bed, cuddled up one against the other, my hand over her side, spoon-fashion.
I couldn't go back to sleep. That manifested itself in its usual fashion, with me turning over, fluffing the pillow, trying to get into a position my body would recognize as the one for sleeptime. Nothing seemed to be working. "Can't sleep?" Nova asked.
"No," I growled in the dark. "You?"
"Me neither." She turned over to face me. "But thank you for staying tonight. I know you wanted to head home and sleep on the trip."
"Hey, just doin' my job, ma'am," I joked.
I could see her smile in the dim light coming through her window. I cuddled up close to her and kissed her nose softly. "So, what do you want to do to go to sleep?"
"Oh, I don't know," she murred. "Have sex?"
"We only just met today," I pointed out. "And you're wounded."
"Dermal penetration wounds," she said. "Heals in hours, especially after being sewn up."
"And some internal bleeding."
"Also heals in hours with a little interventionist nanochine."
I conceded the point at last. "So, you'll live. Do you really want to make love in your present condition?"
"It'll make us tired."
"P'nyssa uses that excuse all the time. Doesn't work as well as we think it does. Sometimes we have to do it several times to get it right."
She grinned again, her whiskers twitching. "I wouldn't complain."
I kissed her nose again; she recognized it as the gesture I meant it to be, tilting her head back and allowing my tongue to wash down over her muzzle. Her own tongue, as soft as my own despite the fierce demeanor of her species, licked at my lips as we rolled over in bed until I was on top of her, my legs straddling her waist. I touched the bare fur of her chest, looking and finding the six shaved spots where six bullets had entered-- and where a doctor had had to remove three of them that had become embedded between her skin and the underlayer of reactive armor-- armor that only a trained hand would notice touching her at other times. Thin, soft, and flexible, it reacted to impact by suddenly forming a fibrous net to catch whatever was coming into it. It worked best against bullets and swords, but needles would still go through it. Many Pendorians have the stuff in their throat, which is considered the most vulnerable spot on our bodies.
In the dark, I could barely make out her face. But she did have a smile-- I could see that much, at least. "You're hard," she said as her hands touched my erection.
"I was hard while you were crying. I decided to ignore it then."
"Don't ignore it now," she suggested.
"I won't," I promised as I pushed myself backward, down the bed, until I was laying completely between her legs. "Hmm. Glad you didn't get shot here." I kissed her mound.
"Me--- mmmm--- too! Do that again!"
"I've barely started," I pointed out.
"And I barely ever get this," she said.
"You must have had a run of bad luck with lovers, then," I murmured as I buried my face in her sweetness. Her lips parted as magic curtains over the portal to paradise. If I had thought she smelled good at the beginning of the evening, then didn't compare to now. The musky scent of femFel still puts me in an altered state of mind after ten centuries, and I hope it never stops.
Nova moaned her appreciation of my licking and kissing, and I quickly got the impression from her reactions that she was the kind of fem who liked the direct approach. She had a short, tight kind of clitoral hood, the kind that's easy to lick but not easy to lick under. She seemed to think I was doing fine-- didn't interrupt me, didn't even mutter a coherent word as I licked and sucked gently at her cunny. Just wonderful moans that ended in with a muffled, almost surprised "Oh!" I pressed in for a just a second more, holding her climax to the 'on' setting for as long as we she could stand.
"Oh, thank you!" she gasped as I dipped my tongue down further into her opening, tasting the sweet and salty reward.
"Glad you liked it," I said, sliding up along the length of her body. I scratched at my nose-- going down on furfen I always seem to get some fur up there and it makes me want to sneeze, but I'm so attentive to what I'm doing I frequently don't know I have to sneeze until it's all over. Even with the scratch it didn't help, and I did sneeze. "Excuse me."
She giggled as we cuddled close. Wordlessly, I slid on top of her, between her legs. My erection knew the way to go already, sliding in between the furred lips and entering her.
Neither of us said a word-- and neither of us took our eyes off the other as we began making love. My hips thrust, my cock slid fully into her. She raised her legs into the air, allowing me an even deeper thrust. I looked down at her as we made love-- no, as we had more than that. This was something more than lovemaking.
A growl started somewhere deep inside her, a Felinzi sound that I can barely reproduce when my mind is all there. Instead, I growled back at her something equally incoherent. She replied back with a deep, animal yowl that made me want to fuck her even harder.
She took my thrusts full on, arching her back, tossing her head back, her muzzle in the air. The fur of her thighs pressed against my waist where her legs wrapped around mine. She reached up and pulled on her knees, making my way into her even less obstructed. Although usually I don't notice such things, I could actually feel the head of my cock, just on the very top, bumping against her cervix with every thrust.
Her growls became whimpers, her demands become insatiable. I thrust even harder into her, pounding her into the bed, making it creak. Only in lovemaking can two people be so hard on each other, so rough on each other, and enjoy it in quite this way. We were taking from each other and nothing else mattered.
Her hands held onto my sides, her legs hovered in the air as I gave her what she wanted. Her breathing came as hard as mine even I was doing most of the work. I couldn't stave off the growing thing inside me, the powerful need to come, to end it. I wanted to give her more of what she asked me for. I just didn't have more to give. She spread her legs a little further apart, I leaned down a little more until I was slamming into her mons veneris and her clitoris with so much might it made her wince. I worried I might break something.
"... YES!" I shouted as I came. My hips gave her three or four more thrusts of their own will as if I weren't doing the driving, or the thinking, anymore. Looking down on my lovely victim I saw she had turned her head away to rest it on the pillow, her own breath coming in tattered gasps.
"Yes," she replied.
I collapsed beside her. "That was amazing. Are you okay?"
"Ur-hurr..." she said, and her voice said differently. I cuddled up beside her, ignoring the sloppy wetness between both our thighs to hold her. "Hey, what's wrong?"
"I... I just needed that so badly. I don't even know why."
I held her close, avoided saying trite reasons for her tears, and waited for her to fall back asleep. In the end, I wasn't sure what put her to sleep, the sex or the crying. But eventually her breathing became deep and regular and her eyelids flickered with what I hoped were better dreams.
The Pendorian Ambassador to Terra, a short femMustela with the speckled grey fur and white stripes on face and shoulders of the Tatatta subgroup conveyed President Zapata's earnest apology for the security failure the night before. The man had been a South American native, curiously, a Terracentrist. The second piece of information was no surprise. How he had smuggled the gun past so much security was still a matter of some debate-- he hadn't talked, but a telepath had been called and would arrive soon to help sort matters out. I supposed that would suffice for now.
Nova, in the white and red uniform of her office, saw me to the small spaceport adjacent to the Embassy. I tossed my bags into the tiny blue shuttlecraft destined to take me home, then turned to look at her. "Thank you for saving my life."
She gave me a smile. "Thank you for keeping me company last night. How do you do it?"
"You don't seem shaken by it."
I shrugged. "I guess I'm not that afraid of them. Denial. Dunno. I don't want to think about ugly things, Nova. I try not to. He wasn't a monster-- he had a reason for what he did, and a weakness that let him do it. I have good reason to be afraid of monsters. I've just not met many."
She gave me a penetrating look. "I'll give that a try."
"Do that," I said, giving her a hug. "And take care of yourself."
"You too," she said. "Visit me sometime?"
"I will." I closed the door to the shuttle. It, and I, lifted off and slid into the morning sky.