"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. This is Captain Terrell, all of our passengers have boarded and Antarctica Ground Control has given us the 'go ahead' to engage main drive. Gateway has cleared us from their dock and the tugs have departed. We will be starting the main fusion drives in just under two minutes."
Nickolai sighed. At least they were finally getting underway. Three days in space, twelve days on Pendor, another three in space, and all of it with his mother. He looked out the main window of the forward lounge and watched as the stars stopped moving laterally, indicating the ship's turn was coming to an end. The deck shuddered slightly as the main fusion drives opened their nuclear hearts to the universe. There was no perceptible motion outside the main window.
"Kolya!" he heard behind him. He bit his lip and sighed, cursing quietly. "Kolya, here you are."
Nickolai looked up at his mother, a rotund woman given to dressing with far too much flash. "Hi, Mom."
"Hello, Kolya. How are you?"
"Fine, Mom." Nickolai fervently wished that this particular encounter with his mother end rather quickly. He reflected that that was usually the case. But at sixteen years old, wry thoughts like that did not bring a smile to his face.
"I have a book for you, Kolya. I bought it groundside and I thought you should read it." She reached into a pocket and held out a standard datachip.
He took it. The title read "What every Terran needs to know when visiting Pendor." "Why this one?" he asked.
"Because it's got good, common sense, Kolya. You should read it."
Good common sense? Nickolai sighed and put it in his pocket. "I'll read it later, Mom."
"Kolya, you should start reading it now."
"Mom, I'm going to have plenty of time before we get to Pendor."
His mother sighed and shook her head. "Okay, Kolya. Suit yourself. I'm only trying to further your education." She turned around and with imperious footsteps tread out of the lounge.
Nickolai sagged back into the overstuffed chair and sighed. Why did he, out of every kid on earth, why did he have to have a mother?
"Parents can be such a pain, can't they?"
Nickolai whipped around at the voice. The face that went with that voice startled him, so much so that he almost tumbled out of his chair.
"I'm sorry. Did I scare you?"
"Uhh..." Nickolai stared for a second, trying to marshal his thoughts. The voice was feminine, the face wasn't human. "Hello?"
"Hi!" she said quickly. "I'm Jofuran Shigokai. You can call me Joey. Or Furry." She smiled.
At least, Nickolai thought it was a smile. He had seen enough non- humans in the past to make something of an educated guess as to her facial expression. She wasn't a Rat, although she looked like she could be one. Her fur was fine, her ears large. A mouse? She was kneeling on the chair set back-to-back with his own, so all he could see of her was her head and shoulders. Her arms were covered in a light grey fur, her hands were relatively human, if a little small. She had a short muzzle that ended in a wet, pink nose. Her eyes were almost uniformly black; there were tiny splashes of white just barely visible at the corners. There was no visible skin; she was entirely covered in fur.
Nickolai's brain started back up, and something clicked. "You're a Markal!"
"Uh-huh!" she replied brightly, her eyes widening. "And you're Nickolai Dittrich, aren't you?"
Nickolai sighed and nodded. "How could you tell?"
"Well, that was obviously Talia Dittrich who just walked in. I remember reading about you a few years back."
"Thank you," he said perfunctorily. He hated being recognized. Then something occurred to him. "Can I ask you a question?"
"Uh-huh," she said.
"What are you doing on this ship?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, we're going to Pendor. What's a Markal doing on a tour to Pendor?"
"Oh, my folks are part of the Gaza project."
"They're archeologists.. well, imaging specialists really. They were helping with decoding text from Terra's late twentieth century."
"Oh," Nickolai said, catching about half of what she said. "Then your parents are on this ship?"
"Uh-huh!" she said again. It was a short explosion of acknowledgment, and it seemed to be her favorite way of saying "Yes."
Sudden curiosity came over him. "What's it really like having parents?" he asked.
"What do you mean? You should know better than any human."
"Not really," he growled, shifting in his chair. "I mean, sure, I'm the only person on Earth who has a living mother at the moment, but that doesn't mean she's been my parent. Usually she would send me off to school or something. The law couldn't do anything with her claim to me, and I guess she didn't know what to do. My counselor at school calls it 'benevolent neglect.'"
"Oh," the femMarkal said. "I'm sorry." They were quiet for a moment, then she said, "Hey, what should I call you?"
He shrugged and said "Call me Kolya."
"Okay," she said. "You should call me Joey. When we get to Pendor, I guess I won't be the only Furry, will I?" She smiled.
"Guess not," he replied, returning a small smile of his own.
She looked up beyond his shoulder, waved. "Over here!" she shouted. "Hey, you can meet my folks right now."
Nickolai turned around. Walking through the lounge door were two more Markals. Both were distinctly mouse-like, with large ears and visible whiskers. Neither had the apparent nervous energy of their daughter, however; both moved with easy grace through the room. Both appeared to be young and athletic, the benefit of having Pendorian genes.
"Hello, Furry," the taller one said. Nickolai immediately pegged her as 'Mom,' mostly by the sound of the voice, although he did note that she had slightly visible breasts.
"Aw, Mom," Jofuran replied, confirming Nickolai's suspicions. "Don't call me that."
"I thought it was your favorite nickname."
"Was, Mom, Was. I could use it when I was the only furry in all of Jerusalem, Mom." She turned to Nickolai and said, "Until the Rats came." She turned back to her mother and said, "But we're going home to Pendor and I seriously doubt I'm going to be the only person with fur."
"And who's your friend?" the other one said.
"Dad, this is Kolya."
"Good to meet you lad. How are you?" The elder Markal held his hand out.
Nickolai shook it briskly. "Fine, sir," he replied, feeling uncomfortable. The paw was warm and dry. He wasn't Jofuran's "friend," was he?
"Good, good. Well, enjoy your trip. We're returning home after ten years, and Joey's going to be going with the tour group because when we left she was only six years old. Probably doesn't remember much of the old Ring."
"Oh, Dad," Jofuran said testily. "I remember enough. It'll be great."
"Okay, dear." Nickolai thought that Jofuran's parents sounded just like some sort of video his mother would watch, except that they looked like oversized mice.
"Parents," Jofuran said in a grumbling tone after the two elder Markals had stepped away. "I can't decide if I'm supposed to be embarrassed by them or not."
"Well, I know I'm embarrassed by my mother."
"That's your mother. Ever since the Saman revolution, Earth hasn't really had 'parents.' Hey, how did that happen, anyway?"
Nickolai shrugged. He'd told this tale more often than he could recount. "Dad died in space. Asteroid miner, hero of the stars, that kind of thing. He didn't have to, y'know. He actually owned land on Earth, and you know how rich that made him." Jofuran nodded. "Well, in his will, he left some of his money to his present SO..."
"Es Oh?" Jofuran asked.
"Significant Other." Nickolai shrugged. "It means the person you're involved with. From what I've read, Dad kept SO's because he felt he had to... he was really in love with his ship. Anyway, when he was declared dead, his SO, namely my mother, was also given his Right of Replacement key."
"I thought Right of Replacement was a registered act, not some thing."
"Well, it is. But most Terrans have a symbol in which their copy of the registration is kept. Usually looks like a big key."
"Anyway, because he was rich and eccentric, Dad's SO's were usually kinda strange, too. Mom's an artist type, you know, splashes pigments onto big sheets of canvas, covers the outside with stuffs, pins big sheets of Reytape to them and then runs an analog reader over the whole mess."
"Sounds like she could get brain damage that way."
"Wouldn't surprise me," Nickolai agreed. "Anyway, she's as eccentric as he was. So when she had the key, she registered her intent to exercise his Right as executor. There were lawsuits and things. She was going against tradition, y'know... no child had been born with a living parent in nearly two hundred years. She won. Here I am." He shrugged again. "No big deal."
"She won on the basis that the court couldn't take away her natural inclination as a woman to be a mother, right?" Jofuran asked. Nickolai nodded. "That doesn't make sense. She didn't bear you. Terrans are all tank-grown."
Nickolai shrugged. "It doesn't make sense to me either. It's okay. I only have to put up with her during vacation times."
"Like now," Nickolai agreed. He smiled, then said, "Sometimes I don't think she knows what to do with me. Usually, I go with her to her art-friend parties and she shows me around, like I'm another piece of hers, a curiosity. I wonder what she'll do this year."
"What do you mean?" Jofuran asked as a bell chimed overhead. "Uh, oh, first shift lunch. I have to get moving."
"Well, this year we're going to Pendor, where everybody has a mother."
"Good point," Jofuran agreed.
"Hey, you gotta go eat."
"Uh-huh. Maybe I'll see you around?" Jofuran asked, her eyes brightening. It suddenly occurred to Nickolai that he might be the only person on this ship her age.
"Maybe," he said. "Bye."
"Be seeing you," she said.
When she had left, Nickolai sagged back in the chair and sighed. She was kinda cute, he thought, even for a mouse. He had met his first Pendorian, and it was girl about his age.
What was he thinking? She wasn't human. Well, there was Kallyn, the Katkin girl he had sat next to in school. He had fantasized about her once in a while, hadn't he?
But a mouse? He suddenly recalled the book in his pocket, looking around for a public access reader. There was one just to the right of the forward viewport. He rose and wandered over there, sat down with his back to the wall and turned the vidscreen towards him. Slipping the book into the reader's slot, he keyed in "MARKAL."
Markal: The 8th species introduced to Pendor, in the year 109 (Terra: 1993). Body structure is an anthropomorphic of the Family Muridae, or common rodent; in appearance they are comparable to the common Terran mouse, but they are more completely anthropomorphized than the Terran species Neorattus Norvegicus.
The general personality qualities of the Markal are indistinguishable from that of Human. Introduced after the "cultural settlement" of Pendor's first century and completely anthropomorphic (ref "Tindal" for a counterpoint), they have had little reason to develop a species-specific mindset of their own.
Innate traits of the Markal tend to be associated more with organizational skills. Markals also seem to make exceptional musicians.
There was also an illustration, clothed of course. Nickolai rolled the book back to page 1 and looked at the copyright notice. 2797, just four years ago. He frowned and rolled the book forward, looking for "SEX."
Sexual relations with Pendorians. Pendorians, on the whole, tend not to be terribly discriminatory in their choices of sexual partners. Several organizations exist on Pendor for the sole purpose of encouraging "sexual diversity," the most notorious of which is known as "Castle Rhysh" (q.v.).
Most Terran experts agree that engaging in sexual activity with a Pendorian is mentally unhygenic and recommend against it. The physical differences between Pendorians and Terrans might encourage a fetish response, and the culturally excessive libido of the average Pendorian can become compulsive for Terrans exposed to it.
Basically, Nickolai read between the lines, just don't. He tapped the case of the reader with his fingers. The "indiscriminate" bit caught his attention. What did they mean? That Pendorians didn't care who they slept with? That didn't make sense. He rolled the book forward to "Castle Rhysh."
Castle Rhysh. Named for the Pendorian word for "To have sexual contact with a member of a sentient species not one's own." Castle Rhysh is often referred to as an "erotic theme park." The most common activities are of such an offensive and degrading nature that this book will not go into them. Suffice it to say that Terrans are not permitted to visit Castle Rhysh or the attendant residences (which are also deeply mired in the behavior of the Castle), and this is probably for the best.
Nickolai smiled at that. It wasn't what he was looking for, but it was an amusing place to know about, at any rate. He pulled the book out of the reader slot and pocketed it again. The chime overhead informed him that the second shift was going in to lunch. That meant him.
Still, as he walked down the carpeted hallways, he wondered if Jofuran might want to spend some time with him.
"Hi!" Nickolai heard the voice behind him, but his attention was riveted to the screen as his warmech lurched across the battlefield. He'd lost a leg actuator and was having trouble keeping standing. Not to mention that his heat index was well into the 1900's and if he got hit once more with one of those flamethrowers he was going to be praying for his ammunition not to explode.
"Nickolai?" she repeated.
He recognized the voice as Jofuran's, but he kept his attention forward. He keyed the mic and and said, "Just a second, Furry." He was not having fun.
There! Bastard was directly ahead. Spotter drones alerted him to the enemy presence, but he didn't have line of sight. He let loose with a barrage of long-range missiles, knowing that maybe one out of every five-rack would hit. But they might do a little damage, and if the enemy's armor was holed, he had a chance. Mechpilots didn't call LRM's "Little Crit Seekers" for nothing.
There was an angered and incoherent scream of rage over the intercom. The computer's mech was hit, and coming out of hiding! He waited. "Patience," he said to himself. "Patience." There!
He opened fire, 20ton autocannon from the left shoulder. Hit!
He lost footing. He was going down. He piloted the warmech to a controlled fall, buffering himself against an "Condition: Unconscious" ruling by the referee software. On the left display he summoned a status of mechs. His was down, and overhot, and he hit the "ventilate" button, hoping to force more air over the mech's engine. It was working. The ref ruled a "Condition: Operational" on his mech. Not that it mattered much; the enemy mech reported "surrender." Which meant the game was over, and he didn't have to worry about heat or pilot damage problems. He smiled. That small bug in the program had saved his butt more than once. "Perform routine maintenance?" the computer asked. He pushed the "YES" button. "Perform pilot update?" He thought about it for a second, pushed "NO." After all, Jofuran was waiting for him.
He crawled out of the MechForce simulator and said, "Sorry to take so long." He was pleased to see her here. After yesterday he had been a little worried about how he might arrange to meet her again. The arcade provided a fortunate excuse.
"That's okay. I've played that game before. Hey, we could do an arena scene. You and me."
"You've got a character?" He was surprised... He'd rarely known a girl who played MechForce before.
"Somewhere in my stuff I think I've got my old character card. It might take me a few minutes to find it."
"Do you want to play now?" he asked, enthused with the idea.
"We could. Or we could go swimming. I saw you in here and wondered if you might like to join me."
"There's a pool?"
"Of course there's a pool. This is a luxury liner."
Nickolai paused for a second. He barely knew her, and she was asking to join him, late at night, in the swimming pool? "Is it full-g?"
"Dunno. Why don't we go find out?"
"It's kinda late, isn't it?"
"Huh? Oh, you mean the time? I'm still on Israel time. The ship's set to GMT, sliding towards PST. I'm used to being up 3am, GMT. What about you?"
"I'm on Manhattan time, but I'm used to changing time zones. Besides, I like nighttime. Didn't you travel much on Earth?"
"Not really," Jofuran said. "I mean, sure, I visited London and Paris, but I really preferred Jerusalem. Such an old city. That and Baghdad."
"Hey!" a voice interrupted them. "Get out of the way. I want to use the MechForce."
Nickolai turned to find a teenager, in fact about his age, maybe a little younger, facing him. Something about the kid's attitude incensed him. "Say please."
"Screw you," the kid said. "I don't haveta say please to slimebirth or her pet."
Nickolai had no idea what the phrase "slimebirth" meant, but he was quite sure it wasn't complimentary. He was thinking of a proper retort when he saw Jofuran's arm whip out, grab the kid by the collar, and slam him into simulator seat. She leaned over and hissed "Listen, prag, just because your species gave up your natural right to reproduce without intervention doesn't make you any better than us." She reached up and slammed the door to the simulator shut. "Let's get out of here before his friends get any ideas."
He nodded and they ran out of the arcade at a careful tilt.
After they had run up the stairs and past the receiving lobby of the ship, he said, "What was that you called that kid?"
"Product Random Genetics."
"Eeew," Nickolai said. "That's mean."
She smiled. "Well, if he's going to ridicule my origins I can make fun of his." Her smiled faded. "Uhh... I'm sorry."
Nickolai shrugged and said "Why?"
"Well, I'm making fun of you, too, Nickolai. And I don't want to hurt you; you've been nice to me so far."
"I haven't done anything yet, Furry, except maybe agree with you. Humans were created through pretty random processes. And even if we weren't, seven thousand years is a long time to mix it all up again."
Jofuran cocked her head to one side and said, "You like calling me that, don't you?"
"Uh-huh." She smiled. Nickolai thought it a kind smile.
He shrugged and said, "Yeah. I mean, you are furry, and you're the first... furry, I guess, that I've ever had a chance to really talk to. You don't mind, do you?"
"Not at all," she said. "As long as we keep it to Anglic, 'Furry' should be okay."
He nodded. They reached the elevator and she pushed the button for the fourth floor, recreation area. The door opened onto a small hallway with two doors, marked with the circle and triangle symbols for "female" and "male." "See ya on the other side," Jofuran said, pushing open the door with a circle and disappearing. Nickolai sighed and headed for the other door. After requisitioning a modesty suit for himself, he deposited his clothing in one of the many lockers, closing it with his fingerprints. The locker room was otherwise empty.
To get to the pool itself he had to walk through the showers. As he walked he noticed a pale red flickering on the grey tiles. Turning to look, he found a flat display bar reading off a message in a variety of languages. He waited for one he knew to come up, and when it did, in Pendorian, it read "All users must check their furtraps before leaving shower area." Nickolai smiled and mused "Or else what?" He also found a small white circle with five concentric black circles on the wall nearest the display. He shook his head and walked for the pool door, wondering how anyone survived in the 28th century without learning to read.
Jofuran was already in the water. "Hi!" she shouted, waving to him. "It's at one-G, but since we're the only ones here, the computer says we can lower it if we want to."
He walked over to the edge of the pool and tested the water with his toes. It was comfortable. He used the diving board to make his final decision, jumping in head-first.
The water enveloped him; he heard the hiss of bubbles as air followed him down into the water and felt the gentle chill of water invading his skin.
He broke surface, gasped for air and wiped the water from his eyes. Jofuran giggled.
"Hi!" she said again.
"Hi," Nickolai agreed. Then he noticed, "Hey, you're not wearing a suit."
"Should I be?" she said, smiling. "Modesty is fad on Terra right now, but I'm not a Terran."
"Oh." He blushed gently, determined to enjoy the view, if nothing else. "I'm acting like all kinds of idiot today."
"Gee, like me and that insult," Jofuran replied. "Hey, don't worry about it." She dove down under the water and swam to the far end of the pool. Nickolai was impressed by her ability to hold her breath. Although, he thought, she didn't have what his schoolmates would have called "great lungs." But he could see that she did have breasts, visible through the water. And she had a tail, he noticed. It trailed behind her as she swam, almost reaching her ankles.
She came to the surface and spoke something to the ship's computer; Nickolai recognized it as Pendorian, and caught the word 'lights.' Sure enough, the lights dimmed to about one-quarter, and shifted spectrum slightly into the red. He noticed that both the heat and the humidity were rising.
She swam back towards him, and he thought the look on her face was more thoughtful, concerned maybe. "Hi," she said yet again.
"You said that already."
"I know," she said. "Come here." She swam towards the shallow end, where there was an impressive semi-circle of steps leading out of the water. She sat down. "Look, I-"
"Found you, ringworm!" Nickolai spun in the water to find the kid from the arcade standing there, with three friends.
"What do you want?" Jofuran asked. Nickolai distinctly heard frustration and anger in her voice.
"I think he wants trouble," Nickolai said quietly.
Jofuran put her hand on his knee. "I know," she said with a low voice. "There's another door out of here, on the right side. If we need to, take it."
The kid began walking very slowly over to the edge of the pool and said, "We're going to teach you a lesson, ringworm. You don't go wailing on your patrons."
"I'm gonna be sick," Jofuran said to him quietly, smiling. She raised her voice and said, "You know how well trained Pendorians are, don't you? You know how strong we are and how well built we are. We're not prags like you are, mudballer. You and your friends wanna see how well made a Pendorian is? Come on." She stood up and said, "Come on, mudballer. I'll rip your heart out and eat it. I could be a psi and fry your brain up for an appetizer, y'never know. Come on."
The kid paused. "Sure you are."
"Hey, I could be," Jofuran replied, spreading her arms wide. "Or I could just be well trained. Come on, do you have the balls your ape ancestors did, or are you just another modern mudball marshmallow?"
"Hey, at least I have ancestors."
"Yeah, and I have engineering. Come on, come on." She was smiling now. Nickolai was amazed that short as she was, naked as she was, looking like, well, to be honest, a drowned rat, she was actually intimidating these four!
"Or maybe you'd like to prove your superiority some other way."
Nickolai looked up. What was she saying?
"Well, you looked hot to play the Mech simulator. How about an arena battle? Equal tonnage, your four against our two."
The kid smiled and said, "I could do that. Two versus two."
Jofuran returned the dark smile and said, "It's a deal. Weight?"
"Two hundred tons."
Nickolai smiled. Why did it figure? "Level Five," Jofuran said.
"Five?" the kid asked, suddenly much less certain. People who played in level five terrain usually knew what they were doing.
"What's wrong, can't fight unless the sun is shining and the birds are chirping?" Jofuran taunted.
"I can play in any kind of weather I like," the kid sneered, his resolve apparently returning. "Five."
"Tomorrow, sixteen PST" Jofuran said.
"Be there, ringworm. We'll kill you."
"My name's not 'ringworm,' prag. It's Joey. Use it."
"Then don't call me prag, bitch. It's Matseh."
"I'll use it when you earn it, cryokill."
After the four of them had backed out, Nickolai turned and said, "Are you crazy? You don't even know how good they are. Maybe they cheat; it's certainly easy enough to alter a warrior card from the outside. You don't even know if I'm any good!"
She shrugged and said, "So? If we lose, he'll feel superior and go away. If we win, well, he'll feel inferior and will probably try to take it out on us physically."
"Hey, I wasn't kidding about the training."
"You would really have hurt them?"
"If I had to."
Nickolai turned away and said, "Look, let's get some sleep, then some practice tomorrow, to see how we fight together."
"Okay," she said, diving into the water and swimming to the other end of the pool. "See you tomorrow, in the arcade!"
Nickolai merely waved and watched as she climbed out and disappeared through the door to the women's locker room.