The Journal Entries

Erwer, Nenim 23, 00100

Embassy Tales: Paramount Importance

"I don't get it," Ng'Reff said to Loit as she positioned the bulk of her body into a seat made for one species and one species only. There were two humans she could see, clearly medical cases not to be envied, who were larger than she was, at least in width, and yet no attempt had been made by the airport staff to accommodate what was apparently a common, if she thought devastating, physical ailment. The Tindal did not reply immediately as she removed the comm head-piece from her huge ears. Humans were congregating, staring, pointing. She envied Mamood, the one Human on their team; he could even go to the bathroom without attracting eyes. "There's something wrong about this. A... a creakiness."

"I see it too," Loit agreed. "It's their compromise. They have reached a point that is comfortable enough for them between safety and speed, and between physical comfort and the cost of delivering that comfort. On Pendor, we can afford to be more patient. We live much longer and have so much more to work with. I have to wonder if it is more to guard." She glanced to her left and smiled. "You have someone's attention."

Reff turned to her right and saw a small boy standing there, staring at her with something between awe and laughter stuck on his face. She grinned without showing teeth and said, "Do you want to talk to me?"

He shook his head in the almost universal symbol of 'no.' "Well then," Reff said, "Do you want something else?" He nodded. "What?"

"Can I touch you? Are you really from outer space?"

She nodded her head and reached out one hand. He reached out his own and extended it to touch her palm, then her fingers. He laughed, a short, shocked laugh, and then said, "Cool."

"Jimmy!" Apparently the objecting voice belonged to the boy's mother because he jumped back away from the Pendorians. "You come away from that-- them right now! Your bothering them."

"No bother," Loit said, turning around in his chair. "You've got a great story to tell your friends now, don't you, Jimmy? When you go back to school you can tell them all that you touched an alien from outer space."

Jimmy nodded even as he ran back to his mother's side. "Ring," Reff said, returning to Quen, the Pendorian common tongue. "You're so much better at this than I am, Loit. Why aren't you in charge?"

The Tindal shrugged. "Athena made her decisions for her own reasons and Dam went along with them for his. Why don't you ask them?"

Reff nodded. It didn't make her feel any better.

"Excuse me?" Reff turned around to see a human female standing behind her. The woman wore blue jeans and a comfortable shirt of cream silk, covered with a light brown leather vest. She wore a dangling earring in one ear, a feather. Tall and thin, she had red hair and freckles, and Reff judged her to be quite pretty. "I couldn't help but overhear you. I realize this might not be the best time to tell you but, memet hanya le."

Reff smiled. "Ka ista," she replied. "We expected there to be some who would."

"You knew?" the woman asked. "Cool. Karen nai."

"Ng'Reff. This is Loit. Our other two companions are off somewhere."

"Can I sit with you?" Karen asked. "I don't normally ask strangers out of the blue like this, but, you guys are different."

"I actually hoped someone would come and sit with us," Reff said. "Part of our job is to just meet people."

"Let me get my bag." Karen returned a moment later with a soft, grey pack and dropped in the chair next to Reff's. "So," she said, "How was the trip from Pendor?"

"Boring," Reff said. "The ship spins, the days go by. I spent my time studying the language and your customs. I am still baffled by much of what your people do."

"So am I," Karen replied. "If we wanted, we could do so much with this world. What are you?"

The question did not catch Reff off guard. She was used to it. "I am an Uncia. I'm female. I know that's hard for you to tell. Loit here is a Tindal." Loit waved a mitten in the air. "I guess the best title for me is trade representative." Reff felt a little bewildered. Was Karen an intelligence agent of some sort? She wasn't at all what she had been told to expect. Karen had started talking as if they were just people. Even if she accepted that the Pendorians were fellow creatures like herself in outlook, surely their origins were of some interest to her. She asked Athena about it; the AI assured her that she would look into the matter.

"Where you guys come from," Karen was saying to Loit, "you don't have any money?" Reff must have missed part of the conversation.

"Not like you do here," Loit said. "Think of it as a, a karma economy. You base who you do business with on the intersection of your needs with the wellbeing of the community. People on Pendor want to do what they like to do and do well. Some people write good programs and others make good shoes. We decide who to do those things for because we expect that our goodwill at doing them will ripple out into the community, making other people want to return the favor."

"But don't some take advantage of the system? I mean, take what isn't rightly theirs?"

"Well, that depends. It's hard to steal someone's labor when his payment is up front in the form of communal respect. And as for taking things from the stores, well, we don't mind. We consider that looking after our mentally ill."

"Most of us here on Earth work our whole lives doing things we might not like just so that someday we don't have to work."

Loit grinned. "It's not our fault if your whole planet's crazy."

"Yeah, I guess it is crazy. The economy's just one form of it, though."

"Yes, it is," Reff replied.

An announcement came over the speakers overhead. "Passengers on flight 414, we apologize for the delay but we have some special guests on this flight. We have empty seats next to each of the Pendorians flying Delta this morning and we need to shuffle some people around. Is there anyone here not allergic to dander who would be willing to sit next to a Pendorian?"

Reff raised her hand. "I would like her to sit next to me." She pointed at Karen.

The redheaded weakly protested, "You didn't even give me a chance to volunteer!"

"Would you like to sit next to me on the flight?"

"Yes, but..."

"There may have been a rush," Reff replied. "I wanted to make sure. She's calling for you. You had better go up and get your chair assigned to you."

The boarding began before Karen had a chance to return, but after Reff had gotten her seat the redheaded woman came up the aisle and took the window seat next to her. "I admit, it's an unfair way to get a first class seat."

"That was your plan all along?" Reff asked, wondering if she'd been used.

Karen shook her head. "I didn't know you were sitting in first class, although I guess it should have been obvious that only these seats would be big enough to hold you. I just wanted to sit next to you."

"Why?" Reff asked.

"Well," Karen began, "All sorts of reasons. I like cats. I'm a big fan of science fiction and here you are, aliens in the fur and all. And you looked like you were looking for someone to talk to. I decided that I could break the ice. Be the first monkey to touch the monolith. You know."

"'Touch the monolith?'"

"Yeah. Wait. You probably haven't seen 2001 yet, have you?"

"I don't know what it is," Reff said.

"It's a movie. I have it at home on laserdisk. It's one of my favorites. I would invite you over to watch it, but you're probably too busy."

"I would love to visit your home and watch your movie," Reff said honestly. "I can find some time with my companions. We have a schedule, but at the end we have some time. They were going to go to Disneyland, but your invitation sounds a lot more interesting to me."

"Great!" Karen said.

They talked the entire flight over. Karen spoke of her long education and her career as a geological oceanographer; Reff found herself liking this young woman who had come to her and spoken in Quen. As they spoke, the attendant brought them a dinner that Reff found not exactly inedible but certainly not a cuisine of choice. The thick sauce layered on top of her steak reminded her of the kinds of things astronauts ate while in zero-G. There was no excuse for food this bad other than sheer laziness, she thought.

She dozed. She was awakened only once, by Karen climbing past her to get to the walkway and, presumably, the restroom, before she felt someone shaking her gently and whispering her name. She came to wakefulness slowly; she had not been having a restful sleep in a seat designed for another species. She looked to her right to see that Karen had fared little better, although she still seemed cheerful. "Welcome back to the living."

"Thank you," Reff said, wondering if there was a sarcastic way of saying it. "Thanks", with a tone of irony, Athena whispered. "Thanks."

Karen grinned. "You're welcome. I assume you had bags checked?" Reff nodded. "I'll join you. My life is in here," she said, patting her bag, "but I'd like to hang around with you and your people if you're not uptight about that."

Reff understood the meaning, if not the exact words. "We're going to the hotel after here. We have some important meetings tomorrow morning and we will all be wanting our sleep before then," Reff explained, hoping that the explanation wouldn't sound too much like she was trying to dodge Karen. She honestly wanted to see Karen after this; but for now she feared that a Terran hanging around was just going to be an impediment.

"And you wouldn't all fit in my car," Karen observed, giving Reff a looking over. Reff thought for the first time that Karen had a sweet voice, melodious and beautiful in its own right. "What?"

"I'm just tired." That was it, she was tired. That would explain the sudden rush of desire wrapped in the loneliness of being so far from home. "Do you have a home access--, I mean, phone number?"

Karen grinned eagerly as she dug into her bag and pulled out a little card. She handed it to Reff, who gasped when she saw it. "It's in Quen!"

"Turn it over," Karen said, her smile widening if that were possible. "It's in English on the other side. I just had to show that to you. I couldn't believe I didn't remember that until you asked. I've had those for years."

"Can I keep this?"

"Sure! That's my home, call me anytime," she said emphatically. "You said you'd have some free time after your meetings and I would love to give you a tour of the town and my favorite restaurants and, oh! show you that movie."

"I will call," Reff said. Athena, don't you dare let me forget!

I won't let you forget.

They ambled out of the airplane to the shock of onlookers, some of whom immediately began following them as they headed for baggage claim. "Think they that I would be one of you," Karen said, her Quen just good enough for Reff to puzzle out her meaning. It was clearly not a question despite her syntax.

"They might. Does that bother you?"


They headed down to the terminal and collected their bags. Reff hailed a van again, and Karen said, "I think this is where I say goodbye. Call me."

"I will," Reff said, holding out one hand in the gesture she had learned was the one used for greeting and parting. Karen opened her arms in a more universal gesture and Reff recognized it instantly. She pulled Karen into a hug briefly, struck by how small and thin the woman was before they parted. Karen gave one brief look over her shoulder and Reff thought she saw a wink before that wonderful human walked out of sight.

"Hey, boss." Mamood was tugging at her sleeve. "You okay?"

"Yeah," Reff said, with a grin and a sudden lightness of heart. "I'm okay. Let's go."

Four days later her mood was significantly different. She sat in her hotel room and fumed at the walls, growling. "I don't get it. Don't they understand what we're offering here?"

"No, I don't think we understand them, either, though."

Reff nodded. The trip had been a bust. None of the holding studios had appreciated the offers of exchanges, vast information resources for access to space and the technology that they had to offer. It was so important to Reff, and Pendor, that they get access to those records. But the people who had that access were balking at the terms; Pendor didn't have much in the way of intellectual property law because there was no sense of value beyond one's reputation, and that was as infinitely reproducible as the property itself. The whole idea of limits to one's personal value, the accumulation of power beyond what one could even hope to harness for the good of others, was completely alien to her.

Alien. The word resounded in her head. She reached for the small leather bag she had been carrying her personal stuff in for the past four days, dug into one zippered pocket and came up with the card. She dialed the number on the primitive telephone. The head-piece didn't sit well against her head but she managed to hold it where she could hear and be understood. "Hello?"

"Mellon! Reff naii. Omen nalmet?"

The voice on the other end nearly exploded. "Reff! Nailmet! Nailmet! Maat?"

"I have your address."

"Can you call a cab? Or do you want me to pick you up?"

"I have enough money for almost anything. My companions are going to Disney Land tomorrow, so I am free."

"Then come. I'll feed you pizza and we can watch that movie. Unless you can't do cheese, then we'll find you something else to eat."

Reff grinned. "I can eat almost anything, too."

"Then meet me here."

"I will. Goodbye."


Reff looked up from the telephone. "Loit, I'm going out. Athena will know where I am. I might be back tonight but I don't know. If not, go to the park without me."

Loit looked concerned, her face puzzling. "Are you sure? You're going to be visiting that human, Karen?"

Reff nodded. "I will be fine, Loit. What can the Terrans do to me?"

"I don't like to think about it. They have some very violent movies."

Reff nodded. "Athena will know. They cannot keep the security forces away if it comes to that, and if we have to, we can retreat to the Hiding Place."

Loit stuck out her tongue. "Cryo."

"Just hope it doesn't come to that."

"I always hope it doesn't come to that," the Tindal said softly, stroking back an ear. She apparently found that soothing. "We've never broken up like that. Always in pairs."

"I will be okay," Reff said.

Loit looked startled for a second, then relaxed. "Okay, if Athena says so."

"Good," Reff said. She picked out some clothing for the evening, some loose-fitting black satin, and packed a more functional cotton outfit into her bag for tomorrow along with all the usual things that went into an overnight bag. "You have the group, Loit."

She grinned. "Take care, Reff."

"Sometimes. Nemet polda."

Getting a cab was a relatively easy operation; guided by Athena she asked the concierge to acquire her one, and the cabbie, with all the jade of someone who had lived in Los Angeles his entire life, acted as if she were just one more fare. It wasn't until they reached their destination, a quiet apartment complex set back from a wide road, that he asked, "Are you sure this is where you're going?"

"Is this the address I gave you?" she asked.

"That's what it says. But you, like, you're new. You don't have friends in town. Do ya?"

Reff grinned. "I think I do now."

"Okay." He rattled off the fare and she paid it, already used to the process of tipping. She gave him a few percentage points more than recommended. "Thanks for not asking too many questions."

"Hey, my pleasure." He drove off, leaving her there in the parking lot, wondering what to do next. The apartments were all two-story affairs evidencing sufficient upkeep. Water splashed promiscuously in a fountain in the center of the great asphalt automobile storage lot. The buildings had a look of outdoor stucco painted, inappropriately, brick red. She scanned the numbers and found the one she was looking for, walked up wooden stairs to the second floor, and waited. You have to knock, Athena said. They don't have AIs. Reff had become so used to doormen, receptionists, and the ubiquitous Pendorian AI that she had forgotten common custom. Abashed, she knocked on the door quietly.

"Hello?" came a voice from the other side that made her heart feel glad.

"Karen? Reff nai."

The door flew open and the smiling woman on the other side greeted her with a ferocious hug. "I was so worried you wouldn't call!"

"I made a promise," Reff said. "And after this week I had to get away from there." She gave Karen a solid hug in return and wondered, not for the first time, what was going to happen next. "You said you wanted to feed me and show me a vid. That was a better offer than Disneyland."

"For both of us!" Karen agreed. "Come in, sit down. The futon will take your weight, I think. How much do you weigh?"

"Nearly 210 kilograms." Reff glanced around the neatly appointed apartment. A multipurpose couch that would not have been out of place anywhere on Pendor occupied one wall facing a media center. The media center had a television, an overly complicated audio system, and something that identified itself as a 'laserdisk'. A stuffed toy animal peered out from one of the speakers high on a heavily burdened bookshelf. A kitchen, small by Reff's standards, occupied about a quarter of the room's available space, sectioned off by an open bar through which she could see Karen moving.

"That's over four hundred pounds," Karen said, surprising Reff with her quick grasp of the math. "Maybe you'd better just sit on the floor. Pull that blanket off the futon. We'll camp out." Karen picked up the telephone. "Meat or veggies?"

"Excuse me?" Reff asked.

"Pizza... What am I thinking? Pizza is food, you can put whatever you want on it. Do you want it meat-heavy or vegetable heavy? Or with everything?"

"I don't know what my choices are," Reff said. "Give me something with a little bit of meat on it."

Karen nodded and dialed the phone. "It'll be here in about thirty minutes," she said, sitting down with Reff. "So."

"So?" Reff said, feeling tension mounting in the air.

"What do we do?"

"You said you had a video you wanted to show me?"

"Yeah, but..." She suddenly burst out laughing. Reff, knowing exactly how she felt, joined her with a raucous, deep laugh of her own. That just sent Karen into louder peals of laughter. The feedback loop went on for minutes as each tried to recover their wits only to see the other still laughing and each would just lose control once more. The laughter infected them, but when it was over Reff felt so much better. Drained.

"Oh, my god," Karen gasped. "I haven't felt like that in ages. It's just so strange. I have an alien from outer space on my living room floor and I can't think of anything else to do with her but show her movies?"

Reff wiped a tear from her eye. "So? Show me movies. Take me out to your favorite places tomorrow. I like you, Karen."

That stopped Karen. "You do?"

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't."

"Oh." Karen seemed suddenly puzzled.

"Something wrong?"

"I thought... I... You... Damn. I can't get my thoughts together." She proceeded slowly. "I figured you were just taking advantage of someone who was willing to show you around and who spoke the language. I never thought you would really... like me. I mean, not in...

"At first, I was-- I just thought it was so cool that I could talk to you and get your attention. I wondered if we could be friends, but I didn't imagine it would really happen. I almost died when I heard your voice on the phone."

Reff felt oddly humbled by Karen's honesty. She had spoken with R'Dam about his own experiences with the curious vulnerabilities among humans. She had known that it could happen to her in talking with someone but she hadn't envisioned it coming like this. "Friends." "I don't know either, Karen. But thank you for telling me."

"Reff, why do you like me?"

"Because you make Terra less scary. On Pendor, there's an etiquette about talking to people, but it can be done. You can usually walk up to a perfect stranger and talk to them. Here, the only people who would do that are children. Until you." She looked up into Karen's eyes and suddenly realized they were green, a rare color in humans. "You came up and talked to me. You... you spoke my language." She tried to smile, but there was a feeling in her chest like sadness but not exactly. "I'm six hundred million million kilometers from my home and the only people who I knew who spoke Quen were the fifty or so who came with me. I've never known anything but Pendor and, we're really a very homogeneous society. There aren't any countries, there are only seven languages and everybody speaks Quen anyway, we don't have nearly the kind of art, and architecture, and television, and all that, that you do. We've never had a war; I'm not sure what we'd go to war over, or who with. I feel like I'm drowning in the waves of, of beauty and violence that is Terra. And to meet a complete stranger who... who spoke my language... made me feel like it wasn't quite so bad. I could stand this."

"I have an idea," Karen said. Before she could tell Reff her idea, a knock on the door distracted her. "That would be the pizza." She rose and retrieved a large cardboard box from the delivery person. She rejoined Reff on the floor, opening the box.

The smell of meat and cheese and other things wafted over her nostrils. It was a heavy, cloying smell that made her suddenly very hungry. "You want something to drink with that?" Karen asked.

"Water. I don't assume you have a glass in my size?"

Karen grinned and departed again for the kitchen, returning with a mug that was truly fitted for a Centaur. "Humans drink from these things?"

"When they want their fizzy caffeine portable, yep." She grinned. "Water for you, Coke for me." She pulled out a one-liter bottle of something brown and vile-smelling and drank from it directly. "Now, lean back against the couch. I'll put in the flick. The pieces with round things are yours. They're pepperoni, a kind of dried sausage. I think."

The pizza was delightful after all, Reff admitted. Thick but satisfying, she wondered why there was nothing like it on Pendor. There soon would be.

"So, what was this idea of yours?"

"Some friends of mine meet every Saturday to play a game. I'd like for you to show up and talk to them. They're the kind of people who would get along with you, I think."

Reff smiled. "I'd like that."

"Then... why don't we watch the movie?" Karen turned on a rather small television set and the screen cleared. "It's better with the stereo on," she said. There was a slight hiss from the speakers; Reff had become used to the dearth of digital perfection among Terran works and she recognized it for what it was. Karen turned down the lights and lit a pair of candles.

She watched the movie with fascination. Set only seventeen years in the future, humans had clearly had an agenda for reaching the moon much more ambitious than she would have thought possible given the current warlike agenda being practiced among the superpowers. "When was this made?" she asked.

"About fifteen years ago," Karen whispered.

Reff recognized it for what it was, then. A hopeful movie, even as the ending seemed to career towards a message she wasn't sure she understood. Still, there had been something about the style of the film, the skill with which it was shot, that she recognized as immediately worthwhile. Unlike the storytelling of Star Wars or the moral tales of Star Trek, which she had been required to watch early on as an idea of what the Terrans were expecting, this film had a theme of human proportions. The more she thought about it, the more she realized she wanted to see it again. Karen stretched as the movie ended. "It's gotten late. Do you have to go back to your hotel?"

Reff shook her head. "No, but I should call Loit and tell her I'm okay." She reached into her bag and pulled out the communicator. She opened. "Loit, please, Athena. Loit? Yes. I'm fine. I'll be spending the evening here. Tomorrow I'll be... Where will I be?"

"Here to begin with. Tell her we'll be..." She paused, then rattled off an address. "And other places, maybe."

"You got that? Good." She put the communicator away after folding it in half.

"That's a cellular phone?" Karen asked.

"More or less. It doesn't use your system, though. But it doesn't break your laws, either."

Karen nodded. "Makes sense." She looked at Reff with apparent interest. "The futon is comfortable for a bed."

"I thought you didn't think it would hold my weight."

"That was just as a seat. As a bed, your weight will be better distributed. I think it'll hold."

Reff nodded and helped Karen pull it out into the flat position reserved for sleeping. The mattress was a plain, dark blue. As Karen supplied pillows and blankets, Reff noticed small, reddish hairs on the bed. "You have an animal?"

"A cat," Karen confirmed. "She's probably hiding. She doesn't do well with strangers and, well, you're definitely that." She sat on the bed while Reff sat on the floor. Karen touched Reff on the arm gently. "Just blow out the candles when you're ready."

Reff tried to smile. It was hard to smile. A Pendorian would know that teeth didn't automatically mean a threat, but the a Terran wouldn't and she was always terrified of scaring one of them. Karen, she definitely didn't mean to scare. "Thank you."

Karen looked at her with a smile of her own. Reff felt a curious tension that she couldn't be sure really existed, or if it was just in her fervid imagination. "I'll see you in the morning."

Dawn cracked through the glass panes of a sliding door that faced a small quadrangle of grass. Reff turned over, her feet dangling over the side of a bed that was more than just a little too short for her; her calves had been hanging over the edge most of the night. She stretched for a moment, then rose. Karen did not yet seem awake, but her apartment had a generous supply of actual books that attracted Reff's curiosity. She examined the collection with interest; many seemed to be historical fiction or outlandish fantasy. A few were of a futuristic sort, but not many. There was also a collection of nonfiction; some of it basic science, sociology, essays by people Reff did not recognize.

She took down a book called Archaeological Pseudo-science, curious as to what that could mean. It became apparent rather quickly that the Terrans had a problem opposite that of the Pendorians. The Terrans did not believe they had evolved. There were Pendorians, a few, who did not believe that they had been engineered. She wondered if this was this really a sufficiently virulent problem that it was worth pulping trees over.

She had gotten no more than fifty pages into the work, at once fascinated and horrified to discover that she was sharing air with people who held to the most pernicious superstitious nonsense, when she heard the door to Karen's room open. She turned to see her host walk stark naked into the kitchen and open the refrigerator. "Good morning," Reff said.

"Huh?" Karen said. "Oh! You startled me. I didn't realize you were awake. I should get some clothes on."

"Why? I'm not dressed. Is there some Terran custom about getting dressed first thing in the morning?"

Karen grinned and shut the door to the refrigerator. "There is, but if you're not uncomfortable with it--"

"I am not."

"Then I won't bother unless I get cold. Milk?" She held up a rectangular carton.

"Please," Reff said, pleased that what was considered a luxury item on Pendor could be gotten so readily here on Terra.

Karen stepped out from behind the bar and Reff got a good look at her hostess. Karen was to Reff's eyes a shape of perfection and the color of confusion. Her body was covered in freckles, although they thinned across her beautifully smooth belly and thighs. She had very small breasts, and her reddish hair curled down her back in gentle, flowing waves. Her arms had solid definition, and her legs were, to Reff's knowledge, the sort mels had trouble looking away from.

Karen sat down next to her and handed Reff the same oversize mug she had used last night. "Sleep well?"

"I am becoming used to beds that do not fit me," Reff admitted. "But yes, thank you. I did sleep quite comfortably."

"Good." There it was again, Reff thought, that peculiar tension that she had felt in Karen last night. "I wonder if Space is gonna hate me or love me for disrupting his game this afternoon."


"A friend. Runs the game every Saturday. He'll probably be mad at me for all of five seconds when he realizes what kind of opportunity he's got with you around." She grinned and touched Reff's arm again. "You have such soft fur."

Reff felt a warm glow spread from where Karen touched her. She asked, "A boyfriend?"

"No, I don't have a boyfriend right now." Her hand kept stroking on Reff's arm.

"Why not?" Reff asked.

"I don't..." Karen sighed. Reff sensed that she was reluctant to say more. Her hand was still stroking Reff's fur. She suddenly pulled her hand away. "Sorry. I just... I..."

"You were enjoying the way I feel."

Karen blushed; for a brief moment more than just her freckles were red. "Yeah. Sorry."

"Why are you sorry?" Reff asked. "It was... nice."

Karen stretched her hand out again. "I cannot believe I'm doing this. You're an alien, from another planet so far away..." She touched Reff's arm. "But you feel so comfortable."

Reff grinned. "Can I ask you for a favor, Karen?"

Karen watched her hand, tracing it's movement from Reff's elbow to her wrist. "Ask away."

"Can I touch you?" Karen looked up. "I've never been this close to a Terran before."

"Go ahead," Karen replied. "Fair is fair."

Reff reached out and touched Karen's shoulder, tracing a line along one arm to freckled wrist. The skin beneath her fingertips was as smooth as she thought it would be, and just as lovely. "I didn't expect to be making friends this fast," Reff said, "Or in this way."

"I'm not even sure what I'm doing," Karen said.

"'Seeking out new life and new civilizations'."

Karen burst out laughing. "I can't believe you said that! It's so... hokey!"

"They made us watch it, so that we would know what you might expect of us."

"But not 2001? What kind of... who dreamt up that plan?" Reff shrugged. "Hey," Karen continued, "Would you like to take a shower?"

"With you or without you?"

"If we're going to get this friendly, then how about 'with.'"

"Is your shower large enough?"

"That's one of the reasons I took this apartment. They actually have large bathtubs. You might have to sit, but there'll be room for two."

It was a large, oval tub, but she did indeed have to sit down; the ceiling was lower than in the living room. She was gratified to see that Karen had a shower head on a hose. That made washing all the more easy. Karen tied her hair on top of her head with a clip of sorts and joined her. "I brought my own soap," Reff said, holding up a large plastic bottle. "It's for my fur and it won't use up your shampoo."

Karen held out a translucent bar of what Terrans apparently used for soap. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but, Reff, would you wash me?"

Reff grinned. She took the hose and dialed it until Karen told her it was adequate, then applied the bar of soap gently to Karen's back. Her hands swept Karen's skin, back and forth, the bubbles from the soap leaving gentle trails as gravity pulled them over the taut skin of her buttocks. Reff had never experienced this kind of happiness with her own species but somehow Karen was drawing it out of her like there was nothing to it. She suspected the human girl knew what she was doing. Reff fought to keep the tremble from becoming too obvious as she worked her way across Karen's small and lovely butt, and the fight became all the harder as she worked her way down Karen's legs. She made it all the way down to Karen's small and shapely feet without giving away too much, or so she thought.

"Turn around?" Karen asked.

"What? Oh, yes." Sitting as she was, she was eye-level with the other fem's breasts. Small as they were, they were also indescribably lovely. She applied more soap to Karen's shoulders, and tried to keep herself completely self-contained even as she lathered Karen's chest and belly. She finally put her hands down at her sides before going any further. "Karen, I, I'm having trouble, um, I, this is not as straightforward as I thought it would be."

"Is something wrong?"

The words came out in faltering stutters of indecision. "I don't want to keep sharing this bath with you if... because I might get tempted. To do something. Inappropriate."

"You aren't saying you'd want to hurt me, are you?"

Reff shook her head. "No! No, just the opposite. But you Terrans always seem to be so confused about that subject that I'm confused bringing it up with you."

Karen laughed aloud. "Intimacy? Yeah, I guess we are, aren't we?" She was quiet for a moment, and Reff couldn't see her eyes clearly. Their difference in height was too great for that.

"Reff," Karen asked, "where's your soap?"

Reff proffered the requested bottle. Karen pulled the showerhead off the wall. "Close your eyes, Reff."

Reff was bathed in the warm spray of the showerhead. She heard Karen giggle. "All the cats I know hate water."

"All the cats you know are uncivilized," Reff replied through the water dripping off her nose. Karen switched the shower from a straight spray to a kind of pulsing action and Reff found herself the target of a delightfully random sort of massage. Karen directed the water down her back and over her legs, stopping only occasionally to make sure she got the fur completely soaked through.

The water returned to spray, and then she felt Karen's hands on her shoulders. "Wow," Karen said. "There's a lot of you."

"We were talking about how much bigger I was last night."

"Yeah," Karen said. Reff felt Karen's hand followed a similar course through her fur that her paws had taken going over Karen's skin. Karen, however, was not reticent about getting her hands between Reff's thighs, although she had had to actually step out of the tub to get from Reff's front to back. "Do you want to do this part?" she asked.

"It's a part," Reff said. "You can if you like."

Karen looked up at her. "Reff..."

Reff put one soapy arm on Karen's shoulder. "I like you, Karen. Besides, this is just washing me. Right?" She tried to give her new friend her best smile.

Karen smiled back, then slipped her hand between Reff's legs and applied soap to the larger fem's vulva. Reff held her breath as waves of desire rolled through her. "Now for the rinse," Karen said. The massage returned, coursing over the back of Reff's neck, down her back, across her front to her legs, and down each leg to her feet. It felt wonderful on the soles of her feet-- ticklish, too. "Must rinse well," Karen said in a voice barely above a whisper. Her foot pressed against Reff's inner thigh suggestively. Reff took the hint and spread her lags a little further apart. "Good." The massage became gentler even as Karen directed it down across Reff's pubic mons. Reff leaned back against the back wall of the tub and gave Karen the opening she wanted. Karen directed the gentle pulses against Reff's swelling lips. "How similarly are you built to us?" she whispered.

"Close enough," Reff murmured back. "The same." She didn't open her eyes even as the rhythm of the shower matched the pulsations of pleasure that had begun to surge through her. Her whole body had become a puddle of satisfaction waiting to happen, waiting only for Karen to actually aim the massager directly at the core of her desire. "More."

The pressure increased even as Reff spread her legs wider. She opened her eyes just long enough to see that Karen was looking directly at her target, aiming with all the deliberation deserved of a lover. She surrendered herself completely to Karen's attention, as the pulses of water grew in strength until her need was too strong. She clenched her fists as she came, rolling her head back and forth against the tiled wall, moaning in the rush of heat and bliss. Even as her orgasm subsided, Karen shifted the shower from massage to stream again.

Reff looked up at Karen, who was looking at her with her mouth wide open, her own breath coming in ragged gasps, her eyes as wide as searchbeams. "I don't believe it!" she said.

"What?" Reff asked between breaths.

"I... I made you come. I made an Uncia, an alien, come." She started shaking, trembling almost uncontrollably. "I can't figure out how that happened." She sat on the floor of the tub. "I don't know how we got here." She looked up at Reff. "How did this happen?"

Reff saw that full realization was hitting Karen harder that either one of them had anticipated and she wasn't handling it too well. She reached out and pulled Karen into her lap, holding the much smaller woman in a bear of a hug. "We just went with it."

"I know, I know. It's... Oh my God. It's so cool!" She started laughing uncontrollably, and Reff joined right in with her. As they settled down, Karen snuggled against Reff's warm body. "We're running out of hot water."

"Does that happen often?" Reff asked. She noticed the loss of temperature in the spray as well.

"All the time," Karen said. "Let's get out. We have a long day ahead of us." She rose from the tub and turned off the water. Reff joined her.

Reff discovered that she could just fit in Karen's car, a Ford Taurus, if she sat in the rear seat behind Karen in a slouch position and extended her legs feet into the forward passenger area.

Karen had worn jeans and a bright blue silken shirt over which she wore a leather jacket of light brown decorated with tassels. The feather earring had returned. Her boots were similar in color to the jacket and just as decorated. She looked in the mirror mounted overhead and said, "Comfortable?"

"I've been in worse," Reff said.

"It's a short drive."

It was indeed a short drive and Karen seemed to be an careful driver. Reff had long marveled at the number of people on Terra who appeared to be proficient at what must have been a very difficult and time-consuming task to acquire. She was no pilot herself and tended to use Sdisks to get everywhere.

Karen pulled into the driveway of a small, unassuming residence on a quiet street. "If we're careful, I might be able to get you into the patio without anyone else spotting you. Yes, the street's pretty clear." She got out of the car and walked around to the other side. "Let me help you out." Reff took the offered hand and struggled to get out of narrow passage. The sun outside was brighter than she remembered, and a closer look at the house revealed nothing out of the ordinary. It was sadly run-down and poorly maintained; the grass grew wild in what passed for a front lawn, a hose lay scattered thoughtlessly on the driveway, and birds had stained a once-white roof into modern art. She followed Karen up to the front door. "Stay to one side first. And watch your head."

She opened the door. "Knock knock!"

"Hey, Karen! You're late!"

"Sorry, Space. I had a guest over last night and we were up late. I brought her over for you guys to meet. Reff?"

Karen stepped into the door frame, giving Reff room to poke her head in. Six people stared with hands and mouths in different stages of greeting, all of which froze completely as they got a good look at her. "Oh, my, God." That was from a woman seated on the couch opposite the door.

"You brought-- your friend is a Pendorian?" asked the one across the room. "How did you manage that?"

Reff squeezed her way past the door and into the room. "Whose house is this?" Three hands went up. "Do any of you mind if I take a seat on the floor?"

"Please, go right ahead," said a taller man who had raised his hand, gesticulating wildly towards a large open spot. He grabbed the table that occupied much of the floor and pulled it to one side, giving her more room than she needed.

She sat down and crossed her legs. "Hi."

Nervous laughter filled the room. "Hi," said one. "I'm Joan." "Robert." "Space." "Matt." "Joe." "Deborah."

There was a brief silence. Karen broke it by apologizing to Space. "Sorry I ruined your game, but I figured this might be interesting."

"That's... okay," Space muttered. "I was running out of ideas anyway. They'd made it to the city, but the vampire thread was over too fast."

"So, what do we do now?" asked a short, zaftig woman with more freckles than Karen. She had earlier identified herself as Joan.

"Talk?" Reff asked, grinning but also slightly frustrated. "I mean, I came because I wanted to meet some of Karen's friends. If I'm being disruptive I can always go and get a cab or something."

"That's okay," responded Robert. "It's just that, we always wanted to talk to aliens, but we never imagined we'd ever get to meet one in our lifetimes, even after you guys landed. How... how did you get to meet Karen?"

"Quen i lamber Pendoreva," Karen said.

"You're joking!" Robert said.

"Nele," Reff replied.

"Wow," Robert replied. He turned back to Karen. "And since you speak it too, you just walked up to her and started talking?"

"Something like that," Reff laughed.

Each wanted to touch her, to know that she was real. Each got their turn, and she blushed at the compliments they gave her on the silkiness of her fur. She, in turn, gave the credit to chemists on Pendor who made her shampoo.

Robert gave her a brief tour-- three bedrooms, one of which had been turned into a computer room, a comfortable kitchen, and out in the back a swimming pool. The house had no environmental control, however; that made the swimming pool all the more understandable and far more tempting. The house saddened Reff in the way much of Terra did; too many people, not enough resources, too much repetition of duty and too little automation led to cramped living conditions and poorly maintained streets. She could barely fit through the bathroom door, although she could use it once inside.

Their conversation ranged all over. She answered their questions on politics, religion, art, everything. Hours passed.

Reff's stomach growled. "Am I the only who is hungry?" she asked, noticing that most of the people at the table had snacks.

"It's a little early, but we could do dinner," Matt said.

"I'd like to avoid going out in public," Reff sighed. "Even in Washington, I'm mobbed every time I leave the Embassy."

"We could go get take-out and bring it back to Mos Eisley," Robert suggested.

"'Mos Eisley?'" Reff asked. The name was familiar to her but she couldn't say why.

"Yeah," Robert said. "Here. Our house. Where-- " All six voices chimed in at once, "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy!" In deep and serious tones, Joe finished, "We must be cautious."

Reff, for an innumerable time that day, found herself liking these gently self-mocking humans in ways she couldn't begin to express clearly. "Chinese good?" Karen asked her.

"Wonderful," Reff said. "A double order of Peking duck, if they have it."

"I take it you've had that before," Karen said. Reff nodded. "Okay, then, China Gardens take out it is."

Matt and Joan did the run and returned shortly thereafter with the take-out orders. "I guess this food isn't what you're used to on Pendor, is it?" Joan asked. She was the quietest of the group, although she could be quick and needlessly cruel when she wanted to be; sarcasm tinged with anger, although she had thus far not aimed any of that anger in Reff's direction.

"That depends on what you mean. Pendorian cooking is very simple. We have all the fruits and vegetables and meats you have here, as well as some you've probably never heard of, but we don't have an awareness of spices the way you do here. And some of the combinations are simply unheard of." She dug at something in her second box of take out and came up with a mushroom. "Fungus. I would never have thought to eat fungus, for example."

Joseph said, "Let me be direct. Why are you here?"

"On Earth?"

"I was thinking more about California."

Reff grinned. "It's simple. Remember that Pendor is a Terran colony and that we're only about a century old?" The room nodded. Reff wondered if they would ever forget. When she had described that, each had reacted in their own way, but each reaction had surely been shock. "We have no cookbooks, no architecture, nothing like that. Think about it this way; I walk outside and I see a hundred different makes of car. We have only a few, and their differences are based mostly on what they do, not personal preference. Terrans have had centuries, and billions of people, to put to the task of diversifying. We want some that. Badly." She took a bite, swallowed. "California is just one of those media-producing centers that we want to tap."

"Culture mining." That was from Joan.

"I hope not," Reff said. "Not in the way that America seems to strip-mine everyone else."

"Aren't you a carnivore?" Robert asked.

"All Pendorians are omnivores, like Terrans. Our genetic makeup is close to yours, actually; the appearance is part of an alteration from an improved Human base. We're deliberately designed to integrate as a culture. A common example is that even though my species averages twice the mass of the smallest species, the Tindals, our genitalia are designed along very similar lines. Although coloration and keep might be different, the layout and size are about the same for everyone. Only the Centaurs are different."

She noticed there were some quiet looks. "Did I say something wrong? I know I'm not supposed to bring this up in most Terran groups, but you seem so... different."

"I think it depends on you who you are," Karen said. "We're adults, we can take it. But the announcement that you're designed to have sex with humans is, well, let's just say the boys are probably trying to come up with ways to get you into bed."

Reff barely avoided asking Karen what was on her mind. She had wanted to talk about it with Karen, but the other woman didn't seem ready to discuss it in front of her friends, and Reff understood that; Terrans were regularly reticent about their sex lives. She shrugged instead. "I make my own decisions."

"Good," Karen said. Reff tried to read not too much into her apparent relief.

Robert let out a deep sigh. "It's hot."

"What do you expect?" Joan asked. "We live in Southern California without air conditioning. If you're hot, why not go for a swim? We pay rent on the pool, too."

"And miss the company?" Robert asked, indicating Reff.

"I could enjoy a swim as well," Reff said. "I haven't been able to go swimming for several weeks. It's still cold in Washington and I haven't found an indoor pool that will take me as a member yet, although Athena is working on it."

"Athena?" Joan asked.

"Our chief of staff. And that's all she is. She makes sure we all stay sane."

"Sounds like a challenging job."

"I would guess it is," Reff agreed. "Now, that swim?"

"We don't all have bathing suits," Karen pointed out.

"Reff? Would it bother you if we went skinny dipping?" Robert asked.

Reff took a second to ask Athena what that meant. When she got her answer, she grinned. "You mean, swim without those absurd modesty suits that cover absolutely nothing?"

"That's a good enough answer."

Karen surprised her by being reluctant about getting into the water. She was the only one who didn't, although she wasn't put off by the rest stripping down and jumping in. Reff slipped into the water and took a deep breath, going completely under and sinking to the bottom. The cool water enveloped her in a silence that was just barely broken by the sounds of the humans splashing. She let herself stay under as long as she could stand it, finally coming up for air to see a circle of concerned faces. "How long can you stay down?" asked Deborah.

"Seven or eight minutes, I think," Reff replied.

"That's a lot longer than any of us can manage," she said. "You must have some great lungs."

Reff grinned. "I guess so."

The questions resumed, but at a slower pace now, more thoughtful. After this afternoon's session, filled with more descriptions than anything else, she was ready for something a little slower. She enjoyed the cooling effect of the water and appreciated that the Terrans seemed to be able to play in the water without having to interact with her. Even as her internal clock crawled towards midnight they seemed to have warmed to her presence among them, one of many friends they had.

She was sitting next to the steps in the shallow end when a body slid in beside hers and said, "You're quiet."

"Resting," she replied before realizing that the voice was Karen's. "You got in."

"I'm not completely against skinny dipping. I was just not sure how to deal with you. I don't think I want them to know yet. Although they're probably wondering." She was whispering.

"Arin ahavya?"

"Havya? I don't know what that word means."

"About or concerning."

"Oh. Um, yeah. Arin ahavya."

"I'll be discreet."

"I'd appreciate it."

"Are you hogging the alien again, Karen?" Robert asked, clearly tinging his voice with humor and amusement.

"She is, and she's being silly about it." Reff lifted Karen out of the water and, taking a chance to admire the view, tossed her into the deep end of the pool.

"Oh, yeah?" Karen said, sputtering as she came up for air. She gathered an armful of water and splashed it in Reff's direction.

"Splashfight!" someone shouted, and for the next minute the pool was a churning mass of bodies throwing water in every direction. Karen dove beneath the water to get out of it and found herself pressed up against Reff. Both of them whirled to look at one another, and with a sudden impulse the two of them were tangled in a kiss, mouth and muzzle pressed together almost bruisingly hard.

They broke apart and headed for the surface, only to emerge in the continuing battle. It soon slowed down to half-hearted splashes. Karen avoided Reff's eyes. Nobody else seemed to notice.

Reff heard Athena whispering to her. Reff, your plane leaves at 5 pm tomorrow. Reff took the hint. It also gave her a chance to start talking to Karen again. "Karen? I hate to say this but my plane to Washington leaves tomorrow, and I really should get some sleep."

The hint and its notions of sleep propagated easily through the crowd. In short time, they were toweling, saying goodbyes, giving her cards and scraps of paper with phone numbers on them, and trying to convince her to stay it touch, but over all they thanked her profusely for the private time together. Each made her feel, as nobody else yet had, that her mere presence was a pleasure which they respected. Karen, especially.

She crammed herself into Karen's tiny car again and again they were on the road. She wondered how to resume talking to Karen. What had transpired there, in the pool? "Karen?"

"Yes, Reff?"

"I would be honored if you would have me as your guest for another night."

There was a long pause from the front. "Karen?"

"I didn't dare ask, I didn't know what to make of that... under the water there. You're so welcome to stay at my place I can't think of how to say it. Yes, yes. What time does your plane leave?"

"Five tomorrow. And my people can take care of my bags."

Reff asked Karen for one other small favor, and they ended up at the supermarket. Reff and Karen walked in together. There were screams, shouts, fingers pointed. A law enforcement officer followed them around. A camera flashed. Reff ignored it as she paid for the gallon of milk she had picked up.

They were soon on the streets. Karen dodged a corner, then another, her driving suddenly seeming more erratic. "Losing a tail," she said. Reff understood. Karen pulled into her complex and the two of them snuck upstairs quickly. "That was not entirely smart." Then she laughed. "What the Hell. People took pictures of us together at the airport. It's not like there's not already questions about the mystery redhead. I'll probably show up on the cover of the Star soon with a headline, Woman Gives Birth To First Interplanetary Baby!'"

"Even if we were different sexes, we would not be compatible. I don't imagine these tabloids understand that."

"Oh, they do. They just know that their audience doesn't. Or doesn't care."

She walked into her bedroom, emerging minutes later, a voluminous robe enveloping her form. She helped Reff with the futon.

"We are being awkward," Reff said, deciding that the tension needed breaking.

"We're not used to talking about it," Karen replied. "But, yeah, we are. What happened this morning? In the pool?"

Reff grinned and pulled Karen down into her lap. "Friendship happened."

"Is that all?"

"Do you want more, or less?"

"Good question," Karen said. "If I say less, I can say it was just curiosity, mischief, me being a troublemaker. If I say more, it's like I'm asking for something. What do you want, Reff?"

"I don't know. I want to satisfy my curiosity. I want to get to know you better, but not if it means trouble for you. I would like to give you pleasure, too."

"You've already done that! Just calling me two days ago and asking if you can come over is something I'll never forget."

"That's good." Her arms tightened around Karen's body. "I like you. If you want, we can just go to our respective rooms and not worry about it."

"But..." Karen squirmed free of Reff's grip to sit on the futon. "I feel like I'd be missing something."

"You would," Reff said. "And so would I. But that's not as important as your comfort, Karen. It really is not."

"There will never be an opportunity like this again...." Karen sighed. Then, she surprised Reff by taking her shirt off over her head, tossing it aside, and starting to work on her pants. "Take off your clothes, Reff."

Instead, Reff per her massive paw on Karen's shoulder. "Are you sure?"

"You're not going to eat me, right? I mean..."

Reff tossed her head back and laughed. "No, Karen, I'm not going to hurt you at all. I'm not going to leave any marks on your body, if that's what you mean. But I worry more about what you might think in the morning."

"I'll be alone again by Monday, Reff. I can't let this go by. I just can't. My curiosity will kill me. Too many times I have let a day go by without doing what my curiosity wanted and I've always hated myself for it. This time, I want to do it."

Reff struggled out of her nondescript clothing, dropping the lot into a heap.

Karen was looking at her, looking her body up and down. "You look so..."

"You saw me this morning."

"I know, but we were busy then." She touched Reff's knee, then stroked her hands down the length of Reff's thigh. "Can I... Can I just touch you for a while?"

Reff lay down on the futon. "Yes."

Karen's hands explored her, starting at the legs. Her touch started out tentatively, but soon she was pressing hard against the furred tension of Reff's thighs. It was almost as if she were trying to give Reff a massage, although her hands seem to be doing more examining than stroking. Her hands lightened as she eased down the length of Reff's legs to her feet. "Your feet are more humanoid than I expected."

"A real translation wasn't ergonomic," Reff said, understanding what Karen meant.

"This isn't really sexy," Karen said, suddenly giggling.

"You wanted to explore. Curiosity is good. Go ahead. I am enjoying your touch, Karen."

The redhead blushed hard. "Thanks. That means a lot to me."

"I reserve the right to return the favor."

"Hmm." Karen moved up to Reff's hips, her hands exploring Reff's belly, feeling the solid pack of muscles there before easing up to Reff's chest. "You have nipples."

"Of course I do," Reff said. "There's just nothing for them to do. I never can understand why some species walk around with prominent breasts all the time. They'd just get in the way. Funny, though, I like yours. I understand that males like them on all females."

"That's an evolution thing," Karen said, her fingertips tracing the line of Reff's collarbone, reaching one shoulder. "You don't have much fur on the insides of your elbows."

Reff chuckled. "I never noticed that before. It's there."

"Oh, it's there. It's just thin. Like, it's supposed to make it easy to do an IV or something. Maybe that's it."

"I doubt it. I've never had an IV. I don't see why I would be engineered to make it easy. And we don't know what other Uncia have. Although I could ask around."

Karen giggled. "This isn't a science experiment."

"But that's exactly what it is, Karen. A strange science experiment. You're trying to figure me out, and I'm trying to figure you out."

"But is that science?" Karen said. Her hands were now on Reff's jaw. She worked her way up to Reff's ears, tickling them gently, making Reff squirm. "Stop that!"

"Sorry," Karen said.

"Would you like me to turn over so you can explore the other side?"

"No. Your turn."

Reff rose up as Karen lay down. She looked the human girl over completely. The same smooth skin as this morning, very pale on her belly and thighs and everywhere else, but on her arms and calves that paleness competed for space with small, red freckles. Karen's pubic hair bloomed in a tangle of a red so bright it was almost pink.

Reff placed her fingers on Karen's leg, starting just above the ankle, touching and feeling her way along the woman's body. Karen at first seemed as detached as she had been during her examination of Reff, but now her body sagged against the solid futon and her red lips parted. Her eyes were closed as Reff's fingers moved up the length of her calf, over her thigh. She was much slower that Karen was, but then there was significantly less of Karen for her to go over, so she had more time.

"Your fingers are soft, Reff. Where are your claws?"

Reff tensed muscles in her hands and popped out her claws a little bit. "These?"

"Oh!" Karen said, tensing. "Woah. I didn't expect that. You tickled me."

"Sorry." She relaxed, letting the claws sink back into her fingertips and the skin fold over them. "You asked."

"I did," Karen said. Her words came with a deep throatiness.

Reff realized that Karen was letting herself go. "You're trusting me," she said.

Karen didn't open her eyes but she did smile. "I slept alone last night with a perfect stranger in my living room, and you didn't hurt me. Once I realized that I had been even more vulnerable then than now, I supposed I could give everything up and just... let it happen."

Reff nodded. "That's logical." Her fingers caressed Karen's nipples, which had become very solid in the past few seconds. She was no longer exploring. This was her turn to do for Karen what Karen had done for her that morning.

She reached down with one hand and pulled Karen's knee to one side, parting the young woman's legs. The aroma of Karen's arousal reached her nostrils. Even the scent of her felt hot. "You're excited."

"Should I not be?"

Reff positioned herself between Karen's legs. "I don't know. I'm not human. I probably smell wrong or something."

"How do I smell to you?"

"Like a paradise," Reff responded. "And you look like one too." She let her tongue touch Karen's swollen outer lips softly. Although her own vulva might be standardized to a common size on Pendor, her tongue was not, and she knew that going down on a smaller female was often a difficult trick for Uncia. But Karen moaned all the same. Reff delighted at how wonderfully the red-furred human girl tasted. It was a sweet taste, almost sugary, like nothing she had ever experienced from a Pendorian. Then again, she had known so few Pendorian fems she could count them on one paw.

She reached around Karen's thighs and placed her hands on the woman's sides. Karen rested her legs against Reff's shoulders as Reff slid her thick tongue deeper into Karen's sex, tasting the fluids that dribbled from her opening, finding the solid point of the clit with her tongue. Karen's body actually twisted to one side as Reff caressed that little nub meant only for pleasure. "More," Karen gasped. "Just a little more."

Reff gave Karen what she asked for. Karen's body drew so tense that Reff was concerned she might hurt something. Karen almost seemed to be raising her body off the futon by sheer will, then she collapsed back onto the bed with a silent gasp and a shuddering that wracked her from her toes to an uncontrollable toss of her head. "Oh, God, Reff, thank you."

Reff grinned. "I was just repaying you for this morning."

"And you did," Karen sighed. "You did."

Reff still couldn't keep her hands off Karen's body. She found herself wanting to touch Karen more and more. To her pleasure, Karen's hands were stroking her fur much as they had been in the morning. They lay together, coming down from their high together. Reff breathed in the scent of Karen's hair, and Karen snuggled up close to her friend. "Sleep with me tonight?" Karen asked.

"Is your bed bigger than the futon?"

"No. I was going to ask if I could stay here tonight."

"It's your house."

"You're the guest. It's your call."

"Of course you can sleep here," Reff replied. "But I steal covers."

"It's hot. I won't care."

When Reff awoke, Karen was already up. The smell of coffee wafted through the room. That must have been what awakened her. Karen was still deliciously naked as she worked in the kitchen. "Good morning."

Karen smiled and walked over. "Coffee?"

"Causes nausea in felines," Reff said. "Do you have decaf?"

"It's not as good."

"I'll still take it."

Karen made Reff some decaffeinated coffee. Reff poured it into the huge mug Karen had given her two nights ago and filled it the rest of the way with milk, then drained the entire thing in one sustained swallow. "Wow," Karen said as she watched Reff refill the mug with milk.

"I guess I was thirsty."

"I'll say."

They spent the morning lazing around. Karen told Reff more about her growing up, and Reff returned the favor. Reff felt that she would be telling this story many times, to many people, but it would never be quite as interesting again.

They also watched another movie. This time it was Close Encounters, which Reff found interesting for its assumptions as well. "Too bad the universe isn't like that," she said finally.

"Are you sure? I mean, how many worlds have you been to?" Karen chided her. "As I recall, the total is two. Yours and mine."

Reff smiled. "You're right. We don't know. I'm sure we'll find out someday, though. This isn't the last one we intended on visting. Just the first one."

"I'm glad you visited."

"I am too." Reff, prompted by a whisper, glanced down at her watch. "My plane leaves in two hours and my companions have already assembled to leave for the airport. I should probably meet them there."

"I'll drive you. If you're not sick of my car."

Reff kissed Karen's cheek. "I'm not sick of your car."

Karen touched her cheek. "You hadn't done that yet. Kiss me."

Reff kissed Karen's mouth softly. Karen returned the gesture. When they parted Karen gasped, "Wow. Every time I think I've got a handle on you, you remind me of just how big you are!"

Together, they assembled Reff's bag and stowed the futon in its couch configuration. Karen drove them to the airport. The drive took longer than anticipated because of an accident on the freeway. They arrived with only a short time to spare.

Inside, Athena directed Reff and Karen to the other three Pendorians' location. They were waiting at the terminal even though the plane wasn't scheduled to leave for another hour. All of them greeted both Reff and Karen with equal pleasure, as if she'd always been a member of their team. Loit, the Tindal, was especially friendly, giving Karen a sisterly hug. "So you're the Terran my team leader has been spending her weekend with."

"So," Reff said, "Did you enjoy Disneyland?"

"I suspect we did not as much as you enjoyed your weekend," Loit said.

"I found it depressing," Mamood said. "It was too regimented. That some people find it entertaining-- I suppose I would have appreciated a looser format."

"I suppose you would, too," Karen said. "There's a reason locals don't go to tourist traps. And that's it in a nutshell."

A boarding call went out over the speakers. "That's you guys."

Reff hugged Karen tightly. "I won't forget you."

"I'll practice my Quen until it's perfect. And you'll call me?"

"I'll call you," Reff promised. She looked at Karen and for the first time saw a fragility that hadn't been there the nights before. Reff decided it was a fair thing for her to promise. "See you soon, Karen."

"See you, too. Goodbye, Reff."