The afternoon sun reached a point where it shone on the cushion of the window box bench seat in my office, and I relaxed in its warmth. Shifting my snout into a more comfortable position, I fluffed my tail under it for additional padding. I had another full hour until my next appointment and intended to take a nap. Looking through the window with half-closed eyes, I could see students trotting between their classes or just strolling casually on the grassy mall.
"Murieeee! The humans are landing! Turn on the radio, the news is talking about them." I sighed resignedly as Pok'op, my student office assistant, a weasel more hyperactive than even the stereotypical ferret, barged into the office shouting and, before I could even uncurl myself from my cushion, turned on the box. The tubes took a few seconds to warm up.
"… Corps spokesmen stated that this, the second group of humans come to Diyim'yi is sure to further improve cultural relations between our two peoples, and that their scientists and scholars are as eager to learn more about us, as we are about them. The aliens will be based out of the university right here in the capitol." I shut off the radio.
" Pok'op, shouldn't you be out at your desk? Who's going to greet them if they come, when you're in here?" I smiled broadly, showing more sharp teeth than etiquette required. Taking the hint, he retreated back out the door. The Dean would call me as soon as he heard the news, and I was determined to rest as long as possible before he did. Because, they would eventually come here.
Half a year before, I would not have been so certain, nor so confident. I had just arrived on the Diyim'yi homeworld, almost alone, every link with my past broken. During our first, brief visit, Dave and I had been treated as royalty: visiting princes who came bearing gifts, in the form of the tempting possibilities of trade with the Earth. Now, with the foxes' perhaps justifiable paranoia toward aliens triumphant, most thought me nothing but an unfortunate refugee, one with no special knowledge, no technological skills, and a woman besides. Oh, there were a few friends, and those opportunists who would have made use of me, but the political climate cut us loose from their support almost as soon as Jena and I arrived.
I think the Corps expected me to disappear into the common pack, anonymous. Within a few days, though, I became sure that would not be the case. It took others some time to reach the same conclusion. Some had their noses rubbed in it. Because, I am certainly not the same woman I was when I married Dave, especially not after changing into an anthropomorphic fox and all, perhaps none of us can say they are the same as they were at some point in their past. Just the weight of years brings experience; in my case they brought years of experience dealing with all kinds of people, plus a new, young body with enough energy to make the most of opportunity.
The ship flashed into hyperspace as the FTL drive engaged, leaving behind the dangers of the Earth system. The most challenging part of the flight concluded, I stretched, cracked my joints, and passed the controls to Navigator Lossp. He acknowledged transfer, flipped the 'autopilot on' switch that was part of a salvaged DC-9 instrument console we had bought from a scrap dealer in Pasadena, and picked up a human-language magazine. I exited the bridge.
On the way back to my cabin, I decided to wander through the day room to check in on the contact team we had just pulled off the planet. Pilot Mitzep and Alien Contact Specialist Chessec were sure to be despondent after my abrupt termination of their mission; and the former human Jena, still disoriented in her new leonine body, had no doubt finally realized she had left her home planet, probably for good. They would undoubtedly blame me, but a Captain is paid to make unpopular decisions.
In the galley, things were not as I expected. Chessec was curled on the couch beside Jena, and they were smiling, drinking coffee and laughing together. Doctor Plaksa, eating a paw-full of grapes, was looking in on them from the galley half-door. Mitzep was not present, probably in engineering with Second Officer H'raawl-Hrkh making measurements on the FTL drive's mysterious, unknown output.
"I never guessed; you played her perfectly. You fooled us all. But shouldn't you tell the Captain now?" Jena said, as she wiped the tears from her eye with the back of an enormous furry paw. I joined them, curious.
"Tell me what, Chessec?" Jena burst into a giggle, which she tried unsuccessfully to stifle. I was glad she was in good spirits. I would rather not try to comfort a three hundred plus pound hysterical female.
Chessec said, "Captain Chopka, now that we're in hyperspace, I can tell you that I'm really Marie. Chessec stayed with our husband to continue the mission." I felt a sudden chill: this was serious. With Chessec still at risk of compromise on Earth if captured by the humans, and her human twin here, someone would need to return to recover her. It was too late to turn this ship around, so that meant a second expedition. And now I had two alien females, however transformed, to explain to the council.
"Do you know what you have done?" I was at once angry and admired their cleverness. Marie smiled slightly, as someone who knows her plans have succeeded.
"Certainly. Chessec and I both of us agreed together. This way, we've insured that at least one more of your ships will have to travel to Earth, and that Chessec and my husband have at least another month to succeed. That's what we've done." She looked infuriatingly calm and collected. She batted her lashes, her ears erect, not even laid back slightly. I could now readily see how different this identical twin was, in spite of her sharing Chessec's immature face. It was an expression young Chessec could never have pulled off.
"The council will be furious. They might still vote to pull the mission off Earth regardless. Certainly I will be punished. The family will lose prestige, maybe Plaksa's as well. Perhaps Candroc's seat on the council will be withdrawn. The military faction may decide Earth should be quarantined, or worse."
"Then we have ten days' time to come up with an argument against that. Let's put our heads together, I know we are working to the same end. Chessec will succeed, and we need to ensure a ship comes that will bring word of her success back to your people."
It was not enough time. When we returned to Diyim'yi, the corps debriefed us for another week in isolation. They agreed with my original assessment, made at the time: that the military superiority of the human atmospheric craft, missiles and lasers made continued operations near Earth too dangerous. Too much risk of capture of a shuttle, or even a starship. The final council decree was given in closed session. The seats in the auditorium were filled only with senior members of the government and Fleet officers. My crew, Marie, Jena and I watched the final hearing from a monitor in an anteroom. Candroc, my senior co-husband, sat silently in his council seat, arms folded, and made no outward response as the final ruling was read. His senior wife Amkro, my former Captain and mentor, had not even attended the session.
"… therefore it is the decision of this council to suspend the Earth contact program. In six months, we direct the Corps send a final ship to Earth. In the absence of a peaceful treaty of cooperation, we will extract Lieutenant Chessec Candroc, by force if necessary. The human will also be encouraged to come to Diyim'yi with her, and all evidence of our presence on Earth will be erased. This decision will not be made public until that mission returns."
While the decision was read, Amkro slipped quietly into the room with us. She motioned for silence. "Officially, I was never here. We cannot have any public connection, and appearance of not supporting the council decision would weaken our negotiating position. The trades' council and our industrial backers may still be able to get this reversed if we're quiet, and if nothing happens to inflame public opinion. Marie, I've arranged for Jena and yourself to take the basic alien culture and language classes at the university. A room and a small stipend will help you get started, but otherwise you will be on your own." Amkro hugged Marie tightly, then released her and backed away. "Good luck, my almost-daughter." She left.
A page entered the room as soon as she left. He handed me a set of sealed orders, and I slit them open with one claw. I motioned to the exec. "Orders. I'm taking the crew back to the ship at once. H'raawl-Hrkh, Mitzep: They looked up. You have five minutes to say goodbye to Jena. I'm sorry." I motioned the doctor and navigator to precede me out the door. I regarded the two former humans. "I'm sorry how this turned out. Try to remember, we don't hate your people. We're just afraid." I went out the door, and H'raawl-Hrkh followed me.
"I come with you, Captain. No need to see sister-self. Leave her time with Mitzep. I can sense her until we pass the lightspeed limit, plenty of time." The emotion she was sharing through the telepathic link with her twin broke up her speech into its original, native cadence. She asked where our orders were taking us.
"Nurnkh, the jaguars' planet. Quarantine patrol duty. We're being kept under wraps, too."
A Corps representative came for us soon after the ship's crew left. Jena and I were assigned an efficiency apartment several blocks from the university campus. While the neighborhood was not bad by the standards of urban America, it was nevertheless working class, verging on poor. Several people had told us that Jena might have some difficulties, but we experienced it for the first time as we signed our lease. The landlord never spoke directly to the big cat while we completed the paperwork, and jerked away in fear whenever she moved too fast. He handed both keys to me and left as quickly as possible.
I opened the door. Noticing, as I entered the apartment (perhaps because of the domestic surroundings), that for the first time, everything in the room was scaled to me. I had grown accustomed to being a midget in my own kitchen on Earth. Finally here I was in one, scaled to fit creatures just like myself. The Diyim'yi starships had been built for the much larger jaguars, while Chessec's familial home had simply been palatial. I smiled as I wandered around the room trying handles and generally making myself at home. Then I remembered my poor roommate, left out in the hall.
Jena had stopped just inside the doorway, just as uncomfortable as I was comfortable. The big lioness was still shell-shocked by the council's orders sending her boyfriend Mitzep back into space. Theirs had been a tearful goodbye: She had become at least attached to, if not in love with, the little fox during the past few weeks. Ducking to miss the ceiling light fixture, she entered with a dubious expression on her face. Her height barely allowed her to stand upright. She walked three strides to the solitary bedroom, opened the door and looked inside.
"That must be your room, and I guess I get the couch." I looked, and had to agree. The bed was a spindly-legged thing, an oval, cushioned crib too flimsy for a creature half her mass and bulk. She experimentally put her weight on the couch and was relieved when it held her. "Just think, we would be paying a thousand a month for a dump like this in New York."
"Maybe we can afford a futon or something next month. You know, now that I think about it, this does look a lot like the place I moved into after my first marriage fell apart. No wine bottles in the hall, though."
"We could use a few of those, with candles in them. What is that, a five watt bulb in the fixture?"
"We both have see-in-the-dark night vision, like everybody else on the planet. Maybe this is normal."
"Just cheap, I think. Personally, I don't think our landlord would have rented to me at all if the Corps hadn't leaned on him. I don't think he likes cats." We gathered our few belongings from the hallway and began to make ourselves at home. The single built-in dresser was in the bedroom, so Jena went in there to put her clothes (hand-me-downs from H'raawl-Hrkh, just as mine were from Chessec's wardrobe) away. She called out, "What do you want to do for dinner?"
A voice behind me said, "Why don't you join me?" I whirled around. "I'm your neighbor from across the hall. I'm just starting a stew, and it won't be any more trouble for three." A fennec fox in his mid twenties stood in the doorway, his large ears up and alert, interested.
Down, boy, I thought to myself.
"We'd be delighted. I'm Marie Corbett, by the way." Those rabbit-sized signal flags drooped slightly, either because he realized he hadn't introduced himself properly, or because I'd given both first and last name, as a married woman should. Had I been single, I would have used my first name only on first introduction. He recovered, no doubt still remembering optimistically the other female voice he had heard.
"I'm Ulmer. And your roommate is?" Jena looked into the living room over the top of my head and purred her introduction. He gulped at her size, but offered gamely, "Maybe I should add a little more stew to that pot. Come over in a few minutes?" We agreed.
Ulmer was, he revealed indeed, single. He had recently moved to town seeking work as a draftsman. He had a cheerful, earnest tone that was irrepressible. Ulmer was shy, but determined to overcome it through outgoing enthusiasm. It was impossible not to respond, so I asked him how his search was going.
"I'm working for a firm on trial now. I don't think I will accept their offer of a permanent contract, though."
"Why is that?" He explained the distinction between a trial employee and a permanent one was just that: Permanent members of a firm were guaranteed a position practically for life, and shared in the profits. They were seldom granted without extensive trial, but the disruptions in the planet's labor market caused by the post-war boom had created opportunity for young skilled workers like him, and he was looking for a company that would grow with the rapidly changing technologies. "I don't think the owners really understand how the new electronics revolution is going to change everything. Do you know what a transistor is?" He used the English word, and I cautiously allowed that I did. "Well, pretty soon, we will be able to put dozens of them into a space the size of a matchbook. Imagine a television the size of that radio over there." He pointed to our big tube set. "In five or ten years, we'll be making everything the jaguars could make, and more. And I want to work for a company that realizes it."
Jena and I were both entertained by the small fox. On our best behavior, we soon had him settled comfortably with us in his small (same size as our own) living room after dinner. We had a pleasant, inconsequential, lightweight conversation, which was such a relief after the charged debates and interrogation we had experienced lately. We talked for several hours, exchanging a promise to reciprocate our meal, once we had time to shop.
The next day a Corps messenger delivered us to the University Dean's anteroom and then left. His secretary watched Jena suspiciously. After sitting on a bench along the wall for ten minutes, the intercom buzzed and she let us into the inner office. The Dean stood and offered a seat, while his secretary left the room, closing the door behind her. He was a handsome, mature fox of impressive bearing. He tried to project that confidence for a few seconds, decided it wasn't going to overawe the two of us all by itself, then got down to business.
"I have received the enrollment request from the Corps, and I will of course, comply. You will both attend the classes that newly arrived alien students receive, and may choose to enroll in additional classes if time permits. I am informed that you will live off-campus: Most unusual, but since you are both adults, it is perhaps for the best. You will find that almost all of your classmates are considerably younger than yourselves. The university has been instructed to say nothing of your unusual origin, and I'm sure you have similar instructions. Marie, I have been told to describe you as the daughter of Diyim'yi explorers, raised abroad. Unless you have anything to add to this, may I say, 'Welcome to the University.'"
This was more in the nature of a speech than a conversation. I noticed that whenever he spoke directly to Jena, he used shorter words and unconsciously raised his voice. I guess he thought she was deaf, too. He gave us some instruction on campus behavior; attendance and similar things that were contained in the student handout the Corps had given us. He didn't actually pat my arm, but he looked like he might have done so if encouraged. Finally he ran out of steam.
"And now I'm sure you are eager to meet your professors and begin your education. Gwenne," He called to his secretary. "Please take Jena here to Professor Harpsse's classroom and introduce her. Marie, would you mind waiting with me a moment until one of the proctors gets here?" The Dean waited until his secretary closed the door behind her, leaving the two of us alone together. He began, "Have you known the lioness very long?" I allowed having met her once before the flight from Earth.
"The M'raeenn tend to make difficult students. It is not unusual for their temper to get out of control, sometimes with tragic results. I hope you will contact me at once if she causes any problems in your home, or if you feel you need assistance." He looked unctuous enough to want to smack him.
"I'm sure everything will be fine. I've lived with a cat before." He raised his eyebrows skeptically, but it was true enough. It took me years as a child to get over losing Snowflake. I didn't elaborate further. "I should warn you that she already has earned an advanced degree and might find the pace a bit slow."
"I'm aware of the quality of the M'raeenn educational system. It hardly compares to our own." Pompous ass! So the Corps hadn't told him the whole truth. Sometimes silence is the best response. About that time the proctor arrived and then escorted me my own classroom.
I spent two miserable years in college when I was a young girl, until I dropped out to find work. I expected nothing good out of returning twenty years later for remedial courses. I wondered how Jena, with her graduate degree in fine arts, felt about the situation. We were assigned to different study groups, so it had to wait until that evening for us to compare notes. We talked as we shopped at the market for groceries. The lioness spoke first.
"It's not too bad, for a few weeks. I need the class because my ability to speak the language is still marginal, and I can't read it at all. They placed me into the youngest group: I'm in a study group with six very young canids, wolves and coyotes, plus one mink or weasel, I don't know which. In addition there're two cute M'raeenn males who look like they've barely started growing their mane. All of them are learning faster than me!"
"I know what you mean. If Chessec hadn't imprinted me telepathically, I could never catch up with my group. We're a smaller class, three coyotes and a serval. I think all of them (maybe me too) are older students recycled for one reason or another. The instructor seems to think we might be discipline problems."
"Mine too, but only because he's afraid one of us cats might eat him. I'm so much larger than him. I think he kept his desk between himself, the boys and I just in case." She licked her chops, exposing a mouth easily capable of devouring a small fox in about three bites. "Just out of curiosity, what's a serval?"
"Sheerrwl looks like a thin, round-eared cat, shorter than I am. She's some kind of academic scholarship winner, a math genius. Her people were just about advanced enough to invent the electric light bulb when the Diyim'yi arrived, and they're catching up fast. Fortunately she's having less culture shock than most. She's just bored (although how you tell with a cat, I'm not sure.) The rest of my classmates are away from home for the first time, that's most of their problem. I think they'd do all right if they just had someone sympathetic to talk with." Jena looked askance at the parenthetical comment, but chuffed a laugh.
"Which you do well, Marie. Maybe you ought to get a job as a guidance counselor."
"Maybe I should. The Diyim'yi don't seem to do things that way. Sink or swim, that's their technique. Seems like a waste. Oh, we'd better hurry home. I told Ulmer to be ready to eat in an hour."
I bargained with the grocer while Jena carried our basket. We were already discovering the common fox's prejudice against big cats resulted in higher prices if she tried to buy anything by herself. As it was, our budget was too strained to feed her larger frame at those prices; I took over the shopping duties, while she cooked. Given her predilection for southwestern seasoning, that allowed me to make sure nothing too spicy made it into my food.
Ulmer soon stuck his head into the apartment through the partially opened door, sniffing the air and licking his chops. We were both beginning to enjoy the company of the little fox, who was cheerful and unassuming, helpful whenever we had questions about the strange surroundings in which we now found ourselves, and had accepted our cover story without too many questions. Today, he seemed especially happy.
"You look like a cat who's in the cream," Jena observed wryly. He looked puzzled, but still bounced.
"Diyim'yi don't keep pets, certainly not cats," I reminded her. "He doesn't understand what you meant by that phrase. She said, what's new?"
"I had an interview today for a technician's job at the Computational Devices laboratory. I think they'll hire me. They are forming a new division to reverse engineer human technology. It's a small job now, but I'm sure that in a few month's time, they'll be shipping all kinds of things from Earth." He had the look I have often seen on men while shopping at an electronics sale or in one of those stereo factory outlet places.
"I'm sure it will," I murmured.
"I was out of the city when the human was here last year, but I've seen the pictures. Did you watch the film presentation by the human representative?" I glanced up at Jena. She was holding her mouth shut and gesturing, shaking a finger at me.
"Oh, I saw it, but I didn't pay much attention. The humans are more my husband's area of interest." He seemed a little disappointed I did not appear as enthusiastic as he was, but I had successfully changed the subject. I was mindful of both the Corp's official directive of silence, and Amkro's private advice. Jena had been thinking while I stalled, and came up with a clever distraction:
"I'm sure supper is ready. Why don't we eat?"
So I find myself back in school. Considering the way my previous academic career was blighted by an accident and the subsequent reconstructive surgery and rehabilitation, I can't say that this time around isn't an improvement over the first try. The assertiveness boost from mentally merging with H'raawl-Hrkh's M'raeenn super extroverted personality coupled with a strong new, body have about eliminated most traces of the shy little introvert I used to be. I'm cast in a slightly different role now: I'm simultaneously the dumb jock, the class bully, and the class 'teaser'. Depending, of course, on from whose perspective I'm viewed.
Professor Harpsse sees me as a discipline problem, and probably thinks I'm stupid as well. He gets a condescending tone whenever I miss a question, and has an inevitable little supercilious quip for the rest of the class. It's a good thing nobody on this planet is a Pink Floyd fan, because I've been humming certain selected lyrics from "The Wall" under my breath. Still, I can put up with him. It's not like any of my grades mean anything once I've mastered the local lingo and get beyond my "Vo ist der bahnhof?" level of proficiency.
The four coyotes are the undistinguished middle of our group. They've bought into the foxes' world-view and want nothing so much as to be accepted as part of Diyim'yi society. They all expect to return to their home world to good government jobs. They take test scores seriously. The only thing that distinguishes their behavior from the foxes is a slightly stronger pack instinct. And that leaves them much too easily influenced by Krauf, our resident alpha wolf.
The wolves, a male and a much younger female, exhibit what is almost a parody of 'natural' wolf-like behavior. The girl is too small and too young to be other than cute, but Krauf is a handful. He constantly seeks to establish his 'Alpha-ness' by whatever means possible. He has the professor, all the foxes and both young lions bluffed, and he was very put out by my arrival. I think we are the same age, and he is a large, powerful specimen. By wolf standards, of course. He's about a foot shorter and half my mass, and he really doesn't want to get me mad as much as he thinks he does. Still, the challenge is coming, because he's not emotionally wired to back down unless I put him in his place. I'm ignoring him for now, but once I learn what the legal ramifications of smacking him would be, he gets it.
Last but not least are the -Chorff twins. Still somewhere between puberty and full adulthood, the two lions are a severe distraction. My newly acquired M'raeenn hormones and those pieces of H'raawl-Hrkh's memories I still have tell me they are two physically perfect specimens of what a male of my new species ought to be. Worse, not only do they not know it yet themselves, but they seem to both see something in me that makes them trip over their own tongues. I feel like a terrible tease and somehow 'old' at age 27. Again, what are the ground rules here? Is there an interstellar equivalent of the Mann Act? Stop that train of thought right now, girl. You've only been a week without Mitzep, and you're trolling for little boys. Well, lunch hour is over, time to climb down off this tree limb and go back inside to class.
This campus is a wonderful setting, densely forested with low buildings spread throughout the trees. The ceilings tend to be low, but nobody minds if you walk on all fours, especially if they are trying to press themselves against the wall as you pass. Not that everyone does this, most of the college kids see me as a lion rather than 'just another damn cat,' but some of their elders aren't as discriminating. This afternoon's session is the history of the war years, and promises to be difficult. Professor Hapsse is very belligerent for someone who, I'm given to understand, never lifted a claw in anger against the jaguars. I've been calming myself all lunch hour, because I won't let him provoke me.
The Diyim'yi scholastic model bears a strong resemblance to the colleges of medieval Paris: Our professor is the only instructor whose classes we have to attend. We can sit in on any lecture by anyone else that will have us, and need not attend any at all. The only catch is that we have to pass an oral exam by our Professor Hapsse in order to pass. This is a mandatory session.
He's found a small lecture hall with a chalkboard, which is about as multi-media as he gets. The group of his assigned students is clustered front and center, and a few native fox visitors are higher up in the back. I 'accidentally' kick Krauf's leg out of my way so that I can extend mine into the aisle. The professor takes my arrival as a sign to begin.
"Now that everyone is finally here;" he nasally intones, "During the next period, I will discuss the beginnings of the Nurnkh invasion with particular emphasis on the political events that led to the formation of the Permanent Command Committee and development…" I'm actually interested in their history, or was until he started to leach the life out of the subject. Looking around the room, I see eyes glazing over, and mine quickly followed joined them.
It appears, minus about 85 unpronounceable names of dead heroes, random places and roughly sequential dates that about the time I was born, a jaguar spaceship discovered the foxes. They had just launched their own first unmanned satellite that year, and were eagerly looking forward to a manned (foxed?) flight of their own. They got them, but not in the way they expected. The jaguars quickly returned with an invasion fleet and were soon an occupying power. They apparently made great use of hostages and mass punishment, as well as ruthlessly suppressing any armed resistance. Once they were in place, they co-opted the industrial power the Diyim'yi had already developed for their own use. Gradually, as the resistance was driven further underground, they began to train and use foxes as technicians in their orbiting stations and eventually on their ships.
More than a decade passed, and while the cruel excesses of the occupying jaguar troops prevented actual friendship from developing between the two peoples, those few guerilla leaders became concerned that the mass of the population would become accustomed to the occupiers, and by the time a generation had grown up under their rule, too many influential foxes would owe their power to jaguar patronage. The guerillas developed a five-year plan to defeat them, which involved infiltrating agents into the households of the occupying authority, into key positions in the space infrastructure, and lastly, by forming a crash research team to eliminate the enemy on a wholesale basis.
They apparently succeeded on all counts, but I did not hear the conclusion of the lecture. I had nodded off to sleep, and Krauf, sensing his opportunity, shoved my left elbow off the armrest of my chair, causing my head, which my arm was supporting, to jerk back, unbalancing me and spilling me into the aisle. I got up in time to see the wolf laughing silently. Without thinking, I uncorked a right hook that I just barely retracted the claws of in time to avoid separating the wolf's head from his body. His head rocked, and he tensed himself to leap out of his chair at me. I lashed my tail and glared.
"Jena-Hrkh!" The professor's sharp bark caught my attention. I had narrowed my eyes onto the wolf and momentarily forgotten we had an audience. "If you cannot control yourself like a civilized being, I will have you expelled!" He had puffed himself up behind the lectern. "Report to the Dean's Office at once, and explain yourself to him."
As I left the room, all eyes were on me. I could see the Professor speaking on the house phone to someone. I wondered if the police would meet me when I arrived. Instead, the Dean's secretary pointed me to a small room just down the hall, which contained a seat and a small table.
"The Dean is busy, he will see you when he is available. Your roommate, Mrs. Corbett, as well as the M'raeenn consulate have both been notified. She shut the door and left me alone. I wondered how badly I'd screwed up. Marie opened the door next, about thirty minutes later. She closed the door behind herself.
"Bad girl!" She winked. "The Dean will be here in a second. Keep your head down, don't argue with anything he says, and just roll with this one." She tilted her ears back to listen at the door for a second. "I think he's going to try to scare you with the severity of your actions, but they aren't actually charging you with any real offense. He's bringing in some politico from 'your' people to reinforce the message. It'll probably be some junior flunky from the embassy. Keep cool." "But…!" She shushed me as the door handle turned. The secretary, Gwenne, led us both back to the Dean's office. Inside with the fox was standing next to an adult female lion somewhat older than myself. She stared at me without speaking while the Dean gave me a lecture on 'appropriate behavior.' When he had finished, he asked her if she wished to add anything.
"You are the sister of Commander H'raawl-Hrkh of Clan Hrkh?" Speaking in the lion's native tongue, she seemed to challenge me to meet her eyes. She was not condemning so much as taking my measure. I agreed, speaking her language haltingly. "We were told you would be here. The ambassador and my sisters would see you. Come tomorrow at midday. Alone." She looked meaningfully at Marie and left abruptly. The Dean was discomfited about her sudden departure. He hurriedly announced that I was suspended for one day, that I would apologize to my Professor when I returned, and that he did not want to see me in his office again. As Marie and I walked back to the apartment, I told her what the cat had said.
"Be careful. You know more about the lions than I do, and I'm sure it's not much." "H'raawl-Hrkh told me some, but not enough. I'll just have to take it by ear." We walked in silence while I wracked my brains for any shared memories of her people. I kept confusing what I thought I remembered with the many National Geographic Specials I'd seen as a kid. We finally arrived home I threw myself on the rug. Marie put on some soothing music and started supper. Soon I fell asleep.
I awoke to the wonderful feeling of someone massaging behind my ears and the back of my neck.
"Oh, thank you, Marie! That feels wonderful." I sprawled limp, the tension just oozing out of me.
"Don't thank me, thank rabbit ears there. It was all his idea." I rose up on one arm and turned my head. Ulmer grinned at me from where he was kneeling beside my shoulder.
"It's a lie. Marie said, 'Jena's had a bad day and is really tense,' so I just did what I'd like a friend to do if I felt like that." I surprised him by licking the tip of his nose, causing him to lose his balance and fall across my back. While we disentangled, Marie sat a tray with three bowls on the floor beside us and settled onto a cushion.
"Well, thank both of you, then. What's for supper?"
"Stew again. What else?"
A loud trilling of birdsong woke me. Now, the first rule in the M'raeenn Embassy compound has always been no loud noises before ten A.M. It is punishable by suitably drastic measures and is a good rule. I am convinced it's one of the best rules I ever made. As I gaze across the courtyard, I can just see the source of my displeasure. A jenny wren is building a nest in the tile eaves of the clock tower, where the wrought iron hands read 9:55. Brushing my mane out of my eyes, I cough a warning.
"Don't think I will forgive because it is a first offense. You will be punished." She trills on unconcerned, safe in the eaves: even the smallest of my daughters would break the tile if she ventured out upon that roof, and I might find my much larger self fallen clean through the roof to the floor below. And I will not bring in a fox gardener to deal with her. Maybe she realizes she is safe challenging me. The smallest of the foes that will one day bring me down. I growl, disgusted to having such a disagreeable thought so early in the morning. I rise up slightly and survey my surroundings, looking for a more pleasing subject.
Our embassy compound was built on the same pattern as my palace back on the home world, though with indoor plumbing and electricity. Blank, whitewashed walls face the outside world. The central courtyard with its fountain is surrounded by rooms opening directly onto porches or balconies, which lead in turn to closed rooms along the exterior walls. Screens shade and subdivide as needed. With the cooler night my Maahr and I moved out here on the second floor balcony, separated from the rest of her sisters and the other close family by one of those screens. My growl has awoken her, and I greedily watch her stretch and stand. She recognizes my expression.
"No more time for that, Prince Grauwl-Chorff. We have ambassadorial business this morning, plus a trade agreement, and besides, no less than all three of those youngsters who work in the cipher vault will require your personal attention tonight. You have obligations, unless you wish to delegate those duties to the First Secretary."
"I'm not that old yet! All three of them? They were all together like that last time, too. Can't you separate them, put one in a room with a girl on a different cycle?"
"It's that tiny closet they work in. The first one in season sets the other two off. I split up their beds six months ago. Nothing else to do. Impregnate one so that you will just have two to deal with next season."
"No, it's just that you are old and lazy enough that you don't want to work up a sweat, but are still young enough to worry about your performance being compared to the junior males in your house. It's vanity, nothing more. The law says you must be first when the females come into heat, not that you have to keep at it until they are finished. Or even that their cubs have to be yours. You have given plenty of children to this clan, dozens; nobody is keeping score any longer. Four big males from me alone."
"Enough of this. Soon you'll start discussing lineage and the performance of each of the other males in this clan, and my morning will be ruined. I just think that a Clan Prince ought to be able to sleep with his princess if he feels like it, that's all."
"I make your schedule, why do you think we were together last night? Tonight I'm with your Third Secretary, who by the way is as poor an excuse for a male of our species as I have ever encountered. He'd better satisfy to my standards tonight, or you'll have one less male in this clan tomorrow. He's worse than Poppy, even. We all have our chores, and yours for tonight involve three sixteen year-old code clerks. There are worse duties."
"All right, I give up! Speaking of which, where is Poppy? Excuse me, I mean his Excellence Diyim'yi Special Resident Counselor for Native Administration Pakpot Handess. He is usually bothering me about this time of morning."
"Hah! The name is longer than he is. He'll be late, I think. The girls from the Economic Interests Section took custody of him. They've decided he's cute."
"I'll concede he is cute, in a round, overweight sort of way. I just don't see what you women see in him. I'm always finding him and some secretary sneaking out of a closet."
"He's cuddly, that's what. Plus, I have given instructions to the girls to make sure he is too tired to bother you. And as a bonus, he talks in his sleep. That's how we found out about the penalty clause in this mineral extraction agreement you're signing today. I'm not befuddled by my instincts like many around here. Never fear, I keep track of what's important."
And my princess does. As chief male of this clan, I admit I can be swayed more than most by an errant scent: whether a challenge by one of my subordinates, or a willing female seeking satisfaction. Maahr keeps me on the path of duty. No male would admit it, but I know she selected me for the job, and were she not overthrown herself, she would soon enough replace me the day I prove unworthy. Meanwhile, 'It's good to be the king.' One of the younger girls arrived soon pushing a cart with our breakfast.
"What else is on the agenda today?" I bit into a sausage wrapped in dough. Maahr waited until the attendant left the room.
"The girl Jena. The creature of the Diyim'yi that I saw yesterday. The almost-sister of H'raawl-Hrkh." Maahr's tail lashed as she said it.
"What do you think?"
"It is not right. She looks like one of us. But she smells strange, and she does not move correctly. I do not know what they have done, but she is not ours."
"What do they say?"
"Science." She said it without elaboration. She knows I need hear no more, for I lack even the basic understanding that our children are learning in the foxes' schools. I am not young enough to waste my time learning any more, let it wait for their generation's efforts. I will fight in my barbaric fashion to leave them sufficient room for decisions based on the new knowledge. "They say she is ours if we want, else they will keep her well apart should we desire it. It is your choice. I say take her for the present. Perhaps she'll be of some use. Do you want the meeting today?"
Poppy made a bleary-eyed appearance about twenty minutes before her arrival. The fox is my appointed advisor, serving at the pleasure of both his government and our own. He is supposed to be my expert on interplanetary trade, politics, and the like. I could not ask for a better choice: lazy and utterly incompetent, he is no threat. And the girls think he is cuddly, I sigh in disgust as I regard him.
"Good morning, your excellency. I've prepared a briefing about the unfortunate we are about to meet. Try to understand that it was not our intent to make her one of your people, as it was done only to save her life. The neural transfer…." I held up a hand to stop him.
"Just tell me it was magic. I believe you. While we are waiting, lets look at the second page of the treaty, I believe the clause on vanadium refining…." We went over the figures. My girls in the Economic Interests Section had done their homework before bedding him, and their own numbers were closer to the true picture than his mining concessionaire's inflated ones had been. We worked together until Maahr coughed to gain my attention.
"The girl's here." Jena walked around a screen and approached. I could tell she was nervous: her ears were straight out to the sides, and her lip was pulled back slightly, exposing a hint of teeth. She was beautiful though. Her sand-colored coat was a match for her sister's, but Maahr was right; it was obvious she just didn't move correctly. Her posture was too straight and she was unbalanced because of it. Her chin was held pointed out instead of the more normal slightly downward tilt. She seemed unable to control her tail, occasionally jerking it upward as it touched the floor. She did not move as a cripple, though. Just wrong. She stopped in front of me while Poppy made introductions. I let him ramble while I watched her closely. Finally, I interrupted.
"What my distinguished advisor meant to say was that I am Prince Grauwl, and I am the principle clan leader for all of our people on this planet. Our King has given me rule over all M'raeenn, even members of other clans, so long as they're in Diyim'yi space. As such, I know your sister H'raawl-Hrkh well. While she serves with the Corps, I treat her with the honor due one of my wives. She sent a message asking that you be introduced to me so that you might also meet our own kind. If you wish it, I can extend the protection of my clan over you."
"I … I'm not sure what-" She spoke haltingly, and I could watch her compose her words before she spoke them. "I don't know what that means." She shrugged helplessly.
"Everyone has to belong somewhere. I urge you to consider it. Come, sit and talk with me a while." Maahr at my signal led everyone else from the room, leaving Jena alone with me. She looked distressed, and I placed a paw on her shoulder, directing her to a cushion. She was shaking slightly.
"Shssssh." I soothed as one would a cub. "There, nothing will happen you do not want. Come, sit with me." I lay alongside her as she sat, ears still rolled back. I laughed. "What! You think I will attack you? Here, I'm as harmless as you could want." Smiling, I rolled over on one side. She looked nervously at my face, glancing quickly between my rear legs as I shifted, as if afraid what my short robe might reveal.
"I don't want you to … to touch me!" She hissed in dismay. I continued to make soothing sounds.
"Do not fear me. I will talk if you will listen. Lay down, though, you are too nervous." She eased down on the rug, belly against the floor. The posture looked most inviting, but I could see this strange one was still signaling fear. "Relax. A Prince's duty is not just procreation. And I take all my duties seriously."
It was late afternoon before Jena left. I sat thoughtfully while Maahr took her from my chamber and escorted her to the underground station. When she returned, Maahr said, "Don't forget about those code clerks."
"They can wait. You need to hear this. I had quite a conversation with Jena."
"You just want a new conquest. She said you spent the whole time staring at her."
"Oh, she is beautiful, just like her sister. But she has another thing in common with her sister as well: She understands it."
"What? What do you mean by 'it'?"
"Her sister is a starship pilot. But she is one of less than a dozen in our entire race, and that is only because of ten years of intensive schooling by the foxes. She only knows what they force-fed her. Jena is different. She's a product of an advanced culture, one she's lived in since birth. She may not realize it, but she probably knows things that the foxes have chosen, for good or evil, to omit from the education of our children. And she may realize if they try to hide something from her, something we might miss through ignorance. No matter what, we need to cultivate her friendship."
"Very well. You know that our sons are in her study group. I will ask them to invite her here often. You need to 'play nice,' too. I could tell that she is still scared of you. Don't force her."
"I am patient. After all, I do have the code clerks."
I was beginning to worry about Jena. She'd been gone most of the day with no word from either her or the lion's embassy. I was standing over the sink slicing an onion when the apartment door opened. I looked up, but it was only Ulmer, carrying a large envelope.
"Hi, Marie! I got the job, and they sent my first assignment home with me." He waved the envelope. "I'm going to make scale drawings from these photographs of alien artifacts. Would you like to see them?" Dave would have had a fit, hearing a security violation like that.
"Sure, Ulmer. Let me put this onion in the pot and wipe my hands first." He pulled out a folder and showed me a couple of sketches and pencil drawings. Of course, they were very familiar being faithful representations of items from my own home. He's been assigned to reproduce scale drawings of our stereo, TV set, Dave's old PC, and every other home electronic device we owned. He described what he had been told about each picture, and constantly expressed amazement at the miniaturization 'the humans' had achieved.
"Of course, as the new guy, I've probably not been shown any of the really important stuff, but wow!" He fairly bubbled. "At my last job, I spent a month doing nothing but toasters. Look at this." He tapped a photo of my kitchen. "Look at all the electronic devices in this kitchen. I don't know what half of them are. Five different little boxes with digital displays on them. You can't see it in this print, but all of them have identical numbers on them: 4:57, except this one that says 12:00. And I wonder what this machine is?"
Without thinking I replied, "a toaster." He looked at me funny and then laughed.
"Very funny! I'm boring you with this, aren't I?" He looked like I had punctured his balloon. Darn, I enjoyed the little fox, and didn't want to hurt his feelings. He started to put the pictures away.
"No, Ulmer, I'm not bored. I'm just not very technically inclined. I think you have a great eye for drawing, better than I ever will. This microwave looks just like an advertisement. But I was just distracted. I'm starting to get worried about Jena, that's all. It's getting late." He was mollified, but looked at me strangely again.
"Microwave. That's what they told me it was called, but I've never heard the word used to describe anything besides extremely high frequency radio waves. Where did you hear it?"
"My husband mentioned it. Something he saw with the Corps." He was satisfied, but now he had another interest.
"That's right. You did say you had lived off-planet. I imagine you've seen a lot of alien technology. We'll have to talk about this some evening." I took my opening to change the subject.
"Sure. That would be nice. Hey, Ulmer. Since supper will keep for a while, do you think we ought to try and find Jena? Something might have happened to her."
"She's fine, I'm sure. After all, who could possibly harm her? She'd break 'em in half! Give her time, I'm sure she'll call if she gets delayed too much."
"Maybe not. We're kind of low on money this week. She probably doesn't have enough change for a phone call. Speaking of which, I need some part-time work. Have you heard about any openings? I've done clerical, been a shopkeeper, all kinds of that kind of things."
"That's tough. I don't know of any business that would hire someone to deal with customers or handle money that wasn't a member of the family. Think of the risks if someone just off the street did that kind of work. Are you sure none of your relatives have a business here in the capitol?"
"Then I don't know what to say. Maybe the university."
"Who would I have to talk to?"
"Probably the Dean."
Wonderful. At that point, Jena walked into the apartment, slamming the door behind her hard enough that I was afraid it would break. She threw herself down on the couch, covering her face with a paw and sighing.
"What's the matter, dear?" A moved swiftly over and sat beside her, stroking her arm.
"It's been a damned lousy day, that's what! On the train over there and back every seat was taken, and I had to hang on a strap. Whenever somebody got on or off, their elbow seemed to find my kidneys. That female lion that came to the school yesterday met me when I got there, but just stared right at me, like she thought I was going to fight her. And that male!" She stopped to take another breath. "He was nice enough, in a dirty-old-man sort-of way. He kept checking me out with his eyes." She snorted, then grinned. "Well, maybe not old. And he had quite a build, for a lion. Poor Mitzep! Talk about no physical comparison!"
"You met the Ambassador?!" Ulmer was awed. "I saw him on television. He must weigh four hundred pounds. And he's always got some pretty lioness on his arm." He backpedaled, realizing what he was saying. "Not that any of them are as beautiful as you."
"It's all right. I know what you meant. But he didn't want me for my body alone. No, he asked me all about where I grew up, and he wanted to find out what I know." I interrupted her, remembering Ulmer wasn't cleared for the truth about Jena's birthplace.
"Jena, you should see what Ulmer's been showing me. He's working on the project to study Earth now. Remember what I told you about the humans?" The last said as I let one claw catch a little as it groomed her shoulder. The lioness took the hint.
"Anyway. What's this I hear about you, Ulmer? You say they hired you. That's great!" The fennec showed her pictures until I had supper ready. Jean struggled lion-fully to be both interested and ignorant as he explained the sophisticated science needed to fit a turntable, tape deck, cd changer and tuner into our cheap stereo set. And speculated what the box under the TV was, and why it also only said 12:00. He left shortly after supper and I was alone with Jena. "That's cheered you up, hasn't it, girl. Gotta love that boy."
"Ulmer reminds me more and more of my little brother. We can't keep lying to him like this. It's dishonest and harder to avoid awkward questions every time. Let's ask the Corps."
"I guess so. Hey, I had a thought. You know our money situation?" She nodded. "If you went to work with his company that would provide an excuse to tell him, and it would bring in some income. You went to college and got to know some of stuff. It looks like my skills are pretty much worthless in this society. They don't have part-time minimum wage jobs, apparently." So much for my budding career as a convenience store clerk.
"You're probably right. I noticed there was only a bit of meat in that stew we ate. OK, I'll contact them tomorrow before class." She stretched out in one of those eye-popping extensions that only a cat can accomplish. "I'll tell you what, though."
"That big 'ol lion sure was a fine looking package, and he sure had a…" She leered. "I will always like Mitzep, but the prince is built a lot closer to my scale. Did you know the -Chorff twins are his sons?"
"So he's a handsome lecher, I understand. Did you find out anything else?"
"They know the real story about us, and he wants to find out more about Earth. Their world is basically a backward colony of the foxes. He is pretty determined to modernize with or without their support. Think of him as the Kemal Ataturk of the M'raeenn people."
"I don't know who that is, but I'll take your word for it. A have to say, though, I found something out today in class that is important. And while I find a lot to like about my adopted species, we are probably seeing a lot more of their blemishes than Dave and I were exposed to the first time we visited them."
"What do you mean, other than they seem pretty rude to us cats?"
"Well, I sat in on the class you were suspended from yesterday in order to take notes. And I found out how the war with the jaguars ended."
"The Diyim'yi designed and released a biological agent, a virus that affected the brains of every jaguar it infected. It didn't kill them, but it produced irreparable brain damage, rendering the entire population little more than dumb animals. When their civilization collapsed, most starved to death. The professor didn't know for certain, but he estimated less than five percent of the jaguars survived on the home planet, out of a population of two billion."
"That's not a lot."
"Well, they are apparently solitary animals in the wild, and don't have a very extensive range outside the tropics. Although he did say that they had already made most big grazing animals extinct, which made it even more difficult. In tomorrow's class he's going to show some slides of their ruined cities." I yawned. "Let's get some sleep. It's back to school tomorrow."
"Good night, Marie."
"Good night, Jena." I shut off the light.