I placed two entire chickens in the oven, one-half for me and the rest for Jena. Just a slight dash of seasoning: my palate preferred fairly bland fare. A small side dish of vegetables (for me only) on the top burner to simmer, and supper would be ready in an hour. I quietly wandered through the living room past where she was draped sleeping across the divan. Time to change out of my school uniform into a more comfortable outfit. I considered just going bare (not a bare as I use to be, of course): nobody minded in this society. If Ulmer dropped by his just-post-adolescent hormones would kick in at the sight of my naked, perfect (so everyone tells me) vixen's body. For the rest of the evening he wouldn't be able to do much more than drool. And I really do appreciate him as a conversationalist as does Jena, or so she claims.
I worked my tail into the hole in the back of my shorts and looked out into the living room at my snoring housemate. Lions must be the least cat-like of all felines: she resembled nothing so much as a 500-plus pound blue-tick hound, but with upright rather than floppy ears. I let her sleep as I pulled on the padded socks that I used for slippers. She was having a rough week, and any sleep she got was all to the good. The smell of baking chickens would wake her soon enough.
I wandered around the rest of the apartment, picking up clothes, textbooks, and various items left behind from last night's party. Our classmates and their few native Diyim'yi acquaintances were becoming a regular fixture in the house, but like all kids were not great at keeping track of their stuff. I was always returning a scarf, brush, or a stranger item (once, a tribal coming-of-age totem that I returned to a grateful, frantic ferret.) They were gradually thinking of our place as their clubhouse. I didn't mind, because I've always liked kids. It's just harder to know how to behave now that I'm one myself.
I frequently remind myself that my fiftieth birthday is not too many years in the future; certainly closer than my fortieth. It doesn't help that my present body is well short of twenty-five, and that my roommate is younger yet. Just when I'm comfortable as 'mom' to this bunch, they throw me a surprise.
Last night Barks Sharply, a tall, rangy, seventeen-year-old coyote, had propositioned me. I froze for a moment as it sunk in just what he wanted, then gave a convincing imitation of my apparent age as I flattened my ears in embarrassment and turned him down. I later reminded myself he's too young, and besides, I'm married. Not that I doubt that for a minute. Despite overactive glands overproducing hormones, I'm in control of myself. Besides, there are mechanical techniques…. I just hope this separation from Dave doesn't last any longer than we planned, because- well, because I've got a timetable. And once I'm committed to my plan I'm going to want to see my husband pretty darn quick. But it's too early to think about that. I'm going to be faithful right now, just because it's right. Woo! Derail that line of thought girl. Quit pulling your claws through your tail-fur like that, too. Concentrate on dinner. And maybe where our next rent check is coming from.
Things are a little better on that front. Ulmer's boss quietly agreed to hire Jena to work on the Alien Technology project as an advisor. It's only two days a week until her classes end, then full-time. Strangely, in spite of the impressive job title, she doesn't make any more money than a draftsman (draftsfox?). A gender-based glass ceiling, or species prejudice, no telling, but the effect seems to be the same. But it makes her feel useful, and it does take considerable amounts of fresh meat to keep her healthy. Plus, it takes her mind off her classes and the M'raeenn Ambassador.
Jena has a standing, weekly invitation to dinner with his extended family, and as she has put it, the food alone more than makes up for the conversation. His Excellence seems to be of two minds on her value. Somehow, he's found out she's from earth. In that respect, they are picking her brain in the same fashion as the foxes. He realizes what a gold mine a willing volunteer is, so he manages, barely, to keep his paws off her. His senior wife is some help in that regard. But through a strange calculus of her own she appears to be holding him back only temporarily. It's making Jena nervous, a condition to which felines seem especially prone.
I only have all this second-hand through Jena. The Corps' sent a messenger to remind me very pointedly that I am NOT to discuss Earth with anyone, especially foreigners. And adult M'raeenn in particular are off limits to me. But Jena badly needs a sympathetic ear, so I'm elected. I won't cut her loose from her last connection with earth.
Whatever excuse the Corps has for a counterintelligence service seems to be keeping a fairly close eye on us both. So I've been keeping myself occupied with school, shopping, and trying to find an acceptable job. The classes have been fun, better than I expected them to be, the shopping literally out of this world (After all, it doesn't take money to shop), and the job prospects-well, I'm stumped. Maybe I can badger them into some meaningless government job, because I'm apparently unemployable in the private sector without family connections. I'll look again tomorrow.
Pacing around the room again to clear the funk out of my brain, I hear a scratch at the door, cringing that it sounds loud enough to damage the finish and void our deposit. Jena stirred at the sound without waking, and I hurriedly opened it before our visitor scratched again. Turning the handle, I looked out to see Barks Sharply standing in the hallway.
"Marie, I'm glad you're home. You need to come out to our taxicab and help us get Sheerrwl out! She won't move." The young coyote is grimy and looks like he was in a fight. His body language says he didn't win it.
"What happened? Is she hurt?" She hadn't been to class today, but I assumed, as on previous occasions, her special placement math tutor had pulled her out of remedial language to hear some visiting lecturer. Barks Sharply had been gone too, but I assumed he was skipping. We hurried upstairs and outside to street level. The older, nineteen-year-old coyote, White Ear, was arguing with the cab driver, which was gesturing at the back seat of the cab. A small, spotted ball of fur occupied it. We pulled the sobbing serval to her feet and White Ear and I half-carried her back down to the apartment while Barks Sharply paid the driver. White Ear explained what had happened.
"Our dorm's RA got a phone call from the police saying they had Barks Sharply and Sheerrwl, and asking if they should send them back to the dorm or to their respective embassies. She wouldn't talk any more than she is right now, so they got me to talk to Barks Sharply." They younger coyote picked up the tale.
"After we left your party last night, I asked her if she wanted to go out to a club or something. We went to one near the campus until it closed, then she told me about a new place she had heard about in the warehouse district." His posture drooped submissively as he continued his story. "She wanted to dance, and, well, I'm not real good at it; so she danced a lot with other guys who were there. She was really having a good time." He took a deep breath. "When the band quit, it was real late. We started to leave, and some of the drunks kept grabbing at her as we went to the door. Some of them must not have been drunk enough, because a bunch of them attacked us before we made it to the subway shelter. I was hit over the head with a board during the fight. I woke up at the police station late next morning."
We made it into the apartment. I barked at Jena to wake up and make room on the couch for Sheerrwl. She settled her on the spot she had warmed and covered her with a blanket. White Ear took over the narration.
"Sheerrwl was sexually assaulted and later beaten unconscious, but not concussed as badly as Barks Sharply. She came to as their attackers fled the scene and was able to get a subway cop on the call box at the shelter. They were both taken to district headquarters and treated by a police doctor. They would have been released by noon, except for one detail."
"And that was?" Jena growled dangerously.
"The watch got lucky and identified a member of the gang that attacked them. They were quickly rounded up and both Barks Sharply and Sheerrwl identified them in a line-up. The only problem was the charges. When they were accused of both assault and rape, they insisted that she had consented, and the prosecutor pressured her for several hours to accept the single charge for a quick conviction, and avoid a nasty trial. After all, she had been seen enjoying their company several hours previous, and Barks Sharply had not actually seen anything." He paused briefly as Jena's rumble got noticeably louder. I stared at her meaningfully until she quieted. I gestured her over to Sheerrwl's side, and she began to groom the smaller cat's fur.
"By the time he was convinced she would in fact go to trial, it was evening again and they finally called us. She cracked up during the cab ride, and we came here instead, figuring she needs friends around her, and us guys can't exactly take her to our room." He finished his story, his own ears down almost as far as his young cousin's.
"You did good." I caught Barks Sharply's eye. "Both of you did what you could. Why don't you go next door and let Ulmer give you a ride home. We'll meet tomorrow before class starts. Please tell your dorm director what happened, and that Sheerrwl is with me." I firmly moved them toward the door and shut it, taking a deep breath of my own before I went back to face Sheerrwl. I don't get paid enough for this!
Marie ushered the two coyotes through our apartment door and shut it firmly behind them. Sitting on the floor in front of the couch, I leaned over Sheerrwl's back and began soothing her by running my claws repeatedly through her fur. He only reaction was to burrow her head more firmly into the crack between the cushions of the couch. Marie came returned and stood behind me, massaging my own shoulders.
"You're all tensed up. Careful, or she'll feel it too." As she dug into my muscles, I found she was right. But it made me so damned angry, what had been done to this girl lying in front of me. I was enraged as much by the assault as the bureaucratic reaction.
"I've a whole list of people I want to tear apart right now!" Marie kept rubbing, shifting to the small muscles that aim my ears. I rolled my head, unwillingly responding to the feeling with growing pleasure.
"I know you do. But we need to keep calm. Let's get her back together, then find out what we can do about it. There, why don't you relax right now. I'll go fill the tub, and you can carry her in when it's ready." I frowned at that.
"Uh, Marie…, she might not appreciate all that water. Some ca…of us…." I gestured with my free paw.
"We'll try it. Otherwise, you can try to give her a tongue bath." I thought about that one. I had unconsciously cleaned myself using that technique on more than one occasion, but had never considered doing it to someone else. Experimentally, I licked a broad swath with my tongue across her forearm, and that part of her head that was exposed. From the harsh bite of institutional soap, she must have been allowed to clean herself somewhat at the police station. It covered, more than removed, the other less savory smells of her attackers. I decided to let the tub do the initial cleaning.
"Water's ready." Marie called from the bathroom.
"Come on, dear." I grabbed Sheerrwl under the arms and forcibly removed her from the couch. She struggled and mewled in distress, but when I lifted her feet off the floor, she lowered them down and stood supporting her weight for the first time. She cried out something indistinguishable, maybe even in her native language, and walked unsteadily into the other room. I kept a paw on her shoulder, not giving her the chance to stop or back out. While I supported her, she gingerly lowered herself into the hot water. Marie pointed out a large pile she'd made containing all the towels we owned, and to her own robe which hung over the now-empty towel rack.
"When you two are done, come back out and we'll talk. Jena, I'm going to make some phone calls. Please stay with her." I agreed.
The cast-iron, oversize tub was one of the few decent features of our apartment. I could sit in it, something impossible in a normal Diyim'yi-size tub, while Marie could almost swim. Sheerrwl was both longer and lighter than her, and so she had room to lie back with her head out of the water and her toes on the opposite edge. The hot water made the guard hairs in her fur billow like a cloud around her thin flanks, and revealed the bruises that were hidden before. She now appeared calmer and was looking at me with her dark yellow eyes.
"Do you want me to help scrub you, or are you up to doing it yourself?" She picked up the bottle of shampoo, started to squirt some onto her hand, then reconsidered and gave me the bottle. While I worked shampoo into her fur, she finally spoke.
"Maybe they were right, and the best thing would be to forget it happened." She was talking more to herself than me. I interrupted, assuring her that she was doing the right thing. She continued, bitterly. "It was all my fault. I was just looking for thrills when we went over there. I practically dragged Barks Sharply into that dive. Look at him, how young he is, and he weighs barely a hundred pounds! I'm lucky I didn't get him killed. I'm smarter than he is, I should have known better."
"You can't think like that. Just going into a bad part of town is not an excuse. There are acceptable standards, no matter where or who you are. They were out of line, and should pay the penalty. If nothing else, think about the next young girl those thugs catch in a dark alley."
"But the magistrate said that it would be impossible to win a court case. Without witnesses, me and Barks Sharply both being aliens, plus there'd be a local jury: No chance of a fair trial. And if it becomes official, well-" She broke off and covered her eyes again. "My family would find out." She sobbed.
"They shouldn't…." I stopped. As I ran the shower hose along her back and rinsed the shampoo from her fur, I remembered an incident from my own family. My own sister was disowned for much less cause than this. Probably they would. Lots of families do, I guess, no matter what species. "You still have to face this, one way or another. They will find out, they always do. Sheerrwl, it is your own choice. I'm sorry." I pulled her arms away from her face and lifted her out of the tub, smothering any protests in the sea of towels. When she was no longer dripping, I released her and handed her the robe. "Come on. I'm sure Marie has some hot tea or something ready." Marie was indeed sitting in a chair with a cup of tea, but she had company.
"…And unfortunately, as far as formal legal recourse is concerned, the magistrate was entirely correct." Sitting across from her speaking was a small, very animated older Diyim'yi vixen, who Marie introduced as Imirip, Sheerrwl's residence hall housemother. I settled Sheerrwl on the couch against me for warmth, half in my lap. She was silent again, but at least she had her eyes open, watching and listening as we spoke.
"Imirip came as soon as the coyotes told her you were here. She's brought a car to carry you back to the dorm, if you wish. I've offered to let you stay here if you'd rather, and she's agreed." The rust-red vixen nodded, agreeing.
"Marie has told me what happened. The important thing, Sheerrwl, is that you're well. I know you've had a terrible experience, but let's try not to do anything the make it worse. Are you going to be all right here tonight?"
Marie added, "It's no problem to have you here, really. I'll walk with you to class tomorrow myself." Sheerrwl moved as if to get up, but I surreptitiously pinned her with one arm, stroking her again with the other until she subsided. She spoke, sounding more normal.
"It'll be fine. I'll stay here. Mistress Imirip, does my embassy have to be told?"
"Yes. But not right away. If you'd rather we waited until the legal action is completed, we can wait that long, since you weren't permanently injured. But they have to know eventually."
"I know that. I'll discuss it with you later, because it will affect my status at the university. I expect I'll be disenrolled."
"I understand. Maybe it won't be as bad as you think. There are other options. Marie and I were talking about them. I'll let her describe them tomorrow. Will you come see me when you make up your mind?"
"I guess, ma'am."
"Always call me Imirip, you know that."
"Yes, Imirip, ma'am."
"Paugh!" Marie escorted her to the door while I continued to stroke the serval. She leaned hard against me, and I listened to her purr for the first time since she'd arrived. I hugged the little cat.
"There, dear, see! It's not the end of the world. Even when absolute crap happens, you still have friends, even people in authority willing to support you. It's all going to get better from here!" She untangled herself from my arms and half-turned to look up at me.
"Why are Marie and You doing so much for me? We're just in class together."
"Marie and I think of ourselves as a minority of two. We understand how alone you must feel here on this planet. All the people in our classes who have made the effort to be friends deserve to be treated that way, and we certainly consider you a friend. Especially as far from your own home as you are."
"It's a good thing I'm away from home. You don't understand how my family would react. I'd never been outside my father's harem before, and if I'd not scored so high on the math tests, I would have never been allowed to leave until my wedding, or at least chaperoned. This assault, this. rape.. is unacceptable to him. Whomever I would have been promised to in marriage will never agree now."
"Well, that's one advantage of the distance of travel. Maybe I'll tell you my own story some day. But, like I say, it's not the end of the world. Why don't you go back into the bathroom and brush some of those tangles out, while I unfold this bed." She got up and walked normally back into the bathroom, looking better than she had since she arrived. I figured she would crash into depression again soon, but I wanted a moment with Marie.
"So what did we miss?"
"Imirip told me what I expected. Their formal legal system is limited, but she says there are several informal options. A crime like this is considered an offense against Sheerrwl's whole clan, if she had one here. Most would just settle it by an informal feud, or by blood-price payment. Or she could claim trial by challenge. Very medieval, and I'm beginning to like it, the more I hear about it."
"But that gang both outnumbers her and could outfight her! That's how she got assaulted in the first place."
"Imirip and I talked about that. As the 'weaker sex,' she could have an equal number of champions fight for her. Interestingly enough, the University is considered her parent/clan leader since she is an alien minor student. She might be able to persuade the Dean to find her some sufficiently tough champions."
"You've talked to him. He'll never do that for her."
"I think it's worth a try, and I'll see him myself. And I think I can find at least one champion, maybe more. From the police report, the gang consisted of five attackers. My little sweetie, just how big do you think the biggest was?"
"I don't know, buttercup. Why is that important?"
"He was five foot three, one hundred and five pounds. Pretty big, no?"
"No from where I'm standing." I paused as I grinned, happy for the first time tonight. "And you say there'd be five of them? I think I can find a champion or four for that little serval."
She grinned back at me. "I thought you'd see it that way. I wonder how you issue a challenge here?"
"Scream and leap?" I laughed, but she looked puzzled, missing the reference. I remembered Dave had said she didn't read much before. I continued seriously, "Now, if we can only convince her that not only does this satisfy her honor, but we need to put the right spin on whatever gets back to her family."
"That's the hard part. She won't ever forget what they did, but can we convince her that other people believe her honor has been restored?"
"Best case, a bold front and a good lie. Callously speaking, since we can't unmake this omelet, let's put the best topping on it that we can, and call it good enough."
"I agree. But I'm easy. The one we've got to convince is Sheerrwl."
I woke suddenly, my heart pounding with fear, claws extended, and the fur on my back erect. As my eyes snapped instantly open, I recognized the semidarkness of Jena's room. My breath exhaled in a harsh 'chuff' as my system realized it was experiencing the aftermath of another nightmare. This third one of the night had been different from the previous two: They were dreams of shadowy attackers, of struggling against restraint, of- never mind. The physical details were sordid and more embarrassing than obscene, by now. This last dream scared me more: Returning to my family's home shunned, locked up in disgrace. My only future a drudge job in a counting house, my identity disguised.
Jena, disturbed by my movement, stirred in her sleep. Her long tail flopped across my body as she rolled onto her back, a light gray line against my darker, spotted gray flank. A large paw the length of my entire forearm waved in the air above me. I considered waking her before she accidentally rolled the rest of the way on top of me and smiled at the thought of her profuse apologies if she did bury me beneath her. She was uncomfortable sharing a bed, but Marie insisted. I shook my head to clear both nightmares from my thoughts.
By picking apart the minute details of the events in my mind I saw how little lasting damage had been done: Some louts, taking advantage of my inexperience and their greater numbers had attacked me. No permanent damage, except what I allowed to remain in my head. No need to dwell on it, if I chose to forget it happened. I need never be reminded about it again, if I said that was what I wanted, my friends would agree. End of story.
Marie had offered a different therapy: revenge. Did I really want it, though? Even before the attack it had become clear I would never be going home again. Too much had changed while I was in school, and the primitive beliefs that passed for science at home had no place for me any longer where my studies were leading. Maybe I should just immerse myself in my classes, write that paper about symbolic logic Professor Hentek kept urging me to complete. I could stay right here in campus, safe….
There it was, that word: safe. Pull back my whiskers, never again stick them into potential trouble, keep to the safe path. Sure.
The doctor suggested rest, and I stayed in Jena's bed most of the day. Marie and Jena left class early, stopping at home to make a few phone calls before leaving to run separate errands. Marie returned in an hour with my dormitory housemother, Imirip. They forced more tea into me on top of the tremendous amounts I had already drunk, while they talked softly in the kitchenette. Soon after they settled in, Barks Sharply arrived with my homework. He stood in the doorway, unsure if he would be allowed in. Imirip and Marie looked up together.
"Come in! We were just starting. Jena will be back soon. Can I offer you any tea?"
Imirip began, in a louder voice that I could hear without cupping my ears. "The dean was more helpful than I expected, knowing him. He agrees that something has to be done, that an attack on a student of the university, a minor under our care, is unacceptable. He is willing to pursue public condemnation, to embarrass the families of Sheerrwl's assailants. He will not lend official university support to a challenge, but he will look the other way. I informally asked a few of my residents. Veletz and Merept, two of the larger, more athletic males, agreed to serve as your champions."
Jena slammed the door behind her, rattling the tea set to announce her return. She growled,
"His Excellency is playing head games again! I don't know what he plans to do. I explained Sheerrwl's problem to his wife, and she left me in the garden while she went and talked to him privately. Then, he ignores the whole subject during supper, while he rambled on about the weather and sports, of all things! Finally, he dragged Popsy, that little advisor of his, into the room and had me explain it again to him. Popsy blithered on for half an hour about how inappropriate it would be for the M'raeenn representative to interfere. His nibs just sat there and nodded sagely. Then, just when I was almost ready to leave in disgust, he asked me to tell him exactly when and where the challenge would be fought. He said it was important to know exactly where not to interfere. And then he winked. I don't even know if he really knows what a wink means, and I certainly don't know if he's going to help!" She played with her twitching tail in agitation. "So where does that leave us? Sheerrwl, I'm on your side, even if no one else shows up." She sat on the couch and started pointedly cleaning a piece of meat out of her huge teeth.
Marie told us her own experience:
"Well, that's three. I went to the Corps' Alien relations branch this morning, but without a formal complaint from your people's ambassador, they'll never intervene, either. So I stopped at a pay phone on the way back, and called up a sort-of relative of mine. I can't tell you who it is, but she had me contact her junior wives' husband here in the city. He agreed to meet me when I went out earlier. Somewhat similar story: Officially, they can't be involved, but he promised he would do some checking on that gang for us. Maybe he can help, maybe not."
Barks Sharply added, "I asked the guys from class. Me and my brother will help, of course."
"I know you want to, Barks, but you're just not well enough," Imirip said in her best housemother's tone. "You've already got a concussion, and you haven't healed yet."
"I have to agree with Imirip. Please don't take this wrong." As Marie held his paw in her own with concern, as he looked crushed. He had his tail tucked submissively, and I could tell that as much as he wanted to fight the challenge for my sake, he realized he was outclassed. She continued, "Your brother makes four, we need another."
The Awlroo interjected, "There is one more: Krauf stopped me in the hall. He said he'd help, too." That surprised me. The big W'parl stood a head taller than most adult Diyim'yi, but I'd always thought him too self-centered for something like this. I hadn't even thought to ask him. But maybe I should call this off before they got too far along. I looked around the table. All of them were animated, decisive, even alive. Even my young Awlroo, Barks Sharply had a happier expression at the thought of being able to do something. Should I take that away from them? Four bigger than average canids, one enormous feline: they would probably win handily.
So I kept my mouth shut.
And now they have all left. Imirip has been sitting across the room watching me closely for several minutes, looking for something, I'm not sure what. She waits quietly until I finally ask.
"How do you feel? About what is happening."
"I'm just not sure that this is what I wanted. Fighting those people will not undo what happened. I don't think it will help my situation, and I'm afraid my friends will be hurt."
"A normal attitude. Very mature. But consider this: They need to feel like they did what they could. Sometimes it's not help, just displacement. By doing something, especially something physical, they will gain some relief."
"But it still happened."
"As you say. So why not let them do that which will allow them to put an end to it, and to move on. It's for the best."
"They could be hurt, even killed. My honor, well my putative virginity wasn't worth that. It's not worth Marie or Jena's lives."
"Did you ever think that they might think you are worth that? All your friends do. Think about that, and what you are going to do when they get back. And one other thing: What about Barks Sharply? I told him not to go. He should be back at the dormitory by now. How do you think he feels? It's your own choice, but I think you ought to call him and let him know how you feel."
I considered her advice. The young Awlroo had tried to protect me from my own stupidity, and had been injured on my behalf. I owed him a call. But when I called the dorm, they said he was not there. I told Imirip.
"Oh, no. I'll bet he followed them."
"We've got to go get him!" I jumped up, but Imirip grabbed my arm tightly.
"No. Let me make a phone call. Someone else can go. You stay right here!" She pulled me back into my seat, then removed a folded piece of paper from her purse. Dialing with one hand and holding me with the other, Imirip waited impatiently for the other party to pick up.
"Yes. Marie said to call you."
" " I couldn't hear the other side of the call, she pressed the phone too tightly into her ear.
"I need you to find a young Awlroo, one wearing a head bandage."
"Yes, that one. I think he's going there alone."
"I'll wait here." Imirip hung up. "Marie said her relatives could help. I hope they find him.
So we waited. It was three hours later when Marie opened the door and walked in alone. She sat down heavily in her chair as Imirip poured her some tea. Finally she spoke:
"We finished it. One of the boys, Veletz, has some scratches and cuts, but they're all fine. I sent them straight home."
"How's Jena." I was worried about her absence more than anything else.
Marie opened her mouth, paused as she considered what to say, and then replied, "She is going to spend a few days at the M'raeenn delegation. It would be best, in case there are repercussions. I think she will be all right. She just needs some time."
"Do you want to tell what happened?" Imirip asked softly. Marie looked out away from us, and described the scene in a monotone voice, speaking steadily except for occasional sips of tea.
"We met in an empty warehouse. It was a mess, like I thought it would be. Those five young punks belonged to the dockside gang. When we got there, the whole gang was there to watch the show. They figured the challenge would be opening entertainment for the party afterwards. I wasn't entirely sure we would get out later. Their alpha offered me a seat ringside on a crate beside him, which I accepted. He gave me a drink, even. There was some argument from the crowd that non-Diyim'yi like Jena, the coyote and the wolf (sorry, I meant the Awlroo and W'parl-oops) shouldn't be allowed to fight, but I guess they still felt pretty confident. I noticed two of them had cargo hooks on their belts, but decided not to press it."
"There was some initial exchange of insults, jeers and obscenities. You don't need to hear them. Nothing imaginative. They finally faced off in a rough line five facing five. Our line had Jena on one end, and Krauf on the other. The biggest Diyim'yi stood opposite Jena. I had told them it was important to wait until the other side made the first move, so both sides stood tensed facing each other. When there was a sudden commotion at the far end of the warehouse, and a shout from the door guards, Jena's opponent took advantage of the distraction to dive forward, swinging his cargo hook straight at her throat."
She stuck her tongue into her tea, wetting it. "The fight was over in less than a minute. Jena opened her jaws and bit downward through his outthrust arm, removing the hand holding the hook so cleanly that it continued across the room and rang on the concrete floor. Before he could register his shock, she hooked her claws into his body and pitched it over her shoulders like a side of meat. The others were grappling with the boys and never saw her coming. She broke each of their backs with one swipe of her left, and then eviscerated them with her right. One might live, if they managed to reinsert enough of his internal organs. But I doubt it."
"The mob was ready to kill us all at that point. I could see the gang leader making up his mind what to say, so I helped him decide." She reached into the pockets of the vest she had on. She laid a compact automatic pistol on the end table. "My mother said a girl should always carry something 'just in case,' but I think she meant cab fare. Anyway, a small pistol in one's groin focuses the mind wonderfully. I let him escort us outside, where His Excellency's security staff 'just happened' to be waiting, armed with claws, teeth, automatic weapons, and diplomatic immunity. He decided not to complain, under the circumstances, although I don't advise going down to the docks again." There was a knock at the door then, and Marie poked the pistol under a couch cushion before answering. Standing in the hall was a serious looking Diyim'yi male in a dark suit who looked familiar to me, although didn't know where I'd seen him. The Barks Sharply stood beside him, blood soaking through his head bandage. Two more males, clearly bodyguards, stood further up the hall.
"Thank you, Candroc." Marie said to the male. I gasped as I recognized the name of the senior member of the Exploration Corps Council. "Where did you find him?"
"He was trying to break past the gang members at the back entrance of the warehouse. We pulled him off one after the other got behind him. His head's not too badly cut-looks worse than it is."
"Is everything else OK?" He nodded. "The magistrate says that since he was not allowed to supervise the challenge, he must assume all parties agreed to the conditions, and must accept consequences for the outcome. He would be most upset if he discovered any firearms were involved, though." He looked pointedly at Marie.
"There shouldn't be any concern about that. After all, as a Diyim'yi native, any pistol I might buy would be registered, of course. And aren't representatives of alien races covered by different laws, administered through the Council?"
"Yes, of course. That might certainly cover all cases involved here." He looked mildly disgusted. "Maybe it's time remind the council again about certain of our alien relations." They stepped out into the hall to continue their conversation privately, and closed the door, leaving me facing the Awlroo.
"Barks, I…" I started to say more, but he interrupted.
"What? Are you going to tell me how stupid I was, too? I did what I had to do."
The small cat and coyote were hugging each other as I closed the door behind me and stepped out into the hall. I walked outside into the night air with Candroc, who I guess is technically my twin sister's adopted father, had his security trailing us at a discrete distance. We drifted along a nearby park's gravel paths and resumed our conversation.
"It's becoming more apparent to me that we can't keep hiding you under a rock. You have a knack for being where things are happening." Candroc sounded more amused than upset.
"Not being from around here, it's hard to fit in. Not that I wouldn't have done it differently if I'd known the customs."
"I wasn't implying any criticism. I like to think I would have helped her myself, too. But tonight's adventure is a symptom of something else. It concerns our ability to keep an eye on our foreign guests. We needed to have a support system already in place, and I think you've found a way we missed."
"I'm not a spy. I won't 'keep an eye on them' for you, if that's what you want."
"Not what I meant, not at all. We bring these youngsters here to learn, and we make them part of our society. Even if they go back home, they need, no, we need them to feel like they are a part of it. Not foreigners anymore. What I'm afraid what we are doing instead is alienating them, through acts like this by the ignorant as much as from the criminal. We can't afford it when we deal with these more primitive people, never mind what will happen when we start associating with your own humans. You are just too deadly for us to hate each other."
"Wait a minute!" This was the standard Diyim'yi response, 'Oh, we're afraid!' I'm getting tired of it.
"It's true. Look at the last few days. You and Jena organized a group of underage school children, involved the planetary ambassador of our most important neighbor…."
"It wasn't because of that. Jena's size…."
"Was irrelevant. You would have done it by yourself if you had to. Dave said you were the tough one, but I never believed him."
"Speaking of which…."
"I'll come to that. I have some news for you on that subject, too. But let me put a proposal to you first: I would like you to work for us with the newly arrived aliens. Maybe as a teacher."
"I don't think that would do any good. You have fine schools. It's the after-hours lessons they need. Maybe a housemother?"
"No. The college has plenty of those. And the Dean thinks Imirip does a fine job."
"I'm amazed he got that right. What about a counselor?"
"You want to practice law? How would that help?
"Ahhgh! Translation problem. It means an advisor to students. Course selections, career choices, even advice on personal issues, if they're any good. I would like that, I think."
"That could be the way to go. I'll see the Dean tomorrow."
"Now, tell me about my husband and Chessec." He looked around to make sure we were still alone, and that the guards couldn't overhear.
"We sent another ship to Earth, which returned last week. They're both fine, but there isn't any change to the political situation. Some of your planet's governments are very upset with each other right now, making it dangerous to land. Our pilot was able to meet with Dave on the ground once, but mainly they spoke by radio from orbit. He brought back a letter for you." He reached into his pocket.
"And were you planning to tell me about it before I called?
"Eventually. Not yet, though. Your husband didn't trust us very much, so part of it is in code. We don't trust him much more, so we spent a little time breaking that code. Without much luck, I might add."
"I don't know any codes. I probably won't be able to read it either, you know."
"We considered just not telling you at all. It was a close vote on the Council. Anyway, here it is." He handed me a letter in an envelope that had the gum carefully removed from the flap. The outside was simply addressed: 'Marie.' My hand shook a little as I reached inside and pulled out the letter. I felt a twinge of alien- ness, as the eight and a half by eleven paper felt huge, sized for much larger hands than mine. Trapped within the folds was a group picture of my husband, my sister-wife, and our dog, standing on the back deck of our home. My eyes teared, making it hard to focus on the typewritten letter.
We are all still well, as you can see. Since other eyes besides yours are sure to read this before you, I'll inform them up front that everything they need to know is in the written report that I gave the pilot. Ask them to let you read it. The rest of this letter is personal for you, not them."
I read his lengthy narration of local happenings, news of our relatives, the garden and other simple news that made me homesick. He closed with protestations of love, etcetera, and etcetera. Knowing his style, and the poor quality of his previous letters to me, I suspected Chessec proofread and edited the draft. I appreciated it: A girl needs to hear those things, and I knew he meant them, even if it hadn't occurred to him to write them.
Following the end of the letter and their signatures was a block of code. I read it with dismay, because he really hadn't made any provision for communicating by code. I looked at it in vain for a pattern.
IGPAY ATINL AYHET AYODE CAYIL LWAYO NLYWA YORKW AYONC EWAYI AMWAY ENDIN GSAYH RISCA YITHW AYAWA YROUP GAYOF WAYTU DENTS SAYAS APWAY RUSTT AYIMH AYUSE WAYOT HERWA YIFES WAYAN KBAYO FWAYO RTHNA YIGHL ANDSH AYACC OUNTW AYORF AYUND SFAYI FWAYE EDNAY ACCTW AYUMB ERNAY ISWAY PELED SAYUS INGWA YIALD AYHON EPAYO DECAY GJTAB WXAYE ANING LESSM AYPAD DINGP AYOLL OWFAY
I wonder if my husband seriously overestimates my cleverness. I deliberately folded the letter, looking back up at Candroc. He was waiting for me to finish, politely not watching me read.
"I don't know what it says. Are you going to send another ship?"
"I think so. Approval for the last mission passed the council by two votes. We're not comfortable dodging lasers with our shuttlecraft, but we still want to keep an eye on your world. And Dave and my daughter seem to be trying hard to continue the mission."
"Please tell me before it leaves. I'd like to write them back, and Jena may want to communicate with her parents."
"I'll do that, I promise." We came to a park bench, and he gestured me toward it. He unfocused his eyes momentarily, as if rehearsing a speech. He continued, "Chessec- sorry, I meant Marie. I was thinking of her, and that slipped out. Let's sit here for a minute, and let me see if I can put the rest of this to you the right way. I'm going to be long-winded, but I think some background is important."
"As I hope you've seen, Diyim'yi don't put up with a lot of government. Most functions your kind associate with governmental action are outgrowths of family and clan cooperation. Oh, I'm sure you know our modern civilization has spawned more that it's fair share of bureaucracy. But generally, when we have a problem that needs a group solution, we go to our family first. The war, and the subsequent exploration of space, are two of the first things we've done that were so big, so complex, as to require the resources of the whole planet, and the whole Diyim'yi people."
"We've kept the family system for these, with some modification. The heads of the various executive boards and councils are still prominent members of the larger regional clans, but since the average person may not even be related distantly to a member of one of those clans, we've always been careful to keep a close eye on the popular opinion through polls and surveys. Just to make sure that we don't alienate people we don't know, through some consequence of a policy we can't foresee. We may not let them vote, like in your own system, but we at least ask what they want."
"The area that the Council watches most carefully is the attitude of the ordinary person toward the various alien species among us. As you've experienced, the war has left a broad swath of xenophobia in the general population, especially toward felines. You've seen it, so I won't go on about it."
"We also dislike secrecy. Most secret projects are seen as attempts to thwart the desires of the population at large, which to a certain extent they are. So we try not to have many of them. And one of the chief duties of a council member is to be on the alert for any secret project that has gone too far. What all this roundabout explanation is leading to is that I want to tell you about a very critical, very secret project, one which I believe has gone seriously wrong."
"Why would you tell me this?"
"I want your help, of course. It ties in with what I'm asking you to do with other young aliens. I want you to counsel, as you put it, a small group of young felines. And I'm afraid you'll have to do it secretly, in addition to your regular job."
"Why the secrecy? Is it those two M'raeenn males from Jena's class? Have they gotten in trouble again? They're really good boys, just undisciplined…." Candroc held up a paw to stop me.
"They aren't the M'raeenn, at all. They're Nurnkh." I gasped in surprise, not expecting to hear him say the name of the supposedly extinct Jaguar race. "We have four, and will probably have more soon. I want you to figure out how to make them like us, while I try to keep someone else on the Council from killing them off completely."