Beyond That Which Divides

Book Three of the Wilderhom Chronicles

[>>>>>>>>>>O<<<<<<<<<<]

©2005-2006 Philip James Eggerding - All rights are reserved. All materials in this book, both written and graphic, are copyrighted by the author. Any reproduction of these materials in any format without the expressed, written consent of the author is prohibited. Any resemblance between the fictional characters and situations in this book and real-life persons or situations is coincidental.

[>>>>>>>>>>O<<<<<<<<<<]

 

Growing Pains



1. New Life

 

Jayson continued to pace. **I just didn't think it would be this soon.**

**She's a felocanid Phur, Jayson, not a human. Our gestation period is only six and a half months.**

Jayson stopped and looked at the sleeping Kemsa. **She wasn't all that fat. I thought she would be… well, bigger.**

Lenti gave a soft chuckle. **She's big enough. It's only one kit. Believe me, we get bigger if it's twins. And don't worry so. This was just the first twinge of labor. Nothing to worry about yet. If she was going to have the kit in the next few minutes, you can be sure Mika wouldn't have gone to bed. Relax.**

Jayson returned to his pacing. How could he relax? Kemsa - the felocanid Phur he'd come to know so intimately in these past few months, was about to give birth to her first kit! Relax? Relax? He barely noticed when Lenti rose from where she'd been sitting next to the bed. However, she made him notice her when she took his elbow - hard, and steered him toward the birthing room door and into the residence level hallway beyond. A balcony at the end of the hallway beckoned with the promise of a good view of the starry night sky.

**Time for a break, Jayson.**

He frowned, but quickly let out a breath and nodded. Lenti was right. Mother Nature had been doing this sort of thing since the beginning of time, so She must know what She was doing. To take his mind off of Kemsa's condition, he switched his attention to Lenti and her 'condition'. As she walked, the two long metaramic blades that hung off her belt made soft clicking sounds against the outer surface of her Enforcer Grade prosthetic legs. She'd opted to have her Enforcer Grade arms 'furred' to look real, but she'd left the legs their original glistening metallic ebony. When Jayson had first asked why, Lenti explained that a noticeable difference was often an advantage in confrontations where a 'show' of force was enough. After all, during Kemsa's pregnancy she'd been Kemsa's 'Blood Champion', and her other-worldly legs were a better badge of authority than any emblem worn on the chest.

Despite the fact that she was half machine, Lenti's movements as she walked were smooth and natural - sensual, in fact. She'd been a Bootsie prior to becoming Kemsa's defender, and since Bootsies were 'Companions-for-Hire', they possessed many physical and social skills - one of which was the ability to move elegantly. Then there was Lenti's telepathic gift - TEPPathy - her ability to use telepathy to enhance her own physical skills. It was how she controlled her mechanical limbs - limbs that could move with startling swiftness and power as well as grace and precision.

In fact, because they were telepathically controlled, she could move her arms even when they weren't attached to her body.

The first time Jayson had seen Lenti's sorrel-colored arm come finger-walking across the floor toward him, he'd nearly peed his pants. Lenti's yikking laughter had quickly gotten through his shock, and as payback, he'd grabbed the arm by its attaching bracket, tossed it in a trunk, and sat on the lid, grinning - at least until she'd pulled him bodily off the trunk with her remaining arm.

That she could 'horse-play' and kid around about her condition now was good to see. There were still times when the melancholy would take hold and she would withdraw from her linkmates, but those times didn't last long. Not like the first time. The first time it happened, she nearly succeeded in breaking the bridging link she had to the others. Her Bootsie training had always made it easier for her to hide her true feelings from her linkmates, and it wasn't until Kemsa could barely sense her that they'd become aware of the seriousness of the break. Despite the support she had from her linkmates and others, Lenti could still imagine herself as being 'ugly' and undesirable. Harlan Meeker, RayGen Pharmaceutical's owner and the manufacturer of Lenti's prosthetic arms and legs had warned that this could happen. He always encouraged Lenti on his checkup visits to Wilderhom, but it hadn't been enough.

Kemsa, Jayson, and Mika had finally conspired to bring her back. It was not a conspiracy born of selfishness or deceit. It was because they cared for her, and she seemed to have forgotten that.

It was the one time Jayson had 'made love' to another Phur besides Kemsa - and it had been a most unusual lovemaking since no sexual conjugation was involved. It was something Jayson had learned early on in his relationship with Kemsa. One did not need to have sex to demonstrate desire - and one did not have to be sexual in order to be sensual.

As they stepped out onto the balcony, he recalled the night he had helped her realize how truly beautiful she was. It was a night very much like this one - warm, dark, and velvety.

 

 

Jayson had almost given up when he finally found her. She was sitting alone on the top level balcony of the residence tower, her mind a dim and distant spark. How could they have let it get this far? True, there had been much to do right after Kemsa's ascendancy to the High Elder position in Clan Taq, but was that any excuse for being so blind to a link-mate's needs? No. They had simply taken their link with Lenti for granted - not knowing that it could wither over time if not nourished from both sides.

He walked out onto the balcony, but stopped almost immediately. The balustrade in front of Lenti had several chunks missing. She had detached one of her prosthetic arms and was using it like a club with her other arm. Another crash and another piece of railing broke away.

[Lenti! What are you doing?] telsed Jayson in alarm as he stepped forward.

Lenti's head jerked around and she glared at him, her dark eyes flashing. [What's it look like? I'm rearranging the balustrade!] She tossed the arm away from her and it skittered across the balcony floor to fetch up against a table. [I'm in no mood for company now.]

Jayson had expected melancholy from Lenti - even overt misery - but not the angry brooding he now saw. How could they have missed that? Were they that out of touch with her? He walked to where Lenti's detached arm lay, but didn't pick it up.

[Revolting, isn't it?] Lenti telsed, her mind-voice tinged with disgust.

Jayson closed his eyes for a moment then turned back to look at her. [Lenti, you are not revolting.]

She hissed. [I'm not? Look at me, Jayson! What is this?] She turned and brought her remaining fist down hard on the balustrade, smashing another chunk out of the railing. Her dark eyes shot back to his. [I'm a damned machine! A machine designed for one thing - to beat the life out of some other hapless being! No one can love a machine!]

Jayson winced, but did not back away. Instead, he forced himself to move toward her, all the time trying to probe past the darkness that seemed to be Lenti's only emotion now. Finally he stood beside her. Slowly he reached for her, but in the next instant, Lenti's arm shot out and had him by his tunic.

[Leave me ALONE!]

With what seemed like no effort at all, she flung him across the balcony. He crashed painfully into the other lounge chair and fell heavily to the floor. Lenti was now on her feet, her muzzle in a dangerous snarl.

[Go away or I'll hurt you, Jayson!]

Jayson got up and winced at the pain of a bruised shoulder. Then he stood straighter and turned to face a Lenti he no longer knew. It hurt just to look at her - but not because she was ugly. He would not think of her as ugly. Not now. Not ever.

[I'm sorry, Lenti. Sorry that it has come to this,] he telsed slowly. [But if you want me to go away, you will have to hurt me. You will have to hurt me badly enough so that I can't get up again. Otherwise I will keep coming back.] He kept eye contact, desperately hoping she could see the concern in his eyes that she could not seem to see anymore in his mind.

[Jayson, no,] Lenti telsed, a faint note of pleading now mixed with her anger. [Please?]

He began walking toward her again. He'd stated his intentions and he wouldn't abandon them - or her. This time, as he approached, it was Lenti who began backing away.

[I don't want to hurt you, Jayson. I just want to be left alone!] She backed into the wall next to the balcony doors and looked around as if seeking escape. Unable to go further, she raised her remaining paw in a clenched fist. It was trembling. [Jayson! I'm warning you!]

Jayson was now within reach of Lenti's poised fist - a fist that could easily crush his skull with a single blow, but he would not back down. He was almost face to face with her when she started to shake her head.

[No, Jayson, please stop! Why are you doing this?]

Her telsed words went straight to his heart. Her mind seemed blind to him, but couldn't she at least see on his face how he felt about her? Then he realized that for all the varied emotions which now played across her face, he couldn't sense a single one in his own mind. Any sense of her presence within him was gone. Jayson felt a tear run down his cheek. It might already be too late to bring her back.

But he had to try.

[Lenti, you are not a machine to me, or to any of us, yet you seem incapable or unwilling to see how we view you. Maybe our mind link truly is gone now, but at least let me try to show you how I feel.]

Once more he slowly reached for her - palm open, fingers slightly spread. Lenti eyed the hand and pressed harder into the wall. The angry predator was turning into the terrified prey right in front of him, and Jayson's hand slowed to a stop right in front of her muzzle. He saw tears forming in her mahogany brown eyes even as he felt his own wetting his cheeks. Her angry façade had fallen away completely, and her emotional fragility was all too obvious now. He was almost afraid she'd break if he touched her. He would allow her the opportunity to make first contact.

For the longest time they stood there frozen - the caring human and the desperate Phur. Finally, Jayson had to make a move - but not to touch her muzzle. Instead his hand dropped slowly down to the tiny control button clipped to the fur under Lenti's chin. It was the button she could tap with her chin when she wanted to detach both of her prosthetic arms at the same time for sleep and such. Her pain filled eyes stayed locked on his as Jayson tapped out the simple code.

Tap. Tap. Pause. Tap. Pause. Tap. Tap. Tap.

Lenti's remaining arm, fist still clenched, clattered to the floor, and she stood before him, clad only in her tunic. Jayson then dropped his hand a little further to where the front fastening strip on her tunic began. He parted it all the way down and with a sigh it fell - leaving a trembling and armless Lenti in nothing but her fur. Jayson moved in even closer and Lenti finally turned her eyes away from his. As she closed them, the tears began to flow freely.

**How can you look at me Jayson? How can you even stand to look at me?**

Jayson's heart leapt at the private thought from her. Their link was still intact! **Lenti! Dear, dear Lenti - looking at you is joy - not a burden. Please believe me.** His hand came up and touched her muzzle, and she flinched, but Jayson didn't pull away. Instead, he let his fingers run through the tear stained fur on her cheeks, stroking them ever so lightly - soft caresses to dispel the shame and self-loathing that now filled her. **Lovely lady, you are beautiful to me.**

Lenti's eyes slitted open, her look one of painful disbelief. **No.** She shook her head, and her thoughts trembled. **No. I'm ugly - only half a Phur. I'm… a… freak.**

Her pain was almost too much to bear.

**You are not a freak.** Jayson answered, as he laid his cheek against hers. **You are special.** He pulled her away from the wall and pressed her into his chest, his cheek still rubbing across hers. **You are so very special to us. Without you, Kemsa would have died, and the kit she now bears would only be a memory.** He licked the tears from her face as a real Phur would. **But even without that, your caring heart and stubborn courage would make you special.** He brushed his mouth across hers. **So much to admire. So much to love.**

Without warning, he lifted Lenti up into his arms and nuzzled her neck. **You smell wonderful, you know that?**

Turning to the front of the balcony, he took the few steps needed to bring them back to the lounge chair Lenti had occupied before. However, instead of letting her sit on it, he laid her on her side facing away from him. Then he knelt down, dropped his head to her mane, and closed his eyes. His nose pushed through her fragrant hair before ranging lightly across the back of her neck. All the time he breathed in her scent and transmitted to her the pleasure it brought him. Bringing his mouth up to her ear, he let his warm breath play lightly across the fine, cream colored fur inside. He felt her shiver slightly. Slowly, he let one hand sweep down the coarser fur along her spine, until it reached the base of her tail where he paused. Little by little, he felt her tail arch up and fluff to fullness. He smiled. She was beginning to respond. Sensually, he drew his fingers through the fine sorrel and black fur of her tail and thought he heard her sigh. He looked to her, and she was looking at him over her armless shoulder. Her look was one of astonishment and no little pleasure.

**Jayson, you… you truly do think I'm beautiful.**

**Yes, I do.** Jayson replied simply, as he ran his hand across her breast and down to her belly.

This time Lenti not only shivered, she moaned. However, Jayson's hand went no further, and when she looked at him questioningly, he could feel her mind probing his. It was a strong and quizzical probing. Why had he stopped his hand at her belly? Why hadn't he gone further? Didn't he want to…?

**Oh!** Lenti thought as her mind finally comprehended the circumstances, but was still unable to understand the why of it. **I sense that Kemsa put a block on a portion of your mind - the part you call your libido, I think.**

Jayson nodded as he nuzzled her neck once more. **Yes, Kemsa put on a block at my request.** He gave Lenti's belly fur another rub, but once more went no further. **I suppose it's 'old-fashioned' of me,** he continued, **but restricting my overt sexual activity to a single individual seems best. It avoids the muddy relational waters that are stirred up for us humans when we have multiple sex-partners. For me, at least, it seems that too much of 'a good thing' tends to cheapen the experience. It turns the loved one into just one more partner among many and eventually into a 'thing' whose sole purpose is one's own selfish pleasure. Not a good way to treat a loved one, is it, eh?**

**But if the block wasn't there?** came Lenti's suddenly hopeful thought.

Jayson smiled and tickled her navel. **Were that the case, I would be doing considerably more than I am now. Look into my mind, and you'll see that the desire is real. However, you'll also see why going farther is not a good thing for me.**

Jayson felt Lenti's mind searching his, and with the search, he felt the further strengthening of their link.

**Jayson? Could you fetch my arms back? They may not be real, but I do have some feeling in them and I want to…** She hesitated, some of her doubt coming back, but Jayson smiled and she continued. **I want to hold a very dear friend of mine and apologize to him for being a fool.**

Jayson retrieved her arms, clicked them back into their brackets on her shoulders, and she held them out to him. Without the slightest hesitation he came to her and felt himself enveloped in arms that could crush the life out of him, but were instead holding him as if he were a precious gem, a beloved heirloom, a delicate vase, or a newborn kit. Gentle and loving they were.

This was the loving Lenti Jayson had known from before, and he reveled in her rediscovered self-worth. Her happiness turned to demonstrative action and she soon was snuffling, licking, and nuzzling him. Finally, there came the sound Jayson had been hoping for all along.

Lenti began to purr.

It was the first time he'd heard that sound of contentment coming from her, and if he'd been able to, he'd have purred himself - it felt that good to have her back. Lenti's purr was deeper and richer than Kemsa's - a baritone rumble to Kemsa's quicker contralto thrum. It fascinated him to the point where he missed Lenti's next thought - not that it made any difference. He could have done nothing in any case.

It was as if her mind slithered past Kemsa's libido block - not that this affected Jayson in any way - but what it did to her was amazing. Jayson felt Lenti tap directly into is blocked desire, feed it into herself, and use her own newfound desire to create an erotic emotional feedback loop completely independent of Jayson but consisting of both their passionate desires.

Jayson might not be able to 'get off' in this situation, but she could!

And she did - with rapturous results. She clung to Jayson and convulsed for nearly a full minute before her passion was spent. When she could finally open her eyes again, Jayson made sure there was no reprimand in his eyes for her liberties - merely a contented joy that hopefully reflected some of her own. It did.

**They always said the biggest 'sex' organ in the body was the brain,** thought Jayson, amused. **I guess you just proved them right.**

She cocked her head and winked.

**I guess I did. By the way, I hope Kemsa has a nice surprise waiting for you when she removes that block. You're going to need it.**

Jayson kissed her full on the mouth before looking deeply into her lovely, laughing eyes.

**You know, Lenti? I think you're right.**

 

 

Jayson came out of his reverie as he and Lenti sat down together in the lounge chair on the balcony overlooking Kemsa's sleeping estate. That night three months ago could have turned out so differently. It was good that it hadn't. He turned to her. **Have I ever told you how beautiful you are?**

Lenti burbled a chuckle. **Only about a million times, which is only half the number of times you tell Kemsa the same thing.** She inhaled the warm night air, savoring the scents it bore as if it were a fine wine. Then she looked out over the rift valley that made up the Clan Taq territories. **I wish I could get Kivan to see the beauty. We really are quite compatible, he and I - both of us being Kemsa's Blood Champion at one time or another. He's got plenty of courage and there's a stubbornness to him to match even mine, but he still pines for Veena.**

**Maybe after Kemsa's kit is born he'll be more approachable?** suggested Jayson.

Lenti shook her head. **I don't know. Technically, it's his kit that's about to be born. He was its inadvertent sire. If anything, I think his protectiveness will increase. I just hope it doesn't morph into possessiveness. If it comes to that, we'll have to straighten him out. Then there's the time he needs to make his reparations to Clan Koan. He still needs to spend the better part of the coming year helping Cael develop his new Platinum/palladium mine in Koanhom.**

**Still, he's quite the hunk for a felocanid.**

Lenti sighed. **That he is. I can see why Veena fell for him.** She looked back out over the valley once more. **He'll never forget her, but that's not a bad thing. I don't want to replace her. I just wish he'd realize that one's heart can grow to hold more than one love.**

**Speaking of multiple loves, when is Harlan Meeker due back? I think he's stuck on you too - and it's not just because you're a very successful experiment for him!** Jayson had felt a twinge of cynicism come from Lenti about the biggest stockholder in the biggest pharmaceutical company in the universe.

**If he's so stuck on me, how come he's not here?** asked Lenti with a touch of a frown.

**Lenti!** thought Jayson with a hint of reprimand in his words. **Don't give me that argument. He's got a multi-trillion credit operation to look into every once in a while. He'll be back. He gives Griffith weekly, if not daily reports, and who was the human who gave you those fancy metaramic throwing blades anyway?** He tapped one of the blades hanging from her belt.

Lenti shot him a dark look.

**Aha! I was right!** continued Jayson. **You're stuck on him too, and you don't like it when he's gone.**

Lenti scowled a little bit longer, but then gave it up, closed her eyes, and let out a long sigh. **Alright. Harlan is a gentleman. As decent a human as I've ever met. Yes, I miss him.**

Jayson reached out and massaged Lenti's neck. He'd felt her tensing up. She let her head loll to one side as Jayson smoothed away the knotted muscle, and soon she was purring.

**I shouldn't have snapped at you,** she thought. **You're a good friend too.** She pulled him close and laid her head on his shoulder.

**I try,** he answered and dropped a little kiss onto her ear. **We need friends. The gods only know we have enough enemies.**

Lenti snuggled closer to him and seemed to ponder that thought before coming up with one of her own. **Jayson? What do you think of Tellman Long. Is he an enemy? Or a friend? He did ferret out the last two GenDat operatives on Wilderhom and we've seen none of their ilk in almost two seasons.**

Jayson shook his head. **He gives me the creeps. Maybe it's just holdover paranoia from my experience with Kohlaf, but I don't trust him. True, he found the two GenDat operatives, and Griffith says he's been pretty ruthless about ferreting out those humans at the Embassy who still have anti-Phur tendencies, but I've seen no accounting for the crimes they committed against the Phurs. The malcontents disappear, but there's no apologies, no restitution, nothing. It's like they got off scott-free except for deportation.**

**But at least there gone.**

Jayson nodded. **True enough, but has justice been served? For all we know, Tellman is merely finding them and then sending them away to a camp for Phur-haters where all they do is train for the day when they'll come back in force and trash the planet.** He felt Lenti shiver in his embrace.

**Anti-Phur recruitment? That's not a comforting thought,** commented Lenti.

**Then let's forget it for the moment,** replied Jayson, stroking her mane. **There are happier things to ponder.**

The two of them settled in to wait for Mother Nature to do what she'd done for eons.

Create new life.

 

[>>>>>>>>>>O<<<<<<<<<<]

 

One new colonist, coming up.

This was one thing the Trans-World bureaucracy couldn't stop - the right to migrate to the stars. After all, that's what gave their existence meaning. There was no point in having an inter-planetary transport system if no one was out there to transport things to. Griffith Tange, Liaison Officer from Trans-World to the Phurs of Wilderhom signed off on another request for Wilderhom colonial status. That made thirty two this month. Had the screening process he set up not been so strict, that number would have been greater by a thousand-fold.

It seemed many humans wanted to be part of a world where the wonders of telepathy abounded. Why, Phurs could conjure everything they needed out of thin air! They had unlimited supplies of energy! They had an army that could conquer the universe!

And those were the more sedate rumors.

Griffith grunted. Some people would believe anything regardless of how many times he tried to correct them. Still, it was part of his job as Liaison Officer to keep the rest of humanity posted on what was happening with the Phurs - now that the rest of humanity finally gave a shit. The initial announcement of Kemsa, Jayson, and Mika's ability to create Telepathic Portals had been met with widespread skepticism, but when Trans-World, the 'ultimate' authority on things inter-planetary, didn't dispute the report, people began to take notice. They also began to let their imaginations run away with them.

Many of the colonial applicants were from various religious sects - obviously wanting to get the Phurs on 'their' god's side. Some were from other colonies - again, wanting to get the Phurs on their side to help them in whatever dispute they had - be it with Old Earth, Trans-World, other colony worlds, or 'that crazy bunch of idiots on the other side of the river'.

Then there were the visa requests. Big Business wanted the Phurs. Big Entertainment wanted the Phurs. However, not many of the Phurs wanted them. Old animosities die hard. Still, Wilderhom couldn't stay isolated forever - even if it wanted to. Curiosity had this nasty way of turning into hostility if not satisfied to some degree. Griffith had set up a few contracts with some reputable organizations such as RayGen Pharmaceuticals so no one could complain about being completely shut out, but he'd be dammed if he was going to give free enterprise free rein.

Then there were the hate messages.

There had always been a trickle of those, but it had grown into a flood after the announcement. It seemed some humans didn't like the fact that Phurs could do things humans could not. It also seemed like they forgot that Jayson, a human, was an essential part of the process that created a Portal.

So much for détente.

And finally, there was the Wilderhom Clan Council. With all the new attention from the rest of humankind's universe, they seemed to have polarized even more over the issue of whether to allow humans on planet. The Anti-human faction cited all the hate messages as proof that humans either wanted nothing to do with them or worse - they wanted the Phurs destroyed. The pro-human group cited the increased interest some humans had in colonial status as proof that humans were finally starting to respect Phurs. The final result of the bickering was a bureaucracy that was even slower than it had been before.

Griffith leaned back in his chair and stretched. There was nothing more he could do tonight. It was late. It was time to quit, time to go home, time to get some sleep. With the way things were now, he couldn't do half of what needed to be done. That reminded him - he should have contacted Jayson earlier about Kemsa's condition. A new kit was about to be born into the midst of this chaos.

In fact, it should be due any time now.

 

[>>>>>>>>>>O<<<<<<<<<<]

 

**It's time!**

Jayson and Lenti awoke from their balcony doze instantly at Kemsa's mental call, and Lenti's superior mechanical legs were hard pressed to keep up with Jayson's biological ones as he raced down the hall. Mika dashed into the birthing room just ahead of them. She must have shot straight from her bed into the hall and then to Kemsa's room for she wasn’t wearing a thing except the fur she was born with.

I guess that's appropriate, was Jayson's first thought. This is a birthing.

His next thought as he dashed into the room after her was 'What the hell do I do now?'

**Just hold Kemsa,** replied Mika, reading his thoughts as she flung open a trunk next to the birthing bed and pulled out several towels and a blanket. Lenti grabbed the towels and turned to Kemsa.

**Assume the position, cousin,** she thought.

Kemsa grinned and turned to Jayson. **Just move in front of me and let me hold onto you.** She had stood up on the bed and then squatted down facing one side - the side Jayson was on. She grabbed him by the tunic when he didn't move and pulled him to her. Then she wrapped her arms around his neck. **Well? Go on! Hold me!**

Jayson awkwardly put his arms under hers and wrapped them around her chest. Kemsa rested her head on his shoulder and lowered her rear end until it was about 10 centimeters off the towels Lenti had arranged beneath her.

**You realize, of course,** thought Jayson, **that you look like your about to take a dump.**

Kemsa almost giggled. **We Phurs are just being efficient. Why not let gravity assist the birth… OH!**

Jayson felt Kemsa shudder, and he could see her belly writhe - at least the sides, which he could see over her shoulder.

**You all right?** he asked.

Kemsa snorted. **For someone about to shit a log, yes.**

Mika burbled a chuckle. **You're doing fine, Kemsa. You're leaking some birthing fluids, but that's normal.**

For the next few minutes Kemsa went through rhythmic contractions and occasional gasps, but Mika's reassuring thoughts removed any fear or doubt that this was anything but normal.

Finally Jayson felt Kemsa give a mighty shudder and then she sighed.

**She's here.**

**That was quick!** Jayson looked down Kemsa's back and past her tail to the small wriggling form that lay on the towels beneath her. His brain blurted out the first thought that came into it.

**It looks like a drowned, white rat!**

He felt the immediate surge if indignation from his link-mates and quickly amended his comment. **But it's the most beautiful drowned, white rat I've ever seen.**

Kemsa's hug and mental chuckle assured him that his faux pas hadn't been too offensive. Besides, how could anyone stay annoyed for long with the miracle that had just happened? Mika and Lenti quickly began wiping and licking the birth fluids from the newborn kit which began to squirm even more. Then it opened its tiny mouth in a mewling cry that brought tears to Kemsa's eyes - and everyone else's.

Kemsa had a fine, healthy baby daughter.

Mika gently moved the kit to one side and bit through the umbilical cord. Jayson laid Kemsa down on the bed on her side facing the others and took up a position kneeling behind her. They both looked to where Mika and Lenti ministered to the newborn. Soon, the kit's fine white fur fluffed out and she became a downy little puff-ball.

**My daughter. I want her.**

The small bundle of life was gently deposited next to Kemsa's left breast, and as she wrapped a protective arm around it, the kit stopped its mewling and began to suckle. Soon after that, it began to purr softly, and so did its mother. Then, for what seemed quite a long time the link-mates simply enjoyed the pleasure that emanated from both mother and daughter.

Suddenly, Jayson felt Kemsa shudder.

**Afterbirth is coming,** she thought.

Mika moved down toward Kemsa's rear and with one paw, she gently rubbed Kemsa's belly. **Ah yes,** she thought. **Here it comes. Where do you want it?**

**On the plate on the bed stand over there,** answered Kemsa. **I'll get to it later. I'm not that hungry right now, but this little darling certainly is.** She lovingly caressed the kit.

Jayson stared. **Uh…**

Lenti glanced to Jayson and comprehended his somewhat nauseated confusion.

**Yes Jayson, we Phurs eat the afterbirth. Most mammals do. It stimulates milk production and provides some needed hormones and antibodies. Don't worry. It’s a meal for one. You needn't join in.**

Jayson nodded. **Uh… Okay.**

Kemsa reached back where he sat behind her, pulled him close, and gave his nose a quick, affectionate lick. **You're still human for all that you act like a Phur sometimes.**

Jayson bit his lip, looked foolish for a moment, then shook his head and smiled. **I try, but you Phurs can still surprise me.** He reached out across Kemsa and let his hand hover over the kit. **May I?**

**Yes,** replied Kemsa. "And you too, Mika, Lenti. Get used to handling our little newcomer here. I expect you all to play the doting kit-sitters when I'm off being 'official' and such.**

Lenti dropped her jaw in a grin, Mika chortled, and Jayson smiled as he stroked the silky fur of the newborn.

**As a duly appointed 'changer of the diapers' I have one question,** Jayson asked. **Do Phurs even use diapers?**

The puzzled looks on his link-mates was answer enough.

**Frequent baths and a straw and sand kit room is how newborns are raised,** answered Kemsa. She gave Jayson a mental picture of a large playroom with a sand floor and straw bedding. **We Phurs toilet train quickly, but for the first six months, kits spend much of their time in a room-sized 'nest' area.

**Ah. A big, live-in 'litter box'.** Jayson gave Kemsa a mental picture of a litter box and she gave him a droll look.

**Yes. Something like that.**

They all turned their attention back to the kit, whose suckling had slowed as well as its other movements. Finally, it opened its mouth in a long yawn.

**I think the little one is ready for its first nap,** thought Mika.

Kemsa lifted the drowsy kit and Mika wrapped it in a downy blanket before moving it to the basket beside the birthing bed. Kemsa moved to the side of the bed and sat on the edge only a moment before standing up and stretching.

Jayson quickly held out a hand. **Are you sure you're ready for that?**

Kemsa looked around at him. **Ready for what?**

Jayson motioned to her but then dropped his hand and shook his head. **Don't mind me. I'm just a iggerant hooman. You know what you're doing.**

Kemsa dropped a paw on his shoulder and then drew it across his cheek. **Jayson. Giving birth doesn't make me an invalid. Yes it was strenuous, but I'm healthy, and besides, I needed to get up so Lenti can change the sheets. We Phurs might eat our own afterbirths, but even I draw the line at sleeping in my own blood and birthing fluids.**

Kemsa dropped her jaw in a grin and Jayson had to grin back. **Okay, I'll trust you know what you're doing, Kemsa. If you didn't, Mika would have been all over you by now.**

**Too true,** answered Mika. **But Kemsa came through it all like a champion.**

**How could I not?** replied Kemsa giving Mika a little bow. **You grilled me on it about a hundred times.**

Both Phurs grinned at each other, but then a small sound caused everyone to look to the doorway. There stood a Phur who quickly looked down. He started to turn away when Kemsa held out a paw.

[Kivan, don't go.] She kept her paw out and walked slowly toward the nervous looking felocanid. [I know you've been waiting, just like the rest of us. Please. Come in.] He didn't move even as Kemsa reached him, so she dropped her paw to his, took it, and gently pulled him inside. [Come. See your daughter.] She pulled him over to the basket and drew aside the blanket.

For a long time he simply stared at the sleeping kit, a look of awe mixed with fear playing across his muzzle. Finally, Kemsa took his paw and moved it down until it touched the tiny kit's head.

[So much of what you've loved in your life has been lost, Kivan. Your Clan. Your life there.]

[The one I loved,] telsed Kivan, softly, a pained look crossing his muzzle.

[Yes. Her too,] telsed Kemsa, in sympathy. [To love again might seem impossible to you, but it is possible. I know.] She laid her paw atop his as it lay against the warm fur of the sleeping kit.

He looked up. There was doubt in his eyes, but something else as well - a weariness that bespoke of being alone for far too long. [She has a name?] he telsed finally, his mind voice as quiet as a thought.

Kemsa nodded. [Yes. Your daughter has a name. It's Vanna.]

Kivan's eyes widened and then he looked to the white kit and back to its mother. [Kivan and Veena. Vanna?]

Kemsa nodded. [It is a good name. Veena was a friend to us both, and she is your daughter.] Kemsa ran her other paw along Kivan's cheek. [You might not have conceived her in love, but can you find it in your heart to love her now?]

The felocanid's eyes seemed to brighten with gratitude and hope. [How can I not?] He looked down at the new life that had entered his world. [How can I not?]

 

[>>>>>>>>>>O<<<<<<<<<<]

 

How could he keep track of everything?

Simple. He'd been at this sort of thing for a very long time.

Tellman Long clicked off on the Relnor-5 file. The malcontents he'd sent there were doing exactly what he'd expected them to do, as were the ones from the old GenDat group. He would need to contact them again, soon. He opened another file and looked at the message from his contact inside the RayGen Pharmaceuticals board of directors. She wouldn't be able to delay the development of the Anti-Retro Virus any longer. Soon there would be a treatment for any Phur who had been infected - something that could reverse the devastating damage the Retro Virus did to the nervous system. However, it no longer mattered if a cure was developed or not. The delay had served its purpose.

Tellman clicked off the message and brought up a very recent image of a pregnant Kemsa KelTaq, the High Elder of Clan Taq, and the clan's most powerful telepath. She'd been the only other victim of the Retro Virus besides the Phur that had been sent back to the GenDat labs, yet here she was, about to give birth to a kit. It would seem an impossibility since the Retro Virus had destroyed her nervous system's ability to communicate with itself almost six months ago, and something that wasn't used for such a long period of time eventually withered and died. Tellman looked into Kemsa's vibrant blue eyes and pondered the one thing he wasn't sure of yet.

 

How long it would take for Kemsa to realize that she had died almost two months ago.

 

 


2. Broken Vessel.

 

"I know I'm only an apprentice technician waiting for an opening at B.I.T. back on Old Earth, but my opinion still counts for something," complained Riena Lefenor. "All I want to know, Rick, is why you keep pressing it. Kemsa will just refuse again."

Seated across the lab table from her sat Rick Grotian, a senior technician with the BioTel research company on Wilderhom. He gave her a look of frustration before standing up. "It's my job, Riena. Our company has been looking into how Phurs 're-wire' themselves after a brain injury or stroke, and Kemsa is the ultimate example of a brain disorder. We need the data this new array can provide to us." He waved a hand at a gleaming set of instruments attached to a grey-metal torus. "I've rigged it up so that I'll be able to monitor telepathic activity as well as organic activity! We'll finally understand what's going on with Kemsa!"

Riena stood as well and came swiftly around the table to him. "Maybe Kemsa doesn't want to know what's going on! Have you ever considered that?" Her voice had risen to match Rick's volume. "You saw what the monitor data showed when she suddenly 'came back to life' that night in Taqhom. The follow-up EEG we did a week later showed the exact same thing! No organic brain activity! Zip! Nada! Nobody home! Flat-line!"

Riena shook her head and then scrubbed at her forehead before looking around the cluttered BioTel lab. There was still so much they didn't know about telepathy, but was that any excuse to hound Phurs for answers? She looked back to Rick who was still frowning. "We haven't told her about the last scan we did two months ago, but she suspects something and I think it terrifies her. Granted, her peripheral nervous system seems to be working, but I saw your face when the scan showed the fluid-filled vesicles where healthy brain tissue should have been, and I think she saw your face too. Rick! Half her brain is gone now! How do you tell someone who's looking right at you that they're technically brain-dead?"

"But don't you see?" replied Rick, stepping up to Riena and putting his hands on her shoulders. "She's not dead. Something akin to a mind is still controlling the body even if the organic brain no longer works. There has to be! I think Kemsa would want to know what that is - if for no other reason than to assure her that it's real - that she's real."

"But what if she isn't real?"

"Huh?" Rick stepped back from her. "What's that supposed to mean? She's a living, breathing Phur who even had a kit yesterday!"

"Rick! Listen to me!" pleaded Riena. "Now that Griffith has given us the word, we know that when a TOOB Rider does his thing, his senses get hooked up to another place and he feels as if he's in that place. With a body 'switch' all the senses are hooked up to another person and he feels as if he's wearing that other person's body. However, no matter what he's doing, all the information coming into him via VIC nodes is being controlled by his brain's router and then processed by his brain in his body. No matter where the Rider thinks he is, his own brain inside his own body has always been the final anchor point for telepathy!"

Riena paused in fear of what she had to say, but it couldn't be denied.

"Kemsa is alive because something telepathic is keeping her alive, yet she has no telepathic anchor point. Rick! What is it that's controlling her? How can it be her?"

Rick shook his head hard and waved a hand as he turned away. "Riena, don't go all philosophical on me! We can't be good philosophers without good science." He turned back to her with a hard look. "I'll grant you the ethics point of respecting a subject's right to refuse to participate in testing, but we can't let fear rule our scientific decisions." He stabbed a finger at the ceiling. "There are some scary things in this universe, but that's all the more reason to find out all you can about them."

Riena sat down heavily and cleared a space for her elbows at an equipment cluttered table before dropping her head into her hands. "I don't know, Rick. I just don't know," she mumbled, staring at nothing. "Sometimes, things are frightening for a reason." She turned eyes full of apprehension back toward her work partner. "Sometimes, there are things that can hurt us no matter how much we know about them."

 

[>>>>>>>>>>O<<<<<<<<<<]

 

Kemsa concentrated on the warm presence in her mind. She was sure it was Vanna. The kit was inside her just as Jayson, Mika, and Lenti were. Kemsa knew this was something beyond the normal Dahma/kit bonding that normally occurred because Kemsa's own dahma had described the feeling to her. What she seemed to have with Vanna now was a presence, not an instinct.

But how had it come to be?

All the link-mates had formed their links with each other via the process of switching bodies. That was obviously not the case with Vanna, yet the unmistakable feeling that the kit was in Kemsa's mind was there.

But why would you want to be, dearest? Kemsa thought as she looked down at her suckling first born. A kit needed the innocence that ignorance provided - not the cares and worries of her Dahma.

Kemsa sighed heavily. At least Vanna was healthy. The Retro Virus, like most viruses, hadn't crossed the placental barrier and affected her unborn. The healers that Harlan had brought when Lenti had her arms fitted had assured her of that. RayGen viruses tailored for gene replacement therapy where chosen and modified to do some extraordinary things, but even the altered Retro Virus couldn't be made to do something the 'Mammalian Animal' had defended against for millions of years. It was fortunate that when Kemsa had been in the Retro Virus' infectious stage the only other Phur around who was susceptible had been Lenti, and she had been serum immunized against it. Without another suitable host to infect, the Retro Virus had run its devastating, gene-replacement course in Kemsa's body and eventually succumbed to her immune system. It had gone no further than her. Kemsa didn't want to think of the horrors that would have followed had the virus been released in a community full of felocanids like Reynhom. As likely as not, it would have been the end of the felocanids as a species.

Why it had not been the end of Kemsa, was once again open to debate.

She knew she was dying that awful night when she'd first been infected. She'd been at the very edge of crossing over when Jayson, Mika, Lenti and something that could only have been Vanna called her back. She'd followed the 'umbilicus of light' that led her back to her body, and then she'd simply 'toobed' back into herself. At first, everyone had thought that she'd simply re-wired her brain using VIC connections to replace the non-functional synapses between brain cells, but the sheer magnitude of such an undertaking made that scenario clearly impossible. There were literally billions of brain cells and trillions of connections! The only logical explanation was that she'd taken the patterns her mind had created within the VIC node 'bridge' and re-impressed those patterns as a whole onto her nearly inert brain tissue much as a contact print could be made from an old-style picture negative. Being an analog process, it was much simpler and faster than the clearly more complicated digital process of one-by-one re-connection. At least it had felt like it had been a simple process.

Now she wasn't so sure.

At first, the BioTel humans had been quite interested in the phenomenon, but then she'd detected a subtle change in their attitude - as if they didn't like the results they were getting. They described 'unrecognizable data' as being the problem, but why then were their feelings of apprehension directed at her? Was something wrong with her? She'd asked, but answers had always been vague and related to the data only. Eventually she'd grown weary of their prevarications and come up with excuses not to participate any more - excuses that weren't all that far from the truth - like all the responsibilities she now had.

Kemsa felt her muzzle crinkling into a frown. With the impending birth of her kit, she'd been able to forget her responsibilities for a while, but now they were back - with a vengeance. Work, work, and ever more work! As she had done two seasons ago under a willow by a millpond, she began to wonder if all the work was worth it. Why was she doing it? Who was she doing it for? Vanna? She dropped her eyes down to where her kit had stopped suckling, and was yawning instead. Vanna was getting sleepy.

**As is proper for a well behaved kit after a meal,** came Mika's thought as the dark-masked procyonid walked into Vanna's 'nesting' room. She looked around. **This place needs more toys.**

Kemsa looked up, and tried to smile. **An oversight I'm sure you will correct when Vanna is big enough to play with them. Oh! Look at this.**

Kemsa nodded to Vanna who had wriggled around in Kemsa's arm's to face Mika. Her little paw was now stretched out toward the Procyonid and she gave a tiny mew. "I think Vanna knows you, Mika."

**Of course she does,** Mika thought, smiling brightly as she walked to mother and daughter. **I've been sending her loving thoughts all day.** Mika stretched a finger toward the kit and Vanna unerringly clasped it tight - which was remarkable since her eyes weren't yet open. **She's a darling,** thought Mika, and the little one began to purr.

Kemsa tried to hide her next thought but Mika was too fast for her. **Yes, Kemsa, like yourself, she will not be colored the same as other felocanids, but like you, she will be beautiful.**

Kemsa kept her eyes on the kit, wishing to believe Mika. **I can feel her, Mika. I can feel her in my mind. Can you?**

Mika came and sat beside her, putting an arm around her. **No. I don't feel her inside of me. I feel things coming from her, like her moods, just as I would from any Phur, but it's not like the presence I feel from you and the others.**

**I've felt it ever since the night I almost died,** thought Kemsa, quietly. **It's a connection as insubstantial as air yet as powerful as the winds of Harbinger's Gap. It's not frightening, but I don't know what it is.**

**Then give it time,** thought Mika, giving Kemsa and affectionate lick. **There are many new things to explore. This is simply another one.**

**But it's so unfair!** Kemsa replied, now feeling an anger which had been smoldering deep within her for quite a while. **Why me? Why must I be the one in charge of exploring new things? Why can't I be given the pleasant duty - the peaceful responsibility? Why can't I just be a Dahma and nothing more? The Wilderhom Clan Council has laid it upon us to explore telepathic Portals. What have we discovered other than it’s the most inexorable force in the universe?** Kemsa's anger morphed suddenly into fear. **What do they want us to do with it? Are they expecting us to use it to some end? Jayson and I have gotten so good at manipulating them, and they are beautiful to watch, but nothing can stand in their way! Nothing! Knowing what it can do, how can we, in good conscience, teach such a dangerous technique to anyone? What it's capable…**

At that moment, Vanna began to cry and Kemsa's eyes filled with tears as she realized how her emotions must feel to her kit. She quickly handed the kit to a startled Mika and got up. She was halfway to the door when she stopped and turned around. **It's too much, Mika. Sometimes, I feel like I'm falling apart - like I'm dissolving away. Take care of Vanna, will you? It seems I can't avoid affecting her with my moods. What sort of Dahma can't even…**

But she couldn't finish that thought and was out the door and down the hall, tears streaming down her muzzle, the weight of responsibility clinging to her like a leech.

And as always, the soft, warm presence was in her mind

As light as air…

As relentless as the wind…

As inexorable as fate.

 

[>>>>>>>>>>O<<<<<<<<<<]

 

Harlan Meeker stood perfectly still for yet another retinal ID scan. The light popped and added one more floating spot to Harlan's already spotty field of vision. Security had certainly tightened up here at the Newhom spaceport since his last visit to Wilderhom. He hoped he wouldn't get too much fuss from customs over the new 'items' he'd brought for Lenti. Of course, dismantled it was hard to tell what those items were, and the "RayGen Pharmaceuticals & Medical Supply" logo was all over the packaging. Well… they were medical supplies… sort of… if one really stretched their imagination. They could certainly affect someone else's health while preserving Lenti's.

When he could focus again, Harlan looked around and recognized a muzzled face beyond the barricade. Grinning, he waved and the Bootsie waved back. It was nice to see a friendly face for once. Things in the universe had gotten noticeably more tense in the last few months. Even his own board of directors had polarized and grown contentious. It had taken ever so long to get them onto the Anti Retro Virus project. They were always complaining about profitability. Why should they spend the time developing a cure for a single Phur? Harlan had needed to do some arm twisting along with using the 'possible human catastrophe' approach. If it could happen to Phurs, it could happen to people and RayGen needed experience in the area of emergency cure development.

Then there was the patient who needed the cure.

How had Kemsa lasted this long? The people at BioTel had kept him abreast of Kemsa's deteriorating brain condition, and there was no way a living being could function at a normal level with that much brain damage.

Except, she was functioning.

And not only was she functioning well, she and her link-mates were doing things with telepathy that had never been done before! He would need to check in with BioTel people to get their take on this, but he personally felt it had something to do with her link to other healthy telepaths. Was she somehow tapping into their brain functions to replace her own damaged ones? Well, what ever it was, the questions would have to wait. He needed to check in with Griffith first, and the Bootsie waving to him was his official escort to the Embassy. Harlan made it through the final checkpoint and immediately headed for her.

"Sona! So good to see you! Is that a new mane-style I see? And that mane comb sets it off so beautifully."

Sona dropped her jaw into a Phur grin as he reached her, and she gave him a quick hug before tapping on his telsing translator. [Earth to Harlan - come in. Now hear this, Sona already taken. Try your wiles on someone with more curves and less sense.]

"And here I had my heart set on you," replied Harlan, grinning back as he took Sona's elbow and steered her toward the baggage claim area. "Oh well, as you say, there are others who are more easily fooled by my good looks."

Harlan quickly claimed his things and they headed over to the Embassy vehicle storage area. Since Wilderhom had become a required stopover for dignitaries, the Embassy had found it necessary to make vehicles available for them at the spaceport. Griffith had told Harlan he thought it a silly idea since, by decree, newly arrived humans required a Phur escort. Why couldn't they just call for a vehicle from the Embassy to come pick them up? Most had to call the Embassy to find out how to arrange for the escort anyway. Harlan had explained that not everyone needed to contact the embassy first. There were humans who actually had good relations with the Phurs despite what the rumor mongers said. He picked the first vehicle in line and opened the door for Sona.

Because Sona was with him he didn't expect what happened next. He was rounding the front of the vehicle when a large rock glanced off his shoulder and pinged off the windscreen of the vehicle. Harlan was about to turn around to see where the projectile had come from when Sona howled a warning and urgently motioned him inside the vehicle. He quickly opened the operator's door and another rock sailed by followed by a raucous chorus of barks, screeches, and howls. He dived inside the vehicle, and slammed and locked the doors just as the first of the crowd of some ten angry Phurs arrived. Immediately, they began rocking the vehicle and Harlan looked frantically around the cabin area. He found what he was looking for and flipped the switch. Good! The Embassy personnel here weren't fools. These vehicles came equipped with 'creeper' mode.

In diplomatically sensitive areas where a mob might try hijacking or overturning a vehicle, a vehicle's ground effect generator, normally used to elevate the vehicle about 25 centimeters off the ground, could be reversed - effectively gluing the vehicle to the ground. The small parking wheels on which the vehicle sat when not in use could be unlocked and the vehicle could creep along the ground at a slow, but inexorable pace. Anyone trying to stop it by lying in front of it would either be pushed forward or up over the front of the vehicle since its front skirt was practically in contact with the ground. The trick was to go slow and avoid injury. No sense in stirring up an already incensed crowd by injuring some of them. Sona was already on the TelCom and Harlan knew help would be on the way soon.

It took a long time for the Phurs beating on the outside of the vehicle to realize they were accomplishing nothing, but more than likely, it was the arrival of Embassy security vehicles that sent them scurrying on their way. The three security vehicles surrounded Harlan's position and Sona assured them on the TelCom that they were fine. In a matter of moments Harlan and his now augmented escort were heading for the Embassy grounds.

As he drove, he glanced over at Sona and tapped his telsing translator. "I heard what they were telsing Sona." He returned his eyes to the road but kept talking. "They were after you, not me."

Sona dropped her façade of calm even as she dropped her head into her paws.

"Sona, how long has this been going on?"

She took several deep breaths before looking back at him. [It started last season. Worse now. I make no secret of my affiliations with Griffith and my stance on humans on Wilderhom.] She looked out the window for a moment and then back at him. [I am convenient target for them, and because of that, we discover new dissidents daily.]

"You attract the attention of these Phurs on purpose?"

Sona nodded. [At first I attract them, yes, but now I hardly do anything without some incident. I was not watchful enough today, otherwise I see them sooner. I am sorry you involved in this.]

"Don't be," Harlan said, gripping the controls harder. "I made my choice six month ago, and I've taken my share of flak too, but I've handled it so far." He felt his mouth twist into a satisfied grin. "It's hard to argue with success, and the partnership between RayGen and BioTel has been most successful since we have the patent for the telsing translator and the new telepathic interface for the Trans-World inter-colony communication system." He turned to Sona. "Actually, we haven't taken as much garbage for that as for the fact that we ear-marked twenty percent of the profits for Wilderhom. Griffith filled you in on that I suppose?"

Sona nodded and laid a paw gently on Harlan's shoulder. [It is appreciated addition to Wilderhom Clan Council's public works fund.] She hesitated, and then continued. [At least some appreciate it. Other's are too proud for their own good, and see it as bribe.]

"Yeah," snorted Harlan. "Some folks just don't appreciate a good bribe when they see one." He gave Sona a quick wink. "Don't quote me on that."

[I won't,] replied Sona, winking back. [That is, until I need favor from you.] She sat back in her seat once more and gazed out the window. [Actually, it is not bribe if it is earned, and Phurs at BioTel do much work there not only as test subjects but as co-inventors. Borlan and Shayna devised 3d modeling mechanism for short range Vic node detection that makes it easy for humans to 'see' what Phur router 'sees' for telsing. Borlan thinks it makes testing new models of telsing translator easier.]

Harlan was impressed. [Is that so? Hmmm. Have any Phurs at BioTel ever expressed an interest in getting further education elsewhere? Like back on Old Earth?]

Sona shrugged. [Shayna thought about it, but recent tensions put all thoughts of travel off-planet on hold.]

"Too bad," commented Harlan. "I'd be willing to set up a scholarship fund for Phurs. There's far too much talent here not to tap into it. Does Wilderhom have any higher educational institutions?"

Sona sighed and shook her head again. [Not like other colonies. We have sophisticated apprentice system instead, and it works well enough, but it not have level of standardization formal education system has.] She gave Harlan an almost defiant look. [Remember, we are young colony and until very recently, we very much on our own. Humans not offer help and we made do with what we had.]

"I meant no offence, Sona."

The Bootsie nodded and put a smile back on her muzzle. [None taken.]

"Good," breathed Harlan. "That way Griffith and I won't have to butt heads over my indiscretion with his lady. He's almost as stubborn as I am." Harlan nodded to the TelCom screen and its scrolling message. "And speaking of your knight in metaramic armor, it seems Griffith wants us to meet him at the air-car hanger. Looks like he wants to head out to Taqhom right away. Good. I like efficiency. Besides, I failed to book a room at the local 'Schmooze 'n' Snooze'."

Since they already had a security vehicle escort, passage through the Embassy's main gate went without a problem, and they were soon at the air-car field. Most of the air-cars were the smaller Viper VTOL Twins with a four passenger capacity, but they were being waved toward one of the larger Hawking Quads, an eight passenger VTOL air-bus. They pulled up beside it, disengaged and locked the ground effect generator, and stepped out. Griffith, in his normal work uniform and with a travel bag slung over his shoulder came up to them with his big hand extended.

"Mr. Meeker, glad to see you made it." He shook Harlan's hand and then pointed to a hanger workman. "Stow Mr. Meeker's gear. We'll be off momentarily." The workman shuffled to the back of Meeker's vehicle and Griffith turned back to Harlan. "I heard about the problem at the spaceport." He glanced to Sona, and looked her up and down as if to assure himself that she'd sustained no injury. Giving her a satisfied nod, he looked back at Harlan. "Well, it's not like Wilderhom's problems are a secret, but we could have done without that display."

"No harm done," replied Harlan. "Being a wealthy entrepreneur, I've had to fend off unhealthy attention from time to time. Glad the vehicle had 'creeper' mode." He waved to the air-bus. "So, who's all going with us to Taqhom? We don't need a rig this big to carry three."

Griffith pointed back toward the hanger where two humans and two Phurs were approaching, pushing a large cargo carrier. "We've got the BioTel contingency coming along. More research into Portals and…other things."

Harlan nodded. "I see. Good. I needed to chat with them about a few things myself." He turned a serious eye on Griffith. "Has anyone told High Elder Kemsa KelTaq about her…condition?"

Griffith shook his head. "We were hoping to get some reasonable answers on this trip. I'm not sure that we will, but regardless of whether we do or not, we owe it to her to tell her. Sona is coming along just for that purpose."

Harlan turned a respectful eye on the Bootsie. "You are? Well, I don't envy you the task, but I can't think of anyone better qualified."

"Shall we?" asked Griffith, motioning to the air-bus's boarding entrance. "With only seven passengers, I may actually have some room to stretch out. It's not a long flight, but ever since the beginning of aviation it has been the goal of aircraft designers to find new and more ingenious ways to torture passengers."

But Griffith would get no relief on this flight. An eighth passenger was already on board. Griffith wasn't surprised, but he wasn't pleased either. Just because this other passenger had just as much right to be on this flight as anyone, didn't mean Griffith had to like it.

The passenger looked up from where he was manipulating a small data pad. "Good afternoon, Mr. Tange."

Griffith merely nodded and turned to the others. "Sirs, ladies? We have another passenger coming with us to Taqhom. May I present…" he waved a hand behind him, "Mr. Tellman Long."

 

[>>>>>>>>>>O<<<<<<<<<<]

 

Alerted by Mika, Jayson had come looking for Kemsa and found her sitting alone on the topmost balcony of the residential tower. The balustrade that Lenti had damaged had long since been repaired, but the brooding feeling pervading the place was the same.

Someone was not feeling very good about themselves.

He came up behind her confident that she could sense his approach but when he bent to kiss her neck she jumped up.

**Jayson! I didn't… I…** a look of fear crossed her face. **I didn't sense you coming.**

Jayson came around the bench Kemsa had been sitting on, lifted her up, and took her in his arms. **I sensed you, lovely lady, and I also sensed that you were far away… **

Kemsa's eyes widened with fear.

**Far away in thought only, Kemsa…in thought only.** Jayson added quickly, as he pressed her body close to his. **You seemed disturbed. What is it? What disturbs the High Elder of Clan Taq?**

He felt Kemsa's grip tightening on him.

**I don't know if this vessel is strong enough anymore, Jayson,** thought Kemsa, her mind voice as weary as the content of her words. **I used to think I could handle it, but I don't know anymore.** She looked up at him, her piercing blue eyes searching his. **It's not the crises or the clamoring that frighten me, but the constant burdensome weight of responsibility.**

**I thought Korrak was helping you with that,** thought Jayson. He knew that the loyal canid took care of many of the day-to-day operations of Kemsa's estate, as well as many of the mundane aspects of her position as High Elder of Clan Taq.

Kemsa nodded. **His help is invaluable, Jayson, but no matter how much he does, it doesn't absolve me of the ultimate responsibility for what goes on in Clan Taq. Yet, even that isn't at the heart of it. It all comes down to the things we can do with telepathy that no one else can do.**

**Ah, yes. The pernicious problem of the Portals.** Despite his choice of words, there was no sarcasm in Jayson's thought. He stepped back to the bench and he and Kemsa sat down. Once more her eyes and her mind took on a feeling of great distance.

**Poel once telsed something that frightens me now,** thought Kemsa. **He telsed [You must fully explore your mind, Kemsa. New and wonderful things may be there, or maybe they are evil and destructive. I don’t know. I cannot know. Thus, I can never be responsible for them.] Well, I now have a power beyond any I could have imagined, and I am responsible for it.** She looked back to Jayson, her eyes dark.  **It's too heavy a burden, Jayson. Too heavy! How can I ever know if I'm doing the right thing with it?**

**Trust your heart, Kemsa,** thought Jayson, dropping a kiss on her silver-white mane. **So far the Portal has been used to save how many lives?  There was the first Portal we ever made, and it saved your life in this very tower. Then there was Riena's life at the mine, followed by Cael's rescue. Then we used it to rescue ourselves from that very same mine. Lastly, at the canid combat field, it saved Lenti's life when she was gravely injured, plus several other injured canids as well. We have done much good with this power.**

Kemsa was shaking her head. **But the power nearly destroyed all the Phurs on that field, too. What of that?**

**That was an accident, Kemsa.**

**But we can't afford accidents with something this powerful!**

**Which is why we practice now, Kemsa,** assured Jayson. **And the practice is working. We understand this power better now than we did then.**

**But…**

**No more excuses, Kemsa. We have this power whether we wish it or not, and as you indicated, we are responsible for it. We do the best we can by trying to understand it, and by never consciously using it for evil or destructive purposes. That's all we can do.**

**But what if it isn't enough, Jayson?** Kemsa looked out over a valley grown verdant with the coming of the first rains of the cool season.

**What if it isn't enough?**

 

[>>>>>>>>>>O<<<<<<<<<<]

 

Pel stood to attention and exposed his throat to Korrak. [Sir, humans and three furs, Sona, a lutrid and a marsupalid, arrive form Newhom. They wait outside.]

Korrak expected this. He stood up but remained behind his large work desk. He adjusted his eye patch and then nodded. [Show them in.]

As they filed in one by one, he took note of each. Griffith's size was impressive as always, but his eyes were more serious than usual. Harlan was compact and intense, and he also had stern look. Sona was next and her look was far too neutral, which meant she was hiding some emotion. Korrak sensed that issue of importance needed discussion. When Tellman Long appeared, he was sure of it. That human was trouble. When Riena, Rick, and two BioTel Phurs appeared, he was sure what that issue was about - his Master. More questions. More tests. That was what their message this morning stated, but what was their goal? Had they not enough answers already? He came around his desk and stood before them.

[High Elder Kemsa KelTaq greets you and bids you state your business.]

Griffith frowned. "State our business? I though our message covered that."

[Your message stated what you intend, not why you do it,] telsed Korrak, flatly. [I wish that you state your reasons for your requests.] He crossed his arms as show of immobility on this point. [You go no further until you state why you need more data. My Master informs me that she is tired of cooperation that gives nothing in return.]

"That seems a reasonable attitude to take," said Tellman as he looked at Griffith. "I certainly don't appreciate it when my efforts gain no cooperation."

Korrak saw Griffith give Tellman a hard look, but Tellman continued. "I believe most of us are here to determine if your Master is competent enough to wield the power she possesses."

Korrak felt his face twitch, but he held his anger. Tellman's statement was too obviously provocative. [I have no problem with Master's competence. Why do you?]

When no one answered, Tellman spoke again. "BioTel wonders how a Phur can operate with only half a brain - a half-brain that doesn't even work."

The canid's reaction was instantaneous. [What?]

Korrak tried to telse more, but Griffith exploded.

"Tellman! Where …?"

But Tellman cut him off.

"Where did I get this information, you ask? Don't ask! I have my secrets - most of which deal with discovering your secrets! This would be so much simpler if you just sent me a memo! And don't ask why I need to have this information either! You know perfectly well that it's my job to gather information on things that effect Trans-World." He turned to Korrak. "Remember, according to the original Wilderhom Colonial Charter as re-approved by every Wilderhom Clan Council since then, this colony, like all other colonies, is responsible for reporting to Trans-World anything that could affect Trans-World's ability to serve all of the colonies. That includes any useful technology or process that has the potential to be turned into a weapon."

Tellman turned to Harlan.

"RayGen Pharmaceuticals has already benefited from useful technologies developed on this colony world. Trans-World has benefited as well with a more efficient telepathic long-distance communication system. Trans-World is not in the business of hindering advancement!" He gave everyone a hard look. "But neither will Trans-World tolerate the misuse of technology or processes that can be destructive!" He jabbed a finger at Korrak. "I don't want to hear anything along the lines of 'you can't prove Portals are dangerous'. Simply because there is no official record of the Taqhom Event doesn't mean it didn't happen. However, I am not so blind as to not see the potential benefits of Telepathic Portals. Like any other advancement, it has both constructive and destructive potential. My responsibility is to monitor how this new process is being developed."

He stepped forward until he was nose to nose with Korrak.

"As I stated before, this would be so much simpler with a little cooperation."

Korrak glared and growled, then looked to Griffith. [Always, you strain our friendship with this one. Leave him behind next time and report to him what you find!]

Griffith ground his teeth. "I wish I could, but he has violated no rules other than those of common decency. Kemsa could ban him from Clan Taq with a single word, but he's never been the least bit discourteous with her, have you, Mr. Long."

This last was directed at Tellman who smiled. "I know how to be the gentleman when the need arises," he answered smoothly. "Every one of you has deemed it necessary to keep your findings about her condition away from Kemsa - findings she has a right to know! Whether you realize it or not, some of you have already made your determination on her competence. I, myself, have made no decision on that yet."

Tellman turned back to Korrak. "However, when I do I assure you, she will be the first to know."

 

Tellman stepped back into line, knowing that none of them could dispute his statements. He smiled to himself.

Sometimes, the best way to manipulate a situation was to simply tell the truth.




3. I love, therefore, I am.

 

The human caught up with the female canid and she barely gave him a look.

[Go away.]

"A warm and friendly greeting," said Tellman, adjusting his stride to hers as they walked. "So typical of your kind. You go to give Kemsa the truth?"

[You know that is what I do. Go away.]

"She won't believe you."

[Since you not go away, I play your game. All right, how you know she not believe me?]

"Why would anyone believe the impossible?"

[She believes me.]

"Really? Her trust in you is that great?"

[Yes.]

"I think not. I think she will see the impossibility of your news and begin to question her trust in you."

[She believes me!]

"You telse that as if you are trying to convince yourself. I think there is doubt there - doubt that Kemsa will sense. She will not believe you."

[You think you do better, human?]

"I would not tell her the truth."

[Hah! I thought so. You state in front of all of us that 'She has a right to know', yet you not tell her. You are liar!]

"You misunderstand me. I would not tell her the truth. Instead, I would show her the truth. Can you?"

[I think so.]

"Is that so? Are you sure?"

[Yes. You are cold and hard. I feel nothing from you. Kemsa needs warmth of friends when she is given this news.]

"Perhaps you are right. I'm not a likeable person. I'm a watcher and a gatherer of the truth. However, remember this - Bootsie and bearer of bad news - the truth is not always nice, and sugar-coating it will not make it any sweeter. You telse of lies. In fact, this sort of coating is the most heinous of lies because any who receive the truth this way will discover the lie and, in the end, they will see it as another bitter hurt to add to the painful truth it was supposed to hide. True friends do not compound a friend's pain. Bad news is best given swiftly and in the raw."

[You sound as if you enjoy this sort of thing.]

"My enjoyment is irrelevant. Kemsa must know beyond any doubt that what is contained in her skull is no longer what controls her. If there is doubt, she will continue to wish for the evidence to be a lie. Her uncertainty will grow instead of diminish. She will eventually succumb to her doubt to everyone's detriment. She must begin to look elsewhere for the source of her present existence."

[Why is the truth so important? Why can she not simply exist in ignorance?]

"Because she is not stupid. She already suspects something, thus she doubts herself, and the doubt is weakening her. Then there is this. She not only has the right to know - but the responsibility to know."

[She has enough responsibility already.]

"She has more responsibility than you or anyone else knows - much more! And I have a responsibility, too. If she continues her present course, I will have to intervene and you will not like what I do then."

[What you do?]

"I will have the IGS officially class her as a capital threat to Trans-World and all the colonies, and she will be eliminated. Permanently."

Growling, the canid whirled on the human, grabbed a pawful of clothing, and pushed a small needle blade she'd whipped from its hiding place against the human's throat. [Then you are next, human SCUM! I never liked you. Now I know I was RIGHT!]

For a long moment the two stared at one another, not moving. Then the human spoke.

"Perhaps you are good enough to take me down. Perhaps you could defeat one or two of those who would follow me like you did Kohlaf, but could not stop all of those sent from doing what must be done." His look was hard. "Kemsa KelTaq has a dangerous power. She may not have chosen to be a wielder of this power, but she has it nonetheless - along with the all the responsibility such power demands. If she is unwilling or unable to do her duty regarding this power, she must be eliminated! At present, she is faltering badly due to her fear and self-doubt. You have seen it. So has the procyonid who now cares for her kit."

[How you know all this?]

"I am with the IGS. Knowledge and truth are my trade. Suffice to say that I know - as do others - and it has been concluded that if Kemsa cannot get past this present confidence crisis, she must be eliminated - for the safety of humans AND Phurs alike."

[BASARD! Human filth…]

The human's hands shot forward - one easily disarmed the canid and the other grabbed her by the throat, pulling her close. "You've seen the Taqhom Event through Kemsa's eyes! You know the power of which I speak! You fear it! AS YOU SHOULD!"

The canid's eyes were wide with fear as if reviewing the seen of that tremendous plasma explosion - and the fact that it had been due mostly to Kemsa's ignorance of her ability.

"Yes," continued Tellman. "Kemsa has an almost insane responsibility! One that requires a fully functional and competent  mind to explore."

[But… but she has no mind! No brain! That is her problem!]

"NO! That is NOT her problem." Tellman released Sona and shoved her away. "Despite the fact that for the past six months she has lacked a functioning brain, she has made conscious decisions requiring thought and then acted upon those decisions." Tellman sneered. "However, because she has been spared the truth about her condition by her so-called friends, she is now beginning to question her competency to do anything! Her problem is not the lack of a brain. Her problem is crippling uncertainty!"

[But self-doubt only makes her more cautious. She not likely use her power at all then. If so, danger is less, not more.]

"Which is ALSO unacceptable!"

[What? You desire that she use this power?]

"YES! But, she must use it responsibly! This is the crux of the matter! This sort of power needs to be explored! Why do you think I've been demanding regular reports from her? And hasn't the Wilderhom Clan Council charged her with exploring this phenomenon? How can she do that if she does nothing? If one does nothing, one learns nothing, and that perpetuates ignorance - the type of ignorance that resulted in the Taqhom Event! That is exactly the sort of thing that that scares the powers-that-be in the IGS. If Kemsa is going to be burdened with this power, it is her responsibility, and her duty, to get on with exploring it. I cannot let her abdicate that responsibility simply because she's 'not feeling very good about herself' right now. Were I to let her uncertainty and doubt fester, she would become an ideal target for manipulation by any extremist with an agenda. This is totally unacceptable. She must get past her present uncertainty!"

[But this new knowledge I give her only creates MORE uncertainty! More questions! Like how she functions without her brain?]

Tellman snorted, clearly disgusted. "Thank you for pointing out an obvious truth in life. Of course this new knowledge will bring more uncertainty, but it will be a different uncertainty - a NEW uncertainty - not the old one. That's a fact of life. One uncertainty follows another. We counter an existing uncertainty by discovering a new truth and we move on! The bottom line is Kemsa needs to get moving again! Get on with her duties! She must NOT stagnate because she's been denied the truth about her present condition. You have been charged with giving her this truth because even you have finally realized that the worst thing Kemsa can do right now is wallow in ignorance!"

The canid scowled at the human, then closed her eyes and bowed her head. She shook it once before raising her eyes up to his once more. [I admit this with no pleasure, but I agree with you.]

Tellman nodded and held up the needle blade he'd taken from her. "I'm glad we finally agree on the obvious. I trust that we also agree that certainty comes from an irrevocable demonstration of the truth?" He held the blade out to her, hilt first, and she took it. "As to that, I will now tell you exactly how you will show Kemsa the truth so that no doubt can remain."

As the human explained, the canid's eyes grew wide once again.

[NO! I NOT do that! You not MAKE me do that! You…]

Again Tellman had her by the throat. "This you WILL do, otherwise you go to her now only to give her your final farewells because she WILL be eliminated!"

[Then YOU convince her! I NOT DO IT!]

Tellman pulled her close and gave a crooked smile. "No. I will not do it. I don't wish to die today. As I have stated, Kemsa is powerful. Were I the one to attempt this, she would likely try to kill me on the spot. She might even succeed. Not so with you. No. This must be done by a friend." He shoved her away.

[DAMN you!]

"Do not fight either me or what it is you must do."

[No! I not do this to convince her! It is barbaric!]

"But it will utterly destroy any doubt Kemsa has. You will do it or I will do what I must do. You've been given your choices. Choose now!"

[NO! You not make me choose!]

"Then your choice is made by default and I will do what I must."

[No!]

"Yes! You have no choice but to choose! Such will be Kemsa's fate soon, and she must be of sound mind to make the right choices when her time comes!"

[I not do it!]

"You will do it because you know you must."

[No!]

"You will do it.

[I not do it.]

[Please?]

"Think of the consequences."

[I…]

"The choice is yours. Choose. Now."

[I…I do it, bastard, but I still damn you!]

The human watched the female canid spin around and stalk away.

"I'm sorry, Sona," he whispered as he watched her turn the corner to Kemsa's quarters. "I was already damned a very long time ago."


Sona took several calming breaths. She still shook from her encounter with that… that Tellman human. A single tear also dripped from her nose. Of all the things she ever did as Bootsie this was hardest. But she had no real choice. Not if she wanted Kemsa to live. She sniffed back another tear, put on her best Bootsie face, and walked into Kemsa's living quarters.


She found Kemsa in her bedroom clad only in her fur - two gowns spread before her and another in her paw. [Silver,] telsed Sona as she walked in. [Go with silver. It's your best color even if yellow and black are Clan Taq's colors.]

Kemsa looked up. [Hello, Sona.] She held up one gown. [The silver one with the black trim? Is it official enough? Griffith is an important human at the Embassy and I wouldn't want to…]

[Kemsa!] Sona held up her paw. [Silver. Trust me. I am Bootsie.]

[And you know,] finished Kemsa, who sighed and then wriggled quickly into her silver and black casual outfit.

Sona walked up to her with slow, regal steps. [Now that you dressed, I can officially greet my Clan's High Elder properly.] She turned and exposed her throat to Kemsa, but kept her eye fixed on her. Kemsa stared for a moment, and then lunged at Sona, jaws agape. Sona gave a 'proper' squeal as Kemsa 'bit' and they both tumbled onto Kemsa's gown strewn bed.

Kemsa's laughter was suitably raucous. [Sona, you are a most incorrigible Bootsie,] she telsed through her yiks. [You owe me no 'throat'.]

[But is quick way to get friendly 'lick' from my friend.]

Kemsa sat up, her smile not so sure this time. [Am I that distant?]

Sona sat up as well, smoothed out Kemsa's rumpled gown, and shook her head. [Distant is not right word. You are not as 'available'.] She held up a paw. [I know, I know. You are busy Phur. In fact, it is telsed that, on top of everything else, Clan Taq's High Elder is new dahma.] Sona glanced to room beyond Kemsa's bed, then back to her friend. [Vanna is her name? I see her, yes?]

[Yes!] was Kemsa's quick response as she bounded up and pulled Sona after her. They entered Vanna's nesting room and found Vanna curled up on blankets next to heater vent, her little tail wrapped around her nose.

[Oh! Oh! Oh!] was all Sona telsed before she went down on all fours and wrapped herself around the little, white puff-ball. [She is gorgeous!] Sona telsed over her shoulder. Then her attention was all on Vanna, snuffling, stroking, and occasionally licking the little kit. Vanna stirred and gave a mew, and Sona felt her heart melt. She glanced back at Kemsa, who was beaming. [Oh, Kemsa, her color! Like you, this one is real heartbreaker when she's older.]

Sona saw Kemsa's eyes flicker in doubt, and she closed her own eyes.

She must know beyond any doubt.

Sona opened her eyes and gave Vanna one more affectionate lick before she got up and walked to where Kemsa stood by the door. [Always the doubter.] She took Kemsa by her paws. [Remember that night back in Newhom when you were still inside Jayson's body? I telsed that, with work and some self-confidence on your part, you become Wilderhom's most beautiful felocanid?] Kemsa looked to her and nodded. Sona looked back, ever in awe of Kemsa's amazing, cerulean eyes - eyes so deep with emotion and intelligence. Sona drew Kemsa's head to her breast and affectionately licked one of her ears. [I am so glad I was right.]

For one moment, they held one another. Then Kemsa pushed away, her blue eyes now dark under her worried brows.

[But just like that night, Sona, you've been sent to me. BioTel is here again, and I don't think it's a coincidence that I see you first. You're not here just to tell me of my beauty.] Kemsa's mental tone was suddenly flat and unfeeling.

[Perceptive, as always,] telsed Sona, her heart feeling the beginnings of pain to come. [You never easily fooled by others - only by yourself. Yes. I am here for another reason.] Sona's mind loathed why she was truly here, but Kemsa needed this knowledge. So much rested on it. [Kemsa, I am here because there are flaws in you. Not flaws in your beauty, but flaws unseen. Flaws that need explaination.]

[NO!] Kemsa pushed Sona away and shook her head as she backed off. [I don't want to know this! I don't want to KNOW!]

Sona stalked toward Kemsa. [You already suspect something. It frightens you.] She kept on, even as Kemsa backed away around Vanna's nest room. [Truth is important now, Kemsa.]

[No, please? No more bad news. I just want to be happy! For once, I want some simple peace of mind!]

Sona felt Kemsa's fear and anguish. The felocanid's distress was also obvious on her muzzle. She saw Kemsa's eyes dart to nesting room door, but Sona was there in an instant. She grabbed Kemsa as she came up to her and pulled her back into her bedroom. [I am sorry, Kemsa, but I do this for your own good. The others gave me this task and I fulfill my responsibilities.] She pulled Kemsa out bedroom door and into adjacent vacant bedroom across suite's hall. When she finally released Kemsa, her friend was livid.

[Why are you doing this to me, Sona? Have I not enough troubles as is?] Kemsa's growl was low in her throat - a guttural and angry rumble. [I thought you were my friend!]

Sona let Kemsa's anger blow through her and returned some of her own. [Yes! You have burdensome responsibility to Clan Taq, but you have bigger responsibility to yourself!]

And others, Sona added in thought.

Without any warning, Sona launched herself at Kemsa and pinned her against full-length wall mirror. In a flash, she had her needle blade out of its mane comb case and pressed against Kemsa's temple. She knew Kemsa could see everything in mirror, and her friend's anger boiled away into raw fear.

[Sona! Why…why are you doing this to me?]

Sona twisted her blade, and its long polished surface flashed, the twinkle reflected in both mirror and Kemsa's terrified eyes. [Call not for your link-mates, Kemsa. This is not what it seems. I do this simply to illustrate important point.] She pressed the sharp point of her blade into Kemsa's skin. Blood trickled from her punctured skin. [You feel pain?]

Kemsa closed her eyes and nodded, her whimper barely audible.

[I can easily push this needle blade through weak spot between frontal and temporal skull plates,] telsed Sona. She hated herself for this display, but she knew how vital it was that Kemsa know her condition beyond any doubt or excuse. [What happens to you if I push this blade in?]

Kemsa whimpered again and Sona shook her. [What happens?]

Kemsa opened her eyes flicking them fearfully from blade to Sona's face. [I would die,] came her choked response before she closed her eyes again.

[Is that so?] answered Sona, her mind-voice sharp-edged and cold. [Are you sure?] She pressed her blade in a tiny bit.

Kemsa nodded again, and tears leaked from eyes clamped tightly shut.

Sona took one last deep breath.

Forgive me, Kemsa.

Sona pushed hard, and her needle-blade penetrated its full ten centimeter length into Kemsa's skull.

Kemsa gasped and her eyes flew open in horror even as Sona felt her own revulsion explode within her. Kemsa's ragged breaths were only sounds in this room as she stared into mirror, but mentally she screamed. Sona's insides roiled with self-loathing, but she forced it from her mind and stared hard into mirrored blue eyes filled with fear. Finally, Kemsa's fear and mental cry faded, replaced by total confusion. Sona nodded. [I see you realize impossibility of your present condition. Any other Phur with needle blade buried this deep in their skull is dead Phur…but not you.]

Kemsa's eyes flickered with renewed fear.

[You ask yourself why this is.] Sona went on, her mind-voice ragged with shared pain. [It is because there is nothing in your skull that this needle blade can injure…nothing that works, anyway. That is what I am here for. I telse to you…no, I show you in no uncertain terms that ever since your infection by Retro Virus, your brain is dead! Your skull now contains useless tissue that only takes up space - no more! You are alive, but no one understands how. Your body is here, but your mind? We just…don't…know!]

Sona felt her tears finally spill from her eyes. Kemsa's fear was raw flame in her mind, and unable to stand it any longer, she yanked the blade from Kemsa's skull, and flung it away. Her paw flashed to her belt pouch and she pulled out antiseptic soaked gauze dressing which she pressed over Kemsa's head wound. Then she gathered her distraught friend in her arms and cried as she never cried since she was almost as young as Vanna.

 

Kemsa huddled in the arms of the piteously crying Sona, her mind a spinning storm of emotion and thought, foremost being her receding fear and the fact that she shouldn't even have a mind now. Her friend had pushed 10 centimeters of cold needle-like steel into her head. She should be dead.

She wasn't.

She was very much alive and being held by a Phur whose emotions now bled from her like an open wound. She felt Sona's terrible fear that she'd lost a friend, her terrible regret at having to be so blunt, her hope that Kemsa would eventually realize that she needed the true knowledge and belief that only experience could bring, and finally, her hope without any real hope that Kemsa might eventually forgive her.

Kemsa was an emotional wreck. Fear and anger still leaked copiously from the realizations that had been forced into her mind, but in truth, what had Sona done that needed forgiveness? The Bootsie had frightened her half to death, but that only served to firmly plant in her mind the knowledge that she was no longer the same as other Phurs! Her brain was quite literally 'dead'. Her mind no longer resided there. This thought, by itself, should have terrified her, but it was only a minor fear compared to the terror of seeing a friend turn on her and 'threaten' her life. There were things far worse in this world than the unease that came from a physical anomaly without an explanation. That she still had a mind somewhere was not even a question with her. She could think with it as she was doing now, and she could feel with it as well. She could still feel the residual sting of the wound in her temple, rather like that of a healers needle. She also felt the tears on her shoulder and the arms of her friend around her that shook with sobs.

And she suddenly felt a deep admiration and awe for a friend willing to risk losing Kemsa's regard to get her quickly past something that could have caused her months, or even years, of fearful brooding. Regardless of how things were with her brain, she was still Kemsa - a living, thinking, feeling Phur capable of admiration for Sona's courage, and capable of showing that admiration by forgiving her.

Yes.

Kemsa knew she still had a mind, and that it was her mind and no one else's. Her reasoning was simplicity itself.

I love, therefore, I am.

She felt her own tears spilling onto Sona's tunic and she began to reach around her to return the embrace when a howling scream almost deafened her. The telsing scream that accompanied the howl was almost as mind-wrenching.

[You Ekram-be-damed WHORE! What did you do to Kemsa?]

Kemsa felt Sona torn from her grasp, and to her horror she saw and felt an enraged Lenti throw Sona across the room. The Bootsie's head struck the opposite wall with a sickening 'crack' and she slumped to the floor. Lenti was on her in a flash and raising her fist for the death blow.

 [STOP! It's NOT what you think!]

Lenti's fist froze but her head snapped around and Kemsa gasped. The black emotion that flowed in waves from Lenti's eyes was incredible, but it sparked something in Kemsa - a remembrance of her own demon, and her anger flared impossibly bright.

[YOU WILL NOT HAVE HER!]

She was not referring to Lenti's attack. Kemsa's anger was for a greater evil. She lunged at Lenti, and with all the physical power she could muster, she brought the flat of her paw across Lenti's muzzle. Lenti's head snapped sideways and she tumbled off of Sona. Kemsa followed her down to the floor and pinned her there.

**You will NOT have her!** Kemsa thought as she forced her way into Lenti's mind and took hold of the black hatred. Using the same technique she used on herself, she slammed it into the reflective part of Lenti's mind and locked it there. Then she turned to Sona and gasped. Blood spilled from the Bootsie's mouth and left ear, and her eyes were glazed, pupils dialated.

[No. NO. NO!] Kemsa moved to Sona's side and bent over her. She wasn't breathing. Even as she realized this she heard a rush of feet into the room. She whirled around. [Jayson! Breathing!] She pointed to Sona then looked to Griffith who seemed about to shout something. [Griffith! No talking! Stand by to help move her!] She whirled to Mika and pointed to Lenti. [Use Dahma! Calm her. Remove the horror she's starting to feel even now! Tellman? You and everyone else stay back! Korrak! See to it!]

Jayson gave the limp canid several breaths as everyone else held theirs. Then he turned to Kemsa. "She needs respiratory assistance! She's not breathing on her own! It's the head injury!"

Griffith groaned and Kemsa felt sick, but now was not the time to collapse. Kemsa forced herself to think. Sona needed advanced emergency care - more than the healers here could provide.

Phur Hospital, Newhom.

Kemsa concentrated and her mind raced furiously through the Alpha Telepath long-distance sparks she could sense around her. There were so many of them, but one of them had to be...

There!

That was the one she wanted.

I want visuals!

A picture of the lobby at the Phur Hospital blossomed in her mind, and she latched onto it.

I need a Portal, NOW!

Kemsa's emotions and thoughts crackled and instantly, a Portal appeared.

[Jayson! Griffith! Get her through! It's the Phur hospital. Hurry!]

With Jayson still doing mouth to nose, Griffith lifted the limp Sona and they carried her through, and the portal dissolved behind them.

Suddenly, Kemsa was acutely aware of the horrified pain in her mind.

Lenti.

She moved to her next to Mika who was shaking with her eyes closed.

**Lenti?** thought Kemsa.

**I'm sorry! I didn't mean to. I thought she'd hurt you! I…**

Without the rage to mask it, all Lenti could sense was what her blind rage had done to Sona, and the resulting horror, guilt, and remorse was suffocating. Even with her superior empathy, Mika couldn't counteract it. As a link-mate, it was affecting her too much. This would require both of them. **Mika!** Kemsa sent a mental picture and both were down beside Lenti, cocooning her between them. **Dahma loop,** thought Kemsa and Mika understood what Kemsa was attempting to do. In a moment, Mika and Kemsa were looping the Dahma feeling between them and building it to proportions Mika could never achieve on her own. When the feeling was almost too good to bear, they both focused it on Lenti, whose self-hatred slowly withered before the larger feeling of motherly regard.

 

It took about an hour, but Lenti's breathing finally slowed, and eventually it fell into the quiet rhythms of sleep.

Satisfied that Lenti was beyond pain for the time being, Kemsa looked to Mika. **Stay with her tonight. She will need someone.**  Mika nodded and then tapped out the code which would detach Lenti's arms. They fell to Lenti's sides and Mika gathered them up.

**A precaution in case Lenti might think of harming herself.**

Kemsa nodded back, not wanting to think of it, but acknowledging suicide as a possibility. Slowly both of them got up, and Kemsa motioned to Korrak who had been blocking the doorway all this time.

[Carry Lenti to Mika's quarters and then lock Lenti's arms in the steel-door detention cell on the lower level of the Admin tower.]

Korrak nodded, gathered up the limp Lenti, and carried her out the door with Mika following. When their footfalls had receded, Kemsa took a single deep breath and then looked around the unused bedroom. There was blood on the floor where Sona had lain and the sight of it killed any residual happiness she'd felt while generating the Dahma feeling for Lenti.

It also reminded her of something she needed to do, though she dreaded it.

**Jayson?**

There was no answer for a long time and Kemsa's heart sank. Then suddenly…

**Kemsa?**

Kemsa steeled herself. **Jayson. How is…Sona?**

Another long silence sickened her.

**She's still alive,** came Jayson's listless reply.

**But there is something else, isn't there?** asked Kemsa.

She felt Jayson's mental nod.

**What is it? I must know!** Kemsa thought.

**They don't know how long she'll last, Kemsa. The head injury…so much damage!**

Kemsa felt the anguish in Jayson's thoughts even as her own sorrow welled up to fill her eyes with tears. She cast those eyes around the room. If only she had detected Lenti's rage before she'd gotten to the room. If only…

**It's not your fault, Kemsa!** came Jayson's quick reply. **It's not even Lenti's fault.**

Kemsa could feel another emotion coming from Jayson. Guilt.

**Jayson?**

**It could have been me, Kemsa! Lenti wasn't the only one who felt what Sona did to you! It's just that she was faster than me or Mika.**

**But when you and Mika came into the room, I felt no hatred from you!** replied Kemsa.

**That was after we realized what had truly happened.** Jayson's mind seemed to withdraw for a moment. **I thought I was getting better at controlling this, but…**

**Jayson! Stop this!** Kemsa thought, her mind transmitting the power to back up her demand. **You DID control the rage! You did it because, despite your anger, your mind was still open to an explanation! When that explanation finally came, you understood it and stopped the rage! You were NOT acting mindlessly! You were in control!**

She felt Jayson absorbing her thoughts and felt his mood change.

**I guess me and Mika did control it at that. It still doesn't make me feel any better about getting that mad in the first place.**

**Good!** thought Kemsa. **I hope the thought of getting that angry always makes us feel sick. That way we will never enter into it lightly.**

**You're right, Kemsa,** thought Jayson, his mood lightening a bit further. **And as to your own failure in not detecting our feelings, you should have been on our side of the connection. You were broadcasting with such power that I doubt you'd have picked up even our loudest emotional signals.**

**Thank you, Jayson. I just wish…** Kemsa felt more tears running down her muzzle. **Oh Jayson, I just wish it would have turned out differently. Why Sona? Why her? All she was trying to do was help me!** Kemsa felt her mood darken. **If what happened to her this evening had happened to me instead, I'd still be standing here telsing about it. Unlike her, I've got no brain to injure! That's what she was trying to get me to realize - and now she…**

**Kemsa. Don't.**

Kemsa felt Jayson's loving mental touch, and though tinged with sadness and anxiety, it felt good. She shook off the miasma of her growing depression.

**Okay, Jayson. I won't if you won't. Keep me informed if…if anything happens to Sona.**

**You want me to come back?**

**No. Griffith may need someone there. I sense from you that he might not be in the best shape.**

**True. I'll stay here then. You and Mika take good care of Lenti. That was a good thing you two did for her, but she'll need more help in the future, I fear.**

**I will, Jayson.**

Kemsa felt her contact with Jayson fade and once more, she looked around the dismal little room she was in. A glint in the corner past the pool of blood caught her eye, and she walked over to it. Bending down, Kemsa picked up the blood-stained needle blade that Sona had used on her and looked at it. She thought she should feel something concerning the object that had caused so much grief in the past hour, but there was little there. All she felt was the residual echoes of the myriad emotions that had washed through her concerning Sona and her link-mates. Suddenly, Kemsa's eyes flew open with one final emotion. Fear.

What had all her emotions done to Vanna?

In a blur of sudden motion, Kemsa raced across the hall, through her door, and into Vanna's nesting room. There, still curled up next to the heater, was the little white kit. She appeared to be asleep. Kemsa leaned on the doorframe for support, brought her paw to her head, and heaved a weary sigh - though not one of relief. It was more the sigh of an overworked decision-maker faced with yet another problem.

Why hadn't Vanna reacted to her emotions? The kit had always been so sensitive to Kemsa's moods before. Why not now?

"She is smaller than I thought she would be."

Kemsa jumped at the human voice, whipped up the needle-blade in her paw, and brought it to bear on a human she could now see in one of the shadowy corners of the nesting room. Tellman Long stepped forward and looked at the blade.

"A Needle-Blade," Tellman said, reaching out. "A weapon originally from the felid clan I believe?"

Kemsa snatched the blade out of his reach. [What are you doing here?]

"Waiting for you, High Elder. This seemed a likely place to encounter you." Tellman gave a slight bow. "We've always conversed when I've been here before. As usual, I need your report on the Portals for my own report to Trans-World."

[I'm in no mood to discuss anything now.]

"Perfectly understandable," replied Tellman, who had stepped up to her and was now looking down at her from his superior height. "I won't ask for anything tonight. However, I would like to comment on what you did in the other room."

Kemsa peered up at him. [Will I like what I hear? Because if I don't, we won't be seeing each other again. I know your reports are necessary, but those don't require a personal visit. Jayson has never liked you, and now I don't like your being in this room without supervision.]

Tellman smiled and bowed. "I apologize, High Elder. I've been told that I'm not a very likeable person, but I think what I have to say now won't be offensive. Perhaps it would be better if we retired to the other room and let the little one sleep in peace?"

Kemsa nodded and trudged through the doorway, tossing the needle blade on the dressing stand as she passed it. She chose a small settee for her seat, and Tellman took a seat on a larger chair by the dressing stand.

[Alright, Tellman. Out with it.]

Tellman looked Kemsa up and down, and then nodded. "You have strength of character. You were very much in command during the crisis in the other room. That is a good quality for a leader and decision-maker. You were also able to use your telepathic skills to very good advantage. That Portal you made all by yourself served you well."

[You're mistaken,] telsed Kemsa, shaking her head. [I can't make Portals by myself. Jayson needs to…] Kemsa's thoughts trailed off as she began to realize something.

"No. I think you made that one all by yourself," repeated Tellman. "I could see that Jayson was preoccupied with his own tasks at the time the Portal appeared."

[It must have been the emotion of the moment,] telsed Kemsa weakly. [I had to do something quickly.]

Tellman was nodding. "Dire need often brings out latent talent. However, now that I know you can do this, I must insist that you answer at least two more questions. These are important questions as you will realize. Then I will leave."

Kemsa waved one paw at Tellman and rubbed her forehead with the other. [Go ahead.]

Tellman sat forward with a very serious look. "First, are you completely convinced that the organic matter inside your skull is no longer the place where your mind resides?"

Kemsa looked up and frowned for a moment at Tellman's lack of tact. Sona was lying in a coma in Newhom now because she'd tried to convince Kemsa of that. [Yes, of course I'm convinced. How could I not believe that?]

"Very well," replied Tellman, "Now the more difficult of the two questions. Do you believe you are in complete control of your mind now that it resides someplace other than in your own body?"

Kemsa stared for a moment then shook her head. [What sort of question is that?]

"One that bears on your ability to create, on your own, something that could be used as a devastating weapon. Surely you can see our concern. We need to know who is in control of this power."

Kemsa looked at her feet for a moment, then let her eyes wander up her legs to the paws in her lap. How did anyone truly know if they were the ones in control of their own thoughts and bodies? She looked back to Tellman.

[I think so,] she telsed, then shook her head. [No. That's a stupid answer.] She thought some more before telsing again. [The only answer I can give you is that by all the measures of who I am - my thoughts, my memories, my feelings, and my actions - I am Kemsa KelTaq and I am in control of myself.]

Tellman smiled and stood up. "I suppose that will have to do, but you might want to consider something else as well. Who is it that others think you are? We control who we are, but we are defined in this world by how we are seen by others. The outside world is the mirror that reflects our inner selves. If you have doubts about yourself, look to your daughter. Who is it that she wants? Who is it that she reaches out to? This place," Tellman pointed to Kemsa's head, "is devoid of a mind, but something real inside of you is Kemsa if your daughter can sense it."

Kemsa stared at him as Tellman got up and walked to the door. He turned around there, and his eyes flicked momentarily to the nesting room door.

"Trust your daughter. Unlike us adults, little ones never lie."

 

[>>>>>>>>>>O<<<<<<<<<<]

 

As he walked down the hall from Kemsa's room, Tellman took out the needle-blade he'd pocketed from Kemsa's dressing table and examined it.

Yes. There should be enough here.

Satisfied, he placed the blade in a small tube, sealed it, and put it back in his pocket.

Soon, Kemsa. It begins soon.




4. Not here…

 

It was like she wasn't even there.

The air was still, the bedding soft, the quiet utter, and the blackness complete.

"Rick?"

Riena heard a muffled sound from her fellow researcher who occupied another bed on the other side of the room. She peered hard in his direction as if somehow that would bring light to this lightless space. Riena had never liked these interior rooms at Kemsa's estate. They seemed far too 'tomb-like.'

"Rick? Are you asleep?"

A sigh came from somewhere and a spark lit the room, bringing one of the room's candles to life. It was Shayna, and she nursed the flicker into a respectable flame before looking at Riena and pointing to the telsing translator on the bed stand.

Riena flipped the down blanket from her legs, sat up, and clipped the translator into her ear just in time to pick up Borlan's telsed remark about how loudly humans whisper. She caught him peeking at her from under his blanket before he pulled it back over his head.

"Sorry," she mumbled.

[Don't be,] telsed Shayna slipping from beneath her coverlet in a single fluid motion typical of her lutrid heritage. [If I know Borlan, he can't sleep either. You need to talk?]

Riena nodded, and smiled faintly at the incongruity of a Phur asking if someone needed to engage in voiced speech - an activity impossible for Phurs themselves. Riena looked around the room, its distant corners hidden in shadow. "I'm wondering why we are still here."

Shayna nodded. [It is an uncomfortable situation we find ourselves in - a near death for one bearing bad news, and we ourselves, seekers of answers that may not be any more welcome when we find them.]

"But what we discover may not be bad news at all."

This protest came from the lump of blankets occupying Rick's bed, and Riena tossed her pillow at it. A grunt came from the lump when it struck.

"So, Mr. Sunshine," prompted Riena. "What theories have you that are so full of hope and promise that you can sleep at a time like this?"

Rick's blanket-lump rose slowly until it was upright. "Patience, little ones. Glog the Great has many profound thoughts." The blankets rose from the bed in a dignified manner - at least until Rick stepped on the corner of one and nearly tripped himself.

Shayna chittered her amusement and Riena giggled. "Well, you tell Glog the Unbalanced we'll be waiting for answers when he shows up. Meanwhile, I guess we're stuck with you."

Rick pulled the blanket from his head, scratched his mussed hair and sat back down. "I need coffee if we're going to do the midnight bull-session routine." He proceeded to clip in his telsing translator and then looked to his left. "Hey!" He swatted the furry foot that stuck out of the blankets on the bed next to his. "Get up, Borlan. I can tell you're not asleep. You're not whistle-snoring out of that over-sized snout of yours like you normally do."

Borlan grunted - a sound amazingly like Rick's grunt for one whose oral anatomy was radically different. The marsupalid tossed the blankets from his chest and gave a mighty yawn that looked as if it would split his head in half. Then he smacked his lips and peered at Rick. [You look terrible. Go get some coffee before you scare the girls half to death.]

Rick shuffled over to their gear, pulled out a thermal bottle, unscrewed the cap, and poured himself a steaming cup. He held up the bottle. "Anyone else?"

Riena and Borlan declined, but Shayna took up Rick's offer. When they all were settled back on their beds looking at each other, Riena tapped her bed stand for attention.

"I guess I'll start since I was the one who woke everyone - or at least disturbed their poor imitations of sleep. As I was saying to Shayna, I was wondering why we were still here. I would have thought Kemsa too upset to submit to our poke and prod tomorrow."

[She may still refuse,] offered Shayna. [but nothing was telsed about our leaving and Korrak had plenty of opportunity to do so.]

Borlan was shaking his head. [What I can't fathom is Sona's method of telling Kemsa about her condition. I'd have simply shown her the data.]

"That might be enough to convince a fellow researcher," answered Riena, "but I can see how Kemsa might not be convinced. She's the subject, and it would be hard for her to believe she lacked a brain when she was obviously still functioning. Sona's method removed any doubt."

Shayna shuddered. [But the cost! I hope she's all right, but we won't know anything until tomorrow.]

[If then,] offered Borlan. [Korrak telsed it was a head injury and we all know from our research into brain injured Phurs that head injuries are unpredictable. Sona may be out for an hour or for the rest of her life - if you call that life.]

"Borlan!" hissed Riena. "You're as tactless as Rick sometimes."

"Well this 'tactless' human thinks Kemsa will be more than eager to proceed with the tests," said Rick. "I think the removal of doubt about her true condition will spark a need for answers. How can one function without a functioning brain?"

[So now we finally come to it,] telsed Shayna. [The question we've all been asking ourselves. How does one function without a brain? Any theories? We'll need some of those to make choices on what to test for.]

"And to make sense of the data," added Riena. She turned to Rick. "Alright Glog the Profound, you're on."

Rick gave her the eye, but began anyway. "All right then, run this past your logic circuits. We've always thought of telepathy as an information transfer phenomenon, but what if it's capable of storing information as well? If VICs can store information as well as transfer it, one could create a virtual brain made entirely of VICs."

Borlan shook his head. [You forgot the processing of that information. Data storage and transfer alone can't actually process the data. Perhaps VICs could 'cascade' into simple 'circuitry' and thus into a more complex processing system but we don't know that. No prior research has ever indicated that VICs either hold or process information.]

"Perhaps it can transfer information onto a previously unknown storage and processing medium and that medium then acts as a brain?"

[How could we test for that?] asked Shayna.

Rick shrugged. "I'm offering theories, not testing methods."

"I think we should stick with those phenomena we know," suggested Riena. "We can go to the radical new stuff as a last resort."

"Okay. If she's not using her own brain because it's not there," offered Rick. "maybe she's using someone else's brain."

[Sounds like 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' stuff to me,] telsed Borlan.

Rick turned to the marsupalid and stared. "Where under the heavens did you get that reference from?"

Borlan shrugged. [I tap into the Embassy's vid-archieves during lunch breaks. Humans have such 'interesting' tastes in entertainment.]

Shayna wrinkled up her snout. [Another Phur bites the dust - brought to ruin by the human cultural quagmire called 'B Movies'. Honestly Borlan, haven't you got anything better to do with your lunch breaks?]

[I would, except you keep telsing 'NO!']

"Back to the subject at hand," said Rick loudly, "or 'paw' if you prefer, we need to find where Kemsa's mind resides if not in her head. I suggested another brain, but that doesn't mean she's 'taken over' another mind. She may just be 'time-sharing' brain space with her link-mates.]

Riena leaned forward. "Sounds interesting. How do you see it working with telepathy?"

"It's like what regular computers do when multi-tasking," Rick began. "No, wait. I think distributed computing would be a more accurate analogy, but let's start off with simple multi-tasking." He held up his data pad. "Like in this device, many components of regular computers spend a lot of time sitting around doing nothing because they aren't needed for a certain process or they're waiting for data from some other component. We see this happening in the brain all the time. The limbic system turns on when emotion is being processed. The hippocampus and the corpus callosum fire up when memory is being stored. The frontal lobes come into play with cognitive thinking. The occipital lobes do the visuals. That sort of thing."

[The upshot of all this,] interjected Borlan, [is that we don't use all of our brain all of the time.]

Rick nodded. "Right. Quite often there's nothing for most of the brain to do, and even if it's involved in some process, it's spending a lot of time waiting for data from some other process.]

"But Kemsa couldn’t simply be tapping into the unused portions of her link-mate's brains via telepathy," objected Riena. "What happens when all of them have to use the same part of their brains for some task? Kemsa would have to 'shut down' while she waited for her link-mates to finish what they were doing. That doesn't seem the case here. We've seen no evidence of her going into some weird 'hold mode'."

"Very true, Riena," said Rick. "That's why I think this is more like distributed computing than multitasking."

[I get it!] telsed Shayna sitting up straighter. [Distributed computing is where components share all resources including 'computing cycles' to perform tasks. For instance, if both Kemsa and Jayson are feeling happy about something, Jayson's limbic system could distribute the emotional processing between the two of them by using the 'odd' computational cycles for himself while donating the 'even' computational cycles to Kemsa. There might be a slowdown for both of them, but I bet it wouldn't be that noticeable - especially if Kemsa uses her other link-mates too. In fact, if she were using all of her link-mates mental resources, the processing would go significantly faster.]

"Wait a minute," cautioned Riena. "We're talking as if Kemsa is some sort of data terminal requesting cycle time and resources from her link-mates. We must remember, Kemsa's body has no computational ability at all. Her router is totally non-functional. We need to think of her body as merely a data output device, like a printer or modem. The 'Kemsa' body we see walking around is solely the result of data being fed to it by some outside source. Nothing more."

"Also true," answered Rick. "That means Kemsa's memory as well as her higher logic and decision making functions have to be stored in her link-mates brains as well. The telepathic link these four individuals have may be a lot more complex than we first suspected."

[That's asking a lot of Kemsa's link-mates,] telsed Borlan. [Each one of us has a slightly different way of making decisions and processing information. All of those subtle nuances would need to be stored or reproduced in one or more of Kemsa's link-mates, otherwise Kemsa's personality would suffer. Wouldn't they know parts of their brains were being used by Kemsa?]

Rick shrugged. "Maybe. I don't know. However, consider this. The link-mates - Kemsa, Jayson, Lenti, and Mika - have all indicated that it feels like their link-mates are 'inside' their minds. They feel a presence of some sort. Maybe they do know their brains are being used to some degree by their link-mates. In the distributed computing model I don’t think the feeling would be different, merely increased."

"Sounds scary to me, Rick" commented Riena. "I'm not sure I would want you running roughshod through my noggin."

Shayna chittered. [True. Some dirty minds forget to 'wipe their feet' before they come in.] She winked at Rick. [In this case, however, the link-mates have demonstrated a high level of trust. It probably feels good to them - not creepy.]

[I think this is something we can even test for,] telsed Borlan. [We've plenty of baseline brain activity scans on telsing Phurs back at the lab. What we would need to do is some simultaneous scanning on the link-mates. Increased brain activity would give us a clue as to what's going on.]

"I don't know," murmered Riena. "The linking process itself may have altered brain activity in such a way that conventional baseline scans are useless. We still might not know what we're looking at."

"But it's a start," answered Rick.

Shayna nodded and reached out to the skeptical Riena. [And it might offer Kemsa some hope that, if her condition can ever be reversed, she might be able to move her mind back were it belongs. I think that would be some comfort.]

Riena gave a small smile. "Yeah. It would be nice to be able to offer some hope."

 

[>>>>>>>>>>O<<<<<<<<<<]

 

It felt as if she wasn't even there.

Kemsa could feel Mika - a caring but worried presence. She was trying to sleep even as Kemsa was, and like Kemsa, she wasn't succeeding.

Kemsa could feel Lenti even in her profoundly deep sleep. It was a sad and pity-filled presence - restless and pain-filled. She would not soon forget what had happened this evening, but then, none of them would.

Kemsa could feel Jayson - an anxious and helpless presence. He wanted to do what was right, as always, but there was nothing he could do except wait. Jayson never liked waiting.

And then there was the ever present warmth that defied understanding. Was it Vanna? Or was it something else? She didn't know. All she knew was that it contained no heartache or hidden pain. It was simply there.

Yes.

Kemsa could feel many things.

But she couldn't feel herself.

Perhaps that's the way it had always been. One gets so used to their own mind that they can't perceive it as a distinct entity. Or maybe this was the first time she'd actively tried to feel her own mind and didn't know what to look for. All she was sure of now was that she was no longer like other Phurs. She no longer had the luxury of having a self contained presence. Her mind was no longer a part of her corporeal self.

And she had no idea where - or even how - to look for it.

What had Tellman said? "We control ourselves, but are defined by how others see us."

Was she even here at all? Could she merely be a manifestation of her link-mates need to keep her alive? A puppet whose telepathic strings were being pulled by those who had loved her in life? Kemsa did not like that prospect. If it were true, the thoughts she was having right now were not her own. What she was feeling right now were not her own feelings. She would merely be the ghost of someone else's need - the end-product of another's desire. She would not be real.

No. That cannot be true.

Tellman had also said something else.

"Look to your kit."

Kemsa curled her body protectively around Vanna. Her own kit had not rejected her. Vanna had suckled contentedly and fallen asleep in Kemsa's arms. Kemsa had not had the heart - or more likely, the courage - to move Vanna back to her blankets in the nesting room. Instead Kemsa had brought the kit to bed with her.

Yes.

Vanna had not rejected her.

In that simple act of trust, she would place her hope.

 

[>>>>>>>>>>O<<<<<<<<<<]

 

The healer was going on as if Jayson wasn't even there.

Why did some doctor types do that? How could Jayson offer Griffith any hope if he couldn't understand the problem? So far he hadn't been able to squeeze in one reasonably intelligent question. He tried to concentrate as the lepid healer pointed to another smudge on the x-ray.

[As can clearly be seen here and here, the skull fracture extends from just above the right supramastoid crest on the temporal bone down into the right cerebellar fossa of the occipital bone near the jugular notch. Brain tissue damage from the blow itself wasn't that extensive, but the jugular vein was punctured by a bone fragment, and bleeding into the cranium put pressure on the cerebrum here as well as the right cerebellar hemisphere. Pressure on the medullar area of the brain stem is what compromised respiratory activity.] The healer turned to Jayson. [I think that explains matters.]

Jayson pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. "I'm sure you just telsed something of profound importance, sir, but it was so far above my head it left a contrail. Would you please put it in terms mere mortals can understand?"

The lepid blinked and looked confused, and it took several more questions from Jayson to get a reasonable explanation of Sona's injury. When he finally understood, he thought it ironic that some of Sona's injury was in the same area as Kemsa's would have been had she had a brain to injure.

[What's her prognosis?] Jayson asked.

The lepid shook his head, making his long rabbit-like ears flap to and fro in what would have been a comical fashion if the circumstances weren't so dire. [It is still too early to know,] he telsed. [The extent of the damage can't be fully assessed until the swelling in the brain tissue recedes. We will know more in a day or two. Might you know if she has a Death Wish document?]

Jayson stared - stunned for a moment by the mention of that which he'd tried to evade all evening. [I'm not sure I know what you mean.]

The Lepid dropped his head, his whiskers twitching as if in thought and then raised his black eyes back to Jayson. [I think you humans call it a 'Last Will'.]

Jayson shook his head more from frustration than lack of an answer. He didn't really need this right now. [Mr. Tange might know, but I left him sleeping in Sona's room. He really needed it. Are you that sure she'll die?]

The lepid blinked and then frowned. [No. No. It's not that. As I telsed, it's too early to tell. I merely asked because sometimes a Death Wish document has provisions for what to do in cases where the Phur's body functions can be supported artificially, but their brain cannot recover. Sometimes it is the wish of the Phur to disengage life support so that they can die rather than live a half existence.]

Jayson nodded. [I see. I'll ask Mr. Tange when he awakens.]

He watched the lepid healer nod and then hop-walk through the consulting room door and off toward the nurse's station. Jayson scrubbed at his face, trying to erase some of the weariness he felt. It was late. All his link-mates were asleep. He should be asleep too, but this was not the kind of fatigue that presaged sleep. It was a wary weariness. Sleep, though tempting, was not something he wanted right now. He'd rather face bad news head on - as it happened - rather than hear about it hours later upon awakening.

Jayson gathered his strength, mentally batted away the fatigue, and headed out of the consulting room. However, unlike the healer, he had no other duties to attend to - no other tasks to divert him from what was becoming an ever more hopeless endeavor - that of holding onto hope itself. As he turned down the hall that would lead him back to the critical care rooms, he tried to think about what this evening should have been like. He'd been looking forward to a long talk with Griffith and Harlan. He had to admit that what he missed most about living at the Embassy was the human voices. The quiet, telsing world of the Phurs could get to him on occasion, and at those times he would talk out loud just to hear the sound of a human voice. As much as he loved Kemsa and his link-mates - as much as he tried to be a Phur - he was still human. Kemsa had pointed that out to him once again at Vanna's birth.

Yes. He was still very much a human, but that made his grief for Sona no less real.

It was like a lump in his chest that wouldn't go away. It was the pain he felt as he recalled the critical care room and Griffith's anxious face, pink and trembling with suppressed tears, one hand over the red-stained bandage on Sona's swollen face, the other hand holding her limp paw. It was the painful sight of Sona herself - her luxurious golden mane shaved off, the respirator tube protruding obscenely from her muzzle, and her nose and lips the unhealthy blue-gray of the gravely ill.

The image of her now was a Sona so different from the one he'd first met that evening in Newhom seven months ago. That night, the golden-gowned Sona had been so full of life. Her elegant presence had radiated a confidence that was the exact opposite of Jayson's doubt and uncertainty. That was the night he'd seen the misery of Lenti's paralysis and had his opinions of Phurs forever changed. That was the night he'd discovered that Phurs could be beautiful.

Beautiful like Sona.

Why her?

The black, burning anger he'd felt for Sona when he first sensed Kemsa's terror this evening was gone, but it was still a cankerous memory that only made his present grief worse. He still didn't fully understand why Sona had chosen that graphic method of conferring the truth to Kemsa, but he couldn't doubt its effectiveness. Unfortunately, it had nearly killed Sona, and that reminded him of Lenti. He'd felt her horror at what she'd done before Mika and Kemsa had mercifully sent her beyond consciousness, but when she awoke, he would feel it from her once again, and it would be another deep ache to add to all the others.

Suddenly, it was too much. Jayson stopped and leaned heavily against the wall of the hallway. He needed sleep. He felt stretched to breaking by his anxiety even as the weight of it pressed in upon him. He didn't relish the thought of waking to a new day rubbed raw by the previous night's events, but it would come whether he wished it or not, and sleep would renew his strength even if it could do nothing to restore hope. He tried to remember if there were any comfortable chairs in the hospital lobby. Pulling himself upright, he began turning around to go find out when a blow sent him crashing into the opposite wall.

[Filthy human!] came a scream in his mind. Jayson scrambled to his knees and caught the clenched paw shooting toward his face. Behind the fist was the bare-teeth snarl of a Phur. In the dim light of the hall he couldn't tell what kind. The Phur spat and pulled his fist free as Jayson sprang up into a wary crouch, his fatigue flushed away in a wave of adrenaline.

The Phur backed away into a circling crouch, saliva dripping from his open jaws. [You defile this place with your putrid presence!]

[I have as much right to be here as anyone!] Jayson shot back, his own face morphing from shock to anger.

The Phur spat. [Humans have no right to be on our planet at all - cursed and furless abominations! I would have all your ilk leave NOW!]

[Why? What have I ever done to you?]

The Phurs clawed finger stabbed at the room behind him. [Because of you, my mate lies dead in there! She was all for humans being on Wilderhom, and she was stupid enough to make her feelings known. I tried to stop her, but she was always stubborn. She said the Outpacks massing around Newhom were all piss and tail-wind with their threats.]

Outpack threats? This was the first Jayson had heard of this. Then he noticed something else. He saw that the Phur had a heavily bandaged leg. The Phur coughed and then staggered back against the wall. Jayson stepped forward, but the Phur brought up his fists once again.

[They gave no forewarning. They knew who to target. 'Human-Lover' they called her. I don't know if they intended death, but death was the result, and it was not pretty.]

Without warning, the Phur's paw shot out, grabbed one of Jayson's outstretched hands and literally threw him into the room where his dead mate lay. Jayson fell heavily to the floor, but instantly sprang up and whirled around to face the Phur who now blocked the doorway.

[I didn't kill your mate!] Jayson snapped.

The Phur leaned into the doorframe, breathing heavily, and hissed. [Yours was not the hand that ended her life, but you had a hand in it nonetheless by your mere presence here! Go on, human! Take a good look at what your kind has done to us!]

Jayson's eyes turned to the corpse that lay in the bed. In the better light of the hospital room, he saw that she was a lutrid, an otter-like Phur whose sleek lines Jayson had always found graceful and appealing. However, what he saw in the bed was not attractive at all. Torn, broken, and disfigured were the only things that came to mind. Hisses and growls came from her mate along with his hate-filled telsing.

[I swear this to you human, I won't rest until I see every single one of you destroyed or deported!]

The emotion swirling around the telsing was so real Jayson could feel it, even taste it. It was cold and bitter - and Jayson felt his own bile rise to mix with it. What right did this Phur have to judge him?

[If you seek revenge against an entire race,] Jayson telsed, [then you are a fool!] He felt his eyes boring into the lutrid male's brown ones, trying to beat down the hatred he saw there with an angry look of his own. It didn't work. It merely fed the hate and the lutrid hissed.

[Yes. I am a fool! A fool for not seeing humans sooner for the abominations they truly are! Spiteful, self-centered creatures incapable of love or consideration!]

Jason felt his anger building to match his opponent's ire, and for a moment he relished the sense of power it gave him. He knew not all humans hated Phurs. He knew he was right about this and this Phur was so wrong!

He knew he was in the right.

He knew he was right!

Without realizing it, Jayson's gaze had drifted down to the dead lutrid in the bed and his thoughts and feelings stopped instantly - frozen in his mind by the frigid corpse that lay before him.

What, by all the Spirits of Space, was he doing?

He was indulging in unseeing anger simply because he wanted to win an argument? Prove a point? What sort of madness was this? Blind anger had put Sona's life in jeopardy and here he was doing it again! His anger fled before his shame as he dropped to his knees beside bed. Before he realized it, his hand was stroking the blood-stained brow above the dead Phur's unseeing eyes. Then her mate was across from him and snatching Jayson's hand away from the body.

[Do not defile her with your filthy touch, human!]

Jayson didn't try to move or pull his hand from the lutrid's painful grip. His anger was gone, and with it, any will to fight. He simply looked back at the dead Phur's mate and began to feel something else for the hatred he saw in his eyes. Pity. At Jayson's look, the lutrid tossed his hand aside and looked away. Jayson heaved a heavy sigh, trying to rid himself of the growing lump in his chest, but it didn't help.

[I would bring her back if I could,] he finally telsed. [But I…can't.]

The lutrid hissed again, eyes still averted. His hate continued to burn in Jayson's mind, and Jayson looked from him to his mate and back again. Why didn't this Phur understand? Why couldn't he see?

[You telse of revenge,] Jayson continued, [but revenge can no more reclaim your mate than I can. It will only add to death's numbers, and give Hatred a reason to laugh at us for being fooled once again.]

The lutrid's face remained a cold mask, and Jayson closed his eyes.

"Please," Jayson whispered to the air. "For your mate's sake, stop reveling in your hate." Jayson stopped, opened his eyes, and began to slowly shake his head. Even that wording wasn't strong enough. "Please stop groveling in abject submission before the very thing that killed her! If you can't stop doing that, you're nothing more than a slave to your mate's true murderer."

Jayson saw the lutrid's brief flicker of realization before his eyes dropped again to the face of the dead Phur. In a room not too far away, Sona lay close to death because of a terrible misunderstanding over something a human had started almost six months ago. Jayson could hate those faceless humans for that, but it was as if something inside him had been broken. He couldn't do it anymore. His vision began to blur as he placed a hand upon the cold face of the dead Phur. Suddenly, he found himself wanting desperately to grieve for something - anything - just to relieve the lump in his chest that was beginning to choke him.

"I'm so sorry for you…for all of us," he whispered as the first tear fell.

Then Jayson, the human, dropped his head to the shoulder of a Phur who was past all worldly pain and finally gave vent to the grief he'd been unable to show for Sona.

 

[>>>>>>>>>>O<<<<<<<<<<]

 

It was as if he wasn't even there.

Procyon was low in the night sky and one would think enough light could shine through the tall crested windows of the dark halls and passageways to make navigation easy, but no. The black basalt walls refused to give back any of the pale moonlight. The human who walked these halls had to creep along slowly - as much to avoid shadow-hidden obstacles as to keep his passage silent.

Finally, the human came to a locked door and pulled a small object from his pocket which he waved over the lock. The sound of the lock's mechanism was a coarse clacking against the velvety backdrop of utter silence. The human waited to make sure the sound hadn't awakened the occupants of the suite or alerted those charged with making the night safe for those who slept. Time slipped by, and eventually he was sure it was safe to proceed. Slowly he opened the door and crept inside.

The blackness in the windowless hall he entered was complete, but that didn't matter. He knew his objective was close. If all went well, there would be almost no evidence that he'd been here.

All went well.

It usually did for him.




5. A Fool's Courage.

 

Lenti's face slammed into the ground and blood sprayed from her nose. She gasped in pain. The hidden willow thicket she and her human client had retired to for some 'privacy' had become a torture chamber. She tried to break the human's hold, but she was face-down underneath him and could do nothing to defend herself.

"You really didn't think I was going to hump an abomination like you, did you?" taunted the human.

He jerked the fistful of mane he had in his hand and smashed her face into the earth once more. Lenti yelped in renewed pain as the human cackled a sick laugh. Suddenly, his grip was on her throat. His other hand, which was pinning her paws behind her, pressed even more painfully into the small of her back, and his weight caused stones to dig painfully into her stomach. To her growing horror the human began to squeeze. Lenti struggled as her breath was completely cut off.

"You're afraid of dying, aren't you, whore."

Lenti tried to nod but the human's grip wouldn't allow it.

"Well don't be afraid. I won't kill you. That would be too nice. For the likes of you I have something special planned."

In a swift motion for one so large, the human brought his knee up onto the small of Lenti's back even as the hand that had been holding her paws snaked around her upper chest.

"This is a little something I learned back on Old Earth. The human bitch I practiced on deserved it just as much as you do."

With terrible force, the human pulled up, bending Lenti's spine backward. Something beneath the human's knee snapped, and a horrible pain ripped through Lenti's midriff, exploding out of her stomach. Her scream was a choked croak that barely got past the human's iron grip on her neck. With his knee still pinning her pelvis to the ground, he leaned even further back and something else in Lenti's back broke. This time, her legs turned to living fire. Mercifully, the agony lasted only a moment before she blacked out. When the world swam back into view, the fire in her legs had gone out - along with all other feeling from her pelvis on down. The human released her, and Lenti fell forward like a limp rag, her lip splitting as it struck the ground.

"I hope you enjoy what's left of your life, whore!"

The humans' evil laughter pounded into her mind as he walked away - a scorching humiliation on top of the horror of what had just happened to her. She couldn't move and almost couldn't breathe. Her vision was red with the pain that now coursed through the part of her body she could still feel.

Then, into the red haze, swam a face - a desperately concerned face - the face of one who would help her in the long, depressing months to come.

Sona.

But even as Lenti looked up into the lovely face, ugly bruises blossomed upon it, the brown eyes became glazed and unseeing, and blood began to leak from mouth and ears. Now it was a Lenti of sound body who stood over Sona's broken one. Lenti tore her eyes away from the grizzly sight, no longer able to bear it. Why hadn't that human killed her that day so long ago? She was the one who deserved to die. If she had, none of this would have happened. Lenti felt herself slipping away from the dream. Would that she could slip away as easily from the memory of what she had done.

I'm so sorry, Sona.

 

 

Mika held the small putsie to her chest as she peeked into her link-mate's sleeping room. Lenti's covers lay twisted about her as if she'd been in a fight with an unseen attacker. Her armless torso was curled into a protective ball with her knees drawn up, and the bladed 'toes' of one artificial leg poked from a ragged hole in the blanket. Her bowed head lay next to a damp pillow. The look of vast unhappiness on her muzzle told Mika she'd been crying in her sleep.

Oh Lenti, thought Mika. Why do this to yourself? You are not the monster you think you are.

Mika felt a twinge of the pain to come and hoped her strategy would work. She brought Beemer around to face her, holding him close and sending warm feelings to the little putsie. Its bright black eyes twinkled and Beemer gave a tiny chirrup.

Lenti needs you, she thought to her pet. You can love without judgment. Go to her. Salve the guilt. Let her know she is still worthy of regard.

Beemer churred and gave Mika's nose a lick. Smiling, Mika set the putsie down and it bounced its ferret-like way across the floor before hopping onto Lenti's bed and right up to the sleeping felocanid. He gave Lenti's nose a few licks, sat back, and chirruped. When nothing happened, he put a small paw on her nose and chirruped again. This time Lenti stirred, but only to pull her nose away from whatever was on her muzzle. Beemer murred and pushed his little muzzle back into her face and began licking the dampness that still covered Lenti's cheeks. This time Lenti cracked an eye.

But the reaction Mika had hoped for was not to be.

After dashing from the room, it took the residence tower staff almost half an hour to find the distraught putsie.

 

[>>>>>>>>>>O<<<<<<<<<<]

 

Korrak sent Pel off with final orders for today's estate duties and cleaned his desk in preparation for breakfast. As he did so, he carelessly grabbed his belt knife and opened a slice in one finger. Cursing under his breath, he retrieved small blotter pad from his top desk drawer and pressed his finger onto it. Within moments, his bleeding stopped and he continued with his task.

Too much happens too swiftly, he thought as he arranged documents. I let my guard down momentarily and brainless knife is smarter than me.

He was almost finished when knocks came at his door. Korrak jerked his head up, and immediately felt pain lance through his right eye. Unfiltered sunlight did uncomfortable things to his right eye's artificial cornea. Human healers never explained why his right eye was so oversensitive after operation, and he still wore his eye-patch in bright environments. Morning sun from hall windows now streamed into his office, and whoever was there was silhouetted against its hazed and painful glare. Korrak quickly moved from behind his desk and into shadow as he blinked away green and red after-images from his field of vision. He turned back to his visitor who was still in silhouette but without that glaring backdrop.

[Well?] complained Korrak. [Announce your business or leave!]

The figure stepped into Korrak's office and light diminished as doors were closed. Korrak blinked again. [I telsed 'State your business'.]

"I have a few short questions," came spoken words.

Korrak recognized who was speaking even as his eyes adjusted.

Tellman.

Korrak suppressed a growl. [I allow you two questions. Quickly, now. It is time for morning meal and much work is ahead of me this day.] He saw Tellman nod with that false smile of his.

"Two questions then," said Tellman. He walked to Korrak's desk and examined it for a moment before he turned to Korrak. "First question: Do you trust your Master?"

Korrak felt his jaw clench, and he eyed Tellman, but telsed nothing.

"You give no answer?"

[I promised none, but none should be needed for question like that,] answered Korrak.

Tellman nodded. "Very well. Second question," he continued. "Do you believe your Master is capable of using a Portal to intentionally kill another being?"

Tellman's eyes shone with a cold light that made Korrak's neck hairs bristle. [You ask wrong Phur. That question is for my Master.]

"Ah," said Tellman softly. "Another non-answer." He turned and walked back to Korrak's door. He opened it - then stopped and turned his gaze back on Korrak. "You guard yourself and your Master well. Just be sure you are guarding the right things."

With that, Tellman was gone - along with Korrak's appetite.

 

[>>>>>>>>>>O<<<<<<<<<<]

 

Mika held the breakfast tray and nodded to Kemsa. They tried to keep their thoughts as neutral as possible. This had to be done carefully. Lenti might use any distress on their part to further justify her hatred toward herself. It was her burning self-recrimination that had sent Beemer fleeing from her room earlier. The putsie recognized hatred when he felt it. He just hadn't understood that it wasn't directed at him.

**Are you sure about this?** thought Mika.

Kemsa nodded. She felt quickly for Jayson and knew he was deeply asleep. It had been a very long night for him, and she hoped that what they were about to do would not disturb him. Satisfied, she pushed through the door. Lenti was still curled in her bed, her back to the door. Kemsa's heart went out to her, but she let nothing of her feelings leak through their link. Instead she put on a benign smile and walked to the bed.

[Time to get up Lenti. It looks like breakfast in bed for you today.]

A shudder ran through Lenti's body, and she turned her tear-stained face up toward Kemsa and Mika. Her reddened eyes darted from the two of them to the breakfast tray and back again.

[What?]

[I telsed 'breakfast in bed'. Without arms, it's going to be rather difficult for you to eat on your own - except 'doggie' fashion.]

Lenti turned away. **I'm not hungry.** she thought to them.

Kemsa turned to Mika, gave her a 'wish me luck' look at took the bowl of hot porridge and a spoon from the tray. She walked around to the other side of the bed and knelt down. [Won't you please eat something? You've had a hard night, what with trying to kill Sona and all. I think a nice, hot bowl of porridge would make you feel better.]

Lenti's eyes had grown wide with incomprehension. [How can you telse that? Sona might be dying and it's all my fault!]

[Of course it's all your fault,] continued Kemsa, shifting the emotions she felt at what she was doing so they would not interfere. [But why should you care? I'm safe and that's the important thing. Forget about Sona. Go on. Eat.] Kemsa pushed the bowl toward an ever more horrified Lenti.

[What? How can you ignore Sona!] Lenti's confused horror was becoming tinged with anger.

Kemsa pushed the bowl closer. [Forget her. Eat.]

Lenti pulled away from Kemsa. [No. NO! I will not forget her!]

Kemsa pressed her further. [Eat, you silly female. Eat!]

Lenti pulled back so far she fell out of bed. With no arms for balance or maneuvering she fell heavily to the cold stone floor and cracked her head sharply. Kemsa was crawling over the bed, the bowl of porridge poised above Lenti.

[Eat, Lenti. You must keep up your strength to fend off other crazies like Sona. Eat. EAT!]

Lenti was shaking her head. [Don't telse that about Sona! She was my only friend when I was paralyzed. Don't you dare telse that!]

Kemsa got off the bed and positioned herself. [Lenti!] she telsed, the reproach in her mind-voice totally belying her real emotions. [Sona got what she deserved! I think you should be proud of what you did.]

Lenti was shaking her head violently. [Stop it! Stop it!]

Lenti was suddenly on her feet and hissing. [Sona doesn’t deserve to die. I do!] Her angry eyes were darting back and forth from Mika who was in front of the door to Kemsa who was in front of the only window.

Kemsa withdrew the porridge and nodded. [Ah, yes. The 'Oh, I'm so evil I deserve to die' thing. Yes, Lenti, I picked that up from you very clearly this morning. So, would you feel better if someone beat you to a bloody pulp? I don't see anyone stupid enough to try that, so maybe you'd like it if Mika or I moved so you could throw yourself out some window. That would be grand - at least until you splattered your brains all over my nice clean courtyard. Another mess for Korrak to clean up. Nice.]

Lenti hissed louder, her hackles up and her tail fluffed in a full anger display. Even without arms she was frightening. Still Kemsa pressed her. [But perhaps you're right. You deserve death. After all, this thing with Sona is something you've been planning for months, right? Let's see, if I toss her just right, I can crush her skull. You've been practicing body tossing on your collection of Sona dummies in the dungeon, just waiting for the right time to carry out your diabolical plan, is that it?]

[You're making fun of me! GET OUT!]

Kemsa tossed aside the bowl of porridge with a crash and rushed up to Lenti, planting her nose right in Lenti's face.

[NO! I won't get out! What do you plan to do about it? Kill me too? We may have locked up your arms, but you still have your gross, unnatural legs to do the deed! You could punch my stomach right through my spine! Go ahead! You may have defended me yesterday, but today's a new day! Time for a new victim! After all, killing is all you're good for, right?]

Kemsa felt Mika's readiness and mentally reached deep into Lenti's mind into the place where she'd locked Lenti's rage last night. Hoping she wasn't doing something supremely stupid, she released it.

Lenti's howl was deafening. Before Kemsa knew it, Lenti had head-butted her into a wall and pinned her there with a metaramic knee. Lenti's raging eyes were only centimeters from hers. Lenti's breathing was hot and ragged as the spittle flew from her mouth. The very air seemed to throb. Kemsa felt a terrible fear well up inside her and made no effort to conceal it. This was exactly what she'd wanted.

You can do this, Lenti, thought Kemsa in the deepest recess of her mind far from the fear. I know you can.

Lenti's knee pressed harder into her gut. The pain became intense. Tears sprang to Kemsa's eyes, yet she refused to look away form the hatred that pressed in on her and the room around her.

Fight it. Be who you truly are.

Lenti's knee drew back and the unworldly screech that came from her throat froze Kemsa's heart.

Lenti's knee came surging back…

Kemsa shut her eyes.

Please.

Lenti's knee struck with shattering force…

…and blasted a hole in the wall right next to Kemsa's hip.

In the next few moments, Lenti was a complete whirlwind of destruction. Her foot streaked around in a blurred arc and shattered the bedframe. Howling, she reduced her bed to splinters and torn fabric. The bedstand was kicked clear out the window. More holes appeared in walls, and light fixtures were torn from their brackets. Finally, she completely destroyed her dresser and wardrobe before collapsing in a heap amidst the ruin.

Kemsa and Mika waited. It was all they could do while their hearts slowed.

Soft sobbing came from the collapsed body of their link-mate, but they knew it was only the aftershocks of the battle Lenti had just waged. Slowly they sent light, mental tendrils of respect and comfort - respect for the warrior who fought well and comfort because even in victory, pain was no stranger.

Kemsa's gentle thought finally broke the mental silence. **Forgive me for my callousness dear Lenti, but I will never stop heaping scorn on foolish excuses for self hatred. You are not evil, and you never were.** She knelt beside the fallen Lenti and ran a soft paw over her shuddering, armless shoulders. **In order to be truly evil, you are not allowed to feel remorse. The truly evil ignore the wreckage they leave in their wake. The simple fact that you feel anything at all about what happened to Sona disqualifies you as evil. You've seen and fought your true enemy and now have its measure. It will never take you again unaware.**

Lenti turned tear-filled and swollen eyes to Kemsa. **Can I see her? Can I see Sona? I want…I want to…**

Lenti's thoughts stumbled for a moment, her true remorse overwhelming her ability to think.

**I just want to be with her,** she finally finished.

Kemsa nodded and dropped a loving lick on Lenti's bowed head. **Yes. I think she would like that.**

 

[>>>>>>>>>>O<<<<<<<<<<]

 

Because Harlan had not talked the entire trip back to Newhom, none of the BioTel team had either. His grim expression hadn't helped either. Riena guessed that this was because his 'prize' Phur construct, Lenti, had just used her enhanced RayGen prosthetics to nearly kill an innocent Phur - though the 'innocent' part was still under debate. In their late night bull session, none of the team had come up with a satisfactory explanation for Sona's behavior. Only Sona knew why she'd done what she had. That is, if she remembered anything. Head injuries were noted for affecting memory.

They were now setting up their monitoring equipment in Sona's hospital room. Ironically, their equipment was even more sophisticated than what the human hospital at the Embassy had to offer. This was not surprising, since BioTel's area of expertise here on Wilderhom was in monitoring Phur stroke and head injuries and how Phurs recovered from them. Besides, RayGen was paying for it. Harlan had insisted.

Rick made a final adjustment on the telsing torus and stood back. "I hope this thing gives us some answers."

[Then you believe this is an injury Sona can recover from?] telsed Shayna. [Not all the swelling has gone down, although that new brain tissue anti-inflammatory Harlan suggested the healers use seems to be working quite well.]

"Six hours is its efficacy period." Rick looked at his watch. "We'll know in about two hours if it works on Phurs as well as it does on humans."

[I've got a signal,] telsed Borlan. [Analyzing now.]

Riena stepped over to Borlan's monitor and gave a little gasp when the initial scan came up.

"What is it?" asked Rick, coming over with Shayna in tow.

Riena shook her head. "Nothing we didn't expect from reading the initial hospital reports. It's just so much more graphic using our technique." She pointed to a portion of the scan on the monitor. "It doesn't seem to have affected her router so some telepathic repair is possible."

Borlan shook his head. [It'll be tough. With most of the right temporal fold involved in the injury, she's going to have a hard time of it. She may recover enough to regain some movement and feeling in the left half of her body, but she'll definitely be deaf in her right ear.]

"That's what it looks like. Nothing will ever be the same for her," commented Riena in a calm voice that belied her regret.

[It never is after an injury like this,] commented Shayna. [I wonder if she'll ever remember why she did this to Kemsa.]

Rick shook his head. [If it was a spur of the moment decision - she never will. No time to transfer short term to long term memory.]

A knock on the door caused all of them to turn, and since Shayna was the closest, she answered. She opened the door half-expecting Harlan since they told him they'd be finished setting up about now. However, it wasn't Harlan. Instead, Shayna was looking at Kemsa, Mika, and to her surprise, Lenti.

[May we come in?] asked Kemsa.

[Are you sure it's…safe?] Shayna nodded imperceptibly to Lenti, whose head was bowed. Mika had an arm wrapped around Lenti's cloak wrapped shoulders and seemed to be supporting her.

Kemsa nodded. [The danger has passed. Lenti simply wishes to see her friend.]

Shayna nodded and invited them in. [Please pardon our mess. I'm afraid there isn't much room for bedside visitors, what with all the boy's gadgets.]

[Will all this help?] asked Kemsa, waving to the instruments and monitors strewn about.

[We hope so,] answered Shayna tentatively. [It will at the least give us an idea of how well recovery is progressing.]

At this telsing, Lenti's head came up and Shayna could see the pain in her haunted eyes. [She will recover then?]

Shayna stepped over to Lenti, brushed a paw gently across her cheek, and then looked at Mika and Kemsa. [It's been my experience since working for BioTel that relatives and friends of our subjects need to know exactly what we know. I try to be gentle with my explanations, but the truth is often harsh and painful.] She took Lenti by the muzzle and touched noses with her. [But you already know that. However, know this too. There is always hope. If I have learned nothing else from my experience with BioTel, it is that the mind is a truly amazing thing. There's so much we don't know yet.] Shayna nodded to Kemsa. [Kemsa is living proof of that.] She put an arm around Lenti's still armless shoulders and guided her to Borlan's monitor. She beckoned the others to follow, and when they'd all gathered around, Shayna explained what they knew about Sona's condition.

 

Kemsa saw that Lenti paid attention as best she could to the explanations, but her eyes often strayed back to the figure in the bed. It was when Borlan was telsing about how brains re-route around injuries that she was most attentive.

[The temporal fold in the cerebrum is where voluntary motor control and regional sensory information is processed,] telsed Borlan. [Sona will need to transfer much of the control for the left side of her body to the undamaged left side of her brain. By the way, our brains work in a 'reversed' fashion with one half of the brain controlling the opposite side of the body. Physical therapy stimulates this re-routing by forcing the brain to initiate new neural pathways to other parts of the brain, but age is a factor in how fast this can happen. The older we are the fewer new tricks we can be taught. With Phurs, if the router is not damaged, recover is sped up ten-fold. We're still working out the mechanics behind that, but it seems to hinge on the fact that the router's main purpose is to route telepathic input to various parts of the brain. It follows that it could also help with re-routing other signals as well. Sona's router is in good shape, so that will help. As for you…] Borlan pointed at Kemsa. [Without a router, you're still an enigma.] He quickly held up a paw. [BUT…we even have a theory for that now.]

Borlan explained what they'd come up with the previous evening, and after much questioning and helpful tidbits from the other BioTel members, Kemsa thought she understood. [So my mind resides in my link-mates' brains. Is that it?] Kemsa wasn't sure how she felt about that. It seemed like a frightening condition, yet she could sense no discernable difference between her present 'self' and her old 'self'.

"That's the short of it," answered Rick. "So you can see why we would like to run some more tests. We have an idea of what to look for now, and further tests might confirm this theory."

[I can see how they might. Very well, then.] Kemsa gestured to Sona. [However, do what you can for her first.]

Rick nodded, and Borlan stood up from his monitor and stretched. [And speaking of what to do first, I think Riena needs to take over my station here. I need a break.]

"Borlan! Mind your manners! Even before that, we need to know if our visitors have any further questions." She turned to Kemsa and the others. "Anything?"

Mika and Kemsa shook there heads, but Lenti motioned toward Sona. [May I sit with her now?]

"I don't see a problem. Just mind the wires, gadgets, and such," said Rick. "The left side of the bed is the most clear, and I think there's an extra stool around here somewhere. Ah, yes. Here it is." Rick retrieved and positioned the stool. "Not very soft, but it's available, and plush lounging benches are not." He helped Lenti arrange herself on the stool.

[A little closer, please?] telsed Lenti softly. [I want to touch her, but I don't have my arms with me. All I have is my nose.]

Rick complied, and when she was close enough, Lenti leaned forward and laid her head on Sona's chest with its four natural 'pillows'. She touched her nose to the bottom of Sona's chin and sighed sadly.

[Let's leave her alone with Sona for a bit,] offered Kemsa. [It's perfectly safe.] As they all withdrew from the room and out into the hall, Kemsa tapped her head. [I can feel what she's doing so there's no danger of repeating what happened yesterday.] Kemsa had telsed this more as a reassurance than anything else. She knew she didn't need to monitor Lenti. Lenti was well past doing anything rash.

But Kemsa was wrong.

She had only a fleeting moment's warning.

**Lenti! NO!** she thought as she spun on her feet.

But it was too late.

Monitors were beeping wildly as they all rushed back into the room. However, except for the flashing lights and alarms, nothing seemed changed. Lenti's head was still lying quietly on Sona's slowly rising and falling chest.

The monitors, however, told a different story.

"Spirits of Space!" hollered Rick. He looked to the two peaceful but unresponsive figures on the bed and then back to the monitor. "This can't be right."

Mika had rushed to Lenti's side and was trying to rouse her. [I get no response!] she telsed. She looked to a shocked Kemsa. **But I still feel her!** she thought privately. **Do you?** Kemsa nodded as Rick continued his rant.

"According to the monitor, Sona just had something like a Grand Mal seizure, but there's no indication of any motor activity! Look here! Massive brain activity began at the router, cascaded through the corpus callosum, and into the cerebrum. The olfactory area near the pituitary gland fired next followed almost immediately the auditory centers in the temporal lobes. Then the occipital lobe in back lit up. From there, the wave shot forward across the whole cerebral cortex hitting the sensory and motor areas in the temporal folds and finally the frontal lobes housing conscious thought. It was like the neurons were tripping in sequence depending on their level of conscious function. What happened to cause this?" He looked to Riena and the two BioTel Phurs, but they appeared just as clueless.

Kemsa was nodding now. It fit - especially since she could feel something else in her mind besides Lenti. She made her way swiftly over to where Mika knelt by the still form of Lenti. Kemsa was relieved to see that Lenti was still breathing. With what had just occurred, there was a real danger that Lenti would stop breathing. But she hadn't.

Lenti, you foolish Phur, I hope you know what you're doing, thought Kemsa as she knelt down beside Mika. I always wondered if it was wise for Jayson and I to teach you that technique, but wise or not, what's done is done, and I will not deny it took bravery to do what you did. You always had courage in abundance. But then, courage is simply foolishness combined with noble purpose.

Kemsa sighed and steeled herself for the consequences of Lenti's actions. This would take some work to sort out. Suddenly, the 'something else' Kemsa felt in her mind began to resolve itself into something recognizable - and that something sent a sleepy mental thought.

**Hello?**

Kemsa felt the thought and it made her smile.

**Hello, and welcome to our happy little group…Sona.**

 

[>>>>>>>>>>O<<<<<<<<<<]

 

Tellman sat at his desk in the Embassy Office Complex and carefully packaged the samples he'd collected at Kemsa's estate. When the small, packing rectangle sealed itself, he placed it before him on the desk and leaned back. He needed to think about the events that had occurred at the estate. It had gone mostly as he thought it would, but the Sona situation had been a surprise - not that he was complaining. Her injury simplified matters considerably. It was Kemsa who had been the primary subject of this trip. She was now fully aware of the state of her biological brain, and that knowledge hadn't done as much damage to her sense-of-self as he would have imagined.

Good, he thought. One doesn't go prying for answers when one doesn't think there is a problem.

Oh, the BioTel people would continue to pry into Kemsa's condition, and he would keep an eye on them, but that wasn't a big problem. One usually didn't find answers if one was looking in the wrong place to begin with. The truth about the whereabouts of Kemsa's mind was safe.

And that was so very important for what would soon take place.

Satisfied with his analysis of the present situation, Tellman leaned forward, held out his right hand, palm up and concentrated. In moments, a small portal appeared above his outstretched hand and a gray-metal sphere about two centimeters in diameter dropped through it onto his palm. He picked up the rectangle containing the samples with his other hand, and dropped it through the topside of the newly formed portal. Then the gray-metal sphere rose from where in lay on his palm and disappeared back through the portal, which promptly vanished.

It begins.

Tellman let out a breath he'd been holding. The samples he'd just sent off would allow him to do what he needed to do more easily. At this thought, a hint of something bubbled up from the depths of his mind, but he quickly suppressed it. Why must emotions still bother him after so long? He shook his head irritably. Emotions had always been his weak point. It was why he had been given this concession.

It was also why he had not passed the Test the first time.

Kemsa's test was yet to come, but it would be no less difficult than his had been. Tellman let his mind drift back to an earlier day. It was the time of testing, and it seemed so very long ago.

 

The star was the brightest point of light on a backdrop of lesser points in the utter blackness of space. Seven planets and two asteroid belts accompanied this heavenly traveler. The one who watched them knew this because he'd been there and seen them up close. One of the planets held life.

He turned from the view monitor, reached out and picked up a small, gray-metal sphere from where it lay cushioned on its support stand. Bringing it up to his head, he pressed it lightly against his temple. Then he closed his eyes and concentrated as he had been taught.

Slowly, a slight warmth began to emanate from the sphere. He thought there should be more this time, but a minor rise in temperature was all he felt. It was all he ever felt, and soon, it too disappeared.

He opened his eyes.

The gravity sensors monitoring local space confirmed what he saw on the screen - or rather, what he no longer saw. A hint of awe tickled his mind, but he suppressed it. He mustn't let what had just happened affect him in any way. His judgment must always be uncolored by feelings. That was the primary requirement.

A pale, green light emanated from the gray-metal sphere he still held, and his eyes quickly locked onto it. This was it.

He waited.

The green sphere blinked again.

He felt a bead of sweat form on his temple and trickle down his cheek.

When the green light appeared a third time, and he let go of the breath he'd been holding in secret and set the sphere back on its resting stand.

He'd finally passed the test.

He was now a Watcher.

 

Tellman returned his mind to the present, and called up a file on his monitor. He typed in the complex code and waited for his terminal to digest it. In moments, the 'Colonel' document appeared. It was a massive document spanning decades, and he added a few more notes to it, before sending it back through the complicated encryption process. He wasn't sure why he kept the file. Like his buried emotions, it was simply another minor quirk in his otherwise neutral personality. He didn’t need to keep it.

He already knew everything there was to know about himself.




6. One more for Luck.

 

The day was half over and there was still much to do to prepare.

Tellman looked over the transcript from the Relnor-5 Colony and nodded. As inept as some of them were, they would be ready for what was to come. Cannon fodder needed little training. Now what he needed to do was invite an old client of the Colonel's to re-enter the mix. This would be too sensitive a message to send via long-distance telepathy, so a data card via courier would be needed. Though sworn to secrecy, Telepathic Comm Specs at the Deep-Space Comm Center were still human, and humans could be persuaded to divulge secrets. That would be most unfortunate in this case. Tellman knew his client by a code number, and he would use that in his correspondence even though the name of the Trans-World CEO was well known. Breaking protocol was not something the 'Colonel' did. The 'dark-haired man' would remain simply HTC2625.

Tellman composed and typed out his message, encoded it, and then 'locked' the file in a courier data card. If things went well, he'd be able to drop it off at the space port on his way back from the Phur Hospital. He knew this was the easiest of the several things he needed to do today. The hardest would be to convince Griffith Tange of the advisability of having such a high ranking Trans-World official visit Wilderhom. Griffith would be difficult to approach today considering the events that had taken place yesterday at Kemsa's estate, but Tellman would try anyway. Griffith's discomposure could even work to Tellman's advantage. The Phur Liaison Officer's mind would not be on matters of State, and he might be more amenable to suggestions. Perhaps he would even forget his biggest argument against inviting high-ranking officials to Wilderhom.

Griffith had always thought that they would make too tempting a target for the local insurgents.

A ghost of a smile crossed Tellman's lips.

But that's the whole point.

 

[>>>>>>>>>>O<<<<<<<<<<]

 

As many times as Jayson had been here before, this 'place' still amazed him. A contrivance of their combined imagination, it was the place where his link-mates' minds commingled.

It was the realm of the Telepathic Bridge.

The Paths of Thought.

 

Every Thought, a Sparkling Jewel. Every Mind, a Realm of Light.

Joined together, Body, Soul, Tethered Spirits fill the Night.

Thought surrounds as Sense abounds. Hearts and Minds, as one, Unite.

Travelers all, in Sound and Sight, Through this World of Crystal Light.

 

Kemsa's unmistakable thoughts caused Jayson's dream to take on the 'first water' clarity of cognitive dreaming. He acknowledged Kemsa's presence by conjuring a beautiful vision of her. He felt her mental smile at his complimentary thought, but he also felt her underlying concern.

Another presence then made itself known, and it had the unmistakable feeling of Mika. She had a gentle, but solid, strength about her that could belong to no one else. Again, Jayson's mind turned the feeling into a mental picture of her. She too looked and felt concerned. Jayson could guess the reasons, but why now?

**We meet here now because your body still needs sleep,** explained Kemsa. **But this is also the best way to show you what has happened.**

Jayson felt the dread of uncertainty and his dream world flickered. **Is something wrong with Sona?**

He suddenly became aware of a presence both familiar and unfamiliar. The strangeness of the sensation added to his dread, and the landscape of light around him dimmed - its colors washing away into pale shades of gray.

**Jayson? It's me.**

Jayson concentrated on the new presence. **Lenti?** It was the only name he could put to the presence - or the part he recognized.

**Yes. It's Lenti.**

Jayson felt the apprehension in this thought, and it fed his own. What else had happened since he fell asleep. What else? He felt himself struggle toward wakefulness.

**Jayson! Calm yourself. This is best done here. It cannot happen elsewhere!**

Mika's command brooked no argument. She was 'in his face' so to speak, and having little choice, he let the nervousness slide away from him. It wasn't gone - simply set aside.

**Sona is not dead. In fact she is recovering.** Mika waved her spectral paw toward a spot beyond where the three of them stood.

There, in the distance amid the shifting shades of light and dark, was a presence that felt somewhat like Lenti. At least that was the mental image Jayson was trying to apply to it. He was only partially successful. It was a Lenti that had far too much gold in her fur. As the figure approached, Jayson felt its apprehension grow. This time, however, Jayson resisted the urge to add the feeling to his own. What he felt from the figure belonged to the figure, not to him. Finally it stopped beside the three of them.

It was indeed, Lenti. Jayson knew that now. He could feel her mind, but he also felt another mind - one that contained a hint of the presence Mika possessed combined with some of Lenti's complexity as well as some of the determined control of Kemsa. Taken together, it had the feeling of wisdom, but at the same time, it felt childlike, very frightened, and too far away.

**I had to do it, Jayson,** came Lenti's sorrowful thought. **I had to try to help her somehow."

**And you wished something else as well,** thought Mika with no rebuke. **When Sona's body awakens, it will not be Sona who feels the pain of your attack. It will be you.**

Lenti sent a feeling of assent. She had caused the pain and it was only just that she endure it.

Suddenly, it all made sense. The other presence had to be Sona. Lenti must have switched bodies with her - something that amazed Jayson because he wasn't sure how that could be done with a comatose Phur unless the Phur's router was still functioning at some level. Slowly, the visualization of Sona as being part of Lenti dissolved and a ghostly, partially formed canid with a golden mane separated itself from Lenti.

**Sona?**

Jayson tried to bring Sona's form into clearer focus, but it remained insubstantial. It raised its partially formed head and looked at him with haunted eyes. It was Sona, yet not Sona. Jayson willed the apparition into clarity and found that Sona's vacant look diminished and her body solidified, though not completely. A faint thought of a beloved human drifted from her mind, but was soon replaced by a renewed feeling of apprehension as her eyes ranged over Jayson and the others. Quickly, Lenti's form swirled around Sona, covering her as a mother might re-arrange a blanket around a whimpering infant.

**You are safe here, Sona** came Lenti's tender thought. **No one will hurt you.**

**Is this how you found her?** asked Jayson. **She's not what I expected.**

Lenti's presence darkened as feelings of indignation at the question warred with the remorse of her own culpability. **Yes. This was how I found her.**

**It's the brain damage,** thought Kemsa. **I think it destroyed some of Sona's personality.**

**But there must be something we can do,** pleaded Lenti. **I was so good at making telepathic connections within myself that I thought I could do it with her - help her reconnect to the damaged areas - but I can't restore something that's not there anymore!**

**Calm yourself, Lenti. You will disturb Sona,** admonished Mika who had added her own protective presence to Lenti's.

**The BioTel Phurs telsed that the swelling hadn't gone down completely,** added Kemsa. **Sona may recover more memory given time, and there may yet be something we can do.**

Jayson and the others turned to Kemsa, whose presence radiated hope. **It's something our not-so-dear friend Mr. Long told me. 'We control who we are, but we are defined in this world by how we are seen by others.' He may have been speaking metaphorically, but there is also a literal interpretation. Sona may have lost a portion of herself, but much of who she is has been recorded in places other than her own mind. She also resides in the memories of those around her - most especially, her close friends. We can at least give back to her what we know of her.

**Friends helping friends remember, eh?** stated Jayson, his hope rising as well. **Are you thinking what I'm thinking?**

The form of Kemsa swirled in mirth. **In our present state, you already know what I'm thinking.**

**That I do. Just re-stating it for the record. So who should present the idea to him? Me?**

Kemsa's urging was the strongest, but all around him sent feelings of agreement, and Jayson acknowledged the consensus.

**Okay, okay. I'll do it.**

He already knew their request would be agreed to. After all, the one they were thinking of approaching was Sona's best friend. For him, deciding to join their ever-expanding group would probably be a real 'no-brainer'.

Kemsa's mind stopped in 'mid-mirth'. **Jayson!**

**Sorry, Kemsa! It was a slip of the brain. No! Mind! Slip of the mind! That's it.**

Jayson made a quick dash for wakefulness before Kemsa could recover. For all its usefulness, this link had its share of problems, too.

 

[>>>>>>>>>>O<<<<<<<<<<]

 

After much questioning and some rummaging, Jayson had managed to find some coffee in the Phur hospital's cafeteria even though it was after mid-day mealtime, and Griffith had been grateful. After a night of agonizing over Sona and a morning of fitful sleep, he'd needed it. Jayson had never seen him look more defeated. Jayson had hoped that the beverage along with his proposal would cheer him up, but it hadn't. Instead, Griffith looked worse. The big man set his cup of coffee down on the table between them and shook his head slowly.

"Gods, Jayson, I would help Sona any way I could, but I can't do what you ask. There's one big problem." He looked up with grief-reddened eyes and tapped his head. "I have a damaged router, remember?"

Jayson eyed the big human and saw something in him he'd never seen before. Fear. He'd looked bad before, but now the fear reduced him to a mere shadow of his normal self.

"Sir? What risk could there be? If your router can't manage a body switch, it just won't happen."

"It's not that!"

Griffith's shout caused Jayson to spill his own coffee and pull back. Griffith's anger quickly disappeared, and he looked away as if embarrassed by his outburst.

"I'm sorry, Jayson. I know you only want to help, but I can't do it."

Jayson couldn't understand this reticence. "Then if it's not the risk, sir, what is it?" Jayson saw the fear return in Griffith's eyes.

"What if it does work?"

Jayson was thoroughly confused now. "I don't follow you, sir."

"Telsing Jayson! It's the telsing that scares me!" exclaimed Griffith. He took a quick gulp of coffee and kept his eyes on his cup for a moment before shooting a look back at Jayson. "Don't you see? A link is a two way connection just like telsing, only on a deeper level!"

Jayson shook his head slowly. "I'm sorry, sir. I don't see. What…"

Griffith slammed his cup to the table, shoved his chair back, and stood up. For a moment he stared at Jayson, then he turned away. Jayson stood as well, preparing to follow Griffith if necessary to get some answers. He didn't have to. At that very moment, Griffith turned back to him and was pressing the heels of his hands into his eye sockets. He looked to be in great pain.

"Sir?"

Jayson reached out a hand, but Griffith waved him off, rubbing his forehead as he sat down again. Jayson sat as well, and when Griffith finally looked up at him, his look of fear and defeat had grown. He took his cup, drained it, and set it down more gently this time. Keeping his eyes on the empty cup, he spoke with a voice that was barely a whisper.

"A day doesn't go by when I don't try to telse at least once. I just tried again, and it's always the same. Every time I try, it's as if someone is stabbing me through the head with a hot poker. I told you that the first time we met. I can receive telsing, but I can't send." His eyes left the cup and returned to Jayson. When he spoke this time, his voice was stronger, but no less fear filled. "What if this switch works, and in doing so, it dooms me to perpetual pain? From what I've seen of you and your link-mates, this link is hard to back out of. So far, the only ones to terminate it successfully have done so by dying. Kohlaf. That anonymous TOOB rider. Hanna." Griffith shoved his empty cup away and looked to the hallway that led back to the critical care rooms. "I'd do anything for Sona…anything except this."

Jayson looked at his own half filled cup of coffee and pushed it away as well. He no longer wanted or needed its stimulation. He was so sure Griffith would jump at the chance to help, but now he saw why that might not be possible. If his own link with Kemsa threatened perpetual pain, he wondered how eager he would be to continue it.

"You've seen her with your link?" asked Griffith. "How is she?"

Jayson looked up, saw the need in the big man's eyes. "I wish I knew how she really was, sir. Some of her feels like the Sona I knew, but much of her is like a confused and frightened child."

Griffith nodded, dully and Jayson reached out to put a hand on his arm. "Sir, I don't know how painful a link would be for you. All I know is that without your memories of her, much of who Sona is will be lost forever." He gave Griffith's arm a squeeze. "There is one thing I did pick up from her. I think the others did too. Despite the damage, there was a strong memory of you."

Griffith looked up at Jayson, a glimmer of hope in his otherwise bleak eyes. "Was it a good memory?"

Jayson nodded. "Sona loves you."

Griffith nodded and looked down again. "I know." He sighed heavily and once more looked to the hallway that led back to Sona's room. "What she ever saw in me I'll never know. Look at me! I'm just an old, broken down human with an acid tongue and a cranky disposition."

Jayson wanted to say something to console Griffith, but what could he say? What words of comfort were there which could repair a damaged heart? Still, He should say something.

"Maybe she saw…"

It was all the farther Jayson had gotten when a sudden thought struck him so hard it almost felt like a physical blow. He yanked Griffith's arm around so that the big man was facing him. "Sir! Maybe it wasn't what she saw at all! Maybe it's what you see!" Ignoring Griffith's surprise, Jayson's mind raced over the possibilities, none of which had anything to do with Griffith's 'broken down' appearance. Things were beginning to make sense. "This has to be it!" Jayson leaned across the table toward Griffith, his pointing finger almost touching Griffith's nose. "When you try to telse, where exactly does it hurt?"

Griffith leaned back, frowning, but he answered anyway. "Right behind my eyes, but what…?"

Jayson jumped up and pumped his fist in the air. "Yes! Yes! Yes!"

"What the hell are you so happy about?" groused Griffith. "It's my head that feels like its going to explode."

Jayson felt himself grinning like an idiot, and the few Phurs still in the cafeteria at this hour were beginning to stare, but he didn't care. "Sir, it sounds like your pain is associated with the optic nerve! Remember, when a telepath telses, the receiving telepath has to be in the telsing telepath's field of vision for a connection to be made! Visual stimulation of the router is essential to sending. However, the receiving telepath does not have to be looking at the sender!"

Griffith was giving Jayson an irritated look. "I'd say something like 'Duh!' right about now, but that might give you the impression I knew what you were driving at. Sit down and tell me what the hell it is you're trying to say!"

Jayson sat down, but only on the edge of his seat. This was too good for real sitting. "Sir, it fits! You can receive telsing because telepathic reception doesn't require confirmation from your vision center. However, when you send, your router needs that visual stimulation, and that's when you feel the pain! The pain is coming from the optical connection to your router!"

[Sir, with the direct link between link-mates, you don't need to look at them to send! The optical connection is completely bypassed!]

This last, Jayson had telsed, knowing Griffith would feel no pain. Griffith's look turned slowly from consternation to comprehension. It was amazing to see how this change in understanding changed his whole appearance. Finally, a look of delight lit the big man's face.

"You know, Jayson? I think you're right!" Griffith's grin grew until it wreathed his whole bearded face. He jumped up and, towering over Jayson, he clapped Jayson on the shoulder. "Alright, Rider! You're the body switch expert. Let's do it! What do I do?"

Jayson looked up, his grin matching Griffith's. "First, let's find someplace where we can be sick in private." He poked Griffith in the stomach. "Then prepare to be short, big guy."

 

[>>>>>>>>>>O<<<<<<<<<<]

 

As he signed the forms that would release his mate's body into his custody, Shallon PorAgua cursed the circumstances of his mate's death. If only she had heeded his warnings and not come to Newhom. If it weren't for her high regard of her first-born's accomplishments with the human BioTel group, she'd have never come here at all. And why had she made it so plain that she had a daughter who worked intimately with humans? Why had she ignored his warnings about making her admiration for her daughter known?

If she would have heeded those warnings, she never would have been murdered by those human-hating Phurs.

He took his copy of the release form and was turning away when he saw the human he'd encountered last night - the one who had acted so bereaved by his mate's death. He was with another larger human. As the two walked beneath one of the skylights in the critical care receiving area, he recognized the bigger human. It was Griffith Tange, the Embassy's Phur Liaison Officer. Being one of the official Ambassadors from the lutrid clan, Shallon had had dealings with Griffith Tange. Suddenly, he also recognized the smaller human - the one from last night. The illumination had been poor then, but now that he saw him in a better light, and saw that he was accompanied Griffith Tange, he knew who the smaller human was.

Jayson Solamane - advisor to the High Elder of Clan Taq.

Shallon hissed quietly and turned away. Perhaps Jayson was reporting to Mr. Tange what he'd seen and heard last night. Perhaps the Embassy would do something about the death of his mate.

Shallon hissed again low in his throat. Nothing would come of it. True, Jayson had grieved, but it was only as it should have been! He knew he'd been responsible in part for Dayna's death, but he was a lone exception. Most of his kind wouldn't have given his beloved Dayna a second thought. They didn't care. All of Phur history had shown this. He had cited example after example in his telsed speeches before the Wilderhom Clan Council. Up until now, he had been a strong advocate for control over all human dealings on Wilderhom.

But no more.

As soon as possible, he would contact Fortan DarlRema, ambassador from the bovid Rema Clan. It was time to change his position on the human issue.

[Pahta? Is that you?]

Shallon turned and saw another lutrid approaching him. He felt his brows tighten in a frown. Shayna was the last Phur he wanted to see now.

[Pahta, it is you! What brings you to the hospital? Is your arthritis acting up again?]

Shallon looked his daughter up and down. [Well, if it isn't Shayna DayAgua, noted BioTel research Phur from Newhom.]

Shayna, who seemed about to embrace him, stepped back looking confused.

[Pahta? What's wrong?]

[Nothing that concerns you since you have not deemed it necessary to visit your own clan in more than six seasons!]

Shayna looked down as if ashamed, but then raised her head. [I've been so busy, but I have written to Dahma every week. You know this, since it is your couriers who carry the messages back home.]

[I know this, yes,] telsed Shallon, coloring his mind-voice with disdain. [It seems your messages are too good for me to telse them back to Aguahom.]

Shayna stuck her chin up. [You, I trust. However, I don't trust those Alpha telepath friends of yours that you telse to long-distance. My messages are for Dahma alone; not general public consumption.]

Shallon hissed. [Mind your telsing, kitling. You have always disrespected the elders of our clan, but you need not worry about the privacy of your messages anymore. Your Dahma will no longer be swayed by your praise of humans.]

Shayna's thick tail was whipping back and forth now. [What is this, Pahta? What have you done? What lies have you told her about me?]

[My lies?] Shallon was livid. [It's YOUR lies that killed her!]

Shayna stepped back, a sudden look of horror on her muzzle.

[What? Dahma dead? What is this?]

[Yes, it's true! It's all true!] hissed Shallon stepping up to her and grabbing her hard by the tunic. [If it wasn't for your stupid fawning over those humans and how interesting your work was with them, she'd be alive now!] He tossed her away from him.

Tears had sprung from Shayna's eyes and she was biting her knuckles. [Why? How?]

[We were attacked by a mob of Phurs bent on killing any and all human lovers!] replied Shallon, viciously. [Your Dahma wouldn't keep silent about her daughter and how proud she was of you. Somehow, they knew it and they killed her for it!]

Shayna was openly crying now. [No! This can't be true!]

Shallon grabbed his daughter by her tunic and shoved the body release form into her face. [Believe it. I go to bury her now, no thanks to you!]

Shayna tore herself from his grasp and ran off, sobbing. Shallon watched her go and was turning to leave himself when a hand grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and bodily hauled him off his feet. He found himself staring into the cold eyes of a human.

"So you'll remember my name, it's Harlan Meeker," growled the human. "I 'overheard' what you just telsed to your daughter, and know this. I'm truly sorry about your mate, but Ambassador or no, if I ever catch you treating one of my BioTel associates like that ever again, I will personally beat you till you can't stand up. I suggest you start acting like a Phur instead of some disgusting animal!"

The human tossed Shallon away from him and Shallon stumbled and fell. Quickly picking himself up, he hissed and stalked off. If that human thought he could make good on his threat, he was mistaken.

One couldn't do anything if one's race was banned from the planet.

 

[>>>>>>>>>>O<<<<<<<<<<]

 

Whatever Griffith had expected, this wasn't it. He felt his world flip inside out, and then felt his guts try to hurl themselves from his insides to his outsides. He tried to sit up in the unused hospital bed and look for a barf bag, but he lay back almost immediately and closed his eyes. If this was what switching bodies was like, he might need to be in this hospital bed for real. "Urg. I think I'll take the pain of telsing instead," Griffith muttered, then stopped. The sound of 'his' voice was definitely different now.

"Don't worry, sir," said a bass voice to his left. "It'll pass."

"Since we have no doubt switched bodies, Jayson, I think it's me who needs to call you 'Sir'. However, I'd prefer it if we knock off the 'Sir' crap altogether."

**Fine by me,** came Jayson's thought and Griffith felt his eyes pop open despite the nausea.

"Whoa! I 'heard' that, Jayson! It was in my head, but definitely not the same as telsing. That's one weird sensation."

**You try it,** came Jayson's next thought. **Don't try telsing. Just think about what you want me to know.**

 

Nothing happened for a moment, and fearing the worst, Jayson opened his eyes and looked to where Griffith now occupied his body. A pained look was crossing his face.

**If it hurts to try, don't…** Jayson began, but quickly stopped. He now knew Griffith's pain wasn't from any attempt to send his thoughts because he could feel what Griffith had just encountered. The presence of one of their linkmates.

Sona.

The canid was 'here' in their minds.

Or as much of her as was possible. That Griffith recognized her mental presence was not surprising. Personality traits, even damaged ones, transferred well when using a direct mind-to-mind connection. So did feelings, for Jayson suddenly felt his sense of Sona brighten.

**I…know…you,** came a mind-voice that was clearly hers.

Jayson's heart leapt. Sona had actually put a recognizable thought together!

Griffith's pained look softened. **And I know you.**

In that simple greeting, hope was kindled, and Jayson felt himself smile - a ticklish sensation now that he had Griffith's beard to contend with. Jayson hadn't planned on staying long in Griffith's body - hoping to merely establish the link and then reverse the switch - but now was not the time for planned procedure. He sat up on the side of the bed opposite his switched self and quietly left the room, leaving the two newest link-mates to themselves.

Jayson thought he should probably wait in Sona's room with the others and turned in that direction when he heard a voice behind him.

"Mr. Tange."

Jayson recognized the voice and tried to ignore it, but a hand was already on his shoulder. He had no choice but to turn to the speaker. Not used to seeing others from this height, Jayson simply stared.

Tellman returned Jayson's stare with a cool one of his own. "You have my sympathies," he finally said.

"Do I, now?" answered Jayson, and quickly wished he hadn't. He thought there was a flicker of suspicion in Tellman's eyes.

"Yes." Tellman replied, and then hesitated. His eyes seemed to pierce Jayson, and for a moment, Jayson thought Tellman knew who he really was, but then Tellman nodded and went on. "Yes, you do have my sympathy. I know this is a bad time, but something urgent needs your consideration. A recent request for a high-level visitation visa needs a prompt response. At your request, I've analyzed the local security threats, and it is my judgment as well as the judgment of Embassy Security that the risks are acceptable since the visitor will be with a retinue. The benefits to Wilderhom of this visit also outweigh the added costs that will be incurred by the Embassy." Tellman held out a retinal scan cube. "A simple, routine scan will authorize the matter, and I will be no further bother to you."

Jayson swallowed. What should he do?

**Griffith?**

No answer.

He was about to try sending a thought to Griffith again when he realized that Griffith might not want to be interrupted right now. Sona was very important to him. Jayson returned his attention to Tellman, nodded, and took the cube. If this was indeed routine, he would save Griffith the trouble of being bothered with it now, and report it to him later. Also, if it got Tellman away from him, that was even better. Jayson put the cube to his eye and it popped, leaving behind an orange afterimage. He handed the cube back to Tellman. "If you'll excuse me." Jayson turned and walked quickly away.

As he proceeded down the corridor, he thought he could feel Tellman's eyes following him all the way.

 

[>>>>>>>>>>O<<<<<<<<<<]

 

Fortan DarlRema smiled as he watched the lutrid, Shallon, leave his Clan Council office and walk off down the hall.

One more adds his vote to our side.

A side door to the office creaked open, and another Phur entered. This one was neither an Ambassador nor clan member of high rank. He was only a lowly Bootsie, and a deformed one at that. However, despite his repugnant appearance, he'd been most useful.

[He is of a different mind now, isn't he?] telsed the deformed Phur. [He is with us, even as his stupid mate was not?]

Fortan nodded. [Soon we will have the Council votes needed to push through our reform of Wilderhom.]

[The sooner we are rid of this human pestilence, the better,] replied the deformed Phur.

Fortan turned to the Phur and sniffed. [You smell of draft beast dung.]

The deformed Phur croaked a laugh. [Unlike some I know, I go where I'm needed and do what I must. What is my next assignment? The Outpacks around Newhom become more and more eager for action.]

[We will need to do something about the Clan Taq High Elder,] telsed Fortan. [Somehow, she must be persuaded to see things from our point of view.]

[She would be easy enough to eliminate, just as the lutrid female was. There are many ways to…]

Fortan grabbed the deformed Phur by the throat and hauled him up to his face. [Her death will not serve us! What I want is her knowledge! Her skills! Those I can use! In the right paws, whatever caused the Taqhom Event could be most useful!]

Fortan released the deformed Phur, who gagged and stumbled back. [So far, her reports to the Clan Council on the Portal phenomenon have been vague and useless. She stalls. I think she has no intention of giving anyone the secret of a Portal.]

[Nor does she need to,] spat the deformed Phur. [Anyone trying to take the secret from her would meet her abominable Blood Champion, or worse, they would meet the power of a Portal up close.]

[There are other ways,] telsed Fortan, no longer trying to hide his dislike of his companion. [I will do the planning. Your task is to follow orders.]

[Like I telsed,] returned the deformed Phur, his mutual dislike obvious. [I do what I must. I trust I will receive the usual compensation for my dealings with the lutrid female?]

Fortan snorted. [You will get what you deserve soon enough, Bhadrak.]




7. Memories of You

 

"You want us to do what with Sona?" asked Griffith, who was now back to being his 'old, cranky' self. Being Jayson was definitely not 'him', and he and Jayson had switched back as soon as Griffith had requested it. Then they had gone immediately to Sona's room and straight into the present strategy session.

"'It's called Active Neural Pathway Stimulation'", stated Rick. "It's a process that will help Sona's brain regain functionality more quickly. Her brain tissue swelling has receded and the sooner we start this, the better."

Griffith sat straighter and looked over at Kemsa. "Is this the same thing that helped Kemsa recover when she nearly died from the Retro Virus?"

Rick and Riena looked at one another, and then Rick shook his head. "Quite frankly, Mr. Tange, we still don't know what happened with Kemsa, however, it probably wasn't the same as this. The reason I'm suggesting ANPS is because we know it works. Physical therapists have been using this technique in one form or another for centuries. The basic idea is that the brain can be stimulated to change itself. You must remember, the brain is far from 'static'. It’s a constantly changing and adapting organ."

Riena pointed to her eyes. "As an example of the brain's ability to modify itself, I give you the 'blind spot' enigma. The retinas of our eyes are very sensitive to light except in one spot in the back. It's the spot where the optic nerve pierces the retinal layer at the back of the eyeball. There are no light sensing cells there at all. If our minds were truly seeing what was being sent to them by the eyes, there would be two large, dark spots in our field of vision. However, those would be very distracting, so our brain actually modifies itself to eliminate them. It takes visual information from the light sensing cells next to the blind spot and uses the information to extrapolate what might be inside that 'hole' in our visual field."

"But how does that apply to Sona?" continued Griffith.

"That was only an example," replied Rick. "It merely shows that the brain can change itself to fix errors in perceived data flow. Now, Sona's brain has a whole section that's not working. The rest of her brain can sense this. We 'know' when something isn't working as it should. Someone with a paralyzed arm due to a brain injury knows it doesn't respond when they try to move it. However, given time, some functionality can be restored if the control for that arm can be shifted elsewhere in the brain. There are many physical therapy techniques to do this, but none of these have ever taken into account the possibility that the victim has a direct mind-link to another individual with a fully functional brain."

"So what are our options? How do you think our link will help?"

Riena held up two fingers. "In Sona's case, I think we have two options. One is the 'Kemsa' phenomenon." She glanced apologetically at Kemsa. "Sorry. It's the only term I could think of for it. Anyway, as Rick said, we're not really sure how that works, but it has something to do with transferring control directly to a link-mate's healthy brain via the link. Since we can't count on that happening, we recommend the second option."

"And that option is this Active Neural thing?" prompted Griffith.

"Yes," answered Riena nodding. "What we propose is that you link-mates actively participate in re-routing functions to another part of Sona's brain. Jayson's told me about the 'Cognitive Dreaming' state you occasionally use to communicate. This state has a visual element to it that normal conscious thought transfer doesn't. You actually 'see' each other during cognitive dreaming. Now, Jayson has described Sona as looking insubstantial on her left side, but that doesn't surprise me. I think the reason Sona's left side looks the way it does is because her router is not receiving much information from the damaged area of her brain. There's no information to send to you. However, in a linked condition, the router is an active two-way path. What you can do to help Sona would be to send 'requests' for that missing information. Her router will respond to your requests by constantly stimulating her own brain to provide data. It's this constant stimulation that causes the brain to create new neural connections within itself."

"I think I see," said Jayson, "This morning, when I tried to visualize her, she was very fuzzy. I then tried to 'see' her more clearly. According to what you just said, my brain was saying to her brain 'Something's not right here. Send more data.'" I think it worked too, because when I concentrated hard enough, Sona's image became more substantial."

Rick tapped the monitor beside Sona's bed. "I know it works, Jayson. When you were doing the 'Cognitive Dreaming' thing this morning, I clearly picked up increased activity in Sona's brain as well as a rise in brain tissue temperature. That meant energy was being used to create new connections." He pointed to two short lengths of tubing that protruded from Sona's neck. They were connected to a metal cube from which the whirring sound of a fan was coming. "I had the healers here put in a carotid shunt. Shunts are usually used to control high fevers by running the blood going to the brain through an external cooling system. I figured if you folks are going to be doing some serious brain repair, Sona's head is going to need to stay cool. It wouldn't do to fry the thing you're trying to fix."

"What about her memories?" asked Griffith. "That was the main reason I was brought into this."

"That's the easy part," replied Rick. "You're not trying to re-route function. You're simply adding data. I think it would best be done while in the cognitive dreaming state since that state has a visual element. In fact, I suggest you actually 'reenact' the memories. That would ensure greater retention of the memory."

Kemsa looked around. [Where are the Phurs who are with you? Shayna and Borlan?]

Riena answered with a small shake of her head. "Shayna found out this morning that her Dahma was murdered last night by a mob of anti-human Phurs. Borlan is with her now."

Silence.

Both Kemsa and Jayson looked to Griffith. Griffith, who had been looking hopeful for the most part, now looked frighteningly grim. For a long time no one spoke or telsed. The heavy silence was finally broken by a tiny mew from the pack Kemsa had propped up against her chair.

[Vanna wants her dinner,] telsed Kemsa, and she reached for her pack, which was a kit carrier. She unsnapped the corner folds which opened the stiff-sided pack into a small, covered bassinette, and took the mewling Vanna from it. After Kemsa made a few tunic adjustments, Vanna had settled down to her meal.

"I'm sorry to hear about Shayna's Dahma," said Griffith finally. "You can be sure my office will look into it even though humans weren't directly involved."

"Uh, sir?" said Jayson. "There's something else you should know."

Griffith turned a very stern eye on Jayson. "Is it more important than what we're doing here? If not, save it."

Jayson worked his mouth for a moment, but then he shook his head. "It can wait."

Riena scrubbed at her face and looked worried. "I just hope we don't lose Shayna because of this. She's good - intelligent, caring, and inquisitive. Just the right combination for this type of research."

"I hope she stays, too," added Rick. "I didn't realize that things had gotten this bad. I guess that's a researcher's one drawback. We're so involved in our own projects that we fail to see what's going on in the world beyond our lab monitors."

As if it had heard him, one of Sona's monitors gave a small chime. They all looked to where Sona lay in her bed and saw that her right paw was twitching. Rick went over to the nearest monitor and bent over it.

"Looks like there's some increase in brain activity," commented Rick. "Good. Whether she realizes it or not, Sona is fighting this." He looked to the link-mates. "Kemsa? As soon as Vanna is finished filling her tank, I think we should begin."

 

They'd all moved to the adjacent hospital room with the exception of Lenti's body which was still unconscious due to her switch with Sona. She remained in the bed next to Sona's. The four conscious link-mates in the new room each occupied a bed of their own. Rick switched to his 'therapist voice' which was a simple matter of dropping the tone into a lower register and increasing the burr. Riena had commented that it was a very soothing voice similar to a spoken purr, and its purpose was to relax those who heard it.

"For those who wish to sleep, you may do so," purred Rick. "It doesn't matter. Regardless of your waking state, the place in which you will meet is just as accessible. It is a place for those whose minds are bound to one another. Jayson and Kemsa were the first to experience it, Mika was second, and Lenti, third. Sona was brought there by Lenti's need and Griffith will follow soon. You go now to see Sona who is still there and in need of your help. Bodies to rest. Minds to work. If all goes well, Sona will yet awaken once more to the real world."

Rick smiled briefly at his choice of words, but he knew the words weren't nearly as important as the sound and rhythm of his voice. The mild soporific the link-mates had taken earlier would help to relax them as well. The goal was to make it as easy as possible for them to meet in the place where their minds joined. There, they could begin to help Sona in the most direct way possible.

Within fifteen minutes the only sounds to be heard were light snores coming from Griffith and Mika. Rick slipped quietly back into Sona's room and saw an increase in Sona's brain activity on his monitors.

It had begun.

What followed was extraordinary.

In only moments, Sona's brain activity took off like a rocket accompanied by an increase in bodily twitching. The readouts climbed swiftly to the top end of the scale.

"Brain tissue temperature is up one and a half degrees." said Riena with a hint of alarm in her voice.

"Activate the cooling shunt," answered Rick. Whatever the link-mates were doing it was burning calories in Sona's brain. That was as it should be, but it was happening faster than expected. Nerves must be establishing new connections at a good clip. Sona's twitching increased, but it didn't have the forceful and uncoordinated jerking associated with seizure activity. That didn't mean a seizure couldn't happen. It just meant they would have something else to watch out for.

"Cooling shunt activated. Brain temperature increase has slowed but is still climbing," reported Riena.

"I don't like this," muttered Rick. He readjusted the readouts to bring their scale of measurement into line with the increased activity, but instead of bringing relief, the new data brought more doubt.

"Riena, what's Sona's blood sugar level?"

"110 and falling."

"Any sign of the drop slowing?"

"No, and the CO2 level in the blood is beginning to rise."

"Her calorie consumption rate must be really high then," commented Rick.

Too high - and it wasn't the muscles that were using the energy. Sona's movements had an almost coordinated rhythm to them, like they were being directed, but they were not powerful enough to account for the fast rise in body temperature. Something was going on in the brain, and if Sona's body didn't start compensating soon, things could get out of hand.

"Brain temperature up another half degree!" said Reina, her voice louder this time. "And the shunt just hit maximum cooling! Blood sugar still dropping!"

"Hell!" Rick swore. "It's too much, too fast! I think it's time to abort this experiment and re-think our strategy." He jumped up from his station and made his way quickly into the link-mates room. Griffith was closest, so Rick gave him a hard shake.

Nothing happened.

Rick shook the big man again, but Griffith was as limp as if in a coma himself. Rick tried all the link-mates, and the results were the same. None of them were responding in any way.

"Damn." Rick muttered. He hadn't thought it would be impossible to wake the link-mates. He dashed back into Sona's room. "I can't wake them!"

"Brain tissue temperature is up another half degree!" reported Riena, her voice edged with panic.

"I'm calling a code and getting as much ice as possible from the cafeteria!" Within a minute, he was back with several bags of ice and two of the night duty healers.

"Temperature is up another degree and her blood sugar levels are dropping below 30!" shouted Riena. "She's dehydrating and burning up all her reserves! We need another I.V. started with a glucose/electrolyte solution - two, if possible. Now!"

One of the healers got on it right away as Rick and the other healer packed Sona's upper body in ice.

"She's going into carbon dioxide acidosis," reported Riena, who got up, dashed to the respirator, and increased the breathing rate to thirty-six breaths per minute. She thought better of it and increased it again to forty-eight per minute.

"Switch the respirator from 'oxygen-enriched' to 'pure oxygen'. She'll need it," suggested Rick and Riena complied. Rick turned to the healer not occupied with starting a third I.V. "We need injectable vitamin/mineral supplements! Sugar isn't the only thing she's using up. Get it! Now!" He glanced back to his brain activity monitor and swore. It was off the scale again. What the hell were the link-mates doing? He didn't know and wouldn't find out until they came out of whatever comatose state they were in. He only knew one thing.

The runaway engine that was Sona's brain was burning fuel at a deadly rate.

Melted ice soon soaked the bed sheets, and water began to puddle on the floor. More ice was applied. Used bags of intravenous glucose and electrolyte solution began to litter the room. No sooner did the healers plug in one I.V. and push it then another had to be changed. They worried that Sona's veins would blow out at such a fast infusion rate, and the healers were constantly looking for new vein sites in which to put the I.V. needles - a task made all the more difficult by Sona's constant twitching.

Her body temperature spiked several times and they had to resort to ice-water gastric irrigation to drop her core temperature. Then Sona's blood sugar levels began to drop again. Her hyperactive brain was consuming glucose far faster than the I.V. solutions could replace it. The healers had to add whole tubes of gluco-gel to the solution bags to boost the sugar level before using them. Urine flowing from Sona's urinary catheter was constant, but the volume was huge. That worried Rick even more. Sona could go into renal failure very easily. If she did, there wouldn't be much they could do to prevent death. All they could do now was manage the symptoms as best they could and hang on for the ride.

The first hour passed with no let up, then the second and then the third.

When the fourth hour rolled past, Rick's worry became whether the Phur hospital had enough ice and glucose solution to last the night. The healers assured him that they had enough solution, but their supply would be seriously depleted. Rick told them that Harlan would replace any used supplies. He was paying for all this, and he could afford it. The healers did have to send out a call to the owners of some local eating establishments to secure a fresh supply of ice. The hospital's two ice makers just couldn't keep up.

When hour five passed, Rick began to wonder if he would last the night. Riena was looking terribly worn out, too. The constant, rushed activity combined with the underlying fear that it was not enough was taking an awful toll.

Then, just before dawn, it happened.

Sona's back arched in a massive convulsion that brought her torso almost completely off the bed. Jaws agape, her stiffly twisted body remained rigid for another moment before it collapsed back onto the bed. Then all activity ceased. One look told them that all the monitors had flat-lined. One second there had been frantic activity - the next, nothing.

The only sound was the heavy breathing of the exhausted Phurs and humans, and the soft alarms of the instruments. They all stared, frozen in whatever position they were in, not wanting to believe that all their hard work had been for naught. Yet what they saw and what the instruments told them could not be denied.

They had failed.

"No," Riena finally whispered, "No, no." She dropped her head onto the monitor she'd been sitting behind and began to cry.

Rick turned away and tried to put his fist through the nearest wall. The pain of doing so overcame his need to scream.

The healers simply dropped their heads, and one of them gave a soft keen.

It was over.

 

[>>>>>>>>>>O<<<<<<<<<<]

 

 [It's over, Borlan.] Shayna telsed mournfully, rubbing away a tear.

[You're leaving?] Borlan couldn't believe this.

[I can't stay here anymore,] continued Shayna. [Dahma was the only shield I had between me and my Pahta's scheming friends.]

Borlan thumped his thick marsupalid tail in agitation and got up from where he'd been sitting next to the distraught lutrid. He took a few steps around the Phur hospital's garden-like atrium before turning and pointing. [You are not a Joey fresh from the pouch to be given away as a political marriage prize to your Pahta's cronies! You're an adult! You have choices!]

[Do I?] telsed Shayna, looking up. [With Dahma gone, Pahta would just as soon have me declared Outcast as look at me.] Shayna shook her head. [We've grown ever more distant since I came here to Newhom to work with the humans. In his present state of mind, any refusal from me would be seen as abandoning the Clan.]

Borlan returned to her side, sat down, and put an arm around her hunched shoulders. [And would banishment be so bad? You have friends here too, Shayna - friends who care about you - friends who love you even as your Dahma did.]

Shayna's black eyes met his, and a ghost of a smile crossed her muzzle even as another tear fell. [Pahta gets ready to take Dahma home to her final rest even as we telse. If I don't go with him, I will never see her again.]

Shayna's head dropped to Borlan's shoulder and her soft sobs began to dampen his tunic. He looked down at her and gave her tiny lutrid ears a lick.

[You loved your Dahma greater than most Phurs do and she, you,] telsed Borlan as gently as he could. [Ask yourself this. What can you see of her in a grave marker? Would she have you go with her body when what means the most now are the memories of her that you will carry with you always? Then there is this. She saw the value of your being here in Newhom, doing what you do. She was proud of that. Would your Dahma want you to go back with her body if it meant abandoning the very things that made her proud of you?]

Shayna raised her head and looked back at him with pain filled eyes. [I don't know what to do.]

Borlan ran a paw along her cheek and brushed away the tears. [When the mind cannot decide, it's best to go with the decision of the heart. What does your heart tell you?]

[Shayna!]

Startled, both Borlan and Shayna swiveled around toward the harshly telsed words.

It was Shallon, Shayna's Pahta.

He and two hospital attendants stood beside a gurney laden with a large, tightly wrapped object. It wasn't difficult to guess what the object was.

[Come. We leave this place now!] Shallon motioned to the two attendants to follow him and he began to turn away.

[Pahta! Wait!] Shayna quickly got up and came over beside the gurney. [Wait,] she telsed again as her paw came up to hover over the body on the gurney.

[What is there to wait for?] telsed Shallon, irritably. [It's too late for you to do anything to help your Dahma now.]

Borlan ground his teeth as he saw her Pahta's telsed words cut deeply into Shayna. He came quickly to her side and put a paw on her shoulder. She was still looking at the body, her paw extended over it, but he could feel her trembling. She held the pose for a moment longer before she withdrew her paw and slowly turned her head toward her Pahta.

[I wanted you to wait because I have not yet telsed my farewells.]

[There is time enough to honor the dead at the funeral,] was Shallon's emotionless reply as he turned away again.

[NO!]

Shallon stopped, and turned back, his eyes narrowed and his teeth slightly bared. [What did you telse?]

[I telsed, no!] Shayna stood straighter and looked at the body before looking back to her Pahta. [I will not telse my grief at a funeral to those who care more for how they are seen than how the dead are viewed.] She took a deep breath and stepped around the gurney to face her Pahta directly. [I will not honor a corpse hidden inside a gilded coffin whose sole purpose is to show others how much wealth the bereaved can afford to bury in the ground forever!] Shayna pushed herself right into her Pahta's face and snarled. [Instead, I will honor my Dahma by doing what she wanted me to do! I will stay!]

Shallon's chin came up, and he fixed her with a dangerous and conceited look. [Then you give me no other choice but to recommend that our High Elder make you an Outcast.]

Shayna barked a laugh that wiped the look off her Pahta's muzzle. [I give you no choice now? No, Pahta. The real reason there is no choice for you at this time is because you made this choice ages ago. You just never had the balls to telse it to my muzzle until now!]

Shallon's paw was fast, but Shayna was faster. She blocked the slap and grabbed the paw even as her other paw grabbed him by the throat. She shoved him, not so nicely, into the wall behind the gurney, and the two hospital attendants had to scramble out of the way. Shayna was hissing, but Borlan could see the tears mixed with her anger.

[All I ever wanted from you, Pahta, was a little consideration, but you've never forgiven me for being born, have you? When I came into being, you were no longer the sole recipient of Dahma's love. To you, I was the usurper who stole your beloved mate from you.] She pushed away from Shallon and turned around.

[Yes!] telsed Shallon, hissing and spitting to her back. [But you are no longer a usurper. You would choose humans over your own kin! For that, I call you traitor!]

Shayna took a few more steps before she stopped. She was trembling, and Borlan saw her cast a glance at the corpse before slowly turning around. [Traitor?] she telsed and began to shake her head. [I don't think so. One must be loyal to something in the first place before one can be accused of betraying it. You never had my allegiance, Pahta, therefore I've betrayed nothing.]

Shallon continued to rant, but Shayna turned away and reverently let her paw trail over her Dahma's corpse as she walked passed it. The tears continued to roll down her muzzle, but she didn't stop or openly keen her loss.

Nor did she look back.

It was over.

 

[>>>>>>>>>>O<<<<<<<<<<]

 

"It's NOT over!"

Rick grabbed the nearest healer. "Sona's not dead, yet! She can't be! Where are the cardiac paddles? Get a crash cart! GO!" He shoved the two healers so hard that one of them stumbled and actually fell out the door, but Rick hardly noticed. He was lunging toward Sona's bed, ready to start chest compressions or anything else that had a remote chance of bringing her back to life.

He jumped on the bed.

He positioned his hands.

He got knocked on his ass.

With a huge heave of her chest, Sona's body had sat bolt upright, pushing Rick completely off the bed.

[GO!]

The telsing was so powerful that Rick thought he could have heard it even without the telsing translator in his ear. Another crash told him something had fallen out of the bed next to Sona's. Several pained yips from that direction confirmed it.

"Sona! Lenti!" screamed Riena.

More crashes.

Rick got to his knees and saw that Sona's body had fallen back onto the bed and her eyes were closed, but her chest was moving with regular breaths. He let out a breath of his own before looking to the other bed.

Lenti - or maybe it was still Sona in Lenti's body - was struggling up from behind the bed, a task made more difficult due to the lack of arms and the fact that Riena was hugging her and almost crying. The telsing that followed made it clear who the armless Phur really was.

[Sona can sure be stubborn when she wants to be. I think I've just been evicted.]

Despite Riena's 'help', Lenti made it up to the edge of the bed and sat. Then she looked around at the chaos that was the hospital room. I.V. bags were everywhere, along with empty syringes, and half-melted bags of ice.

[Ekram's entrails! What happened here?]

Riena grinned hugely. [Let's just say we weren't bored, if that's what you're thinking.]

Lenti shook her head again and groaned. [This place looks like I feel, and I feel like I've been run over by a heard of bovids and left out in the sun to bake for a couple of seasons. Dung and piss! That took forever! What year is it now anyway?]

Riena giggled.

"It's only been six hours," commented Rick, getting to his feet and then falling into a chair next to his monitoring station. "Sona's vitals look to be about normal again, no thanks to you link-mates."

[Huh?] Lenti shot him a harsh look. [What are you saying? We busted our tails! When we finished, Sona was almost herself again.]

Rick was tapping furiously at his keyboard. "Like I said, there's nothing wrong with Sona now, but according to my calculations, during the time you link-mates were doing your neurological weld-and-rivet thing, Sona's calorie burn rate was almost two calories per second! At that rate, Sona's brain is now the proud owner of the record for single-organ energy consumption over a six hour period - somewhere around 43,000 calories."

"What?" burst out Riena. "Forty-three thousand?"

Lenti looked stunned.

Rick tapped his keyboard one more time and looked smug. "Yep. That's the equivalent of enough food energy to last Sona's entire body for a full month. And despite the massive doses of sugar, Sona's body has lost nearly six kilograms." He turned to Lenti. "All in all, a very hard night's work."

Riena looked to Sona, who appeared to be comfortably asleep. "I guess the question now is whether all the work was worth it."

Rick checked a second set of monitors and gawped. "Wow! I'll say it was. The damaged area of Sona's brain is still evident, but it's shrunk considerably - evidently to make room for two things. One is the new, healthy, brain tissue that's obviously the damaged tissue's replacement."

Lenti was grinning. [That's good then, yes? What's the other thing?]

Rick looked at Sona and then back to the others. "According to this, Sona's router has nearly doubled in size."

They all stared at one another.

"If that doesn't turn her into an Alpha telepath, I'll eat my data reader," mumbled Riena.

"Speaking of eating, I'm famished!"

Rick turned to the new voice and saw a very tired looking Jayson standing in the doorway to the adjacent room.

Rick groaned. Of course the link-mates would also use up 'fuel' helping Sona - maybe not as much, but enough to make them very hungry. Suddenly, Jayson was shoved aside as a ravenous looking Griffith stomped into the room.

He had only one thing to say.

"Must…have…WAFFLES!"

Riena and Rick stared.

Lenti burst into yikking laughter.

Mika came out of the room behind Jayson and looked droll. [Don't mind the big human. It's just some ancient memory he dredged up for Sona from an old, old story he read.]

Griffith grinned and punched a thumb toward the hospital cafeteria. "I want mine with lots of syrup too! And at least a dozen eggs! Last one to the cafeteria is a rotten avian reproduction spheroid!" Suddenly the room emptied itself of all link-mates except Sona.

She was sleeping peacefully now, and Rick and Riena had to smile because across Sona's muzzle was spread the most beatific Phur grin they'd ever seen.

Rick cocked an eyebrow at his fellow researcher.

"Waffles, indeed."


Remember: The complete novel can be purchased in "E-Format" for the Kindle reader (and others) at Amazon.com


Back to the The Wilderhom Page