by Philip James Eggerding
Dedicated to my Mom......
and all mothers everywhere who have to put up with the rest of us.
With special thanks to:
Richard & Mary-Susan - SF Enthusiasts & Family.
Andrew S. - Fellow writer & a nice guy.
Karl M. - “Print it!”
And ‘Foxcutter’ - Who was the first to say “Go for it.”
©2002-2003 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.
To gain perspective in this life, to truly know
We all must ride the Paths of Thought that change ‘me’ into ‘you’.
From ‘Paths of Thought’ - Wilderhom, 10.06.18 - AR
“We’ll never see the end of it! Stupid, big-headed R&D scientists!”
“Please, calm down! Why all the concern? The Ascension Project was cancelled. We made the phenomenon look too dangerous for practical use!”
“I wasn’t thinking of that!”
“Have you seen the project data?”
“Of course I have. We all have!”
“So? What does it suggest?”
“I don’t follow you.”
“Look! This data here! What does it suggest?”
“I’m not sure. This is the data on VIC nodal cohesion, but I still don’t see what… ”
“Damn it! Open your eyes! Replace these figures here with the Galpin tables, and it shows that telepaths with a high Galpin index could reproduce the phenomenon without the aid of the equipment!”
“But, it’s only a remote possibility.”
“That’s because the report only considers human telepaths! Those are rare. But consider this. We have a colony world were all the inhabitants are telepathic!”
“Are you suggesting...?”
“Gods! I hadn’t thought of that! What can we do?”
“I and several others have a plan to deal with the problem, but the elements won’t be ready for some time.”
“And in the meantime?”
“Between now and then, we monitor the colony for any sign of this new phenomenon. If we discover anything, we’ll deal with it then.”
“Will you be using TOOB surveillance?”
“No. For general population monitoring, we’ll need a team on-planet. If the team finds a specific target, then we’ll use the TOOB.”
“Do you have anyone in mind to lead the team?”
“I do. Someone who is uniquely qualified.”
“Can we afford that?”
“Cost is irrelevant. The threat from these abominations must be dealt with quickly.”
“Yes, I agree. We must do something soon.”
“Then let us begin.”
Visions of gas flames and giant blue stars flickered through his mind.
Sometimes blue can be a very warm color.
The Watchman dropped his gaze to the ragged rift valley wall that dominated the eastern horizon. Its dull pinks and tans would be a welcome respite from the deep blue heat of the featureless sky, but he wasn't here to rest. He was on a mission.
Returning his attention to the sky, he resumed his search for what must be there. Where could it be? As if in answer, a spot of gray pierced the blue and he tightened his focus.
Was this it? Yes.
The Condor had finally come.
Fully alert now, he watched the craft drop from the sky. It seemed a slow descent, but this was only because the Condor was approaching him head on. In reality, it would touch down soon—probably very close to his present position. With growing anticipation, he followed the craft’s descent until the Condor was gliding just above the surface of the flat plain. Then concern crept into his thoughts. The craft seemed reluctant to land. Had the Condor somehow sensed his presence here?
No. That was impossible! Nothing could sense something that could not be sensed.
Or could it?
Suddenly, the screech of rubber on scorched earth shattered the silence, and clouds of dust exploded from the Condor’s landing gear. In the instant it took to touch down, the craft had transformed itself from a soaring bird into a hurtling juggernaut with a monstrous, dusty tail—and it was heading straight for him! Before he could recover from this realization, the rumble of crushing weight on spinning wheels assaulted him. Fear began to careen about in his mind. This was insane! He was directly in the path of an onrushing Condor! He needed to move now! Hadn’t he already proven enough to himself simply by being here?
Suddenly, the ground was trembling, and he sensed a hissing pressure that could only be the atmosphere itself giving way to the approaching craft. Why was he still here?
The Condor continued to close on him—its size and sound growing.
He must disengage!
The sound and the fear were screaming in his mind!
Please! Disengage! NOW!
NO! This time, the Watchman stays!
In that instant, the Condor made contact.
He heard the thunder of its passage.
He felt it tearing through his mind.
It was full sensory contact! Stabbing light! Piercing heat! Penetrating sound! Gods! The sensations!
With a mind-ripping suddenness, it was over—the roaring and raging, spent—the sight and sound, gone. All that remained on the flat plain was settling dust and shimmering, blue heat.
That, and the silent sound of a voiceless, mental scream.
Kemsa’s furry ears shot up, and she gave a startled yip. The growing spark in her mind had simply exploded! No fading, wavering or jumping—just an intense flash and then... nothing. Rubbing her temples, she tried to find the mental spark that had caught her attention only moments before, but it was gone. What had it been? She tried to think, but nothing in her teachings mentioned this. Shaking her head, she reluctantly shifted the incident to memory and returned to her mental exercises.
But just beyond thought, a faint remnant of the distant, mental shout still fluttered in her mind.
Jayson Solamane would have screamed his triumph at the top of his lungs—if he'd had any lungs. Instead, the exclamation careened around his disembodied mind like a Condor landing on a blown tire. The sensations at the end had been absolutely incredible! Not like the artificially dampened feelings of a machine-assisted Ride. No. This was the real thing!
Even if the Watchman part was bogus.
Irritation caused Jayson’s vision to ripple. So what, if the ‘Watchman’ was only a character he imagined himself to be? Telepathic-Out-Of-Body travel was so strange that it was often easier to pretend he was someone else. There was no harm in that. Besides, today he was on a ‘mission’ worthy of the dashing, if imaginary, Watchman—a mission to prove if he could ‘Ride the Toob’ without any assistance from the TOOB machine.
And he had!
Maybe he was the only one who ever had!
Jayson switched his perspective to the rear and saw the Condor speeding away down the glider runway. Gods! He still couldn’t believe he'd let that thing run right through him! He wanted to be close, but not that close! His senses still tingled.
If only moments like this could last longer.
Jayson quickly felt a mental smile color his thoughts. Why wait for the next TOOB mission? He could Ride the Toob all by himself now—any time he wanted!
At least to places in my direct line of sight, the sensible part of his mind cautioned.
That restriction reminded him of other potential problems, and Jayson cursed his fun-squelching sensibility. He’d better end his telepathic-out-of-body Ride soon. It wouldn’t do to have someone stumble across his limp body while his mind was ‘elsewhere’. Reluctantly giving in to reason, he began to disconnect from the Virtual Information Conduits that made 'Toobing' possible, and immediately, his normal ‘in-body’ senses started to return, beginning with his sense of equilibrium. It told him that his body was still sitting upright. Good. Falling over while his mind was ‘out there’ could hurt. Next, the feeling in his face returned, and he felt himself smile. Yes. The pride of accomplishment would remain, even if the sensations from the Ride could not. Then, his hearing returned and he heard distant conversation. Finally, all his other senses filled in, and Jayson opened his eyes.
Damn it all!
Shutting his eyes, he leaned forward and took several deep breaths. Nausea from post-Ride visual distortion was one sensation he did not want to experience, but it was too late. As he concentrated on holding his bile, he had to admit that using the TOOB machine had one advantage. It told you when it was safe to open your eyes again.
Eventually the nausea passed, and when he looked up again, the world appeared a lot more normal. Glancing around, he saw the people he’d heard earlier still conversing near the open hanger doors. They seemed unaware of him.
Good. No sense in attracting undue attention along with unanswerable questions.
Unlike long-distance telepathic communications, the Trans-World Intelligence Gathering Service wanted all aspects of Toobing kept secret. Still, it would be nice to tell someone, just to see how they'd react. Looking back toward the tarmac, Jayson grinned again. The Condor glider had just rolled to a stop some 70 meters away, and he pictured himself telling the pilot about their unique ‘encounter’. Would he be impressed? Astonished? Incredulous? Or would he just shake his head and laugh. Jayson’s grin faded and he looked down at his hands.
Laugh, most probably.
Many people still viewed long-distance telepathy with skepticism. They'd never believe this. Anyway, the only person he was allowed to tell was his IGS director. Jayson grimaced and scrubbed at his face. Unfortunately, he and his director weren’t on the best of terms right now.
Not on the best of terms?
Gods! That was an understatement. Mr. Kohlaf barely tolerated him! But maybe this new development would help square things. Maybe...
Jayson raised his head and squinted at the dusty terrain beyond the tarmac. Who was he kidding? Even if his director was impressed and returned him to full duty, Jason still wouldn’t be given the sort of missions Riders needed to advance their careers—not while assigned to this backwater world. This was Wilderhom. Most people wanted to forget this colony even existed.
Jayson scowled. Humans hadn't encountered any other sentient races in the 400 years since they'd been in space, but then, they weren't really looking for any. Humanity was on a colonization kick—the more colonies, the better. Unfortunately for him, Wilderhom was one of those colonies, and that meant it had a Trans-World Embassy—which had an IGS field office—which had a TOOB machine—which needed Riders.
Toobing to any place in the universe could be done from any TOOB machine! So, why was there a machine on every colony world? Jayson shook his head. It was because of politics—just as deciding which TOOB facility got the best assignments was politics. Important Embassies on important colonies got important assignments. Wilderhom wasn’t important. Wilderhom was the ‘tail’ end of the universe.
If only his first assignment after training had been New Argenot, Pennington’s Landing, or even The Styx! How was he ever going to get his career started if he was stuck on this dirt-ball! Feeling himself sliding into a foul temper, Jayson backed off. Today, of all days, he shouldn’t get discouraged—not after what he’d just done. Somehow, things would work out.
They just had to.
Letting some of his tension go with a heavy sigh, he looked around. Other things needed doing today, so he’d better get moving. Slowly, he stood up, keeping one hand on the hanger wall for balance. Riding the Toob always left him feeling like his arms and legs had gone to sleep. Wobbling a bit, he stretched and shook out his limbs. Then, after a few experimental steps proved he could walk again, he began making his way out to the Condor glider to help the ground crew.
Before he was even halfway there, a gruff voice called to him.
Jayson halted and turned around. Elliot Bothal, the hanger manager, was waving and making impatient, pointing motions at the tarmac. Had the man noticed something? Had he somehow sensed Jayson riding the Toob?
“Yes, Mr. Bothal? What’s the problem?”
“We gotta move those other gliders inside, shorty! The wind’s pickin’ up.”
Jayson ground his teeth but showed no other reaction. Turning, he headed toward the group clustered around the gliders parked just off the runway. When he reached them, he caught the rope someone tossed and turned back to glare at the hanger.
The ‘Mark of Solamane’ was not a mutation! The founder of his family line had gotten cosmetic genoplasty! That's all! His foul mood was returning, and Jayson grumbled as he began pulling the glider across the tarmac, but then a melodious voice called out from behind him.
“Just ignore him.”
It’s her. Jayson felt his heart thump and he turned around.
Gods, she’s pretty.
Riena Lefenor, the youngest member of the Glide club had come up to him, and now gave him a hand as well as an understanding look.
“Elliot’s not worth listening to,” she continued. “He’s such a Retro.”
“Well, someone ought to tell him that,” Jayson replied, jerking his head in the direction of the hanger office.
“Sometimes they do,” Riena countered, smiling. “Our Mr. Bothal is just too prehistoric to get the message.”
Despite his irritation, Jayson smiled. Riena’s sense of humor was one of the many things he liked about her. She was also the reason he put up with Elliot's crap. If it wasn't for her presence at the Glide meets, he'd have been out of here long ago. Glancing toward Elliot's office, he wondered how the man had ever become hanger manager. Granted, Wilderhom’s human population was small, and the Embassy had to make do with whoever was available, but why Elliot? They must have been desperate when they hired this ‘Retro’.
Pulling the glider into the hanger, Jayson chuckled to himself. Calling Elliot a ‘Retro’ wasn’t really accurate, even if he was backward. Retro was short for ‘Evolutionary Retrogression’, and it normally referred to a rare genetic malady occurring in Wilderhom’s semi-human colonists, the Para-Human Recombinants, or Phurs. Phurs were transgenic combinations of humans and various Old Earth mammals. A Retro Phur acted more like its animal ancestors than its human ones.
“So,” continued Riena, “You coming to the Glide tomorrow?”
They'd swung the glider’s tail around to face the hanger wall, and Jayson gave it a final push. “I’ll be here if my director doesn’t dump some extra duty on me,” he said, brushing off his hands.
“He wouldn’t do that to you, again. Would he?”
Even as she spoke, Jayson’s TelCom beeped and played a voice message.
“Mr. Solamane, report to my office.”
Riena burst out laughing, and Jayson stabbed angrily at the 'acknowledge' button.
“I’m sorry, Jayson," Riena said, wiping the laugh tears from her eyes, "but the look on your face is priceless. Doesn’t that man give you any peace?”
“Hardly,” Jayson replied, trying to hide his chagrin by launching into his required cover story. “I’m the newest communications telepath on Wilderhom. I get the dirt detail. If someone at the Inter-World ComCenter reports in sick, or something, I’m the first one called.” Jayson snapped to attention. “Yes, Mr. Kohlaf, Sir! Right away, Sir! Telepathic Communication Specialist Solamane reporting, Sir!” He saluted, and Riena laughed again.
“So, do you mind working your off days?” she commented, her eyes dancing.
“It’s not so bad,” Jayson replied, lying. “I just wish I had some forewarning.”
Riena shifted her hands to her hips, and she gave him a commanding look. “So why don’t you tell your director what he can do with his extra duty when it’s not convenient? Anyone can refuse extra duty.”
That’s exactly what Jayson wanted to do, but he shook his head. “Arguing with the boss doesn't get you promoted very fast." He glared back at the hanger doors. “Well, I ought to go see what he wants. Can’t let him think I sometimes dislike being called in on my off time.” Turning back to Riena, he saw her amused expression and felt some of his anger dissipate. Her smile always made him feel better, so he gave her a comical look of warning. “Remember, if Mr. Kohlaf asks, I didn’t say that.”
She winked. “I promise I’ll remember to forget it.”
Jayson smiled at her a moment longer before nodding his farewell and heading out into the hot early-afternoon sun. As he walked up to the edge of the tarmac, he looked toward the distant runway and recalled his encounter with the Condor. If only he could tell Riena about it. Unique experiences needed to be shared.
Unique? Jayson chuckled at his choice of words and started for the main Embassy office complex in the distance. His unassisted Ride today wasn’t ‘unique’. He’d done it for the first time last week in the cafeteria—totally by accident. ComSpecs a few tables away had mentioned his name, and not wanting to move closer to eavesdrop, he’d tried something crazy. He’d mentally connected the Virtual Information Conduits needed for telepathic mind-speech to his sense of hearing rather than his speech center. Suddenly, it was as if his ears were right in the middle of the ComSpec’s conversation! He’d gone so far as to connect vision when his projected senses looked back and saw his body slumped over in its chair. The sight was so startling that the VIC connections dissolved, returning him to his body with a jolt that had knocked over his drink. Fellow diners had laughed, but he didn’t care. He’d been on a Telepathic-out-of-body Ride without the TOOB machine! Today’s Ride was different only because it had been pre-planned and then executed using all of his senses.
Jayson smiled again at the memory. It certainly had been ‘sensational’. Gods! It was still hard to believe he'd done it.
Hard to believe?
Jayson found himself frowning at that. What if Mr. Kohlaf didn’t believe him? What if unassisted Toobing really was totally unknown? How could his director verify his claim? Jayson quickly dismissed the question. If Mr. Kohlaf were the least bit interested, he’d find a way to verify it. That’s the kind of person he was. Single minded. Determined. Coldly efficient. Jayson looked toward the Embassy complex and chewed his lip. Actually, the word that best described Mr. Kohlaf was ‘scary’.
A shout interrupted his thoughts, and Jayson looked back to see Cirrel, a fellow Toob Rider, running toward him. Cirrel was one of the few true redheads among Embassy personnel here, and their mutual ‘different-ness’ had made them instant friends when Jayson arrived six months ago.
“Where are you headed?” Cirrel asked, as he caught up.
“Mr. Kohlaf’s office.”
“Another ‘snoop’ job, eh?”
“Probably,” replied Jayson. “But snooping around, digging up dirt on folk’s spouses or peeking in on secret business meetings wasn't what I had in mind when I became a Rider.”
That’s for sure.
Snoop jobs were the low end of Toob riding—done primarily to generate funds for the local IGS office. They were never considered when promotions came up.
A dead end job, Jayson thought. What he really wanted to be was a Special Exploration Rider on the huge, earth-orbiting Terran Wormhole Complex. Riders on 'Big Worm' were involved in the other clandestine activity Toobing was used for—hostile environment exploration. The public thought that new colony worlds were discovered using fancy Trans-World instruments and probes, but Toob Riders were the real explorers. No environment could ever hurt someone who wasn't physically there, and the sensory possibilities were limitless. His one training Ride to the event horizon around the Cygnus X black hole had proven that.
Yes, being an SE Rider would be exciting, but until he was promoted to SE status, Jayson was stuck being a nosey, TOOB riding spy—or worse—a lowly ‘snoop job’ operative. Cirrel must have noticed his disappointment because the other Rider clapped him on the shoulder and smiled.
“Cheer up. You’ll eventually get off restricted duty, and these private-pay snoop jobs at least let you Ride the Toob occasionally. You realize that Mr. Kohlaf could have banned you from riding permanently after what happened to you.”
Jayson nodded. Considering his director’s temperament, he’d been lucky to get off with restricted duty. The thought of never riding the Toob again had been terrifying at the time, and he’d gratefully accepted the limited censure. Of course, now that he could ride the Toob on his own, things looked quite different. Glancing at his fellow Rider, Jayson wondered if he should tell Cirrel, but quickly decided against it. If word got out and Mr. Kohlaf found out from anyone other than himself...well...Jayson didn’t want to think about that.
“Anyway,” Cirrel continued, “despite what you think of snoop jobs, you are doing something useful. With all the added surveillance we’ve been doing lately, our office needs the extra funds. Hell. Why should the private info-gathering services get all the profitable work? We’ve got the same technology they do!”
“Plus something they don’t,” replied Jayson, thinking of the TOOB.
“True,” said Cirrel, grinning. “Good thing our clients don’t know about that. Makes us look better.” Changing the subject, Cirrel poked Jayson in the ribs. “So, how’d it go with Riena today? You finally get to ‘first base’ with her?”
Jayson shrugged. “I’m not even sure if I’m in the ‘batter’s box’ yet.” He smiled briefly at the reference to the ancient sport of baseball. It was too bad most people here weren’t interested in the old sport. If the Embassy ever started a league, he knew what pitch he’d throw if he ever got Elliot in the batter’s box. “So, what am I doing wrong?” he finished.
Just then, off to their right, a voice called from the entrance to a low building that wasn’t part of the main Embassy complex.
“The reason girls ignore you, Jayson, is because they have good sense. After all, you are a mutant.”
Jayson stiffened. It was Kelson, another Rider—and not a pleasant one. The non-descript building he was exiting was the one that hid the TOOB machinery, so Kelson must have just come off duty.
“You two make a fine pair,” he commented, as he came up to them. “Red, white, and black hair. Real colorful.” He looked down at Jayson and gave a disdainful sniff.
“If you’re ever gonna make it with the girls, little man, you’d better do something about your hair. With most of it being black, the two white stripes running across the top of your head make you look more like a skunk than a human—and I won’t even mention where your hairline ends, Mr. Furry Back.”
Jayson clamped his jaw over the response he wanted to make and hoped the burley Rider would go away, but the man continued.
“Maybe you should let it grow out on top, too. That’ll add a few centimeters, although you’ll still be staring most girls right in the throat. On the other hand, you might want to try some jade earrings and a mother-of-pearl hair comb for accent. Maybe that would make a difference. Actually, anything that keeps you from lookin’ like one of the local Phurries would be an improvement. You're already almost as short as they are.”
Though his insides burned, Jayson remained stoic, and Cirrel gave him a nervous look before answering the taunt himself. “Knock it off, Kelson. Isn’t there something else you could be doing now?”
“Yeah, there is!” growled the older Rider. “I could be enjoying a day off!” He stabbed a finger at Jayson. “If it wasn’t for this puny loser!”
“Kelson!” Cirrel’s voice wasn’t quite a shout. “Jayson would be pulling his fair share of the workload if he was allowed to, but that’s not his decision! Only Mr. Kohlaf…”
“If it were my decision,” Kelson interrupted, “I’d have dumped him long ago. He’s already missed most of the briefs Mr. Kohlaf’s given us on the new Phur threat. He’ll never…”
“Kelson! You aren’t at liberty to talk about that!”
“Why not? Everybody knows the Phur’s rogue telepathic abilities could cause…”
“Kelson!” Cirrel’s voice had gone cold. “Just leave... now.”
Kelson eyed the two for a moment and gave another snort. “Rest assured, in 22 more days I’ll be doing just that, permanently! And good riddance to this flocking Phur-ball!”
The man whirled around and stalked off, leaving Jayson with a mind full of dark and confused thoughts. Just what was going on? What new Phur threat? Hostilities between Phurs and humans had been increasing lately, and some of the attacks had resulted in injuries, but that was common knowledge. Kelson was alluding to something else. Cirrel knew what it was, but he took his job seriously and wouldn’t violate security to tell him. Jayson ground his teeth. His restricted duty status was keeping him out of so much!
“It’s a good thing Kelson’s tour of duty ends next month,” Cirrel commented. “Even the other die-hard Phurry-phobes are finding his short-timer attitude hard to take. Why didn’t you stand up to him? You’re way too quiet.”
Jayson jerked his attention away from the retreating Kelson and eyed Cirrel. “Would it have made any damned difference?”
“A point,” Cirrel agreed.
“However,” continued Jayson, “I will tell you for the record that, no matter what Kelson or anybody says about my hair, or back, or whatever, I’m not anywhere close to being a Phur! I’m completely human. The Mark of Solamane is a cosmetic genetic alteration!”
Cirrel waved his hands. “Hey! You’ll get no argument from me. I think your hair looks fine. I think it's cool your ancestors had that done. Mine didn't need to. We're distinctive enough." He pointed to his red hair. "But maybe...” Cirrel raised a carrot-colored eyebrow and gave Jayson a puzzled look. “Maybe it’s your eyes.”
“What about my eyes?”
“Well... they’re green.”
“So? Yours are green, too.”
Cirrel shook his head, his light green eyes never leaving Jayson’s face. “Yes. But a moment ago, I could have sworn yours were blue.”
Jayson blinked. He hadn’t told anyone that part of the ‘Mark of Solamane’ was chromatomorphic eyes. Under stress, his eyes would change color from green to blue. It was just something else people wouldn’t understand. “Maybe it’s the light. My eyes are green,” he stated flatly.
“Yes, they certainly are,” replied Cirrel, a smile tugging at his lips. “And a scintillating green at that! Iridescent. Sparkling. Like the emerald depths of the…”
“Dammit, Cirrel, don’t you start on me! I don’t need…”
“Whoa, Jayson! Take a breather. I didn’t mean anything by that.” Suddenly Cirrel struck a demure pose and batted his light-green eyes, coyly. “It’s just that no girl is going to be comfortable staring into your absolutely gorgeous green eyes.”
Jayson wanted to stay irritated, but his friend looked so ridiculous that his annoyance evaporated. Trying not to show his amusement, he pointed a finger and gave Cirrel his ‘stern’ look.
“Don’t you have something to do now, too, besides making ‘come hither’ eyes at superior, white-streaked life forms?”
“That I do,” replied Cirrel, switching to a comically pompous manner. “Even though our IGS office is grossly overstaffed with laggards such as yourself, a few of us have been quite diligent in our duties. Twas most fortunate that the Home Office sent me here. Someone needs to show you people how to do things properly!”
Despite Cirrel’s oblique reference to his duty status, Jayson couldn’t help grinning. “So, where’s your diligence being applied today?”
“I’ve got the duty this afternoon,” Cirrel replied. “We're checking out the Bootsie District in town again.”
“What?” Jayson's smile vanished, and he shook his head. “Embassy Security is already working on the Bootsie District assaults. Why are we bothering to use the TOOB?”
“Quiet!” Cirrel hissed, looking around quickly. “You’re not supposed to say the ‘T’ word out loud.”
Jayson gave his friend an exasperated look. “I know we’re under strict orders not to talk about what we do, but simply saying the ‘T’ word isn’t going to give anything away.”
Cirrel rolled his eyes. “See what I mean? No respect for proper protocol.” He raised his hands heavenward in appeal. “Am I the only one who appreciates the importance of following correct procedure?”
“Probably,” replied Jayson. “But that doesn’t answer my question. Why are we using the ‘you-know-what’ to monitor the Bootsie District? Granted, if the machine is properly programmed, we can get information from anywhere in the known universe, but what we do is a non-interactive, ‘single-point-of-view’ observation method. It works best on a specific target. Yet, here we are, looking for unidentified Phur assailants who could be hiding anywhere in Newhom. The chance of finding them using a single Rider is just about zero. What’s the point?”
Cirrel leered. “Well, for one thing, I get to spy on all the Phur prostitutes who work in the Bootsie District, though I still don’t know why they call themselves Bootsies. None of ‘em wear boots!” He winked. “I like boots.”
“Come on. I’m serious,” Jayson grumbled. “Why are we doing this?”
Cirrel’s smile faded into a fixed stare. “Okay. You want serious? It’s like this, my friend. Permanent surveillance devices don’t work in the Bootsie District because they have this tendency to ‘disappear’, but our method of gathering information can’t be disabled. Yeah, my chances of seeing anything are lower than planetary core material, but we’ve got to do something. What about last night?”
Jayson frowned. “What? What happened last night?”
“You don’t know?”
“No! Tell me! Nobody ever tells me anything anymore!”
"Things are getting bad. A Phur attacked another human last night. Gods! Talk about a bloody mess. It must have been on of those ursid types ‘cause the guy’s arm was damn near ripped off! Tooth and claw marks everywhere. That makes eight attacks since last season. I know toobing is a long shot, but who knows? Maybe I’ll get lucky today and actually catch one of those bastards in the act.”
Jayson stared for a moment, and then closed his eyes as his jaw tightened around sudden nausea. “I wouldn’t call ‘catching him in the act’ lucky, Cirrel,” he said, hissing the words through clenched teeth.
Cirrel’s expression went instantly from serious to embarrassed. “Oh Gods. I’m really sorry, Jayson. I... I didn’t mean to... I forgot you don’t like being reminded of, well, of that mission.”
Jayson bent over, hands on his knees, and tried to calm his roiling stomach. “Yeah,” he whispered. “I wish I could forget it myself.”
A Rider had to be prepared to witness anything on a mission, but Jayson really hated seeing violence, and the brutality on that one particular mission had been so... so... Ruthlessly, he pushed the thought from his mind.
“You all right?” Cirrel had placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Yeah, yeah. I’m fine,” Jayson replied, waving Cirrel’s hand aside. He took a deep breath and gulped back his nausea before straightening up. “I think I’m getting better. The thought of it doesn’t affect me like it used to.”
“Good!” Cirrel gave Jayson a hearty slap on the back that nearly knocked him over. “In that case, you can take over here, and I can finally leave this sorry chunk of space-debris called Wilderhom.” Cirrel stood back and pointed dramatically skyward. “For I, Cirrel, am needed elsewhere, wherever protocol and procedure are profaned!”
“Yeah, right.” Jayson found himself grinning again despite his unsettled stomach. “But before you go riding off into the sunset, don’t you have some unfinished business here?” He pointed to the building next to them.
“That I do, my white streaked swami,” Cirrel said, bowing low and flicking his fingers out in salute as he backed away.
The rider stopped and looked up at Jayson.
“The Phurs. What...”
But Cirrel was shaking his head as he straightened up. “Sorry. You know I can’t tell you.” He gave Jayson a sympathetic look. “Don’t worry about it so much. Despite your ‘dubious’ genetics, you’ll get back to full-duty soon enough.” He chuckled. “And then you’ll have the pleasure of being overworked—just like the rest of us.”
Laughing one last time, Cirrel turned toward the TOOB facility, and Jayson started again for the main offices. Cirrel certainly enjoyed his teasing, and from him, it didn’t hurt like it did when it came from others. Unlike Old Earth, people here were actually disturbed by Jayson’s Mark of Solamane. Cirrel, on the other hand, was simply amused by it. He was also a fellow Toob Rider, and Riders for the most part shared a special, if secret, bond—the bond of mutual experience. Few other things could compare to the virtual reality of riding the Toob—especially when you could do it without the machine! Jayson wasn’t showy by nature, but he couldn’t help himself. His unassisted Ride at the glider field had been too excellent an experience. He stopped and pumped his fists skyward.
“Am I good, or what!”
Quickly lowering his arms, he looked around to see if anyone had noticed his uncharacteristic display. Yes. He was good, but would Mr. Kohlaf see it that way? He didn't want to think about that just yet, so he shifted his mind to something more pleasant. Riena. At least his luck with girls was changing. The feeling that Riena liked him was strong, and she was one of the few girls he’d met here that was actually shorter than he was.
And maybe she was right about these extra duty jobs. Now that he could ride the Toob all by himself, he didn’t need to take every snoop job offered. He ought to assert himself and turn one down. Perhaps then, Riena would really notice him.
A smile broke over Jayson’s face. Riena. Tiny, doe eyed, and thoroughly enchanting Riena. If Mr. Kohlaf’s summons was for another trivial snoop job, he was going to refuse it. Then he and Riena could spend some more time together this afternoon.
That would be the perfect thing on such a fine day.
Kemsa KelReyn set the honey-cider bottle aside and let her gaze lose itself in the twining boughs of the great willow spreading above her. Slowly, the last of her drink slid down her throat—its flowery taste teasing her nose and palate. Pleasant moments like this were to be savored.
lined, the honeyed mind, is coated, it is noted,
With pretty thoughts of pleasing draughts to cheerfulness devoted.
These pleasant days, in many ways, are shrinking, I am thinking.
Yet moments come, just like this one, when joy is merely drinking...
Dropping her gaze back to the millpond, Kemsa smiled and licked some errant honey-cider from her whiskers. She didn’t know where these spontaneous verses came from. They simply popped into her mind, and she enjoyed them when they did. They seemed to come less often now. Perhaps that was because...
Without warning, an all too familiar mind-voice jolted her from her thoughts.
[Ooo. It must be awfully hard work being a rare and valuable Clan Reyn Ques’Tella—lounging in the shade all afternoon watching the world drift by. At this rate, when do you plan on graduating to Prima’Tella, Kemsa? When you are old and your fur is gray?]
[Now, now. Stop teasing her.]
Kemsa tensed and looked down. It was Pelshie and Falla. They must have just been dismissed from afternoon classes.
[I am not teasing, Falla. I’m observing, just like Kemsa does now. Haven’t you noticed? Ever since Veena was sent away, Kemsa is always watching, looking, and observing. Too bad she never telses anymore.]
Kemsa looked up at the two.
[I telse,] she replied, and looked down again.
[Oh, thank you for gracing us with your mellifluous mind-voice, Kemsa. It’s such an honor to be addressed by such a prim and proper Ques’Tella.]
Falla made a rude noise. [Kemsa may not be as proper as we believe. Did you know she was late for curfew again last night?]
[No! What’s this about, Kemsa? Dare I think that you might actually have a male keeping you up at night?]
Kemsa heard Falla snigger. [Pelshie, you can’t be serious.]
[But I am! I was late last night too! Rolar kept me up until well past midnight. The same could be true for Kemsa. Who knows? Perhaps she isn’t studying to be a Prima’Tella after all. Maybe she’s in training to become a vixen Bootsie!]
[Pelshie. Really, now! Even if she were in heat, who would even consider it?]
Kemsa continued to stare at the ground and hoped this would end soon.
[Perhaps you’re right, Falla. It wasn’t a late night tryst. Kemsa was probably here at the millpond making up some of her infernal poems, or thinking other deep thoughts.]
[She seems to be doing it again. We might as well leave. When she’s like this, it’s like telsing to a tree.]
[True. But at least trees are pleasant looking.]
Kemsa heard the two vixen's yikking laughter and waited until they’d trotted off before looking up again. She wouldn’t let them have the satisfaction of knowing their teasing affected her in any way—even if it did. Trying to ignore the feeling in her stomach, she put the empty cider bottle back in her belt pouch and used her long, pink tongue to give her nose and whiskers a slow, thorough cleaning. Honey-cider was rather sticky, and after enjoying it, meticulous grooming was required. When she finished, she leaned back against the willow and tried to regain some of her previous contentment.
On such a fine afternoon, this millpond can be the best place on all Wilderhom.
Kemsa’s newly washed whiskers twitched at her grandiose thought. She’d never lived anywhere other than in her home village and here in Reynhom, so perhaps there were other, more noteworthy places on the planet, but this place was still special to her.
Special and soft.
Kemsa shook her head at her mental words. 'Soft' was not a good word to describe Wilderhom. The land on most new colony worlds was often nothing but a sharp, stony, eroded waste, scarred by great gullies and canyons. This was because terra-forming was easiest to do if native organisms were still in the ocean and the land was devoid of life. Yet, even in this desolation, one could find the precious soil needed to ‘soften’ the land and make it habitable.
Kemsa’s gaze drifted off to the northwest. A two-hour run in that direction would bring her to the shores of Lake Ekram—the remnant of a much larger lake that had once filled this entire rift valley. It was fortunate that the first Phur settlers here had found a way to empty the lake and expose the sediments. Without those lake sediment ‘soils’, the all-important first crop couldn’t have been planted—and that would have meant mass starvation. Nowadays, the damming of existing canyons and gullies created the lakes used as catch basins for new sediment—sediment that could be turned into soil both fertile and productive.
A buzz accompanied by faint splashes caught Kemsa's attention, and she looked toward the millpond. It seemed the minnows in the shallows were having fun today trying to catch the lazily circling insects. Other sounds caused her to look farther up the shoreline to where the Reyn River spilled into the millpond. The wet season was almost over, and the river was high and swift. Swiveling both her ears toward the river, she heard it gurgle as it played with the stones along its banks. Listening even more carefully, she could almost make out the distant rumble of the Tachel Falls—another one of her favorite spots. She liked to stand at its base and let the thunderous sound wash over her. The constant pounding of water on stone sounded as though some giant feline were purring. And the sparkling mists! They could bedew her fur until it glistened with a thousand tiny rainbows—a moist raiment of radiant color. She could almost think of herself as being beautiful then.
Kemsa noticed she’d been absently braiding a few strands of her silver-white mane, and self-consciously she stopped, letting the braids slowly unwind. Most female Phurs wore their manes in intricate braids with colorful beads or seasonal flowers woven in. At breakfast in the juvenile dormitories, Pelshie had sported an elaborate new pattern that was quite stunning. But then, Pelshie had friends to help her. Kemsa didn’t. Anyway, beauty for her would require more than fancy braids or a coating of dew from the falls.
A sudden breeze caressed her, and grateful for the distraction, Kemsa lifted her nose, inhaling the warm air—the tip of her tongue just peeking from between her lips. The fragrance floating on the breeze told her that the orchards south of Reynhom were blooming. Relishing the scent, she thought of the snow apples those blooms would become, and the lovely, spiced sauces they made if one knew exactly when to pick the delicate fruits. A small purr began in her throat, and she let her tongue dance across her vibrating teeth as she savored her tasty thoughts. After a moment though, she let them slip away. Desserts were for those who earned them—not those who merely wished. Now was the time to put in the work that would earn her reward.
Sitting up and taking a deep breath, she relaxed and gazed with half-lidded eyes at the scene before her. Soon, tiny lights began to dance in her vision. She thought they looked like brightly colored sparks, like the ones from the blacksmith’s grinding stone, or when he hit the glowing iron with his ‘thunderous’ hammer. Bang! They were bright flying sparks. There was another one! She wondered where that one led. Would those little sparks finally come to her when she called? So far, the only connection she’d ever made was to that strange spark earlier this afternoon, and that link hadn’t been her doing.
She sighed and shifted her mind from ‘long-distance’, back to ‘line-of-sight’ telsing mode. She mustn’t be too impatient. With practice, her long-distance mind-speech would eventually mature. Leaning back against her tree, she looked across the millpond to where the primitive grain mill sat next to the modern hydrogen fuel facility. The grain mill wasn’t located here for the waterpower, as were mills in ancient times. It was here because the main trails crossing the river used the hydro-facility’s dam as a bridge. Farmers found the mill location convenient, and it also allowed everyone to call this catch basin ‘the millpond’—which Kemsa thought was much nicer than calling it the ‘dammed, sediment-catching, hydro-facility reservoir’.
A flash of color caught her eye, and she spotted three figures coming out of the mill. One was the miller/technician that operated both facilities. The others were a local grain farmer, and a young kit—perhaps four years of age. They were walking toward the farmer’s wagon, and the single horse-like draft beast that pulled it. Kemsa wondered how much longer farmers would need to use such archaic equipment. She’d seen pictures of the great produce-haulers of Old Earth, but they were far too expensive for a colony world like hers. The meager revenues from Wilderhom’s planetary exports went for more important things like travelways, dams, and other public works.
Leaning forward, Kemsa pulled her knees under her chin and relaxed her mind. It was time to continue with her assignment, and the trio across the millpond would help. Today, the miller would be green! The farmer? A becoming shade of blue! And who was the little yellow kit holding his paw? Was she the farmer’s daughter, perhaps?
Kemsa grinned. Playing with her mental coloring book was fun, even if it was an assignment. Thinking of this, she wondered if Poel TamPuir, her telepathic skills teacher, was having any fun with his assignment. The two of them had been in the middle of a special lesson when he’d been called away to a meeting of the Clan Reyn Elders.
Kemsa cocked her head. What ‘color’ might she use for her Elders if she met them today? Probably a formal, colorless gray since that was the only color that seemed to suit them. Sitting up straight, she bowed her head in a mock submission.
Yes, Elder Shesh. No Elder Omam. A good day to you Elder Dev.
Dropping the pose, she tucked her knees back under her chin and leaned forward—only to have the badge on her tunic dig painfully into her chest. Irritably, she pulled the fabric and readjusted her shoulders. She would just as soon forget that hard reminder of her compulsory rank in Clan Reyn. Being a young Alpha Telepath gave her the student title of Ques’Tella, but it didn’t automatically grant her consideration or respect—especially from the Elders. They only seemed concerned about her lapses in behavior. Fortunately, Teacher Poel was different. He was quick to give praise when she’d earned it.
Poel was different in other ways, too. For one thing, he wasn’t a felocanid Phur like herself. Felocanids had been bio-engineered from human, fox, and cougar genes. Poel was a beautifully spotted Clan Puir felid. Their genome consisted of human and snow leopard genes. Another difference was that, unlike her felocanid teachers, he made lessons fun—like today’s assignment. Kemsa was using her mental coloring book to ‘see’ what her VIC node router was doing. Normally, the activity of the router, the brain structure responsible for mind-speech, went unnoticed, but Poel had taught her a colorful biofeedback technique for sensing her router activity. Of course, the miller wasn’t green, nor the farmer blue. She was simply sensing the colorful line-of-sight VIC nodes that would be available to her router if she wished to mind-speak, or telse with them.
Briefly, she wondered if she should try. Would they telse back? She rarely interacted with the less telepathically gifted. They had their common, everyday tasks to perform, such as farming and smithing, and she had her advanced political and mental training to pursue. Her world consisted of studying, trying to satisfy the Elders, and occasionally meeting with a mature Alpha Telepath assigned to her clan from one of the other Phur clans on Wilderhom. Still, the Phurs across the millpond were fellow clan-members. They might respond—if she telsed politely.
Raising her head, Kemsa was about to try when the miller/technician swept the farmer’s kit off her feet and swung her around several times. As the little one’s ‘yikking’ laughter floated across the millpond, it mingled cheerfully with the deeper tones of her elders. Kemsa looked away and laid her cheek back on her knees. As a clan Ques’Tella, she’d never been allowed that sort of easy playfulness. Her rank required restraint and that was how most fellow clan-members treated her—with restraint and reserve. Other than Poel, no one even smiled at her anymore—not that many ever had.
Other than Veena.
Looking down, Kemsa felt a familiar sadness settle over her, and she picked at the grass beside her feet. Suddenly, she pulled up a clump, and flung it away. Why was she still feeling this? The Elders had sent Veena to the canids last season! That should be plenty of time to get used to the situation. Also, she and Veena’s long-distance telsing skills would mature soon and that would solve the problem of being separated. Besides, was Veena’s presence required in order to have fun? No! She could have fun all by herself! She had Poel’s exercises. She had her mental coloring book. She had... She had lots of things!
Kemsa closed her eyes and hugged her legs again. If she had so much, why did it still hurt?
Laying her chin back on her knees, Kemsa looked across the millpond to where the miller, the farmer, and the kit were still enjoying each other’s company. Watching them, she blinked the moisture from her eyes.
friendships I can’t share.
Would that someone else might care...
It took a while, but the ache in her chest finally died away, and Kemsa straightened up. Pelshie had meant her earlier taunts to be cruel, but they were also true. Kemsa couldn’t spend all her time watching others and wishing that things could be different. She couldn’t change it, and if she ever wanted to become a Prima’Tella, she needed to stop brooding and get on with her assignments.
Kemsa half-lidded her eyes and shifted her mind to long-distance mode. Once again, she saw the tiny sparks dancing in her vision, and once again, they were just out of reach—as were the distant minds that had stimulated them. Sighing, she let the sparks slip away. At least she could make them appear almost instantly now. Perhaps soon, she would master this most difficult of all the telepathic skills. Maybe soon, she would become a Prima’Tella.
But not today.
Other than the strange flash that had touched her thoughts earlier, the fleeting sparks were still only pretty lights in her mind’s eye.
Jayson tried to look his director in the eye, but stared instead at a point amidst the clutter on the man’s desk. Just talking to Mr. Stevvan Kohlaf was difficult. Refusing to do a mission for him, even a snoop job, was nearly impossible. The man was so smugly self-assured. His appearance didn’t help either. His shiny, bald head and lack of facial hair gave him an artificial look, and his callous expression only added to the illusion of mechanical inflexibility.
“Sir?” Jayson cleared his throat, again. “I usually don’t mind playing ‘private-eye’ for people’s whims, but helping the Labor Pool Bandoliers by toobing into the Admin Argonaut’s game huddle before the game seems like cheating to me.”
Mr. Kohlaf responded in his usual disdainful tone. “If it will ease your overly sensitive mind, Rider, this operation will not make much difference. The Bandoliers will probably win even if they fail to receive the game time changes in their opponent’s game plan.”
Confirmation of the trivial nature of this snoop job annoyed Jayson, and he looked up. “Then why does someone want us to do it? It’s a waste of credit. Why do people willingly pay so much for this sort of thing—especially since they aren’t even allowed to know how we do it.” Thinking of Riena, he stood straighter. “No! I won’t do it. It’s petty and stupid. You might as well ask if I want to go on another ‘Klissa’ mission.”
Mr. Kohlaf’s expression darkened instantly, and Jayson gulped before looking down. Gods! That had been so stupid! The Klissa mission was the last thing he wanted to mention in front of his director. He shifted his feet nervously.
“Um, I... That is... well, it’s just that I find it hard doing jobs where the information gathered seems to do no good. Can’t I... I mean, isn’t there something more important I could start doing now? I’m a lot better than I was, I mean, I don’t react like I used to...” Jayson trailed off. This wasn’t going well.
Mr. Kohlaf’s expression remained grim. “Credit has been received for this job, Mr. Solamane. Someone must do it. Perhaps you need more time to recover before we can send you on such a complicated operation.”
Jayson heard the scorn in those words and felt the hot flash of embarrassment. He steeled himself for a harsh dismissal, but his director merely pulled a sheet of hardcopy off a stack on his desk and studied it for a moment before looking back.
“If you would rather do something else, perhaps some overtime duty toobing the Bootsie District this evening would be more to your liking.”
Instead of realizing he’d finally been offered a regular-duty mission, Jayson recalled his irritation concerning large area surveillance. He spoke without thinking. “Sir, why are we bothering with this? We’re never going to find thesePhur assailants by toobing the Bootsies.”
Instantly, Jayson knew that had been the wrong thing to say. With a frightening scowl, Mr. Kohlaf shot around his desk. Alarmed, Jayson backed away and tripped over a chair but was kept from falling because his director had grabbed his collar and hauled him to within centimeters of his angry face.
“We are doing this, Mr. Toob Rider, because I personally do not want to see another human suffer at the hands of these vermin! We will use every means available to find the Phurs responsible for these cowardly attacks on us—and that includes using the TOOB!” Mr. Kohlaf’s grip tightened and his voice dropped to a menacing growl. “Although, using you as the Rider is probably an exercise in futility.”
Jayson felt the intense mockery in those words, and it stung his pride awake. “But sir, I am a good Rider, I can even…”
His director cut him off with a harsh bray of laughter. “Good? Good? What does a good Rider do? What is a Rider’s Duty?”
Jayson had heard the same harshly bellowed question many times during his training, and he found himself blurting out the required response. “It’s my duty as a Toob Rider to remember, without prejudice, all that I sense during a mission; to dutifully report, without prejudice, all information gathered to my immediate superior; and finally, to resist any attempts by others to gain access to that information.”
Mr. Kohlaf pulled Jayson closer. “So, Rider, did you remember all that you sensed after you came back from the Klissa mission?” Without waiting for a response, the man released his grip and stalked back to his desk.
Jayson rubbed his throat, and looked down to hide his embarrassment. “Sir, I…”
“No!” Kohlaf shouted. “I don’t need apologies, explanations, or excuses. I need Riders—fully functional Riders!”
Jayson had no response and continued to stare at the floor. When nothing happened, he looked up, and because Mr. Kohlaf’s scowl hadn’t changed, he didn’t expect the man’s next statement.
“So, Rider, are you going to take the Bootsie District mission or not? I can’t wait forever for your decision.”
Jayson blinked. “Sir? You... you still want me for this mission?”
His director gave him a disgusted look. “No, Rider, I do not! I would much rather use someone else! But the other Riders I asked refused, and the Trans-World work code clearly states that all extra duty be voluntary.” Mr. Kohlaf gave Jayson another raking look. “Because Riders are so rare, the IGS is forced to put up with whatever nature gives us, but it seems all the truly dismal Riders have been sent to Wilderhom! Still, someone has to do this mission. Do you want it?”
Jayson could only nod.
“Then be here at 17:00 for the briefing.” Mr. Kohlaf sat down and jerked his head toward the door. “Dismissed.”
Jayson left the office in such a hurry that he was halfway across the office complex before he noticed he was headed for the Food Service area. That seemed typical. He could always count on his stomach to think for him when his brain wasn’t working properly. His meeting with Mr. Kohlaf should have dulled his appetite, but he’d skipped lunch to be at the Glide meet, and his stomach wanted to be fed now. Well, it would have to wait until he got to the cafeteria, and in the meantime, he could review his first attempt at being assertive with his director.
Results? He’d finally turned down a lowly snoop job only to replace it with an equally useless, but more rigorous, large area surveillance mission. Plus, he’d angered Mr. Kohlaf.
Jayson punched the wall he was passing, causing a passerby to give him a questioning look. He ignored it. Why hadn’t he told Mr. Kohlaf about his unassisted Toob ride at the glider field? That would have softened the man’s mood. He’d almost gotten it out once, but meetings with Mr. Kohlaf were always one-sided, and he hadn’t gotten another chance. No. That wasn’t right. He hadn’t taken another chance.
Scared little man.
Gods! He hated being afraid! Why couldn’t he just stand up to people? Why couldn’t he just... Jayson stopped and took a deep breath.
Just drop it. Okay?
Ignoring the turmoil within, Jayson started walking again. At least there was one bright spot in this whole mess. He might not officially be off restricted duty yet, and it was only a large area surveillance mission, but he’d finally gotten a regular duty assignment—his first since the Klissa mission. That was something, anyway.
Entering the cafeteria, Jayson got the ubiquitous specialty-of-the-day and sat down at a window table to begin satisfying his indifferent appetite. Despite his hunger, he knew he wouldn’t enjoy his meal. After all, this was cafeteria food. Still, it was better than anything he could concoct himself. He might be good enough to ride the Toob unassisted, but cooking a decent meal was an entirely different matter.
As he ate, he noticed that the laminated covering on his table was beginning to peel. Absently, he lifted it up. There was a logo of some sort on the underside that looked like ‘Formetica’. Jayson recalled that this was a synthetic laminate-material invented over 400 years ago.
Probably about the same time they killed the cow for this steak.
Looking around, he noticed other evidence of neglect—peeling wall coverings, cracked seat covers, dirty windows, and messy waste disposal units. Suddenly, he felt as drab as his surroundings. People had no ‘pride of place’ here—probably because no one wanted to be here.
He certainly didn’t.
His meal was turning into a depressing experience, as well as a tasteless one, so he was glad when Riena appeared. When she looked up from the serving line, he waved to her and wondered if she knew anything about preparing food that didn’t come out of boxes with misleading ‘serving suggestions’ on the labels.
“So, what are you doing here?” she asked, seating herself with her snack. “I thought your director had work for you.”
“I refused it.”
“Good for you,” she replied. “Everybody needs time off. Don’t let him bully you.”
Jayson took a great deal of pleasure from Riena’s praise and decided not to tell her that he’d merely traded off-duty work for overtime work. Instead, he asked about her cooking ability.
She shook her head. “I’ve no culinary skills whatever. However, let my father have the kitchen to himself for a couple of hours, and he can whip up a feast to die for.”
“Must not be a trait you can pass on genetically,” Jayson replied. “My folks are wizards in the kitchen. Me? I don’t cook. I merely apply radiant energy—usually to the wrong places.”
Jayson looked down and cleared his throat.
Come on! Ask her!
He pointed at his plate and looked up hopefully. “I-could-really-use-a-home-cooked-meal.” Jayson winced at the desperate tone in his voice. That hadn't come out right.
Riena shook her head. “I’d like to invite you over,” she said, “but I can’t.”
Jayson’s gaze dropped back to his half-eaten meal. At least he’d finally gotten up the courage to ask.
“Actually, I should say that I can’t invite you over yet,” Riena added.
Jayson’s head came back up, hope renewed. “Not yet?”
“Yeah,” Riena continued. “Dad’s not here to cook. The Embassy appointed him as a delegate to last quarter’s Trans-World Congress. He won’t be back on-planet till later this week.”
Jayson was elated. “You... You’d really invite me over when your dad gets home?”
Riena nodded and then gave him a wry smile. “Sure—when Dad gets home. Believe me, inviting you over now would only subject you to Mom’s cooking, and what you’ve got in front of you now puts her efforts to shame.”
Jayson grinned, hoping he didn’t look too silly.
She’s got really beautiful eyes.
He realized he was staring and cleared his throat.
“Um. So. Your dad’s one of this quarter’s congressional delegates? How long has he been gone?”
“Almost two months. I was just over at the ComCenter picking up his latest messages for Mom.” Riena patted a bulge in her shirt pocket that must have been a data disk. “She misses him terribly. I’m glad that the Trans-World Congress meets on Big Worm because if they met on Old Earth itself, Dad would be stuck in quarantine for another six weeks.”
“Why would they hold the Congress on any of Earth's colony worlds?” Jayson asked. “Big Worm is the obvious meeting place for our space-wide government because Big Worm is the only means of space travel there is! The Terran Wormhole Complex is Trans-World.” Jayson gave a snort. “Actually, Trans-World isn’t a government at all. It’s just a glorified trade organization.”
Riena chuckled and waggled a finger at him. “I wouldn’t mention that to my Dad if I were you. I’m sure he’d give you an argument.”
“Well, it’s true,” Jayson countered. “Colony worlds govern themselves. Trans-World deals mostly with inter-colony trade, communication, transport, and security issues.”
“And what do you think holds our universe together?” Riena asked, giving him a look as she bit into her pastry. “Somefing hass to,” she mumbled, before swallowing. “The vast distances between worlds certainly doesn’t engender a feeling of closeness.”
Jason pointed to himself. “Actually, it’s my job as a telepathic communicator that keeps everything from falling apart. No government can work without communications.”
“We could always send messages via courier using Big Worm,” Riena countered.
Her sly smile told Jayson she was baiting him. Well, why not respond in kind? Riena was making it easy to have conversational fun, and he suddenly felt frisky.
“Okay. Let’s say you send a birthday greeting via Big Worm to Auntie Slobber-smootch back on Old Earth. If you think the universe is big, just wait until you get the bill!” Jayson rolled his eyes. “Talk about incomprehensible numbers. We need long-distance telepathic communication because it’s the only way Old Earth and the colony worlds can ‘talk’ to each other without having to power up that credit-devouring wormhole complex.”
Riena was laughing and shaking her head. “You have an Auntie ‘Slobber-smootch’?”
“Doesn’t everyone?” he replied, grinning back. “Actually, that’s my Auntie Amala’s only failing. She can be very demonstrative in both word and deed. At least once a moon I get a message from her that practically drips saliva.” Jayson would never admit it, but he really like those messages. The ones from his parents were stiff and distant by comparison. “It’s a good thing I work at the ComCenter and get my Aunt’s messages first hand,” he continued. “If anyone else got a hold of them, I’d never live it down.”
“Ooo. It seems I now have a deep dark secret I can hold over you,” said Riena.
“I’m at your mercy,” replied Jayson, grinning even more.
Riena chuckled, but then cocked her head and gave him a mysterious look.
“I’ve heard the stories,” she said, “but I’ve always wanted to hear it from a real telepath. What’s telepathy like?”
Her question sent a small thrill through him. This wasn’t just a general question. She was asking about something very personal to him!
“Let’s see,” he replied, trying to think of what would best describe the feeling. “Telepathy is like a pulsing, springy sort of sensation that appears somewhere near the center of my head. It’s like, and yet unlike, voiced speech. It…”
“Voiced speech?” Riena interrupted. “I thought telepathy would be like instantaneous thought transmission or something.”
Jayson gave a knowing shake of his head. “That’s a common misconception. My folks still think it works that way, but I’m glad telepathy is not like that.”
Riena was leaning closer, and Jayson could see the sparkle of genuine interest in her lovely brown eyes. The look made it hard to concentrate.
“Uh. Well—full thought transmission would be pretty hard to take,” he replied, trying to sound more coherent than he felt. “Have you any idea what a jumbled morass of thoughts most minds are?” Riena’s looks were certainly jumbling his thoughts.
She looked thoughtful for a moment before answering his question. “So you’re saying thoughts must be organized before they’re sent, no matter if it's by voice or telepathy.”
She’s good! Looks and brains!
“Right,” he said, nodding. “However, telepathy does have something voiced speech doesn’t have. It has a ‘feel’ to it. Some telepaths feel harsh and brittle, while others are soft and elastic. I like the soft ones best. VICs are only supposed to transfer simple information, but different telepaths feel different. Sometimes, they feel...”
Jayson trailed off. He was no longer thinking of simple mind-speech. He was remembering the impossible sensations one could experience while riding the Toob—like the ones he’d experienced this afternoon.
“What’s a VIC?”
“Huh?” Jayson had to refocus on his surroundings.
Riena laughed. “You really get involved in your work, don’t you? I asked what a VIC was.”
“Oh. Sorry.” Jayson said. “VIC is short for Virtual Information Conduit. It’s the natural phenomenon that makes telepathy possible.”
“How does it do that?” she asked.
Jayson stared. “You really want to know, don’t you?”
Riena gave a decisive nod of her head. “Yes. I do. There’s nothing wrong with learning new things.” She gave a throaty chuckle and touched the back of his hand. “Besides, I want to know about something that can make a person’s face light up the way yours just did.”
Jayson felt his cheeks redden, but he couldn’t suppress his excitement. This was exactly the sort of personal talk he’d always wanted to have with her.
“Well,” he said, hoping his voice wasn’t too shaky. “I can give you the name of my long-distance telepathy instructor. Maybe he could explain it better. All I know is that VICs allow information to bypass light-speed restrictions, because VICs are not a form of energy—they’re continuum-jumping fluctuations in space-time itself. Only VIC entrance and exit points, or nodes, are detectable in our continuum, and Telsing is simply the brain sensing and using these VIC nodes for faster-than-light communication.”
“Tel-sing?” Riena pronounced the word slowly and frowned before looking back at him.
“It’s a verb we telepaths use for mind speaking,” he explained. “Using ‘Mind-speak’ is way too awkward.”
Jayson saw Riena’s eyes suddenly shift to a point behind him, and her frown deepened. Turning around, he scanned the cafeteria for what had interrupted their promising conversation.
Then he spotted them.
Great Holes in Space! What the hell were they doing here? With all the problems now, the Phurs ought to be smarter than this. Granted, they had to conduct Trans-World business on Embassy grounds, but they didn’t have to eat here! When he looked back at Riena her frown had disappeared, but now she was leaning toward him conspiratorially.
“Those two Phurs are Canids—the ‘wolf’ Phurs—aren’t they? What are they talking about—um, I mean, telsing about?”
“How would I know?” Jayson replied, irritably.
Riena looked confused. “You’re telepathic and so are Phurs. You can ‘hear’ them telsing, can’t you?”
Jayson shook his head. “Not when they aren’t looking at me.”
“Huh? What difference does that make? Telepaths can ‘speak’ between worlds! Surely, you can ‘hear’ another telepath in the same room with you. Can’t you?”
“No, I can’t!” he replied, suddenly realizing he’d raised his voice. Damn! He did not want to put Riena off—not now!
“No. I can’t ‘hear’ them,” he repeated in a more reasonable tone. “And the only way telepaths can telse between worlds is with the help of special equipment. Without it, I can only pick up someone’s telsing if they’re looking at me. Natural telsing is mostly a line-of-sight phenomenon.”
Riena looked thoughtful. “Line-of-sight? That would make telsing more restrictive than voiced speech.”
Jayson breathed a discreet sigh. There was no testiness in her voice, so maybe she hadn’t read anything into his snappy answers.
“Yes. There are restrictions,’ he explained, “such as not being able to telse after dark unless you have exceptional night vision. The vision restriction is also why science took so long to acknowledge telepathy in the first place. Everyone assumed it could be done over distance so most tests for telepathy were done ‘blind’. Well, of course that didn't work. As to natural long-distance telepathy, one of the guys at the ComCenter told me that a few Phurs with enhanced telepathic abilities can do it without using a machine. They’re called Alpha Telepaths, or something.”
Riena shrugged. “I didn’t know that. Actually, I know very little about the Phurs. Trans-World assigned Dad here only last year.”
“I’ve been here only six months myself,” replied Jayson. “But Embassy employees get a better planetary orientation than most family members. Some of it was useless stuff, though—like the fact that female Phurs are called the same thing as the females of the species they was bio-engineered from. You know, ‘bitch’, ‘vixen’, ‘doe’, ‘mare’, ‘sow’.”
Riena giggled. “Bitch? Sow? That’s gotta hurt.”
Jayson shrugged. “That’s what the orientation said. Phur females obviously can’t call themselves women.”
“So, what are the different Phur ‘guys’ called?” Riena had cocked her head and was giving him another sly smile.
“Um. Some of the names I remember are ‘tom’, ‘buck’, ‘bull’, ‘boar’ or just plain ‘male’.”
Riena gave a grunt. “‘Boar’ might be misconstrued as negative, but I think the females got the worst of this naming business—and I don’t think this sort of information is useless.”
“Why? What could you use it for?”
Riena’s slight frown had returned, and she was looking at the two canids again. “Well, I would need to know things like that in order to make friends with them.”
“Huh? Why would you even want to?” Jayson found this notion disturbing.
Riena gave him a surprised look. “Because I’ve always made friends on the colony planets my dad’s been assigned to—friends with the colonists, that is.”
“Yeah, but at least those colonists were human—or more human than these Phurs are.” Jayson jabbed a thumb in the direction of the canids. “Sure, colonists undergo subtle genetic manipulation to help them adapt to their new colony worlds, but the bioengineering of the Phurs was a completely different situation. We still don’t know why Kaustav Ekram did it. If he wanted to combine humans with animals, at least he could have created something with an adaptive advantage. That was supposed to be his specialty.”
“So, he created the Phurs strictly for cosmetic reasons?”
Riena was giving his white streaked hair a look, and Jayson thought of Kelson’s earlier remarks. Quickly, he cleared his throat and answered. “Who knows why Ekram let the first Phurs come to term. He should have destroyed…” Jayson stopped there. He wasn’t sure how Riena felt about the Ekram Experiment. Even after 250 years, it still had the power to spark heated controversy. Jayson cleared his throat again. "All I know is that the Phurs caused a lot of problems on Old Earth, and that’s why they were forced to come here."
"Forced? I thought it was a voluntary emigration."
"So they say," said Jayson. "The Phurs seem to think different. And who can blame us for not wanting them around? I'm one of the few who doesn't have this problem, but most humans get real creeped out in a room full of Phurs. Think about it. Phurs can't speak out loud because animal mouths can't form the sounds of voiced speech, so they communicate telepathically. Now, let's say you're in a room with them, and they're telepathically chatting away. You can see by their interaction that they're communicating, but you hear nothing! You're totally out of the loop. On top of that, you know the only way you're going to find out what's going on is if some Phur finally decides to give you a written message. They can literally 'talk behind your back' even if they're right in front of you, and there isn't a damn thing you can do about it!"
Jayson found he'd raised his voice again, and he took a breath. "Anyway, lack of communication is going to make it hard for you to make friends with them."
“I know communication would be hard,” replied Riena, “but it’s a point of pride with me to make friends with one or two of them.” She looked back at the two canids. “If only I were telepathic.”
Jayson hid a grin and then moved a bit closer to her. “I’ll tell you a little secret.”
She turned and leaned toward him until their heads almost touched. “What?”
“You are telepathic,” he whispered.
“No! You’re teasing me," Riena replied, leaning back.
Jayson held up his hand. “Honest! I’d swear to it by all the spirits of space.”
“But, I was tested for telepathy, like everyone else!” Riena protested. “I tested non-telepathic!”
“No,” Jayson replied, tapping his head. “You just didn’t test strong enough, telepathically. All humans are slightly telepathic; it’s part of our evolutionary heritage. Telsing evolved along with the voiced speech ability, but it withered to a vestigial remnant because Mother Nature thought voiced speech was better—which it mostly is. The only difference between you and me is that I have a more functional telepathic brain structure—rather like what it was when humans were first evolving. Strange as it seems, we telepaths are evolutionary throwbacks.”
“That’s odd. You don’t look like a monkey.”
Riena was looking at him with laughing eyes, but Jayson found himself bristling. “Riena! Don’t spread that around. I’ve a bad enough time as it is because of my hair. When I said ‘throwback’, I didn’t mean that far back! I’m a human, not an animal.”
“But the Phurs aren’t animals either.” Riena protested. “They’re genetically modified humans and are just as intelligent as we are. They only look like upright animals... sort of.”
Jayson was about to respond with some heat when Riena began giggling—the sound of it making it impossible to stay angry with her.
“I don’t care why they were created. I think they’re cute,” she continued, still giggling through her hand. “Like little furry people with funny furry faces.”
Jayson rolled his eyes. How could he argue with ‘cute’?
“Riena, some of those ‘cute’ little furry faced ‘people’ have attacked, and nearly killed, humans.”
Riena's giggling stopped and she dropped her eyes. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sound flippant.” Riena sounded genuinely contrite, and Jayson quickly dismissed his remaining irritation. After all, getting mad at her was something he did not want to do.
“Anyway,” he continued, “the telepathic structure in the brain is called the VIC node ‘router’. It’s what makes all of this telepathy stuff work. The router senses real-space VIC nodes and routes them to various parts of the brain, such as the speech center during telsing.”
Riena gave him a puzzled look. “Various parts of the brain? Are you saying that your router can hook a VIC node to some other part of the brain besides your speech center?”
He’d almost told her about Toobing. That slip-up could have been costly.
“Well,” Jayson replied, slowly, “recent research suggests possibilities, but I haven’t heard anything since I was assigned here.”
He noticed Riena was looking at her timepiece and reminded himself that she had messages to deliver. A part of him wanted to spend more time with her, but another part was glad he wouldn’t have to answer any more probing questions. Riena was smart—and quick.
“Anyway,” he continued, “that’s how telepathy works. End of story.” He leaned back and Riena stood up.
“Thanks for the talk, Jayson,” she said, “but I’ve got to be going. See you tomorrow?”
Jayson nodded. “Sure—if my director doesn’t give me more work.”
“He wouldn’t do that to you, again, would he?” Riena gave him a heart-melting smile.
Jayson grinned back, trying not to look stupid. “Isn’t this where we came in?”
Riena winked and turning, headed for the exit. Jayson kept his eyes on her until she’d disappeared out the cafeteria door. Then he leaned back and smiled. Riena was definitely more interested in him now than she’d ever been, and while that was gratifying, it was unsettling, too. With Riena, his problem of finding a girlfriend might finally be over, but the problem of keeping secrets from her was only beginning. Jayson rested his chin in his hand and wondered how his imaginary alter ego would handle this situation, but the Watchman was silent. This mission was entirely new territory. Giving himself a shake, he looked over at the two Phurs seated a few tables away.
Canid Phurs looked roughly like small humans, but they had a distinctly wolfish head and lower body, and their fur was definitely not human. Cute furry humans, eh? So, what did humans look like to them? Briefly, a ridiculous picture of a large, naked monkey scampered through Jayson’s brain.
No. Phurs couldn’t think that... could they?
Actually, it was hard to tell what Phurs thought because they mostly kept to themselves. In fact, these two were now positioned almost eye to eye—which was how telepaths held a ‘private’ conversation. Block your own line of sight with the other telepath’s face and few others around you could receive your telsing. Curious now, Jayson picked up his tray, and walked toward the canids. As he passed behind the larger one, he caught a snatch of telsing from the other.
[I distrust GenDat humans. Master is blind to…]
Jayson felt the pulse of telsing in his head stop abruptly. The opposite canid was eying him, and the cold feel of that look dampened any further interest. Quickly, he turned and took his tray to the waste disposal unit. After depositing it, he left the cafeteria. On his way out of the complex, he thought about the one snippet of telsing he’d received. Its unfriendly content was to be expected because Phurs and humans generally were not on speaking terms. Chuckling at his own double entendre, Jayson walked out into the bright sunlight and looked around. Since he now had an overtime mission scheduled for this evening, he’d better quit loafing and start doing some serious loafing. He hadn’t much time off left. Heading toward his apartment in the Embassy housing projects, he remembered that the Embassy had just finished constructing a communal swimming pool. Maybe a swim before heading back to work this evening would be just the thing. As he passed the complex’s main gates, he looked up and saw a live guard standing at the checkout terminal.
Jayson stopped, startled. When had they started putting guards at the gates?
The afternoon’s warmth disappeared in the sudden chill that washed over him. Apparently, the Embassy was no longer a place to live in. The simple posting of a guard had turned it into a place to hide in.
The shrill mind-voice and accompanying bark tore Kemsa from her light doze.
[Today is not a resting day!]
The accusing frown on Elder Udar’s whitened muzzle pulled Kemsa instantly to her feet, and she dropped her tail in submission as she stretched out her neck for the customary touching of noses. Ignoring her greeting gesture, the old Elder brushed the road dust off his office robes before looking back and growling.
[Why are you here? You should be in the Great Library with the other students! You shame yourself. We felocanids of Clan Reyn are the most scholarly of all Phurs because we work diligently at it. I expect better from our most senior, Ques’Tella. What will others think when they see you taking your leisure here?] He made a wide sweeping gesture toward the millpond and its surroundings.
[Sir, I…] Kemsa began, but the old Elder cut her off.
[Unlike you it seems, I have a great many duties to perform.] He brandished his travel satchel. [I’ve been arbitrating the Forn/Clen dispute in DenReynhom this morning, and now I’m back. As you can see, I am not dawdling. I’m proceeding directly to the Hall of Elders, where other duties await me. I suggest you be more diligent in your own duties as well.]
Without any parting gesture, the old felocanid turned and loped off toward the village, leaving Kemsa standing in a confused and hurt silence. What did Elder Udar expect? Why should she be sitting stiffly in the Great Library with the other students? Her training was different from theirs. She was a Ques’Tella—the only Ques’Tella in her age group! Besides, she knew what the other students thought of her whenever she had to be with them. At the millpond she could avoid that and actually get something useful done. And if Poel chose to give her lessons in places other than the Great Library, was this her fault? No!
Kemsa sat down with a thump. The Elders were always blaming her, yet Poel had taught her that fault could only be assigned to those who had control over their circumstances! She’d never had any control. She’d never been given the power to control anything! She’d never...
Actually, there was something she could control now. In fact, her special lessons this morning had emphasized this. Concentrating on her frustration, she felt it diminish, and by the time it disappeared, her jaw had dropped into a satisfied smile.
Yes. I think my lessons are coming along just fine.
Leaning back against her tree, Kemsa recalled the morning’s lesson with Teacher Poel. They had been sitting muzzle to muzzle in the wooded park beside Reynhom’s hostelry when he’d suddenly leaned toward her with his oh so ‘serious’ expression.
[As a Ques’Tella, most important the knowing of your own mind is,] Poel telsed. [Explore it you must. With it you must work. While soft and formable it is, it must in the image of your soul be shaped. This you must do. If not, your mind no longer your own will be.]
Kemsa blinked. Poel was doing it again. She knew he would occasionally switch his telsing into a jumbled word order as a way of exercising her reasoning powers. This particular telepathic vernacular reminded her of something, but she couldn't put a claw on it. Then it clicked. Of course!
[Poel!] Kemsa tried not to laugh at her teacher’s sententious demeanor. [Do you realize that your telsing feels like one of the characters from that ancient 20th century video-saga? The one you had me view in the Great Library recently.]
[Yes, but a classic that saga is,] Poel replied, retaining the unusual vernacular. [Though inaccurate was the science, its ideas apply. True forces in the universe Good and Evil are. Your mind capable of embracing both is.]
Poel cocked his spotted head and his telsing returned to normal, though his manner remained serious. [Kemsa, your mind is so much bigger than you realize. You are a promising Ques’Tella; perhaps the most promising young Alpha Telepath of any Phur type I have ever taught.] He tapped her head with one finger, claw sheathed. [There are astounding places in here. However, there are frightening places, too—places few are willing to go. Yet, someone must go there, for we are changing in unforeseen ways. Only twelve generations have passed since our creation, and yet, the more gifted Alpha Telepaths have gone from line-of-sight telsing to long-range mind-image projection. Even some of the less gifted are doing simple line-of-sight image projection.] Poel pointed at her. [You must fully explore your mind. 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.]
Kemsa felt uneasy now. Poel was looking very grim, and he leaned closer. [Yes, that 20th century saga had many good ideas about power and its uses, but,] Poel held up a finger, [there is one great difference between then and now.]
[What’s this?] Kemsa asked, her tail twitching nervously.
The felid’s eyes narrowed to silver slits.
[I am much better looking than those video characters.]
For a moment, Kemsa just stared. Then, the utter ridiculousness of Poel’s statement struck her, and she collapsed with the rapid yik-yik-yiking of felocanid laughter.
Quickly, there was silence, and she was looking steadily back at her teacher again.
[Very good, Kemsa,] Poel telsed, nodding and giving her knee a pat. [You shifted your laughter to memory much quicker this time.]
[But, why must I do this?] she answered. [That was amusing!]
Shifting her emotions from the reactive part of her mind to the memory-storing reflective part was an advanced mental skill she’d recently learned. It allowed her to examine her emotions without having to feel them directly. However, practicing the skill could be irritating when the emotion was a pleasant one. Kemsa realized her tail was twitching again and she stopped it.
Poel tapped his own head this time. [Emotions are information, as well as reward. Sometimes, indulging in the emotion is acceptable. At other times, they are information for making a decision. The Phur facing a sand shrike will feel fear. If he indulges in his fear too long, he will become the sand shrike’s next meal. He must put the fear in its rightful place and act on it. Conversely, one must neither ignore an emotion, nor suppress it because it feels unpleasant. The Phur facing the sand shrike must not ignore his fear, or again, he becomes the sand shrike’s next meal.] Poel’s expression became concerned, and Kemsa knew what he would telse next.
[Kemsa, what emotions have you been ignoring recently?]
She felt her irritation give way to something else, and she lowered her muzzle. For a moment, she stared at her paws. Then she looked back at her teacher. [I ignored my shame. I was reprimanded last night for being late for curfew.]
Kemsa nodded. [But, what can I do with this? I know this emotion can help me be more prompt, but I just seem to forget time. The shame of reprimand does no good.] Dropping her eyes again, she closed them as if to block the memory of her scolding. She’d been getting more of those recently.
[Yes,] telsed Poel. [This small shame would not motivate you much. It would be too easily lost in the greater shame.]
Kemsa felt Poel’s paw lift her chin, and she opened her eyes to what seemed like a helpless look from her teacher. [I will continue to try, little one,] he telsed, gently. [However, you must be the one who finally accepts yourself as you are.] He gave her chin a little shake. [As I do.]
He regarded her for a moment longer, before dropping his paw and continuing. [The shame you now feel—it is emotional information. But, do you not feel something else as well?]
Concentrating, Kemsa gathered up her shame and shifted it back into memory. Slowly, she felt another expression replacing the shamed look on her muzzle.
[What do you feel?] Poel’s look was expectant.
[I feel—pride? Yes. Pride! For I have set aside my amusement quicker than ever before!]
Poel patted her knee again. [As you can see, Kemsa, emotions can be a mask that blinds you to other emotions. You can have more than one emotion at the same time, even ones that oppose each other. You must be aware of all your emotions. A missed or forgotten emotion lying in wait inside you can erupt at any time, and it will cause you problems then—like a shrike erupting from the sand!]
Poel’s sudden lunge for her caught Kemsa off guard and she tumbled back with a yip. When she recovered from her surprise, she noticed a slight smile creeping over her teacher’s features.
He nodded. [Now you may laugh.]
Kemsa let out another yip, and like an undisciplined kit, she tore open the place in her memory where she’d stored her laughter. Then, with whiskers dancing and pale eyes sparkling, she laughed.
Poel sat back, giving her his amused look. [When you have finished playing in your laughter, Kemsa, we will proceed to the next lesson.]
And so, they had—until Poel received his summons to the meeting of the Elders. Then, after being instructed to practice her lessons, she’d headed straight to her favorite study spot—the millpond.
Kemsa let her thoughts return to the present. If she were here to study, she really ought to get on with it. Shifting her mind once more to long-distance mode, she resumed her lesson. It seemed that if she concentrated on one mental spark, it would brighten and slow down. She tried this with several different sparks and one of them came so close she could almost feel it. She could also feel the beginnings of a headache forming behind her eyes. Shifting back to normal vision, she massaged her temples.
Maybe she was practicing too hard. Yet, when would she find time to rest? There was always something more to do. So much was expected of her. Even as a kit, the expectations had been there. Kelsa, Kemsa’s dam, would go on and on about how talented her daughter was. After all, Kemsa had first started telsing at the age of two, and doing so at such a young age was a sure sign of a strong telepathic ability. Yes. Kemsa was an Alpha Telepath and would eventually grow to become one of the clan’s telepathic elite, a Prima’Tella—if she worked hard enough.
Kemsa’s paw went to her left breast, and she gently fingered the symbolic milk-tooth fur pin that had been given to her upon her ascendancy to adolescence. At the time, her dam had been so sure everything would work out. Had she any idea how truly difficult it would be? Did she even think about her unusual daughter any more?
Kemsa lowered her head, and her tail twitched ever so slightly. She hadn’t received a message from her dam in a long time. Maybe that was because her dam had other kits to tend to now. They would be more important. Of course, if Kemsa were being raised in her home village, her dam would be more accessible. After age twelve, younglings in Clan Reyn were raised communally in dormitories in their home village, but because juvenile Alpha Telepaths like herself were rare and valuable, they were given special status in the clan and raised in Reynhom's dormitories as wards of the clan Elders. When Kemsa had arrived here five years ago, she’d known no one, and that hadn’t changed much in the intervening years.
Only the amount of work had changed. Work, work, and ever more work!
Kemsa knew she shouldn’t complain. These last three years with Poel had been full of the excitement of discovery, and everything indicated that her true mind strength was finally beginning to emerge, but had all the work been worth it? Glancing back toward the village, she wondered if the Elders ever thought her worth the trouble. She then wondered why they had called Poel to their meeting today. It had been going on for some time now. What could it mean? Did it have anything to do with her? Kemsa chided herself. This meeting probably didn’t concern her at all. She knew from her training that politics and government often consumed vast quantities of time no matter what the task. In fact, according to the history books, even the initial naming of the planet-wide governing structure had taken ever so long. They’d finally called it a Technologically Supplemented Agrarian Clan Confederation. Kemsa flicked her ears back and forth and crinkled her muzzle into a frown. It was such a large name for their small society. Even now, Phurs numbered only eight hundred thousand. At the beginning, there had been only six thousand made up of Twelve Clans for the Twelve different Phur types. Bovid, Canid, Cervid, Equinid, Felid, Felocanid, Lepid, Lutrid, Marsupalid, Procyonid, Rodentid, and Ursid.
Kemsa looked toward the north, across a section of farmland, and off into the distance. Newhom, Wilderhom’s first and oldest settlement, lay in that direction. That was where it had all started. What was the city like? Newhom was now the largest settlement on Wilderhom, and she’d heard stories. Besides having Phurs from all the different clans, it was also home to the Embassy of the humans. She glanced back toward Reynhom. It was a tiny settlement by comparison, but it felt as foreign as Newhom. Although the millpond and the falls were cherished places, she’d never grown close to the town or its inhabitants. Recently, they’d become even more distant because soon the Elders would be sending her away to live with another Phur clan. It was what they eventually did with all their female Alpha Telepaths.
It’s what they’d done last season with Veena.
Lowering her head, Kemsa tried to ignore the prickly feeling around her eyes and the sudden tightness in her chest. Gratefully, she noticed that one of her legs was going to sleep beneath her, and she turned her attention to that instead. It was time to get up and exercise the body, not just the mind. Rising, she stretched and worked out the cramps from her long lounging. Then she shook out her white mane and brushed away what little soil and grass had accumulated on her gray body fur. A twitch of her long, white tail completed her dusting off, and she started for the millpond.
As she walked, she gazed off in the direction of Newhom again. She’d just recalled her only encounter with a human. It had been last season when one of them came to meet with the Elders, and she recalled how fascinated she’d been with the way the female human walked. Heel-Toe-Heel-Toe. As an experiment, Kemsa switched from her normal toe-walking gait to a ‘heel-toe’ gait and gave a chirrup of amusement at the awkward bouncing and thumping that resulted. Perhaps this way of walking was easier for humans because they had such short feet, but her bouncing would soon shake her teeth loose, so she stopped and returned to her normal toe-walking gait. She then compared other things about herself to the human. It seemed that except for her head, fur, paws, and animal-like lower legs, they were quite similar.
Similar, but different.
Finally reaching the millpond, Kemsa crouched down and dipped one of her clawed fingers in the water. It was cool and needed to warm before her swim. Removing her finger, she gazed at her reflection and again recalled the human. Not only were their feet short, their faces were short, too. They had a ‘pushed in’ look similar to the short-muzzled faces of newborn Phurs. It was an endearing look for a youngling, but on an adult, it gave the face an unfinished appearance. Now that she was full-grown, Kemsa’s muzzle was longer, but not nearly long enough to suit her.
She then wondered what humans thought of faces like hers. Evidently, not much, since they’d forced the Phurs to re-settle on Wilderhom—a planet supposedly too land-poor for a human colony because it had only a single, medium-sized continent. She’d also read other stories about problems between humans and Phurs, and she’d even heard a disturbing rumor about humans attacking Phurs in Newhom recently. Yet, the only human she’d met had been pleasant and interesting, not hateful. Also, Wilderhom was not a bad place, as some stories would have her believe. It was a nice place.
Well, perhaps some things weren’t nice. Kemsa shuddered as she recalled the native sand shrike Poel had referred to during the morning’s lesson. He described it as a large wormlike creature that hid in the sand below the high tide line and attacked anything that created vibrations it could detect. In time, Phurs would tame the seas, but for now, oceans and beaches were best left alone.
A sudden splash in the millpond caused Kemsa to jerk and flick her ears up, but she quickly reminded herself that fresh water contained none of the dangers of the oceans. The only denizens in this millpond were freshwater species from Old Earth, and they weren’t in evidence today—only the minnows in the shallows were out playing with the insects.
The young are
playing, always playing.
Play’s the test for life to come.
Life is real—the play, mere practice.
Soon, a grown-up you’ll become.
Kemsa was startled by her sudden rhythmic thought. She was on the verge of physical adulthood, yet she couldn’t remember playing much. There were always so many other things she was required to do. Oh, she played with words and verse, but that wasn’t the same thing.
A sudden urgency took her. She needed to play now! Once more, she dipped her paw in the water and found it cool, but the afternoon sun was getting hot, and she deserved something for all her hard work. It was time for a swim! Stepping back from the water’s edge, she quickly undid the fastenings on her belt and let it drop. Then, pulling her tail through the tail-slit, she hoisted her student tunic over her head and dropped it as well. Free of clothing, she made a quick running dive into the millpond and came up spouting water, her wet fur flashing like silver in the sun.
Yes, it was a fine afternoon for a swim, and even though she no longer had Veena to share it with, she would enjoy this day as much as she could.
She had a feeling things would be changing very soon.
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