Wilderhom

Book 2 of the Wilderhom Chronicles

Act 1- The Power Grows

 

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©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.

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1. And they know not why they are chosen.

 

Freedom.

She stared down at the straps that held her in place. If only they were the only things that restricted her freedom. Teeth still clenched, the paralyzed felocanid looked away from her restraints and pushed the control stick forward, guiding the glide chair silently into her tiny bedroom. It was late. She needed to try and get some rest. Positioning the chair next to the bed, she locked it in place, and began undoing the straps. As she did so, she wondered for the thousandth time who had given her the chair. Fellow clan-Phurs wouldn't spend the necessary credits - not for her. She was a Bootsie. The chair helped, but it would never give her what she wanted most. When the last of the straps had been unbuckled, she used her arms to shift the dead weight of her lower body to the edge of the bed.

Suddenly, a searing fire shot through her back. She gasped and doubled over.

Gods! Why must even the simplest motion be so painful now?

Gritting sharp teeth against the pain, she fumbled in her bedside stand for the painkiller, and with trembling paws, drew up the smallest effective dose. She couldn't use much. The medication was expensive, and there wasn't much left.

Gradually, the pain dropped to a tolerable level, and when her trembling paws calmed as well, she reached over and connected the glide chair's fill-hose to the hydrogen supply valve. Swiftly, the hissing gas filled the fuel cell that provided the power for her chair.

Power? Power is something else I no longer have!

The soft tone indicating a full charge interrupted her dark thoughts, and she disconnected the fill-hose and stowed it away. Grasping the bedrail, she pulled her wasted legs onto her small bed and quickly drew the light covers over them.

Even after six months, she found it hard to look at those legs. Her friend, Sona, had always thought them to be her best feature. All the Bootsies had something 'special' to offer clients, and her special feature had always been her beautiful legs. Awkwardly, she re-positioned the now lifeless limbs and extinguished the light. For a long time she merely stared into the dark. Then, as always happened, she began thinking about what her life had become.

But there was nothing there - nothing except pain and poverty. Her whole existence was as wasted as her useless legs. A blackness much darker than the night seized her and, balling her paw into a fist, she struck one of her senseless limbs.

Life? This is life?

Again, she struck, hoping she would feel something - anything. If Sona knew about the massive bruises that lay beneath the fur on these shrunken thighs, she would not approve. But what did that matter? Sona was whole. Sona didn't have to live like this. She wasn't only half alive! She wasn't a cripple!

Keening her frustration, Lenti continued to pound limbs she knew would never respond, and once again, the bitter tears ran down her furry cheeks - just as they had the night before - and every other night since that terrible day.

Why me?

She might never know the answer to that question, but one thing was certain. Somehow, she would get her revenge upon the human who had stolen her freedom to run.

 

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As today's events ran through his mind again, Korrak turned over and gazed up from where he lay on Mika's couch. He noticed tiny cracks in her ceiling. That he could see them at all was something he found amazing. Total blindness was almost his fate today. As he stared, he almost scratched his injured face, but stopped. Itching indicated healing, and he mustn't disturb it.

Everything happens in due time.

Korrak pondered this phrase. As Master, it was so easy to see its truth. Back then, 'due time' was whatever he thought it was, but now things were different.

He was no longer master.

Why am I underling now? Why me?

His first thought was, "because I wished for it", and in one sense, he had, but change was hard.

As it should be, he thought.

Things that required true strength were never easy.

Satisfied with this thought, Korrak turned over, and sleep soon took him away from any further pondering.

 

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Hanna shifted on her uncomfortable bunk, but it made no difference. Pain made rest impossible - as did her prospects for the future. Once more, she pushed those thoughts away. Her fate was beyond her power to change anyway.

Clicking toeclaws outside her tiny cell caused her to tense. However, these clicks were lighter and swifter than Brin's, and she relaxed. It must be Brella bringing the evening meal. Hanna could distinguish differences between them easily now. Brin was as harsh as his scraping toeclaws. Brella was merely efficient (if unfeeling) just like her economical steps. She heard her cell door lock click and it creaked open.

[Is time for rations,] telsed Brella.

Hanna heard click of metal plate and cup set down on floor and quickly sat up. Moving off her bunk, she knelt and felt for cup and plate. Finding them quickly, she dipped her finger in cup and scrawled something on floor.

 

            How much longer?

 

[We wait for Master's message or his return. Not decide until then.]

Hanna pointed to her eyes.

[Care must wait for Master's decision. Remember, if you not so clumsy, this not happen in first place.]

Hanna raised her paw in entreaty but sounds of her cell door closing meant no one saw it. She sat back on her heels in front of her meager rations and put her head in her paws. She wanted to cry in frustration, but that only made her eyes hurt worse.

Why was she being punished like this?

Why me?

Despite her pain, tears rolled from her burned eyes.

Yes, she made mistake, but wasn't blindness punishment enough?

 

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Griffith Tange scrubbed at his eyes. Computer terminals were enough to make one go blind.

A flashing blip in the corner caught his attention and he brought up the message application.

 

Encrypted. Enter access code. Voice recognition mode only.

 

Griffith grumbled. "If this is another 'hurry up and wait' message..." He rose and filled his coffee mug for about the hundredth time before returning to the terminal.

"Open message to Griffith Tange - liaison override. Copy two seven two six zero seven."

 The message flickered onto the screen, and he started to read. Slowly, his lips curled into a frown. It seemed the Trans-World Intelligence Gathering Service was sending a replacement for Kohlaf at the next scheduled Big Worm transit.

"Just what I need right now," he mumbled.

The message continued with a statement requiring Griffith to give the new head of the Wilderhom IGS field office his full cooperation.

"Only if he does things my way this time!"

Griffith punched the 'save file' key and took another gulp of coffee. The IGS head office had denied authorizing any of Kohlaf's questionable behavior, but Griffith expected that. After all, it was 'company policy' not to interfere with local government. The IGS merely 'gathered' information.

"Right," grumbled Griffith. He'd been a former employee of the IGS, and knew all about their so-called 'hands off' policies. No doubt, Kohlaf's replacement did too. In fact, he was probably so thoroughly indoctrinated that whenever you pulled his string, he'd spout party line from every orifice. Forget about them having any brains. No room with all that drivel crammed in there. Griffith didn't relish the monumental task of straightening him out once he got here.

Why me? Griffith cursed. Why was he saddled with all the crap jobs?

But he already knew.

It was because he was the Official Liaison Officer to the Embassy Secretary, and it was his job to bring new department heads up to speed on how things were done here on Wilderhom. Where he would get the time or the patience for the job was beyond him. There was the Clan Council investigation to contend with and well as the internal inquiry into Kohlaf's death. Then there was the issue of whether he could trust the IGS replacement at all. What if IGS was backing this plan to 'deal' with the Phurs? Griffith shook his head. Things could easily get beyond his power to control.

Angrily, he punched the code that brought up the final version of the Koanhom Incident report. Despite all that needed doing, he had to finish this first for that meeting with the Secretary tomorrow. Digging a couple of analgesic capsules from his desk, he swallowed them with another gulp of coffee and cracked his already sore knuckles. If he kept this up, he'd need replacement fingers sooner than he thought. This was going to be a long night.

 

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"Just say the word and we can ship you up to the Big Worm transit facility tomorrow," said the doctor.

Malcolm Ramala shook his head. "You just get me that replacement arm. I'm finishing out my contract here."

"Suit yourself. If it was me I wouldn't stay on this flea-bitten Phur-ball any longer than I had to."

"I stay," growled Malcolm as he grabbed the small bag of his possessions and meds off the hospital bed. He winced at the pain in the stump that was now his right arm. "Like I said, I've got unfinished business here."

Still scowling, Malcolm pushed past the doctor and into the hallway. This assignment had seemed ideal for his plans. Four years of lucrative 'undesirable duty' pay on Wilderhom and he'd have more than enough for Mahati's dowry. But now? The power to approve a husband for her was not his, and Mahati's father would never accept a one armed suitor for his youngest daughter.

Why me? he thought, as he stepped from the hospital entrance into the cool night air. Despite the embarrassment it would cause him, bitter tears began to leak from his flashing dark eyes.

He was so wrapped up in his harsh thoughts he barely noticed the dark man with the unhealthy smile watching him from the shadows.

 

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Jayson lay awake staring at the shadowed ceiling of the main room in Mika's hutch. He was listening to Korrak's slightly whistling snore. That he was in the same room with the canid who had nearly killed Kemsa seemed unreal. So much had happened in the past week. Many of those things were so strange they felt like a dream now.

But this was no dream.

This was harsh reality, whether he wished it or not.

Why me?

Why was he the one in the middle of all this? Would his newfound abilities be powerful enough to help him cope? He didn't know. He silently cursed his ignorance and turned over to find a more comfortable position for sleep. As he did so, he felt Kemsa's dreaming mind quietly touch his with an echo of his own thought.

 

Why me?

 

 

 

2. Beginning Tasks

 

Official Report Recommendations:

Because abduction was attempted on a politically important Phur, this division has reclassified this as a High Shield Official Diplomatic Investigation. Discovering the true identities of the deceased GenDat humans, and the location of any other GenDat personnel, are the recommended primary goals of further investigation. Secondary goals should include discovering the motives for GenDat's intense interest in Phur Primes, and GenDat's organizational contacts. Hold flashes should be placed on any attempted communication with GenDat's Wilderhom Office or any outside inquiries concerning same.

Griffith Tange, Diplomatic Liaison Officer, Wilderhom.

End Report

 

FYEO - High Shield - Do Not Distribute

 

Griffith Tange watched the man behind the desk read the report and wondered how much more he should tell the Embassy Secretary. Griffith had known Carver Semler ever since Griffith had been released from the Trans-World Intelligence Gathering Service due to a surgical foul-up that had ended his career as a Toob Rider. Carver had taken on the despondent Griffith and given him a position in Trans-World Admin, which had given Griffith time to recover from his shattering experience. He owed Carver a lot. Still, that had been over 25 years ago, and their careers had long since gone in different directions. They'd only been back together these past four years, Carver being assigned to Wilderhom two years prior to Griffith.

Carver finally hit a key on the board and the report winked off the screen.

"Honestly, Griff." he said, shaking his head. "I can't see why you're reacting this way. Granted, switching bodies," he quickly held up a hand, "Sorry, I meant, this ability to control another person's body remotely using a Telepathic-Out-Of-Body Bridge is an interesting phenomenon to be sure, but if what Jayson thinks is true, it only works with other telepaths, and the switch usually can't be made easily without the other telepath's consent. Jayson's forced takeover of Kohlaf's body took nearly everything he had."

Griffith looked at his superior and, for a moment, wished he could tell him the truth. The phenomenon they were discussing aloud was not the one he was thinking about silently. He had a feeling about this, and those feelings had been most useful to him in the past. Some of them had even saved his hide - both professionally and literally. His feeling now told him that the less people who knew about Telepathic VIC Node Teleportation, the safer it would be for everyone.

Griffith finally shook his head. "Sir, you may not see them now, but there will be problems. We need time to come up with a strategy to deal with them. Right now, I don't want Jayson and Kemsa getting involved in the official inquiry into Gat RilTaq's death. Any Clan Council board of inquiry would most certainly ask prying questions, and Kemsa may find it hard to keep quiet when discretion is called for." Griffith smiled briefly, remembering how Jayson's girlfriend, Riena, had confronted Kemsa when the felocanid had been in control of Jayson's body. Kemsa hadn't been a very convincing 'Jayson'.

"At the very least," Griffith continued, "I'll need to coach them on what they can safely say in case they are called to testify. Maybe we'll get lucky, and the Wilderhom Clan Council will only call on Korrak, but I can't count on that. Also, you know very well that if any of this gets out before we have a plan to counter the rumors, people will assume that this 'body switching' is exactly that - a way to control them without their consent. The public's fear of being observed without consent is the main reason Toobing has been kept under such strict secrecy so far. But the fear of being 'toobed' would be nothing compared to the panic this new phenomenon could cause if it got out. We need some time!"

Carver held up his hands defensively. "Alright, alright. I see your point. However, I can't stall an official Clan Council inquiry for long."

Griffith nodded. "There's something else to consider here. If this gets out, it'll just be another reason for humans to vilify the Phurs. What with all the assaults that have happened between Phurs and humans recently, they don't need that right now."

Carver eyed him for a moment before folding his hands on his desk. "Griffith, whether you chose to believe it or not, you are not the sole human champion for the Phurs on Wilderhom. Quite a few humans here like the Phurs. It's mostly Official Embassy personnel who are the Phur-phobes. Many of the lower-rank contract workers and their families here are quite amenable to the Phurs. You'd think they wouldn't be because contract workers are as transient as Embassy officials. However, because Wilderhom is considered a primitive world, contractors are credited considerably more here than elsewhere. They are also the ones in face-to-face contact with the Phurs on a daily basis. So, with excellent pay and good working relations with the Phurs, most choose to extend their contracts - some even long enough to raise kids. Did you know that about one tenth of the human population on Wilderhom was born here? We in upper management just aren't in touch with things like that. Anyway, I may not have a Bootsie for a close friend like you, but I too, have respect for the Phurs. Primarily because they seem a lot more honorable than many of the humans I've met."

Carver leaned back and waved his hand around his office.

"With some notable exceptions like Kohlaf, you know very well why the Trans-World assigns people to Wilderhom. This place is intended to be a career roadblock - a dead-end job. Being sent here means either you screwed up, or you're just plain unlucky. Some of the personnel here really are screw-ups, but many of us were sent here because somewhere along the line, we tried to do our jobs honorably, and somebody in power got mad. Thus, we ended up on here - to keep us from doing further 'honorable' damage. My crime was not looking the other way when the Trans-World Secretary General gave away the mining rights on Elstone Seven without consulting the locals. By the way, I've never gotten around to asking you why you were sent here. Did it have something to do with the Remple/Teller credit evasion scandal?"

Griffith nodded and smiled. "I published the report when it looked like my old boss was going to sit on it forever."

Carver whistled. "I'll just bet that cleaned somebody's clock - besides yours, that is."

Griffith sighed and looked around the dreary office. "It's not so bad here. I think I was actually looking forward to some backwater colony world that would let me while away my time until retirement."

Carver snorted. "I'll believe that when Phurs start talking out loud." He dropped his amused manner and gave Griffith a serious look. "As Embassy Secretary, I have some limited authority to delay local matters, so you have my authority to delay action for a month."

"Thanks, Car." As Diplomatic Liaison Officer, Griffith couldn't make policy himself. He needed the blessings of the Embassy Secretary. Now that he had it, he could keep Jayson and Kemsa under wraps - for a little while, anyway. He got up and was turning to leave when his boss stopped him.

"One last thing Griff, the forensics team just completed their autopsies on the two unknowns from the Koanhom blast site."

"And?" Griffith heard the excitement in his own voice. Any identification would be immensely helpful in finding out who these GenDat people were.

 "No I.D., Griff. Not on the DNA checks or the retinal scans. We think they were professional enforcers - non-traceable."

Griffith felt a cold chill in his gut. Professional Enforcers took credit - lots of it. He saw Carver's knowing look and was about to ask a question when his boss stopped him.

"That's not all, Griff. Both were equipped with Terminator devices."

Griffith sat back down, shocked. Gods! Those things took real credit. A Terminator device was something planted in the brain of a spy or operative. It could be remotely activated to kill the operative in the field, thus assuring their silence. To get those kinds of enforcers was a very expensive proposition. Whoever was behind this was not only willing to kill - they had powerful backers. A moment later, Griffith slowly felt his shock give way to a smile, and he saw the same sort of knowing smile on Carver's face. It seemed that Wilderhom might not be such a dull, backwater place after all.

"Looks like we're back in the big-leagues, Car," said Griffith.

His boss gave him a nod and Griffith stood. "Well! I've got work to do if we're going to stay on top of this. I'll keep you posted."

He headed out of the office with a bounce in his step.

 

The bounce was still there when Griffith entered his own small office. Grabbing his half empty coffee cup, he dumped its syrupy contents down the disposal unit, and without bothering to rinse, refilled it from his personal dispenser before taking a big gulp. Then he looked around his cluttered office. No matter how messy this place was it wouldn't depress him today.

Today, he had real work to do.

Trans-dimensional VIC Node Portals. Inter-spatial Matter Pathways. Telepathic Teleportation. No matter what one called it, the ability to transport matter using the power of telepathy alone was going to change humankind's universe. This truly was the big-league.

Griffith sat down and looked for the computer monitor. It was just visible through the piles of hardcopy on his desk. Clearing the debris, Griffith punched in a code, and a logo popped up on the screen. As he waited for the rest of the document to load, he thought about the private report he'd gotten from Toob Rider Jayson Solamane the previous evening. Griffith had been thrilled that the Rider and Kemsa had finally found a way to switch back into their own bodies, but that had seemed almost trivial when compared to the implications of the day's other events. It would seem that telepathic teleportation would be a very useful and valuable capability. With the high cost of transport, folks would naturally want to develop a capability like this. Or would they? That was the question. For some reason, someone was keeping a very close and dangerous eye on the Phurs - especially the Alpha telepaths. Could this be the reason?

Looking back at the monitor, Griffith studied the GenDat logo for a moment. GenDat Inc. was a ruse. The ease with which his friend in Commerce had discovered this meant that it had been hastily implemented. Maybe whoever was behind this didn't need the GenDat cover to last long. It certainly looked like a stopgap monitoring measure - and that worried Griffith. Jayson said that Kohlaf had mentioned something about plans to 'eliminate' the problem of the Phurs permanently.

Griffith absently tapped the desktop and thought about that. The easiest way to eliminate all Phur Alpha telepaths was to eliminate all the Phurs with some global catastrophe. Unfortunately, with present technology, this was much easier to do. If these GenDat people were planning something like that, Wilderhom's best defense would be full planetary quarantine until the potential threat could be discovered and neutralized. However, quarantine wasn't likely to happen unless he could convince Carver and the Wilderhom Clan Council that a threat really existed. So far, there was little evidence for a threat other than the word of one Rider and that fact that Kemsa had been pursued by some very expensive Terminator operatives.

Another problem was the phenomenon itself. So far, this telepathic portal had only been created twice. Could Jayson and Kemsa do it again, now that they were back in their proper bodies? Griffith hoped so because to convince the authorities to get a quarantine order, he would need to show them that this phenomenon existed, and that someone was willing to kill to stop it.

Now here was the real kick in the pants. What if the Embassy and the Clan Council still weren't convinced a big enough threat existed, even after they were shown the new phenomenon? Worse yet, what if they did believe, but then decided to mollify their enemies by offering Kemsa as a peace offering? This was not an uncommon strategy amongst some Phurs.

Don't hurt us and we'll give you a valuable alpha telepath.

Griffith shook his head. Regardless of which way they would go, the Embassy and the Council's main problem would be the speed at which they could act. The bureaucracy was slow as hell. Griffith's best bet for handling the problem would be to have himself and the people he trusted do it covertly.

But there was the nagging suspicion telling him to keep the portal phenomenon secret - even from his fellow Embassy cohorts. Yet, how else could he counter the larger threat to Wilderhom? He needed time to gather more information. He ought to check in with Jayson again. Maybe Korrak had come up with some new facts.

Before he could do anything, however, Griffith's stomach rumbled. He'd skipped breakfast to meet with his boss, and hunger was catching up with him. Jayson would have to wait.

It was time to satisfy his belly, not just his need for information.

 

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It was good to have her own senses back.

Kemsa had just awakened to the smells of breakfast, and they were wonderful. Inhaling deeply, she detected the creamy smell of melted butter, the dark, roasted aroma of cooked grain, the sweet, smoky tang of ham, and the pungent, spicy fragrance of cardamom tea. All were blending into an enticing bouquet that was absolutely luscious. Her long, pink tongue quickly flashed over her lips and whiskers in anticipation of the feast. It was almost enough to make her forget the pain.

Her partly healed injuries, however, recaptured her attention when she sat up. She could feel the sting of broken ribs and the dull ache of her bruised head. Lifting her left arm, she gave one of the sutured cuts a few quick licks. Tasting the slightly metallic taint of days-old, congealed blood, she pondered the flavor for a moment and decided that they were healing properly. Perhaps in two or three days she could have the sutures removed.

Slowly, so as not to further aggravate her injuries, she turned and slid her legs over the side of the bed. If she was going to be staying here past today, maybe she should ask Mika if it would be all right to sleep tonight on the cot in the small storage room. She thought she was well enough not to have to stay in her host's bed. They had done so much for her and Jayson already.

Jayson!

Kemsa felt herself smiling, and a low thrumming purr softly filled the room. It felt so good to be able to purr again. She was relishing the tingling feel when, suddenly, something soft began bumping her paw. Kemsa looked down to see a small ferret-like creature butting its head against her paw. It was a putsie, a small animal that many Phurs kept as pets. She had noticed the putsie flitting about the hutch the previous evening, but had not given it much thought - so much else had been happening just then.

The putsie stopped its butting and looked up at her, cocking its head to one side and giving a small chirrup. When the putsie squeaked once more and began bobbing its head, Kemsa gave a small yik of laughter. The creature's antics were so cute. She reached toward it.

[What is it that you want this morning, little fellow?]

At her telsing, the creature stopped bobbing and quickly took several steps back, cocking its head from side to side. Kemsa, stopped her advance, her paw poised in mid air. Had the little creature somehow 'heard' her mind-voice - her telsing? No. Putsies weren't telepathic. Perhaps it was her raised paw. Kemsa lowered it.

[Did I frighten you with my paw?]

Again, the putsie backed up a few steps and squeaked. This puzzled Kemsa. The putsie seemed to be sensing something from her - something that either confused or frightened it.

[I think he's feeling confusion, not fear.]

Kemsa looked up and saw Jayson framed by the bedroom door.

[How... how did you know what I was thinking?] she telsed.

Jayson smiled.

**Our private communication channel, remember?**

Kemsa sensed this thought as clearly as if it had been telsed, and then she remembered that they now had a channel of communication that was unique to their bridged condition. Yesterday, when they switched back to their proper bodies, they had discovered that their Toob Bridge was still intact. They were still very much connected, and this allowed for a completely different means of communication.

Direct thought transfer.

Jayson walked slowly to the bed and knelt down beside it, looking the little putsie straight in the eye.

[Good morning, Beemer.]

At Jayson's telsing, the putsie gave another squeak and scrabbled back a few more steps, eyeing them both. Jayson turned and gave Kemsa an amused look.

[Beemer only knows me from when I was wearing your most lovely body. It seems that I still 'feel' right to him, but you are the one who 'smells' right. He's just confused because the 'feeling' he remembers is no longer coming from the body he remembers.]

[Are you saying Beemer is empathic?] Kemsa had never heard of this.

[I think so. At least to some degree,] replied Jayson coming over and touching noses with Kemsa before sitting down on the bed. [Probably most higher order animals are empathic. Why else would we want to keep creatures like Beemer as pets? Why else would they want to stay with us? Granted, in a pet's case, they are fed, but most creatures are able to act independently if they choose. Why is it that some creatures choose to be with other creatures not of their own species? We must get something from each other over and above mere companionship. Or perhaps empathy is the true essence of a friendship.]

Jayson's hand was now clasping Kemsa's paw, and she felt a touch of the warm tingle she'd experienced from him at their first meeting. It was the feeling of a friend. Jayson leaned toward Beemer and slowly reached toward the putsie. Kemsa could feel some of the warmth being directed at the little creature. Beemer eyed the hand as it approached but did not back away this time. Just as Jayson was about to touch him, Beemer gave a loud squeak and jumped forward, landing right in front of Jayson's face. With his head bobbing frantically, the putsie began licking Jayson's nose.

[Beemer! Don't. That ... tha ... ah ... ]

Jayson gave a mighty sneeze that sent Beemer scampering madly around the bed. Kemsa found her side hurting because she was laughing so hard. Jayson rubbed his nose and looked at Beemer, who had finally stopped, head bobbing and black eyes sparkling. He stroked the putsie a few times before looking back at Kemsa.

[I think he remembers me now. But, I'd forgotten how much that nose licking tickles.]

Picking Beemer up, Jayson placed the putsie next to Kemsa.

[Just think friendly thoughts at him, and I bet he'll like you, too.]

Still smiling, Kemsa lay down next to the little creature and tried to send some of the warmth she had felt from Jayson toward the putsie.

[Hello Beemer,] she telsed softly. [My name is Kemsa. May I be your friend, too?]

Slowly the little creature stretched out its long neck until its little black, button nose was just touching Kemsa's larger gray one. For a long moment, the putsie and the Phur gazed into each other's eyes, noses touching. Then Beemer squeaked and started bobbing his head. Scooping the putsie into her arms, Kemsa sighed and began purring once again.

She had another friend.

 [Master? Jayson? It is breakfast time.]

Kemsa looked up and saw Korrak DanTaq, her political marriage partner, standing in the doorway. He had his head turned to one side and was exposing his throat to her - which was the proper way for an underling to greet a Master. His eye-patch was once again covering his damaged right eye and the swelling around his good eye had receded considerably since last evening. Despite his injuries and submissive posture, he managed to look dignified - which was not helping Kemsa's reaction to his use of her new title. She set Beemer on the bed and gave the canid an annoyed look.

[Korrak, must you call me 'Master'?] she telsed.

The canid had used the term ever since she had bested him in a fight the previous day - a fight she had fought while 'occupying' Jayson's body. Somehow, that did not seem fair. Even though Jayson was small by human standards, he was bigger than Korrak. Also, Korrak had already been injured at the time.

[Master Kemsa, I submitted to you,] he replied, looking back at her, [and canid tradition requires I call you 'Master'.]

Kemsa rose from the bed and padded over to the stiffly standing canid. Reaching out, she grasped a paw and held it for a moment before looking into his face.

[I would much rather you call me 'friend', Korrak. Please? The title of Master does not fit me well.]

[But you are Master,] Korrak replied, his expression becoming puzzled for a moment before changing to one of understanding. [Ah. Perhaps you not fully understand what I mean by term 'Master'.] Korrak nodded. [This is common mistake. Many misunderstand canid ways. I explain.]

He motioned Kemsa to sit back down and he took a place beside her. Jayson was up and walking toward the door when Korrak called to him as well.

[Do not leave. This is not private discussion. If you learn too, this is good. Please, sit.]

Jayson complied and Korrak turned back to Kemsa.

[Being Master means many things, but it is not complicated. Being Master not mean 'I make all decisions'. It only means 'I make final decision'. It not mean 'Agree with me always'. It means 'I require your best advice for making best decision'. It not mean 'Obey me, blindly'. It means 'Obey me, but express concern when appropriate'. Finally, Master not mean 'I am all powerful'. Master means 'Give me your power. I use it as best I can'.]

[So, being Master requires the consent of those subjugated?] asked Kemsa.

[Yes,] replied Korrak. [My father taught me that it is best if this consent given freely. Sometimes, however, it is forced, as in physical or mental challenge, but this creates problems.] He turned to Jayson. [How humans say it? 'He who forced against his will, is of same opinion still'.]

Jayson nodded. [In other words, forced subjugation is shallow and difficult to maintain because the Master must use much of the power gained from the underling just to keep the underling in line. Conversely, freely given subjugation is easy to maintain because it requires little monitoring. This allows the Master to use the power given him more effectively. However, this freely given subjugation also requires that the Master use the power gained wisely or the subjugation will revert to the forced type, thus reducing his power - perhaps to the point where he is overthrown.]

Korrak stared at Jayson for a moment, and then nodded slowly.

[If born Phur, you make excellent canid. You are quite correct.]

[Korrak?] Kemsa telsed. [That is a fine explanation, but it would seem that you were not following your father's advice. When I was with you at your residence, before Jayson and I switched bodies, I remember seeing you display some very cruel behavior toward your underlings. This would seem to be forced subjugation. And yet...] Kemsa shook her head. This was something that puzzled her greatly. [And yet, your adjutant Gat willingly died to protect your life. I do not think that sort of loyalty can ever be forced. Why did he do this for you?]

Korrak looked down and was quiet for a long time.

[I'm sorry,] telsed Kemsa, feeling awkward. [Was my question inappropriate?]

[No. You are Master. Asking this is your right,] he replied. [In fact, I think much on this since yesterday. I am not sure if I have answer. I see now that my actions were cruel. I not think cruelty was ever my goal, but yes, much subjugation to me was forced. I realize yesterday that ever since I lose sight in my right eye as adolescent, I was always wary - always suspicious, and gaining power by inflicting pain or fear seemed easiest way. Even so, many subjugates, like Gat, were truly loyal to me. They not forced. However, I never question this before, so I know not why they do this. I simply accept it.]

Kemsa thought about this, too. She knew that her initial impressions of the canid had been tainted by her own suspicions surrounding the death of her friend, Veena - a fellow felocanid Prime who had been Korrak's previous marriage partner and who had died while in his care. Now that she could be more objective, she was re-examining the facts. Finally, she turned back to Korrak.

[I think I am beginning to understand. I think you received loyalty from many of your subjugates because you were, at the very least, consistent. Yes, your punishments were harsh, but I think much can be forgiven if those punishments are given equitably. I certainly did not see you playing favorites. Everyone was treated the same - if not necessarily with kindness.]

Korrak gave her a troubled look. [But there were two I not treat same as others. There were two I singled out for special treatment. You and...Veena. I tested your mettle. I intentionally pushed your emotional limits. As Master, this was my right, but I now see it was not good thing. I only think of impressing GenDat humans with cleverness of my tests. And because of harshness of my testing, Veena chose suicide.] A pained look, similar to the one he had displayed the previous day, crossed the canid's features before he looked away.

Kemsa reached out and lightly touched him. [Korrak, I have truly forgiven you for that. Please. Let it trouble you no more.]

Korrak looked back and nodded, solemnly. [Yes, and I grateful for your pardon - but I also know my own limits. I not deal with humans well. I think you do much better. That is why I submit to you. Also,] Korrak hesitated, but then straightened as best he could and gave her a respectful look. [Also, you are truly more powerful than I.]

Kemsa looked at him in astonishment. [Korrak. How can this be?] She couldn't help comparing her own compact body to his larger, more powerful one. [Yes, you are injured now, but when you are whole again, your size alone would give you an advantage over me.]

[There are fighting techniques that make physical size irrelevant,] he replied. [I know. I learned many. That is not what I mean. Yesterday, I witness your great hatred for me. It was most powerful adversary. I never see its like. Yet, you struggled with it and defeated it. You have great strength. I not think submitting to you is bad thing. There are troubling times ahead. Conflict is inevitable. In all this, I want you as my Master. In this, I serve you - and myself - better if I am your subject. Therefore, you are Master and I call you Master.] Korrak's mind voice suddenly dropped its formal tone and an unexpected smile broke across his muzzle, [And if we are also friends, I think that is even better.]

Kemsa gave him a wary look. [So, I can be your friend and your Master, too?]

[Of course,] the canid replied, as if this should have been obvious from the start. [Master/Subject relationship is nothing more than two individuals working toward common goal. Only difference between this and friendship is that properly working Master/Subject relationship makes decisions quicker. That is good when need for decision is immediate.]

[Alright Korrak, you win. I will be 'Master'.] Kemsa stood up then and looked at her two friends. [So, as Master, my first command decision is that we all go to breakfast. Now!]

Korrak gave her a small smile and what looked like a wink before he stood himself. [Yes. Excellent decision. You make formidable Master.]

With that, they followed the Master out the door.

 

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

 

Breakfast was almost finished when Jayson finally telsed something that had been bothering him since the beginning of the meal.

[I would really like to pay for this.] He pointed to his almost empty plate. [Other things, too. Since Griffith has declared this an official case, any expenses I incur can be paid for with Embassy funds.]

[Jayson, you need not...

Jayson held up his hand before she could finish. [Please Mika, I need to do something to thank you for all you've done.]

Mika looked at Cael. [I can't think of anything we really need right now, but maybe a community contribution would be nice. Last time I worked at the day-care center, one of the other helpers mentioned they were having trouble coming up with things for the new center we're building. Also, when I was last doing shut in visitation, I noticed the meal cart was looking rather shabby. We could use a new one.]

[Perhaps a contribution to help pay the helpers such as yourself?] suggested Jayson. [Worker salaries are always a big part of operating expenses.]

Mika gave him a puzzled look.

[Uh... you do get paid for all these extra duties, Mika. Don't you?]

She shook her head.

[You don't get paid for any of this?] Jayson was looking at Mika, but Cael answered.

[O' course we get 'paid' for this sorta community service, Jayson, we just don' get paid in credits. We get paid in trust. Procyonids are real community minded. The community is like an investment. We get outta the community what we put into it. Fer instance, Mika can go to Koanhom and get as much wheat as she needs from community stores without havin' to pay fer it 'cause everyone knows how much she's given the community. She's been listed as 'trustworthy'. Her community-minded behavior has real value. This is also a good reason to be trustworthy. Any procyonid losin' their 'trustworthy' status has ta start paying for community resources again.]

[That sounds a little like an old political system called socialism,] telsed Jayson.

[Not quite,] replied Cael. [Phurs here get most stuff they need usin' credit or barter. Community or 'Social' service is what allows you free access to community recourses. Most folks never figgered this out, but the difference 'tween socialism an' capitalism is only part economics. The real difference is the size of the community in which one or t' other will work. Socialism works in small communities 'cause folks can develop the trust necessary fer it to work. Large groups can't do it 'cause they ain't got the time to get to know everyone personally. So, capitalism and its ability to 'account' for stuff becomes a necessity. I s'pose when Koanhom grows big enough, we'll have to switch over completely, but that won' be fer a while yet. Anyway, regardless of size, it's socialistic trust an' not the capitalistic accountability that turns a group o' lonely individuals into a real community.]

Jayson thought about this as he finished his breakfast. For a Phur whose main occupation was digging in a hole in the ground, Cael could certainly wax philosophical.

After breakfast, Cael collected some tools from the storage shed.

[Well, it's offta the mine. Gotta start puttin' in roof supports in the blown section. The mine's still got some ore worth mining, although I'm gonna have to get more explosives from community stores. My entire supply went up yesterday in the blast that trapped us in the mine. Say, Jayson, that might be somethin' you could contribute to - more bang sticks for us miners.]

Jayson was amazed that Cael would go back to work so soon after the previous day's harrowing experience, but Cael merely pointed that one had to work if one wanted to eat. As the procyonid trotted off, Jayson thought about his and Kemsa's situation. At some point, they would all have to get back to work. Trouble was, Jayson wasn't sure what anybody's job was anymore.

And being without direction or purpose wasn't good when one was being hunted.

 

 

 

3. Enemies and Allies

 

Because the day was warm enough, the two Phurs had chosen a sidewalk table for their mid-day meal. Here, they could view the activity at the nearby space port that serviced both Wilderhom and the Embassy of the humans. The meal had been a tasty one, and the two were about to enjoy some dessert tea. A gold ring on the lutrid Bootsie's left paw glinted in the light as she brought the straw up to her muzzle. The other Bootsie eyed the ring and quickly looked away, embarrassed by her envious thoughts. Taking her own straw, she placed it in the opposite opening of the multi-serve jug. She'd had to sell much of her own jewelry to pay for essentials since she was no longer in demand. Even the spiced tea they were sipping was beyond her means now. She was here only at her friend's invitation.

The gold-ringed paw snaked around the tea jug and came to rest on Lenti's bare one.

[Don't look so glum, Lenti. All I want to do is help, and I think I've found something that might interest you.] The young Bootsie's telepathic mind-voice felt over bright in Lenti's head. [You know Newhom so well and it would be a shame to waste that knowledge. I'm sure many older Phurs would prefer sedate open carriage tours of the town instead of the energetic kind, but nothing like that exists now. Also, ah... any humans would probably prefer it too.] The lutrid pointed to Lenti's glide chair. [I'm sure this thing has enough power to pull a small carriage and it would certainly give you more business.]

Lenti nodded, but didn't look up. Any business would help, and all the Bootsies were trying to send some her way, but nothing seemed to be stopping her slow slide into oblivion. Being crippled was so much harder than anyone knew. Only Sona knew, or could guess, how far down she'd already gone.

[Thanks for the meal and... the advice.]

The lutrid rose from her chair and came around to Lenti. [Now, I mustn't keep you from your job. Good luck this afternoon and,] she gave Lenti a little hug, [please think about my idea.]

Lenti was about to respond when she saw him. Off in the distance, a certain human was heading for the space port terminal area. Maybe he was leaving Wilderhom for good, but she doubted it. She turned back to her fellow Bootsie. [Thank you. I will think about it.]

The crippled Phur watched as the young lutrid jogged off toward the terminal area where the human had been. Suddenly, Lenti felt a flush of anxious guilt. She should have warned the young lutrid about that particular human. Why hadn't she? Pushing her chair's control stick forward, she began to follow, but a sudden, stabbing pain shot through her back and legs. Doubling up and clutching her knees, she tried to endure the pain in silence and almost succeeded. Only a single quiet sob escaped her. When she could finally straighten up, her anxiety had been replaced by a much darker emotion. Looking around, she saw that both the human and her friend were gone.

Lenti shrugged. The lutrid could take care of herself. Why should Lenti tell anyone about that human? Phurs could take no action against him, and the humans would always side with their fellow humans. Besides, if he hurt another Bootsie, was that her fault? No.

Lenti tried to ignore it, but this final thought did not sit well with her. There had been other assaults since her attack, and three had resulted in an amputation, severe burns, and a blinding. There was no evidence to suggest that the human who had attacked her was responsible for these other assaults.

But, he might have been.

For a time, her bitterness warred with her guilt, but then she pushed both emotions aside. She had no time for this today. Moving her glide chair toward the space port baggage claim area, she prepared herself for work. She sincerely hoped she would have some 'Good luck'. She needed the credit badly. Her landlord was losing patience.

Lenti positioned herself so she could study potential customers disembarking from the shuttles. She disliked this place - it brought back dark memories - but humans here were the ones most likely to use her services now that she was... the way she was. Lenti bit her trembling lip and tried to arrange her features in a pleasant Phur smile. It wouldn't do to show pain. Bootsies didn't do that. Digging in her pack, she retrieved her communicator just in time to look up and spot a small, slightly built human, coming down the ramp. He looked like a likely customer. Lenti brushed back the strands of mane that had escaped her braids and typed the traditional greeting message into her communicator. Then she guided her chair toward the baggage claim area.

The human had just finished collecting his things when Lenti glided up to him and activated the communicator's attention beep. He turned around and gave her a piercing look. It was a reaction more intense than she was used to, but she tried to look pleasant anyway as she activated the voice-message function on her communicator.

"May I interest this fine gentleman in a tour of our humble city of Newhom?" squeaked the device's tinny, artificial voice.

The human continued to scrutinize her with a severity that was unsettling. When his silence stretched to an uncomfortable length, Lenti breathed a sad sigh and began to turn away. This was not going to be a 'lucky' day.

Suddenly, the human held up his hand.

"Pardon me, but isn't that a Rayline Glide Chair?"

Lenti stopped and looked back at the human, puzzled. No one had ever asked her about her glide chair before. Most humans either asked her name or ignored her.

"Your glide chair," he repeated. "It's a Rayline, isn't it?"

Lenti nodded, turning back to him.

The human crouched down and began examining the control surfaces. He reached out, but hesitated and looked up at her.

"May I?"

She nodded again, and he ran his hand almost reverently over the smooth finish.

"Beautiful piece of engineering," he commented. "Not cheap, but worth every credit. Tell me, do you find it as power efficient as the manufacturer claims it to be?"

Lenti typed for a moment on her communicator and activated it.

"I really don't know. I received this only recently as a gift."

"A gift?" The human seemed impressed. "Well, the one who gave you this certainly had your comfort and convenience in mind - except perhaps, for your tail."

The man pointed and Lenti felt around with her paw to find her tail twisted at an odd angle - something she couldn't feel because of her paralysis. She tried to pull it free, but the chair's straps were too tight.

"May I help?"

The question startled Lenti. She was expecting nothing of the sort from a human, but since he'd offered, she nodded. He quickly loosened her straps.

"If you could lean forward, I think I can get it free."

She did so, but then tried to look over her shoulder to see what the human was doing. She just realized that she'd put herself in a very compromising position. This human could hurt her without her even feeling it! Before she could do anything, though, the man looked up and spoke.

"Your tail's free now, but I think I see the problem. This chair was designed without a tail in mind." He clucked his tongue. "We design for the market, and the market is primarily human."

Lenti noted an almost apologetic tone in the human's voice. He was looking intently at the chair and soon gave a small nod before crouching down and beginning to work.

"I think if I move this section back one or two notches, it'll fit better. Glide chairs need to be fitted to the person using them. People with severe pelvic displacements usually have the pelvic section specially adjusted. That's what I'm doing here. I could remove the center of the bottom back section like we do with some folks who have bowel incontinence problems, but an incontinence attachment is different from an appendage sticking through the hole. You might run over your own tail if it hangs down too low."

The human gave a grunt and Lenti heard several plastic clicks.

"There we go. I opened up the crease between the seat and the back just enough to accommodate a tail laid sideways. Would you prefer it on the right or the left side?"

Lenti pointed to the right and after a few moments the man stood up. "All done. Snug the straps up and you're set to go."

 "Thank you, kind sir," she typed into her communicator.

With hope renewed, Lenti typed some more.

"Would you care to see how your adjustments perform in a tour of the city?" She tried again to give the human a winning Phur smile. For a moment, the human said nothing, but then Lenti noticed the beginnings of a slight smile forming on his lips, and her own smile grew. He was going to accept!

"Yes. I believe I would like that very much," he said, standing up. "And how should I address my tour guide?"

"I am called Lenti," squeaked her communicator. "And how may I address you, good Sir?"

He bowed, graciously. "Harlan Meeker, at your service."

My service?

She'd not run across many humans who were this courteous. Emboldened by his manner, she quickly typed another question.

"How is it that you know so much about my glide chair?"

"Let's just say I work for the parent company that owns Rayline. It's called RayGen Pharmaceuticals and Medical Supply. You might say I'm the Quality Control Survey and Production Oversight officer."

"That certainly sounds important," came her reply.

Harlan chuckled. "It sounds important, but all it means is that I'm a 'watch dog' and 'data gatherer.' I do it quite well, but it's actually quite boring, I'm afraid."

Lenti hesitated a moment before typing once more on her communicator.

"Would you know if my glide chair could pull a small carriage - a carriage that would be large enough for two Phurs?"

"Now that's an interesting idea, Lenti. Are you thinking about giving carriage tours?"

She nodded.

"Well, the Rayline certainly has the power. Actually, it's not so much a matter of power as it is energy storage capacity. It's like this..."

Harlan and Lenti conversed amiably for some time before Harlan looked at his watch. "I think we'd better get started, I need to meet someone in about an hour. If that's not enough time for the whole tour, I'll come back and we can pick up where we left off. How does that sound?"

Lenti nodded and gestured toward the exit. However, as they were leaving, Lenti noticed someone lurking in the shadows by the exit ramp. It was that awful human again. He seemed to be watching them. As she surreptitiously looked back, his face slowly crinkled into a smile.

But it wasn't a pleasant one.

 

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

 

Sitting on the couch with eyes closed, Jayson smiled pleasantly. As always, Mika's meal had been fantastic. This noon, she'd offered up a buffet arrangement of salads and other nibbling items that was nothing short of extraordinary. Where she'd come up with the ideas for it all was beyond him.

For a moment, Jayson felt guilty for not offering to help. All he'd accomplished this morning so far was a short talk with Mr. Tange explaining that there was nothing new to report.

**You'd have just been in the way, Jayson**

Jayson opened an eye and regarded Kemsa. Her ability to answer his private thoughts was becoming less surprising. **How did you know I'm lousy in the kitchen?**

**I felt your discomfort this morning when Mika and I started putting things together for lunch. However, you might lend a paw... er, hand with the dishes. Cael at least had the excuse of having to go back to the mine to work.**

**What about Korrak? You're his master. Why not just order him to help?**

Jayson felt Kemsa's flash of discomfort at his sarcastic thought. **Sorry. I didn't mean it that way.** he thought.

Kemsa nodded, but didn't look at him. **Korrak's still on the 'disabled' list.**

Suddenly, they both heard a choked groan and saw Mika glance out the window with a stricken look on her face. A moment later, they all heard the rumble.

[Cael!]

It was all Mika telsed before she was out the door - Jayson right behind her. As he dashed down the ravine, he could see dust billowing up from the direction of the mine and put on more speed. This didn't look good. When he and Mika rounded the bend near the mine's entrance tunnel, his fears were confirmed. The tunnel was a tunnel no longer.

[Cael is hurt! I know it!] telsed Mika, as she rushed up to the scene and began scrabbling at the loose rock.

[Maybe Cael was in a different part of the mine when this happened,] Jayson telsed.

[No! He's hurt. I can feel his pain!] She continued to fling rocks aside, heedless of weight and sharp edges.

Jayson pulled his TelCom unit from his pocket. "Maybe we can get the excavator back down here again, Mika. That'll make the digging go faster." Jayson quickly contacted Griffith and explained the situation, including his request for the excavator.

"I don't think Embassy will consider paying the construction contractor to send an excavator unless it's a real emergency," said Griffith.

"Sir! This is an emergency! If Mika thinks Cael is trapped and hurt, then I believe her!"

"Jayson, I'm willing to believe as well," replied Griffith, "but the Embassy won't do anything unless they have some solid confirmation of the situation. I can't request an excavator simply because I want one. Remember, there were Phur Primes trapped yesterday who could alert other Primes. You don't have that today."

"Sir! Maybe you could get one of the other Riders to toob into the mine and see if there is a problem. Would that be enough proof for the Embassy?"

"I think so," replied Griffith. "But with the internal investigation into the TOOB supervisor's death, all Toobing has been put on hold. All Riders are grounded until we make a determination whether any of the TOOB Riders were conspiring with Kohlaf."

"I'm grounded, too?" Jayson asked.

On the tiny TelCom screen, Jayson saw Griffith shake his head.

"You, I think I can trust," the man said and then looked thoughtful. "Since you've displayed the ability to toob without the machine, is there any way you could use that ability to access the mine?"

"Sir! How could I do that? I can't see into the mine! My ability only works with destinations I can see."

"Damn!" Griffith scowled. "Then our only recourse is to use the TOOB machine because it has access to the long-distance VIC node endpoint database."

"Does the database even have node endpoint signatures for the inside of this mine?" asked Jayson.

"We do now," Griffith replied. "The excavator yesterday was equipped with the required VIC node signature detector. You know how the Embassy always wants to be able to toob back to any place it's been before."

"But what good will any of this do us now? Even if I used your vehicle, I'd not be able to get back to the TOOB facility in time to help Cael!" Jayson was almost dancing with frustration.

"Can you do something like what you did with Riena yesterday? Teleport?"

Jayson shook his head. "I don't know. We're still so new at this." Jayson didn't want to admit it, but going through a portal scared him, just as the portal yesterday had scared Poel. After all, Jayson's only experience with a VIC node transit had been the one from Korrak's tower, and that hadn't been any fun at all.

"There's got to be a way to do this," muttered Griffith, scowling once more. "Somehow, we need to get you the information you would normally receive when you're in the TOOB machine."

[Oh, Jayson, this is terrible.]

Jayson turned and saw that Kemsa and Korrak had finally arrived. It was a strange sight. Kemsa was holding her side with one paw and helping Korrak with the other. For two who had been mortal enemies just yesterday, they seemed awfully intimate now. Jayson shook off his feeling at the sight, and explained what he was trying to do.

"Korrak. Can you telse long-distance to anyone in the village? We need diggers!"

The injured canid looked hard at him for a moment before nodding, and Jayson got the feeling he'd just been scolded for pulling rank. He shook off that feeling too and turned his attention back to the TelCom. Griffith's expression had changed.

"Jayson, I have an idea! Switch your TelCom to conference mode. I'm gonna bring Borden, the TOOB technician, in on this."

Jayson complied and when his TelCom went to split-screen, he saw Borden's face as well as Griffith's.

"Borden! Griffith here. Do you know the excavator that we requisitioned for our little rescue down at Koanhom? Has the data from its node endpoint recorder been downloaded into the system yet?"

"Just finished," replied the TOOB technician.

"Good. Find the endpoint signatures of the mine chamber the excavator dug into down there and program them into the TOOB machine. Then, after you've done that, I'll need you to patch your TelCom unit into the TOOB machine's diagnostic port. I want you to send the TOOB machine's node visualization data directly to Jayson's TelCom unit."

"Huh?" Borden's voice matched his confused look. "But..."

"Yes, I know a TelCom unit is not a TOOB diagnostic unit," continued Griffith, "and, no, I have no idea what the data will look like when displayed on a TelCom screen. I'm just trying to use the TelCom as a simple data transfer device. Now, get on it!"

Jayson saw Borden's face disappear from the screen and reappear in short order.

"Done," said Borden. "What's next?"

"Fine," continued Griffith. "Now, I want you to over-ride the normal VIC node search loci for the TOOB machine and, instead, use Jayson's TelCom coordinates for the node origin search. I'm hoping that when the TOOB machine presents the node visuals, it will give Jayson nodes that originate at his location and terminate in mine chamber. Send the visuals through the TelCom unit just as if you were doing a regular diagnostic test."

"May I ask why we're doing this?" questioned Borden.

"Of course," replied Griffith. "I'm trying to use the TOOB machine to search for long distance toobing nodes originating at a location other than at the TOOB machine, itself."

"I don't think that's ever been done before," commented Borden.

"Then it's about time someone tried," came Griffith's curt reply.

As the Rider in this crazy experiment, Jayson felt obligated to put in a word. "It probably won't look the same as when I'm in the TOOB machine," he said.

"I know it won't," replied Griffith, "but the TelCom is the only data transfer device you have. I'm hoping that maybe you'll be able to make some sense out of the visuals when they come through."

"I'm set up here, Mr. Tange," said Borden. "Heaven only knows what this is going to look like. Data transfer will commence shortly. Jayson, you'd better switch your TelCom to my signal, exclusively."

"Jayson, one last word," said Griffith. "I'm heading over to the TOOB facility to monitor this with Borden. If it doesn't work, there may be other options. Good luck."

Griffith's image disappeared.

"Jayson?" It was Borden. "Data transfer commencing in sixty seconds."

"I'm ready... I think," replied Jayson.

Just then, rounding the bend in the ravine, he saw a group of procyonids approaching at a run. Korrak must have been successful in contacting the Koanhom villagers. As soon as they came up to the mine entrance, they began digging in the rubble. He noted that, even with his injuries, Korrak was helping in the effort. Jayson hoped he wasn't wasting his own time with this crazy idea.

Finally, the TOOB data came through, and when it did, it was a strange sight indeed - all moiré patterns and blips of light. Try as he might, he couldn't make out anything recognizable - at least nothing that looked like what he was accustomed to in the TOOB machine. Finally, he keyed off Borden's channel and contacted Griffith again.

"Sir. I couldn't recognize any of it at all," he said in frustration.

"I thought that might be a problem," replied Griffith.

"Wait!" Jayson had just thought of something. "Have Borden start transferring the data again."

"Why?"

"I'm going to have Kemsa take a look at it. Perhaps she'll recognize something."

"But she's not a trained Rider." Griffith looked puzzled.

"Maybe not, sir, but she does have a lot of training visualizing VIC nodes. If she sees a recognizable pattern, maybe she can tell me what to look for."

"Okay. Switch back to Borden and we'll begin again.

 Jayson switched back to Borden's channel and turned to where Kemsa was trying to comfort Mika. The procyonid had finally given way to the villagers digging efforts.

[Kemsa, we're trying to find toob nodes for inside the mine. That way I can assess the situation with Cael. Griffith is sending Toob node data to this TelCom. You can detect many more nodes than I can. You've also told me how you used to visualize nodes in different ways. Does any of this look recognizable to you?] He showed her the TelCom screen that had now switched back to the weird patterns. [Try 'seeing' it with your node router.]

Kemsa looked at the little screen for a while, frowning.

[What do you see?] telsed Jayson.

[It's like nothing I've ever seen before, but there is a pattern. Yes. There!] Kemsa cocked her head slightly and tapped the TelCom screen. [I never would have thought to visualize nodes that way, but now that I see it, it makes sense. Yes, I can 'see' nodes.] Then she looked back at him. [But what do I do with them?]

[I wish I could see them,] replied Jayson. [As a trained TOOB Rider, I could do something with them.]

[Is this one of those times when maybe you should switch back to my body?] Kemsa's mental tone was apprehensive and they exchanged nervous glances. Both remembered the gut wrenching nausea that had accompanied the switch back to their proper bodies the previous evening.

Suddenly, Jayson had a thought. [Maybe we don't need to switch bodies. Remember how we can now read each other's thoughts without telsing? Maybe if you think real hard about what you're seeing, I can sort of 'look' over your shoulder, mentally speaking, and sense what you're seeing.]

Kemsa nodded. Then, as she concentrated on the nodes, Jayson concentrated on sensing what she was seeing. Suddenly, Jayson found himself 'seeing' nodes on the little screen as well - but he was also seeing double. It was as if he were looking out of both his and her eyes, simultaneously. Quickly he shut his own eyes and the double-vision queasiness abated.

[Yes. That does look familiar now,] he finally telsed, seeing only through Kemsa's eyes. [In fact, I think there's enough here to do a Toob trip.]

Keeping Kemsa's vision in his mind, Jayson quickly lay down. Since he was about to disconnect his senses from his body, he needed to do this. If he didn't, his body would fall over.

That could hurt.

After arranging himself as comfortably as possible on the hard stones, he imagined reaching for the nodes he saw in his mind and felt the familiar sensation of being pulled out of himself. He soon sensed that he was elsewhere other than in his body. He could also sense a temperature and humidity similar to what he remembered from the mine chamber yesterday. Furthermore, there was a familiar mineral smell here.

Unfortunately, he couldn't see a thing. It was pitch black.

Damn!

Jayson knew he was in the mine, but he had forgotten that there might not be any working lights in here. He couldn't use his line-of-sight toobing capability to do a search because he had nothing to visualize. Jayson felt frustrated and helpless. If only Cael was an Alpha telepath, he might get Korrak to visualize a long-distance communication node that could give his location.

But Cael was not an Alpha telepath. He was merely Mika's cousin.

Knowing this, however, only made Jayson's failure more unbearable. Mika had lost her mate in a mine accident, and although that had happened a long time ago, he knew she still felt the pain of her loss. He didn't like having to tell her that he couldn't do anything for her cousin. Yet, he must do so at some point, and reluctantly, he terminated his Ride.

When the usual post-ride sensory distortion dissipated, he shakily stood up. Looking at the expectant Phur faces around him, his gaze finally came to rest on Kemsa. He could see the sadness in her eyes, and wondered at it briefly, until he realized that she had probably read his thoughts already.

He and Kemsa turned together and walked over to where Mika was sitting and nervously looking on. Sitting down beside her, they each put an arm around her.

[I am so sorry, Mika," Jayson said. "We tried, but there's no light at the given coordinates. I can't do a further search by myself without visual feedback. Since the excavator only penetrated to that one spot, we have no other VIC node coordinates. The villagers are working hard to clear the roof fall. We'll get to him in time.]

Mika looked at them for a moment longer before she bowed her head and began crying, softly.

[I know he's alive,] she telsed, through her tears. [I can feel him, but he's in a bad way. I can feel that too.]

Suddenly, the TelCom beeped and Jayson keyed it on.

"Well? Did it work?" It was Griffith.

Jayson nodded and saw Griffith's face light up.

"Well, that is good news! Looks like long-distance Toobing from remote locations is feasible - at least if you have a Phur around who's trained in seeing nodes on a TelCom screen."

 "Sir?" continued Jayson. "That's the good news, but the bad news is that I couldn't find Cael. No lights in the mine."

Griffith's happy expression quickly faded. "Sorry about that. I'll see what I can do about getting the excavator back down to you folks. There are a few strings I can pull here. Keep me informed."

Griffith cut the connection and Jayson returned his attention to Mika. As he continued to hold her, he thought of how much he wanted to help this gentle soul. If there was some way he could take away her pain. If there was some way to make it his pain instead of hers. If only he could ...

The idea that flashed through Jayson's mind was so brilliant, he blinked. He gave Mika a squeeze to get her attention. [Mika, I have another idea, but I'm going to need your help. Tell me, have you always been able to 'feel' Cael, even when you couldn't see him?]

Mika nodded. [Yes. I can always feel him. He's family. Doesn't everyone feel closer to family?]

[Yes,] agreed Jayson, [although, I think you're quite a bit better at that than most.] He looked at Kemsa. [Mika may not be an Alpha telepath as far as long-distance telsing goes, but her empathic ability is extraordinary. Her brain's VIC node router probably has a heightened ability to connect nodes to her brain's 'emotional' centers, like the limbic system and such.]

Looking back at Mika, Jayson wasn't surprised. When he'd been in Kemsa's injured body, this loving Phur had known exactly where it hurt and, more importantly, exactly what to do to comfort that hurt. She knew how someone felt. He looked back at Kemsa.

[And I'll tell you another thing; Mika's ability demonstrates that strong empathy, like long-distance telsing, doesn't need visual confirmation of a receptive telepath in order to work. Close your eyes for a moment, Kemsa. I want to try something. See if you can feel what I'm feeling without us looking at each other.]

Kemsa closed her eyes and Jayson did the same. He then recalled the examinations he'd made of Kemsa's body while he'd been 'her' right after their first 'lover's' dream. The feelings then had been quite intense, and the recollection now made him shiver. Suddenly, he sensed a startled and slightly embarrassed feeling coming from Kemsa.

[Jayson!] Mika exclaimed, causing Jayson to look up. [You shouldn't have been doing that in your condition! You could have hurt yourself! I mean you could have hurt Kemsa. I mean...well, you know what I mean.]

Now it was Jayson's turn to be embarrassed. He also realized that using Kemsa in his experiment was probably irrelevant because of their unique connected condition. [Sorry, Mika. However, this just proves my point. You were able to feel what I was feeling without me looking at you!]

Kemsa seemed to have recovered from her embarrassment and was now giving Jayson a questioning look. [So, what does this all mean? How is this going to help us?]

[I'm getting to that.] he replied, turning back to Mika. [Can you 'feel' anyone, Mika?]

[Oh no! I can feel Kemsa easily, but you're more difficult, except when your feeling is really strong, like it was just then. I don't need to feel your emotion now, however. I can see the sympathy on your face, and I thank you both for that.] Mika sniffed. [But you said you had an idea. Please tell me what it is. I'll do anything to help Cael.]

[One last question, Mika. Is it easier to 'feel' Cael when he's close to you as opposed to when he's far away?]

[It's easier for me to 'feel' him when he's closer,] replied Mika.

Kemsa gave Jayson another puzzled look. [With long-distance telsing, distance doesn't matter. Why would it matter with empathy?]

[Maybe it doesn't, Kemsa.] Jayson thought. [Maybe Mika only thinks distance matters and that's the way her node router behaves. You must remember, it's not likely she's had any formal training using this ability.] Jayson shrugged. [Still, this will work to our advantage.]

He looked back to Mika. [I think I can find out where Cael is in the mine if I can somehow 'feel' him the way you do. You know. 'The closer you are to him, the closer he feels.' However, the only way I can do that is if I have direct access to your empathic ability, and there is only one way I can think of to gain that access.]

Jayson looked Mika right in the eyes.

[I must become you.]

 

 

 

4. Triad

 

Mika stared at Jayson, wide eyed. [You want to become me? Like what you and Kemsa did? Switch bodies?]

Kemsa quickly came around Mika and put a paw on Jayson's arm. [Are you sure you know what you're doing? What if you can't switch back?]

Mika's eyes widened further. [You switched back last night! Are you telsing you don't know if it can be done every time?]

Jayson tried to put some confidence into his telsing. [I'm pretty sure we can, but you must remember, this is very new. I'm not sure what happened last night, but I think our switching back was based on a mutual desire to do so. Please think about this for a moment, Mika. Griffith thought the desire to switch bodies was the key. What happened last night between Kemsa and me was...] Jayson hesitated, looking to Kemsa and thinking about the intimacy he'd need to reveal. **Kemsa? May I tell her?** he thought privately. For a moment he got no response and wondered if their 'private' thought channel wasn't working. He was about to telse his request openly when a faint feeling of remorse came to him. It was Kemsa.

**Yes Jayson. You may tell her. Even though I know your feelings on this, I'm still afraid of what others might think. Yet...**

More mental silence, then a faint thought with a touch of regret.

** I owe Mika for what I did to her yesterday. If it will help, you may tell her.**

**Thanks. I couldn't do it without your permission, and I promise not to betray your trust.** Jayson smiled fondly at Kemsa.

[You really care for her don't you.]

Jayson turned quickly back to Mika. Had she 'heard' his thoughts like Kemsa could? Then he realized he'd left Mika in the lurch when he'd stopped telsing. Apparently, the long pause, though devoid of telsing, had not been emotionally silent. Mika was looking at him with a sad smile. [Remember what I telsed about feeling your feelings? It's not hard for me to sense them when they're coming out that strongly.]

Jayson felt himself blushing, but since he now had Kemsa's permission, he explained the circumstances of their switch the previous evening. [...but regardless of what we were thinking or doing at the time, I still think the switch back was based mainly on a mutual desire to do so. It makes sense, seeing as how that's what was required to switch in the first place.]

**Kemsa?** he thought, suddenly realizing something else. **Even though I don't think the switch will present a problem, we may end up with a three-way Toob Bridge connection.**

Kemsa didn't hesitate this time. **I sense your attachment to her, and from what I've experienced from her, I don't think she would abuse a connection like that. As much as I want to keep you to myself,** She dropped her eyes. **I know there must be others in your life besides me.**

**But that's just it, Kemsa. If we have a three-way connection, she would be part of your life, too. That's why I need your consent. What I'm asking you is whether you want an intimate relationship with Mika.** Jayson knew he wouldn't hesitate to do this now that he'd decided to be Kemsa's friend. Having a close connection with his former nurse would be so very... good.

Suddenly this thought startled him. The firmness of his resolve was something he wouldn't have expected since his decision was only a day old. Yet it felt so right. He knew his career as a Toob Rider was coming to an end, but that didn't matter anymore. His new life on Wilderhom was more important.

[You two are doing something,] telsed Mika, pointing to them. [I sense response emotions yet I can't sense any telsing.]

Jayson turned to her. He realized he'd paused again. [Um, that's something else about this body switch. Kemsa and I can now communicate more directly. It's something beyond simple telsing and has something to do with a residual connection that the switch creates. We will be in closer touch with each other. It's rather like long distance telsing. I'm not sure if this effect wears off with time, but even if it does last a long time, I wouldn't consider it a burden. It would be a joy to have a relationship like that with someone like you. The question is: Would you be willing to share a relationship like that with me?]

To her credit Mika's answer was immediate if a little shaky. [Yes, I'm willing. It will help Cael. What must I do?]

[Prepare to be surprised!] Jayson telsed. [Also, there is some nausea associated with the switch. It's better if you keep your eyes closed - and I think it best if we both lie down.]

When they had both gotten as comfortable as possible, Jayson began visualizing the Toob nodes that would take him into Mika. When he thought he had enough, he attempted to connect, but nothing happened. A second try had the same results.

[Mika, this isn't working. It feels like your resisting me. A Toob bridge is difficult to establish if the target telepath doesn't want to switch.]

[But I do want to help Cael. I really do.] Mika looked stricken.

[Maybe that's the problem,] replied Jayson. [I think you need to stop thinking about helping Cael, and start thinking about wanting to switch with me. When Kemsa and I initially switched, she wanted 'Out' of her body, and I wanted 'In'. We may not have realized it at the time, but we both wanted to do this very much.]

[All right, Jayson. I'll try.] Mika closed her eyes once more.

This time, Jayson could feel a connection building. This was different from the time he had switched with Kemsa. On that occasion, the situation had been fraught with powerful emotion - and pain. Although he could still feel some nausea, this process with Mika was happening more gently. When he finally opened 'his' eyes again, the nausea had already passed - not that it would have mattered if it hadn't.

Jayson was too busy being amazed by all the emotions!

They were all around him. Admiration and love from Kemsa! Fear and urgency from the villagers digging at the mine entrance. Pain and regret from... Cael? Yes. He could feel Cael now. He was alive, but the pain Cael was experiencing seemed familiar. Yes. Jayson had felt that pain before. It felt like pain in the chest area. Broken ribs? Maybe. Maybe not. Still, any chest injury would interfere with proper breathing. This could be very serious.

He turned to the 'new' Mika. [How do you feel?]

Mika, in Jayson's human body, was trembling slightly.

[It hurts,] was her choked reply.

Kemsa stepped over to where Mika lay and kneeled down beside her. Jayson also reached out and held her hand. He could feel her pain now. It was the same searing pain he'd felt when he first toobed into Kemsa.

[I'm sorry Mika. I remember now how much it hurt when Kemsa and I first linked. If your pain is the same as ours was, it will pass shortly. I was hoping you wouldn't feel it, but it now looks like it's an unavoidable side effect of the initial Toob link-up.]

Jayson gently, if a bit awkwardly, stroked the hand he held and tried to include as much comfort in that gesture as he could. Evidently, it was working because the pained look on Mika's human face was beginning to fade. It was strange, but he could see immediately that someone else was occupying his body. A small part of his mind noted that this so-called mind transfer business could never be used to fool anyone into thinking you were someone else after you'd switched. Presently, Mika sat up, but she was still holding her head. She then looked expectantly at Jayson.

[Yes Mika, I can feel Cael now,] telsed Jayson. [You're right. He's hurt. So the sooner we find him, the better.]

[I'm glad you didn't tell me about the pain,] she telsed back. [I might have refused. However, if you can find Cael, I think the pain will be worth it.] She shook her head. [It's almost bearable now.]

Jayson nodded and then closed his eyes. [Kemsa, are we still connected?] he telsed.

[Yes,] she replied. [We still have our connection.]

Mika looked at them with a human expression of confusion that was quite creditable. [Why shouldn't Kemsa be able to sense your telsing? Oh!] Apparently, she had just noticed that Jayson's eyes were closed. [Is this that new communication link you were referring to earlier? I could sense your telsed words quite clearly.]

Jayson opened his eyes. **Yes, it is.**

Mika's human eyes widened as she sensed Jayson's thought. [Oh, my. That's... something, isn't it.]

[That it is,] confirmed Kemsa. [Oh, and don't be surprised if you feel really clumsy at first. The motor control part of your brain isn't 'mapped' correctly for a human body. You'll almost feel a tail that isn't there, and your feet will feel really strange.]

Turning to Kemsa, Jayson held up the TelCom unit. [I'm going to contact Griffith for an updated set of VIC node coordinates. Then I'll toob back into the mine and start 'feeling around' for Cael.]

When Griffith appeared, Jayson typed in the request, but Griffith only stared.

"Who are you?" he said.

Jayson mentally kicked himself and typed in his name as well as the reason he looked like Mika now.

"Gods, Jayson! I hope you're not planning on making a habit of this body switching stuff. I'm getting to the age where I'm easily confused. You really think this 'empathy location' will work?"

Jayson nodded.

"Okay. New set of data coming up in ten seconds. This oughta be interesting. Let me know if it works again."

Jayson nodded and switched over to Borden's data channel before handing the TelCom to Kemsa so that she could do the node sensing.

When Jayson toobed into the mine this time, he found Cael almost immediately. Apparently, he'd almost been on top of the injured procyonid the first time. It seemed that Cael had been caught in the collapse of the main tunnel that had been cleared out by the excavator. Jayson thought that this might be the case, but a collapse elsewhere in the mine couldn't be ruled out.

Jayson then mentally scolded himself. If he had taken the time to listen when he was here before, he might have heard Cael's breathing. But then, the breathing was awfully quiet. Jayson could sense Cael very close to him and tentatively tried 'feeling' him. When he made contact, he began one of the strangest 'conversations' he had ever had.

 

Jayson - feeling of recognition.
Cael - feeling of surprise.
Jayson - feeling of compassion.
Cael - feeling of tentative recognition then doubt.
Jayson - feeling of understanding and friendship.
Cael - feeling of new recognition and incredulity.
Jayson - feeling of understanding and sympathy.
Cael - feeling of pain and severe pressure.
Jayson - feeing of alarm and concern.
Cael - feeling of desperation and urgency.
Jayson - feeling of comfort and hope.
Cael - feeling of uncertainty and despair.
Jayson - feeling of resolve and commitment.
Cael - feeling of tentative hope.
Jayson - feeling of imminent help.
Cael - feeling of thankfulness.
Jayson - feeling of encouragement.
Cael - feeling of acceptance.
Pause.
Cael - feeling of love for Mika.
Jayson - feeling of complete agreement.

 

When Jayson returned, Mika looked worried. [What is it? Please tell me. I could feel what was happening.]

[Mika, Cael is in a bad way. I think he has something on top of him because he feels pressure and he's having trouble breathing. It was still pitch black in there so I couldn't see what the situation was. He's in a collapsed section of the new tunnel close to the chamber we were in yesterday, so digging from the outside is the fastest way to get to him.] Jayson paused. [However, if we can't get to him soon, I don't think he has much chance. I think Kemsa and I will have to do something we've only done twice before, so I'll need my body back. Also, I want to give you as much time as possible to be with Cael emotionally. I think that's helping him.]

[Oh, please hurry then!] she telsed.

But nothing was happening and a worried look passed over Mika and Kemsa's face.

[Why aren't we switching back!] telsed Mika.

The sudden anxiety in her mind-voice was a perfect reflection of Jayson's own fears. He looked at her.

[I don't know!]

Jayson felt the grip of a growing panic begin to strangle his mind. How did one switch back? What must Mika think of him now? He couldn't stay this way! There was too much to do. There was...

[ENOUGH!]

Kemsa's intense telsing stunned him and he looked to her, but not before noticing Mika's equally shocked look.

[We have no time for this right now!] Kemsa telsed. [Switching back will happen when it happens! We can still do what needs to be done!]

[But...] Mika began.

[No, Mika. I'm sorry if being in Jayson's body makes you feel emotionally starved - yes. I can feel that from you - but we haven't the time to figure out why you two are stuck!]

[Feelings?] telsed Jayson. [You feel her feelings?]

[Yes! Can't you?]

Jayson's panic was increasing, but it felt strange - like it was disjointed. Maybe...

[Yes. I think I can. That means Mika can feel my feelings! Which are hers!]

[What?] Mika looked confused and miserable.

[We have a link now!] telsed Jayson. [You're not cut off from your body's emotional sensitivity! You just think you are! Try feeling what I'm feeling.]

Mika shook her head. [I don't know how to do that!] she pleaded.

[MIKA! You DO know! You've done it with me often enough since I arrived here! You could always tell when I was hurting. Stop thinking you're in a different body and just be yourself!]

[But I'm NOT me!] Mika telsed, pointing to herself. [I'm YOU!]

[No you're NOT!] Jayson could feel the hysterical fear building in both of them, but was at a total loss what to do. It was then that he saw Kemsa grab Mika's human body and plant a teeth-clicking, tongue-probing kiss right on her mouth. Her other paw went straight to Mika's crotch - and squeezed.

Slack-jawed, Jayson could only stare. For a moment nothing happened. Mika seemed in shock. Then she began to struggle, finally turning her pleading eyes to him. As their eyes locked, Jayson felt a nauseating wrench, and the double, almost triple vision made his knees buckle - except he didn't fall. Someone was holding him up - barely.

It was Kemsa.

**Jayson! On your feet! I can't hold you up myself!**

Jayson tried to put his uncooperative feet underneath him but only succeeded in overbalancing the two of them. With a gurgled cry they both collapsed - Kemsa landing on top of him with her knee landing on a very sensitive spot.

"Gods!" was all Jayson could gasp.

[I'm sorry!] Kemsa telsed, rolling off and backing away.

But even as Jayson curled up trying to ease the pain, he was grateful for it. It took his mind off the nausea and the other whirling emotions. It also meant he was back in his own body because the part that hurt wasn't found on females. A retching sound caught the small part of his attention not focused on his battered manhood, and he turned to see a very sick looking Mika wiping her muzzle. Her expression was so complex it was almost unreadable - anger, fear, surprise, relief, misery and confusion.

[Let's not do this again, soon,] she finally croaked, giving them both a hard look.

Jayson felt her resentment, and it mirrored some of his own. Straightening up a little, he turned to Kemsa, who was looking nervously at the ground.

[Well, we are back in our own bodies,] he telsed, [but would you mind explaining why you were suddenly all over Mika like some animal in heat? That was no simple nose touch!]

Kemsa looked up, fear in her eyes, but then they hardened. [I'm sorry I hurt you, but all I could think to do was what we may have been doing last night when we switched. I thought if I did something similar, you two would switch back. And you did! I had to do something!]

[I suppose you did.] Jayson telsed, trying to let go of the pain as well as the tension in him. The tension felt like jealousy... well, actually more like envy, and that tickled a thought in the back of his mind, but then it was gone. Slowly, he got to his feet. [Let's figure this all out later, okay? We've got more pressing matters now.] Kemsa nodded, and Jayson made his way over to Mika, offering her a hand. She eyed it like it might bite her.

**Mika. Set it aside for now, please? Think of Cael.**

Mika's eyes widened as she picked up Jayson's private thought. Then she nodded, and taking Jayson's proffered hand, she hoisted herself up.

[It's so - different. I feel those thoughts of yours almost as if they were my own.]

[It is unique, but...] Jayson glanced toward the mine entrance.

[Yes.] Mika agreed. [Cael.]

[Give him what support you can. I have to get some things ready.] Jayson squeezed her hand and turned to the diggers. [Korrak!] Jayson waved to the canid. [A word.]

Korrak looked to Kemsa who nodded, and the canid left his digging spot to hobble up to Jayson. [Yes?]

[Can you get some of the diggers and follow me? If we can get to Cael from the inside of the mine, we may need equipment and Phurs for digging.]

[From inside of mine?] telsed Korrak, his ears pricking up. [There is another entrance?]

[Not yet,] replied Jayson.

[Ah. You make telepathic portal into mine then?]

Jayson nodded, but noticed that Korrak was frowning. [Is there some problem with this?]

[I not coward,] the canid telsed, standing up stiffly. [Yet, when I saw portal you and Kemsa make yesterday, I felt great fear. Poel was quite brave when he carried injured human female through yesterday. I not think many Phurs jump through hole, voluntarily.]

[Yes. I see your point,] Jayson replied, thinking of his own fear. He looked to the diggers before turning back to the canid. [On second thought, it would be best if as few as possible knew about this 'portal' phenomenon, anyway. We may need diggers later, but first, we need to get someone physically into the mine to assess the situation. If it can be resolved by those of us in the know, then we need not involve any others.]

Korrak gave a slight nod of agreement, but that was all.

[So,] continued Jayson, [would you be willing to jump through the hole voluntarily?] When the canid made no answer, Jayson added, [Would you do it if Kemsa ordered it?]

The canid looked at Kemsa before turning back to him. [She is Master. I trust that if she so ordered it, she has good reason.] Korrak then stepped close for private telsing and gave Jayson a stern look. [Are reasons you give her reasons, or merely your own?]

Jayson felt himself stiffen at the challenge, but then he backed off. There was no time for this.

[Korrak, I'm only asking if you would be willing to do it.]

The canid stood mute, and Jayson felt a growing frustration at Korrak's reticence. Was the canid deliberately being stubborn, or was this reluctance merely his fear of traveling through a portal?

Fear?

Jayson had a thought.

Looking Korrak directly in the eye, he tried to mimic the canid's stiff posture. [Niether I nor Kemsa would ask this of you, except we already know that you have the courage to do it.]

Korrak's good eye widened slightly at the challenge and he nodded. Then a small smirk crossed his muzzle. [You learn quickly - for a pup.]

 

Korrak was holding the lamp, and Mika was standing next to a pile of equipment that included jacks, digging implements, and first aid supplies. When the portal appeared, they would toss the equipment through before crossing themselves. Jayson had explained the plan to Griffith and everything was set to go.

[Ready, Kemsa?]

Jayson handed the TelCom over to her.

"Node data coming through in sixty seconds," came Griffith's voice over the TelCom.

Jayson tried to calm the jitters in his stomach, but quickly stopped. He mustn't try to suppress those emotions. They were essential for creating the telepathic portal. Kemsa had a way of manipulating the emotions that flowed through their telepathic link so that the link itself could be sensed. This created a medium upon which Jayson could construct the telepathic portal. Without this medium, there was no place to put the VIC nodes that made up the portal.

As Kemsa concentrated on the TelCom, Jayson could again see the nodes that led into the mine, but something was wrong. He couldn't sense the bridge between them. He saw a look of concentration crossing Kemsa's face and he waited a bit longer. Still, there was no bridge.

[Kemsa? Why isn't this working?[

Kemsa's look of concentration melted away and she looked back at him apologetically.

[I am sorry Jayson. I can't seem to visualize the nodes and help you 'see' the TOOB Bridge simultaneously. The node visualization keeps interfering with my ability to concentrate on the feelings.]

Jayson felt his shoulders slump, and a sense of defeat crept over him. They had come so close. As he looked up at Mika, Jayson saw that she was looking in the direction of the mine entrance. He felt his heart sink, and he knew Mika was thinking the same thing he was. Cael was going to die.

Suddenly, for a brief instant, Jayson sensed the subtle shimmering of an emotion charged TOOB connection.

What? Where had that come from?

He looked at Kemsa, but she was looking at the TelCom again. The intense feeling that had stimulated the TOOB Bridge was coming from Mika! Yes! He and Kemsa now had a TOOB connection to Mika as well!

[Mika! You did it!]

Startled, Mika looked back at him, confusion coloring her despair.

[I did what?]

[You made the TOOB Bridge visible to my mind! That's what Kemsa does when we build a portal. The concentrated emotions allow me to see it!]

[But what was I doing? How did I do it?]

[Kemsa, can you tell her quickly how you do it? I think she has enough latent talent with empathy to pick up the technique quickly.]

Kemsa nodded

[Mika, you must try to pull our emotions out of us and add them to your own. No. Perhaps this is easier. It was something Poel taught me when I was first starting to practice emotion control. Simply try to feel a specific emotion as intensely as you can, but don't do anything with it! Or rather, don't let it cause you to do anything. Just concentrate on feeling the emotion as clearly as you can. What I do is imagine the feeling concentrating itself into one tiny, brilliant point. You indicated that you could sense our emotions, and we will be feeling, or wanting, the same thing you do - to help Cael. Feel those emotions as well and let them support your own. Then try to concentrate them all into one intense, crystal-clear feeling. Hold on to that feeling. I think that will create the conditions we need to build the portal.]

Mika nodded and turned back in the direction of the distant mine entrance. As he looked, Jayson saw a powerful emotion ripple across her features. It was so intense only a blind person could have missed it. Then, when a single tear fell from one of her eyes, Jayson thought his heart would break. He, after all, was thinking the exact same thing.

Please don't die, Cael.

Then, Jayson felt something else. Mika wasn't only tapping into his and Kemsa's emotions. She seemed to be pulling them in from Cael and all of the villagers who were frantically digging to rescue him!

He was marveling at her ability to do this when he sensed their TOOB Bridge, and his concentration faltered. But that didn't seem to matter. Mika was maintaining the emotional link all by herself. His mental vision was on the TOOB Bridge alone - and even though he knew the notion was ridiculous, it seemed to him again that only a blind person could have missed it.

This time, the Bridge wasn't just a faint shimmering in his mind. It was a moving, sparkling, shifting pattern - an almost hypnotic form in brilliant light and pulsing rhythm.

[Kemsa!] he telsed sharply. [Mika's done it! The VIC Nodes! Let me see the nodes, quickly!]

Kemsa nodded and sniffed back her tears. Jayson thought she must have been feeling Mika's heart-aching emotion as much as he. Still, her concentration was as sharp as ever. As her mental picture swam into his mind, Jayson began concentrating on the nodes she was sensing.

This time, the portal appeared almost instantly. Focus seemed to be the key - and with three powerful sources of concentration, the portal had no choice but to pop into existence.

But now there was another problem.

Who would use it? Mika was occupied with maintaining the emotion necessary for the TOOB Bridge. That left...

[Korrak?] Jayson could see the canid in his peripheral vision, and he didn't look the part of a rescuer. His injuries from the previous day did not inspire confidence.

[Jayson?] It was Kemsa. [I am not needed now. Mika is maintaining the Bridge. I will go through with Korrak.]

Together then, she and Korrak began pitching equipment through the portal. All was going well until a poorly aimed pry bar sailed toward the sparkling edge of the portal. The part of the bar aimed at the hole went through the hole. The part that was not - did not. It landed with a clunk beyond the edge of the portal. Jayson almost lost his concentration. The edge of the portal had neatly sliced the tempered steel pry bar in half!

[Jayson?] The fear in Kemsa's mind voice was obvious, and Korrak simply stared, trembling slightly.

Jayson gave himself a little shake, but he had already grasped the significance of the event.

[Think about it, Kemsa. If this portal is connecting two separate places, its edge will do exactly that - separate things. Part will go to the portal's destination, and the other part will stay behind.] Jayson gave another mental shiver. He was glad they had discovered this portal property now. It would not do to have someone lose a limb.

[Okay,] he continued. [We know now that we need to be careful with the edges of the portal. If you jump through, you shouldn't have any problems.]

Neither Kemsa nor the canid moved. Then a pleading, longing emotion filled Jayson. He saw Kemsa's eyes close and a tremulous sigh escaped her. She had felt it too. Looking toward Mika, he could see the entreaty on her tear-stained muzzle.

[Please help Cael.]

It was all that was needed. Kemsa turned toward the portal and with a neat hop, jumped through. She then turned around and faced Korrak where he stood, still frozen. She held out a paw.

[Korrak. I know this is difficult for you, but think of it as a challenge - one that you will meet and conquer. Come.]

He gave a short nod, licked his lips and jumped - knocking Kemsa over in the process. Apologizing, he helped her up.

[Next time, not with so much enthusiasm I think, Korrak.] But she was smiling.

[Kemsa?] telsed Jayson. [You have a TelCom. I'm not sure Mika and I can keep the portal open much longer. Light the lamp and find Cael. Do what you can and let us know what the situation is.]

When Kemsa nodded, the portal surprised Jayson by collapsing immediately. Turning swiftly, he saw that Mika had done the same thing. He ran to her and knelt down. To his relief she was breathing and he gently gathered her head into his lap. Wearily she opened her eyes.

[Are they through?] she telsed weakly.

[Yes, Mika. You were magnificent. Kemsa and Korrak will do everything they can for Cael.]

 

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

 

The circle of light illuminated the mine tunnel they had both occupied only yesterday. Had it been only yesterday? Kemsa found it difficult to believe. Korrak was now her friend and ally, instead of a bitter enemy.

[Jayson said Cael was in the area near the mine entrance. It should be just ahead.] Korrak nodded and they both headed in that direction.

They found Cael pinned against the wall of the mine tunnel by a large flat slab of rock. He'd been lucky. The piece had not fallen directly on him; rather it had landed next to him and tipped sideways, trapping him against the wall. When Kemsa and Korrak finally pried the rock slab away from him, Cael found it considerably easier to breathe, even though he hurt in several other spots.

[How did you get in here?] was Cael's first question.

[Made another portal,] explained Kemsa. [Can you walk?]

[Yes, I think so,] replied Cael. [Just gimme a paw up.]

Rather than using the TelCom, Kemsa use the private thought channel. **Are you there?**

**Yes I am!** came two responses.

**Mika? Can you sense this as well?** Kemsa noted that although Mika's thought was weaker than Jayson's, the procyonid's emotions through the TOOB link they now shared with her were considerably stronger.

**Yes, I can! This is most interesting, but how's Cael! He 'feels' better to me now.** The feeling of this thought was anxious but hopeful.

**He's going to be all right. His problem was not being able to breathe properly.**

When they had gotten Cael to his feet, Korrak tapped Kemsa. He was holding the TelCom unit. [I contact Jayson. Yes?]

Kemsa shook her head. [I've already done that.]

Korrak looked surprised. [You telse long-distance now? With human?]

Kemsa noted a slight tenseness in Korrak's query.

[No. It is not long distance telsing. Jayson and I communicated thoughts through our TOOB link. It is like telsing, but on a deeper level I think.]

She eyed the canid. [Is there something else, Korrak?]

[No,] replied Korrak. [No Master. It is nothing. I surprised. That is all.]

Before Kemsa could comment, Korrak held up the TelCom again.

[We contact Griffith human, yes? He sends excavator for our rescue, now that Alpha telepaths 'trapped' once again.]

Kemsa nodded, and Korrak began typing his message. Just then, Cael stood up from were he had been examining the boulder that had trapped him.

[Hoy! I knew it! I knew it! Primary host rock with secondary hydro-thermal deposition!]

Kemsa had no idea what Cael was talking about, and her expression must have begged for an explanation because Cael went on.

[This stuff is sometimes found in volcanics laid down near iron deposits, but I was lookin' in the wrong place - down insteada up. Good thing the roof fell on me!]

Kemsa was truly confused now. Cael had nearly been killed, but he was acting as if it was the best thing that ever happened to him.

[What are you going on about?]

Cael grabbed Kemsa's lantern and held it close to the boulder.

[Look here!] He pointed a clawed finger. [Can'tcha see it?]

Kemsa examined the boulder closely and could see tiny glinting flecks amid the darker stone. She nodded. [I see sparkling. What is it?]

[Sumthin' we Phurs use fer industrial an' craft purposes,] Cael answered.

[So? What is it?]

Cael gave her a grin wide enough to show all his sharp, white teeth. It looked like he was about to answer when his smile faded a bit.

[I'll only telse now that it's sumthin' a bit more valuable than iron.]

 

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