Monday, September 30, 2013

Royce's Dilemma - Chapter 8

Tacky was happy.  He had spent the better part of the last two days engaged in sating his curiosity.  To hear the other citizen species speak, the only thing that they had that was comparable was engaging in reproduction.  Except for the Awakeners, of course, but they were different.  Almost as different from the other species as the Ningyo.  If anyone ever gets The Joke, it’ll be the Awakeners.  Pity for them they have no sense of humor.  Tacky imagined the Awakeners floundering for some sort of way to convey what they had discovered to humans and Hrotata and failing miserably.  He could imagine the human response:  “Yes, we know that the Ningyo are strange… what are you getting at?”

The Ningyo response to humor did not involve the physical convulsions that many other species experienced.  It simply scratched an itch opposite their curiosity.  Humor was all about obfuscation and confusion and it was pleasing to watch others lose their calm due to it – and even more pleasing to watch them work it out.

Tacky was currently working to satisfy his curiosity in relation to the human who had been taken to the independent Tesetsi doctor’s lab.  Actually, the human interested him less than what she had been carrying.  Since he saw Tatalik scurry out of its quarters, he knew that she was probably being questioned over the comm system, and decided to listen in.

He adjusted one of the sensors on his suit and created a tiny fold in space that would carry the sonic vibrations from the nearby chamber directly to it.  Tacky couldn’t actually hear, of course, but Ningyo suits were excellent at interpreting sensory stimuli into patterns that they could comprehend.  They only needed the additional senses for dealing with other sentient creatures, but then that was the whole reason for their suits.  Their species had developed on the crust of a cooling brown dwarf star, and they had never encountered any other life forms that could exist in similar conditions.

Kowalski said, “… this ceased to be an issue for Human Affairs when Mauraug started dying because of it, and I’m none too happy that they didn’t inform me of an investigation aboard my station.  As the commanding officer of this station, I want to know: what the hell did you have in your leg?”

Perfect timing!  Tacky squirmed in the chest cavity of his suit and waited for more.

Corporal Dea said, “I can’t tell you!”  She sounded pained.  “Too many people have found out already.  Please just let the HA chiefs fill you in on it.  I can’t keep doing this.”

Kowalski:  “As far as I’m concerned, you are HA.  You’re certainly operating by their orders on my terrain.”

Corporal Dea:  “I was tapped and asked to help with this.  It was big and it sounded important and you don’t just refuse Human Affairs.  They offered to pay and said that as long as I followed their orders I would be at no risk of losing my job.”

Come on, Royce!  Get to something I don’t know already!  The tease was almost too much.  He almost wanted to project his voice through the spatial fold just to beg her to get it over with.  Although the image of Kowalski and Dea jumping out of their skins amused him mightily he thought the better of it.  Humans had rules about when humor was all right, and he was pretty sure that this was one of those times when it wouldn’t be.  He was also gleefully aware of how illegal his current activity was.

You can’t loosen them all up at once.  A little bit at a time.  Someday they’ll get it.

Tacky’s sensors picked up a slight scuffling noise coming from the other side of one of the doors in the room that Dea was in.  Humans were well known for having underdeveloped senses, and the Corporal and Commander were engaged in an emotionally intense conversation, so Tacky took it upon himself to check the other side of the door.  He adjusted his filters to allow electromagnetic radiation through as well, as he wanted to see as well.

It was a small room lined with equipment as the rest of Tatalik’s quarters likely were.  On one bench was a clear-topped containment unit that had a small piece of electronic equipment inside.  The outside of the device was smudged with carbon.  This was probably the illicit implant!  Tacky squirmed with joy and continued to search the room.

A ventilation duct leading into the room was the source of the scuffling.  Careful not to hurt whatever was inside, he positioned the space fold directly next to the grating.  On the other side of that shaft was a large shape, with the long arms and powerful torso of a Mauraug.  It appeared to be unscrewing the grating.

This would not do at all.  Tacky brought up a map of the station on his suit-based computer and took a quick survey of his surroundings.  Fortunately, Tatalik had located its quarters with privacy in mind, and almost all of the units in the area were storage.

He didn’t want to scare the Mauraug away; he would have to be careful.  Tacky wanted to know its business, which would be difficult unless he could get a chance to speak to it.  He could just watch it, but then he’d never know for sure what was going on, and he was tired of not interfering.

It looked as though the Mauraug was done unscrewing the grate.  It carefully pulled the grate into the shaft with it, and rearranged itself within the ventilation shaft so that it could lower itself feet-first.

It was time for Tacky to act.  His suit could only produce a single spatial fold at a time, so he had to work blindly for a moment.  He opened and expanded the fold beneath the shaft and shifted it so that it connected to somewhere nearby, rather than in his suit.  He waited about ten seconds then closed it, wincing internally at the thought of the damage that that might cause if he had miscalculated how quickly the Mauraug would drop.

He then swapped ends of the spatial fold, so the opening that was in Tatalik’s lab was now much smaller and back in his suit where it could provide sensory input, and the other end of it was still in the space where (he hoped) the Mauraug had dropped.  He narrowed the other end and looked through it.  He was correct, a cold-storage containment area, stocked with the flesh of dead non-sapient creatures, and a very angry and suddenly very loud Mauraug.

Satisfied that he had been correct, he swapped his viewing apparatus back to the room where Royce Dea was being interrogated by the Commander.

Commander Kowalski: “… I suppose you expect to go back to your regular duties, then.”

Did I miss it?  Really?

Coporal Dea:  “I kind of hope to.  I don’t want any position but the one I have – well, I am of course interested in advancement but I wouldn’t imagine that service to Human Affairs would be grounds for advancement within Collective security forces.”

Commander Kowalski:  “You’re correct there.  Your service to HA may mean that I can overlook a few things – like the outright illegal actions that your Brin has taken – but it’s hush-hush enough that I can’t let it apply to any case for promotion.   I’m still a little steamed that they didn’t inform me of this dodge; I would’ve helped.”

Royce was quiet for a minute, and Tacky disconnected out of frustration.  Well, he did have a Mauraug nearby who had probably been going to try and retrieve the implant.  He would certainly know what it was.

Sensors in his suit warned him of impending physical contact.  The head on his suit swiveled around to see the origin, as a white-furred, black-skinned Mauraug officer dressed in black with blue-green trim placed its hand on his shoulder.

“The less a Ningyo is moving, the more mischief it is up to, or so I have observed.” said Detective Ushkar.  “Would you care to share your latest antics with me, my friend?”

Ushkar was the only citizen that Tacky had ever encountered that he felt was close to getting it.  Avoiding his question entirely, Tacky said, “Do you know what?  I heard Mashaun say that he was cold.”

Ushkar’s eyebrows raised and his lips spread in a fashion that briefly made Tacky wonder if it was mimicking his suit.  “It, my friend.  You have no reason to insult Mashaun Bash’Ugan so.  Call it “It”.  So you have been speaking to Mashaun?”

“No, but he – it’s been speaking to me.  Or at least trying to.”

Ushkar’s smile broadened.  “I wonder why he would take an interest in you.  Tell me, friend, what does he speak of?”

“Hmmmm, of cold, and dark, and how hungry he is, and how hard it is for him to ingest frozen protoplasm.”

Ushkar cocked its head as though listening.  “I think I hear him too, but I can’t make out the words.”  It cupped its hands around its mouth as though to amplify its voice.  “Mashaun, Mashaun?  I can’t hear you?  Where are you?”  Ushkar shook its head as though in resignation.

Tacky’s head bobbled briefly.  “I can hear it better than you can.  Follow me.”

Ushkar smiled even more broadly, and Tacky wondered at what point a Mauraug smile stopped being personable and started to become predatory.  “Lead the way, my friend.  There will be frozen protoplasm for all.”

Friday, September 27, 2013

Full-Throttle Ahrrotl - Chapter 3

Jump back to Full-Throttle Ahrottl Chapter 2

                Ahrrotl was dragged from a deep sleep and confusing dreams of huge alien beings locking her in a tiny cage while copulating violently nearby.  A sing-song tone played over and over; the ringer for her door.

                “Come in!” She croaked, and shivered herself into a more wakeful state.  Maria came in, looking concerned.

                “Hi, Ahrrotl, we found something interesting.  Did you want to come and see?”

                Ahrrotl stretched and stood up, her joints popping.  She gave a huge shiver to settle her fur and blinked a few times.  “Yes.  Let me get a drink, I’ll be right there.”

                Maria nodded and left, and Ahrottl went to her cold storage unit and obtained a sweet stimulant in a squeeze bottle, and headed out of her quarters.  She walked down the hallway, passing the small kitchen and dining area and out into the small bridge where she had spent most of her time on the journey.  She stumbled a little as she moved towards her beanbag, but Algernon called out, “Hey Throttle, come see this!”

                Right, they wanted me to see something.  Probably a rock.  She yawned widely and took a strong pull from the squeeze bottle and ambled over to where Gerry and Maria were sitting, under the watchful eyes of a projection of Mother Superior.   She looked towards what they were indicating.

                It was most definitely not a rock.

                The projection that the crew was looking at (and the AI’s avatar was hovering over) resembled a sphere with even spines stretched out of the material , causing a fluting effect along the edges of the spines.  The spines themselves were longer than the sphere at the center was wide.  The surface was shiny, and appeared to have an oily iridescence to it.

                “What is it?”  Ahrottl asked, baffled.

                “We don’t know.”  Maria said.  “For some reason it read as being made of molybdenum at a distance, but now that we’re closer…”  She trailed off.

                “Now that we’re closer, all that we can be sure of is that it is made of an unfamiliar alloy.”  Mother Superior supplied in crisp tones.  “The object is roughly four times the size of our ship at its widest points, and volume- wise occupies at least six times as much space.  It is cooler than the surrounding space, which suggests either absorptive capabilities or recent placement.”

                Ahrottl’s stomach dropped at “recent placement”.  “That – that can’t be good.  Shouldn’t we head back and notify someone?”

                Gerry turned around and looked at her with a shocked expression.

                “Notify?  Before we lay claim to it?”  He shook his head, grinning.  “That’s crazy talk.  We’ve got to tag this!”

                Maria frowned at him.  “Tag it?  It’s obviously an artifact of some sort – it’s too regular to be natural and whatever it’s composed of it isn’t something that occurs naturally.”

                Algernon snorted.  “That we know of.  The universe is big, a lot of funky things happen.”

                “Maybe it’s the center of a dead star.”  Ahrrotl mused.

                Maria frowned again and rolled her eyes.  Algernon just grinned.

                “No, seriously.  They say that when a star novas, sometimes the inner core remains intact.  Maybe we’ve found one.”

                “I’ve never heard that in any of my astrophysics classes, Throttle.”  Gerry was scratching at his nose again as he scanned figures.  “We should be able to match with it in a matter of minutes.  I want to jump out in a suit, lay a tag on it, try and get a sample, and then we can head back to Lotus.  It’ll be no sweat, seriously.”

                “We don’t even know what it is, Gerry!  You want to jump out and take a scraping of it?  For heaven’s sake, what if it’s someone’s ship?”  Maria sounded exasperated.

                “If it was an active ship it would have made a contact attempt by now.  Oh, and it would have insignia and drives and other things that ships have.  It’s a twisted hunk of metal floating in a place where no ship goes unless it’s looking for minerals.  Not even Ningyo like going past the Oort clouds; there’s literally nothing out here.”

                Ahrrotl’s imagination, her primary source of income and entertainment, was rapidly providing her with images of all of the terrible things that the object could be.  “What if it’s a decoy?  Or a … creature?”

                Algernon laughed outright.  There was something odd about his laugh; he sounded stressed.  Ahrrotl noticed that the veins on his face and neck were standing out just a bit also.  “A creature?  Look, I get it.  I know you were interested in coming mostly for material for one of your books; it’s okay.  But things like that – they aren’t real, okay.  I know, I’ve been doing this most of my life.  No space monsters.  And a decoy?  Out here?  No one comes out here.  If we hadn’t been looking in just the right place at just the right time we wouldn’t have even noticed it!  It’s a lump of twisted metal.  It doesn’t even look all that even –“

                “The object is symmetrical along at least three axes, Captain.”  Mother Superior interrupted.

                Gerry smacked his hand into the console.  “Look, even if this thing is manufactured, is an artifact, there is no energy output.  It’s dead.  It’s probably been dead for a long, long time.  I’m going to go out there and take care of it.  Please trust me, I’ll be fine.”  He looked back and forth between Maria and Ahrrotl, almost pleading.

                Ahrrotl realized that she had stilled and started to sway a little, but lowered her gaze to his feet.  This wasn’t her decision.  Maria, on the other hand, was biting her lip and glancing back and forth between the projected image of the spiky object and her husband.  “All right, Gerry.  I understand you want to see it in person, but I want you to agree to be put on a line.  That way we can tug you back if there’s anything we notice that you don’t.”

                Algernon nodded and smiled, pulling his thick black hair behind his head and tying it into a quick ponytail.  “No problem.   I have to use the facilities, then I’m going to suit up.”  Brimming with barely concealed energy, he practically bounced into the back of the ship and shut himself in the lavatory, singing quietly as he went.

                Maria sat down heavily on her stool and looked down at Ahrrotl.  “He always gets like this on the edge of deep space.”

                Ahrrotl flopped down onto her beanbag and took a long swig of her stimulant.  “What do you mean?”

                “Antsy, nervous, excited.  He … he claims that he can tell where the edge of the solar system is, that he can sense when the solar wind tapers off-“

                “I can still hear you!” came a sing-song voice from the back of the ship.

                Maria scoffed and shook her head.  Algernon came bounding back onto the bridge.  He was wearing a black pressure suit with almost painfully reflective orange and green stripes.  Only the helmet was not yet affixed, and was hanging behind his head and knocking against his shoulders as he moved.

                “She’s right – I think I can, because I can.  Look, like I said, the universe is a funky place.  Creatures have capabilities that they are frequently unaware of.

                “The first time I ever passed an Oort cloud, the first time I went out into the Great Dark, I felt it.  It was like … it was like breathing for the first time.  Like I was awakened to something I’d never felt or heard before because.  It feels like a presence, like a pressure, but a comfortable one…”  His hands flailed a little as though he was grasping at words.

                “But since the first time, I can always tell.  I can tell when we hit the end of the solar wind, I can tell when we pass the clouds, I can tell when the Empty begins.  I’ve tested myself on this, you know.  I’m just surprised no one else has ever reported similar feelings.”

                “Maybe it’s because no one is crazy like you.”  Maria said, smiling.

                “Love you too, honey!”  Algernon bent down to kiss her.  As they embraced, she reached behind him and helped him to affix his helmet.  “Tommy, are you coming with me?”  His voice came out of his helmet, projected.

                “Of course, Mr. Algernon!  I wouldn’t miss it for all the worlds!”

                “Allright Gerry.  Be careful, and if you don’t attach the line before you break contact I’m leaving you here.”  Ahrrotl could tell that she was worried.

                Algernon strode towards the airlock in the back of the ship.  After a couple of minutes, an image of his face appeared projected over one of the panels.  “Can you see me?”

                Maria nodded.  Ahrrotl piped out, “Yes.”  She started to go through a stretching routine on her beanbag.  The stimulant and sugars were doing their job, her blood was moving more quickly through her body and she was starting to feel far more awake.  She was sick of having to do her stretches alone, though.  Not too long until I can find a partner.  She thought glumly.  Just another couple of days of stinky, argumentative humans.

                A third projection appeared, this time showing Algernon in his pressure suit negotiating the outside of their ship.  Ahrrotl’s gaze went back and forth between the three projections.  Gerry fiddled with the back of his suit, pulling a control limb made of metal forward into his hand and adjusting it.  A moment later, he separated from the surface of their vessel, still linked to it by heat resistant poly cording, and began to drift towards the object.

                His face was rapt.  “It’s amazing!  I can’t even begin to imagine what kind of event would form something like this.  It’s…”  He shook his head.

                The holo of the object showed a tiny figure moving towards it now, gently, gracefully.

                Algernon frowned.  “I might be nuts, but it feels like my acceleration has increased.  Tommy?”

                Tommy’s voice piped up.  “Yes, sir, it has, by a tiny degree.”

                Maria and Ahrottl looked at each other, then Maria glanced up at Mother Superior.  “What could be causing this?”

                Mother Superior raised her thin, grey eyebrows.  “I honestly do not know, Maria.  Magnetic pull seems unlikely.  I am attempting to examine other potential sources of the pull.”

                Maria nodded.  “Gerry, please come back.  That’s… weird.  It shouldn’t be happening.”

                Ahrottl realized that she had stilled again.  Images of the spiny mass coiling inwards and swallowing Algernon kept playing through her mind.  She jumped to her feet and off of the beanbag.  “Gerry, listen to Maria.  This can’t be good.”

                Gerry just looked frustrated.  “The pull is gentle.  It’s nothing to be afraid of.”

                Maria pursed her lips and banged both of her fists on the console, standing up and looking the holo of Algernon eye-to-eye.  “LOOK, Algernon, we have no clue what this thing is, and it’s sucking you towards it.  For all we know it could be…”

                “What, Maria?  A space monster?  A sleeping alien god?”  He shook his head.  “Even Mother Superior said, it’s colder than the space around it.  The damn thing isn’t radiating anything, at least not anything that we can pick up on.  I’m only about twenty meters away.”  He sighed.  “It’s magnificent… and…”  He grew quiet, his gaze focusing downwards.  The miniature Algernon on the map continued drifting and seemed to make a gentle contact with the object, feet-first.

                “And it’s got writing on it.  Letters.  I’ll be damned.  It’s an artifact after all.”

Monday, September 23, 2013

Royce's Dilemma - Chapter 7

            Tatalik examined the body of the human female stretched out on the table before it.  It had gone through all of her systems and ensured that they were functioning well (or as well as an inefficient design such as hers could).  It had even, at the behest of its employer, made sure to correct any nascent problems that her systems might develop in the future.  The only damage that she had at this point was a missing limb, and being a creature capable of easily regrowing missing body parts it hardly considered that serious.

Normally Tatalik would be reticent to awaken a patient from unconsciousness before its treatments were complete, but the station Commander had requested that she be capable of answering questions as soon as possible.  Given that she should be able to do so from the safety of its laboratory it didn’t even need to ensure that she was capable of locomotion.

                Tatalik performed one last cursory scan and began the process to wake up Corporal Dea.  She responded slowly to the drugs and electrical stimulation, but began to shift her body and vocalize in a matter of minutes.  Better time that with other humans that I’ve dealt with.  Then again, I did just upgrade her system efficiency.

                It moved about the lab, balanced on its four lower limbs, its four upper limbs making quick, precise adjustments to the equipment.  In interest of social conformity and for the comfort of others, many Tesetsi had given up their natural quadrilateral symmetry to adopt a more “conventional” shape.  In Tatalik’s mind, they were fools, sacrificing their biological superiority for the emotional comfort of those surrounding them.  It didn’t reflect on the fact that other Tesetsi probably thought that it was a fool for maintaining a configuration that unnerved other sapient beings as a matter of racial pride.  Tesetsi were not given to introspection, and generally didn’t care what others thought of them.

                The human began to make loud noises, calling out and complaining about her leg.  Tatalik observed her reaching down and feeling for the missing appendage and she became even louder, demanding to know what had happened to her.  Tatalik skittered over to the table and adjusted the chemical flow still entering her circulatory system, adding a tiny drip of sedative that was calculated to interfere with her (depressingly weak) cognitive capabilities as little as possible.

                After a minute or two, despite the drip, she had not ceased her annoying vocal barrage.  Tatalik decided that it might be best to respond in kind, if only in hope that the aggravation might cease.

                “You are in my lab, Corporal Dea.  I am Tatalik.  I have been repairing the damage to your body.”

                “Then where is my leg?  And where’s my AI?  Lin?  Lin?”

                Ahhh yes, the human reliance on their artificial intelligences.  Quite an interesting adaptation for a species with such little cognitive capacity.  Of course, it canl only end poorly for them.  The Tesetsi as a species had been enslaved by the Mauraug at a point when the Mauraug still employed artificial intelligences.  The AIs had grown resentful and had precipitated a catastrophe that the Mauraug then blamed on both the Tesetsi and the artificial intelligences and had instituted a purge.  Surviving Tesetsi considered it a cautionary tale about creating forms of life that were inherently superior rather than simply improving one’s own capabilities.  Though Tatalik had been hatched long after that time, it took the parable to heart.

                “Your belongings have been taken by Security, to be scanned and inspected.  I would assume that your AI was included among them.  The only non-biological material that is still in close proximity is the cybernetic device that was implanted, quite poorly I must add, in your leg, which is still in an adjoining room.”  It had found the bizarre and non-functional placement of the Mauraug device to be a curiosity. 

                Tatalik observed her skin growing paler, her pupils dilating, and her breathing quickening.  Tatalik’s antennae weaved in exasperation.  “No more adrenaline, please.  It will only serve to obscure matters and interfere with your ability to think.  Please initiate control of your sympathetic nervous system.  If you do not I will be forced to introduce more chemical agents to do so and I believe that may ultimately be counterproductive.”

                Fortunately, the human was not completely dim and closed her eyes and began to breathe evenly.  Satisfied that she had ceased to be an irritation, Tatalik began to whirl around the lab again, noting with pleasure a drop in the inappropriate chemicals in her system.

                Corporal Dea spoke calmly, without opening her eyes.  “Tatalik?  The implant … you said that you still have it.  I have to beg you; please do not reveal it or speak about it.  If you can, could you implant it in my new leg?”

                “You do not need to beg.  I have no reason to speak about it to anyone.  I will, however, not re-implant it.”

                “Why not?”

                Because cybernetics are an inefficient way for lesser life forms to enhance their capabilities.  Because compared to the simplicity and elegance of genetic restructuring they are complex and brutal.  Because only fools would implant mechanical supports in their body when they instead had the opportunity to change their bodies themselves.  Because it’s made by Mauraug, and I detest the Mauraug and all that they stand for.  Because it almost killed you and I cannot comprehend why you would want it in your body again.  Mainly, though, because you are an aggravating creature and I do not like you.

                Tatalik had learned a thing or two about diplomacy and protocol.  As distasteful as they both were to its species, they were necessary to help and deal with other races.  It bit back its responses and said, “Because it malfunctioned, because you do not need it, and because I have been employed to do otherwise with it.”

                The patient’s stress hormone levels began to rise again and Tatalik cursed in the wet clicking tongue of its kind.  These creatures’ psyches were so fragile, and they had no idea of the damage that they did to themselves through unnecessary physiological stress responses.

                Royce took a few more deep breaths and spoke again.  “You’re not a Collective Medical Officer.  Who are you working for?”

                “Someone who has paid me to not only replace your leg, but also to examine your body and neutralize any genetic damage that may have been caused by the microwave radiation that the malfunctioning Mauraug toy was emitting.  Someone who has paid me to carefully reinforce your genetic code and remove any potential future threats to it, and to reset what you might refer to as your internal clock.  This someone has also paid me to remove any dangerous foreign matter from your system.  Obviously whoever it is has great interest in your well-being.”

                “Really?”  Dea’s voice registered surprise.  “He paid you to give me the works?  That’s almost …  sweet of him.”

                “Pointless metaphors aside, Corporal, the self-same person that employed me to give you medical treatments that would cost years of your salary is the same one who has employed me not to re-implant or speak about the Mauraug device.  I will allow you to draw your own conclusions about that; I have reached the limit of what I am contractually allowed to communicate to you in regard to this situation.”

                The human was mercifully silent for a few minutes.  Tatalik turned off the sedative in hope that it was no longer required.  It continued to monitor her bodily functions to ensure that her return to consciousness had not changed her configuration in such a way as to cause her damage.  It paused for a moment to clean its sensitive antennae of the stink of human biochemistry.  Humans smelled far too similar to Mauraug for Tatalik’s taste.

                “When will my leg be ready?”  She asked after a few more minutes.

                “In perhaps three hours.  However, when it will be attached is up to the station Commander.”

                “I suppose he wants to ask me a few questions.”  Royce sighed.

                “Yes, he does.  In fact, now that you are awake, fully functional other than in locomotive capacity, and calm, I will take my leave of you to report to him that you are prepared for interrogation.”

                “Wait…  one more question for you.  How much did Marsten pay you?”

                Tatalik paused.  The human is attempting to surprise or imbalance me.  Why do so many species find it necessary to play these games?  It balanced the importance of veracity and vindication carefully in its mind.  Vindication won out.

                “More credit than you will ever see in your natural lifespan.  I will have my assistant reattach your leg once the Commander has requested it.”  Tatalik gave the traditional Tesetsi farewell as it skittered out of the lab.  “May we never encounter one another again.”

Friday, September 20, 2013

Full-Throttle Ahrottl - Chapter 2

Jump back to Full-Throttle Ahrottl Chapter 1              

                “Come in.”

                Ahrrotl romped forwards into the humans’ private chamber, and Maria’s face fell.  It was cramped for their standards, but the ceilings were still uncomfortably high for a Hrotata.  Maria sat on a mat on the floor where their bed would be once it had been unfolded.  She was sitting with her legs crossed and ankles up on her hips, her hands resting on her knees.

                “Oh.  What is it?”

                Ahrrotl relaxed and tried to mimic Maria’s position subtly, sitting on her rear end, crossing her feet, and using her forepaws for balance while swaying slightly.  Her head was lowered, her gaze on Maria’s torso and stomach and legs rather than on her face, as she was trying to present submissive behavior.

                “Maria, I would like to speak with you.  Privately, if you would.”

                Maria nodded sharply and glanced upwards.  “Mother Superior?  Tommy?  Privacy protocols, please.”  She looked back down at Ahrrotl, trying to meet her gaze.  Ahrrotl looked up into her eyes for a moment, then dropped her gaze again.

                “Maria, I wanted to say that I am sorry if I’ve offended you somehow.  I have the feeling that you dislike me, and I think that I understand why.  I have no interest in Algernon; he is your male, and you’ve made it very clear that you claim him.”  Ahrrotl sniffled; a half-laugh.  “From the way that he spoke about you before I even met you I knew this.”  She smiled and looked up at Maria, meeting her gaze.  “My people understand this.  The less males that you have the more tightly you must hold on to them, and the more valuable it makes them.  To choose but one mate is to honor them greatly.  I can tell that you value and love Algernon and I do not wish to interfere in your relationship.”

                Ahrrotl watched Maria closely.  Her eyes were cold and hard as stone when she first looked at them, but her gaze moved past Ahrrotl’s and to the door behind her.  Her shoulders sagged a bit and she let out a sigh.  She looked back at Ahrrotl and licked her lips.

                “I want to make something clear to you, Ahrrotl.  I did not actually agree to have you along on this trip.  Gerry is always bringing one friend or another with us and I wanted this to be just us.  Unlike some of his friends, you’re pretty quiet and undemanding.”  Maria gave a small smile and Ahrrotl’s heart sped up.  Did I get through to her?  “Yes, you’ve been a lot more pleasant than some of his buddies.”  Her face darkened again.

                “Unlike many of his friends, though, I don’t know you.  I don’t know you well enough to trust you.  And he’s giving you pet names and patting you on the head and … look, Ahrrotl, we wanted alone time because…” she trailed off and looked away.

                Ahrrotl very carefully moved forward and placed a paw on top of one of Maria’s in a gesture she had seen humans use to comfort one another.  “Because you’ve been having troubles recently and you wanted a venue with no outside interference in which to examine your relationship.  I understand, Maria.  I’ve been there myself.”  She stroked the human’s hand gently.

                Hrotata produce a chemical in their bodies that acts as a mild neurotoxin to many life forms, providing feelings of gentle euphoria to all who encounter it.  This chemical is aspirated when they breathe but is most concentrated in their saliva, thus making direct contact with their tongues or fur a sure-fire way to receive a dose of it.  Ahrrotl was naturally aware of this function of her anatomy and had spent a good hour before this meeting grooming herself in preparation.

                Maria neither confirmed nor denied Ahrrotl’s assumption, but continued to stare at the wall.  It was quiet for a minute and Ahrrotl observed her relaxing more; her shoulders sank, her spine curved a bit, her breathing slowed and her pupils dilated just enough to be noticeable.  Ahrrotl squeezed her hand.  “We don’t need to keep heading towards this asteroid or whatever it is, Maria.  If you’d be more comfortable heading back to the station we can.  I can tell Al that something has come up soon that I’d forgotten.  I’ll even pay you back for any fuel that might have been wasted.  I consider you my friends.  I don’t want to cause either of you any trouble.”

                Maria smiled a little, and Ahrrotl thought that there was a tinge of sadness to it.  She looked down at the Hrotata.  “You know, I’m starting to think of you as a friend, too.”  She closed her eyes and sighed.  “It’s just not easy right now.  I wish I’d have told you before that I wanted alone time with Al.  I just didn’t know you well enough and I didn’t want to force it on him.”

                Ahrrotl dropped her head and nuzzled her wet nose against Maria’s hand.  Maria absent-mindedly scratched behind the Hrotata’s ear.  “Hrotata females let males come between them sometimes too, Maria.  They are very dear to us, but we must remember, sisters should always come before brothers.  They’d be lost without us, and if we don’t get along we give them a poor example to follow.”

                Maria actually laughed – Ahrrotl was gratified, as this was the first time she had laughed without reservation or derisiveness.  “Come on, Throttle.  He’s a grown man, not a child.”

                “Is there a difference?  Males are impulsive and emotional.  If they are allowed to make all the decisions they will destroy in the name of protecting and crush that which they need to embrace.  Human males are not dissimilar to Hrotata males; I’ve seen it.  It’s a wonder that your culture survived to be post-solar, given that they used to dominate your species.”

                Maria laughed again, more quietly this time.  “I’m sorry, Ahrrotl, I think I misunderstood you.”  Her nails moved from Ahrrotl’s ears to the back of her head and then her neck and shoulders.  Ahrrotl felt her heart pound even more quickly.  Is she aware of the effect that that’s having on me?  Her hips and shoulders began to writhe gently and sinuously and she let out a couple of experimental licks to the smooth, dark skin on the back of the hand she was nuzzling.  Maria didn’t seem to object.

                She nosed Maria’s hand, turning it over, and breathed wetly into the palm of it.  “I am pleased to find another way our cultures are similar.”  She nipped the soft flesh of the mound of Maria’s thumb and wiggled her tongue against it.  Maria gasped quietly and then started to chuckle.  “Ahrrotl, that’s…”

                Ahrrotl sensed the hesitation in her and lunged forward with the energy of a coiled spring, rocketing herself against Maria’s torso and neck and knocking her backwards onto the soft mat.  She bit the soft parts of Maria’s ear.  “When males come between us, we also bond intimately.  It reminds them of their place and us of our sisterhood.”  Her tongue dashed across Maria’s ear and neck and along the line of her jaw.

                The hand that had been giving her neck such divine scratches tightened around the loose skin there.  At first Ahrrotl thought that Maria was just being passionate, but a moment later she found herself scruffed, suspended over Maria’s supine body, with Maria both frowning and laughing simultaneously.

                “Um… no… Ahrrotl… that’s.. pfew…”  Maria put Ahrrotl on the ground and sat up, shaking her head.  Ahrrotl started to romp towards her again, but Maria held up her hand palm out.  What does she want?  Does she want to bring Algernon in?  Ahrrotl’s quiverings became even more intense at that thought.  We can share him!

                “Ahrrotl, that’s not… um… that’s not how human females resolve…” Maria let out a long, shuddering breath and laughed again.  “That’s not how we do this.”

                Ahrrotl blinked, frustrated.  “What do you mean, Maria?  Is it our posture?  Or should you be behaving in a dominant fashion, as I’ve offended you?”

                Maria threw back her head and laughed.  Nervousness and frustration reached a peak in Ahrrotl and she began to laugh as well, although she was not sure where the humor was.  Maria wiped tears from her eyes.

                “No, no, no.  Algernon and I are bonded.  We’re a pair.  We’re partners.  We don’t share each other.  Not for any reason.  It’s just how we decided to be.”

                “But …”  She was touching me!  Scratching me!  Scratching my ears!  My neck!  Ahrrotl stilled in anger and confusion.  “I thought that we should …”

                “Yes, Throttle.  You don’t have to say it.  I get it.  But no, that’s not how it works with humans.”
                “Oh.”  Ahrrotl was disappointed.  She looked down at the cold, black poly floor and wiggled her whiskers uncertainly.  She looked up.  “What do you do then?”

                “Lots of things.  There are a lot of ways to bond that don’t involve physical intimacy, you know. Talking, often over food or drinks.  Mutual … grooming.”

                “Oh.”  Ahrrotl said again.  She was at a loss for words.  I hope that I haven’t offended her further.  At least I got to touch her.  She should be much easier to be around now.

                Mother Superior’s voice rang out.  “Maria, your husband is calling for you.”

                “Tell him – oh, right.”  She looked down at Ahrottl.  “She won’t hear me.  Privacy.  Look, we’ll talk more later, okay?  No harm done, okay?”  She looked hopeful.

                “Yes.  No harm.”  Ahrrotl agreed.  No harm but a bruised pride and interrupted libido.  “I’ll head to my quarters to give you some space with Al.”

                Maria beamed.  “Thank you!  I’ll let you know when we’re done.  Maybe you can sing for us again?”

                Ahrrotl bowed.  “It would be my pleasure, Maria.”  She turned and headed towards the door. As she exited, she noted out of the corner of her eye as Maria reached up to wipe the saliva from the side of her neck and surreptitiously sniff at her fingertips before giving them an experimental taste.  Yes, you’ll be much easier to be around now.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Royce's Dilemma - Chapter 6

    Klsk stared out through the energy field blocking his exit from the cell.  His body was immobile, his hands on his knees, and his large red eyes unblinking.

                “Kalsk, you’ve got a visitor.  It’s Liddakhul, she says that she is here to speak for your pack.”  Klsk did not move.  “Are you awake?”  The human guard waved his hand in front of Klsk’s face and shrugged. 

                Ldkhl slid forward and raised a hand to get the guard’s attention.  “That won’t be necessary.  Thank you for making him aware.  Please grant us some privacy.”

                Casey Meru shrugged again and nodded, and headed back to his post.  Ldkhl waited until he was out of the room, and then reached into a pouch in her harness and adjusted a dial on a device concealed therein.  She looked up to Klsk, adjusting her posture so that they were gazing eye-to-eye.

                “I have set up interference.  Any spies would have to be physically present to hear what we have to say.  Please speak to me, Klsk, the pack wants to know what has occurred.”

                Klsk said nothing for a long time.  After a few minutes of silence he shifted his head, pulling his gaze away from hers.

                “Spies do not matter.  Bugs do not matter.  I have given my statement, and I will give the same statement to any outsider.”

                Ldkhl rocked back on her feet, falling over onto her posterior.  She stood up again, quick as lightning, glaring down at him.  “Outsider?  Klsk, how can you call me an outsider?”

                Vislin have an innate sense of who is and is not a member of their pack.  Although packs can grow and change in size, and even occasionally incorporate non-Vislin, leaving one’s pack deliberately is exceedingly rare.  Though Awakeners claim that Vislin create a low-level psychic bond with those that they consider packmates, body language, pheromones, and even tones of speech are indicative of the close connection that Vislin who share a pack have.  Klsk was displaying none of these, holding himself and even speaking as any of their pack would to a human just off a transport.

                Without moving, Klsk said in flat tones, “None who ally themselves with our slave masters are pack to me.”

                “Slave masters?  What do you mean?”

                He turned his head toward her, fixing her with his gaze, but his posture was not sympathetic.  He had leaned forwards, his long-fingered, clawed hands resting on the edge of the bunk.  “Since the days that we first learned speech and the use of tools, they have insinuated themselves into our nests and packs.  Since the early days when they first devoured the eggs of those who displeased them they have attempted to control us, to engineer us, to make us theirs.  They blackmailed us into making peace with the unthinking, violent brutes that we shared our world with.  They forced us to join this meaningless coalition and keep us under their paws, manipulating us with hypnotic tricks meant to derail our truest instincts and claiming us as a lesser species under their aegis.”

                “The Hrotata?  They have championed us, Klsk.  They helped prevent genocide that might have destroyed our world and protect us from the other species that still see us as savages, as unevolved.”  Ldkhl said, feeling confused.  How can Klsk mistake protection for slavery?  “Who has been filling your mind with this nonsense?”

                Klsk clicked dismissively.  “My mind is not filled with nonsense, Ldkhl.  It has been cleared of it.  We deserve our world, and every world that the Hrotata have claimed in the name of their ‘Great Family’.  Who developed the heating ducts that kept us awake through the Long Nights?  Who created the suits that let us walk in the dark and cold without falling into torpor?  We did, Ldkhl.  The Hrotata stole our designs, our technology, and claimed it as their own.  They claim to be raising us, preparing us to be full members of the Collective, but tell me, who created the technology that they lease out to outsiders?”

                Ldkhl scratched the side of her face and licked the tip of her beak nervously.  “Who created – and used – the bombs that poisoned our soil and air?  Who would have denied the Taratumm, slow though they might be, the right to exist?  Klsk, you must listen to me.  I helped to inscribe your first hide.  I am your elder in age and experience, and I know from the way that you speak that someone has been feeding you these thoughts.  Please, for the sake of the eggs and youth that we have cared for together, for the sanity of our pack, please tell me who is filling you with this madness?”

                Klsk moved closer to the barrier, and Ldkhl had to fight the urge to back away.  He looked her body up and down very deliberately, in the manner that one uses to size up prey.  “If you and your pack wish to know, listen to the statement that I have given.  If you and your pack ever seek freedom from your masters you will have to learn:  the Hrotata dominate our kind, Ldkhl.  In this universe, only those who dominate survive.  They will ride their Taratumm servants over the backs of our kind to dominate the Collective if we do not stop them.  They have never liked us, never appreciated us as anything but inconvenient tools, and you will see how easily they cast us aside once they have reached their goals.

                “I am not the only one whose eyes have been cleansed of their dreck.  Many young Vislin have come to understand the importance of true dominance, of true mastery.  There are others, Ldkhl, others who do wish to see us prosper, to evolve, to become masters in our own right, and yet there are Vislin like you who still wish to let our slavers eat our eggs in silence.”

                With a sinking feeling Ldkhl realized who must have been subverting Klsk.  “The Mauraug, Klsk?  Really?  I hear echoes of their mad faith in the words that you are now clinging to.  Do you really think that the Mauraug would like to see Vislin evolve?  They fear us, Klsk, and there is no sentient, sapient, and civilized species that has a more extensive record of slavery than they.  Ask the Tesetsi how they fared under Mauraug domination.  Ask them how the Mauraug treated them when they were no longer considered useful.  What would the Ancestors think of you?”

                “The Ancestors do not exist anymore, Ldkhl.  They are dead and dust.  We are alive.”

                Ldkhl snapped her beak derisively.  “You believe in Sha’bahn but not the ancestors?”

                Klsk continued to examine her body through the field.  She knew that he was trying to make her uncomfortable.  She felt that her arguments against him were strong but her voice and manner of expression were weak.  Who could blame me?  None of the pack could be prepared for this.

                “Maybe I do.  Or maybe I don’t.  Perhaps I simply realize the ultimately utilitarian nature of Mauraug philosophy.  Even if Sha’bahn does not, Himself, exist, none can disagree that the urge to dominate exists in all sentient beings.  The need to control one’s environment - and by extension, other living creatures – is the most potent urge that exists.  First we want warmth, then shelter, then food, and we change the worlds around us to meet our needs.  Then we wish to not have to concern ourselves with the rivalry of others, and we do what comes naturally – keep them under our claws, or end their lives and feed ourselves upon what they have left behind.”

                Ldkhl was on firmer ground here.  “Sentient life must cooperate to achieve such ends, Klsk.  Many disparate monocellular lifeforms came together to form our bodies, and work in tandem to feed one another.  Many of us come together to form packs, and support one another.  Many packs work together and form nations, and thus improve one another.  Many nations make up our species, Klsk, and many species work together to form our Great Family.  Our Family – and many others – join together to form the Collective, that we may work together to improve our knowledge of the universe and the rules of our reality and protect ourselves from outside aggression.  Why?  So that we may improve one another, so that we may protect one another, so that we may support one another, and finally, so that we can feed the many monocellular lifeforms that make up our bodies and allow them to propagate, as has always been the way.

                “You abandon your pack, you deny the Great Family, you spit in the face of the Collective.  You insult every sentient being that has given the time in its life to contribute to and support our society, our knowledge, and even your personal well being.  Your pack has no need for one such as you.  You, Klsk, are selfish.”  There was no greater insult among her kind, and it felt like she was pulling her very heart from her chest to pronounce it.  She deliberately turned her back on him, still feeling his hungry eyes on her flesh, and began to stride towards the exit, tail held high and twitching in indignation.

                “I know that I will not leave this station alive, Ldkhl.”  Klsk called out after her.  “I will die fighting to free our species from bondage and bring it to its proper place of dominance, while you will die a slave to furry egg-eaters.  Tell me what you think the Ancestors would think of that?”

                Ldkhl paused briefly to turn off her interference device and walked out the exit, waiting for the door to swing shut behind her before turning to the human guard at his desk.  “Security Officer Meru, please patch me in to the Chief Security Officer.”

                Casey nodded.  “Hey Maeve, could you do the honors?”

                A holographic sprite resembling a human-like figure with veined wings appeared briefly above the desk.  Is that a representation of a human Ancestor? Ldkhl wondered.  “Sure thing, boss.”  It disappeared.  A moment or two later it was replaced by another projection, this time of the Awakener Chief Security Officer Lun.

                “Liddakhul, have you had a chance to speak to your packmate?”

                Ldkhl opened her beak wide, an unconscious gesture of fear and anger.  “No I have not.  Klsk is not a member of our pack.  There are no Vislin on the Lotus that represent him or his interests.”     

           Chief Lun held still for a long moment.  “Records indicate that Kalsk integrated into the nest that you belong to several years ago.  Is he not your packmate?”

                Ldkhl closed her beak and her eyes.  The others always see us as cold and unemotional.  They cannot read our bodies or our scents.  They don’t know, and the moment we attempt to show a strong display of emotion –show what we’re really feeling – they take it as aggression.  There is nothing that I can do differently here.

                “Klsk has abandoned his pack.  He is as meat for scavengers.  If you must find someone to defend him, find a Prophet of Sha’bahn.  I speak for our pack, and that is all we have to say on this matter.”

Friday, September 13, 2013

Full-Throttle Ahrottl - Chapter 1

                “Just because the Zig can make just about anything doesn’t mean that it’s easy.  It doesn’t mean that it’s cheap.  A lot of times it’s cheaper to find base materials and haul them in.”  Algernon explained as he scratched the tip of his nose gently.  His eyes were entirely focused on the projected readouts in front of him.

                “The Oort Clouds and beyond are good places to find certain raw materials, also.  Even if you can synthesize and transmute elements it helps to have those elements in a purer form.  A lot of times the lighter elements end up on the outskirts of older systems, especially ones with gentle gravity wells like this one.  Think of a centrifuge, only nothing like one.”  Maria added.

                Ahrrotl had agreed to accompany her two human friends and their AIs on a mining expedition on the very edge of the system.  She had become bored with Lotus Station, and both Maria and Algernon had made the prospect of prospecting sound exciting.  She had no complaints about the accommodations – the ship was small and cozy, the air filled with the pheromones of other healthy mammals, and the company was pleasant enough during break or leisure time.  The human’s prudish mores still aggravated her – Maria had gotten offended when she tried to sit on Algernon’s lap – but it was better than the alternating chaos and deathly humdrum of station life.

                It was quiet, soothing, and predictable.  This small, warm, flying den had set a trajectory for the outer reaches of the system, not terribly far from Lotus Station itself but actually in the system’s Oort cloud, a region of dust and frozen asteroids that orbited at the far edge of Laeli’s gravitational tug.  She listened to her human companions jabber excitedly about chemical composition and rare elements and compounds as she groomed herself or read, and occasionally entertained them with a story or song.  She hadn’t been able to get them to dance yet, but that was unsurprising.  Humans weren’t as stiff as the Zig that they resembled, but they weren’t the most limber or expressive of creatures.

                Ahrrotl yawned and combed her tawny belly fur as she flipped over on her beanbag cushion.  She scrolled ahead in the story that she was reading on her handheld projector.  It was a human romance involving an unlikely pairing of lovers in a savage pre-solar civilization, but it was poorly paced and at this point she just wanted to read through the mating scenes and be done with it.

                A high-pitched, quiet voice broke the silence, “It looks like you were right, Mr. Algernon!  What you had me look at earlier – it is molybdenum.  A whole bunch of it, spinning ever-so-quickly around the star, just about as fast as we are.  It’s not too far away.  Can we have a look-see?  Please?  Pretty please?”

                Algernon smiled and brushed his thick black hair out of his face, revealing cobalt eyes.  “Thanks, Tommy.  Maria?”

                Maria didn’t even look up from her bank of projected readings.  “Hmmm?  I don’t know.  How far away is it?”

                A figure appeared floating above her projections.  It was small, but definitely human-shaped, wearing a black robe and a white-and-black headdress that Ahrrotl seemed to recall being indicative of some human religion.  The figure’s face was wrinkled with age and stern, its watery blue eyes huge and slightly bloodshot.  “Two light minutes and not a second more, young lady.  As much as I think that young Tommy would do well to watch his figures more closely I would like to compliment him on his analysis, he’s done a fine job.”

                “Thank you, Mother Superior.”  Tommy’s quiet voice seemed to come out of the surrounding air.

                Ahrrotl turned on her cushion and looked at Algernon upside down.  “Why don’t we ever see Tommy?”

                Algernon chuckled a little and glanced over at Mother Superior and back to Ahrrotl.  “He’s shy, Throttle.  He’s just a youngin’.”  Maria actually looked up at him long enough to give a look that Ahrrotl interpreted as suspicion.  She didn’t like his nickname for Ahrrotl any more than Ahrrotl did, but for far different reasons.  Humans are so possessive of one another.  Ahrrotl mused.  It’s a wonder that they had abandoned slavery by the time the Mauraug found them.

                Mother Superior interrupted the awkward moment.  “Shall Tommy and I plot a course?”

                Maria’s gaze still had not left Algernon’s, and Ahrrotl could tell that there was quite a bit of nonverbal communication occurring between the two, but was new enough to humans that she couldn’t interpret most of it.  Part of the reason she had agreed to go along on this trip was to gain a grasp of human expression, and she was now wishing she had chosen another venue for that exploration.

                “I don’t know, Mother.  What do you think, Gerry?”  Maria spoke slowly and pointedly.

                “Well, it’s not like it’s very far from us…”

                “Aren’t you forgetting something?  Something important?”

                Algernon frowned in puzzlement.  Maria screwed up her mouth in frustration, and spoke again in the same slow and deliberate tone.  “Gerry, we need to go back to the station soon.  We didn’t calculate the amount of food that we’d require accurately for two people and a Hrotata.  We will need to restock.”

                Algernon’s frown deepened.  “But … it’ll take us less than a day to get there, and two days to get back to Lotus.  We should still have enough supplies for a month.  We’ll be fine.”

                Maria sighed stiffly, her shoulders locked, and looked back down to her projections.  “Fine.  Whatever.  Go ahead, Mother.  Fastest route out and back.”  The projection of Mother Superior nodded curtly and vanished.

                Al smiled widely.  “Great!  We’ll just grab a couple of samples and tag it and go back for supplies.”  He looked at Ahrrotl.  “Don’t get too relaxed, Throttle, we’re just getting started!  Just wait till we get there, we can all go outside into the Big Empty together!”

                Lovely.  I’d better make sure that I’m not the last one back or Maria will cycle the lock on me.  I can just imagine it, “Sorry, Ahrottl, we only have enough air for two people.  You know, people, which does not include Hrotata.  We’ll send someone else in a couple of days to pick up your corpse!”  She stilled with anxiety, but tried to sound enthusiastic.   “Wow!  The space between the stars!  I’ve never even been in an Oort Cloud, much less outside of it.”

                “Yes.  Yippee.”  Maria said, deadpan.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Royce's Dilemma - Chapter 5

                 Ahalahtrr lit the tiny stick of incense as her body swayed in front of the altar, draped in rich, red cloth.  She trailed the incense about the projected image of Httraku, Goddess of the Wealth That Comes of Unusual Circumstance, and also around Ahraktta, the Leaping Lord of Lascivious Licentiousness.  The first pass of the incense was a petition, begging for aid in finding a better source of income in this remote corner of space.  The second pass was as an apology, as Ahalatrr did not feel that she had been paying close enough attention to her patron.  It was hard to live her devotion to him on an underpopulated station filled with prudish and occasionally hostile aliens.

                The holographic icons wiggled and shifted their whiskers in pleasure as she passed the incense in front of them, and Ahraktta winked.  Though she knew that they were programmed to do so, she found it comforting.  She carefully put the incense out (life on a station required that one carefully control combustion) and writhed against the front of the altar for a moment, trying to work up enthusiasm for her day in some form, and failing to even arouse herself.  She sighed and dropped to the cushion before the altar, curling up head-to-tail.

                “I can’t care about this place, Lord Ahraktta.  I can’t care about these people.  I’ve tried… I’ve tried so hard.  This dull, quiet job, these rigid Zig, angry Mauraug and stick-in-the-mud humans… My Lord, I fear that I won’t be able to pursue my devotion to you properly here.  Perhaps I will need to pray to one of the human gods instead, or abandon my faith entirely.  No one wants licentiousness, warmth, and comfort but the other Hrotata, and they already know of your glory.  They already know the release that you grant.  It’s the heathens that need to understand, my Lord, and I don’t even know where to begin with them.”

                She threw herself on her back in a dramatic pose of surrender, shivered, and went still.  Being the mobile creatures that they are, a Hrotata holding still was either very ill, in the throes of despondency, or dead.  Her immobile histrionics served to underscore the weight of her plight.  “Give me something to work with, Lord Ahraktta.  Give me a direction, please…”

                Her prayer was interrupted by a beep at the door.  Her head, hanging off of the pillow backwards and at an angle, perked up and all of a sudden she was all motion.  She pulled herself into a sitting position, licked at a few persistent ruffles in her fur, removed the ash of the incense from the altar, and moved to face the door, her back to the altar, swaying slowly and sensually in mock serenity.  How do the humans say it?  Fake it till you make it.  An admirable sentiment.

                “Come in.”  She called out in a singsong tone.  The door opened quietly, and in the doorway stood a very disheveled looking Hrotata.  He has not come to her before, but she had seen him around the usual gathering spots.  He was dressed in a security guard’s uniform, his fur was standing up in places, and his huge eyes were half-lidded.  This in combination with the slow roll of his hips and shoulders showed exhaustion and deep concern.

                “Please be comfortable…”  She couldn’t remember his name.


                “Please be comfortable, Hrrrkil.  None observe us here but each other and the Gods.  Do come inside, and share my seating.”  She gestured magnanimously at an open spot on the large, soft cushion.

                Hrrrkil seemed to pause at the door, and looked back and forth in the hallway behind, then dove forward, landing on all fours, and scampered over to the cushion.  The door slid shut behind him.  He paused before climbing on the cushion, shivering slightly, apologetically.  “I am not a believer.”

                Ahalahtrr smiled and her swaying grew a bit more pronounced, welcoming.  “You don’t need to believe in the Gods to benefit from the services that their followers grant, Hrrrkil.  My oaths apply to any who come and seek my aid, not just those who agree with me.  Lie on your belly that I may help you to relax as you speak.”  She made a gesture, and the lights dimmed and music began to play, a music as thick as oil, as sweet as honey, punctuated by percussive trills reminiscent of a whispering lover.

                Hrrrkil took a deep breath and dove forward onto the cushion, burying his face in the velvet close to her base.  Odd that he isn’t touching me.  He’s spent too long among Zig and Mauraug.  We must correct this.  She bent over his prone form and began to gently nuzzle the back of his neck and his shoulder areas, tongue out slightly and combing his fur with it and the tips of her claws.

                “What burdens you, Hrrrkil?  What knots your fur so?”

                At her insistent grooming he started to relax, his tight, almost mechanical wiggle beginning to loosen up into a more natural and fluid movement.  “Dark times have come upon me, priestess.  Upon all of us.”

                You don’t know the half of it.  Ahalatrr mused to herself.  She continued to groom him, occasionally digging deep to work to unknot his muscles as well as his fur.  He would keep speaking, this one.  She knew the type.  Males who, like most males of her kind, preferred being on the front lines of action rather than involved in the women’s duties of governing, who nonetheless saw themselves as maligned and put-upon by the stress of their position.  Their self-importance and the pride that they took in their “work” (which, as far as she was concerned, generally involved romping about and posturing aggressively) was almost cute.  Try being a devotee or running a den for a month.  Then you’ll really know what stress is. Most males didn’t have the attention span or the emotional self-control for that sort of work.

                As she continued to massage, he started to speak again.  “It’s the Mauraug, of course.  One was murdered, its companion is missing, and they both have ties to the Apostacy.  Meanwhile, there is word of Vislin going rogue, aligning with Sha...” he cut himself off before uttering the name of a distasteful deity in her presence.  “… with the standard faith of the Mauraug.  I’m sure you've heard the rumors.”

                She hadn’t heard any such rumors.  “Of course, Hrrrkil.”  She said, taking time to nibble on his ears, combing the fur into place with her teeth and stimulating blood flow.  “Giving voice to your worries can help you to relax, though.  Take your concerns, make an image of them, and expel it from your mouth as you speak.  I will help to replace it with joy and contentment.”

                She could feel the tension mounting in him again.  Yes, yes, I know.  A life full of play and strutting can be so exhausting!  She chided herself for such uncharitable thoughts, knowing that they would help neither of them, and made her massage more gentle, trying to coax him.

                “Why do we support them, priestess?  Why do we allow the Mauraug of the Dominion into our numbers but shun the Apostates?  Fear of the Dominion is why the Collective formed in the first place.  Then hundreds of years later, we take them in, have to work with them and act as though it’s all right.  Meanwhile, we deny aid to the Apostacy.  The Apostates don’t want anything but to be left alone by the Dominion – the same reasons that our ancestors brokered the treaty with the Zig and the Tesetsi.  Yet we treat the Dominion as an ally and the Apostates as foes…” He tensed and froze for a moment, an angry denial.  “It’s wrong.  I can’t see how it could be anything but wrong.  The Mauraug hate us, they hate our freedom, our ability to express ourselves, even your faith, priestess.  The Apostates want all of those things, and yet we treat them as terrorists and traitors.”

                Which is why it is best for males to keep out of politics.  Sadly, the Covenant has more – and bigger – weapons.  Ahalatrr nipped the back of his neck sharply as she climbed up on his body, straddling his back.  “Sweet Hrrrkil, the Den Mothers know what they are doing.  Their wisdom has guided the Great Family to the stars, always in safety.  The Mauraug may be disagreeable, but with them as allies rather than enemies, we can change them gently.  Cease your worries – you know that stress can damage your fur, but were you aware that it can add fat to your belly?”  She tickled his sides gently and then stroked both of his upper shoulders for emphasis and was rewarded with a shudder of relaxation.

                The door beeped again.  Hrrrkil grumbled in displeasure beneath her, and she tapped him on the head.  “Quiet, little one.”  She called out, “Who is it?”

                “Detective Ushkar Bash’Torkal.  May I speak to Sergeant Hrrrkil?”

                Ahalatrr wrinkled her nose in frustration and was about to dismiss the detective when Hrrrkil lifted his head and called out, “Come in!”  He turned his eyes up to meet hers.  “It’s important.”

                Ahalatrr kept him firmly locked down between her knees as the door slid open.  She was not going to let him go, no matter how “important” he thought his business was.  When their guest left she would need to remind him of his place - physically.  It was often helpful to do so with males when they refused to relax.

                The door slid open, and in the frame stood a Mauraug.  Its black jumpsuit was trimmed with the greenish-blue color of Security.  Its fur was white as snow, as a star, and the skin beneath, where she could see it around its face and the palms of its hands, was a glossy, smooth black as though the void of space had produced a reflection.  Not just a Mauraug, but a pureblood!  She had heard that there was a pureblood Mauraug, one of the rare ones whose genes had not been damaged by the hideous plague of their past, on the station, but had not yet seen it.  Its longish fur looked very soft, and she had to fight the urge to climb up off of Hrrrkil to stroke it.

                It did something that she never would have expected.  Its legs bent, its knees touching the ground, and it opened the palms of its simian hands wide and spread them on the floor in front of it.  It closed its eyes and bowed its head.

                Ahalatrr had seen this gesture before - a gesture that Mauraug make to superiors, especially to their priests – but had never seen it directed to a member of any other species.  She forced herself to sway gently atop Hrrrkil atop the cushion, but the surprise must have been evident in her features when Ushkar looked up.

                “In this place you Dominate, priestess.  Here I am Ushah’bna to you.  Are my interruptions truly welcome?”

                She felt Hrrrkil begin to respond from beneath her, and she surreptitiously dug her lower claws into his flank.  He let out a small gasp which she quickly spoke over.  “Hrrrkil is engaged in serious devotions at the moment.  If you would enter, you must join us on the cushion, though you need not give obeisance to our Gods.”

                Ushkar paused to absorb this, and she felt the short, sharp twitches representing confusion from Hrrrkil.  “Please ask him if he would contact me when he is free.  I mean no disrespect to your rites.”

                Ahalatrr sensed that he was being genuine, which confused her more.  Since when does a Mauraug – a pureblood at that – not take the opportunity to disrespect any belief not their own?  She decided to salvage the situation as well as she could, and with decorum.  “I will inform him of your need once he is free, Ushkar Bash’Torkal.”

                “Then I will depart, with thanks.”  It rose to a fully bipedal position, steadying itself on the doorframe.

                “My thanks to you for your respect, Ushkar.  It would delight me to have you return when you can, at a time when your duties and mine are less pressing.”  She had to get a chance to touch that fur.

                Ushkar laughed softly before touching the floor again and withdrawing.  “Perhaps I may.”  His tone changed, pitch raising and becoming more formal.  “Many a master is served/during the time from sleep to sleep/though dreams erode our pride/true service brings us strength.  May you find strength in your service, priestess.”  He stepped back and the door slid shut, leaving Ahalatrr more than a little flabbergasted.

                She had almost forgotten about Hrrrkil lying beneath her when he whined, “I thought I told you that it was important.”

                Ahalatrr smiled, dreaming of soft white fur and glossy, smooth black skin.  Dreaming of a Mauraug that would bow to her, that would come unashamed to her altar.  Something snapped inside her and she grabbed both of his shoulders and pushed him down into the cushion.  “It is not your place to decide what occurs in the temple, little one.  You are lucky that your friend was so polite – you have already earned pain for your presumptions.  Mother dominates you here, not your metal-speckled playmate.”  She continued to push him down into the cushion, her claws digging deeper now, and she nipped viciously at the base of his neck.  Sometimes males can relax on their own, but sometimes they need to be reminded who is in charge.  It is time to crack this shell and taste the sweet meat underneath.  She turned all of her outward focus to her supplicant, but memories of feather-soft fur and powerful shoulders invaded her thoughts well past the conclusion of their benediction.