Book 1 Chapter 2
Eight days from first contact, I was feeling better about our mission. While it was not as quick and easy as my original contact assignment with the Lynx', it appeared this would be another success. The humans did not appear to hold any ill feelings about the transfer of Marie's self into my clone, and seemed even more enthusiastic about the plan. The big male, Dave made me nervous at times, and it seemed that he was not telling everything, even though he was even more eager to go into space than Marie.
Marie, on the other paw, was amazing. Every time I saw her, I thought I had stepped out of my own body. The telepathy was not perfect, but by concentrating, one of us could pass a simple thought to the other. Frequently, she would be able to finish a sentence I had begun. As we spoke, it seemed like I was having a conversation with a long-lost twin sister. An older sister, because she spoke from the perspective of one who had much more life experienced than myself. She was apparently not well educated, compared to myself or her husband, and not well read. But she had a directness and common sense.
Our mental linkage worked entirely too well with emotions, and since she and Dave were going at it like the proverbial minks, I spent a lot of time biting my nails, humming or thinking about cold showers. And like any long-married older sister, she was determined to pair me off with the nearest eligible male, namely Mitzep. As we boarded the shuttle, she steered herself and her mate into the cargo seats along the back wall, leaving me no choice but the seat next to our pilot. During the liftoff, while the shuttle accelerated, we were of course firmly pinned to our seats, but once we achieved orbit, it seemed that he had more buttons to press on my console than on his.
Our rendezvous with the main ship would take place at the apogee of an eccentric elliptical orbit, so he was very busy flying the ship in order to establish the correct course for about the first 45 minutes, then we had a three hour coast to our pickup point. As we settled into the flight, it became clear that the ship needed much better air scrubbers. Marie and I were still filling the air with pheromones, which were driving everyone aboard to distraction, and Dave, equipped with no appreciable sense of smell, yet whose own human sweat was amazingly pungent, commented on it.
"We really could use an air freshener in this place. Even Hobo's about to start howling."
"You're no Irish Spring Ad yourself, bucko, and our noses work twenty times better than yours," muttered Marie.
"I have just the thing. Been saving it for just this moment." He reached into his jacket pocket, and pulled out a little green paper Christmas tree wrapped in clear plastic, which he hung from a knob above the viewscreen.
Marie said, "Don't you dare open that cellophane." She turned to me. "Those things smell terrible." He laughed, and hummed some unrecognizable tune. "He's hopeless. That must be another of his movie jokes. I've heard that music before."
Dave said cryptically, "Life of a Repo Man is always intense."
As we reached apogee, the communications panel let out a squeal, as our ship's navigation system linked with the mother ship. Once it achieved a steady tone, a voice followed. "We have you, Mitzep. Stand by for lock-on."
"Confirmed, Captain," replied the pilot. He switched his primary display screen from navigation to docking. He turned on the station keeping lights for the first time. We could see three similar tiny lights appear through the viewscreen, strobing several kilometers away. "Grab anything loose, there might be a jerk as they pull us in."
The lights rapidly grew larger, and soon the dark outline of the ship could be seen. With an audible clang, the shuttle contacted the docking arm and was pulled into a recess in the mother ship's hull. After several more seconds, Mitzep said into his microphone, "I have a green board. Shuttle power off, docking complete." He released his straps and turned to our passengers. "Let's get out, folks." I was in the seat nearest the door, and cycled the hatch. The short transfer tube into the main hull was lit by a dim yellow light. I climbed in, and as I approached the inner door, it began to cycle open. In the bright lights inside, I could see the Lossp the navigator and Doctor Plaksa.
"Chessec, welcome back!", said Lossp. I stood up on the deck beside them, and helped the rest of the passengers out of the shuttle. The ship's gravity was about half normal, just sufficient to allow normal motion. Normal for everyone except Hobo, apparently. He had been afraid while we were in free fall, and he did not like this too much either. He walked as if on ice, tail and ears low, and stayed near the side wall of the passageway. The Doctor noted this, "Poor thing. Must not like low gravity."
"You should see him in an elevator," replied Marie. "He hates them, but he knows he has too stand in them to go anywhere."
"Why don't we put him in your cabin before we go meet the Captain." The Doctor and Marie started forward along the longitudinal corridor, and the rest of us followed, carrying our cargo from the shuttle. The cabins were along the first ring passageway between the forward control spaces, such as the bridge, and the larger common area, galley and laboratory. She said, "Why doesn't everyone freshen up in your rooms, and we'll meet in the common area in fifteen minutes."
When I entered the common area, the Captain was the only person present. She motioned me down onto the cushion next to her, and ruffled my left ear with her fingers. "Chessec, I'm glad you are back safe. I worry when you are on the surface alone." As always, I was embarrassed by her display of affection, but still happy to see her. Since my own family had been wiped out during the jaguars' orbital bombardment, she had treated me as her own kit, even offered to adopt me into her own family.
"Plaksa tells me the clone transfer looks as it worked successfully. What do you think?"
"You will see. Marie seems both healthy and stable in her new skin. There have been some side effects, but I'll tell you later."
"What about the animal?" She had not seen Hobo. "I heard he attacked you. Is he fierce?, dangerous?"
"Like a wolf when his family is threatened, but he plays like a kit when among friends. It is most curious." The others began to file in, and we halted our conversation.
She motioned everyone down into the circle of cushions, and began, "Welcome, human people of earth. I am Amkro, the Captain of this ship. We will be eleven days aboard together, and as this is a small ship with a small crew, I hope you will assist with those essential tasks which are needed aboard ship. Chopka, my second officer, is on the bridge. You have met everyone else already, so I will make no further introductions. I know the science staff has questions and tests that they wish run, but remember: These two are our guests, and as such are under my protection. Let us avoid another accident such as the one which cost Marie her original body. Be careful." She looked directly at Doctor Plaksa and myself. "Now, who would like to speak?"
The next hour was an opportunity for the crew who had not been to the surface to meet our guests, and for Marie and Dave to meet them. We spoke in English for their benefit. The Captain stopped any discussion which strayed from general interest topics, and once the conversation was underway, she went to allow Chopka to leave the bridge. He was a very large, mature male, a fitness fanatic, and weighed 125 pounds. At the start of the cruise, he had made clear his desire for me, as well as every other female on board. He was a gentleman though, and did not press once I refused him. In my present nervous state, I caught myself wondering if he might reconsider.
It was amusing to see Chopka inflate his chest and stand tall as he greeted Dave. While I intellectually knew that the average human was much larger than the average Diyim'yi, it was startling to see how much bigger still Dave was. I made a mental note not to tell him that the human at six feet was only of average height.
We talked until mealtime. Without a ship's cook, the crew rotated the task, and tonight was Plaksa's turn. She had made a stew, and it was adequate, but not spectacular. Dave asked to bring in Hobo to feed him, and I saw curiosity on the faces of the crew as they saw him for the first time. He had calmed down and adjusted to the gravity, and was plainly eager to be reunited with Dave. His tail wagged, and he whined while Dave set a bowl of stew in front of him. We had discussed bringing his special food, and decided the weight penalty meant that Hobo would have to eat the same foods as the rest of us. I was surprised at the percentage of vegetables in his normal diet. I had assumed that they fed him meat exclusively.
Hobo ate rapidly, uneasy to have so much attention. I think he still thought of us as rival dogs on occasions like this, although after a week of contact with Marie and myself, he would not automatically bark or growl unless startled. I was glad he had adjusted, as at 50 pounds he was a bit large for some of the smaller crew members' comfort.
After our meal, Chopka explained the ships schedule, and we planned tomorrow's activities. Plaksa wanted Dave for a complete physical, and Marie for a brief checkup to see how her new body was performing. Afterwards, Marie would help me with my written mission report, while Dave and Mitzep would help Chopka with ship's maintenance. Mitzep and I were placed back into the cooking rotation, and the humans would join it once they had tasted a few of our meals and seen our recipes. I did not mention that Marie was an expert cook, looking forward to the crew's surprise. After that, the meeting broke up. Those of us who had been on the planet had put in a very long day, while the ship crew were on shifts. I decided that Mitzep needed cheering up, so I stayed in the common area and socialized with him for another hour before going to my cabin.
Here we were, on an alien starship leaving the solar system. I got a big, stupid grin every time I thought about it. After the meeting, supper, and social with the crew, Marie and I went to our cabin. It was not large, but comfortable, divided into a small sleeping alcove and a main room with a couple of chairs. It was better than the room we had on our last cruise, anyway. A small wash room was connected with ours, and shared in common with the adjoining cabin. Lossp the navigator had explained that was his, but he was on "night shift" for three more days, and that we would only see him briefly in the morning, if at all.
We were both tired after the long day, and after unpacking a few of our clothes, we went to bed. Hobo was already asleep in the front room. At half gravity, the bed felt like a soft down mattress. Marie began, "I like these people. I just wanted to let you know that everything is fine with me. Even if you aren't strong and muscular like that Chopka fellow." She snorted. "Chessec thinks he's a real hunk. Did you see him posture alongside you. I expected him to try to squeeze your hand in an iron handshake, or some similar show of strength."
"They apparently don't have that custom. At least they don't sniff a newcomers' tail."
"That's what you think, dear. We Diyim'yi apparently pass a lot more signals by smell than you can detect. Even I could smell his challenge to you. Which your armpits more than answered. You had better take Hobo for a walk before we fall asleep."
I got up and took Hobo down the hall. I had arranged to walk Hobo in one of the compartments near the shuttle docking port. Eventually, I would have to modify his housebroken skills, but for now I would clean up after him. We went back to the cabin. Marie had the lights out. We held each other for a while, then made love with exhausting intensity. While her Diyim'yi body was pound-for-pound stronger and quicker than my own out-of-shape self, I had strength, and, it appeared, endurance. Afterwards, I said, "Wow. What caused that reaction?"
"I just wanted you to remember the primary duty of the alpha-male. And I'm just wild about you hairless apes." She was lying on my chest, panting, and I was sprawled across the bed. "Just a little incentive for you to start your exercise program again."
"OH, Yes, Sheera, bitch-goddess of the wilderness!," I chanted theatrically. "Can I sleep before I have to service the rest of the pack?" She stuck her tongue in my ear, giving me a wet-willy. I grabbed her tail and bottled the hair on it. She pounced, then grabbed my sides with her claws (again), and lightly placed her open mouth and sharp teeth against my throat. I caught her ear in my teeth, and wrapped my arms and legs completely around her. We stayed that way for a while, then both relaxed into each other. "I love you," One of us said, perhaps both together. We both laid there in the dark, and finally slept.
We awoke to the sound of Lossp getting off shift, using the shower in the bathroom. Once he was finished, we cleaned up, I shaved, and got dressed. The ship was climate controlled, of course, so I put on shorts and a T-shirt. Marie wore her vest and shorts again. We went down to breakfast (all instant stuff) and then on to Plaksa's office adjacent to the laboratory. She was looking at the lab work-up she had previously done on Marie's human body when we came in. "Welcome, both of you. I think I want Dave to stick around this morning for a thorough check up, while I'll just give you a quick once over." She directed us to two different examination tables, told us to take our clothes off and went over to see Marie. She did the classic "feel the pulse, tap the joints, check the eyes" once over on her, then said. "That's it. You look like a twenty year old, which is of course what you are, now. Disgustingly healthy! Off you go." Marie went to find Chessec.
"Now for the fun part. I didn't get to examine you last time, because of the accident. I want to take some body fluids, do some breathing and heart rate tests, fun stuff like that. Then we put in the mind control implants. I promise it won't hurt more than most alien abductions." I stared at her. She continued, "Come on, that was my best joke. We have been sitting up here watching nothing but bad earth television for six months."
"OK. Which end does the implant go in?" I laughed, and she followed suit. By lunch time, I was not laughing. I had been poked, prodded, scanned, and had sensors placed in all my orifices.
She called a truce, then said. "That's all for now. I want to repeat that in a year, to see what changes have taken place. You've been my most patient patient."
"Yes, Doctor Frankenstein."
After lunch (fruit and granola) I found Chopka and Mitzep back in engineering. They had the access panel off one of three of what looked suspiciously like old DEC-10 mini-computers.
"What's going on," I said.
Mitzep looked up. "Hi Dave. We got an overheat warning from the backup engine controller here. Looks fine to me."
"What should it be doing?"
He said with disgust, "Nothing. It's solid state electronics. It ought to be, you know, solid." I smiled, but must still have looked puzzled.
Chopka elaborated. "As Chessec told you, we didn't build this ship ourselves. We got it in good working order from another race, but without any instruction manual. Back home, we're just getting a good grip on vacuum tubes. We haven't got a clue what this thing is supposed to do. For that matter, you humans are supposed to be more advanced than us in electrical devices. Feel free to take a look."
I walked up to the open case, and asked, "Is the power off to this thing?" Mitzep said yes, and showed me a big knife switch on the nearby wall. It was labeled in a script that looked like Korean. "Here goes nothing." I grounded myself to the case with one hand and looked inside. It was worse than I feared. I wished it could have been that old DEC from my high school days, but it was even more primitive. Old ferrite core memory. Rack after rack of phenol printed circuit cards with easily recognizable transistor-scale components surrounding a single half-inch square chip with fewer than twenty leads coming out of it. The case was vented on two sides with a large, dust and hair encrusted cooling fan on the back. I suspected my laptop, no maybe my digital wristwatch, could replace this machine. I said, "I hope it's just dirt. Give me something to clean the fan motor, and we'll try it again."
I don't know if that was it, but after we cleaned out the case, fan and vents, Chopka booted it up and ran the diagnostic (hit the ON, then the CHECK button) and it worked. Or at least the little lights blinked. They were impressed, and asked me to look at all the "controllers" on the ship. I remarked, "I predict you folks are going to make Bill Gates even more obscenely rich." Whiz…right over their heads.
It was late-afternoon when we quit for the day, and Mitzep went off to begin preparing supper. Chopka and I talked for a while in the engineering office. He was the ship's second officer, which made him the entire engineering department as well. He explained that they had the technology to build all the ship's components except the computers and engines, and that one of the reasons they had contacted earth was our advanced electronics industry. I agreed that we were probably ahead of what I had seen so far, but that I was not an expert. "I'm just an old soldier, who discovered that it's easier to teach people how to fight, than to actually do it."
He agreed. He had been a guerrilla fighter during their recent war with the Jaguars, and joined the exploration corps as part of a post-war retraining program for soldiers with no civilian skills. "I knew nothing when I came on board. Amkro made me study books till my head hurt, than drilled me for hours after that." He paused. "That's when I started my physical fitness training. All that using my head was making my body soft." He thought. "With that, let's get out of here for the day. Would you like to join me in the gym for a workout?"
I knew that he was still trying to maintain his self image as the strongest fox on board, and I decided to just get it over with, figuring he would impress me with a few free weights. I agreed, and we went back to the gym. It was an empty cargo hold that had been equipped with some mats and spring-tension exercise equipment. There were various pieces of padding and what looked like karate gloves for Diyim'yi hands. Chopka started, "I am not a beast. I do not want to just attack you. But I must know, for myself, just how strong your kind are."
"I know what you want, Chopka. I will tell you that I am not a fighter, but I understand your feeling. It will not make me respect you any less."
"I knew that as a soldier you would understand. Let us find some padding that will fit you."
We stripped down, and I fashioned a cup, protection for my ears, and put the largest of the karate gloves on both my hands and feet. He donned protection for his sheath, four gloves, and picked up what was obviously a mouth protector. "Again, I thank you for this opportunity, Dave." He bit down on the protector.
We went out into the center of the mats and crouched facing each other. I will state here for the record that I am perhaps the worst martial arts practitioner ever known. I have killed before, using the most lethal weapon known to man: the radio. But here I was in the ring with what was basically a big dog, who I knew was in better shape than I was, and was probably a triple black belt, or some such. Yet I did it anyway.
As I was deciding what to do, he leaped. I think he hoped to take the fight out of me by knocking me off my feet. Instead, I stepped to one side, and grabbed a hind leg as he sailed by. I pulled, causing him to slam to the floor. He broke loose of my grip and stood on his hind legs. He swept a forepaw in a wide roundhouse against my head. I shook my head, but he didn't really have enough mass or upper arm strength to box. I closed in and delivered two short punches against his chest. It lifted him slightly off the mat, and I knew his weakness.
I just absorbed his swings, then uppercut to his jaw, stunning him. I heard his teeth snap together even through the protector. While he was reeling from this, I kicked down hard on his instep. As thin as his leg bones were, if I had been wearing shoes, I'd have crippled him. As it was, he fell, heavily. I dove to the mat on top of him, forgetting that I have never won a wrestling match in my entire life. He spun out from under me, and grabbed my arm, trying for a half nelson. I could see his muscles knotting up under the strain, and I how this match would end. I flexed my shoulder forward, and then demonstrated decisively that a few millennia of tree climbing does more to improve upper body strength than a few generations of TV watching can undo. Against his full strength, I pulled my arm back in front of me. I grabbed both his forearms in one hand, and lifted with my other arm around his rump. Getting both my feet under me, I kneeled, then stood, pressing my own weight and his to my feet, then stood to my full height, and squeezed him to my chest.
"Enough." I panted. His eyes looked wild for a split second, then he nodded. I lowered him to his feet, then sat down on the mat in front of him. He sat facing me, and took out his mouthpiece.
"My teeth could have reached your throat," he said slowly.
"They did not matter. You had them padded. It is the actual fight, not the theoretical one which you must win." I felt sure I was quoting David Carradine as Kung Fu.
He agreed. "I see what you mean, I had no idea that your kind had the strength in your limbs that you do.
"Are you satisfied?" I cocked my head back, looking him straight in the eyes.
"Good." I got up, then helped him up. As I shed the padding, I had an idea. I walked over to something resembling a bench press machine. "How much do you lift with this?" I asked. He indicated a setting. I set it there, then moved the dial twice as far. I got in position, then pressed. I estimated it at only about 100 pounds, so I did ten slow reps. I got up from the machine. His eyes were wide. "We are designed for different purposes. You are made to run fast. You were given teeth and claws. I was made to climb and to throw."
As we showered, I showed him the growing collection of claw marks on my back and ribs from Marie, and agreed that it would easily hurt my thinner skin if teeth and claws were used. He seemed embarrassed when he realized what the positions of some of those marks meant. Noticing this response, I mentioned that she was the stronger member of our family, and preferred to shred the ears of those who displeased her.
We dressed and went forward to the common area before supper. Mitzep had prepared a giant omelet of some sort.
MEN! Stupid Macho Men! Even without the bruises, cuts and limping, It was obvious from the smug grins on both of their faces that Dave and Chopka had had their fight. Dave's was the widest, so I guess he won. Chopka still had his tail high, so I assumed Dave had not tried to humiliate him. I ducked out the opposite door of the common area and went to see Amkro on the bridge. She was looking at a security monitor when I came in. She said, "Want to see the replay? Not a pretty sight."
"Amkro, I…" I began.
She said, "Don't worry. I would have stopped them if they had lost control. They were both gentlemen. And now that it's over with they'll be friends."
"But it was so out of character. Dave has never acted so aggressively, or overtly displayed physical strength. He hasn't fought anyone, or even raised his voice since we were married. I don't understand why he did it."
"Marie, I think you underestimate how calculated what he just did was. It surprised me. I would have expected a response like that from another Diyim'yi male, one who had been raised in our culture. It was inevitable that Chopka would challenge another large male, just for form's sake. But still amazing to see it from a human, since I know ritual challenge is not your custom. He must have studied the behavior in the fox-analog species on your world before you left."
She motioned me to sit on the cushion beside her. "Let me tell you about our customs. Although we are a modern, city dwelling, civilized people, I think we are much closer to our animal instincts than humans. Since you have become a member of our species, I need to give you some important survival tips, ones that Chessec knows instinctively are important, but refuses to admit to herself, and so probably did not tell you before you left earth." Over the next twenty minutes, she described their social structure and mating habits, with brutal, candid honesty.
On the surface, the culture was male dominated, with the most powerful males leading families, governments and other organizations. Physical strength was still the determining factor among lower class families, but among the ruling class, power was increasingly defined in the same ways as on earth: money and influence, combined with handsome appearance and forceful personality. Organizations, companies and governments were controlled by family connections among the elite. Families were polygynous and extended, a powerful male could have several wives. Sons left their parents to marry into their wife's family. Daughters either remained within the family, or left to become a subordinate wife in another family, with limited rights. Only an extremely strong-willed and resourceful young man and woman might start a new family. Women had power through position within the family, and in the form of alliances sealed by intermarriage of sons and daughters.
She said. "I tell you this, because both yourself and Chessec are both old enough that you must commit to a family. Society will not allow her to remain independent for very much longer, and she must decide. I know that you are married to Dave. You need to know what strangers might think of the two of you, however."
"If Dave is seen as weak or ineffective, another male might legally challenge him for you. The combat could take the form of a physical challenge, such as gave Chopka today, or by trying to ruin your family economically or socially. With just the two of you alone, there is great risk of that." She looked straight at me.
"While I do not know you well enough yet to know how you will take this advice, I feel it is my duty, as Captain of this ship, for the success of our mission, and for the future relations between our two races. Be strong and independent. Show strangers by your actions and words that you are not interested in them as mates. But if your family is attacked by a challenger of such strength that you are in danger of being destroyed, or your mate killed, you need to seek to marry into a more powerful family. Approach the first wife, ask her to marry him to one of her daughters. You must be aware of the risks."
"Finally, let me tell you about Chessec. I wish her well. I have tried to adopt her as my own daughter, but she wishes to find a strong husband to begin her own family. I am afraid she will not meet a suitable mate in her chosen career. Unfortunately, Mitzep is my youngest sister's son and he will be married out of our family. He is a dear, but he is not strong enough to form an independent family with her. And I think they both know it, subconsciously. They are my personal challenge, which is why I keep them in my crew."
"Are you the first wife of your family? You seem confident and self assured."
"No. I am the oldest surviving daughter of the first wife. My husband may become family head if my father dies before he becomes too old to challenge the other husbands. I am somewhat in exile in space to prevent him from succeeding my father too soon."
She stopped. "I think it is time to eat. Please discuss this with your mate, but do not speak of it to anyone else. By the laws of our culture, this conversation cannot have taken place." She called Chopka on the intercom, and told him to relieve her on the bridge. She thought, then said. "Chopka thinks he is strong enough to found a family. I know he does not have the will, but dare not say it in public. He must discover that himself. Do not worry. Now that he has backed down, he will not challenge Dave again."
At supper, I watched the group around the table with a different perspective. I could clearly see now that there was a pecking order that was not based on rank, as I had first assumed, but on family connection. Plaksa and Lossp, as outsiders, both deferred to the Captain on ship's business, but were outspoken in other discussions. Mitzep behaved as the youngest child always will, performing for attention. I now saw more clearly why Chessec, although she clearly adored the Captain, remained aloof. Amkro, looking up, saw me sitting back and observing, and gave me a quick wink.
After we ate, I had Lossp give me instruction on using the ship's library, and I then I went back to the cabin and turned on our room's terminal and did some research. Dave and I had begun studying their language at home from tapes as soon as Mitzep brought them down on the shuttle. After the first week, he was barely into pronunciation, and beginning the Diyim'yi equivalent of "See Spot run." My connection to Chessec meant that whenever I was stumped for a word, I thought about it and read the mental image in her mind. I flipped ahead in the tutorial, and picked words at random in picture captions that looked interesting. I keyed the words into the data pad, and watched scenes from Diyim'yi for over an hour. For the first time, I truly worried about how we would fit into our future home.
Dave came in and, seeing I was occupied, he took Hobo out for a run around the length of the ship's passageways. They both returned half an hour later, sweating. "Well, I've had enough of workouts for one day," he said between breaths. "Let me tell you about it."
"I know more than you think," I said. "I was very upset when you first came back from your fight, but I think I understand, finally. I wish you had told me your plan."
Dave looked at me, and began, "I'm glad you know I had a plan. No, you are right. I thought that Chopka's behavior was pretty close to what I had studied about wolf pack behavior, tried that approach. I should have shared with you first. I'm sorry."
"We're not wolves. It could have been more serious than you think." I told him about my conversation with Amkro. "He didn't want to establish his place in the pecking order with you, but his place in line for me."
Dave looked thoughtful. He started to throw out a quip, but closed his mouth instead. "If I had known that, I'd have pressed 200 pounds." I looked blank, and he explained about the second part of his challenge. "I'm serious. You say you've never seen me angry enough to fight. You've just never seen anything I've felt strongly enough to fight about. I took his challenge, because I thought I could beat him: Primarily because I outweighed him 2:1, and secondarily because his challenge was not life or death to him." He held up his hand. "I'm a human. This is my most effective weapon not as a fist, but because of what it can make or grasp. There were too many stick and rock-sized things in that room to ever lose a serious fight."
I held his hand in my paw. "Amkro just made me realize that these people really are aliens, not just humans in a fur suit, like me."
"We'll have to live in their culture, so we need to know and understand them. That's our real challenge."
"I know. Where do you see us fitting in?"
"We are unique, and therefore outside the full weight of the rules. Because of our position as intermediates between man and Diyim'yi, we potentially have great power. I think we can play that to our advantage."
We got undressed and went to bed. Dave was a mass of bruises, and dropped quickly off to sleep. I stared at the ceiling for some time before I slept.
Midway through my watch on the bridge, Dave scratched on the door and asked if he could visit. Since there is absolutely nothing for a navigator to do in deep space, I was glad of the company. He briefly tried his giant frame on one of the molded chairs, then stood up hurriedly as it groaned in dismay. He settled for a cushion on the floor.
"I think I had more room on the shuttle. What's your ship called, anyway?" He leaned his back against the wall, straightening his legs out in front of himself and crossing his arms behind his head (an uncomfortable looking position.)
"We don't give names to inanimate objects, only people. That confused us when we were listening to your radio broadcasts. All these references to 'she' by fishermen who were obviously at sea alone." Per the Captain's instructions we were both first trying to speak in our language, then repeating in English. My grasp of his language was pretty good after two years of listening to recordings of radio and television broadcasts. His own speech in our tongue was halting and uncertain, but improving rapidly.
"Where do you think mermaids came from? You stay at sea long enough and you'd give a girl's name to a duffel bag. And don't believe that old manatee story PBS is spreading." I had seen the documentary in question on a human TV program, so I laughed.
"We have less than fifty ships with interstellar capability. We just numbered them."
"That brings up a question I've been meaning to ask. Your ship doesn't look like it was built for someone your shape. What about these Jaguars Chessec mentioned, anyway?"
I considered before answering. We were given specific instructions by Captain Amkro prior to contacting the humans about not discussing certain aspects of our recent war. I began slowly, "The Jaguars were an first alien race that conquered our planet and several of our allies' worlds many years ago. They enslaved us and committed unspeakable atrocities, but also used us as labor in their industry, including shipbuilding. After a long, bitter guerrilla war, we were able to defeat them. The war cost us two-thirds of our prewar population, and was fought to the last sapient. Their survivors are now restricted to their home planet." This was all true, but I was forbidden to say exactly how we defeated them, and why we do not fear they will be back into space for many generations to come. Though I wondered, since all Diyim'yi know this 'secret', how long would it be before the humans found out? An what would their response be…
I stopped musing and refocused on Dave. "Anyway, I was working on one of their cargo ships as a general laborer, janitor, cargo handler and dishwasher. My wartime assignment for the resistance was to learn to operate starships, by studying everything the crew did. Eventually, after the war, I joined the exploration corps. My family now builds ship components and my oldest daughter is a scientist on the team trying to figure out how the Jaguar's faster-than-light drive works. Figuring out that particular 'black box' is all that prevents us from building our own ships."
"Lossp, I didn't realize you were married. I had you figured for a natural batchelor."
"Let's just say I love the corps because my job is quiet. I got used to the solitude during the war. This gives me a rest from my family- not that I don't love them all, my wife and girls, especially. Let the family head keep track of all those women and kids when I'm not home."
"Marie described some of your social arrangements. They seems much more complicated than our own. Not to pry, but… How do you-"
The bridge intercom buzzed at that point. Plaksa said, "Lossp, is Dave up there with you? I'd like to see him in the lab about some test results." Dave answered and shortly left.
I thought about our conversation, then took out the shapshot of my wife, Klaasti, and set it on the instrument panel. Our conversation had reminded me we would be home soon, and I reminisced about how we had met.
Right after the war, I was a young fox working in our suddenly acquired space program. We were on a crash project to refit the only Jaguar warship captured in operating condition, and I was negotiating with her family's machine shops for parts fabrication. I think she initially expressed her interest more to secure the contract than our of any real attraction for my scrawny self. We were both considerably older than proper marriageable age, and I think she saw me as a safe bet. She resented living under her married sister's control. Once we were married, she spent a few months trying to manipulate me into a challenge to the clan leader, but I finally convinced her I was not 'alpha male (as Dave called it)' material. After we got that out of the way, she quickly regained her confidence, as she realized that now that she had the status of having a husband, there were no more restrictions on her ability to covertly seize control of the clan. And, in spite of her older sister's best efforts, that is what she did. The clan leader may be the figurehead, and she only the wife of a subordinate male, but there is no doubt who is in charge of our household. And in retrospect, and from a perspective of 15 light-years away, I don't mind at all.
When I arrived at the laboratory, my 'sister' and my husband were talking to Plaksa, while the captain and first officer discussed ship's business in the far corner of the room. They joined the group as I walked in. I had been cleaning some vegetables for the next meal when the doctor called. Everyone seemed unconcerned, so I wondered why she had called the meeting.
"Ah, hello Marie. I just finished a detailed analysis of the various biological samples we have collected, as well as the tests I performed on Chessec's clone, now your new body. Let me tell you about that first." She must have seen my sharp glance around the assembled group. "Oh, there's nothing wrong. I would not have discussed it in public if there had been any problems. You are in perfect health, probably healthier than Chessec. That is welcome, if unusual news. The stresses caused by forced growth of a clone like this sometimes result in abnormal growths and tumors. We seem to have avoided that in your case."
Then what? I was relieved, but confused. She continued. "I actually wanted to discuss some ancient history, for which your DNA and cell structure samples provide a piece of the puzzle." She began her explanation. "We have explored a 200 light-year radius out from our home planet, and have encountered a dozen planets with life on them. Eight are home to intelligent species. This alone seemed fantastic luck or an incredible coincidence, but biological surveys of several of those planets have produced an even greater shock: All the planets with intelligent species share a common evolutionary history! And we all diverge at a fairly recent point, between 1 and 15 million years ago."
"That's just silly! You mean that each of these planets has the same or similar flora and fauna?" Dave interjected.
"Essentially, if you discount recent changes. And of course, each planet's dominant species…"
I tuned out. Science frankly bores me. The mere fact that Dave had interrupted told me that nothing of immediate, life threatening concern was going to be discussed. Eventually, they ended their discussion and Chessec, Dave and I went to the mess area. I went back to my vegetables, and the two of them worked on Dave's vocabulary. I occasionally barked an answer through the kitchen doorway, although I felt pretty confident with the language by now.