The Ties that Bind
by John R. Plunkett
1642 hours, 22 February 2334: Cape York Aerospace Port, Passenger Terminal 17
A throbbing, basso-profundo rumble echoed across the field, swelling rapidly into a shattering roar that vibrated the observation gallery windows in their frames. People- children mainly but adults as well- pointed and chattered excitedly as the OneWorld Aerospace liner Woomera (91,014 Gross Registered Tons) lifted majestically from Terminal 16 and gradually vanished into the searingly bright afternoon sky.
Littlepaw spared hardly a glance for the spectacle but was nonetheless trembling with excitement. Star Alliance's Betelgeuse (94,213 GRT) had put down about three quarters of an hour ago in Terminal 17; Port workers had set the last of the gangways in place and any moment now the doors would open and arriving passengers would come flooding into the terminal-
"Here they come!" someone shouted. The crowd of friends, family, greeters, and well-wishers pressed forward against the railings separating the waiting area from the arrival area. By placing hir forepaws on the top bar Littlepaw was able to lean hir torso out far enough to see as a brightly liveried steward unlatched the doors and swung them open. It was one case where being a centauroid among humanoids was an advantage instead of a liability. Then there were the rare moments- such as now- when it really made no difference at all. Everyone was pressed up against the railing, or as close and they could get, grinning like maniacs and waving like crazy, trying to catch sight of whomever they'd come to meet. The joy of reuniting with love ones after a long separation knew no physiological boundaries.
First out was a clump of Terrans. The edges of the crowd diffused as parents, children, siblings, spouses, and lovers ran together, joyously embracing while cameras clicked or whirred. Liveried stewards gently but firmly urged revelers out into the terminal so they wouldn't clog the gangway. A group of fox-like Voxxans dressed in what looked like kilts were met by a group of Terrans in business suits; smiles and warm handshakes were exchanged all around. Feline Caitians rubbed noses and brushed cheeks.
Littlepaw had been watching the Voxxans. Hir head whipped around and there, at long last, was a Chakat. Not just any Chakat but a grey point Tabbey with a white mask and stockings, wearing sun glasses, a wide sun hat, and an outrageously loud Hawaiian shirt. Slung across hir lower body were a pair of saddle-packs; more luggage was strapped to a little wheeled trailer attached by traces to the pack harness.
"Antonia!" Littlepaw cleared the railing in one prodigious leap. Shi and the other Chakat crashed together, wrapping their arms around one another's torsos and capering wildly in broad circles. Other travellers dodged away from the whirling bodies and the trailer fell over with a crash.
"When we get back to the hotel I'm gonna fuck you until you beg for mercy," Littlepaw whispered, repeatedly stroking hir cheek against Antonia's.
Antonia giggled. "Then wait until we do get to the hotel, at least." Shi made no attempt to pull away or restrain Littlepaw's roaming hands. "Did you miss me?"
"Every second of every minute of every day." Littlepaw licked Antonia's throat, then nibbled gently at hir shoulder.
"Liar. You probably had a new lover every night."
"I did not!" Littlepaw protested. "I spent every night alone, masturbating and thinking of you."
Antonia laughed. "My God, you're a randy little slut, aren't you?"
Littlepaw growled deep in hir throat. "Come back to the hotel and find out."
"An intriguing suggestion." Antonia slid hir hand up the front of Littlepaw's torso, underneath hir tunic, found one of hir breasts, and squeezed it. Littlepaw drew a breath though sharply clenched teeth. "But you'll have to help me with my luggage." Antonia pulled away suddenly.
Littlepaw narrowed hir eyes. "I should do you right now."
"What, right here? In front of everybody?" Antonia gestured around at the scene.
"Why not?" Littlepaw untangled the traces and set the trailer upright. "Give those cheesy tourist rags something interesting to write about for a change."
"I'd rather go somewhere private, were we won't have to worry about getting arrested," Antonia said. Shi slipped hir arm through Littlepaw's and pulled hir close. "Then I get you all to myself." Together they headed out onto the concourse.
A momentary blast of noise drew Littlepaw's attention to a small stairwell labelled "Employees Only." A Terran man was walking up it and he certainly looked like a port worker: grey overalls, heavy boots, gloves, helmet, ear protectors, and goggles. What little shi saw of his face- just his nose, mouth, and chin- suggested Caucasoid ancestry. Beyond that was anyone's guess. Littlepaw thought fleetingly that wearing that getup while working outside in the searing heat and humidity of northern Australia must be devilishly uncomfortable-
He carried a long-barreled powergun. As he reached the top step he raised it to his shoulder and flicked off the safety. Somewhere in Littlepaw's hind brain a voice was telling hir to run but hir legs didn't move. The front part of hir brain rejected the image as invalid, impossible. Surely there was no way this strange man could actually be pointing a weapon-
A cyan flash as bright as the sun outside exploded from the powergun's muzzle. Air blasted from the beam path slapped back with a deafening thunderclap. Fur on Littlepaw's face, neck, shoulder, and arm burned away under withering heat radiated from the plasma charge as it passed within a meter of hir torso. Sensory overload banished not only all conscious thought but the very possibility of conscious thought. With hir frontal lobes out of action Littlepaw's hind brain set hir legs in motion and shi ran- blindly, because reaction to the Hellish light left nothing in hir field of vision but a black horizontal slash separating zones of pulsating purple and shiny sparkles. Nor could shi hear; thunderous discharges from the powergun echoed in hir mind as they echoed from the high, arched roof of the concourse, punctuating an insane chorus of terrified screams. Shi caromed into people, riding over them or slamming them out of the way when shi could, rebounding from them when shi couldn't, stumbling twice but each time managing by sheer instinct to regain hir footing. Hir panicked flight ended only when shi smashed headlong into a row of chairs and flipped over it, landing on hir face and sprawling in an untidy heap. This time shi didn't get up; hir forelegs weren't working right and the chairs separated hir in some small way from what was happening on the concourse. Shi could not bring hirself to re-enter that inferno. Not for money, not for love, not even to save hir own life. After what could have been an instant or an eternity shi realized that the noise had stopped. When shi uncovered hir face shi could see, after a fashion. Hir hearts were pounding fit to burst out of hir chests; hir limbs and body twitched violently in reaction to adrenaline surging through hir blood. Hir lower belly was soaked with warm wetness; shi had peed on herself. Nevertheless shi lay there in a pool of hir own urine because shi was too terrified to move-
Antonia! Littlepaw lifted hir head and looked around. Antonia wasn't here or anywhere nearby. Littlepaw struggled to hir feet; hir forepaws didn't want to support hir weight and shi seemed to have no more coordination than a kitten. Shi would have been sick with fear if not for the fact that hir ability to experience terror had been so badly overloaded that shi could hardly feel anything at all- much in the same way shi failed to notice that both hir forelegs were fractured or that shi had third degree burns on hir face, shoulder, and arm. As shi emerged onto the concourse there was no sign of the gunman or the crowds that had been there just moments earlier. Except for the bodies, of course- of which there seemed to be dozens, fallen in ragged lines radiating out from the stairwell. Powergun bolts had set their clothing on fire and ripped them open; bits of blackened cloth and luggage had been scattered across the floor, some of it still smoldering. Thin but sharply acrid smoke filled the air along with the stench of burned meat, fresh blood, and the sewer-like reek of material voided from bowels and bladders in the spasms of death or when body cavities had burst like blood filled balloons.
A Terran woman stepped out from somewhere. She looked like something out of a horror movie: staggering, uncoordinated gait, bugged-out eyes and slack jaw in a face as gray and bloodless as that of a corpse. Her clothing was soaked with blood and spattered with gobbets of tattered flesh. She stared blankly at Littlepaw, then screamed and stumbled away.
Littlepaw's feet squelched in pools of blood that were, in places, up to two centimeters deep as shi picked hir way among the corpses. Shi couldn't tell if Antonia were among the fallen; sun-hot plasma had stripped the bodies of individuality as it had stripped them of life. Littlepaw could hardly tell where one ended and another began, to say nothing of what species they had been. A powergun had reduced them to a sea of bloody offal.
A powergun- and a man.
the luggage trailer lay on its side, which was why Littlepaw recognized it. Shi followed the traces with hir eyes to the twisted-up harness and the saddle packs that had come open, spilling their contents: frilly lingerie and clothing, scattered now on the floor and soaking up the spilled blood. There was Antonia: sprawled on hir back, lower body twisted around so that hir pelvis was on its side while hir forepaws stuck up in the air. Hir arms were straight out to hir sides as if shi were pretending to be an airplane. Hir face was set in an expression of surprise; bloody froth had boiled out of hir mouth and nose, spilling down across hir muzzle, face, and neck. Littlepaw leaned forward so that shi could look straight down into Antonia's eyes but there was no response. They remained as blank and glassy as those of a dead fish, utterly devoid of the spark that had made them so captivating.
Littlepaw's forelegs gave out and shi collapsed to the floor, then flopped over on hir side in the pool of blood. Somewhere in the distance sirens blared.
Late afternoon, one year later: an office in downtown Darwin
If someone had happened to glance in on their way past they would have had the impression that Littlepaw was thoughtfully studying some information displayed on the screen of hir workstation. If someone had actually looked at the screen of the workstation they would have seen that the screen saver was on. If they lingered, they would see that Littlepaw didn't seem to be moving. In fact, shi hadn't moved for close to twenty minutes. Sitting on the corner of Littlepaw's desk was a silver Chakat holding a clock on hir back; moving only hir eyes Littlepaw glanced at it. The numbers read 16:59, eventually changing to 17:00. Shi closed the workstation and stood up. No sooner had shi reached the office door- which was open- than someone appeared in the hall.
"Hello, Littlepaw," the other said. Shi was a middle-aged Chakat whose pelt was white with black spots and black ears. "How are you today?"
"Hello, Yasha," Littlepaw replied. "I'm okay."
"Will you be busy later tonight?" Yasha inquired,
"I'm going to visit Antonia."
Yasha's smile vanished. "I know you're going to visit Antonia. You do it every Friday. Then no one sees you until Monday. I also know that you don't spend all weekend with Antonia, so couldn't you spend a little time with me?"
"You having another party?" Littlepaw asked.
"Well, yes," Yasha admitted.
Littlepaw considered for a moment. "If I agree to come, do you promise you won't try to fix me up?"
"Yes, of course," Yasha assured.
"You don't mean it." Littlepaw started past.
"Littlepaw, wait." Yasha caught Littlepaw's shoulder. "You... you can't go on like this."
"Like what?" Littlepaw's face and voice were expressionless, but hir tail started to lash.
"You can't- I mean- Antonia is-"
"Antonia is what?" Littlepaw's tone developed a nasty edge and hir ears lay back.
"Look, you're young," Yasha began. "You should... think about your future."
"I have." Littlepaw put hir hand around Yasha's forearm and gently but firmly detached Yasha's grip. Once free shi continued down the halls to the elevators without looking back.
"Have you?" Yasha asked quietly. "Have you, really?"
The elevator doors opened onto what was clearly the inside of a hospital: wide corridors with linoleum tiled floors, off-white walls with railings along them, people in white coats or hospital gowns bustling here and there- and, of course, that unmistakable hospital smell. Littlepaw hated it.
The speaker was a Terran woman of Aboriginal descent whose skin was black as night and contrasted starkly with her white coat. She had apparently been speaking with the orderlies at the nursing station.
"Hello, Layna," Littlepaw replied. "How's everything today?"
Layna chuckled. "I was just downstairs. A young woman came into the emergency room in hysterical fits because her four-year-old son had managed to swallow a giant super ball."
Littlepaw blinked. "You mean one of the big ones?"
"Uh huh." Layna nodded.
"So... what did you do?"
Layna grinned, snowing perfectly white teeth against her perfectly black face. "Gave him an emetic. It came right up and he spat it out."
Littlepaw shook hir head. "The things kids get in their mouths."
"Waiting for you. Go on in."
"Thanks." Littlepaw continued down the hall and through a door. Shi didn't need to look at the numbers. Shi hadn't for some time now.
Someone unfamiliar with the techniques of modern medicine might have thought they'd inadvertently stumbled into a medieval torture chamber. Antonia was suspended at about waist height in a complex assortment of slings, straps, and cables attached to a large metal frame. The whole assembly was gimbaled so that shi could be rotated face up, face down, or anywhere in between. The arrangement of straps and counterweights made sure that all parts of hir body were held in the same relative position no matter what direction shi faced. The only part not securely strapped was hir tail- which just lay there, limp and useless like an unplugged extension cord. There was dust clinging to the fur where it had dragged on the floor. At the moment Antonia was face up, so all the tubes were clearly visible. One ran from just above the clavicle of hir lower body to the respirator machine. Another, entering at the same location, attached to the feeding machine. Two other tubes, protruding from the opposite end of hir lower body, attached to the waste elimination machines. An IV drip connected to hir left forepaw. An assortment of sensors were attached to shaved spots all over hir body- which was thin, bony, and emaciated. Hir humanoid torso was completely wrapped in bandages between hir shoulders and waist.
"Hi, Antonia," Littlepaw said.
Antonia's head turned slightly and a smile spread slowly across hir face. With hir right thumb shi pressed a button on a control box taped to hir hand. "Hello, Littlepaw," hir mouth said, but no sound came out of it. Instead, hir voice emanated from a workstation sitting on a nearby table.
"How are things?" Littlepaw settled onto the floor so that their faces were more or less on the same level. Shi reached into the frame and gently stroked Antonia's cheek.
"I got my grades back," Antonia replied. "Got an A minus."
"That's a gyp," Littlepaw replied. "You shoulda got an A plus."
"My dissertation was late," Antonia replied. "I had some problems with the typing."
Littlepaw blinked. Hir vision had become blurry; a large tear rolled down hir muzzle and hit the floor with a splat.
"Did Yasha invite you to another party?" Antonia inquired.
Littlepaw nodded. Hir throat was too tight for speech.
"Why don't you go?"
"How can I?" Littlepaw managed, stroking Antonia's chin with one hand and hir forehead with the other. "You're my mate, Antonia."
"How can you not?" Antonia tried to touch Littlepaw's face but the traction frame did not allow that much freedom of movement. About all shi could do was move hir forearm a bit. "When was the last time you had sex, Littlepaw?"
Littlepaw shrugged one shoulder. "Not too long ago," shi whispered, unable to meet Antonia's eyes.
"You're a bad liar," Antonia replied. "When was the last time you masturbated?"
Littlepaw couldn't answer. Shi just shrugged. Every time I touch myself I think of you. When I think of you- here- like this- I just- can't. Shi lowered hir face to where Antonia could reach it. Antonia caressed Littlepaw's chin and muzzle, gently wiping away the hot tears streaming down like a waterfall.
"It's not right for a young person like you to be without sex," Antonia said. "You should go to Yasha's party. Even if it's just for a one-night stand."
"How can you say that?" Littlepaw croaked, clutching at Antonia's hand, hir whole body wracked with sobs.
"It's not the same for me," Antonia said. "I'm in no condition for... strenuous activity. But there' s nothing wrong with you." Hir fingers drew Littlepaw's face closer; Littlepaw put hir head and shoulders carefully through the framework. If shi put too much strain on it- or Antonia- alarms would go off and shi'd get kicked out. Antonia brushed hir nose against Littlepaw's, then licked it. Littlepaw squeezed hir eyes shut and hir whole body trembled violently. Hir tears fell directly on Antonia's face and cheek.
"Let me see your nipples," Antonia directed.
Littlepaw's hands were shaking so hard shi ripped three buttons off hir tunic while opening it. Fortunately shi didn't have to struggle with a bra; hir breasts, while nicely round and firm, were not exceptionally large. Antonia inspected them carefully, especially the nipples, which were hard as rocks.
"Just as I thought," Antonia said with the barest hint of a chuckle. "They haven't been touched in a long time. Far too long."
Littlepaw backed out, stood, lowered hir torso until it was parallel to the floor, and moved in again. In that position hir chest was just above Antonia's face. Littlepaw kept hir hands clasped tightly behind hir back so shi wouldn't try to grab something.
"Hmm, guess I can't pass up an invitation like that," Antonia muttered, flicking out hir tongue and caressing the nearest nipple.
"God!" Littlepaw squeaked, hir whole body shuddering violently. Shi grabbed at the frame to keep from falling-
Alarms shrilled. Littlepaw jerked hirself out, viciously smacking the back of hir head as shi did so. Shi fell to the floor, writhing, cursing, and clutching hir head.
"Now what did I tell you two about that sort of thing?" Layna asked from the door in a mildly reproving tone. "You ought to know by now that I watch the monitors. As soon as Antonia's heart rate went through the roof I knew something was up."
Littlepaw started to get up- then realized that not only was shi rather prominently unsheathed but that shi'd made a mess on the floor.
"Heh." Antonia grinned. "Good thing I had a spare, or I wouldn't be here today."
Littlepaw's voice caught. Then shi started to sob: racking, gulping sobs that just kept coming and coming.
"When my psychology instructor said that it's the friends of victims that often have the hardest time adjusting I didn't believe it," Antonia commented, shaking hir head sadly.
"I'm sorry, Littlepaw, but it's time to go," Layna said, grabbing Littlepaw under the armpits and tugging. Obviously she couldn't lift a full-grown Chakat if shi didn't wish to be lifted, but that wasn't the point. "I've already let you stay longer than I should."
Littlepaw muttered something unintelligible and struggled to hir feet. Shi couldn't seem to get hir tunic fastened correctly, then remembered that some of the buttons were missing and let it be.
"The regenerative therapy is going much better this time," Layna continued as she walked Littlepaw out of the room. "And... even if it doesn't work, there's still the cybernetics option. It may take a few years, but shi'll walk again."
Littlepaw made a noncommittal sound. The first shot fired by the unknown gunman had struck Antonia in the middle of hir upper back, just below the shoulder blades. Bone fragments had slashed up hir heart and lungs so badly that doctors had ultimately been forced to remove them. Fortunate indeed that Chakats had a second cardiopulmonary system in their lower bodies. Since Antonia hadn't bled to death before medics reached hir, shi survived.
If this could be called surviving.
Medical science could replace bones, muscles, even organs like hearts and lungs- but it could not directly replace the complex nerve bundles in the spinal column, which in Antonia's case had been completely destroyed.
In one instant my dearest love is reduced from being a whole person to being a head and a pair of arms.
Regenerative therapy worked best if all scar tissue was removed from the afflicted area. A mangled limb would never recover, but if cut off it could be made to grow back. Which helped Antonia not a whit because if all hir scar tissue were removed there'd be practically nothing left between hir shoulders and waist. Doctors had even discussed amputating hir body (!) and regenerating the whole thing. Or cloning a body and grafting hir head to it. But they could never quite agree if any of these plans were worth the risk. So they went ahead and tried the regenerative therapy, and it worked- after a fashion. Hir new heart and lungs were coming along nicely and the muscles in hir back were finally starting to attach themselves to the synthetic vertebra. But the nerves just weren't growing back and after a dozen operations the doctors were afraid to do any more.
Littlepaw's face twitched. The cybernetic option was the doctors' way of saying they'd reached the end of their rope. Amazing things could be done to connect neurological systems to electronic ones, but creating something that could completely bridge a severed spinal cord was pushing the envelope. Not that it couldn't be done, but the resulting package wouldn't fit conveniently inside a body, even one as large as a Chakat's. Meaning that which could be installed would have less functionality. Antonia would walk- after a fashion. Shi would regain sensation- after a fashion.
Shi could never hope to regain proper sexual function. For the rest of hir life shi would be a eunuch.
"I'm sorry?" Littlepaw asked, realizing suddenly that Layna had been talking.
"I said, you'll be back next week?"
Littlepaw nodded. "Uh huh."
"Okay. See you then."
"Bye." Littlepaw stepped into the elevator and rode it down. On the parking level shi searched- and searched- for hir car. In vain. "Excuse me," shi called, spotting a security guard. "Have you seen a smoke-gray Lunitar convertible?"
"License?" he asked. Littlepaw rattled it off. He consulted a data pad he kept in his breast pocket. "Towed," he said. "It was parked in a fire lane."
In a detached way Littlepaw considered getting angry or upset. Under normal circumstances shi would have; right now shi simply hadn't the energy for it. "Thanks," shi said and walked out onto the street.
Darwin was not a huge metropolitan center like Melbourne or Sydney but there was still plenty happening on a Friday evening in late summer. Cafes, bistros, night clubs, movies, harbor cruises, video arcades....
For the first time in hir life Littlepaw seriously considered going to one. Antonia was right; Littlepaw couldn't do without sex. Shi craved the sensation of naked flesh slithering against hir own, of thrusting deep into another's welcoming body, of being filled in turn. Shi resolved to go, to meet an attractive stranger-
But... to be a stranger, the person would have to be a Terran. There weren't that many Chakats in this part of Australia; any one Littlepaw happened to meet would probably be one shi already knew. Which meant they'd know about Antonia. They'd offer sympathy and support. None of them seemed to understand that Littlepaw didn't want sympathy and support. Shi wanted a night of torrid, mindless passion; shi wanted to part without attachment in the morning. They'd talk about Antonia, prying open Littlepaw's psyche with red-hot daggers. They'd not talk about Antonia, until Littlepaw wanted to scream under the weight of unsaid words. The sex wouldn't start until Littlepaw was in no condition to enjoy it. That's why shi'd stopped going to Yasha's parties. Littlepaw's step faltered and tears stung hir eyes. If Antonia had died... it would have hurt but shi could have worked through it. If Antonia recovered it would be wonderful. If it had never happened shi and Littlepaw would have been mated and probably had cubs by now. But this-
There was an empty can sitting on the curb. Littlepaw kicked it viciously; it clattered out into the street and was flattened by a bus. This was worse than death. Knowing that Antonia was there- but not there. Gone- but not gone. Just sort of... lingering.
It couldn't be a Terran. Every time shi saw one Littlepaw imagined how she or he would look in a helmet, goggles, and ear protectors. Shi wanted to grab her or him by the lapels and scream why. There was simply no way shi could allow hirself to be intimate, vulnerable, with a person whose soul might contain something that would allow them to walk into a crowded airport and start shooting. Not randomly, either; Littlepaw had seen the bodies. Each target had been carefully chosen, not a single round wasted-
Except for the one that should have blown Littlepaw's backbone out through hir sternum. It had instead struck a young woman in the bicep; she had fallen screaming to the floor, clutching the charred stump of her arm, while another round took the back of her fiancee's skull off. The couple had been standing no more than three meters in front of Littlepaw... and shi hadn't seen them. Even when shi'd come back looking for Antonia shi hadn't noticed. Littlepaw would never have even suspected that the woman with the missing arm and the dead fiancee had existed if shi hadn't seen them on the news.
Littlepaw would never have known how narrowly shi'd escaped the fate which had befallen Antonia.
A middle-aged Terran woman whose family line held more than a trace of Aboriginal blood stepped up to the curb and hailed a cab. It stopped and she got in. Littlepaw watched it pull away then looked around; there were plenty of other cabs but shi made no attempt to hail one. Walking wouldn't kill hir and it would save the cost of a fare. Shi almost laughed but held it back: it was the sort of laughter that would lead to crying, screaming, and worse. As if shi had to worry about money. This last year at the brokerage had been one of hir best: ten more like it and shi'd become a partner. Then the real money would start. As if shi didn't already have more than shi knew what to do with. For five years shi'd been working like a dog to pay off hir educational loans and save up. For a new condo, one large enough for two Chakats, a pile of kittens, and all the friends and relatives who'd be dropping by. A new car, with enough room to transport the aforementioned kittens and the groceries they'd consume. The groceries themselves. Pediatricians, baby furniture, clothes, and toys. Birthday parties, presents, and family vacations. School field trips, football uniforms, and dance lessons. Allowances. College. Graduation parties. Mating ceremonies and baby showers....
Money still sitting in accounts and portfolios because none of the things for which it was being saved had materialized. Money that wasn't even being spent on medical bills because Antonia's parents wouldn't hear of it. Let the insurance company pay for it, they said. Save your money for the honeymoon. Littlepaw's head and left shoulder twitched violently as if an electrode had been applied to hir neck. Something hot and violent welled up inside hir like magma rising inside a volcano. Shi tried to fight it, to push it back down, but too much of hir emotional energy had been spent.
"When is there going to be a honeymoon?" Littlepaw screamed. There wasn't a can to kick so shi ripped off hir purse and whipped it around as if competing in the hammer throw. Not too far away an old Terran man was closing the door to a run-down shop. The purse smacked him in the back of the head, slamming his face against the jam. He let out a strangled cry and started to fall.
"Omigod!" Littlepaw squeaked. A burst of quadrupedal speed allowed hir to catch him before he hit the pavement. Though clearly in his eighties or nineties, he was neither small nor frail. Littlepaw grunted slightly as shi took the weight.
"Uhh..." His eyes were glazed, his jaw slack. Dark stubble coated his chin, though the sparse hair on his crown was pure white. He blinked a couple times, his eyes gradually re-focusing. "Good evening," he said, smiling with slightly cracked and yellowed but otherwise well kept teeth.
"I-" Littlepaw almost dropped him."I'm really really sorry! I didn't mean to- to-"
"Brain me with your purse?" He slipped out of hir grasp and dropped to one knee. While there he retrieved his keys and Littlepaw's purse. "It's all right. I've had worse." He grinned and chuckled as if it were all joke.
"Look, I'm- I just- I mean-" Littlepaw covered hir face with hir hands. Shi wanted to tell him, to ease the burden on hir aching heart, but to do that shi'd have to explain it, to relive it, one more time-
"Hey, it's all right." His voice was soft but full of unshakable confidence. He took hir hand and squeezed it; his grip was gentle but rock solid. It was too much; Littlepaw clung to him and cried, and cried, and cried...
"Better now?" he asked, offering a tissue.
Littlepaw took the tissue and blew hir nose. This was just peachy. Not only had shi clobbered him with hir purse but shi'd kept him from getting home and shi'd blubbered all over him-
Those thoughts and pretty much all others were shocked right out of Littlepaw's mind when, for the first time since the beginning of the encounter, shi actually looked at hir surroundings. The little run-down shop wasn't just any shop, it was a gun shop. At some point shi and the old man had stepped inside, so all around hir was a bewildering assortment of weapons. Rifles and shotguns were neatly racked along one wall. Glass-topped cases contained pistols and carbines. Shelves held neatly arranged boxes of ammunition, paper targets, clay targets, plastic targets in the shapes of various animals, plus tools and supplies at whose purpose shi could not even guess. And one thing whose purpose shi knew all too well: it rested on a finely crafted wooden stand, hanging at the back of the shop just above a display shelf full of magazines. Littlepaw had never been in a gun shop; shi'd never wanted to be in a gun shop. Especially now. In the shadow of every weapon, every individual cartridge, shi saw a body fallen in an untidy heap, its life draining out onto the cold, hard ground. Death radiated so thickly from every corner of the small room that shi could feel it pressing against hir, trying to reach its cold, bony fingers inside hir body to still hir frantically beating hearts.
The old man made a quizzical face, then turned to follow the line of Littlepaw's gaze. "Ah, that's my conversation piece," he explained.
Feline faces are not as expressive as hominid faces. That doesn't mean that felines are inexpressive; anyone who's ever owned a cat would have plenty to say about that. It is true that cats rely heavily on body language, particularly their tails. Hominids, on the other hand, have been trained by culture and evolution to read faces. What was so for cats was no less true for Chakats and there really weren't that many Chakats in Darwin. So perhaps the old man could be forgiven if he failed to properly read Littlepaw's emotional state.
"What is it?" Littlepaw heard hirself asking. The thing hanging on the wall compelled hir with a feeling of horrid fascination. It was like the time many years ago when shi had been taken by an older cousin to an adult entertainment shop. The experience had been so shockingly alien to hir young mind that it took on an air of almost nightmarish unreality. When shi had seen the combination dildo/artificial vagina hanging on the rack of sexual apparati shi had been compelled to ask the clerk to take it down and show it to hir, though the very notion of it made hir shudder with distaste. It was as if shi could not bring hirself to believe the evidence of hir eyes; to prove to hirself that such a thing could actually exist shi had to touch it.
"An Ares Arms model 2240-A7 one-centimeter folding-stock sub-machinegun," the old man replied. "It belonged to my grandfather."
"May I see it?"
"Sure," the old man said after a momentary pause. He lifted the weapon down and handed it across the counter.
Littlepaw felt a strange tingling in hir hands as they took the weapon, as if it were charged with some strange malevolent energy. It was lighter than shi'd expected; without conscious thought hir right hand curled around the textured grip, hir left around the forestock. The butt- a rubber pad attached to a metal bracket at the end of a pair of alloy rods- fit quite naturally into the crook of hir shoulder.
The man came up the stairs with the weapon in his right hand, hanging by his side. The stock was folded. As he executed a quarter-turn coming out of the stairwell he raised the weapon by flexing his elbow. His left hand came up and caught the forestock. He kept his elbows against his body, swiveling his shoulders to bring the weapon on target.
At some point in the past someone had tried to buff away the blacking on the receiver; as Littlepaw cocked hir head to gaze over the sights shi could easily make out scratches and imperfections in the finish. The thick Iridium barrel with its vented cover made the weapon seem fat from this perspective, but the sight line from the rear forks to the forward post was clean and unobstructed.
Okay, you're holding it. Does that give you any better a glimpse into the mind of a man who could look over those sights at a living, breathing person- a person with hopes and dreams, fears and regrets, friends and family- yet still decide to pull the trigger?
Littlepaw's eyes narrowed.
The man came up the stairs-
"Miss." The old man had put his hand on the receiver, blocking Littlepaw's line of sight. As shi looked up their eyes met- and in that instant something passed between them. He tightened his grip and gently but firmly tugged the weapon out of hir hands. Hir fingers were stiff and sore as if shi'd been carrying something heavy. There was a mark on hir right index finger because of how hard shi'd been squeezing the trigger.
"How..." Littlepaw couldn't finish. Hir whole body was shaking. Shi had to grab the edge of the counter to keep from falling.
He set the weapon back on its rack and leaned on the counter. "A long, long time ago, when I was a stupid kid and thought I knew everything, some friends of mine were part of a Humans First cell," he began in a quiet, sing-songy voice as if he were telling a fairy tale to a child. "I went to some of their meetings. They explained to me how during the Gene Wars armies of genetically engineered super-soldiers went around killing us ordinary Terrans. How genetically engineered diseases wiped out whoever was left. They taught me about the Twenty-G."
"Between 2050 and 2090- the height of the Gene Wars- it's estimated that somewhere around twenty billion people died. The Humans Firsters called it the Twenty-G, or twenty gig. Of course we really don't know for sure. Too many records were lost. Twenty billion was an estimate that came out some time during the Reconstruction, in the 2130's or 40's. But the Twenty-G was vitally important."
"Why?" Littlepaw found hirself asking.
"The Twenty-G was to remind me that if I happened to meet a genetically engineered person, that person was probably the descendant of someone who'd helped to kill twenty billion of my fellow Terrans. That even the races created after the wars- like you Chakats, for instance- had grown and flourished because you had stolen away the birthright of us true Terrans."
Littlepaw gripped the counter with both hands. The room seemed to be spinning; if there'd been anything in hir stomachs shi would have thrown it up. Twenty billion was more than the entire populations of Terra, Luna, Mars, and any three Near Space colonies all put together. And the Gene Wars had ended more than two hundred years ago. As unimaginable as the number might be, it was all too easy for Littlepaw to imagine the bodies: stinking piles of violated flesh lying in pools of blood, stretching away to the horizon in all directions-
"So the lads packed up their little present and headed for Melbourne," the old man was saying. He'd been talking while Littlepaw's mind wandered. "There were a lot of genejokes- that we called genetically engineered people, y'see- living around down there. In Ballarat Charlie got on a bus with the bomb in his suitcase. Julis and Hadry followed along in the truck. At Woodend Charlie got off but left the suitcase on board, and all three of them took off for the Outback. The bus got struck in traffic around Melbourne- the bomb went off- and eighteen people were killed. Fourteen in the bus, four in other vehicles. Another twenty-five were injured by flames or flying debris. I got fifteen years even though I wasn't directly involved. What I'm trying to say is-" he leaned forward and grabbed Littlepaw's face, forcing hir to look into his eyes. "Don't go there." He indicated the powergun with a shake of the head. "It won't get you what you want. I know who you are. That Cape York thing was all over the news for months. It's not the sort of thing someone like me is likely to forget."
The man came up the stairs with the weapon in his right hand, hanging by his side.
Littlepaw was on the concourse but shi was facing the wrong way: toward the stairwell instead of away.
He raises the weapon with his right hand, bringing up his left to grip the forestock.
The powergun isn't as heavy as Littlepaw had thought. With hir right hand on the grip and hir left on the forestock shi easily raises it so that the butt pad is nestled against hir shoulder. The steel of the receiver is cool against hir cheek.
His shoulders turn slightly as he sights in on his first target-
Once again Littlepaw is looking almost straight into his eyes, which are anonymous behind the thick goggles. This time shi is seeing it over the sights of the powergun; the front post is centered on the bridge of his nose-
"Hai!" Littlepaw exclaimed as hir eyes flew open. Moonlight reflected from the harbor glittered and shimmered on the ceiling of hir bedroom. Hir head and shoulders were flat on the bed but hir lower body was curled around so that hir haunches were almost touching hir right shoulder. There was not a scrap of clothing on the bed except for one sheet shi had pulled drum-tight across hir chest. After taking several gulps of air shi detached hir death-grip on the sheet and cast it aside. Shi straightened out- carefully, because hir spine felt like it was near the limits of its flexion- and climbed out of bed. Other than the moon there wasn't much light out on the harbor. The running lights on some ships, a scattering of illumination from the marina. Back lighting from the city increased the ambient light level while leaving the water itself impenetrably black. Littlepaw scrubbed hir face, then started smoothing down hir fur. Shi looked as if shi'd had hir whole body spiked. It ended up taking almost half an hour with the brush to get hir coat back into a reasonably satisfactory condition. After a yawn and a bone-popping stretch shi started to get back into bed but didn't. The shadows of nightmare were still too close. Shi ambled out into the front room.
For what shi was paying on hir one-bedroom waterfront condo Littlepaw could have bought a good quality full-sized house located somewhere in the inland suburbs. It was hir one affectation; shi'd bought it mainly because shi could- and because it made the other junior associates positively green with envy. In the kitchen nook shi poured hirself a large glass of milk, warmed it in the microwave, then stirred in a heaping spoonful of malt. Drink in hand shi settled in front of the couch. By force of habit hir hand strayed toward the video remote, but in the end shi let it lie. At the moment television seemed even more mindless and trivial than usual. Inactivity, though, was worse. After finishing hir drink Littlepaw washed the glass, put it away, and spent several minutes pacing like a caged animal. Every other thought was that shi really should go back to bed. But he was waiting there with his helmet, goggles, ear protectors, and powergun.
"Did I spend nine months in therapy just to end up back here?" Littlepaw shouted, and deliberately squeezed hir eyes shut.
His shoulders turn slightly as he sights in on his first target. There is a cyan flash as bright as looking straight at the noonday sun-
Littlepaw flinched and whimpered, but kept hir eyes shut-
Pulsating after-images slowly clear. At the head of the stairs, sprawled like a marionette with its strings cut, is a body in gray overalls. The front of its head is nothing but a steaming crater from which bright red arterial blood is spilling over to form a rapidly expanding pool on the floor. It flows around the shoulders and arms of the corpse, gradually soaking into the heavy material of the overalls. It fills the air with a cloying, coppery stink mingling with the smell of urine and feces voided at the instant of death.
The Earth Firsters hate us, Littlepaw thought. Is it possible to hate someone so much that you'd be willing to kill them? To deliberately snuff out all they are, all they'll ever be?
Littlepaw opened hir personal workstation and switched it on. The police were certain that the gunman had been sponsored by Earth First. There had been arrests and a number of heavily publicized trials, but the actual shooter had never been identified. The media, and even the police themselves, always spoke of Earth First as some sort of mysterious, faceless they. Littlepaw realized that shi had unconsciously thought the same thing; because his face had been covered it had been easy to believe that the grey coveralls had been filled by some demonic force that slew without reason or warning, like a tornado, earthquake, or other natural disaster. But they were not. Earth Firsters were people. With faces and names, husbands and wives, parents and children, houses, jobs, and mortgages. They were an old man who, in his declining years, ran a small gun shop. They were another man, who had put on the uniform of a port worker.
Earth First had an official net site. Littlepaw opened it and began to read. Somewhere in there was the mind of a person who had committed murder. If shi searched long enough, hard enough-
Inside the coveralls were a man. A man who lived and breathed.
Littlepaw's breath rasped between hir tightly clenched teeth. Hir eyes were narrowed, hir ears laid back, hir tail lashing.
If he is a man he can suffer, as Antonia and I have suffered.
He can die.
2024 hours, 6 September 2335: the hospital
"I hear you're actually taking a vacation," Antonia said. Hir voice was raspy and quiet to the point of being unintelligible but at least it was coming from hir own throat.
"Right foreleg," the technician said. He wore a VR helmet with the visor raised, right hand on the keyboard of a desktop workstation, left on that of a portable.
Littlepaw nodded. "I'm going on safari."
"Right foreleg, check." The intern was inspecting the array of servo powered braces that had been strapped to Antonia's body. They looked like- and in fact were- an artificial, external skeleton.
"Where are you going?" Layna inquired.
"Left foreleg." The technician briefly lowered the visor on his helmet while typing with his left hand.
"Oregon Territory," Littlepaw replied.
"Left foreleg, check."
"All right." The technician leaned back and rubbed his eyes. "Stand by for all-up stand test."
Littlepaw obediently stepped away from the frame. Antonia was suspended in a normal standing pose; the spine brace was gone but only straps around hir shoulders held hir torso erect. Most of the life support tubes were gone, leaving scars that were clearly visible where fur had been rubbed away or deliberately shaved. Shi had lost weight to the point where bones showed clearly though baggy skin on which fur existed only in scraggly, faded patches. Over all this was the powered exoskeleton, firmly strapped to all four legs, hir lower body, and the chest of hir torso. The back and sides of hir head had been shaved clean, revealing cyberjacks that had been installed just behind hir ears. Fiber optic cables snaked from them to the control module strapped to hir lower back. To Littlepaw it seemed as if the flesh and blood Antonia were being gradually replaced by a counterfeit of machinery and electronics. With a flourish the technician pressed a key on his portable. Antonia twitched all over, then hir legs- which had been hanging limp- suddenly stiffened and flexed as if shi were standing on an imaginary surface about twelve centimeters above the floor.
"Good, good." The technician checked each of the workstation displays, then his visor. "Balance check."
"What's in Oregon?" Layna asked, frowning.
"Scenery," Littlepaw replied, hir eyes unfocusing. "The Coast Range is stunningly beautiful."
Interns squatted on either side of Antonia, reaching to the frame and tugging at hir legs. Servos hummed softly as the legs resisted being moved.
"We've got mountains right here," Layna pointed out.
"It's summer up there," Littlepaw pointed out. "Besides... I wanna see moose. Beavers. Elk. Bald eagles. Cougars. Maybe I'll do a little hunting."
"Okay." The technician closed his visor and left it down. "Walk cycle test." Antonia's legs began to paddle the air, pantomiming the motions of walking.
"Hunting?" Layna frowned.
"That sounds fun," Antonia said. Shi was gripping the frame with hir hands- and seemed completely unaware of what hir body was doing. "I hear wild elk has a... very interesting flavor."
"So they say," Littlepaw agreed. Antonia in the exoskeleton was unsettling. Watching hir legs move with the metronomic precision of machine parts was obscene. "Firearm hunting is strictly controlled but there's no limit on what you can take with muscle powered weapons. I hear there's even guides who'll take you out... au naturel, as it were." Shi lifted hir right forepaw, extending then re-sheathing the claws. It gave hir an excuse to look away from Antonia.
"You wouldn't really kill something and eat it, would you?" Layna inquired somewhat apprehensively.
The man swung the weapon up with his right arm, bringing up his left hand to grip the forestock. Suddenly his face was lit from within by a flash as bright as the sun; everything between his chin and brow erupted-
"Why not?" Littlepaw replied. "It's how people got food before there were supermarkets."
"I could never do that." Layna shuddered. "It'd feel like... like murder."
"Do you eat meat?"
"Do you eat meat?" Littlepaw repeated. "If you do, then every time you eat a hamburger, every time you put on leather clothing, you're an accessory to murder."
"I heard you sold your condo," Antonia said. It wasn't a question. "How long are you planning on staying in Oregon?"
"I've got three months off work," Littlepaw replied. "I asked for two but Yasha insisted. I figure I'll spend at least two. I don't know about the third."
"You still need a place when you come back, don't you?" Antonia phrased the question in a humorous way but Littlepaw heard the worry underlying it.
"I've got a rental. That condo was just a big waste of money anyway." Littlepaw moved forward and took Antonia's hand, squeezing and stroking it gently. It was thin and bony, the hand of a skeleton wrapped in barely enough flesh for the sake of decency. To avoid looking at it Littlepaw shifted hir attention to Antonia's face- which was hollow and loose. Flesh had eroded away underneath the skin, leaving it hanging on the skull. The only part of it Littlepaw still recognized were the eyes. "Will you-" Littlepaw's voice broke; shi swallowed back the lump forming in hir throat. "Will you be out by the time I get back?"
"Not very likely, I'm afraid," Layna cautioned. "Shi's going to need a lot of physical therapy. From here... figure on two or three years, depending on how shi reacts to the cybernetics."
"Littlepaw." Antonia tugged Littlepaw closer, until their faces were almost touching. "Littlepaw... you give me the strength to go on. Without you... I'd never have made it."
Littlepaw squeezed hir eyes shut because tears were blinding hir. "I love you," shi tried to say, but the tightness in hir throat reduced it to a croak. Shi slipped hir arms around Antonia's shoulder and hugged hir as tightly as was possible under the circumstances. Against the forequarters of hir lower body shi felt Antonia's forelegs continuing their pantomime walk.
"Promise me you'll come back," Antonia whispered.
Littlepaw nodded. Hir throat was still too tight for words.
1947 hours, 13 September 2335: Oregon Territory
"Here we are," Marty declared, bringing the aircraft around in a gentle bank. "Welcome to beautiful Fort Clatsop."
"Hmm," Littlepaw replied, because some response was clearly in order but shi didn't want to say what shi really felt. Marty's aircraft was a real airplane: a high-wing monoplane with a puller propeller and no repulsordrive. Crossing the Coast Range in it had been, for Littlepaw, two and a half hours of sheer, white-knuckled terror. The plane had bounced and tossed like a kite in a windstorm; that Marty had repeatedly insisted that the weather was uncharacteristically mild did nothing to ease Littlepaw's qualms. The choice had been simple, though. Either take the plane, because Fort Clatsop was too small and out of the way to be served by commercial shuttles or stratojets, or join an overland caravan.
Marty whistled a jaunty tune as he switched on the ILS, then adjusted the aircraft's flight so that the colored lines on his head-up display were in their proper places. Littlepaw forced hirself to look out the window. Fort Clatsop was a collection of ramshackle buildings erected near the banks of a wild mountain river. From the air it was quite obvious that there had once been a city here, but now the forest had reclaimed its crumbled foundations. It's inhabitants had been claimed by disease and famine during the Gene Wars.
Littlepaw shivered in a way that had nothing to do with temperature, though 22 degrees was hardly warm to a person who'd grown up in northern Australia. Twenty-G wasn't just a slogan; during the Gene Wars 99.9% of Terra's population had died horribly, incinerated by war, wracked by disease, or starved as infrastructures collapsed. Littlepaw had never thought about it; in Australia and New Zealand, which had survived the wars relatively intact, nearly all evidence of the long-ago cataclysm had been carefully erased. But the devastation had been so severe, so complete, that even two hundred years later there were places that hadn't been reconstructed. Littlepaw still vehemently disagreed with Earth First's stated goals, but for the first time in hir life shi understood something of the pain they felt.
The aircraft's balloon tires hit the grass with a heavy jar. Brakes and reverse thrust quickly brought them to a halt; Marty swung the nose around and taxied the plane over toward the small cluster of hangar buildings. Littlepaw felt intensely relieved- because the flight was over, and because from the ground Fort Clatsop was just a frontier town. Evidence of ancient horrors were once again hidden by grass and trees.
"Looks like you're in luck," Marty commented as he shut off the propeller. "Jameelah's waiting for you."
"Is that unusual?" Littlepaw inquired.
"Actually, yes," Marty said. "Shi's been known to keep people waiting for days. And- if you'll pardon me for saying- shi don't usually do tenderfoots. Must be because you're both Chakats or something."
"I guess," Littlepaw muttered, unstrapping hirself and opening the passenger door. The aircraft hadn't been designed with 'taurs in mind; Marty had removed the rear seats and Littlepaw sat on the floor with the luggage. Shi struggled out, stretched mightily, and began pulling out hir bags.
"So you're Littlepaw," a voice commented as Littlepaw was taking out the last case, the one with the gun in it. Littlepaw started, twisted around, and found Jameelah standing right next to hir.
Jameelah was a lioness Chakat. Shi seemed much older than Littlepaw, though not yet a Longtail. Shi wore an olive drab tank top and a camouflaged BDU jacket. Strapped to hir torso, in cross-draw holsters, were a pair of long barreled pistols. The tip of hir left ear was nicked, and there was heavy scarring on hir forearms and forepaws.
"Yes," Littlepaw admitted, holding the weapon case tight against hir chest. Jameelah frightened hir the same way shi'd be frightened by an encounter with a dangerous wild animal. Jameelah's clothing, and hir body itself, had a slightly faded, worn look that suggested a person who valued functionality over appearance. Worst of all, there was something in hir eyes: something cold, hard, and mercilessly unforgiving, like granite. Just looking at it made Littlepaw feel like a blob of putty. This was a terrible mistake, I shouldn't even be here, Littlepaw thought miserably. Shi and Jameelah were the same species, and Fort Clatsop was on the same planet as Darwin, but right now Littlepaw felt that the backside of Jupiter would have been less alien than this terrible place and the terrible people who lived there.
"Let me see your weapon," Jameelah commanded. Hir eyes took in Littlepaw and hir luggage with a glance, but missed nothing.
Littlepaw opened the case. Inside was a 5.5mm needler with a target-shooting barrel and a folding stock. The metal parts were blacked, the plastic non-reflective olive drab. "Not bad," Jameelah allowed, lifting the needler out of the case and inspecting it, holding it gently but firmly, the way another person might hold a baby. "How did you choose it?"
"Well... I looked at a bunch of guide's net sites," Littlepaw explained. "I wrote letters and asked what they'd recommend. This is what most of them suggested for a, a person without much experience."
"Why not a big gun?" Jameelah wanted to know, unfolding the stock and sighting the needler on something across the field. "A 7.75 or 10 millimeter? What if we run into a cougar or a bear? Or a moose?"
Littlepaw sensed that shi was being tested. "I'm sure I wouldn't know what to do. That one's light, easy to carry, has a good reliability rating, and easy to shoot, too."
"You've fired it?"
"Yeah. There's a shooting club in Darwin. I've been going every week for, oh, the last six months or so."
"With this here weapon?"
Jameelah smiled. "You'll do." Shi set the needler back in its case. "Grab your stuff and come with me."
"Okay." Littlepaw closed and latched the case, then looked around for Marty. He was nowhere in sight, so shi closed the plane and, after a moment to organize hir things, started after Jameelah. Even with four saddle packs, a luggage trailer, and a large back pack, Littlepaw still ended up carrying two cases. Shi was painfully aware of how terribly out of place it all looked; not only was it obviously brand new, but everyone shi saw seemed to travel very lightly.
In front of the airport buildings was a parking lot, of sorts. Stopped in the middle of the drive was a dilapidated pickup. Jameelah whistled and pointed; two foxtaurs- a male and a female- jumped from the back and relieved Littlepaw of hir luggage, tossing it up with reckless abandon. When it was loaded they and Jameelah jumped up, then waited while Littlepaw struggled in. Jameelah slapped the top of the cab twice and the vehicle lurched into motion.
"Littlepaw, this is Anaba and Davon," Jameelah said, indicating respectively the female and male foxtaurs. "Turk is driving, you'll meet him when we reach the office."
"Where you taking hir?" Anaba inquired.
"Up to King's Valley, I think," Jameelah replied.
"Oughta be good hunting up there." Davon grinned hugely. Anaba chuckled.
Fort Clatsop was laid out along a single main street. Some of the buildings were ancient, battered prefabs, but most were made of roughly cut wood. To Littlepaw's city bred eyes, using lumber as a building material was shocking. The people, all Terran except for an occasional foxtaur, were as rough and weather beaten as the buildings themselves. They seemed to be acting funny- until Littlepaw realized that they were watching the truck closely, then looking away quickly when they thought any of the occupants might see them.
"There's lots of Earth Firsters around here," Davon commented. "They live up in the hills and mostly stay outa sight, but they come down here to trade."
The truck halted in front of a one-story building that appeared to be half shop and half house. Davon jumped down; Anaba tossed Littlepaw's luggage to him. Littlepaw stepped down, carrying the rifle case hirself, following Jameelah through the front door.
"Do they... bother you?" Littlepaw wondered. The front room of the shop was spacious, lined with shelves supporting an assortment of equipment and supplies, most of it military surplus, apparently. The front windows were small and dirty, the floor made of slatted boards that creaked. The air smelled dusty.
"Not in town, no," Jameelah replied. "Interpol would like nothing better than to send a reaction force in here. Especially now." Shi glanced at Littlepaw. "Out in the woods, that's another story, of course."
"Is... is it dangerous?" Littlepaw whispered.
Davon started to answer but Jameelah waved him silent. "Going out into the woods is always dangerous," shi said. "You could slip on a bad trail and break something. You could get lost and run out of supplies. You might get caught in a mud slide or a flash flood. You could run into a bear, a cougar, or a bull moose at just the wrong moment. And, of course, you might get shot by an Earth Firster who figures to bag himself a genejoke." Shi massaged hir left shoulder. "But that's pretty low on the list. If it weren't, Interpol'd be here already, wouldn't they? I wouldn't be allowed to guide safaris." Hir eyes narrowed slightly. "But you know that already, Littlepaw. You've done your homework. You know that ever since Cape York, Interpol has considered this a hot spot. Not hot enough to close it, mind you, but hot enough to issue an advisory to anyone thinking of going on safari here. Since you came anyway, I have to assume that you've considered the risks and found them... acceptable. As your guide I consider it my duty to keep you out of trouble. While insuring that you have a good experience, of course." Shi smiled- but only with hir face. Those cold, granite eyes did not soften. "If you change your mind, you can still cancel with a refund, right up to the morning we leave. But that won't be for a few days yet. Right now you're tired and hungry. I know what riding in Marty's plane is like." This time shi smiled for real. "Anaba, show our guest to hir room and help hir get settled in. Then we'll have dinner."
"Here you are, Ma'am," Turk declared, setting a platter down in front of Littlepaw.
Turk was dark haired, dark complected, and huge. Looking at him, it was easy to imagine that Terrans had evolved from apes. His massive arms and barrel-like chest- what Littlepaw could see of it through his open collar- were both covered with hair so thick it could almost be called a pelt. Below the waist his body tapered down to a slim waist, narrow hips, and somewhat stumpy seeming legs.
"Thanks," Littlepaw replied, staring with a sort of detached horror at the platter and its contents. What seemed to be a whole joint of meat had been cut into slices and laid out. With it was an enormous pile of potato salad, spiced heavily with horseradish and wild onions, half a loaf of bread, and a large bowl full of beans. Completely aside from the quantity, Littlepaw was shocked by the appearance of it. The meal utterly lacked the slick, professional presentation shi was accustomed to finding at the restaurants in Darwin. It had instead a rough-and-ready home cooked look.
"Barbecued venison," Davon declared, hacking off a slice of bread, wiping it in the sauce, then slapping a piece of meat on it. "No better in the entire world."
"I see." The savory smell of the meat and its sauce had more than halfway convinced Littlepaw that the quantities were perhaps not so excessive after all. Shi sectioned off a bite-sized chunk of meat and chewed it carefully. The flavor was- was- well, shocking was the only word. Sharp, gamy, and powerful. Like- like- nothing Littlepaw had ever tasted before. Shi had eaten steaks and other meat dishes in some of the finest restaurants in Australia, but none of it was anything like this. Not bland, no... but flavor was a subtile thing, carefully built from a skillfully woven interplay of sensations. This food was as rough and simple as the people eating it.
"You gonna eat that?" Davon asked, reaching for Anaba's bread. She jabbed with her fork, missing his fingers only because he jerked them out of the way. She glared at him; he grinned impishly. Turk did not appear to believe in utensils; using a piece of bread he scooped up meat, beans, and potato salad all together and conveyed them to his mouth. He used his fingers to wipe up any spillage, then licked them.
"Never had anything like this in Darwin?" Jameelah said, the corner of hir mouth quirking up into a smile. His eyes seemed to see right through Littlepaw, as if shi were transparent.
"No," Littlepaw admitted, munching another bite.
"What's Australia like?" Anaba asked.
"Hot," Littlepaw replied after a moment's thought. "Muggy. Not like here. This is rather nice, actually. Cool. Pleasant."
Davon snorted. "That's 'cause you're here in the summer. Believe me, you don't wanna be here any of the other eleven months of the year. Cold, rainy, overcast. Miserable." He shuddered.
"I went to California once," Turk put in. "Didn't like it much. Too desolate."
"Ever been to Port Kepler?" Jameelah inquired.
"Where?" Littlepaw blinked.
"Port Kepler," Jameelah repeated. "On Chakona. The climate's very similar to what we've got here in Oregon."
Littlepaw shook hir head. "No. I was born here on Terra. I've only been to Chakona twice, and I stayed in Amistad both times."
"I'd like to go to Chakona," Anaba sighed.
"You should see it if you get the chance," Jameelah said. "It's beautiful. Pristine. Not like..." hir eyes unfocused for a moment. "Chakona is young. Shi hasn't been scarred by ancient sorrows."
"Why didn't you stay?" Littlepaw found hirself asking.
"Civilized life doesn't suit me," Jameelah replied. For just an instant a strange inner fire showed through the hard surface of hir eyes.
Not simple, Littlepaw decided. Rough, yes. Lacking in civilized refinement, perhaps. But not simple.
0636 hours, 16 September 2335
"Still determined to go through with this?" Jameelah asked.
"Yes," Littlepaw replied.
"Very well then." Jameelah jumped into the back of the truck, where Davon and Anaba had already loaded all the gear. "The law requires me to ask to see your weapon permit. May I?"
Littlepaw opened hir pouch and held up the card. Jameelah nodded without even looking at it closely. "All right. Let's roll."
Littlepaw climbed up and settled beside Jameelah. Davon and Anaba reclined on the piles of gear. Jameelah slapped the roof of the cab and Turk got the truck rolling.
"Why don't you have a 'taur conversion truck?" Littlepaw wondered.
Jameelah snorted. "Out here? Sure, if I were willing to pay to have it air-freighted out from New Zealand. Much cheaper just to hire a two-legger. Any trouble getting your weapon license?"
"Not particularly," Littlepaw replied. In fact, since shi had never before applied for a license a background check was required and apparently hir file had been flagged. Shi found hirself required to speak to a counselor, who had been discreet and not actually come out and said that he felt Littlepaw wanted a gun so shi could take revenge on the people who'd hurt Antonia, but it had been there nonetheless. In session after session Littlepaw had patiently explained that shi intended to go on safari and shoot a trophy. Finally shi had told him straight out that shi knew hir record was clean, and if hir application were going to be denied the reasons had better be irrefutable or shi'd bring a lawyer to the next session. Hir license was reluctantly granted.
"Why'd you decide to come to Oregon?" Jameelah continued. "Other than bears or moose, our trophies aren't that spectacular. Why not go to India and bag a tiger, or Africa and get a rhino?"
"Everybody goes there," Littlepaw replied. Earth First's official site had links to other resources. Many of them had been dead ends, circularly referring to other official sites, wandering off onto unrelated topics, or connecting to pages that no longer existed. Littlepaw had been thorough, creating a database of all the links and carefully following each branch. Every night for several months shi had patiently explored link after link. Eventually, far down the chain, the sites had become less official and more personal. Mail lists and chat rooms became less carefully monitored, their content less rigorously sanitized. Thoughts and opinions began to emerge that had been carefully kept out of sites that more keenly felt the scrutiny of the public eye. People were more willing to talk, with the anonymity of the net to protect them. That was how Littlepaw had learned that there was a large enclave of Earth Firsters in Oregon Territory, perhaps one of the largest in the world.
Jameelah did not press. Littlepaw settled into the bed and watched the scenery slide by. This was apparently one of the days Davon had warned hir about. Gray overcast had settled over the mountain peaks and filled the valleys with mist. The air was cool and heavy with the promise of rain that never quite materialized. Aside from the temperature Littlepaw found it rather pleasant; with direct sunlight cut off the landscape was painted in soft pastels, like a living watercolor. Unfortunately, while the beauty of nature was enhanced, the marks of human habitation- buildings, roads, vehicles and people- seemed even more squalid.
"We'll head on up into the Coast Range," Jameelah explained as the truck bounced its way along what had once been a highway. "Once we've found a good spot for a base camp we'll go out in search of game."
Littlepaw nodded. The details had already been covered. If the right type of game wasn't to be found in one area, they'd move to another. As the truck emerged into an open meadow a herd of deer looked up in concern and began moving off toward the trees. Littlepaw frowned, stroking the receiver of the needler with hir thumb. Now why didn't I think to bring a camera? shi wondered to hirself. The scenery really is beautiful. Shi didn't notice Jameelah watching hir closely.
In the middle afternoon Jameelah called a halt, declaring that they had reached a suitable spot. Littlepaw was glad; the broad meadows and open valley had given way to steep hillsides and the trail- shi would not dignify it by calling it a road- had begun to twist and wind like snake with a bellyache. The ride would have been punishing even in a vehicle whose suspension was in much better shape. Turk, Davon, and Anaba cleared a spot with machetes and hand saws while Jameelah and Littlepaw unloaded the truck. In less time than Littlepaw would have thought the tents were set up- a pair of large, rather battered looking ones for the guides, a smaller, very new looking one for Littlepaw- and a fire built, over which Turk hung a pot of coffee and a pot of beans.
"Um-" Littlepaw looked around, mostly to avoid having to look at anyone in particular. "While we're out here... what do we do about... ah...." If shi'd not been covered with fur shi would have blushed.
"Sanitary facilities?" Jameelah suggested. Davon grinned; Anaba elbowed him sharply in the ribs. "Head down slope a ways and... do what comes naturally. And take this with you." Jameelah tossed something; Littlepaw caught it reflexively. It was a small electronic device about the size of a pocket secretary. "It's a GPS locator," Jameelah explained. "If you start to get too far from camp it'll beep. If you get lost, it'll show you how to get back. Don't lose it; not only is it expensive, but if you really do get lost, it'll help us find you."
"Okay," Littlepaw replied, tucking it into the breast pocket of hir jacket and buttoning the flap over it. Then shi turned and picked hir way gingerly through the underbrush; the GPS started beeping well before Littlepaw had travelled what shi felt was an adequate distance- until shi actually looked around. Suddenly the camp seemed very small and distant, the woods incredibly deep and menacing.
"Oh, Littlepaw, what in the world are you doing here?" shi muttered to hirself. You're an associate stock broker, born and raised in the city. The closest you ever came to camping was sleeping out in the yard when you were eight years old. The closest you ever came to hunting was catching squirrels in the park. Oregon is about as far from the civilized center of the world you can get and still be on the same planet. What are you doing here?
Earth First's official net site had explained things very thoroughly. The organization did not sanction violence against non-Terrans. It did not exist to promote hate or prejudice. Its only function was voice concerns over how the resources of the Terran Dominion were being spent. A great deal of capital was being poured into off world colonies- a disproportionate number of which were being settled by Chakats and other genetically engineered people. Why was this the case when so much of Terra herself still suffered under the ravages of a war that had ended over two hundred years ago? One might be led to think that the United Nations of Terra World Government was trying to sweep the whole matter under the carpet, to fool the common person into thinking that all traces of that darkest chapter in Terran history had been erased, when that was not the case. One might think that UNTWG had chosen to abandon naturally evolved Terrans in favor of new specie- like Chakats- whose history was not marred by such unpleasantness. In fact, "United Nations of Terra" was a misnomer; everyone knew that what it really meant was Australia, New Zealand, Greater Siberia, and Canada. Manchuria, Indo-China, Europe, South Africa, Amazonia, Argentinia, Texas, Dakota, and Appalachia were really just colonies, without political voice of their own. The rest of the world was reduced to territories, meaning that either there were no exploitable resources or UNTWG wanted to make sure that the people inhabiting a region did not start making noises that might upset the politically and economically profitable status quo.
Littlepaw leaned against a tree. It was still upsetting to think about. Chance and fortuitous geographical placement were all that had saved Australia and New Zealand from the ravages of war and its brutal aftermath. They had bodily hauled the planet out of what easily could have been humanity's last dark age. They had resolutely led the way into the future, to First Contact, and colonization of other worlds. Were those not good things? Were they not better than the alternative? On the other hand... it was easy for Littlepaw to say, having enjoyed a full measure of benefit from those activities. But seeing the ruins that dotted the landscape of Oregon Territory... the squalid little towns like Newport and Fort Clatsop... the question no longer seemed quite so cut-and-dried.
Figuring out how to do hir business without making a mess on hirself proved more difficult that Littlepaw had imagined. By proceeding very carefully shi eventually succeeded. It felt terribly wrong not to wash hir hands afterward. Back at camp Turk had got out a harmonica and was playing; Littlepaw dutifully sat and listened, then ate hir portion of beans, but hir mind wasn't really on it. Hir thoughts were elsewhere, in place lit by the hellish light of a powergun, filled with the screams of the terrified, wounded, and dying.
1418 hours, 24 September 2335
"Look there," Jameelah whispered, carefully pushing aside a screen of foliage with the barrel of hir gun.
Littlepaw had to clench hir jaw to keep from gasping aloud. "Is... is that a moose?" shi whispered. All the discomfort shi'd experienced as a result of belly-crawling nearly thirty meters through soaking wet underbrush was instantly forgotten.
"Elk," Jameelah corrected. "A moose would have a blunted nose and solid antlers with rounded tips."
A small herd- maybe twelve or fifteen individuals- browsed in a clearing. They had the pointed faces normally associated with deer but their bodies were heavy and powerful. A massive buck, no more than fifteen meters away, scanned the tree line for any sign of danger. A layer of nut brown fur almost shaggy enough to be wool coated his head and neck. On the rest of his body the fur was short, sleek, and a rich, golden brown. Sprouting from his head was a rack or antlers that Littlepaw could only describe as breathtaking.
"Now that's something that'll look mighty impressive hanging over the fireplace," Jameelah commented with a quiet chuckle. "Not to mention keeping us in venison for a few months, at least. Care to take a shot?"
Littlepaw shifted uneasily as shi brought the needler forward, blowing on the receiver to dislodge a bit of loam. What are you so upset about? shi demanded of hirself, settling the forestock into hir left hand, curling hir right around the grip, and laying hir cheek against the receiver. This is what you came for, isn't it? This is why you traveled halfway around the world and spent the last eight days living like an Aborigine in this rain-soaked Hell on earth. At this range there was no windage and the finely crafted weapon had no pull to speak of. The buck was conveniently showing his profile; the blade of the front sight was centered on a spot just behind his eye, the forks of the rear sight precisely aligned. Almost unconsciously Littlepaw's thumb flicked the arming switch from "safe" to "live." The weapon emitted an almost inaudible keening as the drive coils charged. A strange, prickly sensation spread down Littlepaw's fingers and propagated through hir body. Shi settled lower into the soft, wet, rich-smelling earth. The Angel of Death was perched upon hir shoulder; shi felt His weight pressing hir down, His cold, bony fingers resting against hir back. He was trembling with excitement; all Littlepaw had to do was stroke the hair trigger and He would be loosed....
"What if the 5.5 isn't enough?" Littlepaw hissed through tightly clenched teeth. Hir needler fired a 2.5 millimeter fin-stabilized dart that was saboted to fit the 5.5 millimeter barrel. Drive coils accelerated the dart to three times the speed of sound; after leaving the muzzle the sabot fell away and the dart continued on to its target. When it struck something soft- like flesh- it would tumble, flying apart into shrapnel. The manufacturer guaranteed that it would punch through the cranial vault of even a large creature, such as an elk, but the rain-soaked forests of Oregon were a long way from the ballistics laboratory in Sydney.
"Not to worry," Jameelah replied, tapping the receiver of hir 7.75 with hir index finger. "I'll back you up if need be."
Littlepaw licked hir lips to moisten them. Shi could feel hirself beginning to unsheathe; not from sexual arousal per se but rather due to the extreme tension in hir body. Just pull the trigger, shi told hirself. It's not even as hard as the targets at the shooting range. He's just standing there, for pity's sake.
"Better hurry," Jameelah commented, without the slightest trace of concern in hir tone. "The wind's backing. Too much longer and he'll smell us."
It would be nothing like a powergun. The needler would make a popping sound, like an electronic flash going off. There would be a loud whip-crack as the projectile went supersonic. The elk would stagger from the impact; the entrance wound would be nothing but a tiny pucker with very little blood. If the dart had enough energy to penetrate the opposite side of his face would explode in a spray of blood, shattered bone, and brain tissue. He would drop heavily on his face, blood frothing from his mouth and nose, pouring from his shattered skull. There would be no pain, no fear; he would be dead before the sound of the shot even reached his ears.
"Almost out of time," Jameelah prompted, as if it meant nothing at all.
Littlepaw's finger caressed the trigger as if it were the flesh of hir dearest love. Will one of those cows mourn you? Will she cry when you're gone? A moment later hir thumb flicked the selector back to "safe" in case hir trembling hand might fire the weapon accidentally. Shi could no longer see the elk; hir eyes were blinded by tears.
The elk abruptly lifted his head, seeming to look straight at where Littlepaw and Jameelah were hiding. He turned about and moved toward the far tree line without haste or any apparent concern. The herd moved after him, and in moments was lost from sight.
1709 hours, 24 September 2335
Davon was collecting firewood, Anaba water, and Turk was tinkering with the truck. Jameelah was cleaning a brace of rabbits Anaba had caught- barehanded, supposedly. Only Littlepaw had nothing in particular to do.
"I'm sorry," Littlepaw said quietly.
"For what?" Jameelah glanced up. "This is your safari, Littlepaw. You've paid your money. Whatever you want to do out here is fine with us."
"I didn't get a trophy," Littlepaw muttered.
"So?" Jameelah stuffed the first rabbit with a handful of something scooped from one of Turk's supply boxes. "There'll be other days. Even if you don't end up shooting anything, it's still been an experience, hasn't it?"
"Why'd you agree to guide me?" Littlepaw demanded.
"Why'd you pick me?" Jameelah shot back, fitting the rabbits onto a long metal spit.
"Because-" even in the failing light the old wound in Jameelah's left shoulder was clearly visible, now that Littlepaw knew what to look for. "You seemed honest. I mean- you spoke with confidence. Like you really knew what your were talking about, and cared. Not like, like, you were trying to sell me something. Your turn."
"Okay." Jameelah set the spit over the fire. "I have a reputation around here. As a good guide, among other things." Shi grinned crookedly. "People from all over the world write me letters asking me to guide them. If I took even half of them I'd be leading armies around. So I can afford to pick and choose, to some extent. There are others who'd pay more, who have more experience with safari... but an awful lot of people go on safari because they think that waving a gun around and killing a bunch of defenseless animals makes them studly." Shi sniffed disdainfully. "I picked you, Littlepaw, for the same reason you picked me. I could see from your letters that all this was very serious to you, not just some childish game. You wanted something very specific from me. I felt I could give it to you."
"But I haven't shot anything."
"You didn't come here for something to hang over your fireplace, Littlepaw."
"I do hope this is enough," Davon exclaimed, stepping into the clearing with an armload of deadfall. He dropped it on the pile-
Suddenly Littlepaw was as tense as a drawn bowstring. Something was terribly wrong-
Davon's mouth worked. His expression was shocked and horrified. His forelegs collapsed and he fell heavily on his face. The coppery fur on his back was matted by a much darker, richer red. Jameelah had dropped the container shi'd picked up and twisted hir torso to grab for hir weapon-
This time Littlepaw heard the whip-crack very clearly. The projectile slapped through the back of Jameelah's hand and disintegrated against one of the fire stones, stinging Littlepaw's arm and face with tiny metal shards.
"Too late," the man said as he emerged from the screening foliage. He was dressed from head to toe in dirty camouflaged fatigues; his disguise was supplemented by face paint and bits of foliage until he looked like a perambulating bush. "Really, Jameelah, you gotta be a lot more careful around here." In spite of his words he was scared; his eyes remained locked unblinkingly on Jameelah, his weapon aimed at the center of hir chest. He moved slowly, carefully, as if he were approaching a wounded bear. Judging from the look in Jameelah's eyes he was more right than not.
No, please, not here, not now! a tiny voice screamed in the back of Littlepaw's mind. But it was fading fast; a hot, prickly sensation was washing through hir, such as shi might have felt in the last few moments before orgasm. Shi'd raised hir right hand to shield hir face; hir needler, with the stock folded, was still slung in the crook of hir arm.
He'll kill you, the voice said. He'll shoot you and leave you to die in this horrible forest.
Would you risk your life to save Antonia? Littlepaw thought back. If you'd had a needler and the know-how to use it at Cape York, would you have hesitated?
The exchange must have occupied no more than a second or two because the stranger had not even completed one step. Littlepaw grabbed the needler with one hand, like a pistol, swinging it, flicking the safety, and firing in one smooth motion. You're so dead, muthafucker.
There wasn't time for the needler to fully charge before firing. The sound it made was more like that of an air rifle going off than its usual sharp snap, but it was quite enough. The man halted, his face taking on a look of mingled shock and horror almost identical to Davon's of a minute earlier. Littlepaw did not remember pulling the trigger that many times but there were no less than five bloody stains spreading on the front of his shirt.
"Run!" Jameelah screamed, leaping to hir feet.
Needlers don't flash like gunpowder weapons, but Littlepaw's ears were quite capable of placing each of the chorus of staccato cracks that erupted from the semi-darkness. Again the strangers mistakenly assumed Jameelah was the source of the danger; shi shuddered and danced obscenely as a dozen or more projectiles ripped through hir body. Before shi even hit the ground Littlepaw had rolled out of the fire circle and dove for the brush, running with hir head down until hir chin was almost skimming the ground. A few projectiles chased hir, kicking up dirt and stones, but they stopped quickly. In the rapidly gathering twilight, and with some foliage for cover, Littlepaw's smoke gray fur rendered hir, for all practical purposes, invisible.
"Jesus H. Christ!" a grating voice snarled. "Fishbeck, Torkelson, get after it! All we fucking need is for it to call the bleeding Peace Force down on our heads!"
Littlepaw forced hirself to stop and listen though hir legs were vibrating like plucked guitar strings and shi could taste bile in the back of hir throat. Shi had no illusions about hir ability to find hir own way back to Fort Clatsop; running away would just prolong the agony. There didn't seem to be more than five or six of them; if shi could take out a few more and get to the truck shi just might have a chance-
"Here," Gravel Throat continued. "Now get going. And don't come back until you've got it. We'll stay and clean up here."
For an instant Littlepaw was confused. Why did they need to clean up? Then it hit hir: they needed to get rid of the evidence in case Interpol showed up. Shi almost laughed; the notion of laws- and police- out here was too ludicrous for words. But more important concerns presented themselves. How were Fishbeck and Torkelson going to find Littlepaw in the quickly failing light?
Littlepaw clasped a hand to hir chest. The GPS locator. If Jameelah could use it to find Littlepaw, then someone else could as well. Shi fished it out of hir pocket and almost threw it away, then stopped. No reason to make their job any easier. Shi thumbed the panic button. Now I need a little distance. Shi slunk as silently as possible through the brush, clutching the GPS at arm's length as if it were a live grenade. A herd of elephants surely could have done it more quickly and quietly but if they were tracking the GPS it didn't really matter, did it? Near the foot of an ancient Douglas fir shi hid the GPS in a dense stand of fern, then unsheathed hir claws and quickly ascended. The tree's dense, heavily textured bark was perfect for climbing. Shi went up four meters or so and hung there, peering around the trunk and waiting. The life of an associate stock broker was a comparatively sedentary existence that had little in it to prepare Littlepaw for this sort of exertion; shi'd pay dearly tomorrow-
If there was a tomorrow.
This is stupid, Littlepaw thought bitterly. They're experienced woodsmen. They'll never fall for such an idiotic trick-
They drifted out of the brush like ghosts, as silent as Death. They moved in relay, one covering while the other crept forward. Their boots were ladder-laced, the camouflage pattern on their fatigues supplemented by dirt and plant stains. Night vision goggles turned them into inhuman, glassy-eyed monsters. All they had to do was lift their eyes just slightly and they'd see Littlepaw clinging foolishly to the side of a tree. But they didn't; their eyes, like the muzzles of their weapons, were focused upon the clump of fern. Littlepaw leaned out, bracing hir needler against the wide trunk. The two men were even closer than the elk had been, and genetics had endowed hir with excellent night vision.
CrackCrackCrackCrack. Four rounds, two for each man. The one on the left fired his weapon into the ground as a pair of darts punched through his clavicle and into his rib cage. Otherwise the hunters fell as silently as they'd come. Rather than waste time climbing back down Littlepaw jumped. Cats always land on their feet-
This particular cat was exceedingly fortunate not to break a leg. Miserable climate saved hir; the forest loam was spongy with moisture. Littlepaw slammed into the ground and went rolling through the ferns, dazed. For some time shi lay there gasping. When hir wits finally returned shi leapt to hir feet- staggering as hir much-abused limbs almost failed to support hir- and clutched frantically for the needler. The telescoping sling had pulled it back against hir chest; at the end of the fall it had severely bruised hir sternum.
I'll pay for it tomorrow, Littlepaw thought, less as a rueful admonition to hirself than as a desperate promise to the Powers that Be. At the moment shi'd have welcomed the certainty of dire suffering on the morrow, if only as a guarantee that shi'd still be around to experience it.
Littlepaw started to shiver, from reaction to stress and also because the temperature was dropping now that the sun had gone. Fur or no, without a fire or at least a tent hir chances of lasting through the night didn't look good. Jameelah had been very clear on the physiological effects of exposure. Not to mention that Gravel Throat and his remaining buddies were unlikely to give up the search just because Fishbeck and Torkelson failed to return. Clearly the priority was to get away, but how? On foot, without food, supplies, equipment, or even a map, was right out. Shi needed a vehicle. Jameelah's truck was parked right near camp- where camp had been. Getting it would mean having to out-stalk men who moved through the forest like fish through water. Littlepaw had enough understanding to appreciate just how unimaginably lucky shi'd been- not once but three times. Shi hadn't taken off the needler upon returning to camp; the attackers had either not noticed or discounted it. They had focused on Jameelah, allowing Littlepaw to escape. Fishbeck and Torkelson had assumed that shi'd just wait around to be caught. Some time in the very immediate future- about the time he realized that Fishbeck and Torkelson weren't coming back- Gravel Throat was going to wise up. At which point the huge draw of karma Littlepaw had made against hir celestial account would come due in a big way.
Interestingly enough, the certainty of death made things much easier. Now that hir mind was unencumbered by trivialities- like survival- Littlepaw found that shi could think with startling clarity. Gravel Throat and his cronies hadn't come from anywhere nearby or Jameelah and Littlepaw would have found some traces of it during their week of excursions. They hadn't walked because they'd arrived for battle fresh and rested. They hadn't flown because even a repulsordrive made quite a bit of noise, especially compared to the relative quiet of the forest. But a fuel-cell powered vehicle, like Jameelah's truck, was nearly silent. The crunch of tires on gravel might seem loud when you're standing beside a highway but a single vehicle driven carefully would make very little sound, which the forest would quickly drink up. But not too quickly; since both Chakats and foxtaurs had exceptional hearing, the attackers would have stopped a ways off and come in on foot to insure surprise. Since they could track the GPS locators they'd know where every member of the party was so the bulk of the force could be deployed against camp. Only one or two would be needed to watch the truck....
As shi jogged through the forest, attempting to describe a wide circle around the camp site, Littlepaw fully realized how much of that last point was built on hopeful assumption. The simple fact was that hir interpretation of events was the only one that gave hir a chance. Shi had to believe it. If shi really thought that shi was strolling away the last few minutes of hir existence shi wouldn't even be able to move, to say nothing of acting.
Littlepaw's karma credit held up. Shi spotted the roadway in time to avoid blundering out into it. After waiting for several minutes- which felt like hours- shi belly-crawled into the drainage ditch and peered carefully left and right. Bingo. About thirty meters to hir left a stake-bed truck stood in the middle of the track. A flare of light froze hir while hir hearts tried to leap right out hir mouth. It was just one of the guards lighting a cigarette. He passed it to his buddy; Littlepaw released the sling so that the needler was free in hir hands. One lesson shi had learned very well in the last half hour or so was that out here in the wild you get exactly one chance to make good. One screw up, one bad break, and it was all over.
The truck was nothing but a black outline against the mottled darkness of the forest. The men leaning against its side were invisible. If not for their smoke break Littlepaw would never have known they were there. After each man had taken two puffs the cigarette went on the ground and was crushed out by a heavy boot. Littlepaw glanced to hir right, not that shi had any illusions about seeing them coming. Fishbeck and Torkelson had unmasked themselves because they'd expected to find Littlepaw cowering in the ferns, paralyzed with terror. Littlepaw sighted carefully; the glow-dots on the needler's sights were perfectly aligned on a patch of darkness indistinguishable from any other part of the truck's silhouette. A stroke of the trigger, a sharp crack. The weapon jerks back but does not pull to the side, just as the salesman had proudly promised. A slight shift to the left, another shot, and two shadows spill on the ground, partially detached from that of the truck. After one last glance to hir right Littlepaw rose out of the ditch and started jogging. If there was anyone behind hir there wasn't a damn thing shi could do about it. Shi could feel the sights centering on hir back, imagine the feeling as a 5 millimeter dart punched between hir shoulder blades and exploded out between hir breasts. The only reason shi could keep moving was because shi felt as if hir soul had already fled, leaving behind an empty shell of a body that didn't know enough to lay down and stop moving.
Without even being aware of it Littlepaw stepped over the fallen bodies as shi opened the driver's side door. The main power was off but the key still in place. Shi reached in and threw the switch; the fuel cell lit with a faint whoosh. Strip gages on the dash indicated that the main fuel tank was three quarters full, the secondary completely full, the fuel cell and all four drive motors operating properly. Only after climbing halfway in did Littlepaw realize that shi'd committed a tactical error; rather than back out shi crawled across the bench seat and out the passenger door, pulling the driver's door shut with hir tail. From the other side shi mounted again, this time ending up with hir torso on the correct side of the cab. Shi still couldn't quite fit behind the wheel so shi grabbed it with hir left hand. Two sharp cracks accompanied hir release of the hand brake; a pair of projectiles punched through the rear window of the cab and the windshield, missing hir knuckles by centimeters at most. If shi'd been sitting behind the wheel like a normal driver they'd have gone right through the back of hir head. Shi stomped the accelerator with hir left forepaw. The truck lurched into motion, the left rear dualie bumping greasily over the two corpses. Several more rounds slammed into the truck's frame as Littlepaw guided it around a sharp turn. Shi didn't bother to look back; the Terrans wouldn't catch hir on foot and their marksmanship was getting worse. Of course a lucky hit might still do the job, but shi wouldn't see that coming anyway. There was a radio under the dash; Littlepaw flicked it on and set it to scanning, but the airwaves seemed rather empty tonight. If Gravel Throat had a backup radio with him he wasn't using it. No surprise, really; the radio did not seem to have an encryption module, and despite appearances this was not the Wild West. There were satellites in orbit that might pick up an incautiously uttered word and relay it to Interpol. Littlepaw's free hand strayed toward the mike but shi suppressed the urge. Yelling on the radio just now was more likely to attract the attention of Gravel Throat and his lot than anyone who might actually help. Directly above the radio was a cheap model GPS. It had no catalog, no presets, no memory of previously entered coordinates, and would not accept anything but latitude and longitude to set destinations and way points. For something to do Littlepaw keyed in the coordinates of Darwin; the unit obligingly displayed a course and indicated that at present speed shi could drive there in 206 days.
"Don't worry, Antonia," Littlepaw said aloud. "I'll be back before you know it. Though I think the salt water may be little rough on the engine." Shi laughed, a series of short barking sounds as sharp and harsh as the crack of a needler.
Littlepaw's hand began to shake. Even with both hands on the wheel shi was barely keeping the truck on the winding track. Shi jammed the brake; the truck slid to a stop in a shower of gravel, fishtailing slightly. Shi set the hand brake, kicked open the driver's door, and slithered out, ignoring the pain as broken glass scratched hir belly. Hir forepaws collapsed as hir body's weight came on them; shi fell in a heap, retching uncontrollably. There was nothing to come up; shi hadn't eaten since lunch. When shi tried to stand hir legs felt like they'd been flensed and dipped in acid. Hir chest felt as if someone had tried to drive a stake through it. As shi lay there a succession of faces paraded through hir mind. Davon, the man who'd killed him, Fishbeck, Torkelson... the two men by the truck. Shi'd never seen their faces but hir imagination filled them in. Why did everyone always look so surprised? They came out here to kill, for Christ's sake. They put Death in their pockets, held Him as close as any lover. Then they acted all surprised when He touched them. Littlepaw grabbed the side of the truck and hauled hirself up by main force. Hir stomachs felt as if they were trying to twist themselves into knots. Antonia-
Antonia's face had looked exactly the same. Littlepaw had been delirious with shock and pain that fateful day in Cape York and shi'd spent every minute of every day since trying to expunge it from hir mind, but the memory came back as strong and clear as if it had happened seconds ago. That odd blend of fear and pain, but mostly shock. Disbelief that such a thing could actually be happening. Dismay that the comforting certainty of existence had been shattered.
I murdered them, Littlepaw thought. Killing the guy who'd shot Davon could be considered self defense. Geeking Fishbeck and Torkelson might be more of a stretch, but Littlepaw doubted that any jury (except perhaps one of Earth Firsters) would convict. The two guards by the truck hadn't threatened hir, except by their mere existence. They hadn't even known shi was there. They had died for no reason other than that they had stood between Littlepaw and hir goal. Because at that time and place Littlepaw could not have imagined any other way to solve hir problem.
"What happened to me?" Littlepaw sobbed, clawing at the gravelly road. Shi was less afraid of Gravel Throat and his buddies than the thing shi had become. I couldn't shoot an elk after preparing for months. Then, in an hour or so, I shot five people.
He stalked slowly into the clearing, his needler socketed hard against his shoulder, the muzzle centered on Jameelah's chest. Littlepaw felt the textured grip of hir own weapon twist in hir hand as hir arm swung. His eyes turned, sensing the movement. The muzzle of his needler began to shift, but nowhere near fast enough. Fire. Crack. Fire. Crack. Fire. Crack. Fire. Crack. Fire. Crack. Each shot was a discrete event; Littlepaw felt each individual recoil against the palm of hir hand. With the stock folded and without a steadying hand on the forestock precise control was impossible; shots landed in a cluster around the aiming point at the center of his chest. As each dart struck home Littlepaw saw his flesh ripple from the impact like the surface of a still pond. His eyes and mouth opened into wide ovals and he was looking down at his own chest as if he were saying "How the Hell did that happen?"
Littlepaw's eyes snapped open and scanned the trees. No sign of pursuit... not that shi expected to see them even if they were there. The surest indication that they weren't was the fact that shi was still alive. Shi got to hir feet, shut the driver's door, got in on the passenger's side, and resumed driving. According to the clock on the GPS is was 1312 hours GMT, 2112 local. Littlepaw had ho idea how long shi'd been laying by the truck. "I'm so sorry, Antonia," shi said. "I should never have come." But what else could you do? Even if you hadn't come to Oregon Antonia would still be in the hospital. Your plans for the future would still be nonexistent. What else could you have done? As shi looked back at hir recent past it became harder and harder to imagine. Shi didn't feel like shi'd planned any of it- but when the moment came shi had opened fire on a fellow sentient as if shi'd been doing it all hir life. Shi felt like a person who goes for a stroll and suddenly realizes that they're lost in the woods. Naturally shi tried to retrace hir steps- and it all became clear.
I came to Oregon because I wanted to meet the man with the powergun and I wanted to have a weapon in my hand when I did.
Littlepaw began to cry, like shi'd cried when shi woke up in the hospital and thought Antonia was dead. This time it wasn't for Antonia, it was for hirself. At some point since last year the Littlepaw shi had known all hir life had died, just as surely as Jameelah and Davon, Fishbeck and Torkelson, the two truck guards, and the thirty-six unlucky people who had happened to be in Terminal 17 at just the wrong time. Shi searched back, trying to find the moment. Pulling the trigger and sending five people to their eternal reward had been the end of it, not the beginning. Boarding the stratojet that would take hir from Cape York to Edmonton hadn't been it, nor even the moment some months back when shi'd chosen Oregon Territory as hir destination. Not even the moment shi'd decided to search out Earth First on the net. The incident in the gun shop had happened because the old man had seen in Littlepaw what shi hirself did not, and tried to warn hir. It had been the moment shi looked down into Antonia's glassy, lifeless eyes and realized that all hir hopes, all hir dreams, all hir plans for the future, had ceased to be. In that instant Littlepaw had ceased to be.
I came to find the man with the powergun and I have. I have become him.
Littlepaw dabbed at hir face. Hir tears had stopped; there was no need for them any more. Shi halted the truck, switched off the power, and tossed the key into the bushes. Several crates of supplies had been set in the bed, just behind the cab. Littlepaw tore them open, filling hir saddle packs with as much food, water, and other gear as shi could carry. Shi climbed down and walked into the woods; hir pelt blended perfectly with the darkness, the sound of hir footfalls becoming one with night sounds. In a moment Littlepaw was gone as if shi had never been.