A light drizzle was falling, almost a mist, droplets beading on the grass. I tucked Tahr's blankets a little closer and stroked her muzzle to brush away the moisture there.
Doped to the eyeballs with painkillers. How long?
And the two cars we'd seen had just swept past, tyres hissing on the wet blacktop that reflected stretched distortions of the receeding taillights, leaving Maxine stamping her foot in frustration.
I looked up as Maxine scrambled down the embankment from the road and knelt beside me, turning up her collar against the rain: "How is she?"
"I don't know." I shook my head, wanting to cry. "Oh, shit, I don't know. I think she's dying."
"It'll be okay," Maxine said quietly and touched her hand to the Sathe's forehead. Tahr's breathing was shallow, her pulse so weak I had barely been able to find it. "Come on. We've got to keep moving."
I just nodded and caught Tahr up in my arms. Her head lolled back, mouth gaping, her breath forming tiny clouds in the chill air. Carefully I hugged her close as we walked on, following the road.
Half an hour later and both of us were soaked, tired, cold. I found myself keeping up a constant monologue to the dead weight in my arms: "Come on. Come on, you'll be fine. Don't die. Don't die...God, don't let her die..."
"Kelly," Max touched my arm and I looked at her for the first time in while. Her dark hair was plastered to her head; there were dark bags under her eyes; her worn jacket and blue jeans that were more patches than original fabric were soaked through. Exhausted, running on empty. We both were, and my worry wasn't helping anyone.
I shut up and we walked in silence.
There wasn't much traffic. Two more cars whipped past, ignoring us and leaving us standing in a swirling cloud of mist.
"Assholes!" Max screamed at the taillights.
And we kept walking, following the line of slick blacktop. I didn't know exactly where we were. Neither of us had seen signposts and in the dark and rain nothing looked familiar. There were trees on either side of the road, huge old pines. Once we passed a cutting where high tension pylons marched across the countryside. Another time there were empty fields with no sign of any buildings or farmhouse.
Tahr was starting to shiver feebly when we heard an engine again, from behind us. Powerful headlamps cut through the mist and swept across the treetops as a truck rounded a corner. Maxine swore and bolted out into the road, waving her arms over head, like a rabbit in the headlight. She barely ducked aside as the semi growled past, slowing down. Pneumatic brakes hissed in jerking bursts and a powerful engine howled as it was stepped down through the gears until the semi jerked to a stop a few metres down the road. Maxine ran to catch up. I saw the cab door swing open and light shine down on her.
"Godawful night to being hitchin, Ma'am," a voice permeated by a southern twang greeted her. "Looking for a ride?"
"I'd really appreciate it," Maxine called back.
I didn't recognise the model, but it was a semi. More rounded though. Big black bull bars and banks of lights on the front. The markings on the trailer said 'Inter-Con Refrigeration' with a logo of a refrigerrator made out of a icec.
"I've got a couple of friends," Maxine continued. "One of them's hurt bad. Can you get us to a hospital?"
"Ah," the driver was sounding unsure now. I caught up with Maxine and stepped into the pool of light spilling from the cab. The driver was a young guy with dark hair, checkered flannel shirt, windbreaker, green fatigue pants, and driving gloves. He stared at me, then his eyes flicked down to the bundle in my arms. Tahr's face was clear in the light.
His hand moved to reach under the seat but Maxine had already drawn and was holding the little Walther 9mm in both hands. "Don't do it. Just don't move!"
He was smart. He froze where he was, still staring at Tahr.
"Now," Maxine ordered as she clambered into the passengers seat. "Hands on the wheel."
He did as she said. Maxine hooked his gun out from under the seat and tossed it over into the back of the cab. A big snub- nosed revolver of some kind. She kept her pistol on him while I climbed in with Tahr. A curtain across the back of the cab concealed a bunk and small cooking unit. I laid Tahr down upon the bed. She whimpered and muttered something about Hraasa, the pain in her chest. Damnation! She wasn't going through THAT again?!
"What the fuck is it?!" the driver intoned, still staring at Tahr. He looked to be in shock.
Maxine ignored the question. "How far to the nearest town with a hospital?"
"I...Uhhh...Roanoke...About fity kay," he said without moving his eyes from Tahr. "What IS that? What's going on here?!"
"What's going on is that she's dying," I snarled. "DRIVE!"
He dropped into the seat. The engine purred; incredibly quiet. Green light from the dash flicked across the cab. No, not from the dash, there was a HUD display in the windshield above the wheel. Numbers flickered as we moved off. Things had changed.
"Ahhh...Listen lady. Could you put that thing away." The driver was nervously eyeing the gun. "I won't try anything. I swear."
Maxine looked back at me. I nodded and she lowered the gun to her lap. The driver relaxed visibly.
Now the engine settled down to a steady hum, the heads-up display a steady green glow. In the back I found the switch to the overhead light and switched it on. There were centrefold cutouts stuck up around the padded walls, a small poster advertising a band called the Gatorskins playing in Georgia. Tahr mewled as I pulled the blankets aside and touched the bandages that covered her torso. Gingerly I loosened the cloth to examine the wounds.
The muzzle blast had torn and burned the fur and the tough hide beneath. Somewhere inside her were the fragments from a blunderbuss. The assassin hadn't been close enough: if the guards hadn't got him so quickly it would've been much worse. As it was, it was bad enough.
"Soon," I hissed in Sathe, running my fingers through her wet fur. "We are getting help for you. Alright?"
Tahr didn't answer. I wasn't even sure she could hear me.
"How long?" Maxine asked the driver.
"Ten minutes," he said glancing over his shoulder at me, at Tahr. "What the hell's going on?! What IS that thing? Where's it from?"
"A friend," I said, stroking Tahr's shoulder. "She's hurt bad."
"What is it? Some gov'ment experiment?"
"Yeah," Max sighed, sounding as tired as I felt. "An alien."
"Holy Sheeite!" He almost laughed at that. "I always thought they'd look like giant sponges or something. Where'd you find it...her...whatever?"
"Long story. We've been living with them," I said. "Seven years now."
"Seven years?" He whistled. Then: "Them? There's more?"
I sighed. This seemed remarkably familiar, a twisted version of what I'd been through with Tahr all those years ago when I first arrived in her Realm. Now she was the alien. I was her guide.
The culture shock would be even harder on her than it had been on me. I could identify what I had seen. She would be new to a world of wonders. . . if she survived.
"Yeah," I said. "There're more. You don't have to worry about any invasions though."
"Where did the ship land?"
"You know, the spaceship."
I laughed at that, wearily: "No. No ship."
There were lights outside. Sodium streetlights cast angry orange reflections from the wet suburban streets. Buildings were dark, deserted, warehouses and shops with only security lights. A seven-eleven and its adjacent parking lot illuminated in a flood of harsh neon brilliance.
We swung onto the road paralleling the river that glittered with reflections from the lights in high-rises along the shoreline, then rumbled across an old iron box-girder bridge with the criss-cross of metal outside throwing strobing shadows into the cab. The few other vehicles out prudently swung aside to let the semi through. Then we were on a ringroad, the town centre a glittering mass of neon and incandesence and building lights, drowning the stars.
I hung onto the back of Max's seat and leaned over her shoulder to watch the city scrolling past. Without a word she raised her hand to my cheek. She didn't need words. Home. After all this time; home.
That city out there, untold thousands of people. My kind of people. Apes, not cats. I nuzzled Maxine's hair. "Human," I whispered.
"Hmmm," she agreed, understanding.
The truckie surreptitiously glanced across at us before turning his attention back to the road.
Wheels squealed as we swung onto an off ramp, ignoring signs that vehicles over ten tons take the ring road. From there onto smaller streets that were never intended for vehicles of this size. Red lights ahead.
"Run em," Maxine calmly told the driver who shrugged and put his foot down. The semi surged ahead. A station wagon slewed and skidded wildly on the wet roads as we cut across in front of it. Horns blared in our wake and I hoped to god no-one was hurt.
The hospital was a glass box of a building, blazing with lights while the edifices flanking it stood in darkness. Wheels smashed against curb and the trailer scraped ornamental brickwork as we swung into the concourse before the main doors, a car coming the other way swerving violently to avoid us. People were staring through the massive foyer windows as the truck pulled up with a hissing of brakes and pneumatics. Max had the door open before we stopped, dropped from the cab and reached up to help steady me as I lifted Tahr, manoeuvered her past the seats and out the door. The Sathe was a dead weight in my arms as I awkwardly clambered down; from door to runningboard to ground. Max caught me, steadying me. "You okay?" she asked.
"Yeah, I got her." I settled Tahr more securely in my arms. Her jaw spasmed in pain as I moved her. "I've got her. Let's go."
A small crowd had gathered in the foyer, rubbernecking through the windows. They melted aside like the Red Sea meeting Moses as we entered. Some sight we must have been: a dark, wild looking woman in tattered denims and leather jacket carrying a pistol; an unshorn red-headed man with a patched cloak, army jacket, and heavy leather trousers carrying something that couldn't easily be explained in his arms.
There were several receptionists, all female, behind a cluttered counter. We approached the nearest, an oriental with her hair in a frizzy, lopsided cut speaking quickly and quietly into a headset microphone, throwing a lot of glances in our direction. She quickly stopped as we approached the desk and stared at Tahr. Chirping phones were loud in the silence until other receptionists made belated grabs at their keyboards. I ignored them and let them do their jobs
"A doctor," I told the girl. "We need a doctor fast. We've got a shotgun wound."
She forced a smile. "I. . . I'm sorry, we aren't a vetinary service."
"A vet?" I didn't need this shit. "Look lady, we need a doctor! You think this is a costume? A joke? Do you see me laughing? We need a doctor! Now! She's been shot for Christssake! She's dying!"
"Sir, I really think..."
"Goddamn it! We don't have time for this."
She swallowed. "Sir, if you don't calm I will have to call the. . ." she trailed off as I gently laid Tahr on the counter, then produced the trucker's pistol and put a bullet through a cheap landscape print on the wall behind her. There were screams and yells. The receptionist cringed and clapped her hands to her ears. Maxine had spun with her own gun and several guys who'd taken steps forward stopped and backpedalled.
"Read my lips, lady," I said slowly and clearly. "GET A DOCTOR!"
"Alright!" she cried, terrified, and her fingers flew across a keyboard. "Okay. . . Okay, uh, gunshot trauma at reception. Doctor Maruksa. Emergency room e5 on standby." She clattered on at the ternimal and I almost fired at a pair of orderlies who rushed up with a gurney. They pulled up short when they saw what was going down. I beckoned them with the pistol. They turned white, but came forward. Of course they stared when I set Tahr on the trolley.
"Hey, man. What's..."
"Emergency," the secretary told them, wide eyes flicking nervously. "Shotgun wound. Dr Maruksa. E5."
"That?" one of them asked.
"Yeah, that," I snapped, "Move it or lose it!"
They did that; snapping the sides of the trolley up and hurrying it to the elevators while behind us the receptionist was probably busy calling the cops. The car was waiting, and as the lift doors closed, I heard the wails of distant sirens.
Motors hummed. It was a hospital lift: slow, steady, and smooth. Even so Tahr whimpered and opened her eyes, not focusing, blinking in the glow of ceiling lights. "Tahr?" I clasped her hand, ignoring the stares of the orderlies. "How are you doing?"
"Huuhnn," she moved her mouth, then said in a tiny voice, "It hurts."
"I know it does. But we are getting help. You will be fine."
"Hurts. . ." she said again, then her eyes focused on me. "Khelly. . ."
"Hey," one of the orderlies spoke again. "What IS that thing? It that talking?"
"No, he's singing christmas carols," Maxine snapped.
The lift slowed to a stop and the doors slid open. To their credit the orderlies moved again, swinging the gurney into the corridor. There were hospital staff there, melting aside as we passed, murmured conversation building up behind us. Max and I flanked the gurney on either side, both touching Tahr as she fought to keep her eyes open. It was a losing battle: she gasped and sank under again.
Another short corridor, doors hissed aside as we approached. I glanced back once and caught a glimpse of grey security uniforms ducking back around a corner before the doors slid shut again. A short male. . . man in a white lab coat with a stethescope slung about his neck bustled through from another room, shouting deirections at someone behind him. Obviously of oriental ancestry. He turned and stopped and stared at Tahr.
"Doctor Maruska?" I asked. He nodded vaguely, not moving his gaze. "She's hurt bad," I said, nodding at Tahr. "She needs medical attention."
"Medical attention. . ." he echoed. "Is this a joke of some kind?"
"No joke. She's been shot."
"But, but. . ." He trailed off.
"Look, do something! Please."
He snapped out of it and looked at me with panicked eyes. "Like what?! Who are you? What is that thing? By all that's holy, man! what do you expect me to do? I can't! I don't know anything about this kind of thing! God! Who does? I could kill it!"
"What do you think's happening now?" I asked quietly. For a tense space there was only the sound of the air conditioning and Tahr's laboured breathing; smooth mechanical operation opposing the rasping bubble of a dying biological system.
Maruska stepped past me and touched Tahr, carefully feeling the fur, as if searching for seams. "This is crazy. I can't. . . I've no right. . ."
"It's your job to save lives. Do it."
He glanced at the guns in our hands and swallowed.
"My ancestors!" I snarled in Sathe. "Look," I began to unload my gun, letting the rounds drop to the linoleum floor and bade Maxine do the same. I held the empty weapon out to the doctor , "she needs help. Please. We gave up a lot to get her here; I'm not going to lose her too. Try! Please." The gun hit the floor with a solid clunk.
He stared, eyeing our clothes, then Tahr again. He touched her neck, seeking the pulse and lifted her banages. "Alright," he finally nodded, then directed the orderlies, "Get it. . . her through to ops. Prep the theater, full diagnostic, open meta. Blood loss. Dammit! Check for blood type if you can. . . No, forget that. Shave some of that fur for I.V. bulk. Stat! Nurse! scrub up! Move! You two, through there."
I leaned my head against my arm and stared helplessly through the glass at the white room beyond.
Tahr, I'm so sorry...
She lay on the table under the glare of bright lights and the glassy stare of cameras. A nest of wires and tubes trailed from shaved patches on her arms and chest, a fat tube pushing down her throat, breathing for her. Racks of white plastic cases all around the room with keyboards and LEDS. Monitors blinked, schematics of her body glowed and faded through color cycles. Other machines displayed ERROR messages; electronic confusion at her internal arrangements.
The bandages were cut away and a nurse shaved the rest of Tahr's torso, vacuuming up the fur. Tahr's flesh was a pale grey, the dozens of punctures red and black and yellow with bruised flesh.
They'd had to take blood samples, tissue biopsies of all kinds, feeding the snipets of Tahr into machines to tell them what she was made of, what drugs they could use. Standard anaesthetic wouldn't have worked; Something to do with her nervous system still responding to external stimuli.
Now she lay still, a monitor pumping sedatives into her, while an inverted horsehoe of metal and plastics crawled up her body, seeking out the metal fragments lurking inside. They showed up as a peppering of dark spots on a colour 3D C.A.T. scan. The doctor was examining her closely, comparing printouts with the real things, trying to figure out how to get the shrapnel out without killing her in the process.
The glass was cold against my arm as I watched them work.
Maxine; from the next room, sounding anxious.
It was a waiting room, done in restful tones of beige, a lonely rubber plant, low chairs and a table with the mandatory stack of dog-eared periodicals. Maxine was standing at a window holding the drapes aside. "I think they know we're here."
I looked out and down. The plaza below resembled that scene from The Blues Brothers. Strobing red, blue and white lights were everywhere, people swarming from vehicles. Red flares burned around the perimeter of the hospital grounds. More trucks and APCs were pulling in, olive green transports deploying hordes of soldiers. Police vehicles were surrounded by what looked like the black uniforms of SWAT teams. I wondered if they were fighting over who had jurisdiction down there.
"Subtle, aren't they?" Max said.
"Ahhh, you think we took that business at reception a little too far?" I asked.
"Whatever gives you that idea," she quipped half-heartedly.
Then something matt-black and disk-shaped swooped down to hover before the window. Lenses reflected light from the room as they panned across us. Both of us froze, staring at the thing; some sort of drone. . .
There was a crash from down the corridor, the sound of pounding boots. I spun in alarm, beginning to move and behind me the window shattered in flurry of glass and a howl of wind and high- revolution turbines. Cylinders arced into the room and started spewing smoke and through the murk I saw indistinct figures appeared in the doorway and point guns at me. They fired.
Something like multiple beestings in my chest.
Every nerve in my body seemed to explode. Not exactly pain, a contraction that doubled me over and left me lying on the floor sobbing for a breath that wouldn't come.
Booted feet kicked me over and the black muzzles of automatic weapons nearly touched my face. Voices called for medics. Something cold slapped against my neck and hissed. . .
I opened my eyes to a white ceiling. Sunlight - muted by gauze curtains - made it glow with an ethereal brilliance.
Slowly I flexed my hand. There were marks in my arm, the blue bruises left by needles. A lot of them. Beside the bed were stacks of white boxes, monitors, glowing LEDs, medical equipment. A plastic-looking filament led from them to a translucent plastic bracelet around my wrist.
Dazed, I looked around.
Besides the bed and the medical monitors, the room was bare. A polished wooden floor with a couple of small heating vents, whitewashed walls, white gauze curtains across a window to my left. There was a closed door in the far wall and to my right a large mirror. A camera on servos watched me from a high corner.
Where the hell was I?
I sat up, the sheets falling away. I was wearing some kind of hospital gown. When I tried to stand up I found the wire linking me to the monitor too short. I pulled the jack out, causing machines to redline, and lurched across to the window.
It was armoured glass, centimetres thick. There was a wire mesh behind the glass. Beyond that was a two story drop to a manicured lawn sloping gently away to a treeline that continued as far as I could see.
A movement in the trees.
A soldier in camouflage and visored helmet, carrying an assault rifle, stopped to look around before vanishing back into the undergrowth. Some kind of remote vehicle on fat balloon tyres trundled across the lawn.
I let the drapes fall back into place and turned my back. The camera turned to follow me as I went back to the bed, to sit and put my head in my hands. Then I looked up at the mirror, seeing myself reflected there. Someone had shaved my beard away, given me a crew-cut. It looked wrong. "Hey?" I called. "Anyone there?"
It had to be a one-way window. If whoever was on the other side didn't want to answer, they didn't have to. Why the camera? Why so obvious? I got up again and went to try the door. It was soft plastic and there was no handle. I hit it once: it felt like it had a steel core.
Defeated, I retreated to the bed to wait.
It wasn't long, no more than five minutes before a voice - human, male - sounded from a concealed speaker, "Ah, hello? You're Kelly R. Davies? PFC 562896."
"Yeah, I've done my tour though. Where am I? Who are you?"
There was a pause. "In a moment. Meantime, ah, we have some questions we'd like to ask you..."
"Same here!" I interrupted. "Where's Maxine? Where's Tahr? You answer mine and I'll reciprocate, alright?"
"Tahr. That's the. . . non-human?"
"Yeah." Fear lurched. "Where is she?! What have you done with her!" I was on my feet.
"She is fine." The voice was smooth, calm, sterile like the room. Was it a person or a machine? "She is fine, Mr Davies. Where is Second Lieutenant Tennison Dalton?"
"Tenny?" God, Tenny. I hadn't thought. . . "Dead," I said. "A long time ago. Ten years. When the truck crashed and he. . . didn't get out."
Another pause. "Where did you meet. . . Tahr? That is her name?"
I waved my hand in the Sathe gesture of assent before remembering and sitting down heavily. "Uh...yeah. I found her after the crash. She'd been hurt bad. I looked after her." Again I looked up at the mirror, then at the camera. "Please, can I see her?"
"What is she?"
"Sathe? Is it a recombinant or natural mutation?"
"She isn't a mutant anything. She's a Sathe, same as I'm human. She's not an animal."
"Why did you take it to the hospital?" That seemed to be another voice but I couldn't be sure: they were doing some kind of electronic tomfoolery with the intercom.
I looked at the window. How long were they going to keep this up? I ran my fingers through my hair in frustration. "She was hurt. They couldn't help her," I said. "They aren't advanced; pre- industrial. We tried, but she was dying. It was pure fluke we were able to get back at all."
"Where's she from? Is there a ship?"
"No. . . I. . . It's not like that." I ran my hand across my scalp, unaccustomed to the feeling of short hair. After living with Sathe I felt naked. "It is a long story. There's no ship, no transporters, anything like that. They aren't as advanced as we are. . . parallel worlds mean anything to you?"
There was a longer pause that time, then: "That wound showed signs of black powder burn from a shotgun or similar weapon. You showed them how to manufacture gunpowder and build firearms."
I shook my head. "No, that's their own work."
But there was no reply. I settled down to wait again.
There were more questions. They would leave me alone for hours, then there would be another session. When it got dark outside the glass in the windows turned opaque. When food arrived it came in a dumb-waiter: distilled water and a bland, tasteless brick of something like trail mix. The lights in the room never dimmed.
I didn't sleep.
When the curtains rolled back to another day, I was sitting on the bed, my eyes raw. Another automated vehicle trundled across the lawn.
"What?" I didn't turn away from the window.
"Did you sleep well?"
There was a pause, then: "Mr. Davies, we have a request to ask of you... Mr. Davies?"
"What?" I demanded.
"We have a recording we would like you to translate." There was a muffled click, then:
"Freh s'sethi...K'hy...sssha...Nerth fe...fe serai...K'hy. K'hy! Seri!"
Where is this? Kelly? sssha Who are you...no, do not! Kelly? Kelly! It hurts!
"Where is she."
"What is she sayi..."
"WHERE IS SHE!" I screamed, rounding on the mirror.
"If you could..."
"She's HURTING! I want to see her!"
"I'm afraid that's not..."
"GODFUCK YOU! MORTHERLESS FURLESS BASTARDS!" A few steps and I kicked the monitoring equipment. Plastic splintered and pain shot through my foot.
"Mr. Davies! Stop. You'll hurt yourself!"
I ripped the assembly away from the wall, pulling leads free. They wanted to screw around. I yanked a power lead free, then jammed it into a mass of coaxial data cables. Sparks snapped. There was a popping sound and curses through the intercomm.
Followed by a hissing from vents in the ceiling.
I had time to heave a monitor at the mirror and see it bounce off before the gas got me.
I opened my eyes to blink at whiteness. Lights pulsed slowly, roaring in my ears, my head swimming: like floating. My arm was numb with a cold tingling that spread over my whole body. I wanted to close my eyes, to sleep, but was unable to.
Figures leaned over me - white - questions. More questions.
I had to answer, just to talk.
I spoke: "Sce thres ne sira..."
The room was bare this time, without the medical equipment; just a bed and the window. They'd left me a light hospital-type gown and a thick bracelet of some white plastic.
And they'd drugged me, I knew that. I still had trouble focusing.
What had I told them?
It was still light outside. Did that mean I'd slept a day away? Two days? I didn't know.
Where was Tahr? Maxine?
There were no answers forthcoming. Nor questions. The intercom remained silent.
Later the door clicked and slid aside. Two humans in bulky white isolation suits stepped inside the room, their faces indistinct behind tinted faceplates and black submachine guns in their hands: not quite pointed at me. "Come on. Up." The voice was distorted by the mask.
"Where are we going?"
"See your friend."
I wasn't very steady on my feet. My guards stayed a couple of steps behind me as I made my unsteady way out into the corridor. It was a light blue color. There were colored stripes running along the floors and walls and cameras turned to follow me as I passed. There was a bank of elevators with more guards behind transparent shields. They stared at me as the lift doors opened and my escort told me to get in then followed, making sure they stayed on the opposite side of the car with the guns ready.
We went down - a long way down.
The corridors here were white with the mulitcolored stripes an almost cheerful touch.
"Okay, hold it there."
I stopped. One of my guards punched a combination on a keypad and a metal door slid aside. "Alright. In there."
"You're the fun one, right? I'll bet you're the life of the party."
Gun muzzles came up.
"Alright!" I held my hands out and did as they said. It was another white corridor, this time red-lit with a door at the far end that opened as I got near. All I could see of the room beyond was that it was white, antiseptic white with glaring light. I hesitated, only until the white-suited guards started shifting their guns again and the door closed immediately behind me, leaving me alone with the Sathe on the table.
White. Smooth plastic and electronics and metal. Cool air and that sterile smell. Banks of lights and cameras above a stainless steel slab. A motionless bundle of dusty-gold, reflected in the room- length mirror beyond.
A plastic mask over her face. Fluid-filled tubes in her nose, her chest and arms, between her legs. Wires and sensors covering her like a multicoloured net. Strapped down, transparent plastic caps over her claws; shaved so there was more grey flesh than fur showing and angry red scars completely covering her. She was breathing, just the barest moving of her chest. . .and she was cold, actually shivering slightly when I touched her.
"Tahr?" I went to my knees beside the slab: "Tahr? It's me. You hear me?"
Not a flicker.
"I am sorry. . . I. . . I did not want it to be like this. I know you are hurting, but we had. . . there was no choice. . . I am sorry." Her facial fur was thin, but still soft. "Tahr, you are still beautiful, and I still wish you were human. . ."
She twitched. Did that get through or were they pumping stimulants into her? No, she'd heard me. She had to!
"You do hear me, hey? You remember those first days? Sitting around fire in the evening In Traders Meet, trying to find a room? Remember that? Not easy, was it. They would take one look at me and. . ."
She opened her eyes.
Blinking slowly over the mask, that white eyelid half-drawn. She tried to speak past the plastic, jaw moving until she focused on the lights overhead. Then she tried to scream.
"Tahr!" I grabbed her shoulders as she struggled against the straps, scarcely able to move. "No! Don't. You are all right."
I held her, kept talking until she wore herself out and just lay there, making small noises. Softly, I stroked her brow. "I love you, Tahr. I always have. Always will. You know, we've been through a lot together, huh? This is nothing. . ."
Then she saw me. I mean, really saw me. Those greenstone eyes focused on me and her mouth moved behind the mask. "K'hy?"
That voice was so faint, like cobwebs in a breeze. I fumbled with the straps of the oxygen mask and pulled it aside, stroking her muzzle. "Hey, tiger, how are you doing?"
"I. . ." she closed her eyes, breathing steadily for a few seconds, then looked at me again. "K'hy, I cannot run. K'hy. . . why?"
"No, do not worry. You got hurt a bit. You are going to be all right."
"Hurt?" her hand moved against the restraints again. "I hurt."
"I know. I am sorry." I stroked her muzzle. She blinked slowly, looking past me, "Where. . . where is this?"
"Safe. You are safe. All right?"
"All right," she breathed and slowly sank back into sleep.
I crouched over her, stroking her face, not caring that there were probably dozens of people and cameras behind that mirror. I had a few minutes with her before the door hissed open again and the isolation-suited guards beckoned to me. I turned to the mirror. "She's not an animal. Don't treat her like one."
There was no answer.
With a final touch I left Tahr lying there and went with the guards. They were staring at me. I gazed back through a transparent visor at a hairless face. A human face, so unfamiliar after so long, shocked-looking eyes widened slightly and lips tightened, gloved fingers flexed on the submachine gun. Scared of me. I looked away and went where they told me. It was a small room, with a chair and a desk and another goddamn mirror. The door closed behind me, leaving me standing staring at a reflection of a haggard looking man in a surgical robe.
"Mr. Davies? Please, be seated."
The voice was male, from a concealed speaker somewhere. I sat, "Will she be alright?"
A hesitation. "We think so. You're close to. . . her?"
I looked down at my hands, back at the mirror. "Best friend for ten years. We've been through a lot together."
There was a hesitation. "Such as?"
I sighed, shook my head as I tried to remember. "Hard times and war, fire, murder, sickness and health, good times and bad," I gave a small smile. "For a long time she was the only thing keeping me sane."
The hesitation this time was longer. "Mister Davies, what happened to you?"
"I don't know," I shook my head. "It's a long story."
"We've got time."
That we did. I nodded and sat for a while to collect my thoughts. "I guess you know when it started. About ten years ago now. Me and Tenny were on a run from Fort Delvoir down to Fort Jackson with a load of surplus and hardware. It happened just out of Lawrenceville. . ."
It was a story I'd repeated untold times and took just as long to tell in english. Maybe a bit longer: I was rusty. It was the most english I'd spoken for over eight years and I was disturbed to find just how awkward it was. Grammar, vocabulary. . . I hadn't realised just how much I'd begun thinking in Sathe.
Whoever was on the other side of the mirror didn't make too many interruptions. I guessed there was a battery of recorders of various kinds going.