Adrift in Space and Time

Chapter 3

While Dr. Ferran was in agreement that the ship’s more severe medical cases should be passed on to better equipped facilities while the sick bay was under repair, she was obviously a bit possessive of her patients as well.  The shuttle Lough had arranged for us would be arriving around midday, and since both Jess and Lough had some last things to finish up before we all left I had been leant to Dr. Ferran to assist with sorting the other patients’ medical records and whatever other paperwork presented itself.  (Though quickly I got the sneaking suspicion that Megan had been roped into keeping me out of trouble until Jess got back to the station’s docking bay…)  The only really good news was that it didn’t seem like I had caused any really serious injuries to any of my fellow crewmembers.  I’d not been able to get the worry out of my mind since I’d regained lucidity days earlier, and it was a great relief to settle the matter.

I pretty quickly gave up on watching Megan go about her checkups: It would have been impolite to be close enough to overhear their private conversations, but on the other paw watching was only vaguely interesting without knowing what was going on.  So, for lack of anything better to do I ended up playing with the packing material in the crates I was sitting on, for practical purposes a high-tech sort of packing peanut.  They weren’t exactly modeling clay, but they did create a fantastic mess…  “The station’s deck chief is not going to be happy about that.” Dr. Ferran observed, startling me in the process.  “Don’t sneak up on a guy like that!” I gasped “I think my heart tried to escape out my throat…”  “We need to do your physical.” She explained, completely nonplused.   “Your shuttle should be docking shortly, and Jess wants to get going as quickly as possible.”  “Okay.” I nodded, following her to the portable exam table that had been set up as out of the way as possible in a room as busy as the docking bay was.  “You’ve a good idea what you should and shouldn’t be doing at this point…” Dr. Ferran lectured “No overexertion, no dubious food or drinks, etc.”  “I know, I know.” I sighed “Besides, do you really think I’m physically up to going out and getting myself into trouble right now?”  “You do have a point there, yes.” Dr. Ferran agreed, continuing with her now-familiar standard physical examination.  “And I can always count on Jess to be a surrogate sense of good judgment…”

Having apparently finished up her inspection, Dr. Ferran began scribbling down some notations on her data pad.   “Lough has made arrangements with his family physician, and I have already emailed your medical records to her, but I’m going to send a hardcopy along with you just to make sure there isn’t any preventable unpleasantness.”  “What preventable unpleasantness?” Jess questioned sharply, having arrived at the very end of our conversation.  “Making sure everyone’s records show up in the right place at the right time.” Dr. Ferran filled in, presenting Jess with a data chip from her pad.  “Oh, good.” She nodded, sitting down next to me on the exam table.  “So are we ready to go then?”  “Just one last thing and you two are good to go.”  Digging around in the medical cart, Dr. Ferran produced a metal tray with two syringes on it.  “Oh no, nobody said anything about getting a shot!” I disagreed rapidly.  “Why do we have to get shots?”  “Not ‘we’, just you.” Jess corrected cheerfully.  “One is for nausea, the other is for anxiety.” Dr. Ferran explained “You are going on a pretty long flight, and I want to make sure you don’t have problems.”  “I’m already having problems: you’re trying to stab me with needles!” I growled, crossing my arms and trying my best to look defiant “I’ll be fine without them.”

“Don’t even start young man!  After everything that’s happened here over the last little bit I’m not taking any risks with your health.  If Megan says you should have them, you’re going to have them.”  “Yes mama.” I nodded meekly, allowing Dr. Ferran to do her job.  “There, that wasn’t so bad was it?” Dr. Ferran asked as she applied two little spot bandages to my inner arm.  “I’ve been horribly gored.” I wheezed dramatically “Go on without me Jess, I’m done for…”  Jess just rolled her eyes as we waved to Dr. Ferran and headed over to our transport.  The first thing which became immediately obvious was that privately held shuttles were a lot nicer than the Fleet transports we had been using.  The outside was already doing a fair job of impressing me, with lines that were sleeker and somehow sportier than the design used by the fleet; but the inside of the ship was what really went out of its way to drive the point home.  Everything just screamed of money, from the wood grain trim on the fixtures to the seating, which while obviously made up of quite functional acceleration couches, was set up somewhere between an office and a motor home.  There was a desk built in to the back wall, while the front was dominated by a display panel of heroic proportions, with several of the chairs set in a semicircle in front of it.

“Well, this is nice.” Jess grinned as she stowed our miniscule amount of luggage in compartments under the deck plating.  (Lough had managed to scrounge up a small suitcase worth of stuff from our quarters before the area had been handed over to the repair crews, and Jess had a backpack with some of the barest essentials and a collection of personal hygiene items—traveling light, even by refugee standards.)  “Comfortable looking anyway…” I agreed, yawning a little bit as I flopped down a chair in front of the enormous display screen.    Jess joined me in the next chair over, albeit in a far more dignified manner, settling in almost primly.   “So I guess we’re just waiting on Lough then?” I asked idly as I played around with the seat adjustment controls, trying to get it to recline back into a more nap-facilitating position.  “He should be along shortly.” Jess explained “I talked to him on my way over here and he said he just had a few last little things he needed to clarify with the station’s security chief and he would be ready to go.”  “Oh, okay.” I nodded before we lapsed in to a comfortable silence.

“Hey Jess,” I wondered as something occurred to me “The anti-anxiety stuff Dr. Ferran  stabbed me with, that was a tranquilizer, wasn’t it?”  “Probably, why?” Jess shrugged.  “Oh nothing really.  I started feeling sleepy all of a sudden and was kind of wondering why.”  “There are much worse places to take a nap.” She opined, patting my seat “These are nice and soft…”  “Well…maybe I’ll just rest my eyes for a moment.” I gave in “It has been kind of a busy morning.”  Burrowing in  to my seat a little bit, ‘resting my eyes’ rapidly turned into ‘dead to the world nap’, despite my good intentions to wait for Lough and see us off.

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When I awoke the view screens were showing us to be well out in the black, letting me guess that I had been asleep for a while.  The seats were quite comfortable.  They didn’t fold down entirely flat, but were adjustable in about six different ways, so with only a little effort one could have a nice little spot.  The only confusing part about them was some odd webbing attached to one of the sides.  “That goes over the top of the chair and attaches to all four corners.” Lough explained, having noticed I was awake and staring at the furniture.  “That way you can make sure you stay put if we experience unexpected zero gravity periods.”  “Does that happen a lot?” I wondered, more than a little concerned with the possibility.  “It’s pretty common, yes.” He nodded  “It’s not anything to worry about though.  Smaller transports just have some little quirks of physics that we have to live with.”  Lough’s casual manner was reassuring, and I decided that despite my curiosity I was probably happier without knowing more about these ‘little quirks of physics’ he was talking about.  “Settle down little one.” Jess recommended “You can take our word for it, or we can have a confusing discussion about advanced science that will require a whole lot of background information to even begin making sense.”  “Settling down it is.” I nodded before changing the subject a little.

“As long as we’re going to be here for a while, how about a security briefing?” I suggested.  “Security briefing…oh! Okay, that might not be a bad idea.” Lough nodded as he got my meaning and began rummaging around in his travel bag.  While he was looking for whatever it turned out he was looking for, I went to join Jess on the large sectional sofa in front of the view-screen.  She had apparently been doing some homework from back on the ship with one of the little portable terminals before I had woken up and interjected myself into the scene.  “We’re going on a mini-vacation and you brought work along with you.”  I observed disapprovingly.  “How exactly are you ever going to be able to relax if you can’t escape from the day to day job?”  “Well first,” she informed me “we have gotten behind schedule since we don’t exactly have a working geology lab any more, so the whole department has to make an effort to get our work back where it should be.  And second, I find my work to be quite intellectually satisfying, so it’s a good way to pass the time on a long trip.”  “Fair enough.” I conceded “But only if you remember to make time for other things when we are planet-side again, okay?”  “That does not sound unreasonable.” She agreed “A vacation should be a vacation…”

“And now if we could all pay attention to Professor Lough for a few minutes…” Lough suggested, clapping his hands as if to get the attention of some unruly schoolchildren.  Sighing, Jess set down her pad and gave him her attention, while I shuffled into a more upright position.  “Begin, oh educated one.” I nodded, playing along with the poses he was striking.  “Well the very basic basics of Dire wolf society…  We are a matriarchy, where traditionally the leadership rolls in business and government were held by females, since males were thought to be too headstrong to make good objective decisions.  Males, however make up a high percentage of our military, due somewhat to us being more physically able.  The space services are split pretty evenly between the sexes though.  Aside from that, males traditionally take careers in the arts and sciences.  Chores around the house and the raising of pups is a task which is absolutely to be handled by both parents, and our culture highly values involvement in raising pups.  The family is the basis of the clan and the clan is the basis for our society.”  “That’s pretty straightforward so far.” I nodded.  “Well, I’ll try to complicate it for you then.” Lough grinned.  “There are two ways to be brought in to a clan besides birth and marriage.  You can be inducted, which is kind of a ‘friend of the family’ sort of thing: you become ‘of clan Whitepaw’ rather than taking on the surname.  It’s pretty ceremonial in that regards, you don’t get actual status and inheritance in the clan, but you get the associations.  The other way to join one of the clans is to be adopted in to it.  That one is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, you become an actual part of the family, with all the rights and privileges that come with it.  In your case, the privileges will probably mostly consist of being a dress-up victim for Sherri’s pup…”

“Right, so who is this Sherri that I need to be avoiding?” I latched onto firmly.  “Sherri is our eldest sister.” Lough explained, producing a well-worn photo album that was at least as thick as one of Jess’ star atlases.  “Rather a lot of pictures…” Jess commented as we rearranged a bit to get a better view of things.  “I miss them at a distance.” Lough agreed “Which is a lot easier than missing distance when I’m at home.”  “Listen to this one.” Jess nodded to me seriously “He speaks wisdom.”  “There are all sorts of furs that you’ll be meeting.” Lough continued, ignoring Jess’ interruption “But really only the Sisters and their families are all that important to us right now.  Mother and Father are unfortunately tied up with the senate being in session, and they will probably not be able to make it back home anyway.  Which is kind of a pity since they act as a regulating factor on the others…”  Pointing to a picture in the album, we examined a candid photo of the two elder Dire wolves snuggled up together on a couch.  Even in a personal moment, I noticed, one could really only refer to the couple as ‘dignified’.  “They don’t look like a whole lot of fun…” I opinioned.   Lough laughed, staring off at a distant memory.  “Dad has a thing against casual pictures of himself.  Alice, our middle sister, had gotten a new camera for her birthday, and had been taking pictures of everyone, and it eventually turned into a game between the two, with Dad purposely trying to look serious and wise while Alice tried to get a good picture.   …But no, they don’t usually look like that.”

“Alice.” Lough explained, flipping a few pages to locate another picture.  The wolf in the picture was really quite petite, especially compared to some of the others in Lough’s album, but the thing which immediately came to my attention wasn’t her stature but the truly beautiful red-gold color of her fur.  “She’s a evolutionary biology researcher.” Lough informed Jess and I with obvious pride.  “Mother wanted Alice to follow her in to politics like Sherri did, but she finally stood up for herself and did what she wanted to do.  She always has been the most reserved of us, and always really hated the confrontational nature and general fakeness of politics.  It really took a lot of courage for her to go against Mother like that.”  “You’re really proud of her.” Jess observed, turning the page in the album.  “She was always the closest of my sisters growing up.” Lough nodded. 

Flipping through another few pages, Lough stopped at a studio portrait of Sherri along with a large male wolf and a pup who was maybe seven years or so.  “Sherri again.” He pointed “Her mate Joshua and their daughter Mari.  She’s the one you have to be concerned with, that pup can get at you with a pair of fur rollers far quicker than physics should allow.”  “Good to know.” I nodded seriously.  “What about Joshua, what does he do?” I wondered, changing the subject.  “Joshua is a historical librarian, which mostly means he spends all day preserving and cataloging ancient manuscripts.  It’s a dangerous job: if one isn’t careful they can get a paper cut that will bleed them dry in weeks.” Lough joked.  “Seriously though, Joshua is a good male, and they are all very happy together.  You two will like him, it’s really kind of hard not to.”

“Finally, there’s Nikki.” Lough sighed, “Though I’ll be damned if I have a good picture of her in here.  She never exactly outgrew the ‘puppy hyperactivity and enthusiasm’ stage of life, and tends not to sit still for too long at a time.”  Continuing to flip through the album with a growing sense of exasperation, before settling on a studio portrait of Nikki in a rather billowy yet formal looking green robe.  “This is probably about the best I have right now, it’s her graduation photo.  Top of her class in medical school.” He beamed proudly.  “She could have had any post in explored space…took a research position with a really well-known biotechnological engineering think tank.  Nikki always said that good doctors heal patients, great doctors figure out how to heal patients.  She will be the one taking care of you for Dr. Ferran while we are off ship by the way…”  “That could be a little bit awkward…” I worried.  “Oh, with Nikki, everything is a little bit awkward.” Lough sighed. “One must take a very tolerant attitude with things or go raving insane…”  “I can’t wait to watch the fun.” Jess laughed, allowing me to tuck my head into her shoulder while I started to assimilate Lough’s ‘security briefing’.

“Are they going to meet us at the spaceport?” I wondered.  “I mean, we probably ought to have made our hotel arrangements ahead of time…this has been sort of a rapid trip.”  “Don’t be silly.” Lough chided “We’ll be staying at the manor house with the rest of the family.  Putting you up in a hotel…why we would sooner throw you in a tent in the gardens…”  “We’ll get a tent?” I questioned, lapsing into my little kit voice in my excitement “Like with a fire pit and hammocks and everything?”  “No, I’m sorry little brother, it’s just an expression.  You will get really neat rooms in an ancient old house!  That’s even better!”  “I guess.” I nodded, not entirely convinced.  “It will be lovely, you’ll see.” Jess explained.  “So, how much longer then?” I asked, resorting to the age old question of the road trip: ‘Are we there yet?’  Lough and Jess looked at each other, then both broke out in almost uncontrollable fits of giggling.  “That” Jess explained, wiping tears from her eyes “Is about the most universally childish question ever.”  “It can’t be escaped.” Lough agreed “There’s just no way around it.”  “I’m feeling just a tad bit put upon.” I grumbled, feeling slightly the butt of the joke of the moment “If anyone needs me I’ll be up front bothering the pilots.”

Feeling the need to make good on my threat, I let myself on to the flight deck.  I was a little surprised to discover the crew weren’t dire wolves as well, but when I stopped to think about it for a little, there really wasn’t any reason why a charter flight should have crew from the destination planet…  “No passengers on the flight deck.” The rabbit behind the stick informed me without turning around.  “Oh.” I sighed, trudging back to the passenger cabin.  Apparently fun today was planning on being stymied at every turn…  “Back so soon?” Jess asked, looking up over the top of her display pad “Those must have been some really boring pilots…”  “Authorized Personnel Only.” I grumbled in my best ‘bureaucrat’ voice.  “I’m sorry.” Jess sighed “I guess I should have packed you some travel toys to make the trip go more quickly.”  “Not your fault.” I disagreed “I know full well I’m not good at sitting still, it’s more my responsibility than yours.”

“Well the good news is that we’re only another hour or so out, and I’ll bet you’ll be able to keep yourself amused that long if we can find you a data access unit around here…” Lough decided, taking the proactive approach to things.  It didn’t take too much digging around before he had come up with an extra one (out of the shuttle’s ‘lost and found’ bin) and was getting it set up for me.  “This is a good one.” He grinned “They must have chartered to a corporate client recently…  Plenty of space, plenty of bandwidth, fully configurable input board…  Just have to flush out the old owner and….here you go!”  “So it’s not exactly a computer…” I observed as I looked it over.  “Not entirely, no.  I keep forgetting that you don’t have a particularly good grasp of how our electronics systems work…” Lough sighed “Basically data access units are for accessing and interfacing with data sources.  Go figure.  You can plug in to the info feeds and interact with them, store information, and even use it as a control device for certain pieces of equipment.  However they don’t have a whole lot of computing power, and can’t run but the simplest programs onboard.  The confusion comes in when you start using them to operate more robust computers, where the actual processing work is done on the other machine.  It can look like the data pad is doing a lot of work when really it’s just displaying the output from the other computer it’s hooked up to.  Does that make sense?” 

“Actually yes.” I nodded “Companies on my world were slowly getting around to prototyping something like that about the time I was grabbed.”  “Well, good!” Lough nodded “I’ll leave you to make trouble with your new toy there then, and before you know it we’ll have arrived.”  After a few minutes of picking at the pad I discovered that it was designed so that you could pretty much ‘teach’ it any language you felt like by dynamically re-naming entire command concepts in the operating system.  And on top of that the user interface was a blank pad which could be divided up and assigned commands however you wanted, literally letting the end user create any sort of access scheme they put their mind to.  After some intensive instruction in to what I expected words and letters to look like and the creation of  several rudimentary dictionary and definition files I had converted the electronic gizmo in to a functional little unit, and was well on the way to developing it into a full-fledged data translator.  Which of course ended up in an electronic casino gaming data feed.

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“Discover something good?” Lough asked, coming up behind me rather a while later.  “You’ve been pretty quiet over here, so obviously you’ve gotten yourself in to something!”  “I found an on-feed version of the game I was playing at the spaceport last time we made planet-fall.”  I nodded, holding the data pad up over my shoulder to show him.  “Ah.” He sighed unenthusiastically “Am I going to get yelled at by Jess for facilitating you losing all your credits?”  “Nope.” I explained proudly “I’m still a little shaky on the monetary system here, but I’m pretty certain I’ve made myself independently wealthy since last we spoke.”  “Have you now?” Lough nodded, obviously humoring me.  “I wouldn’t rule it out.”  Jess threw in over the top of the terminal she was working at “Depending on how long it took the feed to decide he must be hacking the datastream somehow and booted him off…”  “They didn’t boot me…oh.  They just booted me.” I discovered.  “Why did you have to go and jinx it?” I grumbled “Now I have to find something else to do until we get there.  “Now hold on.” Lough sighed, attempting to add logic to the situation “He couldn’t possibly have won enough to get booted…  May I see that?”  Handing over the pad with a shrug, I shuffled around a little on the sofa, trying to work out the little cricks one gets from sitting in one place for too long.  Lough, meanwhile was going over the play history stored on the pad, checking and double checking before finally accepting what was in front of him.  “Yes, it looks like you did.” He nodded, handing back the pad looking more than a little befuddled.

“That’s about the same look Jess gave me the other day in the game place.” I sighed “This is beginning to grow just a little bit disconcerting.”  “Well, on the bright side, if you have to be a freak at least you can make money with that sort of freakiness…” Lough nodded.  “Oh good job.  Very tactful.” Jess glowered, obviously trying to decide if she was going to fling the cup she was drinking out of at Lough’s head or not.  ‘Not’ eventually won out, in exchange for the subject being dropped by mutual consent.  “We’re almost there anyway, so it doesn’t make too much difference.” Lough decided, waving us to the viewports, where a planet was rapidly expanding in to view.  My first impression was ‘green!’…from what we could see through the viewscreens the majority of Lough’s homeworld was made up of dense evergreen forests crisscrossed by mountain ranges and punctuated by an array of sparkling blue lakes of various sizes.  “It looks really pretty.” I complemented sincerely.  “Just wait until we’re groundside and can take a hike in one of the Great Forests or see the view from atop the Hathana mountains!” Lough offered, beginning to sound positively giddy.  “You know” I whispered to Jess “Regardless of what he puts out, I think Lough gets a bit homesick…”  “It would seem so, yes.” She laughed.

Just as Lough was launching in to an enthusiastic harangue about the various sights and natural features we would of course have to make time to visit, the pilot turned on the ‘be seated for landing’ message, leading to the usual harness confusion and clicking of buckles as we hurried to comply.  “So are we getting picked up at the spaceport or renting transport…how does that work anyway?” I wondered.  “The family will have a car rented for us at the spaceport, and we’ll head out to the manor house right away to give you two a chance to settle in a bit before the clan begins arriving for the formal dinner.”  “Umm…” I began nervously.  I didn’t exactly like the sudden possibility of a formal dinner in a culture whose rules I couldn’t claim even a rudimentary understanding of.  “It’s nothing to fret over.” Lough assured me “Nobody will be expecting you to be perfect…you’ll pick it up as you go along.”  “Oh, that wasn’t what I was worrying about.” I joked “It’s just that I don’t have a thing to wear…”  “I’m sure the sisters will be more than happy to help Jess find you something appropriate.  Which has the pleasant side effect of distracting them from me for a while!”  “You aren’t building confidence.” I grumbled “Maybe we should just have them turn the shuttle around and drop us off somewhere less complicated.”  “Too late, we’re already beginning atmospheric descent.” Jess informed me cheerfully.

One uneventful landing and ten minutes to claim our negligible amount of baggage and we were loaded up into Lough’s family transport, which it turns out was basically a minivan on an antigravity sled.  “Form really does follow function, doesn’t it?” I mused as I stretched out across the back seat, eagerly looking out the window to see what there was to see. (Which, at this point was the rather generic industrial buildings of the spaceport’s cargo loading facilities.) “Sorry?” Jess wondered, having been preoccupied with looking over a map she had picked up on our way through the spaceport.  “We had a vehicle back home that looked pretty much just like this one, and coincidentally did pretty much the exact same job…”  “It’s the way of the universe.” Jess nodded “The easy solution to a problem will be the same thing no matter where in space you are.”  “This one has nicer seats though.” I observed.  “That’s good.” Lough nodded “We’ve got a ways to go before we’re home, so as long as the invalid is comfortable we’re ahead of the game.”  “And don’t you forget it!” I joked back as he pulled out of the airport and rather briskly began navigating through traffic.  “Transportation as war…” Jess observed dryly as Lough was jockeying for space with a much larger shipping transport.  “Aw, there’s nothing particularly scenic out there to look at yet anyway…” I defended “Not for a while anyway…”

After twenty minutes or so of driving, we had left the city and were passing through a hilly, thickly forested countryside.  As much as I tried, I couldn’t identify any of the trees, besides ‘big’ and ‘green’, until the thought struck me that my little pad thing might be able to find something useful.  Sure enough, it had managed to connect to the data feeds when left to its own devices, and within a few minutes I had dug up a good reference on the local flora.  “Hey Jess?” I wondered as a thought struck me “How wide ranging a connection can these things get?  I mean, can they uplink to off-planet feeds, or are they more just kind of a local ranged thing?”  “Mostly everything links to everything else.” Jess explained “The only caveat is that sometimes the places you are connecting from aren’t attached to the main data lines as reliably and can create issues with that. Why, what brought that up?”  “Well…this may seem a little silly…” I began self-consciously “But I’ve been thinking that I want to start an album like Lough has.  That way I would always be able to see my friends and my home…I guess I think it might help.” I trailed off, embarrassed.   “I think that’s a good idea actually.” Jess agreed. (Lough, I noticed, was nodding his appreciation of the idea as well.) “I have to go out after we get you two settled in to pick up a few things anyway.” Lough informed us “I’ll pick up everything you’ll need while I’m out.”

Turning off the main road into a smaller paved driveway, we were stopped by a huge, heavily decorative wrought iron gate.  Lough rolled down his window, punched a few buttons on a keypad, and once again we were on our way.  “We’re almost there.” Lough explained “It’s just around the bend here.”  Sure enough, as we rounded the hill there appeared a big manor house, built like a cross between a Renaissance era palace and one of the Great Lodges back home: all huge wooden beams and intricate carvings with local field stone chimneys sprouting out from the roof in various places.  “That is really something.” Jess exclaimed, obviously quite impressed by the spectacle laid out before us.   “I’ve always liked it.” Lough agreed as we all rounded up our nominal amounts of luggage and climbed the steps to the front door.  Unlocking it with a worn, mechanical key which looked to be generations older than he was, he threw open the door and waved us inside.  The interior of the building turned out to be pretty much what one would expect from the outside: old, darkly stained wood paneling, marble and wood floors, steeply vaulted ceilings, and furniture that just extruded a feeling of ancient.  “It’s funny how no matter how little you know about a place, I can always recognize antiques…” I mused.  “Antiques?” Lough questioned, looking thoroughly confused “Mom and Dad just bought new furniture a few months back…”  Turning, he asked Jess “Does the furniture look banged up to you?”  After a confused and embarrassed pause, Lough broke out laughing. “I’m just messing around with you!  You need to lighten up a little bit, everyone is going to be perfectly friendly, there’s nothing to be so tense about…I promise.”

“You’ll get the grand tour from the elder siblings, probably more than once, realistically, so I’ll skip that bit for the time being.” Lough explained as he led us up the main stairway to the second floor, and then quite a distance down one of the adjoining hallways.  “Alice and I both have our rooms in this wing of the building, and I’m going to set you two up here for the same reasons we like it: peace and quiet.  Sherri and Nikki traditionally had the other upstairs wing and between Sherri’s pup Mari, and Nikki in her entirety…well, you’ll see when they start arriving later today.”  When we reached the end of the hallway Lough decided that “We’ve got a corner room available here that I think we’ll set you two up in.  The corner ones are a bit bigger than the hallway rooms, so Mom and Dad wouldn’t let any of us have one growing up since there wasn’t enough to go around equitably.  Plus Alice and I have rooms up the hall a little ways from here, so you’ll be able to have a little more privacy than if you were right next door to one of us.”  Opening the last door on the hallway, Lough waved us inside before turning to me “This one is yours now, so you can do whatever you want with the decorating…sort of… Let me rephrase that, you can move around furniture from other parts of the house or our storage spaces and buy anything which will meet the decorative scheme of the house.  So no pink gel-chairs and green lock-box tables.”

“Bedroom, bathroom, sitting room, study.” He continued, pointing to the various doors leading off from the main room.  “Large and fancy, but self explanatory.” Jess joked.  “Quite right.” Lough agreed “Now if you two would excuse me I need to go unpack and find some clean clothes, then run in to town to pick up a few things.”  Waving over his shoulder, Lough headed back in to the hallway, leaving Jess and I to our unpacking.  ‘Unpacking’ in this case was more a word of art rather than a task, since we didn’t have more than a gym bag between us:  Jess hung a few things in the closet, dumped some stuff in to the dresser, and shoved the diaper bag Lough had provided under the bed, then announced that we were “All done!”.  “Do we need to go out with Lough to pick up hygiene type stuff?” I asked Jess from the comfortable place on the couch where I was watching her explore our rooms.  “Not really, no.” she informed me from the bathroom “We’re pretty well stocked with the various personal items.” She decided.  “So we’re more or less just waiting for the others to start showing up?” I wondered nervously.  The thought had occurred to me that Lough might not be back from his errands before my new and as of yet untested relatives arrived, and I really didn’t fancy making introductions myself.

“Not all of us slept the whole way here.” Jess reminded me gently “Personally, I was thinking about taking a nap so I’m at my best for today’s introductions…you might consider not overtaxing yourself as well…”  “You make a very good point.” I agreed.  “Maybe I’ll just curl up with the data pad and see if I can find any broadcast images from home that I could use in my album.”  “See, and that way you won’t wear yourself out any more than necessary.” Jess agreed as she climbed in to the enormous old canopy bed our suite was equipped with.  Taking off my boots and grabbing the data pad, I climbed up next to her, admittedly resisting the urge to play with the canopy curtains for a while.  “Maybe later.” Jess offered, reading my mind “Just leave the curtains alone right now.”  “We could play with them for just a little bit.” I suggested hopefully “I’ve never had a bed with curtains before.  It could make a nice little fort!”  Hopping back up I did a quick survey of the other furniture in the suite before reporting back that “Unfortunately, the chairs and stuff are old enough that none of their cushions come off in a non-destructive manner.  I suppose if I could find a pair of hog-nose pliers around here I might be able…”  “You are not going to be dismantling any of our host’s furniture.” Jess interrupted sternly “I won’t have the entire extended Whitepaw clan think that I’m raising an ill-mannered kit.”  “Well can I at least play with the curtains then?” I asked sweetly, sitting down on the sofa across the bed as primly as I could manage, then giving Jess my best innocent look.  “If not for the fact that I’m really quite hoping to be able to nap in it, I would almost consider giving in to your obviously insincere attempt at winning my patronage for the fort project.” She yawned “But sadly things must be what things must be…”

“Well if you need a nap you need a nap.” I teased “But rampant laziness isn’t going to impress our accidental in-laws.”  “I’m sure they will understand that dealing with you all day can be trying at best…Lough will back me up on that, I’m sure.”  Jess returned seriously before sticking out her tongue and curling up on the massive canopy bed.  Getting up, I crossed the room and tucked Jess in before fetching my datapad and flopping back down on the sofa across the room.

I guess it probably had something to do with getting frozen, burned, blown up, and transformed, one right after another, but lately it seemed like my body was using any little excuse it could find to take a nap, and in spite of the fact that I was actively working on research on the data pad (okay, trying to figure out a built-in game with less than helpful instructions…that’s a kind of research…) I pretty quickly found myself starting to nod off.  The couch that I was sprawled out on, despite its age and fanciness, was really extremely comfortable.  “Well, technically I am sort of on vacation.” I argued with myself “And I am supposed to be recuperating….” I set the datapad down on the floor next to the couch, then as a precaution slid it up under the piece of furniture.  It wouldn’t do to step on it by accident…just because I got this one for free doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have to pay for a replacement…and I was pretty sure I had decided I liked the gizmo.  Closing my eyes for a minute, I really did intend to just rest a bit, if for no other reason to beat Jess back up so I could continue joking about her ‘slacking’.

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I was drug back to wakefulness by that disturbing little feeling one gets when someone is watching them—‘the hair on the back of his neck stood up’.  Except that now that I had quite a lot of hair on the back of my neck (among other places, actually) it didn’t get the memo and remained quite un-bristled.  Opening my eyes, I found myself muzzle to muzzle with an upside down wolf puppy, who somehow managed to retain an extremely intense look, despite hanging from the back of the sofa by her knees.  “Hiya!  I’m not supposed to be waking up the guests.  You’re not too awake are you?”  “Umm… Hi?” I garbled, trying to sort out just what was going on.  “You’re Nick.” She informed me “My new uncle.  Or cousin?  Hmm…Mom would know, if she hadn’t just dropped me off.  She and dad had some stuff they needed to do, and they thought uncle Lough would be here, except that he isn’t, I looked.  So I guess you get to watch me then.”  “I’m sorry, who are you again?” I finally interrupted when it became apparent that the pup in front of me wasn’t going to let me get a word in edgewise.  “I’m Mary.”  She sighed, seemingly annoyed that I hadn’t picked up on that piece of information yet.

“Nice to meet you.” I nodded, for the sake of Jess’ continued sleep trying to wake up as quickly as possible and hustle Mary out of the room before she woke anyone else.  Shooing her into the sitting room, I closed the bedroom door as quietly as possible before trying to figure out what would be the next step.  “Mom told me you saved uncle Lough on his ship.” Mary continued, pulling on my sleeve to get my attention.  “Kind of.” I nodded “I really didn’t have many choices at the time.”  “Cool!” She laughed, drawing an imaginary blaster and engaging in pitched battle with equally imaginary villains.  “I bet you defeated hundreds and hundreds of them single-pawed, didn’t you?  I wish I could go fight space pirates but nothing fun ever happens to me.”  “It wasn’t really all heroic like that.” I explained modestly “I locked us all in a room and lit the air on fire: there really wasn’t any fighting, just a big explosion.”  “But if you were locked in too then you could have been…”  Nodding in agreement I elaborated “That’s what I meant by not having many choices.  They were going to hurt all my friends on our ship: the furs who fished me out of a derelict old junker, who saved my life, and who looked after me when I needed it most.  They were going to hurt the female I fell in love with.  But I could make it okay, and that’s all that really mattered.”

Mary grew silent for a while, mulling things over, and I was starting to worry that maybe I had been too heavy handed for the little silver-grey pup.  I just didn’t want to cultivate impressions of bravery and heroism when it had really been more desperation than anything else.  Turning to me with a seriousness I would not have expected from one her age, Mary decided that “They are truly lucky to have the chance to know someone like you.”  Thankfully, before the conversation could become any more embarrassingly awkward, my energetic blushing was interrupted by Lough’s timely return.  “There you are!” he grinned at Mary “I got a call from your parents saying they had dropped you off on the way to town, and I was beginning to wonder what kind of trouble you were getting yourself into!”  “Uncle Lough!” she protested, starting to blush herself “I never get in to trouble.  Well, almost never.”  “Good to see you, squirt.” He nodded affectionately, giving her a huge hug.

“I guess you two have already met…” Lough commented.  “Yep.” I nodded “Though Jess is still napping, I guess the trip kind of caught up with her and she wanted to be rested up before she met everyone later.”  “That’s a good idea.” Lough nodded “You probably could use a nap too…I hope Mary didn’t wake you…”  “No, I was already up.” I lied, winking conspiratorially at Mary.  “Good.  I’m sure Sherri will be happy to know you listened to her.” He nodded to Mary, giving the impression that these kind of things happened with some frequency.  Mentally I penciled that in on my list of topics to avoid during dinner.  One does not make good first impressions by getting involved in other fur’s family arguments…  “Anyway,” Lough began, also inclined to change the subject “I picked up the basic things that you’ll need to start your album: a holo-camera, print unit, adhesives, a couple of good pens and a set of sketching pencils, and of course an album.”  “I was beginning to think you might have forgotten about that part.” I joked, looking more than a little overwhelmed by the good sized collection of stuff piled up on the table before me.  The album Lough had picked out was an old fashioned looking book which I took an immediate liking to…I guess I’m just a sucker for a leather binding and cream paper.  “I take it you approve of my selection?” Lough grinned, gently poking fun at my obvious enthusiasm.  “I think I do, yes.” I nodded, patting the large book on the table.  “Good.” He nodded a bit more seriously “You can play with the camera for a while so we have something to work with, then I can show you how to work the printer and the sublimation paper.  Oh, and when Alice gets here I’m sure she wouldn’t mind showing you how to work the signal archives, maybe find some images from your home world.”

“Sublimation paper?” I questioned, completely lost on the concept.  “Oh, your world didn’t have it?  You’re going to love the stuff.” Lough began excitedly “We can develop pictures on a kind of paper that not only will self-adhere to the pages of the album, but will actually dissolve into it so they become one piece of paper!  …What?” he interrupted, noticing the big grin on my muzzle.  “Nothing.” I explained “I just never took you for an arts and crafts kind of guy, that’s all…”  “I had three sisters growing up.” Lough grinned back “You pick a few things up along the way.”  Sighing a bit, I allowed that “I wish I had picked up more from my family over the years.  Back when I had a family, I mean.  I guess it’s a little late now…”

Sensing the change in the mood of the conversation, Mary took the opportunity to make a off-subject suggestion.  “We could go down to the old castle and you could try out your new camera.” Mary suggested hopefully.  “Old castle?” I asked Lough.  “There’s some ruins down by the lakeshore.” He explained “The original manor building and a small settlement were down there when the lakes were still used as a trading network back in feudal times.  After it was wiped out during an invasion we rebuilt up here on the high ground.”  “Ah,” I nodded “Unfriendly neighbors.”   “It’s been good fun for the pups for generations now: sort of an eerie old playscape that every now and again turns up treasure when someone finds a knickknack  or two buried in the rubble.  The rule has always been that pups must be accompanied by a grownup though.  It’s not really dangerous, there’s just a few old tunnels and things which need adult supervision.”  “Nick and I could go for a while until everyone gets back.” Mary wheedled “A good hostess entertains her guests!”  “You may as well, Jess will probably be napping for a while and I have to make some calls about ship’s business that I really need to be able to concentrate for.”  Lough hinted not so subtly.

“We could, I guess.” I agreed. I didn’t really mind cubsitting, and truth be told it did sound interesting.  (That damned history major rearing its ugly head again I suppose.)  “Yay!” Mary yipped gleefully, seizing my paw and beginning to tow me towards the door before Lough could intercede on my behalf. “Not so fast squirt.  You’re going to have to take it easy with him, he’s still recovering, and the vixen in the other room will be quite unhappy if you bring him back more damaged than he started out!”  “I won’t.” Mary sighed, tugging me out the door slightly less forcefully.  It was a little cool outside, but not uncomfortably so as Mary led me to a path at the edge of the woods behind the manor house.

“It’s not too much further.” She assured me after a ten minute walk that followed the path down a good sized hill and into a field edging up to the lakeshore.  “Good to know.” I laughed at my pint-sized host “Keeping up with you is starting to make me feel old!”  “Are you having problems?” she questioned sharply, slowing her pace instantly. “I promised uncle Lough I would keep an eye on you.  He says you don’t always have the sense to do it yourself…”  “I’m feeling fine, really.” I assured Mary.  “Actually it’s nice to be outside in the fresh air…it’s been a couple hundred years since I last got to wander around in a forest.”  “Well, we’re there anyway.” She agreed as we rounded a little bend in the path.  Laid out before us on a little peninsula jutting into the lake were the overgrown remnants of a fairly sizable little hamlet.  Nature had slowly begun to reclaim the smaller dwellings with grasses, vines, and the occasional tree growing up through the roofless walls and glassless windows.  The remains of a large tower, almost four stories tall, still projected defiantly from the far end of the ruins, as if still challenging all comers, whether time, nature, or things more corporeal.  “That is pretty neat.” I decided as we entered the ruins.

“Don’t forget to watch your steps.” Mary cautioned “Most of the drop-offs into the tunnels and old storage chambers have been marked with those random piles of stones for generations, but every now and then something new opens up, and you don’t want to fall in!”  “A valid point, that.” I agreed.  We spent the next little while on what started out as a guided tour of the ruins but quickly ended up with me sitting on the remains of a wall and watching Mary chase the local equivalent of butterflies around what used to be the town square.  Her enthusiasm did eventually wane, though it took quite a bit longer than I would have expected.  Plopping down next to me on the wall panting a little bit she suggested that “We could go treasure hunting down in the tunnels for a while.”  “And do you find treasure often down there?” I asked politely, doing my best to humor my half-pint host.  “Sometimes.” Mary explained “I really want to find something someday that’s better than any of the stuff that my mom found, so I always look for a while when I get to come down here.”  “Ah, showing up the parentals.” I nodded “I think that’s a cause I can get behind!”  With a grin that made me wonder if I had accidentally let her get away with something Mary grabbed my paw and led me through the nearest ruined building and down into its basement.  What would have been a tidy stone staircase leading down from a kitchen in the past was now a rubble and leaf filled ramp descending to a stone arch where a pair of hinges rusted forlornly, the wood of their door long since rotted away.

“This is not striking me as something which would be a good idea to do without a flashlight.” I decided beginning to turn around when Mary produced a small but impressively bright little micro-torch.  “Okay then.” I nodded, letting her take the lead.  After the first couple of yards the rubble thinned out and the floor became easily passable, developing into pretty much what one would expect from a set of utility tunnels: slightly spooky, but not really anything particularly dangerous.  “It looks pretty empty down here, how exactly were you planning on finding treasure?” I wondered.  “Random wandering mostly.” She explained, shuffling her feet through a pile of dirt “Just keep an eye out for anything that looks out of place down here.”  “I see something out of place!” I declared excitedly (having begun to feel a bit bratty).  “What?  Where?” Mary asked, latching on to my feigned enthusiasm.  “I see a little girl-pup in her nice clothes!  And the relative whom her mom is going to probably yell at for letting her get them all dusty!”  “Funny.” She grumbled, giving my smile a dirty look for several moments before it became contagious and she ended up grinning too.  “No wonder uncle Lough likes you, you really are hard to stay mad at.”  Turning to continue onwards, Mary absentmindedly kicked a dirt clod down one of the smaller side tunnels.

“Whoa, wait a minute!” I interjected, grabbing the back of her shirt as she started to walk off. “You didn’t notice that?”  “Notice what?” Mary queried, sensing that I was being serious this time.  “Dirt doesn’t make a pinging sound when it hits things.” I explained as I lead her down the side tunnel to where the clod had broken up against the wall.  Sifting through the dirt, Mary came up with a large coin about the size of an old Earth silver dollar.  “You were right!” she laughed excitedly, wiping the coin off on her pants and handing it over for my inspection.  On one side was the worn image of a regal looking Dire wolf, on the reverse was an image of what was almost certainly the tower we had seen outside.  “Pretty neat.” I agreed, handing it back to Mary.  “You found it.” She disagreed, trying to give it back.  “Nope.  I just pointed it out, you were the one who kicked the dirt over.  You keep it.”  “Really?”  “Really.” I nodded.  Examining her new find more carefully, Mary closed her eyes in thought for a minute before declaring “That’s a really old one, too.  If I remember the order of the Matriarchs correctly it’s probably at least four hundred years old, maybe even a little bit more than that…Which means I might have broken Mom’s record!”  Seeing my confusion, Mary explained that “Mom always collected coins around here when she was a pup, and she had a thing about wanting to find the oldest ones she could.  I’m pretty sure this one is older than her oldest one, so I win at treasure hunting!”  “A little competitive, are we?” I laughed, ruffling her headfur.

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After wandering around the tunnels for quite some time, Mary got it in to her head that I needed to see the view from up in the tower, so a great many stairs later I found myself looking at a really picturesque view of the surrounding countryside while being entertained by Mary’s enthusiastically gory description of the battle that led to the fall of the town.  Taking my cubsitting duties seriously, I had to on more than one occasion reign Mary in when her historical reenacting grew a little too close to the edges of the platform for the sake of prudence.  Eventually though she wore herself out for a bit and we ended up sitting on the edge of the tower, dangling our footpaws off into the air and just sort of talking about whatever came to mind.  I ended up learning a great deal about their education system, as well though far less usefully, I also learned a great deal about the fourth grade politics and social morays of the kids in her class.  “You know, if your grasp of playground politics is any indication, you’ve got a shining career ahead of you working with your mother.” I observed.  “Probably.” Mary nodded, tossing a pebble over the edge of the tower and watching its flight to the ground below “But I think it might be more fun to be an artist like Aunt Alice…”  “Oh, does she paint or something?” I wondered curiously.  “Nope, she’s a scientist.  But she’s also a photographer too.  It’s kind of neat really: she’s easily good enough to do well with either one of them, she just never let anyone boss her into picking one over the other.”

“Good for her.” I nodded “It’s important to spend your life doing what you want to do, not what people want you to do.  You’ll be much happier that way in the end.”  “Speaking of which…” Mary grinned, pointing at the camera case I had been lugging around with me all afternoon “We had a mission to complete, remember?”  “Quite right.” I nodded, digging out the camera and snapping a few pictures of the ruins below and the manor home above before handing the camera over to Mary.  “So what about your friend?” she wondered while trying to get the camera to focus for a decent picture of me.  “Jess?  What about her?” I shrugged.  “So is she your girlfriend, or are you two life bonded or what?”  “I hadn’t really thought about it that way.”  I mused “I know I’ve never felt this way about anyone else.  I don’t want to imagine living without her, and I can’t imagine wanting to be with anyone else either.  And I’m pretty sure she feels the same way.  I don’t really know what we are officially, we’re just together and happy and permanent.  Other than that it gets kind of complicated and a bit private.”  “It sounds nice.” Mary smiled a little dreamily before deciding on something.  “You should have a bonding ceremony though.  Then we could have it here and I could plan the decorations and buy a new dress and….”  “Whoa, slow down!” I laughed “You’re getting pretty deep into Jess’ territory there…  And besides, everyone will probably be arriving soon, shouldn’t we start heading back to the house now?”

“I guess you’re right.” She nodded with an expression that made it quite clear that she knew I was trying to distract her from the subject but that she was polite enough to let me get away with it.  Then after packing away the camera again we headed back down the stairs into the tower.  “Now are you sure you’ve rested up enough to make it back okay?” Mary asked as we went, once again taking seriously her promise to bring me back alive and in no worse condition than when I left.  (It kind of made me feel like a rental car if I let myself think about it too much…)  “I think so, yes…huh.” I agreed, noticing something that made me lose my train of thought.  Something had sparkled for a moment from within a crack in the stonework in the stairwell.  “Do you have a pocket knife I could borrow for a moment?” I wondered as I bent down to examine the crack in the stair.  Mary handed over a cute little folding one without comment, but her muzzle expressing the feeling that maybe I wasn’t quite as recovered as the medics assured everyone I was.  Fishing around in the crack for a minute or two with the pocket knife, I eventually pulled out an old ring that had been wedged into the hole.  It was a kind of chunky gold thing with a simple pattern and a large blue stone.  “Looks like I found treasure too.” I grinned happily, slipping it on one finger after another until I found one where it would fit.  “Neat!” Mary agreed “I guess we were both victorious!”

“So it would seem…” A female voice agreed from behind us.  Turning around, I discovered the its owner: a female dire wolf maybe a few years older than Jess was making her way towards us across the cracked cobblestones of the village streets.  She was a bit shorter than what I had come to expect from dire wolves, approximately Jess’ height, but more heavily muscled.  She also had the most immediately striking fur color of any individual I’d met in the time since I was thawed out, a reddish gold color that almost defied description, playing in the sunlight in ways I found myself hard pressed to understand.  “Aunt Alice!” Mary yelled, running over and nearly glomping the poor female to the ground.  “Good to see you too pup.” Alice nodded, regaining her composure a bit while simultaneously prying the little girl off of her legs enough to make it the rest of the way over to where I was watching with a grin.  “I’m Alice, the middle sister.” She nodded, introducing herself.  “Nick.” I nodded, a little at a loss for words for some reason “It’s good to meet you.”

“Lough said you two would be down here, so I thought I’d see how things were going.  It’s rather a long trip from where I’ve been working on my research, so getting a chance to stretch my legs a bit was an attractive idea.”  “The warden here” I joked, waving in Mary’s direction “decided that I should probably be getting back before I collapse and die, so you actually caught us on our way back up to the manor.”  “Far be it from me to argue then.” Alice nodded as we started back on the path that wound up the hill.  Down, it turned out, was a whole lot easier than up, and I found myself slowing down and breathing more heavily before we had even made it a third of the way back up the hill.  I didn’t want to make a bad impression though, and did my best to keep up without complaint.  Luckily I was the last one in our little procession, which made it quite a bit easier to get away with since I didn’t have somefur observing me from behind.  No matter how hard I pushed to keep up the (rather leisurely) pace set by Mary and Alice, I found myself falling further and further back along the trail, to the point that after they had reached the top of the hill it took me another five or six minutes to catch up.

I reached the top of the rise to discover two very irked looking females scowling at me.  “I’m a biologist, not a medical doctor” Alice informed me bluntly “I study cross developmental behavior in the evolving apex predators in the northern part of this planet, researching why our species developed cognition while they never passed beyond intelligent hunters.  But even I can say with authority that you should not exert yourself like that.  If you’re going to act like a stubborn little puppy I’ll start treating you like one!  Now why don’t you sit down before you fall down?”  “I know.” I sighed “I just didn’t want to be in the way.”  “Little brother, you’ll never be in the way.  You’re part of the family.” Alice said with a confused kind of look on her muzzle “I think I’m beginning to see what your mate Jess meant when she said you were self conscious to an almost unhealthy degree…”  “They’re not officially bonded yet!” Mary chimed in “I was telling him they should have a ceremony while they were at the manor, and I could make the arrangements and…”  “Hush little niece.” Alice interrupted gently “Don’t get ahead of yourself.”  Mary didn’t look particularly chastised as she flopped down next to me on the grass, Alice joining us, albeit with much more dignity.

“So you met Jess already?” I queried.  “She had just awoken when I arrived.” Alice confirmed “We talked for a while over tea until ship’s business called her away.  She spoke very highly of you and the time you two have spent together…I think yours was a very fortuitous meeting.  I found her to be a very kind, pleasant, and intelligent vixen, and personally would be very glad to be able to welcome her into our family…”  “I don’t know what I would have done without her looking after me.” I said in all honestly “She’s a very special female and I feel lucky every day that our paths happened to cross.”  “Well, it can’t rain all the time.” Alice nodded cheerfully.

“Oh by the way” she began, changing the subject “Lough mentioned that you were starting a photo album and would like me to show you how to pull stills out of the databases of my school’s signal library.”  “I was hoping you could.” I nodded “I don’t know what exactly there is left, but it would mean a great deal to me if we could come up with some pictures of my homeworld and our cultural legacy.  It would be something to remember them by…”  “I looked into it on my way over.” Alice began cautiously “Because of the whole situation there was a concerted effort made at the time to salvage as much information as possible, for obvious reasons.  So there is quite a bit available for you to go through.”  “Well, that’s good then!” I nodded enthusiastically “So why is it that you have such a troubled expression on your muzzle?”  “There is something you should know so you don’t find it accidentally.” Alice explained slowly  “The recording database covers all the signals we received relating to your homeworld, right up to the end.  I can see how you might want to watch it, but it’s something which I urge you to put a lot of thought in to before you reach a decision.”  “You’re saying there’s a recording of the end of my world?”  “Essentially, yes.” Alice nodded uncomfortably.  “I’m not sure how I feel about that.” I sighed before getting back to my feet and suggesting we finish the walk back to the manor home.  I suddenly found myself having the tremendous urge to climb up in Jess’ lap and hide for a while.

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By the time we made it back to the manor, the rest of my new family had arrived, and were setting up a picnic lunch on the back lawn, having produced a collection of wrought iron patio furniture from somewhere in our absence.  Jess came out to meet us, giving me a hug before I introduced her to the now very serious-looking Mary.  I got the impression that she was practicing her ‘good host mode’ at the moment, but it didn’t take long for her to be giggling conspiratorially with Jess about things so obviously secret that I didn’t even bother asking.  Lough, meanwhile introduced me around to the remaining furs: Sherri, the eldest sister and her mate Joshua, and Nikki, the youngest sister.  Nikki, I noticed was giving me looks that I wasn’t exactly comfortable with, as if I were something which she had a great urge to get into a lab and experiment on.  “Lough, there’s a creepy girl-creature staring at me, make it go away.” I whined, tugging on his sleeve and pointing at Nikki.  “I’m afraid that’s probably beyond my abilities to do.” Lough sighed “You present intellectually challenging scientific questions to her, and unfortunately she still hasn’t entirely outgrown that puppy energy and enthusiasm…so basically you’re stuck.”  “You can’t even try to derail that train of thought maybe?” I sighed, recognizing the development of a stressor to potentially ruin my relax-and-recuperate time.  “I’ll give it my best effort.” Lough promised, handing me off to Sherri and Joshua before wandering away to catch Nikki.

We made polite but generally sort of empty conversation for a while, I getting the impression that Sherri was preoccupied with other things, but the conversation picked up a good bit when Joshua started describing his work.  “Basically, I’m the modern version of the crazy old scribe, sitting around in his library of dusty tomes and papers, mining for whatever knowledge could be gleaned from them.  Except now I use a multi-spectrum digitizing scanner instead of a magnifying glass and nanite fiber repair units instead of cloth backing stock and wax based glues.”  “So you’re really somewhere between a museum curator, librarian, and archeologist.” I nodded, earning a broad and honest smile from Joshua.  “It’s going to be nice having someone in the family that understands my work to some degree.” He nodded happily.  “I majored in history at University.” I explained, “So it’s an area of which I have no small interest, though unfortunately most of my knowledge on the subject has been rendered quite useless at this point.”  “That must be incredibly frustrating.” Joshua sympathized, shaking his head.  I just nodded.  If I got in to my feelings about that particular can of worms I was afraid I would end up on a rant, which probably wouldn’t make the greatest impression on my new family.  “I would love to see where you work.” I said, changing the subject a bit “We’re going to be ground-side for a while apparently, and my doctor has me on a low-everything lifestyle at the moment, so it sounds like a good way to pass some time…”  “I think that could be arranged.” Joshua nodded “I’ll check to make sure nobody else has anything planned to schedule around, and then we’ll work something out!”

Joshua seemed quite flattered by someone taking interest in his work, and I was beginning to think he would be an easy fur to get along with, certainly he was an interesting one to talk to.  Sadly, as he was beginning to explain his current project tracking the evolution of an epic saga there was a good sized crash from around the side of the building, and he had to go ‘see what Mary is getting herself into this time’, ending the conversation much earlier than I would have liked.  His spot was quickly filled by Nikki, who had apparently escaped from Lough, despite his best efforts to the contrary.  “Lough warned me that you’ve spent quite a lot of time in a selection of the galaxy’s most conveniently located sick bays, and that you’re probably not going to be too enthusiastically cooperative with collecting data that isn’t strictly necessary for health reasons.” She informed me “So I promise to be on my best behavior.  At least mostly.  You do have to admit that the fact they were able to re-grow and alter your DNA to the extent they did was pretty cool though…I mean, we believed that in theory it would work, but we can’t exactly go inflicting grievous injury on test subjects, so it hadn’t been proven conclusively.  And then I was going through the case data Dr. Ferran sent over with you about your recovery from long-term cryogenic sleep, which is a fascinating bit of reading in and of itself…”  Nikki trailed off as she noticed my expression of deep concern and mild fear.  “Oh no, no, no….nothing like that!  I’m not going to go all mad scientist on you!” She assured me, giving me a hug.  Despite my best efforts, she still noticed my slight flinch at her touch, looking at me questioningly as if she felt she had done something wrong, but wasn’t quite sure what exactly.

“It’s not you specifically.” I did my best to explain while looking down in embarrassment “It’s a childhood trauma issue, I’m not entirely comfortable being touched, especially by strangers.  “Oh you poor thing…” Nikki sighed, obviously fighting down the urge to hug me again.  “In our culture we don’t have ‘childhood traumas’, our society is extremely protective of our puppies, and one of them suffering through violence or abuse is something which generates deep sadness and disgust in our people.”  “Wish I grew up here then…” I tried to joke.  The wistfulness in my voice unfortunately revealed the seriousness of my words.  “May I hold your paw?” Nikki asked.  Nodding my consent, I looked up into my new sister’s eyes.  “Know that you are safe here with us.  You and Jess both.  You’re my little brother, just like Lough, and there will always be a place for you with furs who care about you here.  It won’t bring your world back, but you aren’t alone any more, you have a home.”  I couldn’t help it, I started to cry.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…” Nikki began, at a loss for words.  “He’s gone through a lot in a very short time.” Jess said, having shown up behind us during the early part of our conversation.  Sitting down and taking me in her arms, Jess rocked me for a while until I had centered myself a bit and worked through the worst of my thoughts.  “You would be fragile too if you’d been through what he has, it’s not your fault, Nikki”  “Should we put off lunch for a while?” Nikki wondered, deferring to my lover’s judgment in the matter.  “No.” Jess decided “I think some good, non-ship food will do him a lot of good.  Everything looks brighter with a full and happy tummy!”

Within ten or fifteen minutes we had all settled down on a selection of patio furniture circled around a central food-bearing table.  Jess and I had staked out a sort of circular cushioned thing made of wicker that, aside from making more creaking noises than strictly necessary, provided more than enough room for two to sprawl out together in its depths.  Jess had arranged herself in pretty close to an actual sitting position, whereas I on the other hand took full advantage of the basket-like contraption to seize as much comfort as possible, curling up next to Jess in a less dignified but much cuddlier position snuggled up against her side.  Nikki, apparently still not convinced that my shift in mood was not somehow her fault had set up shop next to my side of the basket-seat, and was paying a nontrivial amount of attention to what I was choosing to eat.  As a matter of fact, I got the impression that if I tried for the ‘wrong’ thing she would waste no time in striking it down.

Lunch was a pleasant, light hearted affair for the most part.  Mealtimes in Dire Wolf society, as with most of the pack oriented species, served a very social purpose as well (which shouldn’t have surprised me, had I put any thought into it).  The extended family were all quite eager to catch up with each other, and Lough in particular, and Jess fit right in to the grand scheme of things quite well, her culture being quite similar in that regards.  Really I was the odd one out in the party; no matter how much I tried to make small talk and be sociable my thoughts always seemed to drift back to my discussion with Alice on our way to lunch.  “You look about a million light years away.” Sherri observed “What’s wrong?  If the food isn’t to your liking we can certainly provide alternatives…”  “The food is really good.” I assured her, snapping back to the here and now.  “I just have an incredible amount on my mind right now, and sometimes it just sort of leaks out…”  “How can we help?” Sherri asked seriously.  “Mostly I think I just need a quiet place to sort things through for a bit.  A lack of space pirates would be nice too, if it’s not too much to ask.” I explained, mostly seriously.  “I think we can manage that very reasonable request.” Sherri agreed with a grin and a wink.  “But in exchange I expect you to try to get my good side when you’re playing with your new holocam!”  “Aww…but I had my heart set on getting one of you in the bathroom first thing in the morning…”  Cuffing me gently, Sherri just sighed.  “You are a lot more like Lough than you might think.  And we all know the universe needs another Lough!”  “I’ll take that as a compliment, Eldest Sister!” Lough laughed from the other side of the table.

“I suppose if you’d like to relax for a while we should put off a trip to the governing council for a while.” Sherri decided.  “It’s always an interesting place to visit, but tends to be a bit…high energy…when they‘re in session.”  “No.” Lough agreed “It would be impolite to get him killed his first day here.”  “I’ve had my share of getting killed for the year.” I nodded.  “I’ve read that the regional university has a very thorough astronomical geology specimen collection…” Jess hinted.  “But I thought we agreed on no work during the vacation.” I tisked.  “It’s not work if it’s something I’m personally as well as professionally interested in.” she weaseled back quickly.  “She’s got you there.” Nikki informed me, picking up the assist for Jess’ argument.  “And you did mention wanting me to show you around where I work…” Joshua reminded me with a grin “So it kind of sounds like we’ve got the afternoon all mapped out…”  “I graciously cede the point.” I rather ungraciously grumbled, metaphorically throwing up my paws in defeat.

“I’ll go too, to make sure they don’t pick on you too much.” Lough decided as we got up from the table.  “Me too!  Me too!”  Mary announced, jumping up and down eagerly “I want to go to the museum!”  “Okay, if you can manage to settle down while everyone gets ready you can come too.”  Joshua agreed, taking her paw in an attempt to keep her out from under foot.  It worked well enough to prevent anyone from tripping or being stepped on, but one thing was for sure: Mary had a truly staggering amount of energy.  It was actually kind of tiring just watching her…  “Why don’t we all get ready and meet back here in a half-hour or so.” Joshua suggested as we made our way back into the house.  Everyone seemed to think that was a reasonable idea, and we all shortly split up and headed for our separate rooms.

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“Right.”  Jess nodded as she shut the door to our room “Let’s get you an after-lunch change, then I’ll grab some better walking shoes and we’ll be ready to go!”  “After-lunch…oh.  I guess so then.” I sighed, realizing that she was apparently right in the matter.  Pulling off my boots I flopped down to wait while she retrieved the diaper bag from wherever it was that she had stashed it previously.  I guess I had too much sugar with lunch or something, but for some reason I found myself fixating on my toes.  A fuzzy reddish-orange that matched everything else, of course, but with black pawpads and little pointed black claw tips just barely poking out of the fur.  Wiggling them, I grinned to myself before nearly falling off the bed while impulsively trying to grab my big toes.  “Oops.” I giggled, something about it striking me as really quite humorous.  Since it would probably put a little bit of a dent in our museum outing I decided I should avoid crippling myself any more than I already was, so instead of catching the contrary little fuzzies I settled for tracing patterns in the fur on my feet with my big toe’s claw tip.  I’d pretty quickly gotten involved in that game when I was suddenly grabbed from behind with a loud ‘Boo!’.  “Jess!” I laughed, reaching over my shoulder and tweaking her nose “If I didn’t already need changing I certainly would now!”

“I’m sorry, but it really was too good of an opportunity to miss.  I mean, how often do you find a fur so intent on playing with his feet that you can sneak up on them like that?”  Jess apologized rather un-guiltily.  “With me?” I asked rhetorically before getting sidetracked.  “Hey, do we have to cut our claws like I used to have to do with my fingernails?”  “Typically we just file them a bit every couple of months.” Jess explained “They don’t usually grow as quickly as you’d think, so they really aren’t that high maintenance…unless one uses nail polish, but that’s really not the claw’s fault…”  “Do I own a nail file?” I wondered, my attention returning to my toes again.  “I don’t believe so, no.” Jess decided, grabbing one of my feet from where I was playing with a pillow and examining my claws.  “Yours are fine right now though, so we can sort that out later I suppose.”  “Good to know.” I joked “Dr. Ferran didn’t give me an instruction manual with the new body.”  Jess looked bemused and slightly contemplative at that before shaking herself back to the here and now and announcing that “We should get you taken care of here before we start running late.  It wouldn’t do to keep everyone waiting, now would it?”  “No mommy Jess.” I agreed, helping her off with my pants.

“You’re fidgeting a lot more than usual…” Jess observed as I began picking absentmindedly at the fringed tassels on the edge of the bedspread.  “Here we go!”  Slipping its ribbon around my neck, she popped my paci into my muzzle, immediately distracting me from the bedspread.  There’s a reason parents around any world you care to question like pacis—they always seem to calm down a youngster quicker than just about anything else.  There’s probably some complex psychological or evolutionary basis for it.  I just know it works.  “All settled?” She half questioned, half decided.  I, meanwhile, was busy.  She was going to have to leave me to my repast and take care of things pretty much herself this time.  Unfastening the tapes on the wet diaper, she quickly slid it out from under me, then began cleaning everything up with the wipes, followed by a quick drying.  Then, convincing me to ‘lift up, but don’t get up’, Jess slipped a fresh diaper under me, threading my tail through the tail hole.  Looking around for a minute, something occurred to Jess.  “Nick dear, you haven’t noticed what I did with the baby powder jar by any chance?”  “No Mommy Jess…” I shrugged.  “Well, you’re going to have to hold tight just a little bit longer.” She sighed, leaving the room on her quest.

“Didja find the powder mommy Jess?” I queried when I heard the door creek open without turning my attention from the task of rounding up the bed sheet fuzzies.  Maybe because I was still adjusting to the peculiarities of my new body, or recovering from my injuries, or maybe I was simply tired—space lag being the current equivalent of the version from back home…  Regardless of the direct cause of my slowness, it still took me a minute for it to register that it was the one to the hallway, not the bathroom, which had creaked open.  Turning to face the noise, I saw Alice standing in the doorway with a surprised look on her muzzle.  “Umm…you’re not mommy Jess.” I stated dumbly, beginning to feel a bit panicky.  “I’m sorry, I should have knocked.” Alice apologized mildly “Is Jess around here somewhere?”  “Right here!” Jess announced cheerfully, returning to the room and its tableau.   “I brought you those shoes I was going to loan you…” Alice explained, presenting the items in question.  “I didn’t realize that you two were having some…umm…private time or I would have just left them outside of the door.”  “I should be going somewhere else now.” I interjected, growing desperate to get out of the area before I had a full blown panic attack.  “No little one, you need to stay here right now, this can be an important learning experience for you.”  The last thing I wanted, lying on a bed with a half-changed diaper providing me with the closest thing to modesty I could settle for, and a paci around my neck on a cute powder blue ribbon, was a ‘learning experience’.

It turned out I didn’t have a choice in the matter.  “Alice, do you have an idea what it is you’re looking at here?” Jess questioned.  “I think so, yes.” Alice nodded “Essentially a power exchange relationship in the form of age play.”  “Does this offend you in any way?”  Jess continued.  “Offend, no.  I am curious about it, and I feel bad that I’ve apparently caused Nick a nontrivial amount of emotional distress over something this trivial.”  “So you don’t think I’m a freak then?” I asked hopefully (if not tactfully).  “No, not at all.” Alice assured me, sounding confused at my worrying about it.  “Why would I think…”  “Can I borrow you outside for a bit?” Jess interrupted, taking Alice by the paw and leading her back out into the hall.  After a quiet discussion, Jess reappeared, shutting the door behind her.  “Everything is okay.  She would like to ask about some things, but there will be time for that later when you’re less stressed out about it.”  “She thinks I’m a freak.” I sulked, crossing my arms and refusing to make eye contact.  “She does not!” Jess explained patiently. “Civilized furs are a very accepting group; I’ve told you that before, remember?  You just need to learn to believe it.  Now let’s finish up getting you changed, so we can go on our trip, okay?”  Nodding my agreement, I allowed her to powder my diaper area and fasten up the front of the new diaper with a minimal amount of fuss.  Then it was just a matter of clothes and shoes, and we were off to meet everyone out front for the trip.

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“And away we go!”  Joshua announced as we all piled into his transport.  Transport?  Shuttle?  Hell with it, it mostly looked like a car and acted like a car, so why complicate things I decided to myself.  Joshua and Lough got in the front seats while Jess and I settled down in the rear, Mary clambering in between us happily.  It was only a quick hop to where we were dropping Jess off: a modern structure resembling an office building more than any of the college lecture halls that I’d been to while I was in school.  Jess and Lough made arrangements for meeting back up later (which reminded me I still had to look into getting a watch at some point) then we were on our way again.  “One of ‘yall is going to have to help me pick out a watch eventually.” I sighed “Then teach me how to read it.  And I need a new space laser zapper too…my old one disappeared when the ship blew up.”  “You had a laser?” Lough asked curiously, raising an eyebrow at me in the mirror.  “Yep.  Bought it on shore leave, then snuck it back when Jess wasn’t looking so I wouldn’t get yelled at.” I admitted, expecting to be yelled at.  “Good boy!” he grinned proudly.  “We found quite a bit of hardware when we were patching up the cargo bay, when we get back to the ship I’ll go through lockup with you and we’ll see if we can’t turn it up.  Or you can just pick something out of the pile, whatever strikes you.”  “How come I don’t get a laser?” Mary asked in unabashed jealousy “I’ve asked for one on every one of my birthdays for three years, and I still don’t have one!”  “That’s up to your mother.” Joshua pointed out; clearly not wanting to get involved in what was apparently a long-running debate while trying to locate a parking space.

We eventually got parked, and everyone piled out of the car for the short hike to the museum.  It turned out to be a much more scholarly looking stone building than the one we had dropped Jess off at, which somehow just felt a lot more satisfying than the previous one.  Mary for one was extremely enthusiastic about it, grabbing poor Joshua’s paw and trying to pull him along more quickly by sheer force of will.  Lough, just to be ornery, started walking much more slowly than he had been, earning himself a good nudging and several exasperated looks.  “Don’t look at me.” I laughed, watching the trio “I don’t move any more quickly than this: I’m the walking wounded, remember?”  “Yeah, but what’s their excuse?” Mary joked back.  “Old age and obstinacy.” I grinned “Not everyone gets to be a cripple you know…”  She considered that for a while, which at least distracted her from dragging the other two along by the tails until we pulled open the museum’s immense wooden doors.

The interior of the museum’s main hall had the articulated skeleton of some huge and carnivorous looking creature hanging from its multi-story ceiling; the first thought it brought to mind being that I was glad I’d not met whatever donated the bones.  “They’ve been extinct for several million years.”  Joshua informed me mildly, my thoughts being quite visible on my muzzle.  “Now why did you go and tell him that?” Lough sighed “I was going to try to convince him we were going to hunt one tomorrow…”  “That would just be mean.” I reproached “Do you have any idea how disappointed I would have been when you finally clued me in to the joke?”  Lough laughed for quite a while at that one, eventually just ruffling my headfur and rolling his eyes to the ceiling.  “Oh!  Can we take Nick hunting tomorrow, uncle Lough?  Can we?  Huh?”  Mary questioned enthusiastically.  “No, that wouldn’t be a good idea.  Jess would skin us.” Lough informed the pup, feigning sadness.  “Maybe you.”  Mary griped “She likes me.”  “Now children…” I sighed “Am I going to have to be the mature adult, or can you two behave on your own?”  “I guess we can if we absolutely have to.” Lough decided “But just this once…we wouldn’t want you developing unrealistic expectations now would we?”

We wandered the halls of the museum fairly aimlessly for quite a while.  Pretty much everything there was interesting, and it was certainly all new to me, so I wasn’t greatly concerned with a lack of any sort of itinerary.  Since there were neither historical parallels nor any comparative reference points with things I knew about it all kind of washed over me to one degree or another, but that didn’t make it any less fascinating, and all in all things were going pretty positively until we got to an exhibit chronicling the Dire Wolf civilization’s development of space travel.  That really kind of hit home a bit uncomfortably, seeing how things could have worked out if someone somewhere hadn’t irreparably messed things up.  At least they probably didn’t live long enough to realize they’d killed our entire species…I imagine that would be more than a little hard to live with in the long term.  Lough and Joshua had noticed me growing quiet, and even Mary could sense that things were no longer quite right with me.  The young have far less ingrained a sense of tact as a general rule, and Mary was no exception.  Taking me by the paw she announced that “This stuff is making you act all blah.  We’re going to go somewhere else now, okay?”  It wasn’t actually a question.  She was right, of course, and I really didn’t have the least inclination to argue the point.  We had all come out to have a nice afternoon, and I didn’t really want to deviate from that regardless of how much effort I had to put into not mulling over the things which had been nagging me more and more the last little while. 

Under  Mary’s only mildly self-interested guidance we were directed to another large exhibit hall with an official-looking sign over the entryway arch which Lough translated as announcing it being the ‘Hall of Weapons’.  This was apparently Mary’s favorite area, and the wolf pup ran ahead to almost reverently begin to examine the very thorough collection of artifacts.  “She’s been here so many times I’m sure she could list everything in the room from memory if you asked her to.” Joshua laughed “But she’s never any less excited to come here…”  “Everyone needs a hobby.” I agreed, not sure if I was deliberately missing his point or not.  I felt a mild urge to be contrary just for its own sake, but there was no reason to act like a brat when everyone’s sole purpose was to take my mind off things for a while…that would be at least moderately ungrateful, even giving me the benefit of the doubt.

The room was arranged in chronological order, beginning with things I wasn’t entirely convinced weren’t just plain old rocks and getting more technologically advanced from there.  “Now I sort of want to go make a choppy thing out of some random rocks and see if the curators can tell the difference.” I grinned, liking the idea a bit more than maybe I should have.  Lough, for reasons I failed to comprehend burst out laughing at that.  “You’ve got to tell that to Sherri.” He chortled loudly before explaining.  “Your eldest sister actually did that when we were growing up.  The museum was not convinced, and our mother was even less amused than they were, if such a thing was even possible.  It was quite a sight to see, I assure you…and it was likewise quite some time before she could sit down comfortably again…”  “Sherri had neglected to mention that particular story.” Joshua grinned, his eyes twinkling merrily “I’ll have to be sure to bring it up in the near future…”  “I’m sure she’ll be delighted to tell you all about it.” Lough agreed seriously.  “Well, I guess if it’s been done already I shouldn’t do it again then.” I sighed.  It was really more than a little disappointing though, I almost felt like Sherri had stolen my idea.  Which was kind of self-absorbed, considering that she had hatched the plot while I was still floating around in some frozen derelict. 

I wandered down the hall along with everyone else, examining the tools on display and quietly thinking about the parallel lines of mechanical development which began to show themselves the further along into the exhibit I got.  “Mary, honey…could you do me a favor?” I asked, feeling a little bit embarrassed by the problem “I can’t read your language very well yet, would you mind reading the exhibit notes for me?”  “Of course I will, uncle Nick!”  The puppy agreed cheerfully.  “And you can just call me Nick.” I explained “‘Uncle’ just sounds kind of misplaced to me, and I’m sure it’s a little bit creepy to you too: suddenly having a complete stranger become a family member…”  “Nope, not creepy at all.” Mary explained before asking curiously “Does it feel creepy to you?”  “Honestly, it does a little bit.  Being adopted as a way to settle a debt I can sort of understand, but then being accepted as actually being family…well something about that just…I don’t know.”  With wisdom beyond her years Mary explained her take on the situation.  “Your concern appears to be largely based on the fact that you didn’t grow up in the clan but was brought in at a later time.  Well, if you were to marry into Jess’ clan would you have similar feelings in regards to that?”  “That’s different, then I would be the husband of the daughter.  The son-in-law.  It’s a position of tolerance within the family until hopefully everyone gets to know each other and develop common ground and affection.”  “Well that’s exactly what’s going on here.” Mari explained gently “It’s just a different position you are in this time: instead of son-in-law you are brother.”  “But I’m not.” I whined “I’m just some refugee that Lough picked up in his travels…”  “Uncle, please hush for a minute so that I can try to explain this differently.” Mary sighed, rubbing her eyes in mild exasperation.

“For the sake of argument, let’s say you married Uncle Lough.  Then you would be the son-in-law, correct?”  “Correct.” I agreed.  “So you would be meeting the family and being stepdad to his children and uncle to his nieces and nephews, correct?”  “Yes, so far.”  “Instead of marrying you he declares you to be his brother.  The piece you’ll just have to take on faith is that you are a brother.  So there’s going to be the same sort of ‘brother in law’ getting to know furs, but to a more intimate degree than one would expect.  Think maybe of crossing it with a long lost son—plenty of stuff to catch up with, lots of benefit of the doubt, and eventually it’s just like you have always been there!”  “Do you think they really like me, let alone love me?” I asked weakly, my voice filled with trepidation.  I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather have than a family to be a part of, genuinely.  After all I had gone through having relatives who cared just because they were my relatives sounded like that greatest thing ever.  To be cared about.  To be remembered.  To be acknowledged.   “Uncle Nick, you are one of those furs that it is extremely easy to grow fond of.  The clan likes you.  In a little more time, they’ll even love you.  The only stumbling blocks are in your mind…  Anyway, lets change over to a brighter note and get back to the displays, okay Uncle Nick?”  “What would I do without you Niece Mary?” I grinned weakly, allowing the change of subject.  “How did you get so smart, anyway?” I teased, ruffling her headfur.  “Girls mature faster than boys do.  Everyone knows that.” Mary teased back, sticking her tongue out at me. 

I followed Mary down the hall ahead of Lough and Joshua for a while.  They both seemed quite content to let me distract Mary from the possibility of dragging them along at a faster pace, but since she seemed to be taking it easy on me for the time being it was probably fair of them.  “Hey, did you bring your coin?” I asked, suddenly remembering her treasure from earlier in the day “Maybe they have something similar here, that would be kind of neat, wouldn’t it?”  “I forgot about that, darn it.” She grumbled “I was going to show it to mom during lunch…”  Rooting around in her pockets for a moment, she eventually produced the now shiny piece of copper.  (I couldn’t help but wince a little thinking about the trouble someone was going to have cleaning the corrosion out of the inside of Mary’s pockets…it wasn’t going to be a simple task, nor one I envied the opportunity of taking on…)  Closing her eyes for a minute, Mary recalled that “There’s a coin collection on the second floor I think.”  “As long as there’s an elevator too.” I laughed “It would be more than a little unsporting to make me try to climb stairs right now.”  “There is.” Mary informed me seriously “I told Jess that I would keep an eye on you, remember?  And mom always says that anything worth doing is worth doing right!”  “The saying is that ‘Anything worth doing is worth doing for money.’.” I corrected, deciding to see if I could get a laugh out of the pup.  It’s not healthy for young ones to be so serious for very long.  “Mercenary.” She accused.  “Jealous?” I nodded back.

“Oh, look!” she grinned, distracted by something a little further down and already forgetting our discussion “That one’s my favorite!”  The piece in question was a very intricately engraved short sword with scales of a very light, almost gold-colored wood.  “Shiny.” I agreed “Though I don’t think the staff would take too kindly to you trying to sneak it out with you…”  “I know.” She sighed “I still kind of want to see if I could get away with it though.  I think it would be happy living in my room...”  “Yes well I don’t think your mom would see it that way.” Joshua informed her, having come up behind us at the tail end of the conversation.  “We have this discussion every time you come down here, and yet it never gets any less likely that she would take it very badly, does it?”  “No.”  Mary sighed, drawing the word out for about three years.  “Good.  I’m glad we’ve got that settled for the day.” He nodded.  Glancing at the expression that Mary had on her muzzle I was less convinced of the point.  I might be new to things here but even I could tell that the way her ears kept twitching backwards wasn’t an indicator of a stellar amount of agreement.  Scooting forward down the hall, I tried to move things along as casually as I could manage on the theory that ‘out of sight, out of mind’ couldn’t hurt the situation any.  “You won’t win.” Lough whispered, elbowing me gently.  “This has been an ongoing thing for years now and it’s not going to resolve itself for our convenience.”

One of the secrets to living a long life is to know when to take someone’s advice, and I sensed that this was one of those occasions.  So with prudence I let Joshua and Marie ‘sort out their own salvation’ as an old soldier once put it.  He was talking about a different sort of battle entirely, but still the theory is sound.  Lough and I tactfully moved ahead a bit, seeing what there was to see as we proceeded along distance and time.  “We could probably drag this out long enough to get you out of your checkup with Nikki.” He suggested, trying to change the subject away from the chaotic discussion going on in the background.  “Checkup?” I sighed “I was looking forward to not being poked and prodded for a while, don’t tell me Dr. Ferran is still stalking me from across the galaxy now…”  “Megan is quite thorough, and she takes her job very seriously.” Lough informed me sternly “And she is quite good at it, so if she says something is necessary I’m going to believe her…though that doesn’t mean I’m above helping you steal some peace and quiet now and then.  Just don’t tell Jess I said that!”  “’Formidable’ is the polite way of putting it.” I nodded.  “I’m glad she and the females of the clan have been getting along so well.” Lough confided in me “I was a bit concerned about how it could have gone had she been displeased with any of their reactions towards you.  That could have easily gotten very bloody very quickly…”  “You think so?” I questioned.  I had never really considered that being a possibility with Jess; she didn’t strike me as being the type for that sort of thing.  Lough shuddered a little bit involuntarily at that.  “I wouldn’t have ruled out the possibility.”

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By the time we had made it through the hall of weapons Mary and Joshua’s ‘discussion’ had simmered down to levels acceptable in public on most civilized worlds again, and we had gone in search of the museum’s exhibit of old coins.  It was on one of the upper floors, making me quite glad that elevators were a universally developed concept.  (I played the part of the responsible adult and resisted the urge to race Mary to see who would get to push the button…)  “Onwards to the treasure rooms.” She grinned as we stepped out onto the floor.  “They don’t call it the treasure rooms, but they could since that’s where they keep all the shiny, sparkly things.”  “Susan still owes me a shiny thing.” I remembered randomly, poking Lough “You should remember to remind me to grumble at her about that…”  “Your Uncle Nick is the lord almighty of the coherent train of thought.” He grinned at Mary.  “Well, at least he doesn’t snore like the reversing thrusters on a landing shuttle…” she pointed out innocently “I’m sure Jess would get tired of answering all the calls from air traffic control.”  “I had a cold that week and my muzzle was all stuffed up.” Lough played along.

“Now children…” I laughed, exchanging a knowing look with Lough “Remember what I said about making me be the responsible adult here?”  “That’ll be the day…” Lough shrugged “You’ve spread chaos and destruction in your wake for as long as I’ve known you, why would you want to buck the trend now?”  “Your Uncle Lough exaggerates for dramatic effect.” I informed Mary seriously “It’s more of a splattering than a spreading, really.  I wouldn’t want to imply that there is a sense of order to it…”  “Must you give her ideas?” Joshua sighed in mock resignation “You two will be safely back in space long before they blow over down here.”  “I could go with them.” Mary suggested brightly “Can I?  It would be educational…”  “I’m sure it would be, but no.” Joshua said after a moment of contemplation.  “Besides, who would keep your mom in line if you weren’t here to supervise?” Lough questioned.

“Less talk, more treasure!” I grumbled, growing a little bit impatient to ogle the shiny things.  “Besides, didn’t we come up here to look for your coin?” I pointed out “It’s not going to find itself you know…”  “It might.” Lough offered “We don’t know for sure.  Besides, have you ever considered the coin’s feelings on the subject?  Maybe it doesn’t want to be found.  Maybe it just wants to be left alone to do its own coiney thing.”  “Coiney?” Joshua questioned, raising an eyebrow.  “It’s a word.” Lough defended “I heard somefur use it on a newsfeed just the other day!”  “Don’t look at me.” I laughed “All my current events are out of a history book, remember?”

“Don’t feel bad, most of Daddy’s are too!” Mary nodded “Or at least all the ones he pays attention to, which is really about the same thing.”  “That’s not entirely true.” Joshua defended “I keep up with what’s going on in the universe, at least the big important stuff.”  “Oh yeah?” Mary grinned, clearly enjoying herself “Did the council ratify the Consolidated Ore Exchange treaty yet?”  “Yep, early last week.” Joshua nodded firmly.  “I made that up.” She informed him, grin widening.  “Oh look, here’s the coin display!”

I’d been too wrapped up in Mary and Joshua’s conversation to pay more than cursory attention to our surroundings as we walked down the main hall, and aside from the impression of jewelry, faceted stones, decorative tableware, and various objects de arte, I’d not really taken much in until Joshua had pointed out our arrival.  The coin display was, coincidentally, exactly that: cases and cases of all things money, the great majority of it made of some flavor of copper.  Ironically enough, from my perspective anyway, many of the lower denomination coins were made of small disks of copper inset into the center of larger gold disks.  Which I suppose made them harder to lose.  Or less charitably, more difficult for the unscrupulous to file metal from around the edges of the valuable stuff.  I recalled reading somewhere that that was the reason coins back home originally had serrated edges.  Greed springs eternal…

While I was pondering these great philosophical conundrums Mary had launched into her task with energy and enthusiasm, and before I’d quite made it back from the recesses of memory had latched onto my paw and was pulling me down the hall.  “I found it! I found it!”  “Don’t break the uncle!” Lough yelled after us “We just got him back from the repair shop!”  The more sedate Joshua, meanwhile, was concentrating on keeping up, having discovered years ago it was more effective than trying to slow Mary down.

We came to a halt when she was good and ready.  Thankfully, the case in question was only a third of the way down the hall.  Otherwise it could have gotten ugly….  “That one, right there.” Mary pointed out, tapping on the glass and holding up her coin for comparison.  “Yours is much nicer.” I observed “The portrait is much crisper and the edges aren’t all worn over.  It probably wasn’t in circulation for all that long.”  “It must have gotten buried in the dirt when it was still new, and then the rains this season uncovered it.” Joshua suggested, looking over our shoulders.

“You know,” He suggested “the museum would probably really like to have it for their collection…”  “Maybe when I’m done lording it over Mom.” Mary decided “Then I could really lord it over her.  She never had one in a museum!”  “Competitive much?” I laughed at the strange little she-creature I was beginning to grow fond of.  If you have to have a family dropped in your lap it’s a nice coincidence if they’re furs you can enjoy being around…  “She’s going to make a great politician one day!” Lough nodded, obviously proud of his niece.  I kind of was too, truth be told.

Looking at his watch, Joshua sighed and announced that “As much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news we’re going to have to start thinking about heading back to the house pretty soon.  Sherri and I have a function we have to attend this evening, and she will not be cheerfully amused if we’re late getting back.”  “Yeah, but the rest of us don’t have to go.  How come you have to ruin it for all of us?” Mary grumbled less than charitably.  “Because he has the vehicle.”  Lough grinned “So unless you can fly back by flapping your arms you’re stuck on his schedule…”  “I could take a taxi back.” She countered, not content in losing the argument to reason and logic.  “Actually, I really need to get a watch if there’s a store that would sell them between here and there…” I decided.  I probably needed quite a lot more than a watch, but I really didn’t exactly remember what all else I’d been complaining about at the moment.  “Do you think you can get him back to the estate in one piece without supervision?” Lough asked seriously “Because you really would not like to see the sort of wrath Jess will summon if you lose him…”  “I can!” Mary assured everyone eagerly “I’ve been to the shopping center plenty of times, even if I do have to bring an adult with me, it’s because that’s the rule, not so I don’t get lost!”  “It’s up to your dad then, but I don’t see any reason why not.” Lough agreed.  “Will Jess be okay with it?” Joshua wondered “I’m okay with it if you think she would be.”  “She would be!” Mary began to assure him before he shot her down.  “How would you know?  You just met her today.”  “I’m sure it would be.” Lough shrugged.  “Besides, it’s good for Nick to get out and be sociable.  The shopping center would be a good learning experience.”

“Yay!” Mary grinned, grabbing my paw with the intent of making off before anyone could change their mind about the decision.  Not a terrible idea really: the wrath of Jess was not something which would be taken lightly, and I could see the powers that be changing their mind about things if we waited around too long.  “Not so fast little miss!” Lough interjected, putting out a paw to stymie our impending exit.  “We need to establish some ground rules before your dad and I just let you two go.  We’ve got to be able to tell Jess that we acted in a responsible and intelligent manner…”  “Aww…” I sighed theatrically “If we have to be good then why bother in the first place?”  “Did you want to get a watch or not?” Lough questioned firmly “That’s the problem with diplomacy; a sign of a good agreement is when nobody is happy with it…well as long as nobody is unhappy enough to kill the other party over it anyway…”  “That’s usually the case, yes.” I nodded.  “So you’re willing to discuss terms then?” he joked back.  “If there’s no other option, I suppose we could consider compromise.”

“Right, then.” Lough decided, turning back to Mary “First,” he began, ticking the points off on his fingers “don’t let him spend too much money on it.  He doesn’t know any better, so I expect you to.  Second, and this one is important, keep him away from any even vaguely questionable food.  I don’t have the specific dietary instructions from our doctor back on the ship, but we can be pretty certain that anything from a food court will be a violation of something.  We don’t want to get on Jess’ bad side by letting her mate accidentally poison himself.  That would reflect quite poorly on my supervisorial abilities, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t hear the end of it back on the ship for a long time.  Finally, you are not to stay for more than an hour or two: we want everyone around for dinner, so be back in plenty of time for that.  Hmm… Should you have maybe been writing this all down, or are you okay remembering it on your own?”  “I’ll remember.” Mary assured him in a very exasperated tone.  I got the impression it wasn’t a matter of deciding if she was going to be insulted or not but rather just how insulted she felt obligated to be.  “I guess you two are dismissed then, but don’t even think about making us regret our decision!”

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A fairly short time later Mary was showing me around the shopping complex, having summoned the local equivalent of a taxi for the short hop over from the museum.  It really had a great deal in common with the ones that Jess and I had visited in various spaceports, aside from being indoors and having a far less varied clientele.  To be expected in the local environment I suppose.  “There’s lots of places that sell watches.” Mary explained as I followed her around in what appeared to be a random course.  “But we can rule out a bunch of them, since if you’re going to get a watch you should get a good quality one so you only need to buy it once.”  “You get what you pay for.” I agreed.  “Exactly.  But you can’t spend too much on it either, since we said you wouldn’t.”  “You said I wouldn’t.” I teased “I didn’t promise anything…”  “Well, if you recall, we had a general understanding in regards to me chaperoning you on this trip.” She disagreed “So I hope you aren’t planning on giving me trouble about this…”  “For a minute there you were starting to sound a lot like Jess…” I kidded “Okay, I’ll behave, but just this once.  If I start making a habit of it they’ll think something is wrong and stick me back in a medical bay.”

“So, watches then.” She decided, apparently satisfied with my placating.  “That was the objective of the exercise.” I grinned.  Mary led me along a little bit further before we came to her objective: a relatively small jewelry store tucked in to an equally nondescript storefront next to one of the large anchor stores.  I could smell the ‘expensive’ radiating from the store all the way outside, the fact that it was the only business we had passed so far that actually had doors rather than just the after-hours security roll down gate was enough to set it apart without even having to go inside.  “This one?” I prompted, avoiding the urge to tease Mary about the ‘not spending too many credits’ thing she had so recently finished glaring at me about.  “This one.” She agreed “And not just because Mom never lets me go inside to look around.  They also specialize in timepieces.  You won’t find a bigger selection on this side of the planet!”  “Are you sure you aren’t just looking for an excuse to wander around in there?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.  “If you don’t see something you like you don’t have to buy anything.” She grumbled back a bit defensively, making me a little concerned I might have hurt her feelings.  “That is true enough.” I quickly agreed.  So inside we went.

The first thing I wanted to do upon walking in was to turn around and walk right back out again.  The place had that particular flavor of pretentiousness to it that always used to grate on my nerves, and to my mild surprise I discovered that ‘got my hackles up’ was no longer just an expression with me.  It took a real effort to get the fur on the back of my neck and shoulders to lay back down the way it was supposed to, and I eventually just had to give up on making my tail look non-hostile.  Mary seemed to be fascinated with the place, oblivious to the odd and not exactly pleased looks the staff was casting in our direction.  Maybe it was just me though: there were several other customers in the store when we arrived, none of whom seemed to have my immediate distaste for the place.  Mary had been right about the selection, however, and an entire wall of the jewelry store was dedicated to cases of every sort of timepiece one could imagine, as well as some I would be hard pressed to identify without educating myself on the matter first.  “Told you.” Mary gloated cheerfully before leaving me to my somewhat overwhelmed browsing in favor of a more detailed inspection of the store’s other wares.

Despite the sheer quantity of watches they stocked the displays managed to be meticulously organized, so it was easy to use my browsing time efficiently.  At least to the degree that having no real idea what I wanted would allow.  Back home I bought a watch when I started high school, and was still using it at the time I was whisked off to the stars, so I didn’t have much first hand knowledge about what I did and didn’t like in a watch.  (Aside from keeping accurate time.  That part was kind of a given, I hoped.)  After a good bit of bemused staring I sighed inwardly, closing my eyes for a second and trying to straighten out my requirements before dying of old age rendered the point moot.  Nothing flashy or clunky, just a plain, non-digital metal watch.  Which, sadly, proved unduly difficult to locate.  Furs don’t go to a fancy jewelry store to buy a plain watch I guess.  “Have you found anything you like?” Mary asked, having grown bored with her wandering.  “Not really.   These are all too fancy, I’m starting to think maybe we should go to a grocery store and see if we can fish one out of a cereal box…”  “I had one out of a cereal box once.  It didn’t work very well and the strap broke after a while.” She dissuaded me.  “If we got you one of those you would just have to get another one next week…”  “That’s true.” I agreed “But I don’t want one that’s shiny enough to signal shuttles with either.”

“If I might interrupt…” One of the wolves working behind the counter began, having overheard the last of our conversation “The case by the fitting desk has a line you may find more to your liking.”  Following her direction, Mary and I easily found the ones she had recommended, and I had to agree that they were much closer to what I had been looking for.  “These are much better.” Mary decided as we stared into the case.  The watches in the display were much closer to the sort of thing one would expect to see being worn in a business meeting rather than at a club somewhere: various flavors of silver-colored metals, and way more tones of copper than I would have thought possible.  “I’m still having a little trouble with furs not using gold for jewelry and stuff here…” I commented as we examined our options.  “Gold?  Why would anyfur want to make things out of that?” Mary wondered.  “My homeworld used it pretty much the way you use copper here.” I explained, earning myself an oddly curious and mildly disbelieving look.  She was having the same problem, it would seem…  “And we had so much copper floating around that really about the only things we used the stuff for was wiring and plumbing components.  I actually had about a three pound piece of native copper I used as a paperweight for a while.  It was a pretty little thing, when they dig it out of the ground it forms organic, almost sculptural looking little chunks.”  “So you’re saying you would prefer a brushed stainless colored watch then.”  Mary decided, deliberately missing the point.  “I was leaning towards that, yes.”  After more consideration and a rather protracted debate regarding the aesthetic merits of our shiny metals of choice, Mary and I eventually came to the conclusion that we would just have to agree to disagree in this case, and almost as an afterthought I decided on a watch.  It wasn’t copper colored.  I don’t think Mary was surprised by that.

“Well, that was successful.” I decided happily as we wandered back out into the mall.  “Yep.” Mary nodded “But it took longer than I thought it would.  We should probably start heading back to the house soon so we don’t end up being late for dinner.”  She had a point, much as I didn’t particularly feel like leaving yet, so, with a minor detour involving a candy store we passed along our route (which, I might add Mary did a very poor job of attempting to talk me out of), we made our way back out towards the entrance, where Mary had summoned another taxi in order to better facilitate our escape.  “You probably got just a wee bit too much candy…” Mary observed as we shuffled our bags around to fit in a smaller than ideal taxi.  “Or did I get just enough?” I joked “I have such fantastic predictive skills that you won’t need to suffer the hardships of running out of candy, so we shall never know for sure.”  “Probably not.” She agreed before we settled in for the ride back to the house.

A brief car ride later and I was showing off my new watch to Lough and Joshua, both of whom were politely positive about it.  Jess, they explained, had gone upstairs to clean up after having spilled a drink on herself by accident on their return trip from the museum when they had stopped to get a snack.  “So then I’m the only one not allowed to spoil his apatite then?” I grumbled, miffed about the inherent unfairness of the fact.  “Yep, only adults get to make those kinds of choices.”  Lough teased, in a good humor after spending some time on non-work related things.  “Don’t get cheeky with me, young man.” I grumbled “Technically I’m a couple of hundred years older than you are!”  “Please.” Alice sighed, catching the last part of the conversation as she was passing through with a couple of shopping bags emblazoned with logos I didn’t recognize (probably from the same ‘little stop’ that Mary and I missed out on…) “You both act like five-year-old pups most of the time, do you really want to start having this argument?”  I wasn’t sure if she was joking about our earlier encounter or not, but this was hardly the time for me to ask…  “You could be a good host and show him the game room while you’re waiting on everyone.”  “She makes a good point…we can hide there!” Lough shot back in mock offense, before almost primly taking my paw and leading me off to parts unknown, sticking his tongue out at Alice on the way out of the room.

“Seriously though,” he continued, once we were out of earshot “it’s pretty neat, and it’ll give us something to do while we’re waiting on the females to figure out what the next planned activity will be…”  “I was kind of thinking about playing with my watch for the next couple of hours.”  I grumbled back, equally playfully.  “I’m sure we can find something better to do.” Lough informed me as I was directed into the room which was apparently our destination.  “Nice.” I whistled, not bothering to hide the fact I was somewhere between impressed and enamored.  The room was a dead match for what I always thought an old Continental drawing room or study would look like.  Wood paneling, dark with age and the smoke of many, many candles made up the walls, and were matched in appearance by the heavy beams of the ceiling.  The floor was polished granite of an odd shade of brown, interspersed with chips of much brighter blue and reds within the brown.  The furniture was the same flavor of ancient I had come to expect from the rest of the house, and the walls were adorned with a collection of landscape paintings and hunting trophies.  What could only be a bar ran along one wall, across from which was a multi story fireplace with some very comfortable looking chairs arranged around it.  Neatly scattered throughout the room were various small gaming tables, with their own collections of chairs, and the wall farthest from the fireplace was dominated by several built in floor to ceiling bookcases, in front of which was something that had a very, very strong resemblance to a pool table.  “It couldn’t be…” I thought to myself, not quite willing to write it off as concurrent development, but having no better explanation.

“Now I know our futuristic alien technology must be pretty amazing to you primitive cave-dwellers, but you really don’t have to stare quite that hard at the table!”  Lough joked before proceeding to explain a game that, with a few minor variances, I had been playing since high school.  “Now don’t feel bad if you don’t get it right away.” Lough finished “I’ve been playing for a long of time, and it really does look easier than it actually is!”  After a few minutes of looking things over we started in on a game, Lough giving assurances that he would ‘go easy’ on me…which lasted right up until my first shot.  After watching me sink three in a row, he was giving me a mildly confused look, to which politeness dictated an explanation.  “We had…” “…something similar back home.” He finished with a nod.  “After I figured out that I could do all my classwork for a week in about six hours if I read ahead, I skipped a lot of high school to play this game.”  “Was that a good idea?” Lough asked somewhat dubiously.  “It was the best idea in the history of ever.” I informed him grandly, expansively waving my arms around the room to emphasize my point.  “I’ll remember that, mom will be pleased that the idea was so well recommended!”  Mary announced, having arrived without Lough or I noticing.  “Oh no you won’t, or I’ll not talk to you for an entire week!” I threatened “The last thing I need right now is to be accused of being a good role model!”  “Stealthy little pup, isn’t she?” Lough grinned, ruffling her headfur “Never forget to be careful around this one!”  “I’m starting to see that, yes.” I grumbled, faking annoyance.  “You know you love me.” Mary laughed, sticking out her tongue, then pulling up a bar stool to get a better view of the game.  “That is entirely beside the point.” I disagreed seriously.  “It’s your turn…” she pointed out cutely.

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Several games later we had all come to the conclusion that Lough was much better at it than I was, and that Mary almost always won when she played since she was not above poking her opponent with her stick when they were trying to shoot if she was losing.  Of course when I did it back I was accused of being a cheater and banished to the spectators’ seating.  Life is occasionally patently unfair.  Finally calling a brief intermission while Mary was brushing down the table and setting it up for the next game, Lough joined me at the bar.  “I don’t know how Joshua does it, that pup can wear anyfur into the ground.”  “Look on the bright side.” I joked “At least we get to escape back into space eventually, he’s stuck here!”   “That is quite true, yes.” Lough nodded, reaching over the bar and rooting around in the cabinets until he produced two glasses and a rather disreputable looking bottle.  Plain, unadorned glass with a simple black-on-white label consisting of a few words in a very ordinary script...the contents, however, were an almost antifreeze colored iridescent green.  “Yeah, I’ll try some of that.  How do you say ‘no’ to something that looks like it dripped out of an engine?” I grinned.  “What dripped out of an engine?  I want some!” Mary yelled from across the room before making haste to the bar, obviously not wanting to miss something of such obvious interest.

“Nope.  Not going to happen.” Lough disagreed, pouring some of the oddly colored liquid into the glasses “The amount of unpleasantness your mother would bring to bare is well beyond your imagination, and you are quite a bit happier that way, I assure you.”  “Why would I be directing unpleasantness?” Sherri asked, having picked the least opportune time possible to show up.  “It’s been too quiet, I thought somefur should see what kind of trouble you three were getting into…”  “I’ve always said we needed a bell on that door.” Lough groused under his breath as Sherri came over to inspect the situation.  Seeing the healthy green color of the drinks in the glasses, she reached over my shoulder and dumped them out in the bar’s spill trough. “Oh no you don’t! I won’t have my little brother giving that brain-destroying concoction to my littler brother…”  I must have looked like I was about to argue, because Lough quickly whispered to me that “That’s the declarative voice…this isn’t a winnable debate!”  Wisely, my muzzle snapped back shut and I concentrated on doing my best to stay out of the line of fire.  “You know better than that.  What would your ship’s doctor have to say about it, hmm?  Nikki informs me that she seemed to be the responsible type, I’m sure she gave you the ‘things to avoid’ discussion before she signed off on Nick going…” She lectured Lough in mild reproach.  “Strictly speaking it wasn’t entirely his fault…” I interjected, not willing to leave Lough to twist in the wind.  “I assumed as much.” Sherri laughed “Which for some reason reminds me: Nikki was looking for you earlier for your checkup, and Jess assured her that you would meet the two of them back in your room in a little bit.”  “Well, Lough and I were just in the middle of a game, but I’ll drop by once we’ve finished up.” I assured her.  “You can go ahead and go now, I won’t take offense.”   “That’s probably a good idea.” Sherri agreed, shooing me towards the door.  “Traitor!” I threw back over my shoulder at Lough, who had an extremely amused look on his muzzle.  It would seem that I was good quality entertainment… 

So much so that by the time I stepped into the hallway I had a second shadow.  The fact did not go unnoticed by Sherri either.  “Just where do you think you’re going young lady?”  “With Nick to watch his checkup.” Mary informed her matter-of-factly.  “No you’re not.  You’ve still got homework to do, remember? Besides, you know quite well that you’re not invited along for that particular event.”  I quickly made tracks while they were still discussing the matter…I got the impression that Mary wasn’t so much interested in the checkup as she was using it for a negotiating point to avoid the homework.  Start completely unrealistically so your future demands seem more plausible.  Smart kid.

By now I had a pretty good idea how to get back to Jess and my room, but I found myself dragging my feet a bit since I really was not looking forward to more poking and prodding.  On the other paw, Jess historically had no reservations tracking me down if I didn’t show up when instructed, so just disappearing into the house and claiming I got lost had only a very slim possibility of success.  Particularly since basically everyfur in the building knew their way around it better than I did, and I would have generations worth of games of hide and seek pitted against me.  I had just begun toying with the idea of calling Susan and trying to talk her into pulling off a daring rescue mission (after all, everyfur treaded lightly around her…) when I noticed that I’d already arrived.  Which probably made it too late to get much of a head start in the hiding department.  Giving in to the inevitable, I went inside and flopped down on the bed.

I could hear the furdryer running in the bathroom, so I had a pretty good idea where Jess was at the moment.  When I thought about it, taking a good, long, soak in the huge bathtub sounded pretty good.  A place as big as the Whitepaw estate was had to have a massively oversized water heater, I really couldn’t see any of the furs I’d met since we arrived putting up with running out of hot water…  Glancing upwards, I was surprised to notice a pair of fox plushies watching me from behind one of the bed’s myriad of pillows, an Arctic and a Red.  “I’ll have to tease Jess about how much thought it took her to come up with the symbolism of that one!” I laughed, instantly in a much better mood than a few minutes ago.  The furdryer clicked off in the other room, and Jess soon appeared, still in the process of tying back her headfur with a neat little green ribbon I’d not noticed in our luggage.  “Did you get that on the same illicit shopping trip where you bought the foxes, maybe after eating all the snacks on the planet?” I teased as she noticed my presence.  “Actually, Alice bought those for you.  She still feels kind of bad about making you so uncomfortable earlier.” Jess explained as I pulled the red one from his hidey-hole behind the pillows.  I couldn’t help but blush, Alice had put a little kit’s diaper on him “But not that bad…” 

“You’re both incorrigible!” I groaned “You know that, right?”  “Alice wasn’t encourage-able, it was her idea in the first place!” Jess laughed, pleased with her pun.  “You know what I mean.  And I don’t hear you disagreeing with me…”  “Nope, no disagreement.  I’m a very agreeable fur, you know that.”  “You’re on a roll today, aren’t you?” I said rhetorically, setting my new plushies up in a nice little spot on a pile of pillows so they could guard the room.  “Well, you know what they say: puns are the highest form of humor!”  “Funny,” I grumbled “On my homeworld they were always thought to be the lowest form of humor.”  Jess stared me sternly in the eyes for a moment, then I had to admit that “No, not really.  I just made that up.”  “I thought as much.” She nodded, satisfied in her victory.

1197721

After checking that I didn’t need a change (Don’t want to look like a bad caregiver, do we?), Jess seemed to be more than happy to just putter around the room, but I rapidly grew bored with it and wanted to be out and about in the nice weather.  Of course that idea got vetoed, since Jess was sure Nikki would be around any minute now if I would just have a little patience.  Technology once again was the great mediator of problems, and after I remembered that I had a whole library of stuff to sift through for my scrapbook, and maybe even the possibility of creating my own music and movies collection again, I happily spread out my equipment on the room’s main table.  Looking it over, it seemed to be good, but…  Disappearing out into the hallway for a few minutes, I returned with a pair of extra display units I had looted from the surrounding suites.  Then, having conquered enough screen real estate to make the upcoming project possible, I sat down and got to work.

It turned out to be a great deal easier than I had initially anticipated: my new society’s search and database algorithms made the ‘great all-knowing’ back home look like a set of encyclopedias without an index.  It would seem that it was somefur’s job to do their best to sort and database everything they came across floating out in space.  The good news was that there really was an ‘Earth’ department in the galactic university system (or whatever they actually called it, the idea was the same) and it had been spending a good couple of hundred years getting everything as organized as possible with the information they could extrapolate.  I really felt kind of the jerk as I copied the huge quantities of stored information, knowing full well that I was going to be able to push it through the ‘translation and conversion’ process on my own in only however long the crunching power I had commandeered would take to actually do it (when they had been working on the same thing for I hesitate to even guess how long), just on account of me already knowing what it was that I was looking at.

Which brought up another interesting problem: I could steal their processor cycles, but I was going to need my own storage equipment for the output.  That, however, was a problem that I could just throw credits at.  While I was throwing credits, I came to the conclusion that the easiest thing to do would be to give my pad a crash course in electronic formats.  My hosts were pretty good at pulling digital signals, and even some limited analog broadcasts, and sorting what they ended up with, but since we had a completely incompatible systems of writing, despite the shared linguistic dialects (I would have to ask Joshua about that…there had to be a reason somewhere), and file formats that were largely unknown on the more technical end of the spectrum meant that great progress had been made in the old technology radio and television broadcasts, but the most modern satellite data feeds were proving to be difficult for them.  Happily, that was a fixable issue for me.  Cracking my knuckles happily, I launched into the task with great eagerness.  Here was somewhere I could be useful and give back!

After a lot of very productive time had passed, Jess looked up from the data pad she had been quietly sneaking in ship’s business on and announced that “It’s been quite a while.  I’m going to go see what’s keeping Nikki…”  “Have fun.” I nodded cheerfully, not entirely paying attention to much outside of my project.  It was working as a proof of concept; I just had to find some crunchier machines to do my bidding.  While I was mulling over that, it occurred to me to see what else there was available in the university system’s pooled clock cycle tables.  I was rewarded with many, many ‘access denied’ messages from the list, and I was just about to give up when I noticed that there was a listing for several machines at a museum somewhere that would allow me access.  “Well, a couple of junker legacy systems are clock cycles I didn’t have access to before, so it’ll speed it up at least a little bit.”  I sighed to myself, visions of watching cartoons I remembered and maybe even finding some e-books to read sinking back into the hopeful murk that spawned them.  “At least it’ll start sorting out pictures for my album…  You know, maybe if I called up the furs that are actually supposed to be doing this they could get me some extra processor time…”  Sadly for my poor, derailing, train of thought Jess and Nikki chose that moment to grace me with their presence.

“You’ve got quite the serious scrapbooking setup there…three whole screens!  Lough will be proud!” Nikki joked cheerfully.  “Sorry it took me so long, I got a call from work and I had to talk some of my grad students through a procedure.”  “It happens.” I nodded “I’m at about the ‘sit around and wait for a year’ stage of my project anyway, so you have good timing, all things considered.”  Standing up, I pirouetted around in a slow circle.  “See, I’m all here.  Same time next week?”  “Do you really think that was even worth trying?” Jess asked with a sigh, sensing the potential for it to be one of those tasks.  “I guess not.” I grumbled, depositing myself on the edge of the bed while Nikki began to set up her box of future-doctor stuff.  It did not fill me with warm fuzzy feelings, truth be told.  “It won’t be that bad, I promise!” Nikki laughed, seeing the gloomy expression on my muzzle.  “You might as well strip down while she’s setting up.” Jess told me, earning her an absolutely withering glare.  “Don’t give me that look, I though you wanted to get this done as quickly as reasonably possible…”  I had to concede that point to her, along with an apologetic little grin.  We both knew there had been no call for me to be ungraceful about it, and after a moment to think I was grateful that Jess had chosen not to take it badly.

Taking my turn being the one to sigh in resignation, I got up and started to shuffle towards the bathroom.  “Where are you going?” Jess asked suspiciously.  “To get some presentable underwear!” I threw back over my shoulder, to Jess’ amusement and Nikki’s confusion.  Closing the door behind me, I began digging through our gym bag ‘luggage’.  I had real underwear in here somewhere, I’d seen them earlier when I was looking for a toothbrush.  And of course, all one has to do to not be able to find something is need it in a hurry, this time not having the decency to be the exception.  After an excessively long time of searching, Jess knocked on the door, then let herself in.  “Can’t find them?” she sighed “I know Lough packed you a couple of pairs, I saw them there when I was digging out my…oh, I’ll bet I know where they went!”  Returning once again from the bedroom, Jess waved them at me cheerfully.  “They got mixed up in some of my stuff when I was unpacking earlier today.  Sorry about that; I knew we had them around here somewhere!”  “It happens.” I nodded “Last time I had to travel on short notice, I don’t think I ever did find everything I had brought with me.”  While I unceremoniously dumped my diaper in the trash can and began pulling on the long lost underwear, it occurred to Jess that “This actually is kind of a waste of time, since she knows you wear them for medical reasons, I doubt it would occur to her that there might be other reasons you wear them as well.”  “I hadn’t thought about that.” I admitted “It’s probably a good thing you brought that up before she did, lest I run from the room in embarrassment and hide under the sofa…”   “That would be just a tad melodramatic, yes.” Jess smiled patiently as we rejoined Nikki.

“Are we ready then?” Nikki asked cheerfully as I took my seat on the bed again.  “I think so.” I nodded a bit nervously.  Trying to lighten the mood, Nikki joked that “You didn’t have to go change for my benefit; I’ve a niece and grew up with a younger brother.  It wouldn’t be my first exposure to a wet diaper…  And on that subject, have you been noticing any changes in your involuntary wetting?”  “Nope, it’s not seemed to be getting any better.” I shrugged.  “Well that’s to be expected.  It will take quite some time to get the muscle memory back after not using them for a couple hundred years and being transformed into a whole different species…my concern was that we didn’t notice it getting any worse.”  “No, nothing like that.” I assured her as she began to poke and prod with the stethoscope, then finally satisfied with that, hooking up a blood pressure cuff.  This one, I noticed, had a little electronic display on it, and seemed to be doing other things as well.  A suspicion that was confirmed when something under the cuff poked me sharply.  “Ouch.  Hey!” I started in surprise.  “Oh, I should have warned you, these take a little blood sample to test for a couple of dozen different things.” Nikki apologized “I guess I took it for granted that you were familiar with them.”  “It’s okay.” I nodded.  She seemed genuinely sorry, that makes it harder to hold a grudge so I decided it would be less trouble to not bother.

A few moments later the readout on the cuff beeped, and after nodding her approval Nikki removed it and put it back in her bag.  “Well, that’s all consistent with what Dr. Ferran told me, so you’re good on that front anyway.”  Next she produced a small viewscreen attached to something bearing a vague resemblance to one of those little lighted scopes doctors back home used for looking in people’s ears.  Which promptly found its way into my ear.  No surprise there…  “Hey, I can see out the other side!” Nikki joked, switching ears.  “Really?  Well I guess I’m not too surprised.” Jess played along “It would explain why I can’t seem to leave him alone for very long without him getting into trouble of one sort or another…”  “No, mostly that’s because you keep getting Lough to keep an eye on him.”   I was going to protest, but Nikki took the opportunity to attack me with a tongue depressor, so my eloquent commentary on the matter just sort of emerged as an aggravated grunt.  “That’s surprisingly effective.” Jess observed “You don’t happen to have a couple extra I could steal from you, do you?”  “I’m sure I can find some…” Nikki agreed helpfully.

Taking the little plastic ear-cone off her scope, Nikki held my eyelids open, then promptly did her best to blind me with her little light.  “Pupillary reaction is normal.” She nodded before putting on another of the little cones and taking a look up my left nostril.  “Expecting to find anything up there?” I teased.  “I’m hoping not to.” She explained “You grew this pretty much from scratch, so I would think it would have a higher chance of potential issues than, say, your paws.”  “That makes sense.” I nodded, at least as much of a nod as I could manage with a probe thingy in my nose.  “You did a pretty impressive job of it too, I’m not seeing any abnormalities or evidence of thin spots in the bone, or anything like that…It’s a perfectly healthy muzzle!”  “Why thank you.  I hand craft them one at a time in a little old-fashioned workshop in the middle of a picturesque woodland scene from a clich├ęd, mass produced motel painting.”  “Well, at least I know I’m getting quality then.” She nodded seriously before switching nostrils. 

“Right, now let’s just see what we have here…” Nikki continued, reaching for the waistband of my underwear.  “Hey!  No touchy the boy bits!” I yelped, slapping her paw away “Jess, help!  She’s trying to molester me!”  “No, the other side…” Nikki sighed, rolling her eyes.  “How is that any better?” I shot back.  “I meant your tail!” she responded, growing flustered.  Jess, meanwhile, was laughing so hard she had to hold on to one of the canopy bed’s upright posts to keep from falling over.  “Oh.  Well you should have been more specific.” I decided mildly.  “I’m not honestly sure if I should feel insulted or not.” Nikki griped as I grudgingly went ahead and let her examine the base of my tail.  “Well, if you don’t want to feel insulted don’t try to look at my naughty bits.”  I explained patiently.  Nikki was about to respond when Jess cut her off with a shake of her head.  “It’s not worth it.  He’s going to continue to misunderstand the point for as long as it is convenient for his argument.”  “You sound like you’ve some experience in the matter…”   Nikki laughed in spite of her best efforts not to.  “You could fairly say that, I think.”

“Well, luckily for you I think we’re done for the moment.   Aside from the fact that you have very little career potential as a male stripper, everything seems to be doing well.”  “Hear that dear?  I guess I’ll just have to keep taking your clothes off for you!”  Jess grinned, once again making me blush.  “We all know how much you like doing it though…” I nodded as seriously as I could manage.  “Oh! We nearly forgot!” Nikki declared, handing over a cheerfully wrapped package “Jess asked me if I could make a recommendation, and one of my colleagues at work suggested this particular one.  Jess and I looked it over at the bookstore and we agree that it should do nicely…”  Unwrapping the box a little hesitantly revealed a book.  “Changes: Sex, Puberty and a Healthy Body for Males, Canine Edition…umm…thanks…I think?” I wondered.  Not even vaguely what I was expecting.  Even a little bit.  “Well you did say your new body didn’t come with an instruction manual…” Jess laughed.  “Yeah, but…”  “It’s useful, necessary information.” Nikki chided “I don’t see why you find it so confusing.”  “Fine, ‘yall win.” I shrugged, setting the book aside on the nightstand.  “I’m sure you meant well anyway…”  Both Jess and Nikki gave me disconcertingly similar versions of ‘the look’.  “If I get the impression you haven’t bothered to look through it, I may very well assign a book report and accompanying dinnertime presentation.” Nikki warned.  Say what you will, she knew how to motivate…I just hope she didn’t start giving Jess lessons.  At least with Nikki there was the possibility of escape when we all headed back to the ship!

1197721

“There you are!” Sherri announced, barging in as we were finishing up with my checkup and I was just going to find some clothes, causing me to ‘eep’ and duck back under the sheets again.  (Was I the only one left with a sense of modesty?)  “What in the world did you do with the system core?”  “Me?  What are you talking about?”  Nikki asked in confusion.  “You were running batch jobs on one of the machines at the central museum, and it went…badly.”  Uh oh.  This was beginning to sound uncomfortably familiar.  “Umm…” I said, hesitantly raising a paw to interrupt “That would be my fault.  I was trying to round up some processor grunt to do the sorting for my scrapbook…Nikki was letting me use her university login.  What happened, did I break something?”  Sighing, Sherri just rubbed her eyes.  “You couldn’t have known any better…actually Nikki couldn’t have known any better either, but at least I could have yelled at her.”  I was really obviously visibly cringing at this point; this couldn’t possibly be the way to make a good impression.  Comprehending my train of though, Sherri flopped down in the nearest convenient chair and began to explain much more gently.

“That particular piece of hardware was built when Dire Wolves were first developing space travel, and we hadn’t come to the conclusion that for the most part it’s pretty friendly out there.  At the time they had a planet-wide orbital defense grid that was controlled by a central mainframe, but in order to get the sheer amount of computing power needed to decode the tremendous load of real-time data the system was set up to be able to co-opt any unused processing time available on the network grid…”  Groaning, I unconsciously tried to shrink back into the bedding as much as possible.  Ideally I could have fallen down the crack between the mattress and the headboard, except for the matter of my body not being in agreement with the whole shrinking thing…  “Essentially you pegged the meter on every computer on the planet for about the last hour or so.”  Sherri finished up, grinning in spite of everything “But on the bright side, your sorting is done!”

All I could do was stutter and offer half-started sentences: how do you even begin to apologize for a screw-up on a global scale?  I’m sure I looked mortified, Jess looked more than a little angry with me, Sherri seemed far less perturbed than I would have imagined possible, and Nikki looked downright indignant on my behalf.  “Why exactly wasn’t it disconnected?” she asked Sherri testily “Just forgetting about a military weapons grid that can accidentally shut down most of the planet seems a bit of an oversight on somefur’s part…or am I alone in thinking this?  I mean, correct me if I’m wrong…”  “The museum curator thought it looked better with the power on so the screens lit up.” Sherri shrugged “I mean, it does look better, but possibly asking somefur first would have been a reasonable thing to do, right?”  “No one was hurt, were they?” I realized suddenly.  Looking like a complete idiot in front of quite literally everyfur was one thing, but what if…  “Oh no, nothing like that.” Sherri assured me “It was all just secondary systems and unused clock cycles.  Nothing that was more than a minor inconvenience.”  “I would have thought you had more sense than that!” Jess began, only to relent when I started to sniffle.  “Aw dearest, I didn’t mean it like that.  Come on, you feel worse about it than anyone else here…”  “Well, accidents happen, and no real harm was done.”  Sherri decided in a tone that made it clear that as far as she was concerned the matter was officially closed and we should move on to less sensitive subjects.

I wished it actually was just that easy, but it really, really felt like I’d let down those furs that I wanted to like me so badly.  Shuffling back in the bed a little bit, I couldn’t meet any of their gazes and I found myself looking intently at anything that wasn’t somebody.  Sighing, Sherri came over and sat next to me on the bed, at first reaching over to pat my shoulder but then changing her mind and giving me a hug.  “I’ve still got things I need to do today, but I’m not letting you go until you feel better, so you might as well cheer up.” She informed me.  “I suppose I could get Jess and Nikki to help and we could take it in shifts, but wouldn’t it be much easier for you to smile for us?”  “Be warned, I’m very, very good at tickling…” Nikki nodded seriously “Ask Lough, he’ll back me up on that.”  “Got your tail!” Jess warned me, waving the end of it at my muzzle playfully.  “Yeah, yeah you do.” I nodded, feeling just a little bit better.  “Well, it’s a start.” Nikki laughed “And we do have all day…”  The funny thing is I think the fact that they all wanted to cheer me up did a much better job of cheering me up than their attempts to cheer me up.  “I’ll be all right.” I nodded “I think what I really need to do is go find a nice sunny spot outside and do absolutely nothing for a while…  Hey, I’ve got this huge pile of sorted stuff from back home, maybe I’ll just sprawl out on a nice warm rock and pick out some pictures so Lough will have something to use to show me how all that shiny new stuff he bought works.”

“There you go!” Sherri nodded, ruffling my headfur before getting back up.  “I knew we just had to put things back in perspective!”  “Will you be okay on your warm rock for a while?” Jess asked more seriously “I got a bunch of stuff sent over from the ship that I have to look through before too long, but it can certainly wait…”  “No, that’s fine.” I agreed “Then once you get that finished up I’ve got a travel pamphlet that Lough accidentally left conspicuously lying around for those mountains he was insisting we see when we were on our way in…  I was sort of thinking about seeing how long we could not mention having seen it before his head explodes though!”  “You’re starting to like having a big brother.” Nikki accused cheerfully.  “Well, maybe a little bit.” I conceded as our little group disbanded for the moment to pursue our own tasks.

1197721

One of the benefits of the Whitepaw manor being located in such a hilly area was that there was no shortage of nice warm rocks to settle in on.  I had taken my display pad and wandered the grounds for a while until I settled on a nice flat outcropping that overlooked the lake and the ruins of the old village below.  It was a pretty spot in the sun, and with a gentle breeze blowing I almost wanted to drift off for a nap for a while…aside from the fact that there was a pretty good sized drop-off at the end of my big rock, followed by all kinds of pointy little rocks, and finally the lake, which since it was just beginning to get into the fall season was probably quite a bit colder than it looked.  No, nice as it would be unsupervised napping had a non-zero potential for catastrophic failure, and I was pretty certain that Lough would never let me hear the end of it if after surviving everything else that had happened over the last little bit I plummeted to my grizzly demise in a treacherous sleeping accident.  Jess would probably not be terribly fond of the idea either, for that matter.

“Ah well…” I shrugged to myself with something that was not quite a sigh.  Settling down on the boulder, I (somewhat hesitantly, admittedly) signed in to the access account Nikki had given me, and started to poke through the newly-managed archive.  I still felt kind of bad about it, but it would be more than a little ungrateful to simply ignore it after all the trouble I had caused earlier setting the thing up.  (I could almost imagine Sherri shaking her head in frustration at me for even considering the matter…)  There was a lot of data in the metaphorical pile, but unfortunately for the most part it didn’t sort out too much beyond dates and file types.  That was to be expected, really, since in regards to languages from back home the computer system only knew what I did, and honestly as far as that went I was lucky to be able to manage just the one, let alone the approximately three to six thousand that were still being actively used when last I visited…  So I was in a position to have to take what I could get, and it was more than a little unlikely that I would be able to find a fur willing to entertain my complaints about it.

After quite a bit of hit or miss browsing I was beginning to develop a great deal more understanding of how truly boring doing data analysis for government security agencies must have been most of the time.  “Junk… Junk…  Random people’s wedding pictures…  Demo tape of an indie band that probably starved to death long before the world ended…  Enchilada recipe, I’ll have to forward that one to Matthew back on board the ship, maybe he can do something with it…  Some sysadmin’s error log…  Oh! Picture of a panda!  Cute, I’m keeping that one…”  It didn’t take long for me to start growing frustrated that I had copies of say…every pornographic text message ever sent, but couldn’t seem to find a picture of the state park I used to backpack in.  “Welcome to random…” I sighed as I kept going.  The problem with the whole process was that the closer I got to the present the more I was arguing with myself about exactly how far forward I wanted to go.  When would I have gotten too close to what I knew was on the end of the archive?  It was a bizarrely morbid debate within myself about what I wanted to know, but didn’t want to see, and yet still felt like I owed it to my homeworld to witness.

When it finally got so conflicting that I couldn’t concentrate on what I ostensibly was ‘supposed’ to be doing, I simply had to make a decision one way or another.  And the truth of the matter was that I knew eventually I was going to watch it.  Delaying it wasn’t going to make me any more prepared.  Could you even get prepared for something like that?  All that was going to happen was that I would make myself sick trying to reach a conclusion.  With shaking paws, I keyed up the files at the end of the archive.

It started out prolific: television news footage of the same old stuff; radio stations; grey chatter.  The everyday electronic noise that washes across the planet day in and day out.  Fiddling with the datapad’s settings I shortly had it filtered down to ‘The Event’.  It was almost a little sad how far between the pickups were: a repeating five minute blurb on a 24-hour cable news channel, a sporadic mention on radio newsbreaks, and every now and then pieces of almost unintelligible information from the launch site.  Probably low power local control data being burst transmitted through the satellite grid to another ground-based observation tower elsewhere on the planet.

Sitting on the outcropping, there on another world, watching the last record of my own play out to its inevitable conclusion, I could almost scream at how these moments leading up to the end were such a non-event.  The statistics logger on the pad benignly informed me that of all the traffic recovered from that afternoon, only about a tenth of one percent met my criteria for the filter.  Just another space launch, hardly worthy of a filler clip on a slow news day. “Yeah well, we’ll see how ‘yall feel about it in an hour or two.” I spat bitterly.  I began to fast forward through the timestamp again.  “Get to the point!  Tell me something, damn it!” I yelled, having to consciously restrain myself from smashing the pad on the rock of the outcropping.  In the fuzzy accelerated image on the screen the ship launched.

Pausing the replay, I brought up the list of available signals and went through them by hand, one at a time, until I found what I was pretty sure would be there now: the communications repeater for ground control.  It was pretty far down the list (apparently they had less of a transmission tower budget than the major television networks), but I eventually found it: two dozen different cameras and a single stream audio feed.  Splitting the screen off into three or four separate windows (including one that, judging by the resolution, could have only been a spy satellite) I took a deep breath and hit ‘resume’.  Minutes began to slowly tick by as the long-dead crews went about the procedures they had trained for: checking the ship’s status after reaching orbit, checking and double checking the recording gear and instrumentation and start up procedure.  The ship’s crew would always linger around the windows as they passed them going about their business, with a shared look of wonder at a view that could never possibly lose its sense of awe.  Ground control on the other hand all looked more businesslike, even bored.  They had drawn short straws from the job cup and they knew it: the best they could expect would be the vicarious excitement of just being there.  My mind had begun to drift, and I was only half listening when I caught the sentence which put a sinking feeling in my tummy like none I had ever experienced before.  “Here we go…next stop Pluto!”  The pilot reached for an overhead switch, and then all the camera angles from inside the ship were replaced by the hissing of static.

I was shaking so badly it took three tries to hit the pause button again.  Closing my eyes I tried taking a few deep breaths and attempted to collect my quickly fragmenting thoughts.  Was Jess right?  Is this something which I shouldn’t watch?  Which maybe nobody should?  I knew how the story ended; did I really need to experience the horrible details?  The more logical reasons to stop right now I came up with the deeper my resolution to see this thing I started through to the end, to bare witness to my world, and maybe be able to somehow lay them to rest.  “I’m the last, and I owe it to all of them to remember.” I whispered.  Turning back to the screen before me, I selected the ‘remove filter’ option, then oh so hesitantly tapped the ‘play all’ button.

1197721

Jess came out to check on me an hour or two after sunset.  Even from several yards away it was obvious that I was not handling things all that well.  Sitting down next to me so that our hips touched, she gently laid an arm across my shoulder, grounding me, and trying to provide a sense of another’s caring presence.  Taking my datapad, her attention was drawn to the “End File” message lazily blinking on the display before turning it off and putting it away in the bag she had brought out with her.  “Do you want to talk about it?” Jess asked gently.  “It wasn’t instantaneous.  It took a while for the Jupiter-star’s gravity well and expanding corona to absorb Earth.”  I whispered, turning to look Jess in the eyes “There were survivors in places for several minutes.  Minutes!”   Placing my muzzle on my knees I looked down where I was fidgeting around with some pebbles for a moment before I began sobbing.  “The lucky ones found ways to kill themselves before the fires.  There was so much fear, so much pain as everything burned.  People trying to find their families, their pets.  Praying to their gods.  Some of them got that thousand yard stare and just kind of watched the collective accomplishments of Mankind turn to smoke around them.  Our great art, our libraries, the buildings whose designs were a part of our cultures…all of it ash.  And the inevitable, inescapable deaths: Flesh melting like wax, then crisping like ignored meat on a grill, over and over again.  Then the noises, the screaming of the hurt and dying, the crackle of fire, and crashes and explosions of civilization’s failing infrastructure.  It was a mercy when the last of the planet-side transmitters finally gave out and put an end to it.”

“Our satellite grid lasted for quite a while after the last transmissions from earth had ceased.  I couldn’t get the sounds of course, and mostly they only produced sequential stills, but I’m pretty sure I did okay piecing the last of it together from them…  As the heat and radiation levels increased, you can see firestorms begin to spontaneously develop anywhere there was sufficient material to burn.  It was Dresden on a global scale: heat which would create winds which would accelerate and spread the fire, creating more heat and stronger winds in a wonderfully organic spiral of destruction.  The last image of my world was taken by a weather satellite, of all things to survive the longest.  It showed an area of burned out city blocks so inundated with sickly, oily smoke that the forms on the ground were obscured and fuzzy, but lit by a horrible, demonic red glow from the fires.  And that was it.  The last satellite died, the last vestiges of mankind gone as if we had never been in the first place.”

“I had to know.” I choked out around my sobs “Somebody had to remember for them.”  “I understand.” Jess told me quietly “But now somebody has to help you work through this.  You need quiet and safety now, so what we are going to do is get up off of this rock and go back to the house and get you as settled down as we can, okay?”  “Okay mamma.” I nodded thankfully.  I was well past the point where I could take care of myself, and I knew it.  Jess helped me up and we made the short walk back to the house.  The moon was out and full, and even with Jess not bothering to use her flashlight it was bright enough that we had no trouble walking along the path.  It was really quite pretty if I was in a state to appreciate such things.  Alice met us at the door, hailing Jess before turning on the porch lighting.  “Did you find him…Oh!  What’s wrong?”  Jess just held up my data pad and shook her head sadly.  Looking distressed Alice gave me a hug.  “I’m so sorry.  We tried to warn you, but…”  Turning to Jess, Alice looked like she might start crying soon too.  “I feel like this is my fault.  I shouldn’t have told him about…”  “You didn’t do anything wrong.” Jess interrupted firmly.  “He had a right to know.  Good or bad, it was his decision to make, not ours, you know that.”  “Yes.” Alice nodded simply, still not looking entirely convinced.

“Come on little guy, let’s get you upstairs and find you somewhere quiet to lie down for a while, okay?”  Jess offered as we found our way back upstairs and to our rooms.  “What do you need from us right now?” Alice asked, rubbing be gently behind the ears.  “I just don’t want to be alone, that’s all.” I sniffled.  “I think we can manage that.” Jess agreed sadly.    Sitting down on the sofa, she patted her lap invitingly, and I gratefully snuggled down into it, burying my muzzle in her shoulder and closing my eyes.  I could hear Alice moving an armchair up to the corner of the couch, then someone was putting one of my plushies in my arms, and I could feel my paci’s ribbon being draped around my neck.  “There we are.” Jess assured me soothingly “Just take some deep breaths and try to find a calm place inside yourself…”  I did as I was instructed, and ever so slowly found my heartbeat slowing and my breathing growing less ragged.  I didn’t feel better by any stretch of the imagination, but I was feeling calmer, much less agitated.  “There…that’s a good start, little one.”  Nodding a little bit without opening my eyes, I unabashedly popped my paci in my muzzle.  A few hours ago I would have been mortified for anyone but Jess and maybe Lough to see me like this, but now…now I just couldn’t seem to make myself care.  Lying there in Jess’ lap while she talked softly to me about nothing in particular, I started to sob again, but this time it was okay.  I just bawled uncontrollably there in her lap while she held me, and Alice gently rubbed my shoulders.  I cried until I didn’t have any more left in me, then, exhausted and emotionally drained, I collapsed into a deep, cathartic, sleep.

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“Are you finally back with us?” Jess asked gently when at last I drug myself back to wakefulness again.  “For some definition of the word.” I nodded.  “That’s good.” Alice agreed, still occupying her place n the armchair next to the sofa as well.  “Alice and I were talking while you were asleep, and we have a suggestion that given the circumstances is probably a pretty good idea.”  “Okay.” I nodded noncommittally.  “You need somewhere quiet and peaceful to work through things, somewhere where you can do whatever you need to do without these self-conscious habits of yours, and we think it would probably be helpful for us to go visit Alice’s place up north for three or four days, maybe a week…”  “It’s a peaceful, secluded spot where you can have as much company or as little as you would like!”  “That sounds nice.” I agreed.

“We thought it would.” Jess nodded.  “I was even going to do our packing while you slept, but every time one of us tried to get up you managed to already have attached yourself to various necessary extremities…”  “We were thinking we might check if Nikki had run any of your DNA yet, to see if you had gotten some ferret genes by accident.” Alice joked, ruffling my headfur.  “I tried to explain to her that you’ve always taken your sprawling seriously.” Jess explained “By all the evidence it didn’t have anything to do with your transformation…”  “Well,” I nodded, smiling a bit as I extracted myself, freeing the collection of tails, arms, legs, and paws that had become my impromptu bedding “I guess I could move over just this once.  What time is it, anyway?”  “A bit before midnight.  You didn’t sleep for all that long actually.”

“I feel bad just ducking out on the family like this.” I sighed as I watched Jess and Alice select a few pieces of clothing to take with us…we weren’t going to be gone for too terribly long, and we were coming back, so there wasn’t any reason to take it all with us this time.  “They understand.” Alice assured me “The main thing is that you get to feeling better, there’ll be plenty of time to do things later…”  “You’re sure they don’t mind?”  “Yep, I’m pretty sure they don’t mind.” Alice nodded “We told everyfur what happened, and what we were mostly sure we were going to do earlier while you were still asleep, so we just have to get you two packed and we’re good to go.”   “I ordered a few things when we were first flying in.” Jess told me, nudging a couple of large boxes stacked off in the corner with the toe of her boot “Since we would have a stable address for a while, but they’ve only just arrived, so I’m not sure if we want to spend the time sorting through them: it’s already getting late and we don’t want to be getting in at Alice’s at a completely unreasonable hour of the night…”  “Just take them all with us.” Alice suggested “I’ve got a shuttle that is much bigger than we actually need since I use it for work, we won’t be running out of space unless you have a bunch more in the other room or something.”  “Nope, any more than this and we run the risk of Nick getting spoiled.” Jess joked as we each grabbed a couple of things and followed Alice down to where she had parked.

Alice’s shuttle turned out to be much  more ship-like than Joshua’s mystical space minivan, I suppose since it was designed more for long range actual flight rather than the van’s ground-based antigravity lifters.  And it did have a lot of room in it, surprisingly so really.  “There we go!” Alice decided cheerfully as she slammed the back hatch “We’ve got all the stuff loaded up and settled away, now if only I could get all the furs to do the same…”  I didn’t take much convincing, I was already hanging halfway inside curiously looking things over.  Her transport had a lot more gauges and readouts than Joshua’s, I’d give it that, though it would appear the designers had overlooked extra cup holders…  I was mildly startled when Jess tapped on the part of me still protruding outside the door.  “It’s a serial process, love.  I can’t get in until you get in.  And Alice can’t fly us to her house until I’m in.  So you can see the problem, I think.”  “Good point, well made.” I agreed, getting in and sitting down, to quickly be joined by Jess, Alice rounding out our trio.  Once the doors were closed, Alice flipped a few switches, and after the transport warmed up a little bit, we were off the ground and quickly merging into the local flight path.  “Was right.” I yawned hard enough that my eyes watered a little.  Curling up with Jess again I explained that “This one looked like it would fly ‘stead of just lift.”

“Yes, you were.” Jess humored, noting that despite just awakening, at least to the degree that I could walk under my own power, I still looked pretty physically and emotionally tired, which was a polite way of saying ‘barely awake’.   “Would my little guy like to curl up and try to sleep some more?” Jess suggested.  “You might as well.” Alice explained “This shuttle is only suborbital, so it’s’ going to be an hour and a half, maybe two hours, depending on how the traffic is between here and the high altitude shunt, but since it’s pitch black outside there isn’t any scenery to speak of, so won’t be missing anything if you decide to  get some rest…”  “That’s probably a good idea.” I nodded “And who knows, everything always seems less overwhelming when you’ve had enough sleep.”  That being decided, I curled up in Jess’s arms as best I could in the confines of our seats, covering us both up with my coat.  Retrieving my paci, then closing my eyes and settling down with a sigh, I began to think over everything that occurred since I was out camping in those woods back home on Earth.  The tragedy of what happened there, the loss of the place and its people, all that we had done in the past, and all we would have accomplished in a future out in the stars.  But then it dawned on me: bad things happen, but then good things do too.  Jess: the wonder I had thought would never exist in my life, my friends back on the Silver Moon, the amazing places I had been and things I had seen, and now a whole new family that, while I might not understand exactly why, seemed to be quite fond of me.  I guess the trick is to live in the good things, and don’t let the bad eat you up inside.  What had happened back home was long over, but the fantastic changes in my life since I was woken back up were in the here and now, ready to be experienced, and made the most of.   And with that positive note in my head, I drifted back off to sleep, smiling.

To Be Continued...