Out on the Rim

Chapter 1

“This is all the damned school’s fault, really.” I grumbled to myself for the millionth time as I tried my best, just as I had done every day since I crash landed on this admittedly scenic planet, to patch up the holes last night’s hailstorm had knocked into the vaguely intact hull of my shuttle.  It would have been a much easier task if I had something to work with other than a cargo of pharmaceuticals, or was at least mildly less banged up personally than the ship itself was.  But, like so much else in my life, this excursion was a poorly though out little jaunt, though I would not cede for a minute, even to myself, that it was still better than the other options.

Six months before, I had been back home on Terra, being congratulated by my relatives for making it in to a fairly prestigious (not to mention disturbingly expensive) institution of higher learning to do the work for my graduate degree.   I had to borrow a small fortune to pay my way, but of course after I graduated head of my class and got all those enviable job offers paying it off would be no problem.  Except in practice there appeared a minor snag in my plan wherein I missed meeting the academic standards the school required—by two hundredths of a percentage point.  In short, I had flunked out by the width of a business card.  Oh, I argued and begged and pleaded, promised and offered, but the long and the short of it was that I wasn’t exactly ‘their type’ and they weren’t all that sad to see me go.

With debts I couldn’t pay back, and the disappointed looks I was having to live with from my family, it occurred to me that I was probably going to end up shipped off to the outer colonies when TerraGov’s Contract Labor arm noticed me getting delinquent on payments, so might I not be better off not making the trip as a bondie?  The answer to that was an unequivocal ‘yes’.  After the Xeno wars, when morphs were officially certified as equal beings in their own right and not just created property, the major exploratory factions and manufacturing concerns needed to replace their slave labor pool, and Contract Labor stepped up to the plate nicely when they started rounding up and indenturing out debtors, criminals, and other ‘undesirables’ from the core worlds.  Nope, the outer colonies, and the Rim beyond it were the wild west of our age: not lawless, but neither was it particularly safe, with the factional bush wars, and even scuffles with the occasional collection of morphs trying to settle down and make a place for themselves.  (There were still a lot of hard feelings, as there is after any civil war, and the majority of morphs tended to live outside the core worlds…last I’d heard there was even talk of TerraGov letting them chose a ‘homeworld’ and set up independent self government!)

Being a ‘bad credit risk’, I couldn’t exactly charter aboard a commercial vessel, or, less likely still, buy my own, so I stole a supply shuttle intended to refit an exploratory study mission.  From school.  It seemed fitting.  My plan was to sell the ship and cargo on the first border colony I cam across that had credits and lacked scruples, then try to see about getting a job somewhere far away from said border colony.  It seemed like a good idea, up until the navigations computer started acting up, and honestly, I only had the vaguest idea how to fly something like that in the first place…both of which contributed to me crash landing (emphasis on the ‘crash’ part) on a rock I couldn’t even begin to identify from the charts, even if the shuttle still had enough power to pull them up on the computers.  Or working computers, for that matter.

Surprises came rapidly on the ground here: the cargo that was supposed to be a colony resupply consisting of a little bit of anything they might need, turned out to be medical supplies.  Not even medical equipment, just medical supplies.  I’m sure I could find a use for the several cases of adult diapers and infant supplies, particularly since for the few days I had been here the planet had proven to be uninhabited and pretty devoid of entertainment, but when I did eventually get picked up (I couldn’t be that far from the well established space lanes…or at least I thought I couldn’t be…) tongue depressors and saline solution wouldn’t have a tremendous amount of buying power.  And after patching myself up as well as I could after the crash, I was quickly expending the supplies of antibiotics and painkillers in the shipment.

Then, just to make things interesting, I had discovered the first evening that the mountains I had landed in seemed to have intense nightly hailstorms, which took a certain amount of glee in battering what was left of the shuttle’s hull into scrap metal.  I hadn’t recovered enough to try a trek to lower altitudes in the hopes of better weather, so my only choice thus far had been to dig in and patch up.  I patched up pretty much all day, then the weather put things right back the way they were by the morning.

Which left me where? Huddling inside an upside-down wreck, not being able to snatch more than minimal sleep due to the tympani-like banging keeping me up all night, wondering where I was, if I was healing properly, where I should go, and exactly how long the last of my emergency rations were going to last.  “Still, it beats being a bondie.” I sighed as I stepped back to look over my handiwork.  Not surprisingly, it looked like a scrap heap, and as the nightly clouds were already beginning to roll in I had just about decided to pack it in for the evening when something large hit me from behind and slammed me into the hull of the shuttle.  “Don’t move.” An angry male voice behind me ordered as my arms were yanked behind me and I heard the snap of a pair of zip-cuffs clamping down before I was bodily thrown to the ground.  Looking up dizzily, I was confused to find that rather than a group of security officers out looking for the purloined shuttle I had instead been grabbed by a motley looking collection of morphs!  The leader of the group, who had tossed me up against the shuttle, was a very no-nonsense looking big cat of some sort, a mountain lion being my best guess, though it was hard to tell with my vision still blurring from hitting the ground a moment ago, and while they were a pretty varied assortment of species, they all looked equally unfriendly.


A short, but rather confusing amount of time later found me cuffed to a chair in one of the sort of prefabricated plasticrete buildings that are popular anywhere that assembly time and light weight took precedence over quality, having an unpleasantly physical discussion with the mountain lion.  No matter how many different ways I tried to explain my story to him, however, he just didn’t seem to be able to get past the notion that I was a corporate spy from an outfit called TemTek Mining.  He also didn’t seem to be particularly inclined to explain to me what was going on, but instead just got louder the longer I failed to produce whatever answers it was he was expecting.  Finally, at about the time I was starting to wonder if I would pass out or throw up first, a canine morph came in and took the mountain lion aside, the only bit of the conversation I was able to understand being something about Central sending a trained telepath, but him being willing to try before they arrived.

I didn’t like the sound of that.  About the same time that bioengineering had reached the point that it could create morphs in the first place, researchers had isolated the gene sequences that gave something like one hundred thousandth of one percent of people mild telepathic and telekinetic abilities, and there had been a lot of cross-pollination between the lines of research, so to speak.  It wasn’t something I knew a lot about, aside from the fact that they made a lot of people nervous to be around.  I certainly didn’t like the idea of  someone digging about in my skull, a point that I made abundantly clear in a variety of colorful and anatomically improbable terms, only to be glared at and told to “Shut up, you had your chance to cooperate!” by the mountain lion.  Crouching down next to me, the canine morph tried to grab my head and force me to make eye contact, and in a panic I whipped my head around and latched on to his paw with my teeth.  “Ouch!  He bit me!” the canine yelled, smacking my head back against the wall to get me to release his paw.  Stepping around the now-brooding dog, his commander got right down in my face (though, I grinned to myself, tactfully outside of biting range) and gave me an exaggerated grin, showing off his quite superior dentition.  “Do you really want to start down that road?” he asked rhetorically ”No, I didn’t think so…  Parker! Get to it; we need to know what he knows!”

It was a horrible feeling having the dog, Parker, I guess, poking around in my head: like a scary, invasive headache squirming around like an almost physical thing, seeping through cracks and holes in places, battering down doors in others, dredging random thoughts and memories to light in seemingly unconnected ways.  And all that time projecting an anger and fear with an underlying almost helplessness around it.  I don’t know how much time passed before he gave up on finding whatever it was he was searching for, but it couldn’t possibly been as long as it felt like.  When I finally felt the intrusion withdrawing from inside my head I was hyperventilating and could barely hold myself up or focus my eyes.  “It’s no good, Chief.” I heard Parker say “I couldn’t get anything coherent out of him, it’s a jumbled up mess in there.  He’s either been trained to resist telepathic intrusion, or…”  “Or what?” The mountain lion asked, sounding frustrated.  “Or else he’s telling the truth…and is more than a little bit crazy.  The specialist Central is sending over should be here soon, they may have better luck, but I can’t do much good here.”  “Well, that’s what they’re here for.” He sighed as they left the room.

As soon as the door shut behind them, I closed my eyes and did my best to will away the acrobatics the room was performing.  It didn’t work all that well, and even by the time I finally stopped feeling like I was going to throw up all I could think about is what kind of mess I had gotten myself in to.  Who were these morphs?  Pirates?  An extremist group of some sort?  What were they doing here?  More importantly, what did they think I was doing here?  Where even was here?  I had no answers, and somehow I doubted that was going to be an acceptable answer when they returned with their ‘specialist’…  It would appear things were going to get much worse before they got any better, and I was going to need to pull my brain back together and try to become more clearheaded while I had the chance.  “Well, it’s still better than Contract Labor.” I groaned to myself as I fitfully tried to doze.


My dozing plan was rudely interrupted by an insistent tugging on my hand.  “Hey, hey, hey!  Wake up!” a young voice whined.  When I finally got my eyes to mostly focus, I discovered that a kitten, maybe five or six years old, doing his level best to scramble up into my lap.  He looked to be a mountain lion too, or possibly a bobcat, not being able to focus my eyes entirely left the subject open for conjecture, and the fact that he was now sitting in my lap pulling on my shirt sleeve baffled me completely.  “You don’t look very scary to me.” He informed me, matter-of-factly “The grownups said that I needed to stay out of here because there was a big scary spy in here they were holding prisoner.”  “Well, won’t you get in trouble for being in here then?” I sighed.  The little guy was only making my headache worse, but I just couldn’t bring myself to hurt his feelings.  “Daddy might be mad.” He nodded “But he’ll forget pretty quickly.  He has lots of things to do, which is why I have to stay with Mamma back at the other camp, so I’m not in the way.”

“You’re not a very good spy, or they wouldn’t have caught you, huh?”  The kitten questioned, actually sounding more than a little bit disappointed that he was only getting to meet a second or third rate spy, instead of a good one.  “I’m not even a spy at all.” I sighed “I kept telling them that, but nobody believes me…”  “You’re a human on our planet,” He explained patiently “so you have to be a spy.  We only just found this place, and except for that mining company nobody else knows this planet is even here.”  “Tell that to my stupid shuttle.” I shrugged…at least as well as I was able, being injured and zip-cuffed to a chair.  “I saw it.” The kitten nodded cheerfully “You’re not much of a pilot either, are you?”  “You are starting to sound a lot like my parents.” I grumbled “Don’t you have someplace you need to be or something?”  “Yes he does.” The mountain lion growled from behind me “And if he doesn’t want a sore bottom he’d better hurry along!”  “Okay, bye bye, got to go!” the kitten said in a rush as he scrambled down off my lap and made a break for the door.

“Oh yes, I see.” A very sarcastic female voice interrupted “He’s obviously a spy or an assassin.  Must have just forgotten to take the little guy as a hostage…I’m sure he’ll do better next time.”  The fox morph the voice belonged to stepped around into my line of sight and introduced herself as Emily.  She was actually quite attractive, despite wearing military field clothing, with an athletic build, and a meticulously groomed red and white patterned coat, and sparkling golden brown eyes.  “You’re pretty.” I said without thinking, then quickly shut myself up.  I doubt it’s traditionally a good idea to compliment your interrogators, even if it is something obviously true.

Flipping through a folder of papers, she pulled up a second chair next to mine and explained that “The previous telepath, a sergeant…Parker, is convinced that you’re telling the truth, and are just simply crazy, though admittedly he has little skill as a telepath and no real training, which is why they sent me.  I’m a therapist, actually, so I’m quite familiar with crazy.  Why don’t we start out by you telling me what you’re doing here, okay?”  While I talked, I could feel the contact of Emily entering my mind, but it was an entirely different sensation than the last time, fuzzy instead of slimy, and without the sense of force or anger I had gotten from the dog.  By the time I finished my story, Emily decided that “I think you’re telling the truth, but after everything that has happened with the attacks, we have to be absolutely sure who you are and how far we can trust you.”  “Attacks?” I interrupted, more than a little concerned.  What had I walked into here?  “There will be time for explanations later.” She continued “Right now I propose that we get you cleaned up and to the medical building so they can start fixing you up, and then I can look a bit deeper, to make sure we’re safe here.”  “I’m not enthusiastic about this ‘looking deeper’ thing…when the other guy tried that it felt like I was going to come out of it as a vegetable.”  “I’m a doctor, a trained telepatherapist.  I promise you that it won’t be uncomfortable as long as you cooperate with it.”  “That doesn’t exactly fill me with enthusiasm.” I sighed, not refusing, but not happy about it either.  “It will be fine, you’ll see.” Emily assured me brightly as the guards undid my zip-cuffs and escorted us outside and across the courtyard the collection of plasticrete buildings were set up around.  There were only about five of them, hastily erected, and quickly camouflaged, leading me to believe I found myself at some sort of forward observation post.

The first stop turned out to be the communal bathrooms for the facility, a long room, divided in half with the front portion having a row of toilet stalls on one side and sinks on the other, and the rear half being a large shower.  Emily waited outside while the guards followed me in, waiting at the entryway to the shower part.  “I don’t suppose you have a clean set of clothes I could borrow?” I asked as I somewhat self-consciously stripped down and started adjusting the water temperature.  (To my absolute delight there was reasonably warm water available: the camp must have had a solar heater around somewhere…)  “Or even a large towel so I can wash these in the shower and let them dry outside?  I’ve been wearing them since I crashed, and between the blood, dirt and grease I think they would probably stand up on their own.”  “We have a small laundry set up for the patrols to use.” Parker told me, even sounding a bit sympathetic “I’ll run them through for you after we drop you off at the infirmary.  We don’t have much in the way of spare gear floating around, so you’ll have to make do until they’re clean.”  “You’ve got hot water.” I shrugged, standing under the shower’s steaming flow “I’ll forgive the lack of a tailor!”

The water felt wonderful, and it was almost a little scary how dirty I was.  But, after a while it did start going down the drain clear again, and I set about with the best scrubbing I could manage under the circumstances.  I had to steer clear of quite a number of scrapes, bruises, and lacerations, so I wasn’t as clean as I would have liked, but at least I didn’t smell like I had been living in a crashed supply shuttle for a week.  Finally declaring myself done, I turned off the water, and, blushing deeply, accepted a couple of towels from the mountain lion.  “You had to stand there and watch?” I grumbled, stepping back into the other part of the building in search of a little privacy while I dried off as best I could.  “Yes.” The mountain lion nodded “The important part of ‘watching a prisoner’ is the ‘watching’ part.”  I couldn’t find a flaw in his logic there, so I grabbed a clean towel and my belt to make sure it stayed up, then followed my escort on to the medical building, where, after turning Emily and I over to the raccoon in charge of the facility, the guards took their leave.  And my clothes.

The clinic was pretty small: six beds separated by privacy curtains, and a back portion that appeared to be a combination office, lab and storage closet.  “You can call me Doc.” The raccoon informed Emily and I as he waved me to a bed “Everyone else does.”  As Emily was politely introducing herself I very gratefully lay down on my assigned bed.  It was the first time I’d been on actual padded furniture since my adventure had begun, and even the crummy crossbreed examining table/bed the clinic had felt wonderful.  Though, having been tied to a chair for a day or two previously may have slightly lowered my standards of comfort.  I’d barely laid down when Doc tapped me on the forehead with a pen.  “And you are?”  I’d not realized he had finished his conversation with Emily and now it was my turn.  “Sorry, I kind of drifted off on you there.  I’m Nick.” I explained “Nice to meet you, Doc, I just wish it were under better circumstances.”

“Let’s see what we’ve got here, shall we?” Doc nodded before beginning to poke and prod and analyze, making detailed notes on a datapad the whole time.  All I really wanted to do was go to sleep for a while, but every time I got comfortable he found something else to poke at that hurt, so that seemed to be out of the question.  He had just about finished with his examination when I noticed that I could feel Emily looking through my mind again.  It wasn’t even all that noticeable this time, with me being distracted by Doc’s pain-inducing prodding.  Of the two, Doc had the full extent of my annoyance directed at him, Emily’s telepathic snooping didn’t even really bother me by comparison.

“There’s quite a bit of work here.” Doc explained, patting my shoulder gently “Ideally someone who is involved in a shuttle wreck would be rushed to an emergency care facility on a colonized world immediately, where they have the equipment to speed up the healing of the deep tissue damage and the re-knitting of your fractured ribs, but we’re not such a facility, and even if we were you didn’t get here in a timely manner.  So instead we’re going to have to clean, wrap, and suture, then you’ll just have to heal up in your own good time without technological assistance…”  “That’s your way of telling me this is going to hurt, isn’t it?”  “Yes.”

By the time Doc finished up scraping things clean and suturing them shut again, I was feeling not well at all, and wanted nothing more than painkillers and a nap.  However, as soon as Doc was done, Emily announced that it was her turn, and my not so subtle hints that I’d like a nap first were overruled.  If I had the energy, I would have felt put upon.  “Now, let’s just get you a bit more comfortable, and we can get started, okay?” Emily explained cheerfully, indicating that I should settle down on the exam bed.  I was quite happy to oblige, settling in happily to stare at the ceiling, tenting my fingers on my chest.  Grabbing a sheet from a pile of folded linen, she draped it over me, explaining with a grin that “You’ve been fixating on keeping that towel up since you got back from the showers, so maybe this will help take your mind off it.”  “That’s quite courteous of you.” I laughed, not sure why it struck me as so funny.

“Now, if you just close your eyes, we can begin.” Emily continued.  “If I close my eyes, I guarantee I’ll fall asleep on you.” I warned “Not that I would mind it…”  Patting my shoulder kindly, she nodded.  “If you do it’s not a big deal, I can still do my work it just takes longer since when people dream they bring up a lot of random images that have to be picked through.  “Okay.” I agreed, closing my eyes…and I could feel her presence in my mind again.  The first thing I noticed this time was that she was projecting, almost offering, a relaxed, calm feeling.  I could feel the edges of it brushing up against my mind, and after everything I had been through since I left home it felt unabashedly nice.  Concentrating a little bit, I gave a sort of mental pull and allowed myself to sink into it, its sense of well being crowding out the tense, scared feelings I had been living with since the morphs had grabbed me.  Pretty soon I was feeling the least stressed out I had been in years…and shortly following that was sound asleep.


I awoke after an indeterminate amount of time with Emily looking down at me from her seat next to the bed.  “I know what you want.” She said a little bit sadly.  “What?  I don’t want anything!” I stuttered in confusion “I didn’t intend to come here, it was an accident!”  “You misunderstand.” She corrected me gently “I know what you want.”  Then, leaning over she kissed me on the forehead “You want to be loved.  And I think I want to love you.”  “I don’t understand.” I said in a small, very confused voice.  “You will.” Emily promised, beginning to sound more cheerful.  “Actually, I think this just may work out very well indeed…”  “Could you be a little less cryptic?  You’ve gone from confusing me to kind of scaring me.” I admitted.  “Well, if you really want to take all the surprise and mystery out of life…” she grinned, dropping down on the bed next to me “The short version is that because of the ‘current events’ nobody is going to be able to leave the planet in the foreseeable future, and since we can’t have strangers running around on their own in a potential war zone they’ll assign someone with a non-critical job to keep an eye on you.  Probably me.  And after seeing inside your mind, I think that we’re surprisingly compatible…and single!  So I’d like to get to know each other better, and see where things go from there!”  “You’re quite forward, aren’t you?” I laughed, beginning to like her enthusiasm in spite of myself.  “It has been said, yes.” She nodded.

“I still don’t have a clue just what sort of mess I’ve crash landed into.” I told Emily “It would be great if someone saw fit to fill me in on why we can’t leave the planet and what is going on that makes spies seem a legitimate threat to you all.”  “The slightly too lengthy to be called short version is that this is the planet we selected to become the Morph homeworld that TerraGov promised us, we just need to have our representatives jump through the appropriate hoops with the assembly.  It wouldn’t be any serious problem, except that right about the time they left an orbital surveyor for the TemTek Mining concern discovered potentially extractable concentrations of several superconducting heavy ores.  Because of the way the procedures are set up, if TemTek can run us off the planet before our representatives get the process finalized we won’t have a valid claim and they can swoop in and grab it out from under us.”  “So you’re…”  “Basically fighting a small war with the security forces TemTek has sent out to displace us.” Emily agreed.  “Well, that would explain why the morphs that caught me were more than a little bit hostile.” I nodded, rubbing one of my large collection of bruises I’d gotten over the last couple of days.  “Yeah.” She sighed “TemTek bombed one of our facilities last week.  A lot of people were hurt, and now we’re all much more on edge than we had been.  I hope you can forgive them for being a bit rougher on you than was strictly necessary…”

“So what exactly is going to happen to me, near term?” I pressed.  “You’ll be going back to the deep cover base where I was staying with me, and we’ll see about finding something useful you can help out with for the duration.”  “What if I don’t want to help out?” I grumbled theatrically.  “Then I’ll have to put you in time out, but we both know that you don’t mind…”  “Not on the face of it, but it’s the principle of things.” I agreed “When folks add to my collection of scars and bruises it doesn’t tend to endear me to them much.”  “Our little camp is being used to keep the young ones out of harm’s way.” Emily told me seriously “It’s significantly isolated from everything else we have on planet, and we don’t allow vehicles in and out of it to try to keep a low profile.”  “So it’s a daycare center?” I wondered dubiously “I have to tell you, children don’t ever like me all that much.  I’m sure there’s somewhere else that I could be useful…”  “It’s more of a refuge for noncombatants: right now that’s pretty much children and the wounded.”  “I’m sure a history major and failed graduate student will be of a great deal of help in this endeavor…” I sighed “So when do we leave?”  “First thing tomorrow.  It’s gotten kind of late, and the storms will be rolling in for the night soon, so we’ve pretty much missed the flight window for today…”

“Does the entire planet get these storms?” I wondered as the nightly banging on the roof began “Because if it does you may want to just let them have the damn place.”   “Nope.  You just happened to crash land in about the worst part of it we’ve scouted out so far.  That’s why we’ve got furs up here keeping an eye on things, we think there’s a good chance TemTek will try to land troops in the place nobody would be dumb enough to hang around in for any length of time.”  “Heh.” I laughed “I’d like to see them do it.  A couple hours outside in this and their shuttles will never fly again.”  “Or we could always get you to pilot for them…” Emily grinned innocently “That appears to have a successful track record in the desired direction as well.”  “Now you’re just being unkind.”  “Aww…is the little guy going to sulk?” she asked, ruffling my hair “You just need a good night’s sleep in an actual bed and things will look a lot sunnier all around!”  “Yeah, about that.  Where were you planning on sleeping?  Because I’d like a head start in staking out a bunk as far away as I can.  Maybe back in the shuttle wreck if possible…”  “Now who’s being unkind?” Emily pointed out, not looking the least bit put off.  “Besides, technically you’re my prisoner, so you have to sleep where I sleep.  And as it turns out Doc was happy to loan us the extra space in here since they’re a bit short on room in the bunkhouse right now, so my suggestion is that you just settle in where you are!”  “It’s more comfortable than sleeping on a pile of field dressings.” I observed “And the hailstorm doesn’t sound like being stuck inside a dumpster rolling down a hill in here.  That’s a big improvement, really…”

“I’m glad you agree.” Emily agreed “Particularly since it’s almost bedtimes…  You look like you’ve not gotten enough sleep in quite a while, so I think that early would be best today.”  “Normally I would argue with you about it, but I can’t find anything in there that I disagree with.” I sighed, beginning to take off my boots and get undressed for bed.  I had a moment’s consideration about exactly how much I was going to sleep in since I was sharing a room with someone, eventually coming to the conclusion that just underwear would be fine.  (The fact that all I had were them and my towel simplifying the decision…)  For me, apparently: I was just lying back down on the bed when a not so subtle “Ahem” informed me that Emily wanted my attention again.  Sighing loudly (yes, kind of a jerk thing to do, but after having it pointed out to me I couldn’t seem to shake how tired I actually was) I sat back up and looked over to see what she wanted.  “In the interests of starting out on the right paw…” she grinned playfully, hiding something behind her back.  “You’re not going to zap me with a stunner again, are you?” I whined “I’ve had way more than my share of that since I got here and…”  Shaking her head mischievously, Emily pulled out what she had been hiding behind her back.  It wasn’t a stunner, but I was more than a little stunned anyway: she had retrieved a pack of the adult-sized diapers from the shuttle’s medical supplies.

“Uhh…” I stared, slack jawed.  “Come now.” She laughed almost gleefully “I told you earlier that you’d see what I meant by things working out well, remember?”  “Yeah, but how…”  “Little one, I was digging around in your mind looking for secrets, remember?  I just didn’t find any that had to do with you being a spy...and these are much more fun, don’t you think?”  “But…” I babbled inanely, bordering on incoherency.  “Dearest,” Emily sighed patiently as she sat down next to me and put her arm around my shoulder “I know you desperately want someone to be your Mommy, and that you are going to say ‘yes’ to this regardless, but let me clear up that nagging little reservation you’re having.  When I telepathically searched your mind, it was literally like cramming having known you for years down into a couple of hours.  I know you better than probably anyone else now, and I’m attracted to what I saw.  I think you are someone who I could spend my life with.  And that’s a really hard thing for a telepath to find, since you instantly know all of a prospective mate’s bad habits and annoying little personality traits.  I promise you that I want a forever relationship too, and I promise you that I sincerely believe you will be it.  That’s how I feel about things, so now it’s your choice, and I really hope that you will place your trust in me and give it a chance.”  “Okay.” I whispered quietly, nobody needing telepathic powers to tell I was scared out of my mind.

“It may take you a while to believe it, but I promise you won’t regret it.” Emily told me seriously, before the moment passed and her grin returned “So, that puts us back with these!”  “You don’t think that they’re…it’s kind of odd?” I asked meekly, almost daring to hope I wouldn’t get the answer I was expecting.  Sitting down next to me on the bed, Emily smiled.  “I’m going to give you a hug now, and I know you aren’t really comfortable being touched by people, but that’s something that you’ll get over once time lets you replace bad experiences with good ones.”  Nodding, I let her put her arm around my shoulder, even managing to suppress my reflex to shudder a bit.  “See, that’s not so bad!” Emily laughed “Furs tend to be very tactile people, and the sooner you get used to hugs the better off you’ll be around here.”  “Uh huh.” I agreed, resting my head on her shoulder “But that’s getting us a bit off topic from my…tendencies.”  “Well, as far as that goes,” she laughed before taking on a more serious tone “Telepaths get exposed to the absolute worst things that a deranged mind can come up with, even more so the ones of us that work as therapists.  You wanting to be diapered and treated as a child may be a bit off from the mainstream, but no more than a lot of other things out there.  You’re not hurting anyone, so in the abstract I see nothing morally wrong with it.  And personally…well…  Wanting to be vulnerable and taken care of, and doing simple little things that make you feel safe and happy are kind of cute!  I can just imagine you curled up with a big plush toy snuggling under a blanket by the fireplace…”  “Fireplace.” I grinned “That must be a subtle hint about the thermostat in here, isn’t it?”  “Joking is a defense mechanism with you.” Emily told me sternly “It only changes the subject if I allow it to, and I think we have important things to discuss.”

“So you don’t think I’m horrible for the infantilism thing, and actually find it kind of cute in an odd sort of way then, that’s what you are saying?” I paraphrased hopefully.  “Correct!” Emily laughed, genuinely pleased that I got it.  “And you want to be my mommy?”  “Correct.”  Emily agreed, serious again.  I sat in silence for a moment, mulling the situation over.  I’d always been lonely as far back as I could remember: I never did quite figure out ‘human interaction’, didn’t even get much opportunity to try when I was growing up, being the lowest man on the totem pole.  I had pictured getting through school and developing a promising career, eventually to be respected by my peers, and maybe even teaching after I retired.  But I had these plans as sort of a surrogate for falling in love with someone who could love the real me, in all my diapered oddness.  But now I’d flunked out of school on a technicality, stolen (and subsequently destroyed) large amounts of capital property, and had become a fugitive of sorts in a border world war zone.  And I was being told a beautiful female wanted to give me the things that success and money were supposed to numb me to my lack of.  This isn’t exactly where I envisioned my life ending up when I stormed off in a huff aboard a stolen cargo hauler, but then the more I considered it, the harder it was to convince myself that I hadn’t taken a big step up in life.

“You’ve decided.” Emily stated seriously.  Nodding, I explained that “I’m giving you my trust that you won’t hurt me like everyone else has over the years.  It scares me more than you can imagine, but there’s something about you that makes me think it won’t end badly this time…”  “And I…” Emily grinned playfully “Am going to diaper your little pink bottom!”  “Okies!” I nodded happily.  Somehow making the decision had caused most of my anxiety about it to evaporate, leaving me with a sense of excited apprehension.  “I was a little disappointed when there turned out to be less in the way of supplies on your shuttle than I had hoped there would be.” Emily explained, indicating a rather scarred up storage crate from the shuttle “But I rounded up what I could find.”  Popping the latches on the medium sized metal case she opened it up to reveal that it was actually fairly full, most of the room being taken up by several packs of diapers, but also a small selection of other related supplies.  “There wasn’t a prettier box?” I teased lightly “I wanted a pastel green one.”  “Maybe once things sort themselves out we can get you some paint, or make you a new one, but I’m afraid we’re stuck with the army surplus look for the duration…”

Opening the diaper package, Emily selected one, then instructed me to “Lift up so I can slide this under you.”  Feeling a little bit self conscious, I moved to comply.  Slipping my underwear off over my hips, she set the diaper up under me and instructed me to “Down please.”.    Turning to the box of supplies, Emily dug around trying to locate something, eventually coming up with a jar of baby powder.  “Right then, now a bit of this.  It would be kind of embarrassing for me if you developed a rash the first time I changed you, you know…”  “You seem to be doing pretty well on your own.” I observed.  “I would hope so.” Emily laughed as she sprinkled on a good dash of the powder “Mostly I’ve been helping out with the youngsters we’re trying to keep isolated out of harm’s way, so I’ve changed quite a lot of diapers over the last week or two.  Admittedly, you’re much more cooperative than some of my previous experiences, and not having a tail hole to fasten up means it will go a lot quicker too!”  Without further ado, she folded up the front of the diaper and fastened up the tapes, giving them a quick double check before declaring the job complete.  “There we go!  Unfortunately, proper night clothes for you will have to wait for a bit, I’m afraid…” Emily sighed “Which is a pity, because you looked just precious in that blue sleeper of yours.”  “How do you know about that?” I asked curiously “What I looked like in it, I mean?”  “A memory of you looking into a mirror when you tried it on the first time.” She explained with a shrug.  “Yeah,” I sighed “I couldn’t bring anything with me since I was sneaking into the spaceport as a safety inspector when I stole that shuttle.  It wouldn’t have worked if I’d brought along luggage, or even a backpack, and leaving a forwarding address was out of the question as well.”

“I probably should give you a time out to think about what you’ve done, but it’s getting pretty late, so just this once I’m going to let you get away with bad behavior and go bedtimes instead.” Emily decided “Plus, that whole school situation was pretty crummy and it serves them right.”  “I’ll pretend I didn’t hear you lose the moral high ground there.” I offered with a yawn as Emily tucked me in to bed for the night before pushing one of the aid station’s other beds up against mine.  The fold up railings meant that there was a couple of inch gap between the two beds, but at least she was going to be nearby, even if cuddling would be logistically difficult.  It seemed to be bothering Emily a bit as well: I saw her giving the offending gap annoyed glances the whole time she was getting ready for bed.  The situation was how it was though, and as she pointed out “It would only be for one night anyway.”, so we could both live with it.  And honestly I was a little bit relieved.  I was starting to like Emily, but after everything else that happened today I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to begin working on the ‘being touched is icky’ issue tonight.  Almost as if she had read my thoughts (actually she probably had, come to think of it) Emily reached over and took my hand in her paw.  “Okay little one, I think it’s high time we both got some rest.”


I had drifted off very quickly after the suggestion had been presented, it was an idea I could really get behind, since besides being a long day or so I’d also not slept well at all since my forced arrival on-planet.  And not only because of the incessant pounding of hail on the ‘tin can’ either.  Since I had no idea where I really was, and even if I did wouldn’t have been able to just pull out a tour book, I had no way of knowing what kind of carnivorous local wildlife might be around.  Being alone with only a door that no longer even quite fit its frame, let alone latched and locked, I hadn’t exactly been sleeping soundly.  Then, just for the sheer fun of it, there were also the stress-produced nightmares I was still having left over from my school debacle (and occasionally more elderly memories—no matter what monsters you find on late night entertainment feeds, you’ll never convince me they are half as evil as your average child is to their peers.)

I was curled up quite contentedly, until exhaustion had been paid its due and I began to dream.  I’d never been one of those people with the cheerful flowers-and-sunshine sort of good dreams (thank you abusively dysfunctional childhood,,,) but after my graduate school plans fell through and I began  being on the receiving end of parental disappointment and thinly veiled disgust, the nighttime horrors started becoming more frequent and vicious.  It turned out that just because I had a bed for the first time in a while didn’t mean I would actually have a peaceful night’s sleep.

I dreamt that I was back on Terra, at the family home where a reunion of sorts was going on.  I was standing in the living room, under the chandelier in a circle of the only light in the room, surrounded by a jury of my entire family: parents, cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and some I only recognized vaguely from old family photos, long dead but here to weigh in anyway.  They took it in turn to call me out on my faults and inconveniences while I could only look down at my feet, burning with shame.  “You flunked out of school.”  “We should have known better than send you in the first place, you’re obviously not smart enough to hack it.”  “Why aren’t you married yet?  You never go out and socialize, it makes the neighbors talk.”  “It embarrasses the family.”  “I’m sure when they find out how much debt you are in they’ll talk about that instead for a while.”  “What are you going to do about that, by the way?  We certainly are not going to help you with it!  You should have known better than to try there in the first place.”  “Look at your cousin, he’s four years younger than you and already has a management position in a marketing firm.”  “Why can’t you try to be more like your cousin?”  “Please, he’ll never be able to be like him.  We’ll be lucky if he can get a retail job somewhere instead of going on public assistance.”  “Retail?  He couldn’t manage retail, Contract Labor is more like it!”  “Wouldn’t that be nice, them shipping him somewhere he can’t keep embarrassing the family.”  “Why are you even still here?  All you ever do is cause trouble and cost us money.”  “Yes, you should have the decency to just go.”  “Just go!”  “Go!  Get out of our house and get out of our lives!”  “No one here likes you anyway.” 

And then one of the people in the shadowy ring picked up a rock and threw it at me.  It was just a little one, out of a decorative placement by the fireplace, and I saw it coming quick enough to block it with my arm.  It didn’t even hurt, but it shocked me: she threw a rock at…the next one cracked me right in the forehead, drawing blood.  As I tried to wipe it out of my eyes I saw the thrower.  Somehow, beyond reason and possibility, the circle of people had grown, and now included faces I remembered from school.  Faces that would always be familiar to me.  When someone causes you that much pain you never forget them, no matter how much you want to.  As the rocks began to fall more heavily, I ran for the front door, down the entryway hall that seemed to stretch longer twice as quickly as I ran down it, the shadowy group pursuing me all the way.  I had almost reached the front door and whatever safety outside would bring, when a well thrown skipping stone smacked into my kneecap with an audible crack and a spiking torrent of pain, causing me to stumble and fall.  I tried to get up and run again, but my leg just wouldn’t bare the weight, and the best I could do was a stumbling, tripping, limp forward.

Just as the mob was closing in, stones raised to finish what they had started, the door was thrown open and Emily strode through, a literally shining beacon in the darkness.  In a few long steps she was standing next to where I was huddling on the floor, completely ignoring the crowd.  “Oh Nick.” She sighed sadly, looking at my crushed and bloody knee “Dreams aren’t usually this vividly detailed.  This was a memory, wasn’t it?”  “Uh huh.” I sniffled, looking in fear at the crowd.  Seeing my fear, Emily just waived her hand in contempt at the group, and everything suddenly dissolved into grey smoke, to quickly be carried away on the breeze, leaving us alone in a white nothing: an expansive room so big and seamless that one could not even tell the dimensions, or if it even had dimensions.  “This is different.” I commented, noticing my injuries had gone with the smoke, and trying to stand up with Emily.  Putting a paw on my shoulder to keep me seated, she instead sat next to me, rocking my body back against her and taking me in her arms.  Snuggling against her gratefully, I wiped away tears I hadn’t even noticed were there.  “I just wish I had gotten here earlier.” Emily told me, kissing me on the forehead.  “Well, if it makes you feel any better, my dreams usually have much worse timing, so all in all you’re ahead of the game.” I explained, feebly trying to make a joke.

“I’m not a dream, little one.” She told me gently “You were projecting in your sleep and it woke me up.  When I saw you all huddled up like that, I came in after you, as it were.”  “Projecting?” I asked, confused about everything, but thinking that I had to start somewhere…  “It turns out you’re mildly empathic, that means you can cause other people to sense or feel your emotions.  It’s actually pretty common for people to have at least a little empathic ability, just usually not enough that they can do it consciously.  And you seem to be just a bit more talented than typical, so you, little boy, are a bit psychically loud when you’re upset.”  “Oh.” I nodded, thinking I sort of understood “So you’re awake but in my head where I’m asleep and dreaming.”  “Exactly.” Emily nodded “It may not make much sense to you as to ‘how’, but you’ve got the ‘what’ down on this.”  “I’m sorry I woke you up.”  “That’s okay, really.  Now let’s just get you settled down in here, and then I can go settle down out there.”

Standing up, she offered me her paw, then once I was up too, turned me around to where a duplicate of the bed in the medical building had appeared behind us.  “Now just hop up here, and let’s go back to bedtimes, okay?”  Nodding, I climbed up, discovering that the dream bed had much nicer linens and a selection of plushies.  Grinning at that, I allowed Emily to tuck me in for the second time tonight.  Then, pulling up a chair from somewhere, she sat down at my bedside then dimmed the nothing-room’s lights and began humming a peaceful little tune I couldn’t quite place.  In no time at all, I drifted off to sleep, and a peaceful, undisturbed nothingness for the rest of the night.


“Come on kiddo, we’ve got a shuttle to catch.  Time to get up.” Emily wheedled, poking me gently from somewhere in the land of the awake.  “Don’ wanna.  Can’t make me.”  I groaned, doing my best to roll somewhere out of range.  Sadly, the bed rail made it more difficult than I would have liked.  “It’s morning.” She explained logically “Daytime is when we’re supposed to be awake, remember?”  “Keep sleeping if I want to.” I disagreed, having no intention of getting out of bed.  “You’re not going to get anywhere testing my patience, so up and about, right?”  “Or what?” I groaned.  At least in my stupid wrecked ship I got to sleep in longer.  This was beginning to become irritating…  “Or I’ll have them drag you, bed and all!” she decided.  “Works for me.” I nodded, finally opening my eyes and sitting up blearily.  “There we are!” Emily praised “It lives!”  “Barely.” I agreed, pulling my pants on over my still dry diaper before making a halfhearted effort to get my boots on.

“Well look on the bright side, there’s always a chance we’ll get shot at on the way there…that’s almost as good as coffee for getting woken up in the morning.”  “You are not helping.” I grumbled, giving the incredibly perky vixen a look of early morning disgust.  It didn’t help, and I decided that the best thing for it was to just give up and get going.  “They’ve already loaded the supplies we salvaged for you from the wreck, and since you don’t actually have anything in the way of luggage we’re pretty much ready to go.” She explained as I unenthusiastically followed her out to the flat spot the morphs had been using for a landing pad.  The unassuming little flyer waiting on us, I noticed, had been rather crudely painted with various shades of green and brown splotches.   “Classy looking airline ‘yall are running here…” I observed as I took a seat next to Emily.    There were only two rows of seats in the flyer, with the majority of the space being designated for cargo transport, which didn’t exactly fill me with confidence.  But the nosy little boy from the other day was sitting in the other row of seats, and if they let kittens on it must be at least moderately safe, right?  “See, he’s not worried.” Emily pointed out with a gentle nudge.  (He was, in point of fact, curled up in a blanket napping…)

“That’s because he doesn’t know any better.” I explained as the flyer took off “Are we really going that far?  I’d be more than happy to just walk…” I offered “I could use the exercise anyway, really.”  “It’s a ways off.” She shrugged “We’re based out of a really pretty little valley, you’ll like it there!”  “Hmm.” I mumbled noncommittally.  “It’s a unique little spot.” Emily continued “We found a valley that’s completely enclosed, you have to go in through a natural tunnel in the hillside because the cliffs around it are too narrow to be able to fly in to.  Then on top of that there’s always high level cloud cover, so orbital observation is next to impossible, which makes it perfect for an out of the way little hidey-hole.”  “Yes, but does it hail at night there?” I asked, really only concerned with that all important question.  (Hey, you try going a week with only an hour or two of sleep each night and see where your priorities end up!)  “Nope, that only happens in the area you managed to crash in, remember?” Emily reminded me patiently “You can have a really one track mind on occasion, can’t you?”

Emily was spared my mildly sarcastic retort by the skimmer landing.  “Out, Quickly.” The pilot instructed over the comm. system “We don’t want to stay on the ground here long enough to draw attention to ourselves!”  Hastily unbuckling my harness, I helped rapidly shuffle the kitten in the front row out the door and under the tree line, then helped the pair of morphs who had been waiting for our skimmer load its cargo on an antigrav sled, getting it out of the way of the skimmer’s prop wash as it took off.  Emily just gave me a smile of approval before taking my hand in her paw and leading me up into the mountains after the ground crew.

A brisk ten minute walk later the ground crew with their antigrav sled disappeared into some overgrown bushes against a steep cliff wall.  “We’re here.” Emily laughed, looking a bit less tense as she drug me around the brush and into the tunnel it was concealing.  “That’s a really good job.” I observed appreciatively, seeing how they had used green-grey monofilament cord to bend and reshape the existing vegetation into a densely concealing screen.  It even looked like additional smaller plants had been transplanted amongst the originals to help fill out the disguise.  “One of the morphs in our little town is an artist.” Emily acknowledged “And regardless of how much he complained about it being ‘flower arranging’, it turned out better than any of us had hoped!”  “I wish I could paint.” I sighed as we started down the tunnel “But artistic ability doesn’t run in my family…”  “Well you’ll just have to marry in to another one then, won’t you?” she teased, fluffing my hair.  I just “Hrumph”-ed at that one: social interaction being a touchy subject for reasons that Emily should have been quite aware of if she’d been picking at my brain, then shifted my attention to the tunnel itself.

“This must have been a pretty active rift valley at one point in time.” I mused “We’re in an old lava tube, and see those smaller little tubes that crisscross the walls?  That means it was active off and on for quite a while.  The soil is probably pretty good for growing things in…”  “We’d love to find out.” One of the ground crew, a ferret morph, informed me “But right now we can’t do anything that obvious outside.  All of our food growing is done in hydroponics labs.”  “Great.” I groaned, feeling his pain “What’s your up time with the equipment running?”  He sighed “Better than it could be, considering we’ve cobbled the whole thing together out of repurposed bits and pieces, few if any of which were originally intended to do what we end up using them for…”    “Isn’t that always the way, though?” I agreed, the rest of my comment being forgotten as we stepped out the other end of the tunnel and I got my first look at our destination.

“It’s really something, isn’t it?” Emily asked rhetorically, placing her arm around my waist.  (I was too busy taking in the sight to even flinch.)  The valley was really beautiful, a wild subalpine vista untouched by sentients.  Most of the land in the valley was covered in pine and fir forests, with the notable exception of a large expanse of open meadow that the tunnel exited into, and a good sized lake visible at the opposite end of the long, narrow valley, apparently fed by streams originating in the surrounding mountains.   “It is.” I nodded simply, though the expression on my face revealed that I was much more pleased with having to relocate if this was to be the destination.  “So where are ‘yall actually set up?” I questioned “Because either you’re underground somewhere, or else your artist is wasting his talents on this backwater rock…”  “This is going to be our home!” Emily said angrily, her tail puffing up to impressive dimensions and her ears turning back “Maybe that doesn’t mean anything to you, but we’ve…”  “Hey, whoa!  Pax!” I quickly corrected “I think we’re meaning very different things by ‘backwater’, Em…I just meant that this was a frontier world still, not that there’s anything wrong or unattractive about it.”  “Oh, okay.” She nodded, mollified “Just because I’m a telepath doesn’t mean that I am, or even can, for that matter, reading your mind all the time.  It doesn’t work like that.”  “I think I can forgive you this once for not knowing exactly what it was I meant.” I teased gently “But only if you promise to work on your anger management skills.”

We had continued walking across the meadow and into the tree line near where it was closest to the cliff walls while Emily and I were talking, but stopped amongst an area where minor landslides had brought a lot of loose dirt into the forest on a field trip.  Only by everyone slowing down did I get the hint that something was around, until we rounded a curve, bringing us to several doors set into the dirt spill piles.  “Huh.” I wondered, not exactly sure what it was I was looking at.  “We had to set this settlement up quickly, secretly, and with little in the way of resources.” The ferret I had spoken with earlier explained, seeing my curiosity.  Opening the first door we came to he led me inside, tossing a “We’ll meet you at the dining hall.” over his shoulder to Emily and the rest of his ground crew.  “I’m Trevor, by the way.” He introduced as we went inside.  “Nick.  Pleased.” I nodded cheerfully.

The inside was not the carved-out mud brick building I had expected, but was rather a set of white geodesic domes making up multi-room structures, with actual windows and everything.  “We had a lot of these prefabricated modular research bays already shipped in when the…unpleasantness began.” Trevor explained “But since they’re bright silver on the outside, not to mention very recognizably shaped, we couldn’t just put them out in a field.  It turns out that they are completely air and water tight, not to mention being able to hold a significant amount of weight on the structural members.”  “So you buried them in a mud slide.” I finished, grinning broadly.  “That we did!” He agreed “We’ve got them all wired for power, and have shared pluming between units of four, the only comfort of home they are lacking is kitchens.  We were short on the equipment for them, and if we’re trying to stay unnoticed putting in fireplaces wouldn’t be the greatest idea ever….”

“That’s well thought out.” I complimented, genuinely impressed “So how many of you are living here?”  “More than you would expect.” Trevor said “We’ve got a bunch of the residential setups scattered throughout the valley, along with a communal complex for the things that we have to share for one reason or another.  The idea is to space everything out as much as possible so we don’t start wearing paths in the grass or putting out big heat signatures, anything like that.”  Yawning a bit, Trevor checked his watch, then decided that “It’s about lunch time, we may as well start heading over and catch up with the rest of my crew and your friend.”  “Actually, she kidnapped me.” I explained “So she’s really more like a pleasant to be around jailer.”  “Just be careful she doesn’t decide to keep you!” Trevor laughed, shutting the door behind us and leading me across the clearing to the entryway of another complex “That happened to me, and then the next thing I knew I was getting life-bonded!”  “Hey, it could be worse.” I smiled a little wistfully as we entered what turned out to be a medium sized dining hall, this time buried a good ways underground so that we had to go down steps to get to the door.

The room was quite a bit larger than the one Trevor had just finished showing me, in both height and floor space, and had several vestibules leading off into other rooms as well.  “These things are entirely modular.” The ferret explained, seeing my confusion “They’re almost like a set of the assembly blocks that cubs play with, everything can be reattached to pretty much everything else, so long as you keep the same geodesic shape.”  “That’s neat.” I grinned, imagining assembling my own life sized toy castle out of what were probably ridiculously expensive mobile exploration labs.  “Don’t even think about it, by the way.”  Emily informed me sternly, having come up behind Trevor and I while we were talking.  “Are you reading my mind again?” I groused, playfully faking annoyance.  “I don’t need to; your expression is pretty self explanatory…”  “I was thinking about how it should be getting close to lunch time by now.” I offered “I never said anything about building a castle, honest.”  “While it is getting close to time to think about food, I thought it would be better to get you settled in first.” Emily suggested.  “I shall defer to your impeccable logic regarding the matter.” I decided, taking her paw as she took us back outside and down the proverbial road a bit, ending up in front of yet another collection of doors.

“You’ll be staying here with me.” She explained, leading me into what turned out to be a residential dome.  The inside was actually pretty spacious, with things being laid out somewhere between an efficiency apartment and a hunting cabin.  Across from the entry door was another closed door of the same type, with the room being an oval shape, the doors located at the nearest points on the wall.  One end of the oval had a rather comfortable looking round wicker nest-bed with a thick pillow mattress, while the opposite end had a sturdy, all-purpose looking table and four straight backed wooden chairs.  A small dresser and a wall mounted shelving unit, along with a worn looking area rug finished out the room’s furnishings.  Somewhat Spartan, and not exactly spacious, but not a disagreeable place by any means.  “We don’t have a lot to work with.” Emily apologized, self-consciously neatening up the random collection of things currently residing on the table.  “I like it.” I assured her quickly “It’s very cozy, all you need is a few houseplants.”  “I tried that already.” She grumbled “They don’t do well at all under this crummy fluorescent lighting.”

“So where does the other door go?” I wondered.  “The bathroom facilities.” She explained.  “We’ve got the housing set up with four residential units in a ring around a shared bathroom and storage room closet kind of thing.  There wasn’t enough plumbing to go around, so it seemed like the most efficient use of resources.”  “And it was less work for whoever had to bury the places when you were done.” I decided, somewhat less than charitably.  “We’ve got a heavy excavator, actually.” Emily explained “We were lucky, it was in the last load of supplies that made it to the surface.  I’m not sure what we would have done without it!”  “So how does that work exactly?” I asked, envisioning this being potentially the biggest opportunity to get myself in to trouble since landing here in the first place.  “About how you would expect.”  Emily shrugged, opening the door to reveal a short hallway, sprouting a bar for hanging clothing on one side, and a collection of shelves on the other, which led to another door.  “We turned these into sort of a walk in closet, since subdividing rooms is tricky with these kits.  It saved us the trouble of making an official closet part of the room…”  Opening the other door, she led me in to another octagonal room with a large tub in the middle sinking below floor level.  To the sides of the room were a pair of typical bathroom counters, with the usual sink and mirror, and a pair of toilets, one of the standard bipedal type I recognized, and one which must have been intended for various ‘Taur morphs.  To my relief, they came complete with a sort of privacy curtain that would be closable around them.

“Do we have ‘Taurs for neighbors?” I asked “Or is the plumbing a standard kit the building materials came supplied with?”  “We do, yes.  Is that going to be a problem?” Emily asked, sounding somewhat concerned.  (Sentients being sentients, civilization had nowhere near finished resolving all its little xenophobic quirks, so potentially that could have been an important question…ugly wars have a tendency of generating problems like that.)  “Not at all.” I assured her “I’ve never had the opportunity to meet a ‘Taur before, that’s all.”  “Had you met many Morphs in general before you crashed here?  I get the impression you didn’t get out much when you were at school.”  “Nope.  I didn’t even really meet any of the people I sat next to in the research library for hours a day, every day, for two semesters…”  “Well, I’ll introduce you to the neighbors around dinner time.” Emily decided “Pretty much everyone is at work right now, so they’re almost certainly not home now.”  “Anyway, the only other thing to know about the bathroom is you can lock the four doors if you feel the need for privacy.”  “And there’s no shower?”  “Nope.” Emily sighed “We don’t have the water pressure necessary for a shower to be worth the trouble, so we get the big tub instead.”

Back in our room I settled down on the nice soft area rug while Emily unpacked her little overnight pack.  “I have some perfectly good chairs.” She offered, the second or third time she stepped over me to reach the closet.  “Yeah, but they’re unpadded wood.  The rug is soft.” I explained, making it clear I felt it to be an obvious observation of the state of things.  “I know.” She sighed “The first thing I’m going to do when this all resolves itself and we aren’t under a blockade any more is order a sofa.  A huge, overstuffed sofa with the reclining and footstool features, and maybe even heated seats!”   “You’ve put some thought into that.” I laughed “That’s the same tone-of-wistfully-planning voice I used to have on backpacking trips when I was a kid discussing what would be for dinner once we had hiked back into town.  We always called it ‘first steak syndrome’ since that was always the unattainable item being lusted after…”  “Hey, I’m the therapist, I get to name the syndromes.” Emily growled, faking annoyance. (Badly, too…)  “I discovered it, I get to name it.” I disagreed, sticking out my tongue at her before changing the subject.

“What are our neighbors like?” I wondered “I’ve been getting mixed messages since I arrived here: you’re pretty nice, I think, but the first morphs I met tied me to a chair and interrogated me for several days.  Which end of the spectrum do the neighbors fall on?”  “They’ll be perfectly friendly as long as they don’t think you’re a spy.” Emily joked “And since they are mostly telepaths it shouldn’t take long to convince them…”  “Really?” I wondered “Do the Morphs have a sort of leper colony for ‘yall?”  “Yes, but not like you’re implying.” She explained “We took the area furthest from the field hospital.  Being near it can wear on a telepath very quickly, so it’s best for us to avoid it as much as possible.”  “Oh.” I nodded, for once not seeing fit to make a joke about something.  “Let’s pointedly talk about happier things.” Emily decided.  “Why don’t we sort around in the junk bin and see if we can dig you up a change of clothes and some of the other stuff you’ll need eventually.”  “I guess I could find some time to work it in, but only a little, since I’ve all my unpacking to do still…”


The ‘junk bin’ turned out to be a fairly concise description of the empty building being used by the Morphs to store an incredibly random collection of extra supplies, broken equipment that might still be repairable or useful for salvage, and any property captured from TemTek that wasn’t put to immediate use.  The building itself was made of eight regularly sized kits put together to form a much larger structure to contain the equally large jumble of stuff.  “And you can actually find something specific in here?” I wondered, amazed.  “That depends entirely on how specific a ‘specific’ you mean…” Emily laughed. “Right now we’re specifically looking for anything that might be useful to you.  So yes, I think I can find something in here somewhere!”  “Do we just dig in, or is there a system?” I asked, wanting to make sure I wouldn’t mess anything up if the chaos made sense to someone somewhere.  “Just have at!” Emily encouraged before picking an area at random to start looking through.

One great bit of wisdom that is often ignored in the universe is that it is a truly bad idea to tell me to ‘have at’ free things.  Historically, such an instruction would result in me falling on the pile of stuff like a starving wolverine and quickly hauling off just about anything I can pick up.  This time, though, my natural tendencies were thwarted by the fact that there really wasn’t all that much that I could actually use for anything.  Mostly the room turned out to be filled with construction supplies and partially destroyed equipment.  Kind of less than helpful, considering I was looking for things like…oh…a second pair of pants or a coat.  After a few minutes of fruitless searching, I noticed that there were a few cargo containers mixed in here and there with the other stuff.  They had apparently so far avoided being opened up and sorted through by the fact that they were buried under one thing or another.  “Hey Emily!” I yelled, getting her attention at the other side of the cavernous room “Do we have any tools floating around here someplace?  I’m going to try to pull some of these U.T.C.s, see if they have anything worthwhile in them.”  “U.T.C.s?” Emily questioned, approaching with a small toolbox she had gotten from somewhere.  “Universal Transport Cases.  Or Crates, I can never remember which one the ‘C’ stands for…” I explained, accepting the toolbox and selecting a few things from its contents.  “I haven’t found anything even vaguely worthwhile, so maybe if I can haul a couple of them out from under all that busted up scrap I might have better luck.”  “If they were easy to get to someone would have already sorted them by now.” Emily pointed out dubiously.   “I try to think positively.”  I grinned, selecting a crowbar and advancing menacingly on the nearest box.

I quickly discovered that it wasn’t quite as bad as Emily had made it out to be.  Rather, I think the boxes remained untouched because nobody had the time to go looking through them.  We soon had a good system going, with me digging the boxes out and Emily popping them open and noting the contents on the side of the box with a paint stick before hauling them off to a neat pile on the other side of the room.  That was the good news.  The bad news, however, was that the vast majority of them turned out to be tools and some of the more fragile or easily lost supplies one finds around a construction site.  “This would be fantastic if we were in a position to actually start building.” Emily grumbled while we were sitting atop the pyramid of boxes taking a break from the work.  “Look on the bright side.” I joked evilly “We’ve found a bunch of those emergency meals that everyone is sick of eating too!”  “Another couple of weeks of them and I’m sure you will love them as much as the rest of us.” She responded with painfully artificial sweetness.  “I probably will, at that.” I sighed in agreement “And yet, still no clothes.”  “Well, don’t give up now, there might be some in the next box.”

We didn’t find any clothes in the next box, nor the one after it, or the one after that, but eventually Emily excitedly announced that “I think we’ve got something here!”  Oddly, when she announced her find I felt a brief trace of her excitement telepathically, like when she had projected emotions on me the previous evening.  My curiosity about the matter was, however, quickly outweighed by my hope that we had found me something to wear that wasn’t stained and torn business casual.  “Maybe not.” Emily sighed, her ears drooping as I approached “I can’t decide if this junk is a box of charity donations or part of a museum exhibit!”  “That’s a good question.” I hurumphed curiously as we began picking through the box.  The contents were pretty much work clothing, lots of flannel and jeans in styles that could have been dated anywhere from yesterday to several hundred years ago, but were universally nearing the point where they were too threadbare to still be considered clothing.  “Maybe we’ll get lucky and there will be something repairable in this mess…” she said dubiously.  I admittedly was mildly frustrated at this point, and when Emily reached back in to the U.T.C. and began delicately looking through its contents again, I said something decidedly impolite and kicked the box over, scattering the contents across a non-trivial amount of the space we had cleared on the floor.   “Hey!” Emily snapped, pointing a finger at me “I won’t have you using that kind of language!  Do you want a time out, young man?”  “Sorry.” I sighed, looking at the floor “It’s just…frustrating.  It’s a continuation of the never-ending string of bad stuff that keeps happening to me.  Now I can’t even find clothes in a supply room!”

“Oh, hon.” Emily sighed, calming down instantly “It’s not as bad as all that.  Besides, we don’t even really know if there’s clothing to find here, remember?  It was just somewhere to check.”  “I know, it’s just…”  “It’s okay.” She told me again, then coming up and hugging me tightly.  “Why don’t we get this picked up, and then take a break for a while, maybe see about getting lunch, hmm?”  “I’ll be okay to work a while longer, I’m not tired or anything.” I assured her while bending down to collect the pile of rags I had scattered “Hmm, what do we have here?”  Under a pile of other scraps there was what looked like a heavy piece of canvas wrapped up into a parcel, and tied shut with two pieces of twine that wrapped around its width.  Digging it out, I discovered that it was about two feet by a foot by about eight inches thick, and quite heavy.  “Find something?” Emily asked, sitting down next to me as I picked at the knots in the twine.  “It’s different from the rest of this junk.” I groused “But that doesn’t mean it’s not junk too…”

The last knot yielded to my insistent grumblings, and upon unwrapping the canvas the contents revealed themselves to be a folded up black leather duster.   Unfolding it completely and hanging it from a convenient piece of board in the nearest scrap pile, I looked it over critically.  The leather was cut thick, almost like a skid coat, and the interior only had a thin liner in it, not surprising since it seemed the sort of thing one wore over heavier clothing during inclement weather.  The fasteners were all snaps and a heavy duty zipper running two thirds the length of the front.  It was too thick to ever really be considered supple, but appeared either brand new or very well taken care of, and gave off the wonderful scent of waterproofing and leather preservative cream.  “Nice.” Emily grinned “And it even looks long enough to fit you!  See, I told you things always work themselves out one way or another, didn’t I?”  “Now I just need some pants.” I teased “If I go around in just this and a pair of underwear people will mistake me for a flasher!”  “That could be fun.” Emily observed with a wicked grin before sighing resignedly and deciding that “We probably should find you some pants and things too though.”

By unspoken mutual agreement we turned back to our sorting project.  The next exciting find came about a half hour or so later when I came across an entire U.T.C. of really good quality excursion boots.  I could actually see Emily slump in disappointment when we figured out that they were all fitted for humans, and for practical purposes were worthless for a morph.  “I could mostly wear them.” She explained, making a visible effort not to take her disappointment out on me “But they’d either be too big to stay on, or else would wear some wicked blisters on my footpaws in an hour or two.”  “Your shoes look pretty new.” I observed before getting back to finding a pair of boots in my size.  “Yes, and they’re fine for places with sidewalks or onboard a ship, but they’re pretty bad for running around in the woods…”  “If it makes you feel any better, you’re still much better dressed than I am.” I laughed.


When we finally declared the search to be over and went for food we had enough bits and pieces folded up unceremoniously in a bundle inside the long coat that I would be mostly clothed for a while, or at least as much as anyone was going to be until things sorted themselves out.  Making up for the disappointment with the footwear, we eventually stumbled across what Emily decided must have been part of a supply shipment to some corporation’s outpost out there somewhere, and while Emily was leading me to the dining hall, the beginnings of a good sized procession started trickling in the other direction in the hopes of expanding wardrobes.  “See” I told Emily seriously “for once in my life I’m ahead of the fashion trend!  And if you change clothes before lunch too, we can even match!”  “At least you’re easily amused.” She smiled as we made a quick stop back at our little cabin to drop off our finds.  We had also swung by the camp’s supply rooms and gotten me a toothbrush, a comb, and various other little things that Emily decided I shouldn’t live without.  Stepping inside, I unceremoniously dumped the pile of clothes in the nearest empty corner, then neatly hung up my coat by the door next to Emily’s.

“I’m going to pretend that you weren’t planning on just leaving those there.” She said archly, giving me a look that even I could tell meant I was to reconsider the decision.  “I guess not?” I asked.  When the look didn’t go away, however, I decided that it would be in my best interests to quit feigning innocence and make an attempt at putting things away neatly.  Making a noise somewhere between a resigned sigh and a pained groan I flopped down on the floor and folded everything into two or three neat little piles as rapidly as possible.  I was getting hungry, and apparently Emily was going to make it a prerequisite to me getting fed.  “There’s room in the little shelf cabinet thing.” She informed me when I was done.  “This must have been why I’ve never had roommates before.” I grumbled when things were finally to Emily’s satisfaction and we were back on track for food.  “Because no one would ever put up with you?” She asked innocently, batting her eyelashes at me in a way I had thought didn’t exist outside of cartoons.  “Sure, that’s a theory.” I agreed “But my guess is it probably was because of me not bothering to put on pants unless I was going to cross the property line.  Or possibly the industrial-grade snoring.  Now my neighbors, they usually whined about me getting mad and throwing things off my third story balcony…”  “What kind of things?” Emily asked, not quite sure she wanted to know.  “A sofa.  I exaggerate, though: it only happened once.”  “Is there more to this story, or am I going to start looking at you oddly?” Emily asked, blocking my way into the mess hall.

“Fine.” I sighed “But it’s a much more entertaining an idea than a story.  When I was furnishing my first apartment I got a really good deal on a used sofa from a realtor who used them in model homes.  It was cheap and looked really nice, and was pretty heavy, so I assumed it was a fairly good product.  Except that after a couple of months all the padding had worn out, and the springs were poking through.  So I did the only reasonable thing one could do in that situation: I started sitting on the side that wasn’t worn out yet.  And it worked out pretty well until I fell asleep on it one night and managed to stab one of the springs a good part of the way through my foot.  It was an…unpleasant way to wake up in the middle of the night.  The  ‘in pain and not quite woken up’ logic was that I was going to get a new sofa anyway, this one was heavy to be hauling down flights of stairs, and besides, I’m mad.”  “So you threw it over the balcony into the yard?”  “Exactly!” I beamed “You understand!”  “Yeah…” Emily said noncommittally, before changing the subject by ushering me to the food.

The dining hall held a much closer resemblance to something you would see at a family’s holiday get together than it did a cafeteria.  There was a long main table that could probably seat about twenty or so, covered with a neatly done but obviously homemade tablecloth taking up most of the middle of the room.  Scattered around the periphery towards what would have been the corners if the room was actually square were several smaller tables and a couple of built-in dining nooks.  The walls had been stenciled with a cheerfully attractive vine and flower pattern and an incredibly varied assortment of chairs were scattered throughout.  I saw everything from locally made wooden stools to what probably started out as acceleration couches from a starship, as well as a few beanbag chairs thrown in for good measure.  There wasn’t a serving line or anything like that, but some really attractive smells were wafting in through the entryway to an adjoining room that must have been the kitchen.  Several morphs were talking and eating at the various tables, and a cheerful atmosphere pervaded the room.  “Not what you expected?” Emily asked, noting my expression of mild confusion.  “I thought it would be more like the cafeteria at school.” I explained “All crummy vinyl flooring and junky office break room tables and chairs.  This is actually…I don’t know…somewhere I would enjoy spending some time.”  “Why wouldn’t it be?” she responded, taking her turn to be confused.  “I guess I’m just used to the idea of public dining as  being a place where one goes, gets food, eats it, and leaves.”  “You’ve never been all that comfortable being around other people, particularly strangers, have you?”  “I’d say that was a fair assessment.” I agreed as we moved across in to the kitchens.

The first thing I noticed, stepping in to the room was a loud argument between a tawny-coated Chakat and a rather unassuming otter morph, both apparently cooks.  “The recipe is just not the same without the right spices!” The otter protested, only barely not yelling.  “That’s right—it’s edible!” The Chakat shot back, Hir fur bristling   “Hey!  Hey! Truce, you two!  Remember what happened last time?” Emily interjected, loudly enough to get everyone’s attention.  “Nick, this is our neighbor Chakat Riverwash and our full-time chef John.”  “Nice to meet you.” I nodded politely, then quickly backing up a few steps to avoid the hug offered by Riverwash.  Shi looked a bit perturbed by this until Emily leaned across the table and whispered something to hir, the annoyed expression changing briefly to a look of sadness before returning to hir original cheerful smile.  I couldn’t help but wonder what exactly Emily had told hir about me…  “I have to drop by to supervise in here to keep John from accidentally poisoning the cubs I’ve been put in charge of.” Riverwash explained “He has an unhealthy affinity for spicy foods, you see.”  “Shi just has no sense of taste!” John launched back with a grin.  (He did, however, put the lid back on the can in question and returned it to the rack next to the large multi burner grills.)

“So you’re the corporate spy sent to infiltrate us, then.”  John stated happily, returning to the large pot simmering on the stove.  “That’s what they tell me.” I nodded “At this point I’ve heard it so often I’m almost beginning to believe it.”  “How’s that working out for you?” he laughed, sampling some of the food then turning down the burner.  “Not so well actually.  I was expecting fast shuttles, nice clothing, and five star dining.  Frankly, I’m considering asking for a refund!”  “Damn recruiters.” He nodded “Would you mind handing me that cutting board on the counter behind you?”  Handing it over, I watched John bustle around digging vegetables out of the big refrigeration unit and begin chopping up the ingredients for (presumably) another batch of whatever it was he had going on the stove.  Emily, meanwhile, was getting brought up to speed on the news from the camp’s daycare from Riverwash.  They seemed to be pretty engaged in the conversation, so I guiltily took the opportunity to examine Riverwash more closely.  I’d never actually seen a Taur before, Chakat or otherwise, and as curious as I was I had no desire to be ‘that jerk’ who sat there gawking like he was at a zoo or something.

The first word to come to mind would probably be ‘imposing’.  I was a little bit taller than shi was, but obviously nowhere near as large.  (Or muscular for that matter, I noticed wryly.)  Shi had a strong resemblance to a mountain lion, with similar facial features to hir muzzle, and the same kind of long, heavy tail.  Hir coat was a tawny brown with black boots and a black tip on hir tail, though shi had a cream colored tummy and little cream spots sprinkled down hir throat and chest.  Hir fur was obviously more than just decorative, as shi seemed perfectly comfortable wearing only a sort of canvas belt pack thing with a shoulder strap as well, sort of like the old Sam Browne belts that were worn on a lot of uniforms two centuries ago back on Terra.  Honestly, I found hir more than a little bit intimidating, and unconsciously found myself moving a bit to the side to put some more distance between hir and myself.

“You don’t need to be concerned, I promise you I’m quite friendly.” Riverwash told me reassuringly, having shifted hir attention to me for no discernable reason.  “I didn’t say anything!” I eep-ed, caught off guard and more than a little bit disconcerted by it.  “You didn’t need to…” Emily told me patiently.  “I’m a telepath as well, remember?” Riverwash reminded me.  “Oh, right.  That would be why you’re Emily’s neighbor.” I worked out, feeling embarrassed.  Nothing makes new friends like having someone know you feel like they’re something to be afraid of.  Looking down at my feet awkwardly, I was trying to quickly think of a convincing apology when Riverwash swatted me gently.  “Silly boy, there’s nothing to…Oh!”  I’ve not been comfortable being touched since…well, before, and when it’s unexpected I’ve never quite been able to get my flinch reaction under control.  “I’m sorry!  I didn’t realize it was so bad…” Shi blurted out, genuinely concerned “Are you all right?”  “I’m fine, really.” I nodded, if anything feeling worse than I had before “I didn’t mean to make things awkward…”  Shaking her head decisively Emily explained to me that “You’re never going to be able to get around that without working to become desensitized to it somewhat.  I’m going to start getting some of the people around the camp that will be understanding about it to touch you when you speak with them.  I think that will be a very healthy thing for you.”  “Yeah, well I think it wouldn’t be.” I snarked back.  “It scares you, so I’m going to forgive your tone.” She told me sternly “But it’s inappropriate, and I didn’t do anything to deserve that.”  “I didn’t realize I was going to…I’m sorry.” I sighed.  And I really was.  “I forgive you.” Emily nodded “Little ones need guidance from time to time, that’s what mommies are for.”

John, to my great relief, was a good enough person not to want to make things any harder for me than they already were, and was tactfully pretending that he hadn’t heard any of our little exchange, instead having put us together a tray of teriyaki skewers, little fried biscuit things, and three bowls of the soup he had been working on, and waved us out of his kitchen with a grunt.  We located one of the more out of the way little tables, surrounded by several beanbag chairs, out in the dining room, and settled down for lunch.  The food smelled great, and I did my best not to tear into things like I’d not been fed in weeks, though it took more effort than it really should have.  It was probably a plot on the part of the otter morph in the kitchen, making such delicious foods so that I would embarrass myself in revenge for me not taking his side in the ‘great spice debate’.  That must be it.  Really.  I listened politely to Emily and Riverwash as they discussed whatever it is that needs to be planned out to operate a daycare.  Mostly it involved developing lesson plans and trying to figure out ways to give the young ‘uns a chance to play outside within the constraints placed on everyone by our present situation.  It seemed like the kind of thing that I should find interesting, certain tendencies being taken into consideration, but mostly it was just tedious.  In a fairly short amount of time I was giving my undivided attention to the food, and watching my companions eat, rather than listening much at all.

I was brought back from my half-attention by the realization that the conversation had stopped and everyone was staring at me.  “Huh?  Sorry I spaced out on ‘yall there.” I explained.  “I was just asking…” Riverwash began before Emily interrupted hir.  “Forgetting already?”  Giving me an almost apologetic look, Riverwash carefully placed hir paw gently on my arm just a little bit above my wrist where I was resting it on the table.  I managed, to my satisfaction, to keep my tic down to a barely perceptible twitch.  If I didn’t validate her idea hopefully Emily would forget about it before too long.  Beginning again, Riverwash explained that “I was going to ask if you were coming with Emily and I to the center after lunch or if you had other plans.”  “Actually, I was going to go take a look at the hydroponics setup that…umm, Trevor, I think, was telling me about.  The circulation systems shouldn’t be all that functionally different from the liquid cooling setups they use on laser mills for circuit etching.  I’d be nice if I could add value around here.” I explained “Besides, I’m not tremendously fond of children.”  Emily gave me a dubious look after the last part.  “Hey,” I grumbled defensively “One thing doesn’t have anything to do with another, okay?”  Riverwash squeezed my arm a bit before changing the subject in a conciliatory tone “No need to get worked up.”  “I’m not worked up.” I denied, sulking a little “Everyone is just picking on me for no reason.  It’s because I don’t have a tail, isn’t it?  I can tell.  With my fantastic psychotic powers!”  “That’s ‘psychic’, dear.” Emily corrected, playing along “And you should really try to reign them in, you’re likely to scare the Chakat.”

‘The Chakat’ didn’t look particularly scared.  In point of fact, shi looked to be enjoying hirself immensely.  “Oh, what are you laughing at?” I grumbled at hir.  “If you start getting cranky with everyone I’ll have Riverwash carry you back to our room and I’ll put you to bed for an afternoon nap!” Emily teased “Shi is quite a bit stronger than either of us, I’d be surprised if shi couldn’t manage it…”  “I don’t suppose you give pony rides?” I asked hir hopefully.  The idea hadn’t occurred to me earlier, but now that Emily mentioned it I’ll bet shi probably could…  “Nick!” Emily admonished sternly, with a look that clearly said that she couldn’t believe that I’d asked Riverwash that.  “I just might.” Shi grinned, giving me another fake-swat “But I’m not so sure that Emily would be inclined to share…”  Emily and Riverwash both burst out laughing as I began blushing fiercely.  “You were right about him projecting.” Riverwash observed “We may have to recruit him as a training assistant down the road when the university program starts up!”  “Picked on.” I reiterated, crossing my arms and trying to generate a full blown pout “And just so you know, I’m not going to put the toilet seat back down!”  “Somehow, I find that hard to be concerned about.” Riverwash laughed, rolling hir eyes at me.

“I’m just not going to win this, am I?” I smiled, finally having to laugh in spite of myself.  Emily and Riverwash’s mood was contagious, and I just couldn’t stay grouchy around those two.  “Nope.” Emily agreed “But if you really want to retreat to the greenhouses later I’ll have pity on you and dig up Trevor.”  “See, now I’m beginning to suspect the pair of you are training up a legion of evil little midget creatures to use against me.” I decided thoughtfully “It might be in my best interests to keep an eye on you two.  Or possibly recruit my own army.  Whichever is less trouble, I honestly don’t feel like putting a lot of effort into it right now.”  “It’s probably because you ate too much lunch.” Riverwash decided “I always get sleepy after a big meal too…”  “Ah ha!  That’s your evil plan!  I’m on to you!” I shouted, trying to jump up at the same time.  My feet got tangled up in the beanbag chair in the process, and instead I ended up on my back, staring at the ceiling and giggling hysterically.  “Are you okay?” Emily asked, staring down at me in concern “That was an unfriendly bump…”  “Is he always like that?” Riverwash wondered, appearing across from Emily.  “As far as I can tell.” She nodded as they helped me back up and on to the beanbag “I’m going to have to warn Trevor that he needs close adult supervision…”  “That would probably be for the best, yes.”


After Emily and Riverwash were done picking on me (or eating lunch, depending on who you asked) they dug up Trevor, the ferret from the ground crew that had come out to meet us on our arrival and didn’t so much introduce us as hand me over with instructions to keep me out of trouble.  Then, having set me up with at least mildly responsible adult supervision, they went off to provide adult supervision for others.  If I let myself think about it too much I would probably be mildly insulted, so instead I spent the time questioning Trevor about the system they had cobbled together out of junk and good intentions.

One could quickly tell, speaking with Trevor, that he was trying to be on his good behavior.  His fur was a very dark brown with both black patches and highlights, and his beady gold eyes promised mischief and hyperactivity.  He carried himself with an odd sort of springy walk, and despite doing his best to avoid it, conversation with him seemed to want to drift around all over the place and only meander back to the actual subject at its own leisure.  It took a tremendous amount of willpower on my part to keep from pouncing his tail: of all the morphs I had met so far ferrets seemed to be the ones that gave off a sense that you just wanted to tussle around with them and see if they really were big fur covered slinkys.  Which made it pretty hard to pay attention to what he was trying to explain to me, and when he opened the door to the greenhouses and asked me if I had any questions I had to admit that I couldn’t remember much of anything he’d said in the last ten minutes.  Luckily he didn’t seem particularly insulted or anything, just shrugging and admitting that “Since the system doesn’t make much sense to anyone it really doesn’t matter anyway.”

“That doesn’t say much for your engineering skills.” I teased, looking over what appeared to be mostly successful rows of plants growing out of a patched together collection of plastic tubing and gel growth solution.  “That might bother me if I was an engineer.” He laughed cheerfully “But I specialize in the actual plants part of growing things: I’ve a master’s in agricultural engineering.  Mostly I worked with developing low-gravity strains and plants that were more radiation tolerant, I never thought I’d be working on the hardware end of things.”  “I know the feeling.” I nodded before changing the subject.  “I would have thought it would be easy to set this all up as a gravity feed system instead of using pumps and pressurized lines.”  “In a perfect world.” He sighed “But nobody was brave enough to want to pump liquids around the lighting fixtures.  As it is, the only pumps I was able to find in the junk pile are way higher pressure than we should be using, and every now and then it’ll blow a seal and flood half of the room.”  “Couldn’t find a pressure regulator?” I wondered.  “Not that wasn’t originally used for something too poisonous to try to clean out…”

I continued poking at things, and Trevor continued answering my questions for a while, but it always eventually boiled down to their problems being caused by overpressure in the irrigation lines.  Which got me thinking.  And that always leads to me staring off vacantly into space.  Which turned out to worry Trevor a bit.  “You’re still breathing, so you haven’t died on me.” The ferret observed, hopping up next to where I had found a seat on a makeshift work table constructed of several U.T.C.s with a long piece of deck plating laid across them.  “So my next concern is exactly what you’re scheming about.  I did promise to keep you out of trouble, so if you’re planning anything that would make Emily and Chakat Riverwash yell at me I’d appreciate you letting me know early enough that I can talk you out of it…”  “Hmm?  Oh, I was just thinking that I could probably make a mechanical pressure regulator out of different diameter pieces of tubing…”  “Will that work?”  “Probably.” I nodded, getting up and starting off towards the junk pile with the ferret in tow “If it doesn’t, the worst case scenario is that it sprays water all over the place.  Since it apparently does that on its own sometimes I can’t think of any pressing reason not to give it a try…”

Rounding the corner and coming to a halt in the odd sort of indoor scrap yard, Trevor nodded, willing to give it a try and see what happens.  “So what do we need then?”  “The tubing is easy.” I decided, waving at the mounds of debris “But it would be nice if we could find something more solid than that putty adhesive that’s holding it all together right now.”  “I make no promises.” He joked, rifling through the now mostly empty U.T.C. of clothing Emily and I had located that morning and selecting a pair of pants and two extra long sleeved shirts from the remaining offerings.  Folding them up much more neatly than I ever would have guessed he was inclined to (or even capable of, for that matter), Trevor carefully set them on top of  a table by the entryway, which also happened to be one of the few spots in the room that could be considered almost clean.  “You wouldn’t believe how happy I am to find those shirts.” He explained, seeing my amused look “I didn’t plan on being at this altitude here, and I didn’t pack anything that could even pretend to be warm clothing.  Pants weren’t too hard to locate, but thick work shirts…”  “Technically I found those.  Did you consider I might want them back?” I asked seriously.  “So help me, I’ll gnaw your arm off at the elbow if you go reaching for them.” Trevor informed me, equally seriously.  Neither of us could manage to hide our grins, and pretty soon we’d burst out laughing.  “Okay, okay.  Let’s see what we can find floating around here…”

The answer, we slowly determined, was not a whole lot that would do us any good.  The pipe segments were no problem, and we soon had a stack of them sitting next to the door with Trevor’s new clothes, but things just didn’t seem to want to cooperate as far as getting some serviceable adhesives went.  “Somehow I get the feeling we’re not going to finish this today.” Trevor predicted after what seemed like rather a long time.  (Probably more so than it actually was: no matter how cold outside it is, if you’re moving heavy stuff around you’re going to end up hot and sweaty.  And that does more than anything else in the known universe to make time drag on…)    “What time is it?” I wondered, pushing over a huge piece of twisted up deck plating, several structural beams included “My watch broke during my beautiful landing attempt.”  “Well past lunchtime, but not quite dinner time.” He laughed from the other side of one of the mountains of junk.  “Helpful.” I grumbled, not really annoyed, just tired.  It was pretty frustrating doing so much work and not having anything to show for it, but since I’d told Emily I was going to try to help with the greenhouse I felt the urge, almost the need, really, to produce some results to tell her about.

So I kept rummaging through the junk.  Standing up to stretch for a minute, I realized that I’d bored an almost tunnel-like little passage in the pile, no more than a foot or so wide, and with sides that loomed way up above me.  “I made a cave!” I yelled “If you hear me screaming and thrashing around, it’s just claustrophobia setting in!”  “It doesn’t bother me any, ferrets like burrowing!” Trevor yelled back from somewhere across the room, a tone of amusement in his voice.  “I don’t suppose we have any prairie dogs in residence here?” I threw back over my shoulder.  “Oh, and do you have a pair of snips around somewhere? I found a pallet of U.T.C.s that are still strapped together…”  With a lot of banging around (and several words and phrases I’m pretty sure I should avoid using around Emily) Trevor appeared behind me with the snips and a crowbar.  “Find something good?” He asked, looking over my shoulder since my path wasn’t wide enough for two abreast.  “Won’t know until we open it and…” I began before suddenly bursting out laughing.  “What?” Trevor asked as I was supporting myself by leaning on the wall while trying to catch my breath.  Motioning for him to wait a minute, I gradually began to settle down to merely giggling before explaining.  “I find the irony beautiful…Remember how on solstice morning when you had to ‘open up and see’?  Back then finding socks in your package was a letdown.  But when everyone found out I’d opened up a box of pants and heavy shirts earlier…”  “Oh!” Trevor laughed, having to suppress a giggle himself “I could see how that is a bit of a change.”

“Emily was hoping for boots.” I said as we worked to dig out the area around the pallet “And we need glue or sealer.  I think that if I got to pick though, I’d like a decent backpack and maybe a sewing kit.”  “Personally, I would be ecstatic if it was some soap that doesn’t smell like a urinal mint.” Trevor decided, rolling his eyes “You’re lucky that way, for those of us equipped with muzzles and heightened senses of smell it’s not just annoying, it’s borderline painful.”  “Well, here’s hoping.” I agreed as he snipped through the last of the metal tie down straps then got out of the way so I could have a go at prying open one of the top boxes.  Slipping the end of the crowbar under the seal of the box I put my weight behind it, until, with a lurch, the top popped open with a hiss of escaping inert gas.  “Still sealed.” Trevor commented hopefully as I shoved the lid off.  “What have we got?”  “Ordnance.”

Inside the box were twenty-four heavy assault rifles, brand new and neatly packed away in compartmentalized grey foam blocks.  “These must have been on their way to some concern’s private army, they’re about two generations too new to be TerraGov’s.”  “They were probably being snuck in for TemTek’s assault teams.”  Trevor hypothesized as I bodily dragged the crate through the path in the rubble and dropped it off in a clear spot on the floor.  Turning around to go back for another, I was pleased to see Trevor right behind me with another crate.  “Probably should haul these all out before we look through them.” He explained, setting his load down next to mine.

It took us quite a while to get all the crates out of the junk pile, and we were both pretty out of breath by the time we were done.  I’d flopped down on the floor, leaning up against the stack of crates, and the idea met with Trevor’s approval apparently, because he quickly joined me.  “We should inform ‘yall’s command structure about this.” I decided “Nobody I saw out in the field has anything near as good as any of this, and Command will want to get this stuff out to them as soon as possible.”  “Yeah.” Trevor agreed “It’s actually worse than you probably know, we don’t have anywhere near enough small arms, and the few that we do have are outdated, worn out, or not military-grade in the first place.  They rotate them around so everyone in the recon patrols has one when they’re out, but aside from those there’s only enough left for a few guards scattered around the forward observation posts.”  “Kind of a half-assed army you’re running here.” I agreed, shaking my head in mock disgust “What’s that say about the opposition that has failed to run you out of here yet?”  “I know, they should be ashamed.  They really should.”  We lapsed into a tired silence after that which lasted long enough to give away how tired the two of us were getting, but eventually something had to be done to delay the onset of entropy, so, standing up with a pained grunt I decided that “If you go round up whomever’s department this is, I’ll get started inventorying and function testing these.”  “How come I have to do all the walking?”  “Do you know anything about guns?” I asked cheerfully.  “I can’t say that I do, no.”  “So…”  “I get to walk.” He sighed.  “Don’t feel bad.” I consoled him “When we’re growing zero gravity tomatoes I’ll do the walking!”

After outfitting me with a data pad and a stern warning not to hurt myself, Trevor took off for parts unknown (to my amusement, rather possessively taking his clothing acquisitions with him) while I got down to business.  The shipping pallet had been a six by six cube, so, with one down already, there were thirty five more U.T.C.s to go through.  Sitting myself down on an unopened crate, I began inventorying the opened box, noting serial numbers and checking each gun for mechanical problems.  As far as I could tell they were all brand new so it wasn’t a surprise that I didn’t find anything wrong with them, and fairly quickly was ready to move on to the next box.  The next several were more of the same, but when I opened up the first box on the fourth level I discovered the next few cases contained disassembled heavy rapidfires.  Having to assemble and then disassemble them again took quite a bit longer, so my quick progress was rather impeded for a while.  When I finally moved on it was to discover that the last two layers were made up of a lot of random equipment, from pistols and short barreled PDWs to grenade launchers and a pair of heavy, crew serviced laser cannons.  The final U.T.C. contained a single, long range sniping rifle and its related equipment and kit.  “Mine!” I grinned, closing the crate and dragging it to the side.  On that topic, I decided that it couldn’t hurt to add a few things to the pile, so I tossed on a PDW and clipped a holstered pistol to my belt for good measure.

About that time Trevor showed back up with a middle aged wolf, a young-ish raccoon, and a Chakat who was also probably on the underside of middle age.  “Found them!” Trevor announced, making introductions. “This is Captain Randall.” He said, indicating the wolf “He’s in charge of defensive operations for the colony, such as they are.”  Captain Randall was a good couple of inches taller than I was, with piercing silver-blue eyes and a serious expression.  His coat was a graphite shade of grey with darker highlights, and, oddly enough, a brown streak under one of his eyes.  He didn’t exactly radiate friendliness, and I was left wondering if it was because of our present situation, or if there was something about me that morphs reacted poorly to.  That particular line of thought almost hurt my feelings a little, and I decided it was something to file away and ask Emily about later…  “This is Janice, she handles all of our inventory and property management work.” Trevor continued, indicating the raccoon.  She didn’t seem unfriendly, just sort of preoccupied.  “I hope I’m not interrupting anything…” I found myself apologizing without thinking about it “You seem kind of…busy?”  “Oh, I’m always like this.” She smiled “It’s ‘accountant’s syndrome’: always remembering some thing that needs doing.”  “Plus, she doesn’t have the sense to go to bed at a reasonable hour.” Trevor added.  “There is that, yes.” She agreed.  “And finally, Chakat Sandpaws, our logistical coordinator.”  “Oh, please.” The black and dappled grey Chakat laughed, giving me a cheerful grin “I’m a glorified delivery clerk!  Don’t let Trevor pull you in to his notions of glory!”  “Now, now…” Trevor grinned back “Nothing was getting anywhere before shi took over organizing things.  On behalf of those of us who are being fed regularly due to hir efforts, I feel quite justified in assigning hir an impressive title!”  “I’ll leave that between the two of you.” I decided “But I can kind of see Trevor’s point…”

“So, show and tell then…” I began, launching into an in depth explanation of the equipment Trevor and I had found, including the cleaning, maintenance, operation, and typical usage of the assorted weapons.  “Most of the smaller stuff is basically self-explanatory,” I finished up an hour later “but it would probably be best to have me train the fire teams for the heavy rapidfires and the stuff that is generally considered to be crew serviced.”  Looking up from the equipment for the first time since I began my talk, I was surprised to see that the little contingent of authority Trevor had brought in were giving me looks that ranged from merely unhappy to more than a little disturbed.  “You know quite a bit about military weapons for a failed university student.” Captain Randall observed suspiciously.  “Oh, this again…” I sighed, beginning to think I understood the problem.  “I collect antique weapons, and finding little bits and pieces of history tucked away in out of the way places lends itself to meeting some…interesting people.  And it turned out that every now and then opportunities to make some money to finance my collecting would be presented to me.  That’s all business is, really.  Filling demands people can’t meet themselves for one reason or another, I mean.  So in the process I picked up kind of an odd collection of knowledge.”  “You were a black market arms dealer.” Sandpaws said bluntly.  “Sort of.” I sighed.  This was not going as well as I had hoped “Grey area, really, not black market.  Everything I did was technically legal where I did it.”  “You provided military weapons to people who the manufacturers and governments could not in good conscience sell to.”  “Yes.” I said equally flatly.  Sandpaws was getting visibly angry, hir ears lying back and hir tail and scruff beginning to fuzz up, but I was mad.  I had been expecting them to be happy with the aid I was able to provide them, but instead they were just going to stand there and pass judgment on me.  “People were almost certainly hurt by the weapons you sold.”

“Chakat Sandpaws,“ I began coldly “I was abused during most of my childhood by kids that would grow up to be like the people I sold weapons to.  I still have nightmares and flashbacks about the things they did to me.  It keeps me from being able to lead a normal life, and probably always will.  Some days I still wish that I were dead, so the hurting would finally stop.  I provide the means for one group of people like that to kill another group of people like that, and I get paid for it.  I find it quite personally satisfying.”  “But…” Shi started to protest before I interrupted hir again.  “Chakat Sandpaws, I’m a bad person.  Deal with it.”  Then, spinning on my heel I marched out of the room before they could see me beginning to cry.  Heedless of the uneven floor and cluttered tunnels I walked quickly to the outside doors, then broke in to a run until I had reached the privacy of Emily and I’s rooms.  If they were all going to be so…so…I didn’t even know what exactly, but I didn’t want to show weakness in front of them.  Right now, all I really wanted was to be alone.

Slamming our front door behind me, I looked over the sparse contents of our rooms, grabbing the quilt off the bed and slumping down in the room’s corner until my face was buried between my knees.  Then, there by myself, hiding under the quilt, I could finally cry.  I didn’t know why I was so upset by everyone’s reactions, what do I care what a bunch of morphs at the back end of explored space thought about me?  It’s not like they were really all that happy with me being there in the first place.  I wasn’t one of them, I didn’t really plan on being here.  They weren’t my friends.  They didn’t want to be my friends.  And I really didn’t expect them to.  …Like school.  And home.  And everywhere else I seemed to end up.  Oh.

It must have been colder inside than I thought: I was shivering a little bit.  Wandering over to the pegs by the door where the coats were hung, I snagged my big coat from where it was hanging.  I didn’t know where Emily might keep an extra blanket, and I didn’t want to go rummaging through her stuff.  And I didn’t want to get all her bedding dirty by hauling it onto the floor.  I definitely wanted my corner back though, it just felt safer than the bed would, more enclosed, somehow.  As an afterthought I snapped shut the locking bolt on the front door, thinking briefly that I would have to chide Emily about leaving it unlocked.  It wasn’t exactly safe here, and I hated the thought of something bad happening to her, even though she was probably just humoring me to make me easier to keep an eye on.  Settling back down in my corner I curled up as much as I really could, using my coat as a draped blanket, trying my best to not think about anything at all.  Maybe I could go to sleep for a while.  Maybe Emily and the rest of them would just leave me alone.  That would be okay.  If I just left I’m sure they would come looking for me, it would only go to show that I was up to no good after all, I doubt it would be hard to convince them of that at this point.  Maybe I could make myself a little place in the junk pile storage room.  Then they could keep an eye on me but I would be out of their way and maybe they would let me be alone again…

My train of almost-thought was interrupted by someone knocking on the front door, then after a minute or two when they didn’t get a response trying the latch.  “No one’s home.” I mumbled, closing my eyes and trying to ignore them.  If it was Emily she could let herself in, and if it was anyone else they had no business being in here anyway so it wouldn’t be rude to pretend I wasn’t here.  They were probably just looking for somewhere unlocked to burglarize, that must be it, they would leave when they couldn’t get in.  I had even almost convinced myself when a few minutes later I heard the door to the bathroom open.  “I’m not here.  I’m not here.  I’m not here.  Not here.  Not here not here not here…” I mumbled to myself “Leave me alone.  Leave me alone…”  It sounded like there was a group of them, three or four maybe, and I wasn’t fooling anyone.  I could feel someone leaning down next to me.  ‘Here it comes!’  It wasn’t a thought so much as a reflex, earned the hard way over many years, as I tensed up and slumped my head down further between my knees while covering my sides with my elbows.  Never let it be said I don’t know how to take a beating…

I heard a surprised inhalation of breath and someone away from me a bit took a little step back.  “Hey.” Said the one leaning over me in a soft voice “Hey Nick.  Are you with me here, little guy?”  It was Riverwash, the Chakat Emily had introduced me to earlier.  And shi sounded really concerned.  That was probably my fault too, I thought dully.  I could hear hir moving around to kneel down a bit easier in the cramped corner.  “May I touch you?” Shi asked, continuing a soft stream of one sided conversation.  “No.” I sniffled.  “Do you mean that you want me to, but it’s scary?” Riverwash continued kindly.  I didn’t speak this time, just nodded my head ‘yes’, still not looking up.  Very gently shi put a paw on my knee.  “Trevor is out looking for Emily.” Shi told me “She went out for a nature walk with some of the cubs, so it will be a little while before she can be back with you.  But we’re going to stay right here with you.  It’s going to be okay.”  I just sniffled again, then put my hand over hir paw.  Hir fur was much softer than I had expected, and even if it was scary it felt deep-down good to have someone to sit with me.  “I’m unsure about it,” shi continued “but I’d like to ask you for a favor.  It’s just that I’m a little bit big for the corner here, would it be okay with you if we moved over to the cushions?”  “Okies.” I agreed, standing up unsteadily and allowing Riverwash to help me up.

Chakat Sandpaws was standing in the doorway to the bathroom.  Shi looked utterly miserable, with hir ears and tail drooping down and the fur of hir muzzle wet and matted down.  With a start I realized shi was crying.  “Chakat Sandpaws?” I gulped, knowing that this had to somehow be my fault “Would you…would you sit with us too?”  Shi nodded, looking instantly a little better as Riverwash took my hand and led me shakily across the bathroom and into one of the adjoining apartments.  Hir space was outfitted in the same ‘post natural disaster scavenger’ motif as Emily’s, except for the furnishings and layout being much more quadruped friendly.  The main sitting area consisted of a pile of several very large cushions laid out on a slightly raised platform.  I gratefully sat back down before I embarrassed myself and ended up down without having a part in the decision.  Riverwash joined me with a little bit of a smile as I traded my coat for one of a number of folded quilts and blankets around the edge of Riverwash’s spot.  Chakat Sandpaws hesitated a moment, looking unsure of hirself until I looked at hir plaintively.  “Please?” I asked simply, which seemed to settle hir hesitancy.  Sitting down with a little sigh, Chakat Sandpaws, I noticed, was starting to look a bit more upbeat about things.

Putting hir thoughts in order for a moment, shi finally reached a decision.  “I’m sorry about what I said earlier.  It was out of line, and I never meant to be hurtful like that.  There’s things involved which I didn’t understand, and I didn’t realize you were so fragile…”  Realizing something suddenly shi corrected hastily “Oh! I didn’t mean that you…that didn’t come out right!  What I meant…”  “It’s okay.” I assured hir “I am.  I know that I’m…well…”  “You’re not to blame.” I finished up lamely, beginning to sniffle again “Bad things just…”  Riverwash’s paw found its way to my shoulder, reassuring in its weight.  “You’re hurting and confused.” Chakat Sandpaws said, more to hirself and Riverwash than to me at all “In the other room, the way you just automatically curled up…the first thing you did when you noticed others around was to protect your head and kidneys.  What must have happened to a child to leave a reflex like that all this time later?”  My sniffles had turned to silent crying again, and I didn’t catch whatever Riverwash said to hir.  “No, please don’t…” shi began to sniffle hirself when shi noticed.  “It’s okay.” Riverwash disagreed gently “It’s good that he be able to let his emotions run their course somewhere he feels safe.”  “I wish Emily was back.” Chakat Sandpaws said, sounding more than a little lost.  Curling up using Chakat Sandpaws’ front footpaws as a pillow, I took hold of the tip of Riverwash’s tail as well before closing my eyes and just crying until I was done.  Riverwash was right, I did feel safe, and in the end I was lulled off to a sound sleep by the two Chakat’s quiet talking.


I woke up again when my furry, heat generating, pillows started shifting around on me.  “No need to get up…you three looked so cozy there I thought I’d just slip in here with you!”  Emily said, tousling my hair as she settled in next to me.  Opening my eyes, I noticed when I looked up that she was wrapped up in a set of makeshift pajamas (a flannel work shirt and mostly matching pair of flannel sweatpants), and her fur looked pretty damp.  “You’re all wet.” I pointed out, feeling a bit concerned.  “We got caught out in the rain on the way back.” She explained “The little ones are settled down in front of the big furdryer in the laundry room, but Trevor said you needed me, so I decided to check up on things here first.  And bring dinner.”  “I really appreciate you two taking care of him for me until I got back.  He’s…fragile, and I worry.” Emily explained to the pair of Chakats.  “It wasn’t a problem at all.” Chakat Sandpaws nodded “This whole thing was my…”  “Don’t even get started.” I interrupted as sternly as I could manage under the circumstances “Chakat Sandpaws had nothing to do with it, but for some reason shi is refusing to believe me.”

“Just Sandpaws, child.” Shi laughed, taking a turn ruffling my hair “Riverwash doesn’t have to be ‘Chakat Riverwash’…I’m not any more scary than shi is, am I?”  “Yes, you are.” I kidded “It’s just that everyone is too frightened to say anything to you about it.”  “Brat.” Emily accused “You’re going to have them thinking I don’t teach you any better than that!”  “She doesn’t.” I assured everyone “She lets me be rude to people, run around wild under paw, and set things on fire!  Really!”  “I’m afraid you are a little lacking on credibility there.” Riverwash informed me, waving us over to a short table and cushion arrangement on the other side of the room where shi had set out the feast Emily had snagged on her way over.  “Can’t we just eat over here instead?” I asked hopefully as Sandpaws and Emily got up. I was cozy, and not filled with enthusiasm for the idea of getting back up.  Nobody answered, but all three gave me a disturbingly similar look, which was quite enough to encourage me to get to my feet as well.  “It was only a thought.” I sighed, plopping down right next to Emily and wrapping her tail around my waist.

Dinner consisted of a passable imitation of Salisbury steak and those little sliced cheese sauce potatoes that always seemed to walk a thin line between under and overcooked.  “I recognize these.” I realized “They’re out of a field ration daily pack.”  “Quite a bit of our food tends to be, dear.” Emily sighed, pushing around some of her potatoes with a fork.  I couldn’t help but laugh at that, eliciting several odd looks until I got everything back under control.  “Sorry, it’s just that I’ve never been able to cook much of anything, and after living off of boxed macaroni for the last two or three years this stuff actually looks really good to me!”  “Give it time.” Riverwash grinned “Give it time.”  “Don’t have to.” I explained around a mouthful of bread “I figured out the problem in the greenhouse and I’ll be able to have the equipment reliable by the end of tomorrow.  As much as it will disappoint you, I’m pretty sure we’ll be getting crops out of there regularly long before I grow tired of food that isn’t cardboard flavored macaroni.”  “We’ll just have to live with the disappointment.” Riverwash nodded, pleasantly surprised “I don’t know how, but I’m sure everyone will learn to cope with it eventually.”  “Don’t mention I’d told you that, by the way.” I requested “I’d rather not have an audience if it gets complicated.  Or an angry mob, for that matter.”

“That depends.” Emily negotiated “Are you going to give me any trouble with working on your therapy later?”  “I’d kind of hoped that you had forgotten about that by now.” I sighed noncommittally.  “Therapy?” Sandpaws asked.  “He needs regular cuddling.” Riverwash explained.  “Probably a wise precaution.” Sandpaws agreed “You won’t last long around Chakats if you’re afraid of being hugged!”  “Or a lot of morphs, actually.” Emily agreed “But he’s giving me the impression that he may be a somewhat reluctant patient.  I could just make him, but that is as likely to reinforce the bad behaviors as to counteract them.”  “I’ll behave.” I promised, if for no other reason than doing so would make Emily happy.  “Good!”  All three declared at the same time, then looked at each other and burst out laughing.  “Jinx!” I claimed “Everyone owes me a drink!”  Daintily reaching across the table, Sandpaws refilled my teacup with a playful look.  “There you are, one drink!”  “That’s cheating.” I disagreed.  “Nope.” Shi laughed “Settling up in a way that is technically viable but not the expected method is not only acceptable, but turns it in to a win for me!”  I could have argued the point, except that I agreed with her, damn it.  “Touché.” I nodded, saluting with two fingers earnestly “But everyone bear in mind that the trick only works once.”  “Fair enough.” Riverwash agreed “But only under my terms.  You’ve been emotionally unbalanced enough already without mixing anything else in, so it shall not be collectable until some point in the future, when you have something to celebrate.”  Beginning to have the possibility of an after dinner drink evaporate before my eyes, I turned hopefully to Emily.  “I have something for you, but only after you clean your plate.” She informed me.  “I suppose.” I nodded, drawing my attention back to the food.

I kind of drifted out of the conversation for a while after that one, more so when they began discussing official (and boring) business.  That was quite enough for me to tune out entirely.  I was pretty much finished eating anyway, so I settled for curling up with my head in Emily’s lap instead.  She just smiled down at me for a moment, then returned to her conversation.  “I’m not surprised he’s tired.” Riverwash sighed “He’s had a long day.  It looks like you did too…we have some more dry towels around here somewhere if you would like a few more.”  “I’m mostly dry by now anyway, but thanks.” Emily said “I’m going to register a complaint with the procurement department though, they should have gotten us a couple of weather satellites by now so these things wouldn’t happen!”  “I’ll get right on that.” Sandpaws laughed.  “See if you can find somewhere that delivers pizza out here while you’re at it.” I suggested, capturing the end of Emily’s tail and covering my eyes with it.  (I’ve always had a problem being able to nap with the lights on, and even if I couldn’t convince myself it was dark out, it was fluffy.)  “Will you be requiring anything else from the concierge while I’m here?” Sandpaws asked seriously.  “Now that you mention it, they still haven’t brought up my luggage, the gift shop is poorly stocked, my dry cleaning hasn’t been returned yet, the room service menu is limited, there doesn’t seem to be a bar, and the staff is inappropriately touchy-feely.” I teased.  “At least you aren’t demanding or anything.” Emily said dryly “I would hate to think you were getting spoiled…”

“Inappropriately touchy-feely?” Riverwash declared, grabbing one of my feet and stripping off the boot before I realized what shi was up to.  I quickly tried to relocate the other one, but on the off chance you’ve not been told, Chakats are fast when they want to be.  “I’ll be wanting those back now.” I grumbled.  “No…  No, I think not.” Shi decided after a moment’s thought before idly beginning to play with my toes.  “You don’t have any pawpads, and your toes are longer.” Shi tisked “Have you noticed that about humans, Chakat Sandpaws?”  “I hadn’t thought about it, but thank you for bringing it to my attention, Chakat Riverwash.” Sandpaws grinned back.  “Emily!” I whined “The kitty cats are picking on me!”  “It builds character, dear.” She enlightened me mildly, obviously disinclined to do anything about it.  “I’ve built plenty of character already today.” I disagreed grumpily “Just ask Trevor.  Character, and plumbing components.  And I may build a still later, since nobody seems to be nice enough to point me towards that bar…” 

“You’re rambling.  And being cranky.” Emily pointed out.  “Uh huh.” I sighed, not disagreeing.  Shifting around a bit, she scooted me over so that I was sitting in her lap snuggled up against her shoulder.  “There, that’s better.”  “See, you’re not as opposed to cuddling as all that…” Riverwash observed.  “Yes I am, this is horrible and I’m looking for any opportunity to run away.” I told hir seriously.  “Oh hush, you’re not fooling anyone.” Emily admonished, producing a bottle of juice from the box she had brought our food in “Here, I brought you something else!”  “Eep!  Emily!” I sputtered, turning a shade of red that probably blended nicely with her flannel shirt “Why did you…in front of…  Don’t go around telling people!”  Trying to look anywhere that wasn’t making eye contact with someone, I couldn’t help but notice the three of them giving me knowing and patient grins.  “Settle down, settle down.” Emily reassured me gently “Everyone in the room is telepathic or empathic, and remember how we said earlier that you’re kind of psychically loud?  I didn’t tell anyone anything.  I didn’t have to.”   “Settle down?  This really isn’t a ‘settle down’ kind of situation I find myself in!” I snapped, beginning to hyperventilate again.  Trying a new tactic, Emily turned to Riverwash and Sandpaws “Would you two please tell Nick how long you each have known about him?”  “When we were in the kitchen earlier.  You were wondering if there was anything that wouldn’t plug up a baby bottle, then you started remembering Emily and the night before.  It made you happy.” Riverwash explained “Usually we would only catch emotions in passing, but you were daydreaming, and that makes the memories closer to the surface than usual.”  “When you were running out of the storage facility.” Sandpaws said quietly “It was dredging up memories of other bad times you went through, and they all seemed to end with a diaper, paci, and plushy making you feel that you could get through it.”

“So it would be fair to say that both of you has known about it for the majority of time you’ve known Nick.  Certainly all this evening?”  The Chakats both nodded.  “And I think it would be safe to say that you don’t have any negative reactions to this revelation?”  More nods.  “And that the only one who seems to be reacting poorly is, in fact, Nick.”  Nods again.  “Who really shouldn’t be.”  “Really?” I asked quietly, hopefully.  All three nodded this time, their expressions reassuring.  “I’ll take the bottle then.” I decided after a long pause.  It wouldn’t make any difference to them knowing, and I felt that extending the gesture of trust would be important to them, and probably just as much to me, actually.  “I thought you might.” Emily smiled radiantly.  Riverwash and Sandpaws seemed quite pleased as well, so I guess I got something right today…  Since yes means yes Emily presented me again with the bottle of juice, an enticing red color that I assumed was red grape cut with apple or some such.  I scooted a bit deeper into the comfy little space between her arm and her shoulder, snuggling in with a pleased little sigh.  After I had selected my spot, Emily presented me with the bottle, and taking the nipple happily into my mouth I began to nurse.  It was actually a cranberry and raspberry mix I’d never tried before, but which was quite good.  As I became more relaxed, more engrossed with the process, the others returned to their ‘shop talk’ and I let myself slide down to where my bottle feeding was the main focus of my mind with an occasional word or two getting in from the outside world.  As much as it surprised me, given the situation minutes before, I found myself to be really quite comfortable with the things that were going on: I was happy.  Contentment-bred happiness happy.  It was a feeling I’d not felt before, and soon I was spending the rest of my non-suckling attention on experiencing and examining the feeling.

I must have looked to be rather contemplative, because Emily finally leaned over and said “A credit for your thoughts?”  “I’m happy.  I wish I could spend more evenings like this, with non-scary people who are accepting of me, and I think really would like to be my friend.  It’s a new experience, but I like it.” I mused slowly.  “Things may change when I run out of juice though…” I warned as an afterthought.  “Well, Chakats are usually quite sociable people, so I’ll bet if you asked really nicely our neighbors may consider letting you to stop by to visit again in the future…at least they might if you make a good impression instead of poking poor Riverwash with your toes!” Emily teased.  Everyone present knew quite well that I didn’t have much choice in the matter of collecting my feet back from the grinning Chakat.  “Besides, we have ‘game night’ pretty regularly around here.  Honestly, it feels more like a denning arrangement than assigned crew quarters.”  Sandpaws decided.  “Well,” I yawned, taking a moment away from my as yet unfinished bottle to comment “If you want me to move things around a bit and add a central living space to our little apartment hive, just let me know.  There’s more than enough stuff floating around in the scrap yard to add a room without a problem…”  “It might not be a bad idea, considering that we spend most of our free time hanging around in one unit or another.” Riverwash thought aloud “It would be a lot more homey that way.”  “Oh sure, for you denning morphs.” Emily teased “Not everyone wouldn’t go raving insane having to live with their extended family, you know!”  “I could point out that I’ve had a lot less pleasant roommates than you three when I was at school…so far nobody has mistaken the mini refrigerant unit for a urinal in a drunken stupor.  That puts you ahead, as far as I’m concerned.”

Despite frequently interrupting myself to talk, Emily eventually noticed that I had finished my bottle, and took the empty from me, amid some disappointed whining.  “Oh here.” She offered, popping in a paci and draping its ribbon around my neck “This should take care of the oral fixation for a bit, so it’s a fair trade.”  I was back to happily suckling on my paci, and didn’t bother with a reply.  “It’s hard not to become fond of him.” Riverwash mused, earning nods from Sandpaws and Emily.  “Mama Emily ‘s fond of me.” I agreed “Don’ know why, but she is.”  “It’s because of your impeccable ability to enunciate.” Emily teased gently.  “Now you ‘s being mean.” I grumbled “Not fair to pick on people when they’s tired.”  “Tired already?  Well, I guess you’ve earned the privilege.” Emily nodded, gently rubbing my tummy with the back of her paw, the soft, silky fur giving me pleasant goose bumps.  “If one of you two would be so kind as to start the tub filling in our bathroom, he’s kind of heavy and my legs have fallen asleep.”  Nodding, Sandpaws got up and padded out of the room, and shortly I could hear the noise of water being run.  “Guess I kind of need one.” I nodded dubiously, only just then realizing exactly how much of a mess I’d made rooting through the junk pile earlier.  “   “I was going to be a bit more diplomatic about it than that, but yes, you could stand some grooming.”  “Yeah, well I’ll groom you if you’re not careful!” I threatened.  “That would be nice.” Emily smiled.  “Can I be second?” Riverwash asked with a grin.  “What’s happening?  Do we have to queue up, or is everyone at once good too?” Sandpaws asked a bit excitedly, having come back into the room at the end of the conversation.  “Grooming.” Riverwash laughed.  “Oh.” Sandpaws said, sounding a bit disappointed (an observation backed up by hir now drooping ears) “Well that’s good too, I guess…”

“Silly kitty!” I giggled, scooting over and giving Sandpaws a hug.  It must have helped with hir disappointment, because hir ears recovered from their case of droopies before I let hir go again.  “Shi may be a silly kitty, but you’re a dirt covered human!” Emily pointed out “And around here dirt covered things have to go bathtimes!”  “How come the kitties don’t have to take a bath?” I grumbled “Or you for that matter…”  “I will be taking a bath, with you!”  Emily grinned, tweaking my nose “Mommy has to make sure you actually do a good job.”  “Plus you’re still cold from getting rained on and warm water sounds like a nice idea.” I surmised, tweaking her nose right back.  (I was really careful, however, not knowing exactly how sensitive a vulpine nose actually was…)  “And we shall be as well.” Riverwash nodded seriously “Just not necessarily at the same time.  I don’t think the tub is actually big enough for everyone.”  “It takes a while to get a tub worth of hot water filled up, so we tend to try to conserve it if we can.” Emily explained.  “Well, sort of.” Sandpaws laughed “Actually it takes so long that we’re all usually pretty lazy about it and just sponge bathe in the thing.  That whole ‘lack of decent water pressure’ also carries over to the communal hot water heater.”

“I’m beginning to lean towards the idea of just blowing up whatever I have to in order to get basic utilities delivered here.” I grumbled as we all migrated to the bathroom “We probably don’t even have any bubble bath, do we?”  “The privations of war, I’m afraid.” Emily nodded seriously.  “See?” I grumbled, turning to the Chakats for support “This is the kind of problem that could be fixed by the proper application of explosives.  Who’s with me on this?”  Riverwash and Sandpaws were both grinning in amusement, but nobody stepped forward to volunteer.  “That’s the problem here.  No community spirit.” I griped.  “Be that as it may…” Emily nodded patient “It’s bathtime now, so the town hall meeting will have to be postponed until later.”  “Bah.” I grumbled, ducking into our room to strip down and emerging back into the bathroom wearing nothing but a towel.  Everyone present was giggling about something, and I had the distinct impression that I’d missed out on part of the conversation somehow.  “You three do realize that it’s impolite to talk about people behind their backs even if they can’t hear you, right?  Telepaths, I’m looking at you…”  “Nobody said a…” Riverwash began before I cut hir off.  “Fibber!”  “Okay,” Emily admitted “there might have been some small amount of discussion that could be construed as involving you.”  “See?  Now I feel horrible and I’m going to go pout!” I grumbled.  “No you don’t, and if you do it will only be to try to make us feel guilty about it.”  “Well, could you at least pretend to feel a little bit guilty?” I whined, stamping my foot in what was beginning to actually be frustration.  It was beginning to feel somewhat unfair that they all could do these nifty tricks and I was left out of the game.  “Aw, honey…we didn’t mean it like that.” Emily sighed.  At the same time I could feel her gently pushing a soft, apologetic feeling to me.  Smiling in spite of myself I ‘reached out’ and pulled it in.  This time it wasn’t something I sank into and took upon myself, but instead was sort of like a little mental sticker, or a reflective marble maybe, that sat distinct in my mind like a pretty little knickknack on a desk.  Emily had made me part of their game, in as much as any of them could, and when I realized it I felt a new feeling growing from entirely in myself: grateful and happy and excited and even a bit confused, all wrapped into themselves.  I must have been spacing out on them then, because Emily took my hand in her paw and gently kissed me.  “Happy comes in a lot of flavors, dearest.  Don’t be afraid of it.”

“I think we should see about that bath.” I suggested softly “If I hug you right now I’ll never let you go again, and it’s only polite to make sure I’m not smelly when it happens.”  “You’re the one putting off dropping your towel in front of all the pervy morphs!”  The last part she threw over her shoulder at Sandpaws.  Shi, however, did not look the least bit chastised, instead arguing that “You’ve already seen him naked, and he’s seen Riverwash and I basically naked, so it’s only fair.”  “As sound an argument as that may be, you’re still not helping our guest become more comfortable with the situation.” Emily argued back, turning to Riverwash in the hopes that shi might be of some assistance.  “I wouldn’t mind seeing him naked.” Riverwash weighed in (to Emily’s consternation) “He is an attractive specimen.”   “So from a purely scientific standpoint then?” Emily teased back cheerfully.  While they were busy looking at each other I took the opportunity to slip, unnoticed, into the tub.  “I still can’t believe you don’t have any bubble bath.” I announced, intending to point out that the discussion had become academic anyway.  “Not now dear, mommy is winning an argument.” Emily explained.  “Well, if you would be so kind as to find me the soap I shall go about my business and leave you three to your pursuits.” I laughed “Come to think of it, a washrag would be traditional as well, though I think I could make do…”  Stretching out as far as I could reach, I barely managed to snag the end of Emily’s tail.  “Yes, this looks like it would do in a pinch, as far as washrag duty is concerned…”  “Do you really want Emily to chase your naked butt around the valley until one of you freezes to death?” Sandpaws asked sweetly “Because that is exactly where that particular line of reasoning will end up.”  Looking upwards, I discovered that Emily was standing, paws on her hips, by the edge of the large bathtub with an expression which promised that, if anything, Sandpaws reading of the situation might end up being decidedly on the mild end of the field of probabilities.   In the name of domestic harmony, I released Emily’s tail back into its natural habitat.  Admittedly in much the same manner one might drop a venomous snake one had mistaken for a garden hose.  Though with less backing away slowly involved.

“Good choice!” Emily praised, sitting on the edge of the sunken tub with her footpaws trailing in the water.  She set a medium sized wicker basket next to her, which on cursory examination contained everything I would need to take a shower, quite a lot of things I particularly avoid when showering, and even more things I couldn’t identify to save my life.  “And yet, no bubble bath.” I sighed.  “We found a shipment of spa and salon products.” Emily explained.  “Is that why Trevor was wishing for a bar of soap that didn’t smell like a urinal mint?” I asked suspiciously.  “You won’t end up smelling like a urinal mint, I promise.” Emily assured me while unwrapping her towel and sliding down into the tub with me.  “Do you in fact know what a urinal mint smells like?” Riverwash cross-examined happily.  “I can extrapolate from the information provided to me about them.” Emily defended, rising to the occasion.  “Well, that arguably is not the same thing at all.” Riverwash prodded.  “I agree.  It sounds like it is in fact a ‘no’.” Sandpaws nodded sagely from hir seat along the edge of the pool.  (Riverwash was pacing around the tub, apparently in full lawyer mode.)

“Something just occurred to me.” I mused “The ‘uni’ prefix means one, like unicycle has one wheel and a unicorn has one horn, right?”  “Yes, that’s right.” Emily agreed, quite willing to tolerate one of my flights of random fancy if it got her some uninterrupted scrubbing time.  “So how come they call it a unisex restroom if it’s for the use of males, females, and herms?”  “No clue.” Sandpaws shrugged.  “What should they call it?” Riverwash wondered “Multisex restrooms?  Full service restrooms?”  Sandpaws burst out into a fit of giggles at that, drawing confused looks from all and sundry.  Well, except for Emily, she was saying something particularly impolite while trying to wash a grease spot out of my hair.  “What?” Riverwash asked, thoroughly confused “We’re missing something here…”  Finally managing to get her laughter under control Sandpaws explained that “A ‘full service restroom’ is a euphemism you will encounter in particularly seedy transportation hubs!  If you went around putting it up on your walls you would end up meeting a lot of curious security folks in pretty short order!”  “So this isn’t a full service restroom?” I asked, feigning disappointment.  “It very well could be.” Riverwash laughed “But where would that fall on the ‘being touched is creepy’ scale of things?”  “I hadn’t thought about it, since I didn’t consider it to be a real possibility, but yeah, I don’t think that I’m near the point where that wouldn’t end very badly…” I said sadly, staring down at the bottom of the tub.  “Aww, think positively little guy.” Emily nodded, finishing rinsing my hair, then giving me a big, lingering, hug “Think about the amount of progress you have made just in the last few days.  It can happen for you some day, just try not to get impatient, or rush things.  Healing takes time…”  “And, I think I can speak for Sandpaws as well as myself when I say that it’s a standing offer: there’s no reason to rush past your comfort zone, it will still be here when you arrive in your own good time.” Riverwash informed me cheerfully, while Sandpaws nodded hir agreement, then added “As long as we still get to cuddle, right?”  “Okies!” I nodded as Emily helped me out of the tub, assisting my modesty with one of the last of our dry towels.

“We’re going to go to the dryer room, I think.” Emily informed everyone as she ducked in to our room to grab a blanket and her backpack.  “We’ll probably join you there after a while.” Riverwash nodded “Shi and I may as well take advantage of having the tub drawn to get cleaned up a little.”  “Among other things.” Sandpaws grinned wickedly, shooing us out of the common bathroom and back into our apartment unit.  Since we had everything she deemed us to need, Emily just kept on going out the other side and towards the public buildings.  “You’ll like the dryers, especially in this weather.” She assured me.  “As long as it’s nearby, my toes are starting to go numb.” I only half kidded.  “Yeah, we should probably have stopped for shoes, but I got the impression that if we had hung around much longer Sandpaws and Riverwash wouldn’t  have let it interrupt their…ah…’other things’, which I’m pretty sure would have caused you to blush to death.”  I debated defending myself against her obviously baseless accusations, but thought better of it as soon as we were back inside the main building complex and I was no longer scurrying across near-freezing dirt.  Not that moderately cold concrete was more than nominally better, mind you, but I would take what I could get since the water dripping off me was threatening to freeze before making the ground’s acquaintance. 

Once we were inside it was only a brief trip through hallways and connecting rooms before we were at the laundry facility, conveniently located next to one of the entrances to the junk pile.  “They put it there on purpose.” Emily explained “Of everything that can break down around here, the laundry and furdrying facilities are right up there at the top of the list of things that would cause it to get ugly around here really quickly.  So we located them next to the spare parts.”   “A wise precaution.” I agreed, already perking up at the wave of warm air that wafted out of the doorway when Emily let us inside.  There wasn’t much to see in the front half of the structure, it being simply made up of some industrial laundry units like one would expect to find millions of times over on any settled planet out there.  “Well….huh.  I see the clothes drying part, but I don’t think it would be a tremendously good idea for us to put you in one of those tumble dryers…” I mused in confusion towards how exactly she planned to get herself dry.  Taking my hand in her paw, Emily told me, in a somewhat exasperated tone, to “Dig deeper, my little archeologist.”  It felt like it was a reference from somewhere, but since I couldn’t place it I settled for politely doing as I was told.  We passed through a privacy screen entering into the second half of the building which was like nothing I had ever seen before.

The best analogy I could come up with was a sauna in reverse: various benches, all wide and long enough for even a ‘Taur to lie down comfortably on were arranged around the room, usually corresponding with a dryer vent set in to the walls.  The center of the room was occupied by two big metal gratings, one in the ceiling and one on the floor.  There were also a collection of mirrors of varying origin set up around the room as well.  “Everyone likes furdryers.  And many morphs groom socially. So since we could only do one big facility instead of everyone having personal furdryers in their bathrooms, it’s kind of evolved a bit since we’ve been here.”  “I see…” I nodded positively “And honestly, I could see the attraction in that, I always loved space heaters in cold weather when I was little, and this is just a bigger version of it!”  I apparently wasn’t making as much sense as I had hoped, but I did have an idea.  Closing my eyes, I concentrated on the good memories and feelings I had of those times, and when they had formed a coherent little slideshow of scenes, I gave it a bit of a push out there, thinking maybe Emily could pick up on it.  “Clever little boy!” she complimented “I can see how you might want to relive those experiences again…so…  Shall we?”  “I would greatly enjoy it if we did.” I nodded, taking her paw and being led to one of the benches by the wall.

Sitting down and closing my eyes, I truly almost began to purr when Emily turned on the hot air.  It felt wonderful!  With just a bit of scooting around, I located myself directly in front of the vent that…well, that I was directly in front of.  The odd combination of sounds, a transformer buzzing combined with a small fan, brought me back to some of those few happy childhood moments I clung to: if I closed my eyes, I could almost imagine that I was sitting on the concrete floor in the workshop, warming up before returning to the various outside projects that always seemed to need doing; or on the tile floor of the laundry room, naked but for a pair of underwear and possibly socks, not particularly warming up from anything (it was one of the coldest rooms in the house, and one I had no reason to be spending time in) but instead sitting there soaking up the heat merely for the simple joy it brought me.  Or my first heater, the one I had shown to Emily.  My parents had left it next to my bed during the winters when I was very little, because I wouldn’t cooperate nicely with heavy blankets, being three or four at the time, and sure that they would smother me in my sleep or hide big scary monsters.  It always being a pleasant, warming surprise when it turned on as the temperature dropped: a warm breeze, and a cheerfully glowing little orange light.

“Silly little boy.” Emily grinned.  “I make no apologies.” I shrugged.  “I wouldn’t expect you to feel a need to.” Emily agreed, sitting down next to me.  “Is there a brush around here somewhere?” I wondered “I’d like to comb your fur, it’ll help it dry quicker..”  “And?”  “And it looks incredibly soft, and I really want to play in it.”  Leaning over the edge of the bench. She produced one from the bag of toiletries she had brought with us.  “Here you go!” she nodded, amused by my gleeful response and enthusiastic brushing.  And truth be told, she could use quite a bit of brushing at that point   Or maybe she didn’t, I’m not an expert in the matter, and she looked to be enjoying the attention enough that I doubt she would have mentioned an overenthusiasm in the process.  Sandpaws, however, did, pointing out that either I “was completely incompetent, or she is taking gross advantage of his ignorance.”  “Where did you two come from?” Emily yawned “I figured you would be mating for at least an hour or two…”  “You must be tired.” Riverwash said, looking concerned.  “It has in fact been three hours plus since we last met.” Sandpaws nodded in agreement.  “It’s nice here.” I said simply “I might spend the night even, that is if I can talk Emily into it: kind of like a bizarre indoor campout slumber party thing.”   “You two can join us if you like.” Emily suggested “We can work on more of Nick’s therapy…”  “Oh sure, take all the fun out of an idea.” I groused “Maybe I’ll just go sleep outside in a snow drift!”

“No, no…I think the first idea was better” she announced “But we’ll compromise and use some of your idea as well, I saw the particular merit of the bit involving sitting directly in front of the blower and putting ourselves into a warm-air stupor.”  “But…snow drift?” I questioned, deciding to be a brat about it.  “Warm air.” Emily shook her head.  “Snow drift!” I disagreed, pointing towards where I vaguely assumed outside would be located if the walls would just be so kind as to get out of my way.  With a grin on her muzzle, Emily pushed my hand about seventy five degrees left of where I had been pointing.  “And no, we’re not going to go outside, or to the transport shuttle hangars.”  “Snow drift?” I tried again pitifully, attempting the ‘puppy dog look’.  (It didn’t seem to work.  I guess you have to actually be canine to pull it off…)  “No, dear.” Emily said patiently.

Cheerfully imitating my tone and posture, Riverwash turned to Sandpaws “Mating?”  “Fur dryer.” Sandpaws grinned back, doing a pretty good imitation of Emily as well.  “Both?” Riverwash tried again hopefully.  “I would think we’d have that department covered for a while, considering how when we were in the bathtub you…”  “Hey!  Whoa!  Too much information!” I interrupted quickly.  “We know.” Sandpaws giggled.  “We were playing ‘make Nick blush’ again.” Emily teased.  “You’re coming dangerously close to making me sulk.” I sulked.  “No we’re not.” Emily disagreed, wrapping her arms around me and pulling me back to lean against her.  “It’s hard to guilt-trip telepaths.” I sighed, burying my face in the now mostly dry and pretty fluffy fur of her shoulder.  “Aww…” she sympathized “You’re a terribly put upon little boy, aren’t you?”  “Uh huh.” I mumbled through her fur as there were the sounds of shuffling of places and someone began gently rubbing my hair.  “Mmm…”

I quite easily began to drift off to sleep at that.  It had been rather a panicky sort of afternoon, and if I had been awake enough to think about it I would have been almost shocked to realize that what I really wanted, even as much as the warm breeze, was to be around my new friends.  Somehow, without me even realizing it, they had changed: they felt safe.  Being around them felt safe.  “How did that happen?” I thought to myself, really trying to take stock of my feelings, strange as they were.  I’d fallen in love with Emily: she may be irritable occasionally, but she had a deep kindness in her too, she was accepting, and truly cared about my well being.  And she returned my love.  It took telepathic prodding for me to actually believe that someone could, but I couldn’t deny that she did.  And the Chakats, despite their imposing appearance and my rather emotionally painful discussion with Sandpaws, were actually much nicer than I would have considered possible a week earlier.  I was growing fond of the two, I had to admit to myself, they weren’t so bad to have around.  This was all certainly uncharacteristic of me: trusting, making friends (or even something more?), and even wanting to cuddle…  “Must be something wrong with me…” I yawned, not looking up from Emily’s shoulder.

“There is, yes.” She agreed “By this hour you should be diapered and in bed!  It’s much too late for little ones to be out and about!”  “By which you mean that you don’t want me falling asleep in here so that you’d have to wake me up enough to get back to our room…” I yawned.  It sounded like a pretty good idea to me, as things stood, and if I did fall asleep Emily would eventually have to give up and leave me in front of the heaters…  “I’m sure either of them would be more than happy to pick you up and carry you if I asked.” Emily informed me, getting nods of agreement from Riverwash and Sandpaws.  They probably could too, I decided.  If I wanted to keep my heater I would have to try another tactic.  “But it’s all cozy and warm here!” I whined “And our rooms are going to be cold, and the walk to our rooms with just a couple of wet towels is going to be cold, and if we stay here we won’t be cold.”  “If I go get your jammies and let you get changed and all warmed up over here, will you be a good boy and go straight to bedtimes?” Emily negotiated.  Thinking it over for a few moments, I decided that her terms were acceptable, or at least as good as I was likely to get.  “Okies!” I nodded cheerfully.


In fairly short order Emily returned with the ersatz diaper bag and a pair of  mismatched ‘jammies’ like hers—sweat pants and a work shirt in matching flannel.  “I got these for you.” She explained “There is more than a little validity to your complaints about the heaters in residential not being up to the task.  They aren’t as cute as your onesie, but at least they’re footed!”  That got my attention.  I didn’t think that they made footed sweatpants, and it turned out I was right.  Somehow Emily had managed to locate a set of really thick socks in the same flannel pattern, which after careful sewing one would have trouble telling weren’t an original part of the bottoms.  “Nifty!” I laughed, reaching to take them from Emily.  “Not so fast, little boy!” she laughed “Aren’t you forgetting a few intermediate steps?  I said it was time to get your little diapered butt to bed, didn’t I?”  “Oh, okies!” I nodded, watching as Emily laid the nicest of the beach towels down in front of one of the heating vents, then began to take everything she would need out of the bag , lining them up in a neat row along the side of the towel.  While she was getting set up I kept glancing at Riverwash and Sandpaws, neither of whom showed any indication of leaving the room.  (Sandpaws in fact appeared to be edging around a bit to get hirself in position for a better view.)

“All ready!” Emily declared, patting the towel next to her on the floor.  “Umm…” I stuttered, casting what I hoped was a firm thought suggesting the Chakats might have business elsewhere to which they should attend.  It showed no appearance of working, however, the pair of them just continuing to wait patiently.  “Well?” Emily asked, arching an eyebrow at me.  “But…”  “Oh, don’t mind us…” Riverwash grinned innocently “It does take rather a long time for ‘Taurs to get dried out.  All that extra surface area, you see…”  “No, I don’t see.” I disagreed “And you two aren’t going to either!”  “Oh be nice, they’re just curious…” Emily chided “Herms are new to you, right?”  “Yeah, but…”  “Well, infantilists are new to them.  Besides, it’ll be educational, we want to make sure they know how to take care of everything if they have to babysit while I’m out of town or something.”  “Did you take a class on how to not be reassuring, or does it just come naturally to you?” I asked in complete exasperation.  She took it to be a rhetorical question.  Or else I was losing the discussion much worse than I thought I was.  “Please?” Riverwash whined.  Sandpaws sat there giving me the cat version of ‘puppy dog eyes’.  And Emily stood there with her paws on her hips and a mildly stern expression on her muzzle.  I didn’t have a chance of winning this one, and all four of us knew it.  “Fine.” I relented “But no giggling!  Or touching things for that matter!”  (I was pretty sure I saw Sandpaws’ ears droop a little at the last caveat, giving me a briefly victorious feeling: I’d won that point!)  “Okay!” Riverwash agreed, both Chakats nodding enthusiastically.

“Right then, down you go little guy!” Emily instructed enthusiastically.  I lay down on the towel in front of the heater, more resigned than enthusiastic, but still oddly excited.  Since I’d just gotten out of the bath there wasn’t much in the way of clothing to be divested of, just the towel, leaving me naked in pretty short order.  “Now this is basically just like diapering a cub, except that you don’t have a tail-hole to mess up.” Emily explained, unfolding a diaper then holding it up for the Chakats’ examination before instructing me to “Lift up for a moment, please.”  “Okies.” I nodded seriously, doing my best to comply so she could slide the diaper up under me.  “Your little guy seems to be a great deal more cooperative than the ones at the daycare center…” Riverwash observed “There’s been hardly any kicking or biting so far.”  “No biting!” I announced “Only naughty little boys bite!”  “You’re not a naughty boy then?” Sandpaws questioned lightly.  “Nopers, I’s a good boy.” I explained patiently.  “That’s good to know.” Shi agreed, ruffling my hair while Emily powdered my diaper region neatly, then folded up the front and fastened up the tabs.  “And we’re done!” Emily announced, helping me into the impromptu pajamas.  “Not really that much to see, was there?” I grumbled at Sandpaws and Riverwash a bit disgruntledly.  “I’m pretty sure I saw something.” Riverwash grinned, trying to make me blush again.

“Now we have to make a decision about the rest of the evening.” Emily decided cheerfully.  “Oh?” I asked cautiously.  “Yep.” She explained “I know I said we wouldn’t be sleeping in front of the heaters tonight, but it sounds like the rain is starting up again, so unless any of you feel like getting soaked we should consider revisiting that point.”  “Heaters!” I suggested with unbridled enthusiasm.  But then I doubt one needed to be a telepath to figure out that the suggestion was coming up quickly.  “I would have to agree with the little boy on that point.” Sandpaws decided.  Nodding hir agreement, Riverwash was in the process of stretching out (quite a process for a ‘Taur--all the claws that appeared when shi flexed hir toes would have been really intimidating under other circumstances…) when there was a loud boom of thunder and the sound of a nearby lightning strike, and all the power in the building went out.  “Aww…no fair!” I sulked, horribly disappointed that the dryers had gone out with the lights “We were going to…and…stupid storm!”  I could hear somefur rustling around, and then a flashlight came on, pushing back the dark enough to at least prevent accidental injuries.  “You keep a flashlight in your diaper bag?” Sandpaws asked Emily.  “I keep diapers in my knapsack.” She corrected with a grin on her muzzle “Though I guess it really kind of comes to the same thing in the end, doesn’t it?”

As they all began rounding up our things I hopefully suggested that we wait around a while to see if the power came back up, only to have it explained that this kind of thing happened with some regularity, and that we shouldn’t expect power again until someone went out and reset the breakers on the mains.  In the morning when it was light out enough to do it safely.  And it wasn’t raining.  “Aw, don’t pout dearest!  We can still have a little campout back at the rooms…it’ll be okay!” Emily consoled, seeing my horribly disappointed expression.  “Okies.” I sighed, not managing to even vaguely sound like I meant it.  “We’ll still have fun, I promise!” Riverwash added, ruffling my hair as we headed out of the dryer room.  “We should probably see about getting some plastic sheeting from the storage room to try to keep dry.” Sandpaws suggested “It’s going to be a while before any of us are able to use the dryer again, and I don’t know about you two, but I don’t want to go to sleep with wet fur…”  “Good point.” Emily agreed, and so we took a detour to the junk pile.  I was going to help them with cutting out the pieces of plastic sheeting, but was somewhat tersely informed by Emily that if I got my new jammies (that she had gone through all the trouble to make) greasy she would be a little bit peeved.  So instead I stood just inside the doorway watching ponchos being created.  It didn’t take too long, seeing as how they only involved scissors and tape, and soon we were ready to move out into the rain, safe and dry.  Remembering something from earlier, I also grabbed the equipment box with the weapons I had selected previously (also making a mental note to get the handgun back from the Chakats), and with everything under control our little party quickly marched back to our rooms.

Everyone was nice and dry when we arrived, thanks to their collective skill with a roll of tape, so after I recovered my stuff from the Chakats’ room I reminded Emily and Riverwash about their nebulously proposed campout, and questioned how they were planning on going about keeping their promises on the matter.  The answer, it turned out, involved banishing me to Emily and my room (with Sandpaws supervising) while Emily and Riverwash mysteriously set to work in the Chakats’ rooms.  “I wonder how this is going to turn out.” I mused, sitting next to Sandpaws at the table debating if we should bother starting a card game to kill time until we were summoned back to our respective mate’s presence.  We eventually settled with hir showing me some magic tricks with the deck while I suggested we play this fascinating new game called ‘fifty two card pickup’.  I think that shi was having a bit of fun at my expense, asking me questions about the rules of the game and where it originated from, stuff like that, all the while keeping a firm hold on the deck.  (That led me to believe she wasn’t ignorant of the joke at all…)

The cards eventually managed to disappear somewhere I didn’t catch (probably very much intentionally on the part of the Chakat…out of sight, off the floor, as it were…) and I was beginning to get pretty close to starting to nod off for the night anyway.  It wouldn’t take all that much, I explained to Sandpaws, since I had neither a belt nor pocket clutter available with my jammies.  “Much easier that way.” I yawned, before something occurred to me “Chakats don’t wear jammies, huh?”  “Not for the same reasons humans and some of the shorter furred morphs do.” Shi confirmed “But sometimes we will to look nice for our mates, or even just because they’re snuggly!”  “Snuggly is a good reason.” I agreed “Some of my most peaceful moments have been because of snuggly just for snuggly’s sake.”  “That’s actually really important to you.” Shi stated.  “Uh huh.” I nodded “Nothing is ever entirely straightforward, it seems like.”  “You mean Emily.”  Sandpaws nodded, waiting patiently for me to gather my thoughts.  “I’ve never felt this way before: happy and afraid and hopeful all mixed together at the same time…  It’s new and confusing, but in a good way, and I don’t understand it.  But it’s wonderful, and I hope it never goes away.  It doesn’t make sense…”  “It’s not supposed to.” Sandpaws told me simply “Truly worthwhile things rarely do.”  I just nodded at that, somehow shi had managed to be vague, confusing, entirely honest, and comforting all at the same time.  I was beginning to wonder if I had just been absent the day that they covered great universal truths at school, or if everyone else really was better at this sort of thing.  Hell, maybe I was just denser than most…  While I was pondering I happened to notice the amused expression on Sandpaws’ muzzle.  A flash of annoyed embarrassment welled up for a second: it must be easier for a telepath to deal with feelings like these; shi didn’t have to be smug about it!  “I didn’t read your mind.” Sandpaws laughed “I just noticed that you have the same expression as a lot of the youngsters I council…you really are a little one in a lot of ways…”

I was still mulling on that observation when Emily and Riverwash reappeared from the other set of rooms.  “You two look quite pleased with yourselves.” Sandpaws observed.  “So do you, actually.” Riverwash accused.  “You will notice there are no cards scattered across the floor.” Shi grinned proudly.  There must have been a telepathic exchange accompanying the grin, because Riverwash and Emily were soon grinning broadly themselves.  Taking a different track, I put on my best pout, then pointed at Sandpaws and accused that “Shi stole my deck of cards!  Kitty’s being mean, Mommy Emily, make hir stop!”  The three just continued grinning at me.  “I’m not telepathically credible, am I?” I sighed, dropping the act and patiently waiting for the forthcoming announcement. 

It turned out to be not so much an announcement, but a failure on Emily’s part to continue not giggling, followed up by her grabbing my hand and whisking me away into the other room.  One of the heavier of the bedspreads had been hung as a tepee-like drape over the Chakats’ large cushion platform, a length of binding cable in the center of the piece of cloth attaching it to the ceiling.  An edge had been rolled up, invitingly forming an entryway, while the cloth was tucked in under the platform around its remaining circumference.  Looking inside the door, I found that a deep ceramic bowl in the center of the ‘tent’ was putting off both flickering light and a warm breeze from within its depths.  “How did you manage that?” I asked curiously.  “A small scale power core we took out of one of the crashed fliers in the junk room.  It puts out just enough current to run the space heater, and it makes the glow itself!” Riverwash explained proudly.  “So we’re all being irradiated then?” I questioned dubiously, while unconsciously backing for the door.  Riverwash just gave me a playful swat.  “It’s supposed to glow.  And of course I got one that had been checked out before we took the thing, some of us have to be grown up and responsible, you know.”  “Yeah, but if we got a leaky one the radiation might mutate me up some telepathic abilities.” I pointed out seriously “Somehow this feels like you three are plotting against me again…”  “Radiation doesn’t work that way.” Emily disagreed “Besides, how are we to know that it isn’t an evil spy plot to get you secret information, hmm?”

I did my best to feign an evil movie villain sneer, but it lost quite a bit of the effect when Riverwash simply picked me up and carried me inside our impromptu tent.  Emily and Sandpaws followed behind, one of them turning off the lights on the way in.  “How come the lights in here still work with the power off?” I wondered as Emily closed the tent flap and they all settled down around the spot where Riverwash had deposited me.  “Most of them have a built-in battery unit.” Sandpaws explained “They were designed to be used on research outposts with potentially flakey power grids after all.”  That made sense, I decided, a bit annoyed with myself for not figuring out the obvious on my own.  “You’ve had a long day…” Emily corrected, either picking up the thought, or just reading my expression “Nobody is on top of their game when they’re tired.”  “Definitely recruit him for the training academy.” Riverwash decided firmly.  “I’d be a horrible teacher.” I disagreed, laying back in Emily’s lap, my head propped up on her shoulder while hers, in turn, was propped up on Sandpaws’.  “You’re not psychically able to tell what a good teacher you would be.” Shi tried to convince me, before Emily chimed in “Well, more like a good textbook, really.  But the point is essentially the same.”  I almost started to feel a little bit badly at that, but she placed her paw under my chin and tilted my head up a little so that I could see the fond little grin on her muzzle.  “See, that’s exactly what I mean.”

“Well, even if I would be a good teacher it would be really kind of awkward being around telepaths all day, all things considered.” I said, waving vaguely at the diaper bulge under my jammies.  “Let’s vote on it.” Emily suggested “All in favor?”  Three paws immediately shot up.  “They don’t get votes.” I disagreed, mustering as much finality as I could manage “Anyone not diapering doesn’t have a voice in diaper related matters!”  “That’s only fair.” Emily mused, nodding in agreement “I guess they’ll have to take the next two changings then…”  “Now wait just a damn…” I spluttered, trying to sit up only to have Emily conveniently chose that moment to give me a hug.  “No, you’re right.” She laughed cheerfully “The Chakats need to earn their say in the matter, I agree with you completely!”  “You know full well that I didn’t mean for…” I began again, still trying to drag myself upright.

Relenting and allowing me up, Emily put her paws on my shoulders and turned me to look her in the eyes.  “I would like for you to settle down and hear me out for a minute, can you do that for me?”  “Okay.” I finally agreed, having taken a few moments to catch my breath and try to settle down.  “That’s better.” Emily nodded.  “The three of us had already grown pretty close before you arrived.” She explained “Things tend to move more quickly among telepaths socially, it’s much easier for us to get to know each other, and it’s really pretty hard to hide things from people who you spend a lot of time with.  We just kind of fell in to a cozy, emotionally supportive, little denning arrangement together, and I was hoping that you might want to expand into it with us.  Now, you need to know that regardless of what you decide it won’t change anything between the four of us: I’ll still love you and be your mommy, and they will still be your friends, just the same as everything has been.”  I looked over her shoulder while she paused to gather her thoughts again, and saw Riverwash and Sandpaws nodding in sincere agreement.  “I guess the three of us were hoping that you would be interested in adopting a pair of aunts.”  “I don’t know.” I sighed nervously “It’s not something that I’ve ever really considered, humans aren’t really a pack species like the ones most of you have in your background, and I’m not sure exactly how comfortable I am with the idea…I feel kind of muddled up about it.”

Closing my eyes for a moment, I opened them again and looked into Emily’s.  “Look and see.  Them too, so they really know what it is they would be getting into.”  Then, with a certainty that I was a little shocked to realize that I absolutely meant “I trust you completely.  You’ll make the decision you believe is the best one for me.”  Emily nodded, looking gravely serious but touched and pleased at the same time.  Turning around a bit, I met the eyes of Riverwash and Sandpaws, sensing the same gravity tinted with caring.  The three of them wouldn’t take the decision lightly, and I felt an unwavering confidence that each of them would act only in my best interests, regardless of their personal feelings.  “Why don’t you lie down and get comfy then?” Emily suggested gently “I know telepathic contact makes you a little bit nervous, and it might put you more at ease that way.”  “Uh huh.” I nodded.  Shuffling around a little bit, I settled down with my head in Emily’s lap while Sandpaws tucked me under one of the quilts, both the Chakats scooting in to flank me reassuringly with warm, fuzzy, kitty.  “Go ahead and close your eyes dear, try to relax.  It’s a bit harder for more than one of us to be in contact at the same time, and it may feel a little strange for a minute or two.”  “More strange than an angry canine fixated on his paw rooting around in there?” I asked in a feeble attempt to make a joke.  “Fixated on his paw?” Emily questioned, distracting me while first her presence, then gradually two others made themselves known in my mind.  Instead of explaining I concentrated on the image of Sergeant Parker, the dog morph who had been my rather unpleasant introduction to telepathy, yelping and pointing at me accusingly.

“You bit him?” Sandpaws asked incredulously (though sounding really, really amused) “I thought you said that only naughty little boys bit?”  “He started it.” I said a little sulkily, not opening my eyes.  “I’ve met him.” Sandpaws explained, answering someone’s unseen glance “Truth be told I might have indulged in the notion of biting him myself at one time or another…”  “You’re not setting a very good example.” Riverwash accused hir “How do you expect to be ‘Aunt’ Sandpaws if you go around announcing things like that?”  “I suppose you’re right.” Shi said with a mock sigh, at which point I felt her tapping me gently on the hip.  “Bad!  Bad little boy!  And let that be a lesson to you!”  I couldn’t help grinning at that one, wishing that I could see the disapproving looks probably radiating from Riverwash and Emily.  “See, it’s not so bad as long as you try not to fixate on it.” Sandpaws told me.  It was only then I realized that while shi had been distracting me Emily and Riverwash had been gently pulling to the surface some really horrible memories.

With a start I mentally flinched away, slamming a telepathic door of glass onto three much more solid metaphorical feet, with the predictable result.  In moments that seemed like years I was panicking, beginning to shiver and thrash around in Emily’s lap.  Instantly the two Chakats were on me, holding me down gently but firmly so I didn’t hurt myself, or someone else for that matter.  “Shh, shh!  Nick!  Settle down!  Settle!  Here, think about something else, concentrate on this!” I could hear Emily urging from somewhere that seemed very far away.  At the same time in my mind I could feel her offering out an image of her taking her class on the nature walk earlier today, as seen from her perspective.  A detailed and vividly real memory complete with wisps of physical sensations intertwined with her emotions.  It was such a curiously odd feeling that it completely derailed my train of thought in an instant.  “You should have taken a coat.” I accused, already much calmer “It was cold out today.”  “You got that much?” Emily asked curiously.  “Uh huh.” I explained “It was cold out.  It smelled like those funny little green flowers that grow on the shady side of the hills around here.  The two little females in the front of the group, the coyote and that short little bunny, were talking about cookies from last night’s dinner.  And you were wondering if there would be any of that leftover stew in the dining hall when you got back.”

Without further comment the image faded out and was replaced by a different one, dappled black and grey paws holding a textbook in a dormitory room, the stress of an upcoming exam.  It was a memory from when Sandpaws was going to college!  That one was followed by one of elementary school aged Chakat kittens wrestling around on a playground, tawny colored paws and forefeet eventually getting the upper hand scrabbling around on a jungle gym.  Riverwash, in hir first year in primary school.  The memories kept coming, here Emily camping with her academy class, then Riverwash viewing paintings at an art gallery, and Sandpaws failing rather badly at a driver’s education class…  I could sense the slow resumption of my friends, my den-mates, picking through unpleasant parts of my life and rather nasty bits of my subconscious, but always at the forefront they were distracting me from it with happy memories from their pasts.  And at the same time I found myself learning about them, getting to know them on an intimate level that would have taken years to develop otherwise.

Finally, after what felt like a very long time I could sense the others withdrawing from my psyche, the presence there being replaced with a more conscious awareness of the physical warmth around me.  Slowly opening my eyes I looked up to see the three of them smiling down at me, the fur on all three muzzles matted with what must have been tears.  “I feel like I got the better part of the bargain.” I grinned sleepily, trying to lighten the serious mood a bit.  “Shall I tell you our decision?” Emily asked, stroking my hair.  “I already know the answer.” I yawned, reaching up to scratch behind her ear “But I think I’d rather call them ‘Miss’ instead of ‘Aunt’, if that’s okay?”  “I think we can live with that.” Riverwash indulged me.  “Well, I guess the next order of business is to decide which of you two get to change him this time!” Emily announced cheerfully.  “Change me?” I asked in confusion “When did I?”  “Earlier, when you were screaming and thrashing around.” Emily explained gently “It was worse than you realized, but we didn’t think it was a good time to point that out to you…”  She was right, I realized suddenly.  I had completely soaked my diaper and didn’t even notice!  “Don’t look so concerned.” She reassured me “It can happen as a result of telepathic activity focusing on certain areas of the brain, sometimes motor neurons get activated and…”  “I was terrified.” I corrected “And it was an unconscious reaction to being afraid.”  “Well, yes, probably.” She admitted “I just thought you might be more comfortable with the other line of reasoning, and you have had a really rough day at this point…”  “It’s okay.” I nodded “But I guess it still leaves you three with something to decide…”

“So, what’s the fair way to pick?” Emily grinned at the two Chakats.  “Sandpaws got a better view back in the dryer room.” Riverwash pointed out “So I think that I should get to.”  “I got a better look, so I should get to.” Sandpaws corrected “You might not have absorbed everything that Emily was trying to teach since you didn’t have a very good view of her lesson.”  “I’ve been working in the daycare facility since it opened.” Riverwash pointed out “I would certainly hope that I have at least a rudimentary understanding of how to diaper a cub by now…”  “Nobody doubts your abilities in that regard, dearest.” Sandpaws assured hir “But remember, I am the councilor and trained sex therapist back home.  My professional training makes me much better informed about that particular area of the body.”  “And as you may recall, we both happen to have the ‘equipment’ in question!” Riverwash laughed, reaching out of my line of sight and doing something that elicited a surprised ‘eep’ from Sandpaws.  “Maybe you should do it.” I whispered loudly to Emily “I think those two are going to be rather…umm…occupied with each other if things keep moving in that direction.”  “He’s right.” Sandpaws nodded seriously “We’re getting a bit off topic.”  “Since I’ve known him longer I’ll go first.  Besides, I’ve got the diaper bag…” Riverwash decided with finality.  Nodding hir agreement, Sandpaws scooted over a bit to allow Riverwash some more room to work.

“I changed my mind.” I yawned, playing like I was going to get up and leave “I’ll just go stand outside in the rain for a while to get cleaned up, then I think I’m going to settle down for a nap…”  “You’re not particularly convincing.” Sandpaws informed me seriously “Though you might be more so if it weren’t for the telepathy.”  “Aww…” I sighed “Really?”  “Not even a little bit.” Emily agreed cheerfully, putting her paws on my shoulders and guiding me back down.  “Well, it is what it is.” I decided fatalistically “I suppose I’ll be a good sport about it and try not to pout too much…”  “And we all really appreciate that, dear one.” 

“This is quite a bit easier when they don’t have a tail.” Riverwash observed as shi worked my pajama bottoms down over my now quite bulging diaper.  “I could see how it would be, yes.” Sandpaws agreed.  Hir tail, I noticed, was twitching excitedly, and judging by the movement of the tent wall nearest Riverwash I got the distinct impression hir’s was too.  That made me a little bit nervous for some reason, and I was beginning to fidget a little when Emily took my hand in her paws and began to play with my fingers.  “It’s okay little guy.  I’m right here, and besides you know perfectly well shi will be gentle with you…”  “Uh huh.” I agreed, relaxing again as Riverwash began to undo the tapes on my diaper with the rippy, crinkly sound of adhesive coming undone.  “He knows.” Riverwash laughed, taking a moment to ruffle my hair “He’s just easily embarrassed.  I’m willing to bet he’s enjoying himself though!  Shall we see?”  Unfolding the front of my diaper, shi revealed that yes, he was enjoying himself, though with the sudden influx of less than pleasantly warm air things pretty quickly began to lose interest in the proceedings.  “Maybe we need a bigger fire.” Sandpaws observed, hir paws unconsciously migrating in my direction even though shi was obviously fighting the urge to involve hirself in Riverwash’s turn.  Feeling a little bit bratty, I slowly snuck my hand over to where shi was sitting and snatched the end of hir tail, causing the Chakat to jump a little in surprise.

“Gotcha!” I laughed, only to jump myself as Riverwash began to clean up my diaper region with a packet of wipes.  “A bit cold, hmm?” Emily smiled, tapping my nose “Shi might not have snuck up on you if you’d been less occupied teasing poor Sandpaws…”  “Worth it.” I decided, groping around over my head until I located her paw, then promptly popping a convenient finger into my mouth.  “Lift up a little, please.” Riverwash requested, slipping the old diaper out from under me and situating a dry one in its place, then tapping me gently on the hip so I would settle back down.  Putting it in a baggie with the used up wipes, shi began sorting through Emily’s backpack until shi produced a tube of diaper cream and a jar of powder.  Weighing hir options, Riverwash tossed the powder back in the diaper bag before waving the tube of diaper cream at me mischievously.  “Powder always makes my whiskers twitch.  I guess we’ll just have to settle for this instead!”  “Well, I guess we don’t need that bigger fire after all.” Emily observed as Riverwash applied the diaper cream significantly more slowly than could be excused as merely being thorough.   “We might have to take the little guy down to medical though…” Sandpaws observed, stroking my tummy with poorly faked absentmindedness “Is it just me, or is his face redder than he usually is?  It’s kind of hard to tell when people don’t have fur…”  “Oh, he’s fine.  I’ve seen him much redder than that.” Emily informed the Chakat before leaning down and whispering something incredibly suggestive in my ear “See?”  “That looks like fun.  Me next!” Sandpaws laughed gleefully before a sly look affixed itself on hir muzzle “Oh!  I’ve got an idea…”

A moment later I was getting a telepathic sending from Sandpaws of hir and Riverwash curled up in the big round bed for the evening, Riverwash’s paw teasingly working its way down to Sandpaws’ tail and points below, joining with a familiar and exciting feeling… “Eep!” I yelped, immediately doing a much more thorough job of blushing than I had previously.  “See!” Sandpaws announced victoriously.  “Don’t look so proud of yourself.” Emily joked “I make him blush all the time, it’s not hard.”  “Oh, I beg to differ…” Riverwash pointed out without looking up from my diaper region.  Taking pity on me amidst Emily and Sandpaws’ cheerful laughter, Riverwash folded up the front of my new diaper and carefully fastened up the tapes before announcing that “We’re all done!  Unless you think I need to redo something, there’s always the possibility that I didn’t get it right the first time…”  “Nope, I’m convinced you got it right the first time.” I quickly told hir while shi was helping me on with my pajama bottoms again.  “Besides,” Emily reminded everyone “He really does need to be getting to bed soon.  You two haven’t seen what he can be like in the mornings yet…”

“She’s right.” I nodded with a yawn as I snuggled down into Emily’s lap “I’m not a morning person.  Not even if the morning doesn’t start until the afternoon.  Don’t feel like you three have to go to bed early too on my account, I can sleep through pretty much anything once I put my mind to it…”  “Aww, he’s such a good sport about things.” Sandpaws grinned as I let hir tuck me in under one of the quilts scattered throughout our tent.  “Nope, I’s bad at sports.” I disagreed sleepily “I tried out for my school’s Chakker team in college and the coach told me so.”  “Well, you don’t really have the right build to play Chakker…” Sandpaws began to explain “They didn’t have humans in mind when the game was being developed, and…”  “He’s pulling your tail, dear.” Riverwash sighed “Which leads me to believe that you may need a nap as well.”  “Are you?” Sandpaws asked seriously, giving me a gentle poke when I failed to realize who the question was directed at.  “Yeppers.” I agreed equally seriously, though not bothering to open my eyes.  Flopping my hand around me randomly for a moment, I eventually located a tail, giving it a brief tug.  “Nope, that one’s mine.” Riverwash laughed.  “Oh.”  Trying again, I located another, only to be cheerfully informed by Emily that I needed to “Try again!”  “Blearghtpf.” I mumbled in protest before deciding that “Shi doesn’t have a tail.  You’s trying to trick me.  Figured out your scheme.”

I heard several giggles at that, and I was just about to start pouting when I felt somefur put a tail in my hand.  “There you go little guy.” Sandpaws indulged “All better, no need for drastic measures.”  I was going to reply with something so incredibly witty that it would have shocked everyfur present into a quiet reassessment of their worldviews, or possibly even be elevated into its own school of philosophy, but somehow it found its way out as a quiet snore.


I awoke to find Riverwash and Sandpaws gently trying to help extract Emily from her position as my cuddle pillow.  “Wha?” I asked intelligently, not having more than the vaguest idea what was going on: somefur woke me up and now they were trying to steal my warm fuzzy!  “Told you.” Riverwash sighed “Nobody sleeps that soundly.”  Seeing my utterly confused look, Emily explained.  “We’ve all got to go to work, but we thought it would be good to let you sleep in today.”  “And I wasn’t being cooperative about it.” I nodded, coming up to speed as the gears in my brain finally started to mesh.  “Here’s an idea though.” I offered “Why don’t all of us sleep in today?  If anyone asks you can just tell them you were keeping a close watch on a potential TemTek spy.”  “Aww, we’d like to, little guy, but things need to get done regardless, and if there isn’t anyone there to do them it throws a wrench into the works.” Riverwash sighed.  I, meanwhile, was doing my best to capture enough fur-covered body parts to be able to negotiate from a position of power.

It’s hard to be sneaky around telepaths unfortunately, and the end result was Riverwash simply picking me up and setting me down in our collection of mismatched bedding.  “Not fair.” I pouted “I don’t want everyone to go to work!”  “Now Nick,” Emily reasoned “You know better than that.  We don’t have enough of anything here for anyone to be able to duck their responsibilities…”  “I know.” I agreed, getting up and following Emily to our room.  “That’s good.” She nodded, sorting through the clothes hanging in our hallway/closet.  While she was doing that I proceeded to get dressed myself, which was a lot less time consuming since my clothing selection would neatly fit in a large box.  “You’re not going back to bed?” Emily asked, sounding a bit confused.  “I’m already awake, so I might as well do something productive too.” I nodded as I put on my boots “I’ll dig up Trevor and see if we can’t get the stuff over in hydroponics working today.  The sooner it’s going, the sooner I will be hailed as the brilliant hero I am by our friends and neighbors.”  “Narcissism.” Sandpaws declared from the doorway to our collective bathroom “That’s good, that means that you’re not too upset with us.”  “I’m not upset with anyone.” I explained “Or maybe I’m upset with everyone equally so that it balances out and negates itself, I’m not sure.  It’s too early in the morning for me to have coherent answers, and frankly I feel it’s a little bit mean of you to be demanding them like that!”  “We’d better make sure Trevor has had his coffee this morning, Nick appears to be in a bit of a mood.” Emily laughed.  “Yeah, but I’m usually productive in my moods.  Or destructive, either way.  Arguably destruction is a precursor to creation, so from a philosophical standpoint it shouldn’t matter which we end up with…”

“I’m not sure if I should be encouraged or concerned.” Emily mused.  “It doesn’t matter.” I explained “Concern is a precursor for encouragement.  Or something.  I’m just going to nod and pretend that made perfect sense to me.  In the meantime it would be great if one of you would send Trevor down to hydroponics, since I don’t know how to call him.  Oh, and tell him to stop and grab us some breakfast on his way down, okay?”  “Zero to hyperactive in three point two seconds.” Riverwash laughed as I grabbed my coat and headed out to work.  “We should all try to meet for lunch.” I threw back over my shoulder cheerfully “It might even be Sandpaws’ turn by then!”

In all honesty I was feeling kind of hyperactive, I realized as I quickly cut through the blustery weather to get to the greenhouses.  It was nice to have something useful to be doing that people would appreciate when I finished.  There’s a great deal of truth in the joke that nobody is as popular as the guy who brings food, which was pretty much what Trevor and I were working on.  Sure, there probably wouldn’t be the ticker tape parade down Main Street that I had been daydreaming about, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t being a productive member of society.  “Unless something blows up.” I amended as I turned off the pumps and began to splice in the first of the pressure regulators I had built yesterday.  “What’s blowing up?” Trevor asked, having chosen that exact moment to show up in the doorway with a box producing a very attention-getting smell.  “Nothing yet.” I assured him “I was waiting for you to get here first, after all it’s your project too!”  “No, I’m only involved if it works.” He laughed, handing me a pastry “If something blows up the project is entirely your doing, and I was never here.”  “Yeah, but you’re supposed to be here keeping an eye on things.  If something blows up and you were never here it’s likely to be worse than if you were here and we had a slight miscalculation.  So which is it going to be?”  “How many doughnuts will it take to end this conversation?” He asked seriously.  “More than two, less than all of them.” I decided after some thought “It’s sliding scale pricing based on the size of the fire caused by the explosion.”  “I would ask if you were insane, but I guess it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference in the results.” Trevor decided as we finished up the last of the breakfast and got back to work.

“Now you’re just being unkind.” I grumbled “I may have to reconsider giving you co-author credit on the project…”  “I’ll make it up to you.” He laughed “Just as soon as we’re not under a blockade any more I’ll order you a new plushie!  Deal?”  “Does the whole settlement know about it?” I yelped in consternation, almost banging my head on a pipe as I spun around to stare at Trevor.  “Pretty much our whole neighborhood does.” Trevor shrugged “I’m life bonded to a telepath, so I get privileged information from her, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say the whole settlement knows.  And honestly I don’t know why you’re making such a fuss about it…”  “I’m going to break into your unit tonight and shave you bald while you sleep.” I decided matter-of-factly “Then tomorrow you’ll know how I’m feeling right now.”  “A new plushie later, and a batch of cookies this evening.” Trevor offered “But only because it’s cold out, not because I’d feel awkward about it.”  “I’ll have to think about it.” I mused “You’re a bad credit risk you know.”  “How am I a bad credit risk?” He asked, putting on a pretty believable show of offense as he handed over the last of our homemade pressure regulators.  “I still haven’t gotten a bribe for those work shirts yesterday.” I accused, banging on the pipe coupling enthusiastically until it yielded to my undisputedly superior will and did my bidding in the matter.  “It’s in the mail.”  “Sure, like I haven’t used that one before…how exactly do you think I ended up here in the first place?”

“I’d wondered about that.” Trevor nodded “But we all thought that if you wanted to tell us about it you would, and if you didn’t it would be impolite for us to pry.”  “You couldn’t just read the security file?” I asked, genuinely curious “By now I would think that everything that there is to know about the matter has found its way in there.”  “It’s not publically available.” He explained, sounding surprised that I would even assume it could be “Once security decided that you weren’t a spy or saboteur or anything like that the matter was closed.  I mean, you have as much a right to your privacy as anyone else here does, we just needed to be sure you weren’t a threat to the colony.”  “Yeah, but…” I began as we worked our way back to the shutoff valve for the mains.  Sounding nontrivially exasperated, Trevor interrupted me.  “Nick, everyone likes you!  We’re glad you’re here!  And we all want you to stay here!  So you’re different, so what?  There’s not a morph out there who doesn’t know what that’s like, and there’s no one here who is going to judge you for it.  Okay, yes, things got off to a bit of a rough start, but you’ve been nothing but helpful and considerate since you’ve been here.”  Sighing, he rubbed his eyes in frustration.  “The only one who doesn’t seem to see you have a place here is you.”  “I don’t know what to say…” I said, feeling a bit cowed by Trevor’s outburst.  “That’s one of the nice things about finding your place.” He nodded gently “You don’t have to.”

Lightening up, I grinned “Okay, but you don’t get to change your mind if I accidentally flood the place!”  And with that I opened up the valves again.  A minute or two passed while we both watched expectantly, but when nothing exploded I tentatively declared that “I think it may have worked.”  “I think you’re right.” Trevor agreed “Let’s check the system for leaks, then I’m buying you lunch!”  “The food here is free!” I tossed back over my shoulders as we began walking in opposite directions, inspecting the irrigation system as we went “You couldn’t buy me lunch if you wanted to!”  “Take what you can get, I’m only generous once every ten or twelve years!” he shouted back in amusement.


Trevor and I were still joking good naturedly on our way to the mess hall when the emergency klaxon began to sound throughout the settlement.  “What’s that all about?” I yelled over the noise.  “I don’t know, we need to get inside and check a terminal.  Your unit is just across the way, isn’t it?”  Nodding my agreement, I grabbed the ferret by his collar and we double-timed it across the field to Emily and I’s apartment unit.  The noise was reduced drastically as we slammed the door behind us, me moving to locate any of my den mates that might still be home and Trevor heading straight to our mainframe access terminal to try to figure out what was going on.

Our room had been empty, and a quick inspection of the other part of the structure showed that truly nobody was home.  With a developing sense of worry I rejoined Trevor.  “Did you find anything?” I asked urgently.  “Yes, but it’s not good.” He scowled “TemTek caught our ambassador’s ship trying to sneak back in at the border of the system, and they’ve launched a last ditch attack to wipe us out before he can land and make our claim to the planet official.  We’re having heavy engagements in two, no three, sectors, and our forward observers think that there’s a pretty good sized formation of troops marching on the valley as well.”  “Damn it. I knew we should have stayed in bed.” I mumbled to myself before snapping out of it and entering planning mode.  “Look, do me a favor.  Make sure that Emily and the Chakats are okay, and help them get the pups from the daycare out of harm’s way.”  “Okay, but what are you going to be doing?” Trevor asked, sounding a bit concerned himself.  “We only have to hold on for an hour or two at most, just long enough for the ambassador to make landfall with the planet’s settlements still under our control.  Pretty much everyone else is out with the patrols, so I’m going to get eyes on the group heading our way, maybe see if I can slow them up a bit.  That’s all we have to do, keep everyfur safe and buy time.”   “If anything happened to you Emily and the Chakats would do unpleasant things to me.  I think I’d better stick with you instead.” Trevor argued.  “If anything happens to Emily and the Chakats I’ll do unpleasant things to you, and I give you my word I’m better at it than they are!”  “Okay.  But be careful, all right?  You’ve kind of grown on us here.”  “You too.” I promised as Trevor ducked back out the door.

Luckily, the guns I’d claimed the other day hadn’t had enough time to get buried under our household clutter.  “I’ve really had just about as much of this crap as I’m going to put up with.” I growled to myself as I unpacked the components of the large rifle, assembling them as I went.  Unlike most of the other weapons we had found that were based on coherent energy of one sort or another and merely had to be charged up, the marksman’s rifle used magnetically accelerated metal plasma: it needed a separate ammunition source of little circular chips of metal to vaporize.  Going through the rifle’s case I found several of the tubes of chips, but not as many as I would have been happy with.  “Can’t be helped.” I sighed, looking around the room until my gaze settled on Emily’s white bedspread.  It had begun snowing out overnight, so with the proper application of mud and grime it would make a passable camouflage drape.  Hey, it might even hide me from her after she realized I’d ruined our one good sheet!

Since that was about all I could do in preparation, I closed the door behind me and made a beeline for the tunnel leading through the hill, figuring that it would be best if TemTek didn’t make it that far in the first place.  Of course once I was half way through the tunnel I discovered that I had neglected to grab a flashlight on my way out, and my having to slow down pretty much ruled out the possibility of catching up to one of our patrols on their way to intercept TemTek’s raiding party.  But, between the occasional boot print in the snow and the noise of small arms going off in the not-quite-distance, I had a pretty good idea where they had all gone.  “The trick being not to get myself shot when I try to rejoin the group.” I thought dourly as I ran towards the skirmish with all the rapidity that the snow and mud covered ground would allow.

I’d made it several hundred yards when I barged into a clearing and nearly shot the group of morphs who were guarding several humans in matching grey and white patterned hard-shell armor.  “What are you doing here?” an unpleasantly familiar voice said in surprise.  Jerking around, I came face to face with the mountain lion who had led the patrol that had captured me at the shuttle’s wreckage.  “They said over the comm that most of our patrols were too far out to be able to make it back to defend the colony, and that we didn’t have enough boots on the ground here.” I explained as I tried to catch my breath “I came to help.”  “You did at that, didn’t you?” he nodded, surprisingly sounding almost proud, before extending a paw “Commander Jenner.”  “We’ve met before.” I laughed “Though so far I like this time better!  How can I be useful?”  “I’m sending prisoners back to the colony with our wounded and one or two extra from our patrol, but the rest of us has to meet up with Eastern patrol and sweep TemTek’s drop zone to make sure that we’ve rounded up any of their stragglers.  We’re staging their personnel outside the valley tunnel in preparation for TemTek to get them out of here.”  “I’m missing something.” I decided, feeling thoroughly confused “Why exactly are we letting them go?”  “Do you want them running around our new…oh, you don’t have a radio.” Commander Jenner realized.  “The ambassador made it back, it’s official.  This is our home now, and nobody can take it from us!”  “TemTek had better not drag their feet getting them out of here.” I observed “I sense a party of epic proportions in the works!”

The patrol was pretty much done getting everything sorted out when I arrived, and in short order I was helping a pair of wounded morphs escort the rather angry looking mercenaries back the way I had come.  Our side had gotten off pretty easily in the fighting: there had been several wounded, a couple seriously, but nofur had sustained any critical injuries, and, as far as everyone could tell we hadn’t suffered any casualties in the exchange.  “Mostly” the squirrel morph accompanying me explained “because we clipped their drop ship on its way in and they were pretty banged up by the time they cut their way out of the thing.”  “It’s about time we got lucky.” The Labrador who made up the last leg of our trio commented a bit dourly while cradling an injured arm.

When we were back at the tunnel the three of us roped off a large square in the field bordering the hillside and instructed the prisoners to stay put.  One of them looked like he was actually going to give me trouble about it, until I helpfully pointed out the pair of heavy rapidfires emplaced partially up the hillside so as to provide enfilading fire on the conveniently located square should they get the notion they wanted to be anywhere but within its bounds.  “Courtesy of our Board of Tourism.” I explained a bit ungenerously before trying to get news of Emily and the Chakats on the comm. system.  I had just about given up and decided to go looking for them myself when a tap on my shoulder caused me to turn right into Emily’s arms.  “There you are!” I laughed in unabashed relief “What about Riverwash and Sandpaws?  Are they okay too?”  “Well, I’m right here.” Riverwash informed me cheerfully, having made hir appearance while I was preoccupied hugging Emily “But Sandpaws is going to be occupied managing the communications relay station until they get the main transmitter back online.  Shi’s fine too, though.”  “Thank gods.” I sighed in relief “I was so scared something might happen to one of you.  I don’t know what I would have done…”

I was just about to suggest that we try to get Sandpaws on the comm to make sure shi knew everyone was okay when I was interrupted by the mercenary that had been giving me trouble earlier.  .  “Those your bed pets then?” He suggested lewdly “What’s the matter, you couldn’t get a human so you had to pick up a couple of sex toys from the animal shelter?  Do they fetch too, or just service your…”  “Nick!  Don’t shoot him!” Emily and Riverwash snapped in unison.  “I wasn’t going…okay, yeah, the thought crossed my mind.  Why not?”  Showing his impressive intelligence, the mercenary pointed out that “I guess we know who’s the little bitch of the group.”  Reaching across the rope divider, Riverwash promptly swatted him.  Hard.  He hit the ground with a satisfying ‘crack’ and just groaned, in no state to get back up again.  “You should drag him out of here.” Shi informed the remaining prisoners “Nick isn’t on board with the ‘don’t shoot him’ idea: he’s planning on killing the lot of you as soon as we leave.  We still have a lot to work on with him, I’m afraid…”  “As for you, young man, we’re going to have a long talk about this later!” Emily declared, shooing me back towards our settlement.


TemTek was as good as their legally enforceable mandate: by mid-afternoon ships were arriving to haul their employees and equipment off world at a rate that would have their withdrawal finished well before dinnertime.  Which was good, since dinner was shaping up to be a massive affair, with what seemed like every morph left on the planet trickling in to the settlement over the course of the afternoon.  “So what do you think?” Riverwash asked no one in particular as the four of us watched the last of the recently invading army disappear into the upper atmosphere.  “I think we need to enjoy the celebration, because the real work begins in earnest tomorrow…” Emily opined “We’ve got to start arranging for shipments of building materials to pick up where the war made them leave off, we’ve got to elect political ambassadors and trade negotiators to quick step us into the universal diplomatic community, for that matter we’ve got to set up a more organized planetary government and hold elections…”  “Start surveying out areas to begin outdoor agriculture, develop a proper city plan for the settlement, begin building proper houses, not to mention all the work to be done developing curriculum and opening the Academy…” Sandpaws picked up when Emily stopped to take a breath.  “Is it too late to move back into that shuttle of yours and become hermits?” Riverwash asked me seriously.  “I’m pretty sure they scrapped it already.” I mused “But I suppose we could go and take a look, we may get lucky…”

“I was thinking,” Emily began, ignoring Riverwash and I completely “You three don’t have to say yes, but I’d like it if you would hear me out, okay?”  “Sure, what’s on your mind?” I asked, the Chakat and I settling down immediately.  “There’s going to be a big party tonight in the colony to celebrate the birth of a new world, but, well, for the four of us the last few days have seen the beginnings of so much more.  We’re seeing the beginnings of our new home, sure, but there’s also been the beginning of a whole new family for all of us, and it’s really the beginning of a whole new life for Nick, and I thought that it would be special if we had our own little evening, just the four of us.”  The three of us thought it over quietly for a minute, then reached the unanimous, nonverbal agreement Emily had hoped for.  “I’ll start getting the picnicking supplies rounded up!” Emily laughed cheerfully “If Riverwash would give me a hand with that, and Nick and Sandpaws put together the non-food supplies, then we’ll be ready to go well before the fireworks!”  “Can I help with the food instead?” I asked hopefully.  “No dear, for two reasons.  First, I think we can all guess what we would end up finding when we unpacked for dinner.  And second, Riverwash can’t ever go into the kitchens without starting an argument with John…when he’s distracted it’s easy to get him to agree to things.”  “Ah, so it’s a tactical selection.” I nodded “I can yield gracefully to that option, I guess!”

“And on that note…” Sandpaws grinned, taking my hand in hir paw and guiding me towards the general direction of our apartments while Emily and Riverwash went the other way to the kitchens.  “You know,” I mused as we arrived at our front door “Now that things have calmed down we can do some remodeling, make this place a bit more livable…”  “Riverwash and I were hoping to build a place from scratch, actually.” Sandpaws explained “We could re-use quite a bit of these prefab dome units, but the end result really won’t have even a vague resemblance.  Now that you and Emily are definitely going to be a part of things, I’ll dig out the plans tomorrow so the two of you can make whatever additions you deem necessary, then we can all go out and start looking for a building site!”  “That actually sounds like a lot of fun.” I nodded encouragingly “I’ve not done any real backpacking in a long time, with school and everything that had been going on, I think I’d like the chance to be outside exploring for a while…”

Back inside our unit, Sandpaws went to locate hir and Riverwash’s packs while I got Emily and I’s down from the closet where, by sheer luck, I remembered them ending up.  “You know,” I mused idly “I’m a little confused by what Emily meant regarding me starting a whole new life.  Doesn’t that seem a bit overdramatic to you?”  “Not really.” Sandpaws explained as shi dug through the Chakat’s closet looking for a ground cloth or some such thing.  “Think about it, you are quite a number of light-years away from where you had been, instead of being a graduate student and eventually getting an office job in one of the mega-corps you’ve become an explorer and colonizer on a frontier world: instead of striving to a middle management position as another cog in the machine, your possibilities are wide open—you can be anything there is to be on this world, only limited by imagination and work ethic.  You’re not single, and no longer an afterthought member of an apathetic family.  You’re part of our den, you have Emily, Riverwash and I to be what family should be to you.  And best of all, you don’t have to furtively hide a huge part of who you are and what makes you happy!  I’d say beginning a new life is a fair description of the changes in your situation, don’t you?”  “I agree with you.” I nodded quietly “I’m just not sure if I’m going to laugh or cry or curl up in a ball and hide from it all…”  “That’s why we are having our own little celebration.  You can do whatever you need to, we will too, and everyone will be there to support each other.”  “I think I’d like that.”

With that decided, we set about the rounding up of what Sandpaws decreed to be completely essential picnicking supplies.  I had my doubts of the utility of some of the things shi set out to take, but Sandpaws made the valid point that shi had been on a great many more picnics than I have, so shi also had a much better idea about what we will and won’t need.  It didn’t really take all that long to find everything, and the next major challenge was diverting my attention from the Taur version of a backpack, which looked essentially like an equestrian set of saddle bags, with the addition of a number of straps and belts thrown into the mix for good measure.  “I never did get my pony ride.” I grumbled under my breath as I packed the portions of our supplies that Emily and I were to carry.  “What’s that, dear?” Sandpaws asked, having not been paying me any particular attention as shi worked to get the weight distribution in the ‘saddlebags’ to hir satisfaction.  “Nothing, I’m just thinking aloud a bit.” I reasoned as I finished my part of the packing.  Debating whither to pursue it or not, Sandpaws lost the thought upon the arrival of Riverwash and Emily with a rather significant sized pile of food.  “I thought it was only going to be us four.” I questioned, appraising their offering.  “It is only going to be us four.” Emily explained “Chakats need to have quite high caloric intakes in order to keep healthy…it takes a lot of food to run a body of that size!”  “Makes sense.” I agreed as the four of us began the task of dividing the newly arrived provisions up amongst the bags.

In fairly short order we had everything properly packaged away, and were taking a winding, but scenic trail up into the hills surrounding the settlement.  The area turned out to be really pretty, the native trees being somewhat analogous to the spruce trees back home, but after we gained a bit of elevation the grass from the valley was slowly replaced by a soft, pliant moss that would allow our footprints to sink almost an inch into it, only to spring back seconds later as if we had never been.  “I’m going to have to get Trevor to figure out how to grow this stuff down in the settlement!” I enthused “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a patch of this in our yard, once we dig the house out and have a yard…”  “I could get used to it.” Riverwash agreed, stretching hir toes out through the moss with a happy sigh.  We continued on for a ways more before by universal agreement we found the perfect spot for our gathering.  At the top of one of the hills, it was an outcropping of moss covered rock, with a nice backing of conifers behind us, and most importantly, a truly grand view of the settlement and valley below us.  “Perfect.” Emily nodded, summarizing each of our thoughts as one.

The decision having been made, we all set about our various tasks involved in the assembly of our little campsite.  A tarp tied to a tree limb made an impromptu roof over the food we had brought, taking care of my appointed task.  My three companions began setting up an odd sort of blanket/air mattress hybrid that was not something I’d ever seen before.  After activating a number of controls on the little box that attached to the mattress-thing, the whole contraption quickly inflated itself, gaining rigidity as it went, until we had a close approximation of the bowl shaped communal beds the Chakats preferred.  Experimentally pressing down on various areas of the bed, I discovered that it must have been made up of several different materials, allowing it to be equally solid everywhere, but have vastly different squishinesses.  And, on top of that, the control unit also apparently conditioned the air in the thing, allowing the various ‘sectors’ to be heated or cooled to their user’s personal preferences.  After finishing my inspection, I made no attempt to conceal my admiration of the engineering that must have gone into the product.  “If you like that, just wait until we order in a bed that isn’t a camping supply!” Sandpaws promised.  “I’m not waiting for anything.” I decided, taking off my boots and flopping into the bowl.  It was in fact just as nice as it looked, and in short order two Chakats and a fox morph had joined me.

“The sun is almost down.” Sandpaws observed “They’ll probably start the fireworks soon.  They were planning on doing them before dinner so if any of the cubs needed to go to bed early they would still be able to watch.”  “That was nice of them.” I nodded “But don’t be getting the idea I plan to go to bed soon…”  “Of course not.” Riverwash laughed “Nothing so easy, eh?”  I was beginning to provide a witty reply when a loud boom in the air announced the beginning of the evening’s entertainment.  The three of us quickly settled down to watch, only to have the display cut short after the first few.  The Chakats and I were looking at each other in confusion while Emily got one of the communicators and started listening in on the chatter for a few moments.  “They were just testing to make sure that everything was set up correctly.” Emily explained “There isn’t anything wrong, it’s just going to be a few minutes still.”  “That’s good then.” Sandpaws nodded cheerfully “It’s my turn to diaper the little boy, and since that’s kind of the beginning of the evening’s plans I was hoping to get it done before the fireworks started!”  I could see the logic behind that so I didn’t even give Sandpaws a hard time about stripping down and assuming my spot on the beach towel.  Sandpaws then took hir time about sorting through Emily’s backpack of changing supplies, selecting just the right this or that for the task, until finally it was time for me to “Lift up your bottom a bit, little one…”

Cooperating with Sandpaws’ instructions as well as I could, shi slipped a clean diaper under me, then allowed me to lie back down.  Then, selecting a jar of powder from several in the backpack, Sandpaws sprinkled on a generous helping on my diaper area, rubbing it in to my skin a bit for good measure.  Folding up the front of the diaper, shi fastened the tapes and announced it “Ready to go.”.  Producing my almost-jammies from last night, Sandpaws instructed me to step into the pants, then gave me a bit of help pulling the shirt down over my head.  In short order I was completely ready for a well dressed play date in the woods.  “Very nice!” Emily joked as she and Riverwash gave Sandpaws and I a round of applause.  “Why thank you!” shi laughed, giving a mock curtsey before resuming hir seat.  For my part, I promptly snuggled up next to Emily, subtly hinting that it would be a good time for us to consider breaking out the food for dinner.  So of course the fireworks began in earnest a few moments later, filling the night sky with noise, color, and light.  It was quite an impressive display, the morphs were going all-out with their celebration, our celebration, and after everything that the colony had been through I would be the last person to begrudge them the privilege or the optimism. 

We ‘ooh-ed’ and ‘ah-ed’ for the better part of two hours before they finally ran out of fireworks.  We were far enough up the mountain that we couldn’t hear the sounds of the party going on below us, but we could certainly make out the forms of the revelers around the large bonfire that had been built up in the central area of the settlement.  “Can we have dinner too?” I asked hopefully.  “Yes dear, I think food would be appropriate now.” Emily laughed as everyone began to unpack dinner: a very appetizing but rather pot-luck looking affair.  “The kitchen was putting out a little bit of everything we’re set up to make.” Riverwash explained, seeing my mildly confused look “And since it all smelled so good Emily and I took a little bit of everything!”  With such a varied selection it was easy for everyone to find something that they felt like eating, and we quickly dug in.

It was a lively meal, with Emily and the Chakats having an excited discussion about the preliminary work that needed to be done to lay the groundwork for the Academy I had been hearing about since I had met her.  They of course had three different ideas of how things should proceed, yet the conversation remained productively light.  I mostly did my best to listen and eat at the same time, since there wasn’t much at all being said that I had any kind of working knowledge about.  It didn’t help that the food was all so damn good, and I kept discovering that I had missed large chunks of conversation while occupied with whatever had most recently found its way onto my plate.  As good as the food was and as hungry as we were, in a long time or a short time the meal began winding down to just the conversation part while they repacked the leftovers and settled in to the puffy inflatable-tent thing.  “It’s getting a little bit cold…” I observed.  “Ah, wait for it!” Riverwash laughed, pushing a button on the inflatable’s small control panel.  Immediately a light breeze of warm air began to emit from hidden collapsible ducting along the floor, quickly doing a very efficient job of moderating the temperature towards something a bit more pleasant.  “There we go!” Shi announced “And if it gets any colder we can always put the walls up too.  I’d rather wait until we have to though, I always enjoy watching the stars when I have a chance!”  “Me too.” I agreed, snuggling up a bit deeper against Emily’s side.  She popped a paci in my mouth as everyone settled down into a fluffy fur-pile, conversation trickling off as we were all content to just watch our neighbors down the hill celebrate around the bonfire.

Even the revelry of the newly-hopeful ran its course some time into the wee hours of the morning, the last shapes remaining around the dwindling fire putting it out in a whoosh of steam and ash before retiring to their respective cabins.  I was grudgingly going to suggest we consider packing up and heading back down, but discovered that the Chakats were asleep already, curled up in each other’s paws.  Truth be told I was pretty tired myself, and wouldn’t mind not worrying about things until the morning either.  Emily and I scooted over to the far end of our tent-bowl so we could whisper without waking Sandpaws and Riverwash while we were stargazing.  “I almost can’t believe that we did it.” Emily mused “All the fighting, all the hardships and fears, risks and dangers….but we did it.  It’s ours, morphs finally have a place.  Somewhere of our very own…”  “So what do we do now?” I wondered.  “Now?  Now we become the founders of a new world.”

To Be Continued…


Chakats, and the Chakat Universe blatantly stolen from Brenard Doove, of the Chakat’s Den.  His playground fascinated me, and bits and pieces from this story arc  have been adopted from his universe.  Please bare in mind that nothing  in my works is cannon with anything in his universe. I just found the  species he created compelling enough to want to work with myself. I do  not know if Mr. Doove is BabyFur friendly, and it would be impolite to  badger him about it