It was going to be messy. Whe had to think of Gracious as “she”. That’s what she preferred, and that’s what was accurate. To wherfolk, gender identification was deeply intimate conversation. To wherfolk, people were literally zoo animals: physically truncated, primitive, insensitive, incapable of complex reasoning. It was going to be messy.
“Whe’re lucky I know whe don’t believe that about me.”
Her braid swung as she hiked beside wher. Her skin flushed deeper. Whe looked closer. It wasn’t only the exercise. Fine hairs between her cheekbones and jawline had changed angles. Probably strong negative emotions. “Whe’m sorry,” whe growled. “Whe forgot you could hear now.”
I’m an Annie. I talk to Maya. It took effort not to hear wher when wher shields were up. Now? She shrugged.
Whe sent an image of the three enclosures and a double helix.
Yup. Zoos. Separated breeding populations. She sent an image of the rest of the planet, richly and densely populated with wherfolk and several other sentient species above ground, below ground, under water, and in the air. She added emphasis to the no-go zone around the human enclosures. She colored it with a sense of understanding it was probably for the best.
Brrda’s moustache twitched. “Has Maya told you the purpose of the breeding program?”
“No.” Gracious shook her head, and the braid rocked between her shoulder blades.
An image of a golden brindle wherfolk’s mane rocking in obvious ecstasy escaped Brrda’s mind. Wher velvety lines stood up on wher neck. Traces of orange flashed in the lines on wher cheeks.
Gracious blushed. “Do whe know the purpose of the breeding programs?”
“No.” Whe smoothed the orange lines down.
She sent a close-up image of the sable neck lines colored with her urge to trace them slowly with her nails. The sable on Brrda’s body delineated from wher nape, past wher slung weapons, and down to the backs of wher thighs. I thought that’s what the sable lines meant. She could feel Brrda’s purr thrumming in her chest. I’m going to ignore that until wher thinking about wherfolk’s opinions of me clears up. What whe’ll face leaves no quarter for doubt.
You said “whe’ll”. The purring intensified.
She felt it travel, deliciously, through her breasts and below her belly. That is hardly fair. She plucked the tie from the end of her braid. Her waving mane sprang loose, falling to her waist, clouding around her shoulders, spilling over her pack, trailing across her features. “Now that you can’t concentrate either, how much do we tell Xochi?”
Brrda blinked. Who? Who?
La’ii’s mother appeared in the air before wher. Above her, the binary suns glared. Around her enclosure, Custodians poured food paste and minerals into the systems. Gracious herself, as Loonie Annie Gracious, pontificated Expansions and mystic truths. La’ii was in a design on Gracious’ new robe, but nowhere else.
“Ah, Xochi.” The purring took on a more gentle, pondering tone. “What do you suggest?”
Gracious, if she’d been constructed for it, would have purred.
Earth: Launch + 5
Pinch sounded almost apologetic. “These are your quarantine quarters.”
It was a pit. Peeking lower into the entrance, La’ii saw it was a pit house at least. There was a hearth, some stumps to sit on, a rough ceramic jug of water, and an area walled off with a hanging blanket. She reached out a hand. The hearth was warm.
Leor also saw how well designed it was. Lined with timber, a central pole held up a dry brushy roof. It would be very, very easy to collapse the whole thing and burn them both to ashes inside.
La’ii followed his eyes along the rafters and saw the log set as leverage between the central pole and the roof. It was both sturdy and rigged to collapse.
Together they gaped up at his dark silhouette.
The older man shrugged. “That’s why they call me pinché. Quarantine is three days. We’ll bring food, water, and fuel regularly. If you can both answer simple questions coherently, we’ll roll open the entrance long enough for you to bring out the empties and the chamber pot. If you’re incoherent, if it looks like you’re climbing the beam, if you work to escape, if I don’t like the smell in there, I incinerate you both.” His face wrenched in sympathy for an instant. “We believe you and you are honored guests.”
Gareth laid his weight into the boulder by the entrance. “Practice if you can.” Pinch added his weight, and the rock rolled into place.
“Well, Daniel.” La’ii’s fists jammed into her hips as she looked at the back side of the boulder.
“Hey, it’s cozy in here!” Leor called from behind the blanket. He turned and faced her, sheepish. “So cozy there’s only one bed.”
She managed to fold herself, her arms, and her legs up on a stump all at once. Her nostrils flared above an imperious chin. “I’m not Expanding. Not on a blue sky disease infested alien planet Sappho only knows how distant in how many dimensions from home without a Reading while locked in a dirt pit waiting to see if they incinerate me before I accidentally die flitting through time. Sappho crashing spider smashing no.”
Her thoughts were so turbulent they were turbid. All he could read was a swirling mass of refusal. He knelt on the dirt floor in front of her. “Shall I split up the bedding and sleep out here?” A glimmer of waking up next to him yesterday in Brrda’s cave flashed through her mind. Her chin dropped and her hair slipped down off her shoulders into her lap. He reached his hand near hers without touching. “May I?” Her fingers stretched just enough to make contact. He waited, feeling her mind settle, feeling her enjoy the texture of his fingertips, feeling her mask her enjoyment, feeling her organize her thoughts behind the whirlpool of refusal. He waited. He kept his own mind very, very quiet very, very carefully.
She whispered. “I want to be near you. I don’t want to Expand.”
“Deal,” he said. “Let’s get some sleep.”
They ducked behind the curtain, circled a bit, and fell asleep curled together like kittens.