Oracle, Arizona

Practice, Rip Curl

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Practice

Maya: 300

 

     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.

Rip Curl

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.

Need to Know, Digs

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Need to Know

Planet Maya: 300

 

     Brrda knew whe had a hidden agenda. Several, in fact. But the Twin’s folks needed to hear it from a human, and a human needed protection between enclosures. Whe sucked a tender fiber of rabbit meat from behind a fang and nibbled. Whe kept wher mind veiled. Anybody who could talk to Maya could probably read wher like krav tracks.

     Gracious’ braid swung behind her as she scrubbed the bowls and stewpot. Leftovers had gone with the young families. One less meal prep was a blessing for inexperienced parents. Her armpits prickled, just a little. Was Brrda watching her? Closely? She shrugged the idea off. They weren’t even the same species. To Brrda, she was only half there.

     “Gracious?”

     See? That was a problem. The growly thrumming way her name sounded in wher voice made it impossible to keep her thinking properly dressed. She kept her back turned and tried to sound casual. “Ya?”

     “Whe have to visit civilization and talk to the Twins’ parents. Whe can’t just let their cubs disappear without a trace.” Whe tugged at a few tight small curls on wher neck under wher goatee. Whe noticed wher own nervous habit.

     Gracious turned. That was going to be a tough conversation. Most civilized people didn’t know custodians existed. They certainly didn’t know Maya was sentient and running a breeding program in a quarantined zoo. “Are whe going to pretend whe’re a projection?”

     Wher nails ticked on the glossy table in jazzy triples. “If whe have to. Whe’d prefer a real human. Someone they already trust.” The drumming stopped. “Whe’d prefer you.”

     Looney Annie Gracious, matriarch, weaver, and speaker to Maya blushed head to toe. So much for ignoring it.

     Brrda’s nostrils flared.

     Neither could keep veils up after that. It was obvious as air. Whey agreed entirely about many very consequential, very personal, very public, and very impossible things.

     “I’ll pack my travel kit,” she said. Gracious saw those velvety black lines between wher shoulders stand up. May I? She asked. The standing lines traveled up wher neck and down wher back.

     That was a yes.

     Gracious traced the lines, gently as training spiders.

     Brrda purred.

     “Jumping Maya Hernandez Gareth and Daniel,” she murmured.  

     Whe huff-chuckled. “Do you know how hard it is to freak out a pride of wherfolk?” Wher mane fluffed. “Whe might just succeed.”

Digs

Earth: Launch + 5

 

     The food was good again, and that cheered La’ii up. It also kept her mouth full long enough for her to think. It wasn’t Leor’s fault, or Gareth’s or Dr. Hernandez’s. So far away from everyone, every place, every time she ever knew it was probably better to cooperate.

     Leor sat next to her wolfing loaded tortillas and boggling his mind about how impossible it would be to program a kitchen table to print it.

     They sat in a rock ring, the boy hustling food and water to them from the rock and fire kitchen. Merina and Duan hung back, delivering food to people she hadn’t seen yet. Gareth and Dr. Hernandez, lean and grizzled, waited patiently.

     The boy handed her another serving.

     “What’s your name?” she asked.

     “Freddo.” He turned and scooted away.

     “Are they afraid of us?” piped Leor.

     Gareth shrugged. “Afraid? No. Cautious, yes.”

     Dr. Hernandez rubbed the back of his hand with two fingers. “Strangers usually mean attack or disease. They’re quarantining and prepping for defense.”

     “Most don’t really believe I’m from the future,” added Gareth.”It’s just a story to them. They haven’t seen me jump.”

     Leor got didactic. “Dr. Hernandez’s future. Our past.” He hummed as he chewed.

     The doctor smiled. “Call me Pinch. I haven’t been a Pee Aych Dee for twenty years.”

     “Pee Aych Dee?” The Twins spoke simultaneously.

     The elder man turned up his empty palms. “An obsolete educational status marker. What matters now is these people are safe, sheltered, and fed.”

     “How many of you are there?” La’ii wondered.

     The men got vague, fast.

     Gareth volunteered, “Your clothes are high quality spider silk. Better than we could do in my time, but definitely from Planet Maya. I believe you. But these people’s lives are at stake and as far as we know, there aren’t many survivor groups on Earth.”

     Dr. Her… Pinch finished for him. “We treat you like any non-threatening, apparently healthy strangers. We hide everything and keep our distance until we can be sure.”

     “Fair enough.” Leor wiped his face with his hand and wiped his hand on his pant leg. “What if we were threatening or sick?”

     Pinch’s eyes drilled. “You’d be dead already.”

     La’ii’s eyes flickered to Gareth’s. His look confirmed the truth. “How long do you think you can keep them all alive?”

     Gareth’s voice lowered. “Not long enough to rebuild.”

     “The fungus flares up in any crowded environment. Humanity may be limited to small bands from now on. If any of us are immune. If immunity is genetic. If genetic immunity is a dominant trait. If small bands can mate and produce fertile offspring carrying dominant genetic immunity faster than recessive traits gang up in the dwindling genetic resources of the population.”

     She might call him Pinch, but he was definitely still Dr. Hernandez. “Looney Annie Gracious…”

     Leor interrupted in a parenthetical tone of voice. “Something like a priestess. Seems to have access to Sappho’s computer information or Planet Maya as an intelligent entity.”

     “Probably both,” said La’ii. “Annie Gracious sent us to bring you back to Planet Maya. We’re not sure why. We went to ask about the Looney plans to protect their people from the Apocalypse.”

     “…Hoping, if they had a plan, civilized people could be saved as well,” elaborated Leor.

     “…But as soon as she told us she wanted us to gather you two…”

     “…We disappeared…”

     “…And landed here.” La’ii finished.

     Gareth nodded. “I had a bit of a theory that when variables settled into a configuration that made what had to happen for the timeline to function possible, I jumped. Never had control of it, though. Never had a chance to experiment at all.”

     Pinch leaned forward. “This was your first jump?”

     They nodded.

     “Do you have the slightest idea how to get back?”

     Negative head shakes with cascading sunset highlights.

     “Do you have the slightest idea how to take us with you?”

     Negative again.

     Everybody folded their fingers and dropped their faces.

     Gareth broke the silence. “You’re going to have to practice.”