Light on Shattered Water
Shouts rose as Rris engineers carefully raised the engine assembly onto the heavy carriage that'd move it out into the slush-crusted courtyard for its first test. Eight Rris wearing odd-looking padded gloves hauled at the chains on the tackles that lifted the engine while a dozen more nudged it this way and that to make sure it sat properly. Chaeitch bustled around like an expectant father, making sure nothing was dropped or jolted.
"Will it work?" Rraerch asked.
"I don't see why it won't," I said, trying to put on a braver front than I felt; there was so much that could go wrong and probably would.
"Another day and we find out," she snorted, then hugged herself, ruffling the fur of her upper arms. The weight of the cast-iron and copper engine settled on the carriage. I frowned as wood creaked, but it held. Rris yowled satisfaction. At least they'd been paying attention: there'd been an accident that morning when a male broke his hand with a hammer. Just missed the rivet it turned out. Careless, and it was just one of a spate of accidents we'd had in the past couple of days, all caused by distraction and carelessness, all avoidable. And I didn't know where Chaeitch was. He should've been there to help with his pet project, but there was no sign of him. Nobody seemed particularly worried by his absence though, so I put it to the back of my mind and stuck to business. There was no way he'd miss the first trial of his engine.
Took most of the day to get everything ready. By evening the engine was secured and double-checked to make sure nothing had worked loose. The first test would be early the next morning and hopefully that would let us find any bugs and iron them out before we had to present the thing before the nobility and patrons.
Once those final checks were done there wasn't much else any of us could do but wait for morning, so that day they let me go early. It was barely dark as Rraerch walked with me and my escort to the carriage waiting in the dockyard forecourt. "I'll see you tomorrow then," she said, then flashed a smile tinted with a glimpse of her teeth. "Oh, there's something I've been wanting to ask you," something slapped across my backside. Startled, I glanced down to see her tail flicking back. "What's it like not having a tail?"
"I've never had one, so it's hard to compare. What is it like having one?" Her tail came back for another swat and this time I caught it, tugged lightly and her eyes widened and it whipped out of my hands, feeling like a silk bottlebrush whisking through my fingers. "Sorry," I apologized, feeling I'd transgressed.
"No. My blame," she said, looking me up and down with a peculiar expression.
"What?" I asked.
"No matter," she said, then chittered and batted my arm. "Tomorrow?"
"I'll be here," I assured her.
On the ride back I sat and stared at the shapes moving outside the glass. There was more noise at that hour of day: shouting and traffic, animals protesting, vendors advertising their wares at the top of their lungs. I had other things occupying my mind, nagging worries about the engine. It should work, there was no reason it shouldn't. But supposing it didn't? There was so much that could go wrong, there were so many little details that weren't available to me. The diameter of the condenser line, the cylinder drainage valves, tolerance on the piston... they all gnawed at me.
In my rooms I opened the laptop and set a Pink Floyd selection playing on random shuffle, just to chase away the silence, then went and ran a bath. It helped untie some of the knots, just soaking in that warmth and darkness, the Dark Side of the Moon drifting in from the other room. Wind picked up outside and rattled the windows. It hadn't been the longest day, but it'd been stressful and I was glad of the chance to unwind, the first I'd had for a while. I just leaned back and listened to the wind and water, trying not to think about anything.
It was too soon when the music finished and the water grew cold. I splashed out onto the freezing tiles, wrapped a coarse towel around my waist and made for the warmth of the fire in the next room. It was dark through there, the feeble light cast by the gas lamps didn't reach the corners, leaving corners and blotches of darkness. The bright glow of embers in the hearth was a lot more inviting.
I nearly hit the roof at the sound of the unexpected voice. I turned to see the fur on my bed moving and standing up and eyes reflecting firelight. "Sir?" the Rris asked again in a small voice.
"Who... who are you?" And what are you doing on my bed?
"Hych, Sir," the stranger stepped forward and ducked its head. Dark earthen fur, mottled with black patches, amber eyes, ears notched and the tip missing from the left one. Something hanging from a slender gold chain around its neck glinted in the light. Female, by the two rows of teats showing above the small russet kilt around her waist. Didn't look dangerous. Would the guards have let her in if she was? Did they know she was here? Why was she here?
"Okay. Hych. What are you doing here?"
Closer still. A hesitation, then another step. She wasn't looking at my face when she reached out and I froze like a rabbit caught in headlights, aware of her claws and my skin and the fact I was wearing nothing but a towel. Her furry fingertips brushed my chest and claws kissed my skin in a slow scratch across my chest, down my ribs before I jerked away. She started and seemed at a loss, then reached down and fumbled with her kilt.
"What are you..."
Let the garment fall to the floor.
"... doing," I finished lamely and she stood there in nothing but fur and firelight, the half-light turning her alien body into a caricature of a person: twisted limbs and musculature like an ill-seen dream, like something that had been stalking my sleep for uncounted nights. The bones in her pelvis were odd as she canted her hips; I realised her pubic fur had been trimmed short. Her lambent eyes flickered up to meet mine for a second before darting aside, a furtive look at my groin, then she turned away and in a single graceful motion knelt on the carpet by the fire, rear raised and her tail sweeping aside as she spread her legs.
I gaped, a lurch of tightness in my guts. "Oh, Jesus Christ! Get up! Dammit! Get up! Now!"
She stood and now looked confused and not a little scared. "Sir?"
"Is that all you can say? Look, what are you doing..." I stopped myself; That was obvious enough. "Please, why did you come here?"
"His Lordship sent me," she said, then added in a small voice, "You aren't satisfied with me?"
"No. I mean, I'm sure great you are... you are... Look, I just don't want to... mate with you. I think you don't want to with me either."
She flinched. "I want whatever you think is best."
"Shit!" I sighed and circled her to sit myself on the edge of the bed. "Look, I think it's best that you leave."
Her eyes widened and she glanced at the door. I realised that she'd been sent here; if she was turned down someone might think she'd done something wrong. Would they reprimand her? They might send another.
"It's not you," I told her. "I am just... tired. Not in the mood."
"Ah." She ducked her head and fumbled at her necklace, removing the locket: a tiny glass vial that she offered. "Do you need this?"
I warily took it: a few drops of a cloudy fluid inside. Curiosity got the better of me. "What is it?" I popped the top. "Christ on a... What IS this?!" Smelt like cat piss.
It was. Urine, she said. I hastily returned it and she looked shocked. "Sir? It doesn't arouse you?"
"No." It certainly didn't. "If you hadn't noticed, I'm not Rris. Now please..." I gestured at the door. "I'll explain what happened. Not your fault."
The look of relief that crossed her face was indescribable and quickly covered again. She didn't stop to argue, just grabbed her kilt and made for the door. I watched it close behind her and sat there, still staring as I tried to come to grips with what was going on inside. What she'd been sent here to do... it was... it was something I'd felt for Chihirae, but it was something I couldn't bring myself to follow through with. Sex with a Rris; It was a ridiculous thought, halfway between ludicrous and repellent in my mind. Something that couldn't happen and yet... Chihirae... I wished it had and berated myself for a fool.
Across at my laptop I overrode the screensaver and looked at the desktop and the picture there: smooth skin, the curves in the right places. THAT was a woman. What had just been in my rooms, that wasn't... it wasn't a human. It was female, but it wasn't... it wasn't a woman.
I shuddered and for a second it was Jackie I was picturing crouching and presenting to me, Chihirae kneeling with a flash of organic pink under her tail. What was down there wasn't the same as a human woman's. Frustrations and hormones making the urge unbearable: back in the bathroom I masturbated, groaned at the pictures spinning in my head as I finished, afterward leaned my head in my hands and sat panting and shivering and spent before retreating to my cold bed.
I cried that night, while the wind rattled the windows and the paintings kept their opinions to themselves.
A crisp, cold spring morning. A chill morning sun turned the sky over the lake salmon pink, bathing the clouds over the city in soft light, turning them to cliffs of gray and orange mist. Columns of smoke rose from hundreds of chimneys, reaching almost vertically into the sky to merge into a faint haze.
I'd found a patch of morning sun in the lee of a cradle holding a dry-docked fishing boat, looking out over the water to the far bank upriver and the activity there. Rris were distant figures bustling through the riverside marketplace, their fur and clothes blending into a multi-hued visual cacophony. Smoke drifted up from open fires at stalls and shops where food was being cooked. Morning sunlight glittered off windows, the occasional patch of snow still clinging to rooftop tiles that glistened slate black and clay red. Further upstream I could see one of the bridges that linked the two halves of the city, wagons and foot traffic rumbling across it in a steady stream. Rris were busy around the wharves and the boats tied there, their masts creating a forest of timbers, cross-spars and ropes. The sounds of tools and Rris voices carried faintly across the water. I hunched down into the warmth of my jacket, hands jammed into my pockets.
The previous night preyed on my thoughts. This wasn't my home; It never would be. I didn't understand why they'd done that, I didn't understand what she'd been talking about. It wasn't sane, it wasn't the way I thought.
How much went on in those furry heads that was just incomprehensible to me?
"Something interesting?" Rraerch stepped up beside me, her ears pricked up and arms crossed, ruffling and rubbing at the fur of her upper arms like a human might on a cold day.
"Just looking. Is it a celebration day?"
"What?" she squinted at the activity over on the far bank. "Oh, no that's just the morning market."
"It happens every day?"
"Yes. You didn't know?"
"I don't get out much."
She turned and looked up at me, cocking her head. "Are you all right? You seem... quiet."
"I didn't sleep very well."
"Oh, well, I think we were all worried. You do have a lot riding on this though." Her muzzle pursed in an expression of confusion. "I would have though you'd be anxious to see if the engine works, not standing here staring at a river."
That wasn't what I... never mind. I nodded. "You're right. Has Chaeitch shown up yet?"
"A few minutes ago."
The engine was set up over near the workshop. The carriage it was mounted on was chained to the ground while Rris were still stacking cords of wood nearby. Chaeitch was doing a last minute check on the cylinder valves, something that'd already been done at least five times. He looked around at the sound of my boots, "There you are."
"He was watching the river," Rraerch said.
He cocked his head and scratched at a tufted cheek. "No interest in this?"
"No, it's not that. I... I don't..." I sighed, then shivered in my Rris-made jacket. "It doesn't matter." I forced a smile then, "Shall we get this show on the road?"
"I mean, shall we start?"
"Why didn't you say so?"
They wouldn't let either me nor Chaeitch near the thing. A Rris laborer had drawn the short straw for stoking, other capable Rris watching the pressure, the valves and cylinder. The firebox was stoked and lit off, a steady trickle of smoke started leaking from the stack. Low pressure test, the needle barely nudging a quarter of the way around the dial with its Rris gradient: blue to orange. Pipes creaked and trembled, but they held. The piston in its cylinder rocked, trembled, didn't move. Yelps of alarm rose when a young Rris jumped in and leaned its weight on the drive wheel and the piston started to move.
I heard metal grind, then a sound like a giant's sniff and a gout of steam vented: the piston started its return journey, picking up speed and turning the wheel. The Rris at the main steam line tapped it, bleeding pressure to hold the speed at about half a cycle per second. The engine sputtered and leaked steam and water, but it ran, better than I'd expected it to.
A hand grabbed my arm and I gasped as claws sank in. "Shave me, Mikah! It works!" Chaeitch yelled up at me, seeming like every piece of fur on his face was erect with jubilation. "It works!"
"Chae!" I winced in pain. "My arm!" and he looked confused, then shocked. "Saa! Rot it! I forgot. I didn't mean..." he babbled as he tried to unhook his claws. There was a moment of confusion, the engine almost forgotten as guards hastened toward me and I tried to assure them nothing was wrong while Chaeitch tried to disengage his claws. I was bleeding, I was sure of it, but I wasn't about to check and the shirt was dark enough to hide any patches.
Steam pressure was increased and the engine picked up speed, settling down to a smooth pattern. The gauge was under the halfway mark when the wheel being driven by the piston developed a bobble. There was a snapping noise, then a loud Spang! and a whistling shriek and panicked yells from Rris as a sheet of steam poured out of the boiler. It singed the tail of the Rris on the pressure gauge before he got clear and the steam wafted in eddies, then quickly dissipated. The piston sighed to a stop.
Forlorn wisps of steam continued to puff out of the damaged seal. There was a silence, into which I said, "Shit."
A chuckle from Rraerch, "I couldn't have put it better myself."
It was that seal again. The engine worked, better than we'd expected, but the materials just couldn't cut it. The bronze had just sheared away from the rivets, and that was at quite low pressure. If it'd been stoked up, a larger surface area to the boiler, and with everything properly insulated we'd be able to draw a lot more pressure, but there was no way the current equipment could hold that.
Everything considered, it was an educational morning. We had a product that was superior to the current Rris engine, enough so that it'd make an impression on the brass. All that had to be done was refine it enough that it didn't blow its stack when the pressure was turned up.
The man who'd had his tail singed by the steam hadn't received anything worse than a few blisters, light compared with what could have happened. Excited Rris workers set about tidying up the mess and returning the engine to the workshop. Rraerch stayed to watch as it was moved and was pleased to hear that repairs wouldn't be difficult. She patted my arm in way of congratulations before going to report to her own superiors and leaving us to our work. I didn't feel nearly as elated as I suppose I should have.
Workers were already working at unloading the engine from the carriage, the sound of hammers pounding on sheet metal and rivets filling the shed when Chaeitch took me back to his office. We spent time talking about how the seams could be strengthened, the most practical solution being to get the planing machines finished, then machining proper screw threads and pipes from iron. He wasn't sure we'd have time for that, so we looked into reinforcing what we had. There was also the question of the copper piping around the seams. The copper ore the Rris could provide wasn't as pure as it could've been, so it was a great deal more brittle. By further refining the ore could be purified further, but the conventional Rris technique took money and time. Something better would have to be found.
I sat on a cushion at Chaeitch's desk and listened while the Rris mechanic listed options. Not well enough, I guess: My mind kept drifting back to things that happened in the night and I flinched when Chaeitch asked a question and I realised I hadn't heard. "Sir?"
He stopped, studied me intently for a few second while an ear twitched, then he said, "Mikah, you've been very quiet all day. I'd have thought that seeing that engine going would have roused something out of you. Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," I said, then hesitated. "Chaeitch, can I ask you... I have a problem."
He cocked his head, then laughed. "You're asking me? I thought you were the one everyone went to with problems."
"Chaeitch, please. Can we talk?"
"Sure." He stood and went over to a cabinet, returning with a bottle and a couple of glasses. "Maybe this will help."
He poured and I sipped. It did, a warm path that hit bottom and warmed from the inside out. Then he asked, "What's this about?"
"I'm sorry... I find this difficult. Ah, last night... a woman came to my room. A Rris."
"That surprises you?"
"She was sent to have sex with me."
"Ah." He rubbed his jaw, glanced down and back to my face again. "Did you enjoy yourself?"
"No." I shook my head. "I didn't do anything. I didn't know what was happening. I still don't. Chaeitch, what the fuck's going on? People... they are saying things I don't understand. Rris out there," I waved in the general direction of the workshop, "are acting like... I don't know what's the matter with them. And Rraerch has been acting strangely every time she talks to me." I swirled my drink, watching the ripples. "She thinks it's funny."
He stared, looking taken aback. "It's spring."
"What does that have to do with anything?"
He sat still and I saw his pupils dilate, shock. "You really don't know?"
"No, I don't." I was getting sick of this. Why couldn't someone give me a straight answer?
He coughed and looked down at his drink, then chittered laughter. "Rot me, Mikah. It's spring. You don't have [something]?"
"What's that word?"
He lounged back in his cushion and laughed again, then told me what that word was and explained other things.
Rut. Estrus. Heat. Rris females came into season during spring, the time of year when they could get pregnant. They didn't have any choice about it, apparently: when spring rolled around they got very randy. The males responded to this and it was the only time of year when they could become physically aroused. They responded to scents... pheromones... he wasn't clear exactly what, but spring was a time Rris enjoyed. There were holidays and celebrations and festivals off and on for several weeks. The wine flowed freely, Chaeitch joked.
That time long ago when Chihirae had asked if we could have sex any time we wanted to; that was what she had been talking about. No wonder they were distracted. I glanced at the bottle on the desk. Wine flows freely? Not around here it doesn't. Do I ever get a holiday? Sometime in the foreseeable future?
Females, he told me, they could feel arousal at other times through the year, but spring was the only time when males could get it up. That was where Chaeitch had been the other day, with a ladyfriend.
"So when is your season?" Chaeitch asked.
"We don't have one."
His ears flicked. "I'm not sure I heard that correctly. You said you don't..."
"Have one," I finished. "I am... I suppose a bit like your females. My kind are... in season all the time."
This time his ears went down and he stared in disbelief. "What do you mean? You can mate whenever you want?"
"Uh, yes. Within limits."
"Rot me," he chittered. "How can you do anything. As soon as a male and female get together..." he made a gesture with both hands that was very human in its vulgarity.
"It's not like that." I shook my head. "That's what happens with you?"
"Ah," he took another sip. "The females... when you smell them, it is like a [something] in your nose." He tapped the bridge of his muzzle with a fingertip. "Gunpowder in your brain. The erections can become uncomfortable after a while." He looked at me and chittered laughter again. "That female in your rooms last night, she probably couldn't understand why she couldn't get a reaction out of you."
She'd got a reaction, all right. It just probably wasn't what she'd been expecting. I took another drink, then thought back over what he'd said. "You can only mate once a year?"
"For a few weeks, usually. There are ways around it... there are drugs that arouse a male out of season, but they're expensive and it's not quite the same." Then he pursed his muzzle and looked thoughtful. "What's it like for you? Being able to mate whenever you want, how do you get anything done?"
The conversation continued in the same vein for a while longer. I learned. Things no one else had told me, questions no one had answered were explained. Had Chihirae thought I was like Rris males? Was that why she was so confused about some of my behavior? What had she been expecting of me?
And what had I been expecting of her? Human emotions? Deep down, I think I had been.
Chaeitch got up for a refill, then ambled over to the dirty little office window. A peculiar tableau: the Rris standing there sipping at his drink. "I'd never thought about your questions," he said.
"I don't understand."
"Huhn. We ask you questions by the hundreds. I'd never thought you might have some of your own. How much don't you know?"
I laughed at that and he looked startled, then almost rueful. "That could have been worded better, couldn't it. I mean: you have been in town two... nearly three months now. How much do you know about us?"
"Not as much as I would like to," I said and a hope grew that I might finally have a chance to be heard. "I'd like to learn more. I'd like to see some of Shattered Water and Rris. Your town, work, art and your life. I don't get many chances."
He was about to answer when a scratching at the door interrupted him. A guard. "Sir. I'm sorry to intrude, we have to take him," a hand gestured at me, "back to the palace."
Chaeitch looked surprised. "Now?"
"Yes sir. Orders from his Highness."
Chaeitch snorted. "I suppose I can't argue with that. Mikah, I will see you later then."
I sighed and got up, stooping to leave my cup on the desk. The guard's ears went down at that. What had he/she been told about me and alcohol? There were more guards waiting downstairs, a carriage out in the forecourt. Again an anonymous pair of guards sat and watched me as the carriage bounced and rattled its way through the streets.
I ignored them, mulling over what I'd learned that morning, over what it meant to me.
Hirht and Kh'hitch were waiting for me in the king's offices: a smaller room more suited to informal meetings than that huge white marble office. There were windows opening out onto the palace's central atrium garden, walls draped with tapestries and paintings that seemed to exude a feeling of age and the scent of oils and fabrics. Under the elaborate rugs the floor was polished wood. In the sunlight shining in through the windows was a low circular table laid with a few trays of meat and pastries, surrounded by plush embroidered cushions. Kh'hitch had a scribe's kit at his place: a clipboard affair with a few sheaves of paper, a quill holder and an inkwell with a weighted base.
"I hear your little project down at the shipyards is coming along," Hirht said after I'd settled myself on the cushion placed opposite. "Any problems?"
He was sitting with his back to the window, sunlight behind his shoulder haloing his fur in a nimbus of white light, being shattered into a hundred pieces by the facets of the cut crystal goblet in his hand.
"Nothing serious so far," I said. There was a small ceramic bowl at each place, filled with what seemed to be water. For drinking?
Kh'hitch delicately reached out and speared a morsel with a clawtip. "There was a problem, wasn't there? It exploded?" He popped the mouthful, chewed a couple of times and swallowed.
"It worked, sir. It didn't explode. A seam... broke. We were expecting something like that to happen and it is easily fixed. In fact, it worked better than I had thought it would."
"Much of an improvement over the current engines?" Hirht asked. He was watching me intently.
"I think so."
I shrugged, watched Kh'hitch devour another piece of meat. It looked raw: blood stained his fingertip. He dipped them into the bowl at his side, the water turning pink. "Sir, we weren't trying to see how much strength we could get from it. It was a test to see if it would work at all. We could not try it... not as fast as it can go. We fix part, then try again."
"I see." Hirht glanced at Kh'hitch and scratched at his forearm. Still in a thick winter pelt I noticed. That'd be getting hot soon. "When will you know?"
Again I shrugged, a habit I've still not been able to break. "We can fix the joins, then try again. From what I saw I think it is better than your machines."
Hirht steepled his fingers and leaned back. "Rraerch felt the same. What about the new tools and materials? Will they help?"
I hesitated. "Probably not on this one. Later engines, they will be better." Could probably use the current engine to test new valves and so forth.
"Mikah, how many of your kind did you say there are?"
The change in tack was unexpected. "Sir?"
Kh'hitch said, "Your kind: there are a lot of them, aren't there."
Compared with Rris. "Yes."
Hirht reached out and a single clawtip flicked the rim of the fingerbowl on the table before him. "Mikah, there are a lot of skilled craftsmen in Shattered Water. They make everything from our clothes to wagons and tools we use and at the last [something] there were about seven and one-half thousand of them. Even if all of them could stop what they were doing and start working on some of the things you've shown us, it's not nearly enough to sustain an industrial base as your kind have. If the whole population of Shattered Water did that I don't think it would be enough. Do you understand?"
"How many Rris in Shattered Water?"
"Nearly six hundred thousand."
If they were watching for a reaction, they didn't get it. The numbers weren't that impressive when compared with a city like Chicago or New York or Roanoke. And you couldn't include the farmers and merchants and specialists who already played important roles in the city's infrastructure. Did that count include cubs, those unable to work? They'd hit on something I'd never realised: I could give them all the information they wanted, but their society wasn't physically - let alone mentally - capable of absorbing it. They simple couldn't support a full-scale industrial society yet. Take the Manhattan Project during the second world war: there were probably more skilled people working on that project alone than there are Rris in Shattered Water.
"Can you do anything about that?" Hirht was asking.
"I'm not sure. You have other towns, I think you will have to choose what town suits which work. There are places that have more coal or more metal than others. I think they would be the best places to put foundries."
He looked interested. "You can tell where coal and ore can be found?"
Again I had to say I wasn't sure. "In my world... I have maps that show where such places are. Here, I don't know."
Hirht looked thoughtful, probably filing that piece of information away for future reference. "Distributing industry is one idea, but your kind... you say you have flying machines, ways to communicate like that," he clicked two claws together with a surprisingly loud sound. "We don't. Most towns are days or weeks apart and the river network is useless in winter. Can you build us a system like your own?"
I stared at him, biting back a surge of irrational anger. Dammit, they expected me to have an answer for everything. "No. Not like ours."
"You sound sure of that."
"I think I am. Building something like that... it is just too big." I sighed and rubbed at my chin. I needed a shave, I wanted to get rid of that damned beard. "My kind took hundreds of years to go from where you are now to where we are now. With what you are pulling from me, you will learn a lot faster, but as you said; you just don't have the... the people to build something like that. You would have to start smaller and grow with time."
"Why can't you just show us how to build flying machines like yours?"
"They are too... complex. The tools we use, the machines of my world, they aren't simple. They aren't things you can build with your knowledge and tools. You need machines to build the machines to build the machines. The... knowledges you need to build them are all joined." I laced my fingers to illustrate. "You learn one simple thing, it teaches you something else. It all joins. It lets you build bigger things. It is hard to explain; do you understand?"
"I think we have to find you another teacher," Hirht snorted.
"I'm sorry." I sagged.
"No. I think I understand what you are saying. It is like building a house: you should start at the ground and work up, start with small bricks to make a larger whole."
"Yes." Good metaphor. I wished I'd thought of it. "If you miss bricks there are holes in the walls. If you miss too many, the house might fall. I think you should not let your... want-to-be... ambition? Yes? You should not let that get ahead of what you can do."
"You do," Kh'hitch murmured. "Why?"
"Sir. The engine you are having built... that is a very old idea among my kind. But to build it you need new forges, new metals and tools and the time to learn to use them properly. If I told you how to build another engine tomorrow, a better one, but one that needs different tools again, you wouldn't have time to learn how to use what you have properly. You would know HOW to make it, but you wouldn't know WHY it works."
"You can tell us."
"No. I can't. My machine has a lot of information, but it doesn't have even a small part of all that is out there," I gestured at the world beyond the window and both Rris flinched. "I can't do everything. There is a lot I don't know and just am not able to tell you. My kind doesn't know everything; There are things... Rris medicine for example... we know nothing about those. For you to just... believe and follow everything I say without thinking for yourselves, that is just foolish."
Ears went back and there was a pregnant silence as the two Rris officials stared at me. I wondered if I might have gone a bit far. "You're right," Hirht finally said and raked the claws of his right hand through his cheek tufts, combing the fur out. "Rot it. How long would it take? For us to reach your level; How long?"
I shook my head. "I'm not sure. With what I can tell it will be a lot faster than it took my kind to get where we are. But still... it won't be in the next hundred years."
"If it takes you that long, that will be a lot sooner than it took us."
He huffed and glanced at his Advisor. "Your thoughts?"
Kh'hitch growled softly, not a threatening sound; a deep rumbling he did while thinking. "He makes sense," he said. "A hundred years seems like a long time to us, but think about what's been done over the past hundred years: it isn't a scratch on what he's shown us in four months."
Hirht's ears flicked. "Mikah, can you write a list of what you think can be done in the meantime?"
"I will need help. My writing is not..."
"You'll get it," Hirht chittered. "Kh'hitch, do something about a teacher for him."
"Sir," the Advisor ducked his head.
Hirht's ears flickered, sending dust particles dancing in the sunlight streaming in through the windows, then he looked at me again. "So, Mikah. You can't change the whole world, but maybe you can start by changing a part of it."
"Depending on how your engine goes, there are other projects we'd like you to have a look at. I think they would go a long way down the trail to starting some of these news industries you've mentioned. And there are several more Guilds who've taken an interest in you and what you have to offer. They'll be wanting to meet with you sometime soon."
Great. Just what I needed. I tried not to let any trace of that thought show.
"For now," Hirht continued, "can you tell us how your other work is going? Is it on schedule? Are you getting the help you need?"
That took a while, taking inventory of everything that was going on at the workshops and up at the university. I detailed what progress was being made on the tools and machinery, how refinement of superior metals was coming along, the construction of blast furnaces and prototype pumps for the Bessemer converters. Those were the things I knew about. I was sure they had their own agendas, that there were things going on I didn't know about, but there really wasn't much I could do about those. Kh'hitch took notes while I spoke: his quill pen scratched over the paper, laying down Rris cuneiform script in tight, regimented formation. With almost every line he had to stop and carefully dip his quill in the inkwell before continuing. I wondered how long my pens would last: I'd used quills before, and would much rather use a ballpoint or even a modern calligraphic pen.
Two pages were filled with the bird-scratchings of Rris cuneiform by the time I was done. My mouth was dry enough that I was tempted to take a swig from the fingerbowl; I glanced longingly at the dregs in the bottom of Hirht's goblet. "Thank you, Kh'hitch," Hirht said to his Advisor by way of dismissal.
Kh'hitch clambered to his feet: not without difficulty. A fat Rris; they aren't that common. Their digitigrade stance makes it difficult for them to remain standing for any period of time. "Will that be all, sire?"
"Yes. Ah, I would like copies of those," he gestured at the papers.
"Sir," Kh'hitch ducked his head, then turned and left us.
Hirht waited until the door had shut, then flicked his ears and looked at me; a calm amber stare, like a satiated cat might give a bird on the lawn outside. "You didn't like Hych?"
I flinched. "Sir, I just didn't want to."
"She displeased you in some way?"
"No. It wasn't her fault." I hesitated, trying to gather my thoughts and remembering what Chaeitch had told me. "It wasn't anything she did. I'm just not... I'm not Rris. I don't have the same... ah... feelings you do. Spring doesn't mean the same to me."
"What do you mean?"
I gave a small laugh, nervously raked my hair back. Damn, I needed a barber. "It's a conversation I just had with Chaeitch. I don't understand a lot of it myself. Your females... they don't affect me the way they do you."
Just for a split second the facade dropped and there was a look on his face, a realization, a sudden flinching as perhaps it hit that I wasn't a misshapen Rris, that the differences went a lot deeper. It was a slip hastily masked as he looked away and growled something I didn't catch.
"Sir?" I asked, a hornet of fear starting to circle my guts.
"Huhn," he shook his head. "Nothing. Spring... isn't your season. When is your rut?"
"We don't have one. Or rather... we are mildly in season all year."
"You can mate anytime?" He didn't try to hide his surprise this time.
"Rot me." His cushion sighed as he leaned back and studied me, then a black lip twitched back to show a glimpse of white teeth; just a flicker. "Rot me, I knew you were different, but this..." He chittered, his ears flicking. "You don't even need a female for mating?"
He just snorted and waved the question off. "Rasa's been wanting to talk with you about your mating habits, and after last night she's been quite insistent." He chittered amusement and eyed me thoughtfully, "I don't think she's going to hear quite what she expected."
The following days were a mixture of hard grind at the workshops and more humiliation at the university. I suppose it's justified; I mean, what would human scientists do given a talking chimpanzee? a talking cat? They'd have questions, at least as many as the Rris did. They'd wanted to know about human mating patterns... all about human mating patterns. They saw the encyclopedia entries, the video clips and illustrations showing human anatomy, reproductive organs, procreation, gestation and birth; the articles on sexuality and mating behavior. Through it I was peppered with embarrassingly detailed questions about everything from genetics to foreplay and the act itself to homosexuality to STDs. I answered as best as I could and sometimes left them confused, other times left them amused and a couple of times managed to outright shock them. I didn't have an opportunity to ask why, not at that time.
The Compaq could only tell them so much. They also wanted my opinions on human mating behaviour, wanted to know what my feeling were: how I felt during sex, how I was aroused. It was difficult, especially 'feelings'. I'm still not certain that what I feel and what a Rris feels are the same things. How does a Rris 'feel' anger? Love? Hate? Passion? I've seen all those, and sometimes they seem almost human, while other times they're incomprehensible expressions flitting across inhuman features. Unless I could climb into a Rris skull and look out through their emotions, there's no way I'm ever going to know what really goes on in there.
Then there were more physical examinations, but there were things I drew the limit at: demonstrating I could become physically aroused without a human female present was one. Especially not when there was a Rris with a ruler waiting to measure the results. And I was dreading that they'd ask for a semen sample. I'll do my bit for science, but enough's enough!
Thankfully, that never came about. After the ruler incident I think they guessed what my reaction would be.
My time down in the workshop was more enjoyable. Even if the work was physically harder, it was something I could throw myself into and forget about everything else. The engine repairs went well, the new lathes were ready and Rris craftsmen had a ball with them. It was just a couple of days before we had cast-iron replacements for the steam-line connections. Chaeitch also had the boiler reinforced, this time with iron hoops heated until they glowed red, hammered into place, then left to cool and contract. There was no way they were coming off in a hurry.
I had a new tutor. A male this time, by the name of Chotemri. He wasn't as outright xenophobic as Esseri had been, but then he didn't go out of his way to be friendly. He did his job though: helping me learn the Rris language, their history and life. And he was fair about my pronunciation difficulties, accepting them for what they were and doing what he could to overcome or work around the problems. There wasn't a lot of time for those lessons; most of the time they were slotted into a free day or the precious few free hours I might have in the evenings. No... Not a lot of time, but it all helped.
And day by day I watched from my barred window as spring fought its way into the world. The last of the ice was falling from the eaves, buds and leaves blossoming from the deciduous trees. There were grass fields down there in the palace grounds: not landscaped, but long, lush grasses and a wilderness of treetops stretching away to the faint mirage shimmer of the lake a couple of kilometres away.
A million miles away.
I still had nightmares. There were shadowy, ill-formed images that came at me in the dark, the times when there were trials and I was in the dock and there was a hanging judge with a lion's head, more dreams of claws and pain. Sometimes the guards would wake me, other times I woke myself. I don't know how many mornings I woke bleary and thick-headed from lack of a decent night's sleep.
With my workload there'd been little time I could call my own. With the tuition, there was even less. It was always late when I returned to my quarters, barely enough time to eat and bathe and then sleep.
"You've been busy lately."
I wasn't expecting the voice when I entered my room that evening. Shyia was hunkered down in front of the fire, wearing a long, light-brown shortsleeved tunic, a poker in hand and the light doing drastic things with the highlights and shadows of his face as he watched me. "I haven't had a chance to talk with you for a while."
"Like you said, I've been busy," I said as I crossed the room, laying the laptop down on the desk before collapsing back onto the bed.
"Huhn, from what I've heard things seem to be going quite well for you."
I blinked up at the ceiling, then propped myself up on my elbows to stare at the Mediator, "What have you been hearing?"
"Well, your work. There's a lot of satisfaction with the way that's going. Some of the new metals you've come up with have caused a stir. I hear the Glassworkers Guild has expressed an interest."
"Great," I muttered and dropped back again. That was news to me.
"And I heard you refused an offer of companionship for spring."
That again. It was such a big deal to them? "I just... I didn't want to."
"You never told me you didn't have seasons."
I grinned up at the ceiling. "You never asked."
There was a low noise, between a growl and grunt. "But you can mate anytime you want?"
I stopped smiling, not sure where this was leading. "Yes."
"Did Chihirae find this out?"
I hesitated at that question, then abruptly sat upright. Across the room the Mediator was watching me, that oil on water shimmer eclipsed as he blinked slowly at me. "What?" I said.
"Did you have sex with her?"
"No," I said. "No."
His ears flickered. "You were often in the same bed together."
"She was warm." It sounded lame, even to my ears. He made a sound that could have been a chuckle. "Is there a point to this? Or were you just curious."
"I was curious," he admitted. "I was also wondering if she should be watched. Mikah, more than just Guilds know about you. Both the Palace and the Mediators Guild have had inquiries about you. Not outright, hidden in the trees, but other kingdoms have been asking some questions about the sudden... changes Land-of-Water have been making. We've also apprehended several [something] from other kingdoms at the foundries and dockyards. Complaints were lodged with the embassies and they were [expelled]; they probably kicked out some of ours in turn, but we can't find all of them. They know you are here, they probably have some idea of what is going on. Something's going to happen soon: exactly what, I don't know, but someone might look for leverage."
"Chihirae?" I asked. "She in trouble?" stuttering over my Rris in my anxiety.
He looked at the fire, then back at me. "You still do feel... something for her. Don't you."
"Something." I looked inside and smiled slightly at what I found there. "Yes, something."
In the firelight he looked momentarily puzzled, then that facade fell into place again. "And what would you do if someone threatened to hurt her? To get at what you know they threaten to hurt her. What would you do?"
I looked at my hands and for a brief second they seemed distorted: furless and clawless. I blinked, clenched fists and relaxed again. "I don't know," I said in all honesty. "Whatever I had to."
He snorted at that. "If any of the highborn had to make a choice between you and Chihirae... well, the teacher is meat."
I just nodded.
"Don't get too close to anyone. Someone will try to use it against you. Remember that."
I stared at the Mediator. "You must have had a sad childhood."
He bit, and there was an outright flash of anger at that: ears flattening and a glitter of teeth in the firelight. "You're calling this games again?" he growled.
"Shyia, I'm calling this my life. What do you want me to do? I find it hard enough to be accepted here. I can't... turn my back on the friends I have."
"Even if it could mean their lives?"
I sagged; didn't answer.
"Something I've noticed about some of your friends," he continued. "I've noticed some of the people you're working with don't like you as much as they'd have you think. I don't think they'd hurt you, but they certainly have no great fondness for you. They'll be using you for your knowledge, what you can give them. Did you notice?"
"No. I knew there would be Rris like that, but I didn't notice."
"Would you want to risk your life for someone like that?"
I shook my head slightly.
"Rot me. Don't DO that. You know people don't understand..." Shyia broke off, sighing; then shook his own head in a shaggy waving of fur, "Well, you're going to have to learn how to choose your friends better." He cocked his head and eyed me speculatively: "How well can you read us? I mean, our bodies, our feelings?"
"Some of it is easy. Your ears and tails and eyes give a lot away," I pointed at his where the tip was gently twitching. "Other things... I don't know. It is hard, especially when there's not much light. Your fur hides a lot."
The Mediator glanced down, running his left hand absently through the fur of his right forearm. "I've never had any trouble."
"You grew up with it. It is like another language you all speak without knowing it and there are no teachers. It is just something you know. Often, you have an expression or a gesture that is almost human, but means something different for you. That's quite confusing."
"Like your smiles."
I nodded. "Like that."
"You are still doing that though, aren't you?"
"I try to be careful, but... it's the way I smile. It's like breathing: It's not something over which I have much control. I can be careful, but that is all."
He growled something, then said, "That is all we can ask, I suppose. But if you do that to someone who wants to cause trouble, that is all the excuse they would need to hurt you and say they were defending themselves."
"They would do that?"
"There are those that would. Some of those scholar friends of yours... some of them have got a lot of stake in projects. Some of them have put their lives and their careers into their work. Now you come along and say it is wrong, or it has been done before. They might get the feeling that you've shown them up as fools. You can understand how that might upset some of them?"
I nodded, hastily said, "Yes." I'd run into a couple like that already. A discussion over geology had almost gotten out of hand, but the Rris had calmed down. Hadn't he?
"You can't tell, can you," Shyia rumbled, then he got up from where he was crouched in front of the fire. I heard cloth rustling against fur as he crossed to the window and rubbed some of the condensation off a pane, leaving a clear patch through which he stared out into the darkness. His tail twitched and he rounded on me. "Rot it. You just can't tell! Mikah, some of those Rris you're so friendly with would gladly see you dead, but they're smart enough to know that if they laid a claw on you they'd be skinned! All it takes is one idiot who doesn't see that. Just one."
I was silent, quite taken aback by his outburst. "And what can I do about it?" I asked after a while.
The fire cracked and sputtered, sap igniting in a small gaseous jet. The Mediator was an eerie shape over by the window, his ears laid back as he looked out into the blackness outside. "I don't know, Mikah," he finally said. "I don't know. Learn, I think that's all you can do. Be careful; study people; learn what they really want. Don't trust anyone; and don't smile."
I stared at him, feeling numb inside. "That's all? You don't ask much, do you."
Then he grinned, wide and glittering - all razor points and saliva in the firelight, without humor at all. I flinched and the grin slowly faded. "You understand that expression, don't you. Remember it. Every Rris can wear it, in the open or behind a mask. Remember it." He stared at me for a few seconds longer, then ducked his head. "Goodbye, Mikah Rye."
I didn't have anything to say, so I didn't say it. The door closed behind him and I sat there while the fire crackled. A few minutes later a steward brought a tray in, left it on the desk and hurried out again, all the time trying not to even look at me. I lifted the cover: fish in crumbs and some kind of sauce.
I wasn't hungry anymore.
End Light on Shattered Water 16