Light on Shattered Water
A couple of days later. Chihirae hadn't returned home after her classes.
I stood at the tiny window with a blanket wrapped around my shoulders, clutching the sill for support. It was already dark outside and crystals of frost laced the warped glass of the windowpanes, snowflakes drifting like glittering stars into the pool of light just outside. Beyond that: night. Blackness. Not even a moon through the clouds. I turned away and winced as my right arm shifted in its sling. Growing cold again. Awkwardly I stoked the fire - laboriously fetching one piece of wood at a time from the stack - then settled down on that cushion and huddled in front of it while it crackled and hissed and popped and the wind picked up outside. Where was she? A whole day gone and there was no sign of her. I rubbed my hands and tightened the blankets around my shoulder. Was I worried about her? Surprising to find I was. She'd almost killed me. I remembered the pain from that, but I also remembered what she'd done for me, how she helped me after, how she stood up for me and believed in me when nobody else would.
I was beginning to like her, and I found that as amazing as everything else that had happened.
So I waited while snow flickered past the window like silent static. I waited while the fire flickered and the warmth soaked me and let my eyelids droop. I guess I nodded off there because the next I remember a hand was touching my shoulder and I started awake with a jolt, my heart racing. Chihirae flinched back to crouch beside me with ice crystals still dusting her facial fur, "Mikah? You are all right?"
I blinked up at her, then saw the other Rris standing in the background: A stranger. A bulky male with ice crusting his ears and facial fur, wearing a long, stained, leather overcoat that hung down to his calves and glistened with oils and melting snow. A tail peeked out from the hem of the jacket and a tattered pack hung from his hand while he watched me. His facial fur was dark fawn with lighter streaks running back into his ruff, his eyes a glacial green. I stared back with a horrified fascination. I knew who this was.
"Mikah," Chihirae touched my shoulder again, "this is Shyia. He is Mediator. Do you understand?"
There was a noise from the Mediator, a kind of surprised snort and I looked again and saw the gun in his other hand; a flintlock pistol. He also looked down, then shifted his grip on the weapon, set his pack down and came closer. "They told me this was going to be different, but I hadn't expected this." His voice was deeper than Chihirae's, like a husky growl that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
"I suppose I have grown used to him," Chihirae murmured.
"Huh." He stared at me. "They said you can understand me."
"Speak slowly. I can understand."
He hesitated and glanced at Chihirae then turned back to me. "You know what you have been [accused] of? Do you understand just what it means?"
"I think so," I said hesitantly, unable to keep from glancing at the gun.
"He is still learning," Chihirae supplied. "Use small words. Can I take your coat."
He blinked, as if he'd forgotten he'd been wearing it, then he fiddled with the gun and laid it down on the desk. Water dripped on the floor as he shrugged out of the heavy overcoat and handed it to her and turned back to me while she hung it on a peg near the stove. He was wearing pants of some coarse-woven material and a quilted vest with lace-on sleeves: incongruous on his furry body. His tail was dark fur, twitching with a life of its own. Things I was beginning to learn about them, one of them being that their tails often said what they didn't. "You have been [accused] of murdering Sherrith Gh'ryis. His [something] say that you were seen near his house. You ran from them. A few days after Sherrith was found dead by [something] else."
"They say I kill him," I said.
His muzzle twitched to show teeth. "I am here to decide. Did you?"
"No. I not kill him! I not! I would..."
"Mikah," Chihirae interjected softly and I shut up, hunching morosely while they stared at me; two surreal shapes in the twilight of the lamp. The Mediator glanced towards his pistol on the desk, then at her and said something; too fast and fluent for me to follow, as was the brief exchange that followed. I watched them like a spectator at a tennis match as the ball went from one court to the other. It ended with Chihirae ducking her head and backing off. The Mediator looked at me and said, "I want to have a look at your wounds."
I nodded. If cooperation was going to help me, then I was going to be one cooperative monkey. Goosebumps rose when I turned the blankets down to show my scars; his muzzle wrinkled and I couldn't tell if it was distaste or something else. The massive bruising around the punctures had subsided, but the surrounding skin was still greenish-purple and sensitive. The scabs were beginning to crack, showing the puckers of angry-looking scars.
"You do not have [much] fur," he eventually observed.
"Nothing gets past you, does it."
"What was that noise?"
"No. No I don't."
"Huhn," he scratched at his chin in a gesture startling in its familiarity. "These," he reached out a hand to almost - but not quite - touch the red traces of scratches along my arms and up my neck, "where did you get them?"
"I fall... fell down."
"It is true," Chihirae interjected. "You can ask. They were [chasing] him. They saw."
"Huhn," he studied me again, and this time touched the skin around my shoulder wound. A cold, smooth claw traced a hard line across sensitive flesh, making me flinch violently. "Huhn," he growled again, then the claw jabbed hard. I yelped and jumped wildly as I tried to pull away from the pain. Chihirae shouted something and moved forward and hesitated; uncertain as to just what she could do. The Mediator looked up at her, then down at my arm where a trickle of blood was starting to well up, "Your [hide] is thin."
"Why did you do that?" Chihirae growled.
"It would be difficult for him to kill anyone. As you said, he has no claws and [anyone] could [something] his [something] with their own hands." He leaned back and studied me again. "You said there were other things."
Chihirae stood for a few seconds, her head bobbing slightly, then she crossed the room to her desk and held up the laptop. "A lot. This says the most."
"That?" I could tell when someone was looking dubious, but he went to stand beside her. I guess any doubts he might have been having flew south when Chihirae switched the laptop on.
Graphics are... were my business: both static and animated. I had a dozen or so 28 gigabyte flashcards filled with everything from clip art to films to music. The old-style CD-ROMs could pack about 640megs; with oldstyle-MPEG motion picture compression that's about 70 minutes of low-quality animation. 28 gigs and improved compression gives you 56 times as much storage: that's enough room for the entire Star Wars, Godfather, and Jurassic trilogies at broadcast quality on one disk, and DATACRUNCH COMPRESSreg. gives you even more megs for your money. The few films I had with me were a varied assortment: a few of the newer releases such as New York Nights, Silken, Aliens Vs. Predator, FireSide and Starship Troopers along with some older pieces: Citizen Kane, The Piano, Hot Shots, Window to a Soul, Dances With Wolves, The Lion King, Wild at Heart, The Hitcher, The Monty Python Series, Basic Instinct, Platoon, and Schindler's List among them. Also a bundle of shorter clips I'd used for reference scenes, and with the megapixel HDCCD mounted above the screen I could record clips of my own. There were several games (copied, I'll admit to that. After all, who's going to come after me here?). More serious packages: Encyclopædia Britannica (2003 edition), Thesaurus, References, Classics, Adobe Photoshop and Animator revisions, Director Extreme, Autodesk Applications for 3D and CyberScape, presentation software and Authorware Pro. I'd never counted how many books there were in the Library disk, but the blurb claimed there were over five thousand, including necessities such as the Gutenberg Bible, Book of Kells, Pauper's Bible, The Nuremberg Chronicle, The Strife of Love in a Dream by Aldus Manutius, Archetypical Illustrations, ... well, as an illustrator I find them indispensable. The disk of clipart had all kinds of shit, from scanned images to Keylight stock disks: over ten thousand images. I wasn't sure exactly what I had in there, a potpourri more than two years in the making. A couple of decades ago a laptop was something the NeoYuppies carried - primitive things, each pretty helpless on their own. But they've had their time to grow up. My little Compaq is everything I'd ever need in an office away from home: A studio, an office, bookshelf, library, fax and ISDN node, camera, stereo and video in a package I could easily carry in a utility pocket in my pack. Now a couple of over-evolved cats who'd probably never seen a lightbulb in their lives were playing with it.
She showed him some of the things I'd shown her: a few animations, pictures that probably made absolutely no sense to either of them. The Mediator began to ask her questions I couldn't understand, so while they poked through my files I watched and worried my own thoughts: Did he believe me? How could I make him? Shit, I couldn't speak the language well enough to defend myself if one of them accused me of all the murders of the past ten years.
Again I had to wonder: Why am I here?
It hadn't been a life great epics are made from: a few years of college then a life of fast foods and deadlines and sleepless nights. There were friends and family and loans and an overdraft to pay off. Nothing spectacular, but looking back, it seems all the more important. At the time I'd been living it, I'd never dreamed that life might have been taken away from me. If I'd known, perhaps I'd have appreciated it a little more. What were they thinking back home? Were they searching? What good would it do.
I blinked out of my reverie at the mention of my name. The two Rris were watching me dubiously; the Mediator in Chihirae's rickety chair at the desk, she watching over his shoulder. Chihirae asked, "You all right?"
"I fine," I answered hollowly. She twitched an ear: perhaps she could tell when there was something not quite right.
The Mediator didn't catch it. He leaned back and studied me for a second. "Tell me what happened," he said.
"I've already told you," Chihirae interjected. "What he told me, I told you."
"I [something] for myself," he said. "Leave us alone. Wait [something]."
Chihirae stared at him, then ducked her head and left. At the door she hesitated, looked to me and said, "Tell truth." Then the door was closing behind her. The Mediator glanced after her, then settled himself and steepled his clawed fingers in front of his chest, watching me. "Tell me," he said, "everything. Where are you from. Why are you here. Tell me."
I stared back, trying to weigh him up, trying to find some way to read those inscrutable features. It was like looking at a stone mask; waiting expectantly. I swallowed, then began telling my story. Awkwardly, haltingly, I tried to tell him and he just sat and listened. When I wound up he just sat there for a while longer, watching me with those ice-green eyes, then he shifted and grunted. "Huhn. You [something] a good story."
"I do not understand."
His tail twitched around and he took it in his hands, idly grooming the fur at the tip. "This is all true?"
"I [something] do not understand. How can you come here and not know how?"
Again I had to shrug. "I do not know."
He gave me a dubious look, then turned back to the laptop. "Is there more to this?"
Not really much point in lying. "Yes."
He hesitated before touching the machine, before picking it up. He turned it over a few times, squinting at the text on the base plates, then brought it over and set it down on the floor, squatting on the other side. "Show me."
I reached out and touched a key, then looked at him. He just stared back expectantly. All right. I shifted uncomfortably to a half-sitting position and put the computer on my lap, adjusting the screen. He watched as I ran a slideshow. Often he stopped me to ask questions about things on the screen. I answered as best I could, but I didn't have the vocabulary to describe things he had no conception of. He couldn't understand a 767 or the space station. He stared for a while at the pictures of women with an expression I couldn't decipher. Other things I think frightened him: his ears went down when he saw some of the city clips, the shots of New York from over central park. I couldn't answer when he asked how many people there were there.
"Many," was all I could offer.
He stared at a picture of North America as seen from five hundred kilometres above the earth's surface and a clawed fingertip reached out to trace the coastline through the clouds. I licked my lips, swallowed on a throat made dry and sore by an hour of trying to wrap vocal chords around noises they were never designed for. Exhausted. Those green eyes shifted to me. "Truth?" he asked again.
"Truth," I replied.
His ears laid flat and he scratched at the fur of his chest while he studied me. Then he ducked his head and reached out to take the laptop back. I surrendered it without a fuss and he stood to set it back on the desk, then looked down at me, "Enough for tonight."
I nodded tiredly and just lay back as he gave me a final glance before leaving the room. I heard Rris voices, muffled by the walls and door. For a while I listened, unable to understand a word and I don't remember exactly when I sank under.
The dreams were bad that night.
There were nightmares of the kind that seem so absurd in retrospect, but in sleep they seem to tickle some of the deepest emotions. I don't remember exactly what they were that night, just that there were things chasing me, waiting for me, hunting me. I ran through trees of sand where hands clutched at me and caught me and woke gasping like a drowning swimmer, drenched in clammy sweat. I lay in the darkness, still on that cushion, panting at the ceiling and a voice sounded in my ear: "Mikah?"
"Uhn? Who... ?" Shadows shifted beside me, an indistinct blur in the darkness. "Chihirae?" I croaked as I tried to see something.
"Yes." There was a pause. "What is wrong?"
"Oh... uhn... Nothing."
"You were shouting, [something]. I thought you were going to hurt yourself. What is it?"
I lay back. "Just bad... what is word for... thinking at night? Pictures in head? You have?"
"[Dreams]," she volunteered.
"You have dreams?" another voice asked. The Mediator? Still here? Didn't he have a home to go to? "Yes," I said.
"Not very [pleasant] ones," Chihirae added. "He does not sleep very well. Many nights like this."
There was a pause, then the Mediator asked, "What do you dream of?"
I searched for an answer, trying to find words. Finally I just settled for: "You."
Wind whined outside; then one of them - it had to be Chihirae - touched my arm again. "We get you back to bed? Yes?"
Half the night on that cushion in front of the stove and I was so stiff I fancied I could hear my bones creak as strong, furry arms helped me up and across to my makeshift bed in the corner. With the warmth of the sleeping bag around me I lay back in the darkness, feeling them watching me. There was a brief exchange of muted Rris, then the sound of the door opening and closing.
"What do you... dream of?"
There was a hesitation, then she murmured, "I don't think they are the same as yours."
The Mediator was still there next morning.
Sunlight from outside made the ice frosting the windowpanes glow. Something sizzled and popped on the stove and Chihirae was breaking eggs into a pair of wooden bowls. "Good sleeping," she greeted me and flashed me a grin: inch-long incisors, multitudes of needleteeth.
I flinched. What'd I do? What'd I do? "You are angry?" I asked in a small voice.
She put the bowl down and cocked her head at me. "I was trying to smile; as you do."
"It was not the same?"
She chuckled and I sat up on my pallet, working the stiffness out of my shoulder while she watched me. "How are you feeling?"
"It is getting better." I raised my arm and moved it in a slow circle, gritting my teeth all the while. "I can do this without screaming."
"Ah," she ducked her head and idly popped an eggshell into her mouth, crunching and swallowing loudly, then she quietly asked, "No more dreams?"
I shook my head, "No. No more."
She made a small noise and turned her attentions back to the food. I hung my head and ran my hands through my hair, my beard - both growing out past what I was comfortable with. Cold morning air, despite the stove; I hitched the sleeping bag up and watched her, feeling guilty as I did every morning about not being able to do anything. Dammit, just lying there every day; it wasn't just boring, it left me feeling useless, like a spare wheel. My wounds must have had long enough to heal up by now.
Chihirae watched me cautiously when I awkwardly clambered to my feet, still uneasy on my legs. The new skin over my scars felt too-tight: stretched tissue-paper that might tear. I oh-so slowly made my way across to my pack, using pieces of furniture as handholds along the way.
"What are you doing?" she asked as I began rummaging around in my pack.
"I am... not wanting to lie all time," I said, trying to find some clothing, then upending the pack and sorting through the pile. The shirts I'd been wearing when she shot me were a write-off: they'd had to be cut away. There were still dark stains on one of my two pairs of bluejeans - no washing powder with hungry enzymes here - but they were wearable.
"Mikah!" Chihirae realised what I was doing and dropped what she was doing. I held out a hand to ward her off. "I want to."
"Last time you [something] you hurt yourself more. Lie down."
"I do not want to."
"Please," I forestalled her, "I must walk. I feel... no good. I lie there long I go out of my head. Please."
She looked at me, then at the clothes. "You need those?"
"I feel no good without clothes."
Maybe for them it wasn't a problem. For me... "I feel like... cold. Like open. Like no hiding."
Her muzzle wrinkled up. "You need clothes." Then she looked me up and down, "I [something] I understand. No fur. Cold."
She snorted then, a sound that mixed an ounce of disbelief with resignation. "All right. I help you?"
I almost fell over trying to get my legs into my underwear. I nodded and gave a small smile: "Please."
She really had almost no idea of what went where. The Rris have clothing, they use it in extreme conditions as well as social occasions, but they just don't have the number of articles of different kinds of clothing you might find a human wearing. I really couldn't tell if she was amused or bemused by the amount of stuff I had: she looked at my underwear and she gave a hissing laugh.
"What?" I asked.
"Uncomfortable," her muzzle pursed and her ears flickered in what I'd come to recognise as a smile and she helped steady me as I pulled them on. "Would rub," she said, plucking at the Calvin Klein's fabric over my crotch. I slapped her hand away and she voiced a sound I interpreted as a chuckle. The socks were thermolactyl, something that Chihirae admired and she asked me what animal the stuff came from. Halfway into my trousers, teetering with one arm around her shoulders while she chittered and hissed and I swayed, trying not to laugh as well and the door banged against the wall and a pile of firewood walked across the room to land with a crash beside the stove. The Mediator dusted his hands and looked around, his ears flattening at the sight of us: me with trousers half on, bent over, Chihirae helping me stay upright, then his muzzle twitched and he hissed something at Chihirae. She twitched her own ears and growled something back. He just grinned, then plonked himself down at the table and helped himself to a bowl, sitting slurping back raw egg while watching Chihirae helping me finish dressing: blue jeans, proper shirt. She stepped back and looked up at me, cocking her head, "You look different."
"Why so many clothes?" The Mediator asked.
"No fur," Chihirae provided.
"Looks like a [something]," he growled and ambled over to the stove where he picked something out of the frying pan, waved it in the air to cool, then popped it into his mouth, chewing and swallowing loudly. "You know, in clothes it almost looks [something]."
Chihirae gave him a look and a flash of teeth. He gave a small hiss and pointed at the pan, "The meat is burnt."
"Huhn. For Mikah. He needs his meat that way."
He fished out another piece of raw meat and chewed slowly at it, watching me all the while. Uncomfortable, I looked away and patted Chihirae's furry shoulder, "Thanking you."
"You are all right?" she asked as she moved back, leaving me standing.
"Yes," I nodded, managing to stay upright. Already those morning urges were making themselves felt. "I go to the toilet," I told her and turned to make my way to the door, stumbling but catching myself before Chihirae could get there, "All right," I protested, holding out a hand to ward her off, "All right." She looked concerned but kept her distance while I carefully navigated my way out of the room, keeping a hand near the wall just in case. Muted Rris voices sounded from behind, my name being bandied about.
Chihirae left us shortly to go to her classes. I heard the front door bump shut and I was alone with the Mediator. He sat at the desk, fiddling with the laptop, slowly poking through a slideshow, studying each image as if it held the secrets to life. I sat back on Chihirae's bed, watching his furry back as he tapped hesitantly at keys. Beyond him, the window framed a snowscape: a treeline with white-washed evergreens and cobalt-blue sky overhead, achingly blue. After those weeks cooped up in that tiny house, the small room seemed very stuffy. The Mediator looked around as I stood, then stared openly as I limped across to the door, to the hall then the front door.
It'd been cold in the house, but when I opened that door the chill was like a bucket of cold water in my face. Morning sun glaring off snow drifted up to a metre against the walls in places. Odd footprints littered the snow just outside, tracks leading north to the road that continued on to the village. I could see a few straggling cubs bound for the barn, their voices carrying on the chill air along with a few snowballs. Wisps of smoke hung above the village: indistinct gauze columns reaching for a powder-blue sky where clouds built up from the horizon like hills of cotton.
I leaned against the doorjamb, staring at the snowscape. All I felt was a hollow sensation, resignation. I stretched out a foot and touched a toe into the ice around the door. It was cold, the air crisp and dry and left a smell like tin in my sinuses. It was happening, it was something I was living, it was real.
"You are going somewhere?"
A dark shifting in the shadows of the hall behind me became the Mediator, standing pincushioned by the splinters of light sifting past me. I shook my head and looked back at the world; "Where?"
Muted rustling of fur on fur and when I looked around again he was closer, looking up as he studied my face intently. I swallowed and shifted back a fraction; his nostrils pulsed. A clawed hand reached up toward my shoulder and I flinched violently, knocking back against the wall behind me. He hesitated, withdrew his hand. "Why are you always afraid?"
"I am not," I blurted.
He cocked his head to one side, his expression completely inscrutable; then turned and looked out the door at his world outside. "Your [something] changes. You do not sleep well. You are always [something], nervous. Do you have a reason?"
I jerked my head back, the muscles in my neck twitching, "I am looking at it."
"I? You are afraid of me for a reason?"
"You are here to say I killed? Some of they," I waved a hand at the village, "say I killed. Not like me. You not like me say same. Say I just animal." I choked on the Rris language and switched to bitter English, "Kill the freak, problems solved."
He exhaled, moisture condensing in the crisp air. "I hunt answers. Questions are the [trail? road?] one has to follow. I have never seen anything such as you, but that won't [something] a fair [judgement]."
And I believed him? Oh, sure. Of course he'd say that. I believed it about as much as I believed we had true racial equality in the States. If one species with slightly different amounts of skin pigmentation couldn't live together, how could two species as different as two poles of a magnet cope? There was no way I believed he could be completely impartial.
He gave me a sideways glance. "You don't trust me, do you."
That got me. Confused, I stared back at him. No, I wasn't sure I did trust him, but how could he tell? I couldn't read anything in his body language, but then again even Chihirae was opaque enough. The way he'd said that: I couldn't tell if he was annoyed, pleased, or simply indifferent about the fact. I just licked my lips and confessed, "I do not know."
"But you trust the teacher?"
I tensely nodded. "Yes."
"Why? She was the one who hurt you."
"Yes, but she is... I do not know how to say it... good? She helped me. She stands beside me. She trusts me that I did not kill." I hesitated before adding, "She is a friend."
He looked at me again, weighing me. "You don't have many of those, do you. Any [something] you can [something]?"
"I do not understand," I protested, confused and nervous.
"No," he kept staring, "you don't. [forget it]."
That confused me even more; phrases that made little or no sense to me. I looked back out at the snowbound village in the distance, the rising sun throwing a glare from ice and snow and I tried to sort through his words. Was he trying to make a joke or make fun of me? I wasn't really qualified to tell. I just sighed and asked, "What you do with me?"
He cocked his head at that. "That is what I am trying to decide. Even if you are [innocent], you will still be a problem. There would be a lot of people [interested] in [something] you."
I could imagine. I just looked at him then turned and limped my way back to the fire and the warmth. He'd left the Compaq turned on; it'd gone into shutdown mode, conserving power. I'd have to remember to charge it up again sometime. On the table beside the laptop lay the Mediator's pistol. I picked it up without thinking, feeling its heft and turning it over as I examined it. A flintlock with a time-and-use worn wooden grip that didn't fit my hand properly, a dark barrel decorated with a few simple inscriptions that could have been lettering or just the craftsman's fancy. The lock mechanism was mounted on a rotating wheel carved like a flower, while the trigger was moulded in a shape I realised after a few seconds was a claw. I carefully put the thing down again.
"You know what that is?" The Mediator was behind me, standing casually but close enough to move fast if he had to. I nodded: "Yes."
"You have [guns]?" His ears twitched. "Like that?"
"Yes." I sat down at the desk, taking the weight off my feet. I was already tired. "Similar." I looked at the pistol again and asked, "You can... hit things with?"
"Not as [something] as a crossbow, but smaller. Easier to carry." He picked the pistol up, moving it out of my reach. "Your guns are different? How?"
I shrugged. "Ah... different."
He perched himself on the edge of the desk and I noticed his tail snaking across the desktop. It didn't look very comfortable. What would it be like having an extra appendage like that. What the hell did they use it for? Balance?
"Different, a?" he rumbled.
I looked up, realising he'd caught me staring and I didn't know if he meant the guns we'd been talking about or his tail. He flashed teeth then flicked his furry tail around, catching the tip in his fingers and pointedly, slowly began grooming it. I swallowed and he ducked his head, chittered briefly, and raised his eyes to mine again. "Some of your devices are more [complex] than anything else I have seen before. Are your weapons the same?"
"And your kind fight each other?"
"Sometimes," I admitted, then reached to tap at a random key on the Compaq and gave a wry smile. "A lot of the time."
He turned his pistol over in his furry hands, just stroking the lines, then laid it aside on the dark varnish of the desktop, silver highlights glinting in light: heavy metal and worn wood, something of death sculpted into something of art. A far cry from the functional killers of human manufacture. "What do you think of us?"
I blinked. "I do not understand."
"What do you think of us? Of Rris?" The Mediator's bottle-green stare studied me. "After what's happened to you, what do you think of when you see us?"
That was a question that vaguely disturbed me. "Why are you asking me this?"
A clawed hand moved in an obscure gesture. "I do not know what you are, how you [something]. I have to learn before I can [something]. Do you understand?"
He was trying to get a handle on the way I thought? "I think so."
"Good." He cocked his head, expectantly? "What do you think of us?"
"I do not think I know. I only know Chihirae and yourself. Not many talk to me." I paused, then smiled, "Your cubs are fun. They are..." I didn't know their word for it, so I filled the gap with an English, "cute."
"You talked with cubs? I am surprised they didn't run from you."
That hurt a bit. I nodded, "They were... curious. They hear a lot, they wanted to see what I look like."
"You did not frighten them?"
Frighten them? I gave him a numb look, did he think I went out of my way to scare them? "Do you think I want to frighten? I do not want it! I cannot stop it. Every Rris who see me think same..."
"Always will," he said softly.
Those words hammered an icicle through my soul. I shuddered; yeah, they would. The rest of my life I would be getting those looks: shock, disgust, intrigue, curiosity and outright fear. I've never got used to it, not completely. At that time, when the Mediator spoke those words, it wasn't something I'd thought about - not something I'd even wanted to think about. The rest of my life... Forever's a long time.
I shuddered and looked down at my hands, then at the keyboard of the Compaq. A whole world, a life I knew and understand, one that fitted me like an old pair of slippers... behind me, gone.
"Mikah?" Green eyes studied me.
"It is... it is not a good thought," I choked on their language, bringing a momentary flicker from his ears. No, it wasn't a pleasant thought, even less so when there was a possibility I could be spending my time as a murder suspect. The Mediator was just watching me with that look I was beginning to find intensely annoying. I swallowed and asked, "What do you do if you think I do it?"
He scratched at the side of his muzzle. "They will want you dead. It is usual, but you are not."
"You not kill me?"
"Something else. I don't know," his tail twitched and he shifted, then stood up and crossed to the window where midmorning sun was pouring in. Muscles flexed under the dark fur across his back, none in quite the right place. "Later, I have to go out. I will leave you here. You stay here." He turned and grinned at me, one of those grins that's the last thing a lion's lunch sees, "It would make [something] much easier for everyone. I do not want to have to hunt you."
And I knew when he said that he meant it; literally. "It's not like I've got much of a choice," I muttered in English.
"What was that noise?"
"Better for everyone."
Either Chihirae or the Mediator was back. I heard the front door and looked up from the papers spread out on the desk, my cramped handwriting covering just about every square inch. The laptop screen shone steadily, the word processor dotted with lines of notes and cross-references, phonetic representations of their language, and the Rris character sets I'd created and loaded in, copied from some of Chihirae's texts. It was Chihirae who came in along with a blast of icy air, pausing and leaning against the doorframe while she shook the remaining clumps of ice and snow that clung to her ankles and feet like it would to a pair of mukluks. "I am really starting to hate winter," she growled.
"You said fur is good for warm," I pointed out with a smile. She hissed at me, then corrected, "Good for warmth... for warmth, understand?"
"Yes. For warmth. Understand," I nodded and then spied the other faces in the hall behind her, peering around her hip. Chihirae noticed where my attention had suddenly drifted. "Ah... I think you have met these."
"Feher?" I ventured the name of one of the cubs in the front.
"You remember?" He moved forward and Chihirae put hands on his shoulders, stopping him. He twisted to grin up at her, "I told you he would."
"It is not easy to forget you," she grinned back. "All right. Be quiet, he is still not [something] to your [something]. Try not to tear him apart."
He just ignored her, staring at me again, "Why are you wearing so many clothes?"
"Why aren't you?" I retorted. "Aren't you cold?"
"Not cold today," he snorted. Chihirae made a small gesture that could have been Gimme a break. "You can talk better," another cub observed, one of the others who had been in my room that day, and the rest of the bevy of cubs started adding their questions.
"Why don't you grow fur."
"Why do you sound so strange?"
More questions as the cubs gained confidence, a bunch of waist-high furry figures in patched snow-dusted clothing gathering around while Chihirae hovered proprietarily in the background. Why was she doing this? Trying to prove something to someone? Maybe it was a field trip, go and see the local freak. Would she do that to me? I blinked and looked down at the cub who was tugging on my jeans, digging her claws into the fabric, "Hey! Careful."
"Are you reading these?" another cub was reaching for the books, Chihirae's books. I hurriedly grabbed it before he got his claws on it. Another... oh shit!
"What's this?" Feher was tapping buttons on the laptop. "Hot! Look! It moves." I got to the keyboard and saved the document before he did something like cut the power. "What is that?" he demanded.
Muzzles crested and cubs exchanged confused glances. "What is cm't'ther?" a voice piped up.
"This. A tool."
Small hands fumbled at the keyboard and claws clicked against keypads, printing gibberish across the screen. "Does it write?" a cub asked and pointed at some Rris text I'd done earlier, "Those are words."
"How does it do that?"
I showed them. They sat and watched, quietly, entranced while I typed a few things on the word processor. "Where did it come from?" a cub asked.
"Where I come from."
"Where?" a multitude of voices demanded.
"Ahhh," I cast an uncertain appeal toward my non-human mentor and benefactor who'd just finished stoking the fire. She leaned back against the wall, crossed her arms, and looked amused. I was on my own for this one. "All right," I sighed, "I show you..."
"You did a good job," Chihirae complimented me as I helped her clear away the soiled dishes from that evening's meal. "The cubs seem to like you."
"I am a likable person," I smiled. It didn't translate well: their word for 'person' is Rris, which I ain't. Chihirae gave me a dubious glance but elected not to push it any further. "They are fun," I said.
"They can be a thorn in the feet," she snorted. "But I don't think there is anything else I would rather do." She took the bowl I passed her and shook most of the water off. Easier to let me do the washing otherwise she spent the rest of the evening drying her sodden fur. "They enjoyed your machine."
"Most cubs do."
"What do you mean by that?"
"Cubs of my kind, they enjoy using them, especially the games."
"A," she considered that, then said, "You did not show me those games before."
I shrugged and rinsed another bowl out in the hot water. Couldn't just turn on a tap here: melted snow. "They are just games."
She scraped at a leftover bit of gunk on the bowl with a clawtip. "That one that copied a flying machine. Do things like you really have those?"
"I've known people who've chased the tail of flight all their lives. They dream it. I wonder how they'd feel if someone told them what they were [something] for had been done before, was a thing for games." She wiped her hands against her hips and glanced at the laptop. "Those games... there is a lot of fighting in them."
True. Starstrike, AT-57 flight simulator, Trinity Unveiled, Hammerhead, Unreal 2, SPAWN. I hadn't shown them Wing Commander IX: the Kilrathi bore a striking resemblance to the Rris and the fate of some of them might not be taken in the spirit of the game. But the violence; who was it who said, 'There cannot be drama without conflict'? I don't know. Sometimes I did think there was a bit too much violence in computer games; games like beat-em-ups didn't appeal to me at all, but then humans - however we like to contradict it - are an inherently quarrelsome and violent species. I like to look on games as a variation on stress-management toys. A sort of digital punching-bag. Personally I find it eminently satisfying to shoot down a few NKAF MIGS or Imperial TIE fighters, nail a screaming Reaper with a KKD cannon, and the Kilrathi do go up in a juicy ball of flame. I shrugged slightly. "Lot of humans say same," I said. "Most say better there than real."
Chihirae cocked her head and gave me one of those looks I was becoming so familiar with: "True. Many of your kind have... things like that?" she waved hand at the laptop.
"Yes. Common," I told her as I scrubbed one of her wok-like cooking bowls in the greasy water. No washing-up liquid here. When I offered the bowl to her to dry off she was staring at me, her eyes widened and ears tipped back. I could see her tail lashing. "What?" I asked nervously.
Her throat bobbled as she swallowed and twitched ears back. "I just... nothing." She took the bowl and shook water onto the floor. After a minute or so of silence she said, "Your kind... you think that tool is common. There are a lot of them? They are [something]?"
"Rler? I do not know that word."
"I have told you about money? Yes? You understand that? It means thing does not cost much monies. Understand?"
Inexpensive. Cheap. "Yes. I understand. Yes they do not cost much monies."
She glanced at the laptop again, looking so out of place on that rough old desk of hers. "I do not think we could build something like that. Not in hundreds of years I think. To be able to make them cheap, so just common people can use them..." She looked at me and I couldn't read that expression on her face. "Mikah, you be very [something]. You are running into darkness."
"I do not understand."
"Sorry; a [metaphor]. I am always forgetting you do not grasp completely." She glanced down at the bowl, turning it in her hands with their stubby, furry fingers; then she sighed and set the bowl aside on its shelf. "Mikah, you are going to scare some people. Huhnn, you already have. They will feel [something] by you, also by the [something] that there are... others in the world who make us like cubs. Do you understand?"
"I... I am only one. I do not..."
"Mikah, it does not matter. There will always be those who fear what you know, what you are: something that is not Rris."
"You mean it shows?"
"Mikah," she looked pained.
"What you know will [something] many. The [something] will not want to change. Some of the things you have told me, some of the things you have show me, there are many who will do anything to get them, others will not welcome change. The [something] of the [something] will look on you as prey or a [something] to [something]."
"Please, Chihirae, I do not understand. Too fast."
She ducked her head. "I am sorry. Mikah, just... be careful. Think. Do not frighten people."
"Like here," I said.
She blinked at me. "Here?"
"I frighten you, you try kill me."
"Ah," she flinched at that, then studied me for a few seconds - looking nervous? I felt a twinge shoot through my shoulder and she gave a slight grin, a tic of her muzzle, before she turned to retreat to her desk, sinking into the chair and watching me over steepled fingertips. I sighed and touched the dishwater: cold. She'd have to throw the tub out, I still couldn't lift anything.
"Like them," I said after a while, nodding my head in the direction of the town beyond the cabin's walls. "They do not really think I did it, do they? I am from outside, so I am... I am easy one to say did it. They do not believe it, they just want to believe it."
She stared at me, as if she couldn't believe I'd said that. "You keep surprising me. Did Shyia say that?"
Chihirae blinked, "Shyia, the Mediator," she said as if I'd missed something incredibly obvious. I couldn't help it if some of their names just sounded like static to me. I just said, "Oh," then shook my head. "No. He didn't."
"Ah. I suppose you might be right," she said, then scratched at an ear and gave me a sidelong glance. "It does show," she smiled.
I looked down at myself. "Do I really frighten people that much?"
"I nearly pissed myself when I first saw you."
"Thanks. I needed to know that."
So the first thing the Mediator heard when he walked in was Chihirae's laughter. He stopped in the doorway behind her, his heavy coat slung over his arm. Chihirae saw me looking over her shoulder and quickly turned, just as quickly sobered. "I missed something?" Shyia asked.
"Ah," Chihirae sat back and raked claws through the thick white tufts of her sideboards. "Just Mikah showing he had [something]."
"Him?" The Mediator gave me another once-over then wrinkled his muzzle - what did that mean? - and went to hang up his coat. Still snowing out there, judging by the melting ice dripping from the travel-worn leather. "I met with the [something]."
"Ah," Chihirae glanced at me, just briefly.
"They want [something] tomorrow night. They want him," he gestured at me, "to be there, so they can [something] when I [something]..."
"Hold it," I interrupted. "Please, I do not understand? What is happening?"
They both looked at me, then the Mediator said, "The [something] is tomorrow."
"I do not know that word: Fichi'thi," I protested, starting to feel scared.
"Mikah," Chihirae got up, crossed the room and knelt in front of me, lowering herself to my eye level. "Listen: tomorrow they want to see you, to [something] you, to choose if you killed or not. To decide what to do with you."
It was a long, long day after a restless night of bad dreams. I had plenty of time to sit and worry.
They hadn't told me anything. Not a fucking thing! I didn't know what was going to happen, what to prepare for. Did I get a lawyer? Shit, I didn't even understand everything that was happening. Looking back on this account I think that it might not convey just how confusing some of my conversations with the Rris were. For brevity's sake I've had to lop out the endless questions and explanations, the times she spent hours trying to hammer just one concept home. I've done the best I can to chronicle what happened and record as best I could my encounters with the various Rris I've met over the years, but there's just so much I've written only what I feel is relevant. It was damned difficult to talk to any of them, let alone understand everything that was going on.
Chihirae couldn't tell me what was going to happen to me and the Mediator refused to say what he thought the verdict was going to be. He'd been asking questions around the village, so Chihirae told me, learning more about what happened. I hadn't been much of a help: there was so little I could say, even less I could actually tell him. What I did manage to convey I'm not sure he believed.
So I was stuck in that tiny room, still in no condition to make it any distance on foot. Besides, my boots had disappeared. I just huddled on Chihirae's bunk, moodily watching the patches of sunlight streaming in through the window crawling across the floor as the hours wore on. I could only feel fear for so long, after that I settled into a sort of apathy, from there into sleep.
Chihirae woke me when she came in. Dark outside and the fire had gone out, leaving the room chill. She didn't speak, just looked at me while brushing snow off, then ducked her head and went to stoke the fire. Still groggy I sat on the edge of the bed, pinching sleep from my eyes, watching her. After a while she asked, "Are you all right?"
"That obvious?" I muttered.
Chihirae fidgeted, rubbing a hand across the pelt of her chest, then came closer and sat at the far end of the bunk. A few seconds and she scooted closer, close enough to reach over and touched me on my arm, my skin. I flinched and she withdrew. "Please, try and calm down."
"Chi..." I choked on her name and tried again, "Chihirae, what happens. Tonight, what happens?"
She looked uncomfortable, perhaps trying to decide whether or not to tell me. Why? That I didn't understand. Didn't I have a right to know? Finally she said, "It is a meeting of those [something]. Everyone this hurts, understand?"
Everyone involved, she meant. "I think so."
"They meet. The [something] of Sherrith; the town mayor; Shyia; the ones who are... saying you killed Sherrith. They will decide."
"Do I get to speak?"
"Will they listen?"
And for that she didn't have an answer. Again she touched me, reaching up to stroke my jaw and the beginning of a beard there. Recently I hadn't bothered much with shaving, largely due to Chihirae prompting me to leave the 'fur on'. "Perhaps if you had more fur you would be easier to look at."
I gave her a tired look.
"It was a joke," she explained, then touched my hair again. "I think... you could use a bath, perhaps grooming."
"You must make a good [impression]. It could be your life."
I ran a hand through my hair. Yeah, I guess I was getting somewhat ripe. "All right."
The water took a while to heat up on the stove, then Chihirae poured it into a copper basin. I had to strip off and stand shivering in my birthday suit in calf-high water while Chihirae helped me wash. Nakedness wasn't such a problem, after all she'd been nursemaiding me for several weeks already. No running water or container big enough for a real bath so it was another sponge bath. She ran the cloth over my back, gentle around the exit wound on my shoulder. Fuck, my arm was still stiff and it always would be, especially on those cold mornings. Having a stick shoved through solid muscle doesn't do anything for flexibility, and it was going to get worse. The discoloration from the massive bleeding was fading slowly, but my shoulder was still tinged bruise-colored. Chihirae carefully worked over my back, around my neck, where I couldn't reach, then helped me with my hair. I dunked my head and used some shampoo from my kit, getting it cleaner than it'd been for some time. Chihirae didn't let me use any of my soap, said it smelt... foul. The hot water cooled too fast, leaving me with goosebumps. Chihirae rubbed her fingers across my pebbled skin; "Why are you doing that?"
"I can't help it," I shrugged, feeling her leathery finger pads scraping weirdly against the skin of my arm where the hairs were standing upright. "Cold."
"Ah. Feels [something]. How can you do anything with this thin skin?" She laughed then and patted my arm. "Not long."
It wasn't too bad, the cold. Character building. With the stove door open the fire kept half of me warm enough, it was the other half that started to get uncomfortable. She was thorough, perhaps too thorough: I gasped when she washed between my legs. "Stay still," she hissed and I winced when she lightly swiped sensitive skin with claws only partially retracted. A relief when I was able to get back into warm clothes. Chihirae looked through the meagre collection I owned and told me, "You need proper clothes." Still, she sorted out a selection: blue-jeans, a clean black T-shirt and swan-dri checked shirt over it. "Better," Chihirae pronounced me after a cautious sniff, "Now your fur."
"You look like a badly-kept [something]," she said as she went to rummage through one of her cupboards, returning with a small rolled leather pouch. Unrolled, the parcel revealed gleaming ivory-handled combs and brushes and a pair of tiny silver scissors nestled in loops. Beautiful craftsmanship, miniscule engraving and scrimshaw. "Lie. There," she pointed at the hearth.
Uncertainly I did as she told me. Putting my sleeping pad down, laying on that, feeling vulnerable with my neck bared, watching the cobwebs up in the vault of the ceiling. Needed dusting up there. Chihirae lifted my head to place one of my towels beneath it then knelt, knees straddling my head so the fur of her thighs tickled my ears and I looked up at her inhuman face, the glint of metal in her hands and my muscles tensed, my heart started pounding.
A hand gently touched my throat, my pulse, "Calm." Then she stroked my beard, fluffing it out, also touching the skin beneath, exploring the bone structure: my cheekbones, jaw. The scissors looked peculiar in her furry fingers: dainty, delicate. I almost laughed, gradually relaxing as she started working, snipping at errant strands of hair. She had her head cocked to one side, intently watching her work, my face. Occasionally she'd shift, examining me from another angle. Eventually, my beard was trimmed back to her satisfaction. She had me sit up, fur against my back; the scissors were laid aside, a comb taken into hand.
It hurt at first as she used the comb and - I realised with some disquiet - her claws to rake tangles out of my damp hair. A good hurt, yanking my head back as she struggled with the knots in locks that were beginning to reach my shoulders. It took a while before she could draw a comb smoothly through it.
"Do all your kind have fur like this?" she asked.
"Usually cleaner." I winced as the comb found a recalcitrant knot.
"This color," she amended and I felt her fingers run through the blonde hair of my nape. "It looks better clean. [something]. Nice. Like light."
I didn't know what to say. The first pleasant thing any of them had ever said of me. "Thank you," It was sincere. There was the sound of a Rris chuckle and I relaxed under the feel of the comb running through my hair, the warmth from the fire. Drowsy after a while, like I was slightly buzzed. A primate's hardwired reaction to grooming: natural endorphines and a mild high. Pleasurable. Enough to let me forget about what was going to happen in a few hours. A hand laid on my shoulder and squeezed slightly, "You like this?" Chihirae murmured.
"Uhnn," I answered with an affirmative noise. I suppose she guessed it meant yes; anyway, she chuckled again and kept brushing. It was too soon when another Rris voice asked: "I am not interrupting something?"
The Mediator was standing at the door. His ears were back.
"Cleaning him up," Chihirae replied with a final stroke of the brush. "He looks better doesn't he?"
"Almost [something]," the Mediator said and I couldn't tell if he was agreeing or not. I got to my feet and gave Chihirae an awkward look: I'd never meant to get so engrossed. She returned the look, then smiled and began packing her kit away. The Mediator eyed us both uncertainly - what did he think we'd been up to? - then snorted and shrugged out of his coat. "Kenth said they are joining this evening, just after eveningmeal."
"Good," Chihirae smiled at him. "Calmer on full [stomachs]. Won't want to eat Mikah. That is a joke, Mikah."
"Thank you for saying," it could be difficult to tell sometimes.
"Huhn," the Mediator snorted, gave a joint-popping stretch and sauntered across to the fire where he stood, hands held out to the warmth. Almost amusing. He looked around at Chihirae and added, "and we should get Mikah's things packed. Especially that machine. They are going to want to see those."
End Light on Shattered Water 3