by Michæl W. Bard
Text ©2007 Michæl W. Bard; illustration ©2007 Cubist

Part 1 -=- Part 2-=-Part 3

Home -=- #12 -=- ANTHRO #12 Stories
-= ANTHRO =-

-= 1 =-

   A loud explosion shattered the air in the control cabin. With a bone-shatterin’ roar, the main thrust roared to life, shovin’ me back into my padded chair. It cut, roared, cut, and cut a last time. Silence and freefall—an’ half my board went red. “What the fuck’s going on, control!?” My nostrils quivered as I pulled my ears against my skull. I could smell somethin’ burnin’, and I could feel the shuttle tumblin’.
   “Ahh, Hermes, Scanners showed a heat pulse at your location, and radar is picking up what looks like debris at your location.”
   “Half my board’s red, Hermes is tumblin’, I can’t see the outside worth shit, and nothin’ but environment controls are workin’. I need a visual report, and some kind of information on my headin’ ’cause I ain’t got a damn thing here.” Flickin’ over to internal intercom, I spoke to my passengers in the rear (who better be strapped in, as I didn’t have time to coddle ’em). “This is your captain speakin’. We appear to have a slight malfunction. Please remain strapped in your seat until further notice.” I flicked off the switch just as the cacophony of screeches and yowls and yips echoed from the overhead speaker. “Control, I need somethin’! Now!
   “Umm…” the growly female voice whined, not havin’ a clue. “I think I’ve got you on Camera 57. Switching… Umm… Don’t see you—”
   Damn vixen was probably a new hire—enough trainin’ to read the routine from a clipboard, an’ that’s it. “Miss. Get Lieutenant Ruprecht on the line, now!”
   “But—he’s off duty..! I’ve got the protocol—”
   “I don’t care! I got nothin’ here, an’ I could hit the damn rock you’re in any second now. I need to know! I’m declarin’ a fuckin’ emergency! So get him now!” My tail would’ve been whippin’ back and forth if I hadn’t had it amputated. Damn the Company and their shipshod equipment. Damn them and their cost-cuttin’ measures! I had no pressure suit, neither did the passengers, and unless the explosion blew us far-enough off course for New Ceres, we were all dead.
   And the Company would probably send the clean-up bill to my bloody funeral!
   Lookin’ around, I checked what I had left. Cabin pressure showed fine, and there was no pricklin’ sensation of a pressure drop, so the metre was readin’ correctly. Only other thing I had any kind of information on was life support, and that read in the green. If the readin’ was even worth anythin’. At least the tumble wasn’t too sev—
   Unlike most furs, us equines had been left with our muzzles mostly unchanged from our wild ancestors. We can see almost all the way around. Kind of screws us for tryin’ to catch anythin’, but really useful for runnin’, and for seein’ things sneakin’ up on you. And pilots depend more on instruments than vision anyway.
   Through the cockpit plexiglass I saw a big gleamin’ metal strut. It was easy to recognize: The arm holdin’ one of the Reaction Control Systems, reaction jets for steerin’ a spacecraft. From the jagged edge as it slowly tumbled past the viewport, it’d been ripped out.
   For a second I couldn’t breathe. This wasn’t happenin’! Havin’ to make sure, I looked straight out the window—I do have some depth perception straight ahead—and yes, I’d’ve bet a week’s pay that New Ceres was gettin’ closer. Fuck!
   “Control!? Anybody with a mind there? Hell-”
   “Captain Eeysmarn!”
   The well-remembered voice of Lieutenant Ruprecht snapped me out of my panic. “Yes sir!” He was a wolf, but the grapevine said his genome had a lot of domestic in it. Still, he’d trained me. And ignorin’ the courtesy rank for my captainin’ the shuttle, he was far above me, bein’ in command of all space traffic around New Ceres. Not to mention that he was my best friend.
   “Report your situation, Captain.”
   Swallowin’, I tore my eyes away from the loomin’, craggy bulk of the spinnin’ New Ceres slowly gettin’ closer. I couldn’t completely, though, until I closed one eye. My nostrils quivered at the scent of fear—my fear—and my legs were tensed and ready to run. Even with all the gengineerin’, they still couldn’t get all the animal out. I started tappin’ a hoof against the floor, away from the engine control pedals, to try and work out my adrenaline. “Everythin’ on my board is down except environmental systems. They all show green. There’s no evidence of a leak, though I may be smellin’ burnin’ plastic. Everythin’ I got shows dead on the exterior. I saw one of the RCS arms out the window, broken at its base. Cause unknown. I got a slight tumble and visual evidence says I’m on a collision coarse with New Ceres. Details or confirmation of this information is not available onboard. Sir.”
   “Thank you, Captain. Sorry to bark at you, but you sounded like you needed it. I’ve got you on Camera eighty-seven; I can see the RCS arm, and a cloud of smaller debris around you. Maybe some fuel. The Brain’s confirmed you’re on a collision with New Ceres, impact in… five minutes, eighteen point something seconds. There’s nothing we have that can reach you in time.”
   “Well, that bites. Guess the Breath Sucker gets me after all.” I didn’t mind dyin’. You paid your money and you took your chances. It was the passengers I hated losin’. “Hold it Control! I think I’ve got somethin’. If the emergency bolts to release the control capsule still function—”
   “Captain Eeysmarn, that’ll break your seal!”
   “Yeah, Control! That’s the point. The thrust of my escapin’ air oughta give them some time. Maybe enough. Just shut up a sec…” Forcin’ myself to look out the cockpit window, I got myself a good, solid grip on the emergency lever as I focused on New Ceres. My spin was rotatin’ it out of sight, and I waited as the stars spiraled past, the moon, the glowin’ blue Earth, a flash of sunlight that momentarily darkened the glass, and then New Ceres comin’ back in. “Blowin’ the bolts now!” Then I yanked that lever back—hard.
   “Captain, we have no changes on visual. You didn’t chicken out, did you?”
   “Gimme a break, Lieutenant! Maybe there’s a short in the electrical charges for ignitin’ the bolts, I dunno… I got nothin’.” I paused. “Nothin’…”
   “Umm… Sorry, Shean. I wish…”
   I couldn’t think of anythin’ else, and I’d graduated top of my class. “You did what you could. Damn Company! Don’t think I’m gonna tell the passengers; no sense in lettin ’em panic and screw somethin’ up and break a seal or somethin’. Maybe we’ll get a miracle. At least I still got air and can watch the show ’til the end.” I snorted. “Hey! Any chance you can fire up the Orion drive and shove yourselves out of my way?”
   “Not installed yet, but you know that. Lots of fuel, but without the braces it would shatter itself and probably break our pressure seal. You sure there are no suits at all? Not even a survival bag?”
   “Nothin’. Directive 18-912B: All emergency survival equipment will be removed in order to increase payload.” Snortin’, my voice turned bitter. “After all, in almost every emergency situation, there is no opportunity to use, or need for, emergency survival equipment.” Well, at least I’d die in the outer space I loved. Too bad I wasn’t ever goin’ see the stars up close and personal.
   “Damn. Well… What the!? Hold your horses, Captain!”
   I just shook my head at that old joke. Not a heck of a lot more I could do. Only thing I wished was that I’d gotten my tail back as I’d planned before the end. I’d had it removed to make life in space easier. Made suit and seat design much simpler.
   “Holy shit! You’re kidd– Captain, I’ve got something coming in forty degrees by fifty degrees by fifteen degrees. Jesus Christ, look at that sucker go!”
   What was he talkin’ about? “What’s goin’ on? I’m blind out here!”
   “Just got a message from the Brain—says there’s something that can intercept you in time. Thing’s barely on my scopes… running… 25G. Jesus!”
   Twenty-five Gs!? What the hell could do that? There’d been talk about antimatter drives, but nothin’ had ever been tested that I’d heard of. “Lieutenant, you got any instructions for—”
   “Captain Eeysmarn, this is Captain Stapledon, piloting experimental craft VX57d. I picked up your transmission and I’m going to try and grapple with you and pull you away from New Ceres. I make no promises—it’s going to be tight, but if God wills, it’ll be successful.” The voice that broke in was odd. It was warm, friendly, but with perfect intonation. I’d’ve put hard cash down that it was a Brain, ’cept their support equipment was too damn big to fit in a standard ship.
   “Stapledon? I never heard of you, but I sure as hell ain’t complainin’. Anythin’ I can do?”
   “Just strap yourselves in. God willing, you won’t break your pressure seal, but I’m the only chance you have. ETA three minutes, fifty seconds.”
   The Lieutenant burst in. “That’ll give you, what? Eighteen seconds to get the grapple on and yank him to safety? Good luck, Captain Stapledon, you’re going need it. I’d get the Brain to give you exact vectors, but we won’t have time—”
   “I’m perfectly aware of that, Lieutenant. Onboard systems can easily calculate what’s needed. Trust me, God has led me here to help.”
   Onboard systems? What the hell kind of onboard systems? He wouldn’t know the exact vectors until he was virtually in position; too many variables, and I couldn’t give him crap. Radar on the New Ceres wasn’t fully emplaced yet—surprised they were able to fix me as accurate as they had. How the hell was Stapledon goin’ to calculate it? By the time his onboard sensors had the numbers, it’d be too late!
   Well, it was a shot, and hell if I’d complain. Switchin’ on the intercom, I told the passengers: “This is your captain speakin’. We had some problems, but a rescue intercept is en route. ETA, three minutes. Strap yourselves in tight and hold on, because the intercept’s gonna be rough—real rough. But the Brain’s worked it out, and the intercept should go without a hitch.” I switched the intercom off.
   ‘Brains’? Yeah—bio-cybernetic computers with one or more sentient brains at the core. It was a funny thing back then, but with the Brains crunchin’ numbers and givin’ instructions, people felt more confident. They were people, not computers, and almost a century of them supplyin’ information had made their users happy and confident in their skills. Invariably, if a Brain said somethin’ would happen, it did. Of course, this Stapleton joker wasn’t a Brain, just a hot-ass pilot I prayed would get shit lucky. Still, anythin’ to keep the passengers calm was fair in my book.
   “Starting intercept countdown, Captain. I make it two minutes, thirty-two seconds to intercept, God willing. Are all your passengers strapped down?”
   “They are if they know what’s good for ’em, Captain Stapledon. I hope you win the lottery tonight, ’cause I need all the luck you got.”
   “Two minutes, eighteen seconds. I can see you now. You don’t appear to be in bad shape—when you lost the RCS it must have trashed your main command trunk. That would explain the loss of your externals. God willing, I’m going to hook your engine, try and get it through the spine.”
   “I’ll just be glad if you grab me anywhere, Captain Stapledon.”
   He had to be a Brain; they were always thankin’ God for this, and thankin’ God for that. But the ship couldn’t be big enough! I’m an athiest, myself—world was too screwed up for me to believe in any kind of overseein’ power. But the Brains…
   The radio went silent for a bit, ’cept for the hiss. There was no breathin’ from Captain Stapledon, but I could hear faint voices and clicks and footsteps from Control.
   “One minute, twelve seconds. I’m slightly off course due to New Ceres gravitation… Adjusting… God willing, everything looks good.”
   Off course from New Ceres? Hell, we’d cored that rock and blown it up like a balloon! It couldn’t be grabbin’ him with anythin’ more than .0001G, if even that much. Off course? Well, pilots were superstitious as hell, and my chances were so crappy I wasn’t goin’ to argue with any idiosyncrasies.
   More silence, and then Captain Stapledon’s calm voice spoke: “Forty-two seconds. Try and keep anybody from moving around over there, Captain Eeysmarn. This will be tight, but God willing, I’ll get you.”
   “Eighteen seconds—Radar here picks up an extrusion from New Ceres—going to make this tough, but we’re in God’s hands. Will count down at ten.”
   ‘Tough’, he said. Like it wasn’t already tough?
   “Ten seconds… Grapple locked… eight seconds… launching… six seconds… five… four… three… track looks good, God willing… two seconds… one… hold your horses for boost. God be praised, I have you! Running drive.”
   As he said that, I heard a dull clunk—the grapple piercin’ the drive at the rear of the shuttle. In my mind I could see its hooks clampin’ shut, hopefully on the ship’s spine—I didn’t think anythin’ else would be strong enough. I just hoped his cable was.
   “Five G acceleration for twenty-two seconds. Over.”
   As he talked, I felt and heard Hermes groan; it whipped around, and then I was yanked hard into the straps over my chest at five G. Again, I thanked the rich who, almost a century ago, had thought it cute to have horse jockeys ridin’ horses; they gengineered my line nice and small. Less mass. My breath got shoved out through my nostrils, I couldn’t inhale, my vision tunneled, my mane dragged down in front of me as I looked down the deep pit to my control boards that seemed so far away as I hung vertically above.
   Wincin’, I pulled my ears against my skull as somethin’ boomed into the door behind me. It was a soft boom, with a clatter of breakin’ bones and a squish of splatterin’ flesh. Damn near lost my lunch, but the acceleration wouldn’t let me.
   “Twenty seconds… eighteen seconds… God willing, course is clean, cable holding… fourteen seconds…”
   My stomach gurgled, and I struggled to hold my head back against the seat—should have strapped that. I lost it, and my head fell forward, muscles and bones twanged as my head jerked to a stop. I could see my jumpsuit, smell the vinegary scent of a stain where my bladder had given way—or had the liquid just poured down the five-G gradient? One thing you learn early in flight school, little things like that in extreme circumstances are nothin’ to be ashamed of. My own scent was rank in my nostrils, hot, sweaty, panicky, and yet confident. It was that voice. Just like a Brain’s, though it couldn’t be. I could feel my tail bone shovin’ up against my spine. I could smell somethin’ burnin’—shit! The short caught fire. Well, nothin’ I could do about it at five G.
   There was a twang of somethin’ givin’ way in the cabin behind me, a faint scream through the metal, and a squelchin’ boom.
   “…eight seconds…”
   Somehow I gasped out, “Cut—Accel—Fast—Short—Fire—” My voice was faint, harsh, hoarded air roarin’ out and down into the well.
   “Understood, Captain. God willing, I’ll cut cleanly at earliest instant… two seconds… zero seconds…”
   And then my weight was gone. Air roared into my lungs and I bounced back into my cushioned chair. I had no idea how the passengers were, but this had to be better than all of ’em bein’ dead. Black smoke billowed out, fillin’ the cockpit, I coughed as the fans roared to try and clean the air. Fumblin’ at the belt, I got it, grabbed the extinguisher, hooves spaced out and braced on the floor, spotted the fire, leaned against the pendin’ recoil, and let it roar.

-= 2 =-

   In the front room, dim through the closed door, the announcer’s voice rose to a crescendo. A moment of silence, then the crowd there broke into yippy cheers and growly hissin’.
   Oblivious, I kissed the vixen, my wide sensitive lips against the soft fuzz of her cheek.
   She giggled. “I think you’re drunk, Mr. Eeysmarn.” Gently, she pushed my muzzle away.
   “Fair little Kirri–” Of course she was nearly two metres compared to my one. “—as I recall, I’m the one payin’ you. And I am not drunk, I am just pleasantly warm.” I patted my stomach, which gurgled happily in response, I grabbed the plastic bottle and poured the rest of it down my muzzle.
   Kind of a tradition I had, gettin’ drunk, havin’ a girl. Once I’d looked death in the eye and spit in her face, I needed to remind myself that I was alive. I’d survived all right, just a couple of cracked ribs, some sprained neck muscles. This was only the second time I’d done it. On the shuttle, most of the passengers got off the same way, except for two who’d died. One when his belt failed; one because he hadn’t strapped in when I’d ordered them to. The first I drank to, the second was well out of the gene pool.
   So here I was in the Zero-G Rat, the deluxe back room all to myself, with pretty, furry little Kirri drapin’ herself all over me. I could see the tip of her long red and white tail waggin’ back and forth behind her head. Yeah, she was a vixen, but I’d been made infertile before goin’ into space. Somewhere on Earth I had some sperm frozen…
   “So what did happen, Shean, dear? I’ve heard rumours. You’re the hero of the hour!”
   Coughin’ and gaggin’, I slammed down the bottle with a thunk. Alcohol burned my lips as I cocked my head and glared out of one eye at her. “Hero!? Hah! All I did was go ’long for the ride.”
   The first time I’d been a hero… well, not really, but I’d made the choices that saved a few lives. This time I’d just been the passenger.
   “That’s not what I hear.” She scratched behind one ear and gently kissed me below my left eye, the warm breath from her nostrils makin’ me blink as I gasped.
   Turnin’ away, I felt shame burn. “Wasn’t anythin’ I did. I was screwed. Then this Stapledon blasts in, gets luckier than the whole blamed human race when they didn’t push the button over London, and yanks me and my passengers to safety. Hell, I couldn’t even thank him! All I could see was his ship as he dropped the tow near the Rock’s north pole. Like nothin’ I’d ever seen. All engine. Heck, there’s no way anybody could have been pilotin’ it, but somebody had to!”
   She wiggled around until she was sittin’ in my lap, each of her legs stretchin’ to either side as she kissed me again. “What was this Stapledon like? Tall? Handsome? He was a fox, I bet—”
   She winked at that last and my growl died in my throat as I let her weight push me back into the soft velvety chair. Good thing my tail was gone—chair would have been hell otherwise. Humans paid for treatment like this. Me, I was just splurgin’. Not like I couldn’t afford it; I didn’t buy much, only some vids, pay for the care of Bucephalus (and I’ll get to him later). Transmission up from earthside was cheap, not like haulin’ freight.
   “Ah Kirri, I told you. Never saw him. Never had a chance to thank the bastard.”
   She started rockin’ gently up and down, her tail bouncin’ behind her. Damn, but this vixen was good! “What was his voice like? Maybe I’ve met him.” Her tone turned dreamy. “Bet you he’s human.”
   I spluttered and snorted, my lips still sensitive from the last unplanned splash of vodka. Sure, there was prejudice, it’s part of why I’d come up here. In space it was your skills that mattered, not your form or your body. And, not all humans were bad, just some. The Doc, old Robert de la Tierra, and I—we got along good when I’d paid him to tutor me. Even so, I’d always felt like I was fightin’ a glass ceilin’, always provin’ that I was as good as any human pilot. “I don’t know what he was! Nothin’ I know could have fit into the ship I saw. His voice sounded like a Brain, but that’s impossible.”
   She blinked; her ears flicked. Her tail went still and she stopped movin’. “A Brain?”
   “That’s what the bastard sounded like! Always sayin’ ‘God willin’, and—”
   A voice boomed from the front room: “This is the police! Nobody move!” The voice was low, and loud. Somebody sure knew how to give a command. Even in the state I was in, I wanted to snap to attention.
   Kirri stopped and hopped off my lap.
   “Sorry, big boy, but I’ve got to get out of here. If you come, we can talk, and then…” She winked.
   Normally, if I hadn’t been so hot and eager and buzzed, I’d have said no. But with a nice warm glow, it’s hard for a stallion to refuse a pretty vixen. “Sure, little Miss Kirri. Lead on so that we can make beautiful music together.”
   Her ears flicked, and she looked indecisive. Mutterin’ somethin’, she then nodded to herself. Movin’ silently, naked but for the fur in which she was born, she padded over to the wall and yanked on one of the decorative panels. To my surprise it opened. “In you go, big boy. There’s only one way and I’ll be behind you.”
   With some difficulty I staggered to my hooves as the room spun. Others would have been nauseous, but pilot trainin’ does wonders for your balance. With my hooves loud on the rough stone floor carved out of the cooled asteroid, I made my way over to her. Her ears flinched with each clop of my hooves.
   The commandin’ voice echoed from outside. “Make your way to the entrance one at a time. Have your ID ready. You will not be harmed if you co-operate, we’re only looking for a dangerous insurgent. She’s a vixen, but could be in disguise so we need to check you all. Sergeant! Start checking the back rooms.”
   “Shit!” she whispered. “If we didn’t need to know the details—Get a move on, you big hunk!”
   “Is that any way to talk to your lover for the evenin’?”
   I could see her hands clench. “I’m sorry, dear, I—I just have to get going. Hurry along please, then we can get somewhere private.”
   Noddin’, I gave a clumsy bow, and then went into the passage. It was cramped; she’d have to crawl, but I was short enough that I could walk crouched. I could feel the tips of my ears touchin’ the irregular roof. She was right behind me, I could feel her body pressin’ against mine. Her tail tickled my backside, and I turned my head enough to watch her grab some handles and slowly drag the panel closed with a dull thud. There was no light, just pitch blackness.
   “You wanna do it in the dark, Kirri?”
   She muttered somethin’, and then spoke. “Not here, I know some place cozier. Just move along, and try to be quiet—we don’t want to be disturbed.” As she gave me a gentle shove, and I could smell her nervousness and desperation. Snortin’, I felt my way, my hooves loud and echoin’ in the silence. I was soberin’ awful fast.
   My clearin’ mind began wonderin’. Where was this passage goin’? See, after the Rock—I think it was one of the Apollos, 1986 DA if I remember right… Anyway, they put an Orion drive on the Rock and moved it into a distant orbit about Earth. Then they spun it and focused sunlight on it with mirrors. It heated up and melted; the spin made it a damn big centrifuge, so they grabbed the mostly-pure materials as they separated out. After the good stuff cooled, it got shipped either to Mare Crisium, or the L4 point. What was left over, the slag, they figured they’d re-install the Orion drive an’ use that to drop it into the Sun. Then one of the Company’s entertainment sub-divisions had a brainstorm: Why not use the Rock as a place for all the orbital workers to relax? They let the slag cool, drilled a hole in the core, filled that with ice, and then refocused the mirrors. So the Rock got spun up again, re-melted, the ice vapourized, and steam pressure blew the rock up into a hollow cylinder. A nice, handy Cole habitat.
   Well, the point’s this: No tunnels formed anywhere along the way. Whatever tunnels there were, they’d all been all dug or drilled. And that meant that this passage had been drilled by someone for some purpose.
   I stopped and sniffed. Nothin’ but the scent of sex, horse and vixen. No sound but the soft pad of her pawsteps. Then she crawled into me, almost knockin’ me over.
   She hissed at me, her voice low: “Why’d you stop? We’re still too close, they can hear us!”
   I kept my voice low as I answered, most of the warm fog gone from my brain. “Kirri, there’s somethin’ funny here, and I, for one, don’t like it.” I patted my chest. “The gengineers gave my kind damn good livers.” Turnin’ around, I felt and then grasped her fuzzy arm. I could smell her fear and sweat. “What’s goin’ on?”
   “Shean, you’ve got to trust me.”
   “Trust you? Why? Sure, you’re a good lay, nice and warm on a cold night on this here Rock, but—”
   I could feel her muscles tense. She swallowed, the sound loud in the silence. I thought I could hear muffled voices from behind us. “I’m one of those… umm… mutineers the Company keeps complaining about.”
   I almost dropped her arm and fled right then and there, but my options were limited. I had no clue where I was, and I doubted the Company cops outside would take kindly to my burstin’ out of a hidden passage. Of course, back then there was nothin’ wrong with hoodwinkin’ the Corp. Everybody did it. Hell, I’d’a had a suit in my cockpit if I could’ve figured a way to fit it! The Zero-G Rat had never been licensed; the recreational aids and drugs were there even though they were officially against regs. But these mutineers were somethin’ different. They didn’t just break little rules, they wanted to kick the Corp out of the Rock—make the Rock their own.
   “I’m out of here. You can take your deathwish and get out my life.”
   “But, Shean—”
   “Don’t you dare ‘but, Shean’ me! Let’s say you take over the Rock—not hard. Then what? There’s still Earth, the lunar colonies. A few rockets, a few shuttles, the marines come, and it’s all over. Well, I don’t aim to die with you. You’re safe, fine, good, dandy. But that’s all. I wash my hands of you.”
   “You’re just like all the rest! Short-sighted, mindless bigots! Oh, we’re ‘evil’, we’re ‘stupid’. Has it occurred to you that maybe, just maybe, we have a brain or two?”
   Muffled, in the distance from behind us, I heard, “There was somebody here, recently, They left stuff behind, and I can smell them. They’ve got to be here somewhere—”
   I forced my voice back down to a hiss. “Well, your friends are behind us now, and I doubt they’ll believe me. Why don’t you lead on, little miss. Take me to your exit and we’re done.”
   She shoved her way past me, her perfume ticklin’ my nostrils. “Let me lead then!” I could feel her silky fur rushin’ against my side.
   “Of course! Though I hope you got somethin’ to slow ’em down, ’cause they’re goin’ to find the door, and so far there’s only been one way to go.”
   “Men!” She shoved her tail in my muzzle and I almost gagged, but then I heard her faintly crawlin’ off and followed, my hooves loud on the naked stone. Like other ungulate furs on the Rock, I had a pair of rubber boots to protect my hooves—but they were back in the room with the cops. Damn her for yankin’ me away!
   We walked for a while, the air was cool and stale. The scent of alcohol on my breath was fadin’. All I wanted was to get the hell out of there. Get back to my shuttle, which was under repair, and get back to work. I’d always learned avoidance, bein’ too small to fight. Brains and cunnin’ and speed kept me safe in school. Not this fightin’ st—
   “We made it!” There was a click, and a dim overhead light flickered on, revealin’ an intersection. My eyes blinked and watered in the sudden brightness. I could see that the tunnel was smooth, almost glossy—it had to have been carved by one of those laser tunnelers. By the time I’d focused my sight again, she’d advanced half way down one of the two branches.
   “Where you goin’?”
   “Here’s where we separate. You go down that passage,” she pointed, “it’ll eventually come out in the west corner of Ceres Park.”
   “And where are you goin’?”
   “Umm… This way leads deeper into a labyrinth. If I showed you, I’d have to kill you. Nothing personal.”
   “Nothin’ personal?”
   “Just get going. The light will shut off when it no longer senses motion. No sense making it easy for the company thugs.”
   Sniffin’ at the right fork, I could tell that the air was stale and cold. I may not have been in tunnels before, but when you spend a good chunk of your time in life support built by the lowest bidder, you get damn good at checkin’ the air quality. Somethin’ stank here—and it wasn’t me.
   “Kirri, I’m goin’ with you, and there ain’t goin’ to be no arguin’. It’s probably best for your security if I just die down here, lost and forgotten. I don’t aim to let that happen.”
   “You can’t come with me! You’ll see too much.”
   “Shoulda thought of that before you brought me. Too late now.”
   She looked at me, tail held still, ears movin’ all about. I could see a moment of indecision. No way I was goin’ to wait for her to draw a gun or somethin’ and shoot me. Though she was naked as the day she was foaled, I wasn’t about to take the chance. Like the horses I was designed to ride, I’d been made to run, and I leapt into a gallop. I could have galloped towards our ‘friends’ behind us, but I didn’t trust the Company goons either. They were more’n likely to drug me up and forget to let me go. So I galloped straight towards her.
   “Wait!” she called.
   You know, there’s somethin’ about doin’ what you’re bred to. I doubt humans can ever experience it. It’s a purity of body, of soul. I burst past her like lightnin’ and dashed off down that tunnel, dashed off into the darkness, crouched down, hooves clompin’ off the stone, the sound echoin’ all around me. I couldn’t see where I was goin’, but I didn’t care. My ears flicked around, grabbin’ the echoes and workin’ out their direction so I had a little clue as to the shape of the passage.
   But that really wasn’t important to me. My mind was set on fleein’, and I was goin’ to flee, no matter how stupid it was. Ridin’ the high of the run, I barely had enough presence of mind to hold my arms forward, even though the movement interfered with the gait. That saved my life as my hands touched the thin rope stretched across just before my neck would have hit it and likely snapped. I didn’t know how strong the rope was, how well anchored, so I crouched under it. I could feel it scrapin’ the back of my neck, draggin’ through my mane. Don't know what it was supposed to do; anybody normal-sized woulda been crawlin’ here, an’ who crawls fast enough to break a neck? Thing was probably connected to some kinda pressure point, collapse the tunnel or God knows what.
Anyway, o’ course I didn’t notice the small outcroppin’ of rock stickin’ outta the smooth floor. It caught the tip of my hoof and I went flyin’; my hands flailin’ forward as I slammed down, my hoof and nostrils shovin’ painfully into the rock even though I tried to stop myself with my arm strength—
   I don’t think I was out for long. Next thing I knew, Kirri was on my back, pressin’ me down onto the cold hard floor. Snortin’ hard, I spewed blood out one nostril as her arm tightened around my neck. My breath rattled down my throat, and I could feel the beatin’ of my heart in my ears.
   “Shean, tell me everything about the ship that rescued you.”
   Bein’ small, I’d always had problems with bullies. At least I hadn’t gone to a human school. “Ain’t it all on video? You must have se-”
   Her arm clenched tighter, and I couldn’t breathe. I struggled, but she was near twice my size. It was no contest. My body ached to run, but I couldn’t, and that just made me clench in panic and fear. “Shean, I don’t have time for this. I need to know; the tape is classified, even Mike couldn’t get it.”
   “Who—who’s Mike?”
   “Shut up!” she hissed, tightenin’ her arm a tad. “Just answer the damned question.”
   “You’ll just kill me anyway. Where’d the other passage go? Dead end? Pits? And—if the—if the information is so damned important to you—why’d you plan to leave me to die?”
   “Never you mind! Made sense at the time, use you as a decoy, ask you later. But, oh no, you had to come this way with—”
   From behind us I heard voices piercin’ through the darkness. “Light shows a fork up ahead. You two take the left, the rest with me.”
   “Shit!” she screeched. I felt her crawlin’ over me, foot-claws tearin’ at my flesh, and then she hurried off.
   For a moment I just shook my head, snorted more blood out of one nostril. I thought about waitin’, but that wouldn’t be no better. At least if I stayed with her, I’d be reasonably certain there were no more traps. Draggin’ myself to my hooves, I sneezed, and then licked my nostrils, feelin’ blood ooze out of a cut. Hell… Crouchin’ down, I clomped after her, the sound of my hooves echoin’ loudly all around.
   From behind us I heard: “They’re down this way! Everybody follow!”
   Fuck! Well, nothin’ for it. It wasn’t long till I felt Kirri’s tail against my muzzle, and then I slowed.
   “Why couldn’t you have taken the other way! You’d have been the perfect decoy!”
   “Where the hell does that go?”
   “Dead end. With your hooves they’d have followed you, and I’d have had more time.”
   Snortin’, I licked some more blood off my nostril. “I don’t think they’re any faster than you.”
   “Just shut up. It’s going to take me a week to clean the dust out of my knee fur.”
   “You coulda just asked me, you know.”
   “Asked you about what?”
   “About the ship that saved me. Big tall thing. No life support I could see, no control capsule. No clue where the pilot was. Couldn’t be a Brain.”
   “More details would be nice. Mike’ll ask for them.”
   “This Mike, he your leader or somethin’?”
   “I can’t tell you that!”
   A horrible thought popped into my head. It couldn’t be—I remembered an old book about a revolution off Earth, led by Mike—Couldn’t be. No bloody way. “You folks plannin’ to win your freedom from Earth by throwin’ rocks on it from an electromagnetic catapult?”
   She stopped and then screeched as I trotted into her. “How’d you know that?”
   Somehow I managed to keep my balance. I still didn’t believe it, but it never hurt to ask. “Mike’s the Brain on New Ceres, isn’t he?”
   For a second there was silence, except for the distant sound of crawlin’ from behind. “How the fuck do you know that!?”
   I just could not help but burst out laughin’.
   “This isn’t funny! You’re sticking with me, we need to talk.” I heard her start crawlin’ again.
   “You’re idiots. Your entire revolution is a pile of damn-fool idiots!”
   “Shut up! Just shut up! At least we’re trying to do something!”
   “There’s nothin’ we can do! It’ll get better in time.” I saw a light up ahead.
   “There’s far too many like you, you know. Too lazy to fight for what’s right. Too stupid to see that they need to. The Brains are trying to help, but there’re too many humans who hate us!”
   “You want to revolt, Kirri? Fine. But maybe, just maybe, you shouldn’t use a novel for a template. A novel the humans can read, too!”
   The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, by Robert A Heinlein. It’s about how a lunar penal colony revolts against Earth, with the aid of a sentient computer named Mycroft—‘Mike’ for short.”
   “Coincidence,” she said, but she sounded a mite doubtful.
   “The damn Brain here’s playin’ with you. When we get out, I’m gone. You can go and get hanged on your own.”
   “Shean… I think… I think we may have gotten off on the wrong paw. We’re almost out. Come with me to see the Doc. We can talk in a civilized manner. You can hear our story.”
   “Doc?” My eyes widened, though she couldn’t see. “You mean Robert de la Tierra?” That was old Doc Tierra, a human who lived on the Rock. Nobody knew what he did, or why he was there. What he was, was a kind of jack of all trades. If you wanted to learn how to do somethin’, you asked him. I’d hired him to tutor me in orbital calculus when the Brains on Earth tightened up the licensin’ requirements for pilots. He was probably the smartest guy I’d ever met, other than the Brains. If he was in this rebellion, maybe there was somethin’ to it. “He’s a part of the revolution?”
   “Who knows? He gives me advice, but he’s not a member of any cell I’m aware of.”
   “Well, then. Lead on.”

-= 3 =-

   As I’d half-expected, the tunnel let out in the west corner of Ceres Park. The entrance was hidden inside the stone wall that surrounded the park, in a cul-de-sac you couldn’t see unless you were damn near on top of it.
   Those days, the Rock’s interior was pretty bland—the sculptin’ had barely begun. There were lots of rough stone buildin’s made of rockcrete poured into sculpted molds and artificially weathered by sandblastin’. Those first buildin’s were tough, sealed, and with doors and windows designed to stay airtight in case o’ sudden pressure loss. The park, like everywhere else, was naked rock, ’cept with some paths smoothed out of the same poured and sculpted rockcrete. Rock crushers were workin’ to create the beginnin’s of soil, and water was bein’ shipped up as fast as we could carry it. The light tubes along the axis had been put in, and were on all the time—day and night schedules were for the future. All around echoed the distant sounds of machinery, construction, and the odd curse barely audible in the distance.
   My nostrils wrinkled at the dry dust in the air, and I sneezed as my hooves clopped on the dull rock followin’ behind Kirri as she hurried, both of us naked as the day we was foaled. Nudity wasn’t outlawed, but it wasn’t appreciated either. Fortunately, the Doc didn’t live too far. Once the Rock was finished, he’d have a nice home overlookin’ the park and a burblin’ fountain, but right now it was all dry rock and rubble. She jumped off the path and I followed, slippin’ and almost losin’ my balance in the coarse gravel. Soon my hooves were sore, and I coulda sworn a shard was stuck in the soft part. I cursed her, makin’ me leave my rubber hoofboots behind, but we arrived at the Doc’s place afore I got pissed enough to say anythin’. She knocked, her knuckles rappin’ sharp an’ loud on the fake-wood-paneled carbon-fibre-composite entrance. A camera clicked on, silence, and then the door latch clunked.
   The Doc, a human, stood there, spotlit in the raw glow from the light tubes, eyes blinkin’. He smelled of pipe smoke, and wore old-style clothin’ and spectacles on his eyes. Nobody had any clue why he hadn’t got his eyes fixed, but there was all kinds of rumours.
   “Miss Galgane! Dare I enquire about your friend?” His voice was deep for a human’s, short and gruff and impatient.
   “We need to talk. In private. About, you know—”
   “Ah.” He winked. “About coming to your senses, I hope. Do come in, both of you, won’t you please? Just follow me, and don’t touch anything. Kirri, I’ll thank you to be good enough to close the door behind you. It’s good to see you again, Shean!” With that he turned, stridin’ quickly off into the dimly lit interior. Kirri followed close behind, her claws clickin’ on the stone tiles, and I scurried after, first closin’ the heavy door. My hooves clattered on the stone and I staggered, barely catchin’ myself. Yep, my hoof had a stone caught. Leanin’ against the wall and balancin’ on one hoof, I lifted the other and picked at it with one finger. The sensitive skin tickled and I finally felt the tiny rock shard stuck in it.
   Kirri padded her way back to me. “Get a move on! The Doctor’s a busy man!”
   “Just give me a second!”
   “I’ll give you–”
   “Miss Galgane! Surely you didn’t lead him across the gravel, did you? Don’t you know anything? Such ill-treatment might well have lamed him, and that’s the last thing he needs. Is there any assistance I might offer you, Shean?”
   “Apologies for my appearance, but I got dragged here with very little warnin’. Not your fault.” The stone was stubborn, too small for me to get a good grip on. “If you’ve a spoon or a pick, or even a knife, I’d surely appreciate it.”
   He pulled a massive knife out of a scabbard on his belt, flipped it, and handed it to me hilt-first. Noddin’, I took it and pried the damn rock out. It finally came, pinged off a wall and a bead of blood formed. It’d heal. I let my hoof clomp to the floor and put some weight on it… yeah, it’d do. “Thanks, Doc.” Handin’ his knife back, I held it carefully by its blade as he’d done.
   “Hmph! It would be a most excellent thing if people could make an effort to accommodate the frailties of their fellow passengers on this Rock. Come along, then.” He turned and walked off, his soft shoes paddin’ on the floor as Kirri and I followed. We passed one door and reached another which he opened and motioned us in. The room was bare, consistin’ of some chairs, a table, and stark bare walls. A single flickerin’ fluorescent lit the place. “Please, do go in, be seated. Miss Galgane, might I impose on you to explain why you two are here?”
   I trotted over, limpin’ a bit, and sat down on one of the cheap chairs that was too big for me. Meanwhile, the Doc took out a pipe, a tiny thing of ivory, and lit it. Soon his face was surrounded by thick, reekin’ clouds o’ black smoke. Hadn’t he heard from the Brains how foul that stuff was, how bad it was for his health?
   “Shean’s rescue,” she said. “I was going to get the details from him this evening, but some uninvited guests spoiled my plans—Company goons. I left, of course. And Shean insisted on coming along, and, well, here we are.”
   I started. “Okay Kirri, why do you need to know about what happened to me? Why does Mike need to know?”
   “There’s a rumour… On Earth they’ve solved the Brain life-support problem. Made it small, portable—”
   Of course! Small enough to put in a ship. No visible life support capsule. Twenty-five G acceleration. The tone of voice, all the ‘God Willin’ crap. The unbelievably lucky pilotin’. It had to be a Brain— “Fine. It was a Brain runnin’ that ship. Nothin’ else is possible. The pilotin’ was too precise. So what?”
   “Shean, you should be with us! We furs are downtrodden. We have no rights—”
   “Kirri, UN Amendment 15812c. We have the same legal rights as anybody else.”
   “But they don’t treat us the same! We get thrown out here so they don’t have to go—”
   “’Cause we’re better at a lot of jobs than humans are, and space don’t give anybody no breaks.”
   “Have you been on Earth? Tried to go to their washrooms? Tried to ride on their magtrains?”
   “Have you read any history? Humanity used to be divided, they used to have their own lower class. Now the blacks and Indians have the same rights. It just takes time.”
   “Humanity are the wolves, we’re their sheep! Their slaves! We get all the dirty, risky jobs! They stay in their homes, watch the reality shows we die in. The Brains do the thinking, we do the slaving and the dying! How can you support that?”
   “I don’t! I support me. I came out here to make my own way—do somethin’ I’m better at than anyone else, pay for my own air, water, an’ food. To make my own life as I choose. Humans are out here for the same reason I am! They can’t do anythin’ on Earth any more, the Brains—”
   “But the Brains want to help us!”
   Right about then’s when it hit me, well an’ truly. I whispered, realizin’ myself what was goin’ to happen. “The Brains do everythin’ on Earth. Cheaper, faster, more efficient. Humanity used to work, struggle, but… they stopped. More and more stayed home. More and more chose to be upgraded into Brains. The rest went to space. Life support for a human was cheaper than the complex system needed by the bio-cybernetic systems of the Brains…”
   For the first time, the Doc seemed to pay attention, turnin’ to look at me.
   Oblivious, Kirri asked, “What the hell are you talking about, Shean!?”
   “And now there’s Brains that can compete with me!” I slumped back into the chair.
   “So what? The Brains want to help us!” the vixen repeated.
   “Of course they do! They want to help us like they helped humanity! Make us stay in our homes watchin’ the TV they create, waitin’ till we’re all dead or we’ve all joined them! Well, I say fuck ’em! Fuck ’em all!”
   “Think, damn you! Use some of that brain the gengineers programmed into you! You’re here to pleasure us workers; we’re here ’cause we’re cheaper than Brains or robots. Now there’s Brains that can do what we do in ships. If I live that long, I’ll be shipped back to Earth with no job… live on public support ’til I get killed on one’a them reality shows, or die of old age in front of the vid, or join them as a Brain. And when I go, and the rest of us jockeys, and tunnel workers, then you’ll follow. Eventually, there’ll be nothin’ in space but Brains!
   “Don’t you see!? It doesn’t matter! Say you revolt, everythin’ works like clockwork, you get recognized as a state. The little Brains start doin’ all the hard work, you end up in your little room watchin’ the vid they create, or joinin’ them! The damn Brains win! It’s a game to them! Somethin’ to keep them amused!”
   “I don’t believe you.”
   The Doc’s voice was harsh and cold when he finally broke in. “Kirri, it does not please me to speak so to a woman, but… you’re a fool. A smart one, to be sure, but a fool all the same. I’ll have to ask both of you to come with me; we need to seriously talk.” He got up and puffed out a cloud of black smoke that clung to his stringy white hair. Havin’ nothin’ better to do, and curious now, I got up and limped clompily after him. Kirri snorted and followed. The Doc led us out and down the hallway, through a door, down another short hall, through another door, and down a staircase carved out of the Rock. I hated staircases, with my digitigrade stance it was always a pain to use ’em without bangin’ my ankles. Well, at least he’d provided a railin’, which I clung to for dear life as I backed down. I followed him into a long, carpeted room lined with honest-to-God books. I could tell that most had been printed and bound on the Rock, but there were a few hundred that’d been shipped up—their scent was rich and old, distinctive and unforgettable. That scent—I remembered checkin’ ’em off a manifest; at the time I figured they was for a museum or somethin’. Must have cost him a fortune.
   “If you’ll pardon me for a moment, I’ll get some wine. In the meantime, please do make yourselves comfortable. I rather suspect that this is likely to take a long time.” With a long whooshin’ sigh of release I sat down on one of the padded chairs, pushin’ myself up until my hooves hung off the floor. Kirri’s eyes were damn near bouncin’ off the walls; for some reason, she wasn’t happy. The Doc opened a cupboard, threw some switches, and I felt the hairs in my ears tingle slightly from sudden static in the air.
   “What’d you do, Doc?”
   “A bit of electronic wizardry, the better to ensure we’re not being eavesdropped upon. Granted, there is no way to be absolutely certain, but this contraption will flummox every listening device I’ve ever heard of.” He pulled out a bottle and a pair of glasses and filled them both.
   “You’ve never taken me here!” Kirri screeched.
   “No, I have not, Kirri. And that is for the simple reason that I never had anything important to talk to you about. If you would do me the courtesy of keeping your mouth closed while your ears are not, perhaps you might learn something. Shean,” he leaned over and handed me a glass of a thick red liquid before sittin’ down, “I’ll thank you to tell me, in detail, what you know about this Brainship.”
   I told him. When I was done he sat for a while, puffin’ on his pipe until a cloud of bluish smoke orbited about his head. Meanwhile, Kirri found a glass and poured herself some of the wine. I’d only sipped at mine; never cared much for it, though this was rich and smooth.
   Finally the Doc spoke. “There are times when being right is not a pleasant thing… Shean, I fear your information confirms something that I’ve long dreaded the coming of. It is the harbinger of a future I have devoutly wished would never arrive—or, if it were inevitable, that it would at least have the decency to wait until after I was safely dead.”
   “What?” Kirri asked.
   “I can sum it up in four dire words: The end of freedom. The reason I chose to emigrate to the Rock is because I could see where the world was going. Our equine friend is quite right, Kirri: With the advent of the Brains, humanity’s range of viable lifestyles has become depressingly limited. And none of the available options appealed to me; I’m too fond of corporeal existence to become a Brain, my physical attributes render me decidedly unsuitable for the reality games, and I’ve far too large a ‘bump of curiousity’ to set my intellect aside and eventually devolve into a couch potato. Up here, my choices are without limit; I’ve been able to dabble in whatever I please, as I please. But that will end when the Brains replace everybody. After all, space is hazardous, and why should non-Brains risk themselves?”
   I poked at that for a bit as he puffed. “Then we have to leave. Someplace we don’t need the Brains, and we can make our own way. There’s no other option.”
   “Go where?” Kirri asked.
   “That my dear, is the question,” the Doc said as he refilled his pipe. “First ‘where’, and then ‘how’. There is a habitable planet close at hand, to be sure, but in view of its current masters…”
   “You mean Earth,” I said.
   “Precisely,” Doc said. “Earth, and no other world in the Solar System. This being the case, brute necessity dictates that we must needs take our own life support with us. Perhaps we might need to go as far as the asteroids—”
   Then I saw it; if I’d been religious, I’d have said it was a vision. “Asteroids aîn’t far enough. Even if we just go, sooner or later they’ll follow. We have t’ go so far that the Brains won’t ever find us, or so far there’s room for us both. We need our own planet. Nothin’ less will do.”
   The Doc nodded.
   Kirri asked, “What do you mean ‘our own planet’? You said it yourself, there aren’t any—”
   “Zeta Tucanae. The Grand Planetary Survey found a planet with the right spectrograph for water, and the right size for a terrestrial planet, orbiting Zeta Tucanae.”
   “Zeta Tucanae?” Kirri burst out. “Where’s that—you’re not talking about another star, are you!?”
   The Doc asked, “Indeed he is. But… why not the asteroids, if I may ask? Why should it not suffice to emigrate to the outer moons, or even, at the most, the Oort cloud?”
   Shakin’ my head, I answered. Wasn’t that important to me, this discussion was all hypothetical anyway. Just a logical extension of the facts bein’ talked about. “They’re no good, Doc. Anywhere in the System, the Brains can follow too easy. If they got an antimatter drive, which’d explain the acceleration, they could probably make it to Pluto in a week. We gotta go so far they won’t want to follow us.”
   “But—but—star flight isn’t possible!”
   “Sure it is, Kirri. Take New Ceres: When it’s finished, it’ll be fully self-contained. The Orion drive’s more’n capable of drivin’ an interstellar ship, guaranteed. That’s a fact, known since it got thought up in the twentieth century. All we need’s the will and the supplies.”
   The Doc rubbed his nose. “Presuming my knowledge of the construction timeline to be accurate—” It was, knowin’ Doc. “—the drive shall be re-installed within a year or so, after which it shall maneuver us to our final orbit around Earth. However, there is a logistical problem: We won’t have a sufficient quantity of water. According to the Company’s schedule of events, the Rock will continue to import water for another twenty-one months.”
   “So we make our own schedule,” I said with a shrug. “There’s lots of ice out there—Saturn’s rings, a shitload o’ Kuiper Belt objects, a bigger shitload out in the Oort. Should probably grab some and stick it on the bow for shieldin’—”
   “Men!” Kirri burst out. “Your plan is all fine and dandy, but the people won’t go for it. They won’t want to leave Earth.”
   I watched the Doc answer. “Kirri, I think you fail to appreciate the extent to which public opinion may be manipulated, if not outright manufactured. It is merely a question of how best to present the facts in order to yield the desired amount and degree of persuasion. Thus, it would be most appropriate to keep our fellow Rock-rats very well-informed of the Brains’ cruel and amoral manipulations, but for the present, there is no need to tell them any more of our plan than that it involves moving New Ceres somewhere out beyond Saturn. Once we’re underway, and the actual state of affairs is a fait accompli, then it will be time enough for the Voice of the People to be heard in all its majesty and ineffable wisdom. And, of course, if the Brains do choose to pursue us, what choice would we have but to go further?”
   Her eyes brightened. “Well, at least we have the existing rebellion for a starting—”
   “You sure ’bout that?” I interrupted. “You absolutely sure? Old rebellion’s run by a Brain. No way in Hell you can trust ’em. Your old set-up’s compromised an’ a joke, right from the start. What you need’s a whole new, well, everything.”
   “But—it’s run by Mike! Of course we can trust him!” Damn. She hadn’t heard a word I’d said earlier, had she? “He’s got our best interests at heart! He’s helping us agains-”
   “Kirri!” the Doc broke in. “I will thank you to shut up and listen. Do take note of the information I shall impart to you now, because I’m only going to say it once. Look at Earth: Now, and for the foreseeable future, that world’s populace is made up of precisely three kinds of sophonts. Imprimus, those who sit in their rooms watching vid; secundus, those who want to become Brains; and tertius, those who are Brains. Perhaps you might deign to inform us which of those groups you would be most comfortable as a member of? Would you like to give up all the fundamental aspects of your physical existence in order to become a soulless machine? Perhaps you’d rather spend the rest of your days sitting in a comfortable chair, all of your excretory plumbing hooked up to tubes, watching reality games until what’s left of your atrophied brain dribbles out your ears?”
   “Of course not! But Mike told me that we could live in freedom here on New Ce-”
   Since the Doc was on a roll, I let him school her a second time. “Kirri, it is not a question of expressed intentions. Rather, it is a question of the inevitable unfolding of economic and historical processes. We are going to revolt against the Company, and against the Brains; very well. What do you think is going to happen afterwards? If we are unsuccessful, we are all likely to end up dead, so there is no ‘afterwards’ to consider. But if we are successful… what then?
   “Well…” The pretty little vixen furrowed her pretty little brow. “If we win… we win! Isn’t that what we want?”
   Doc sighed. “Of course. Kirri, have you any concept of what sort of people are coming up to New Ceres? What demographic categories they fall into, what skill-sets and innate aptitudes they possess?”
   “They’re workers. Support crew. Entertainers for the workers that will live here as more people move into orbit.”
   “Correct. Now, Kirri, exactly how much of the Rock’s volume do you believe is required to accomodate those worthies? More importantly, how much space will be required for that purpose in future? Think! Use that blood-bathed brain of yours. We know that Brains can now have their biological support made smaller than a sophont’s—even smaller than Shean’s over there.”
   I nodded. Doc wasn’t sayin’ anythin’ I hadn’t already said, but Kirri needed to get it through her skull.
   “From now on,” Doc said, “a Brain needs no more than a small ship, possibly smaller than any shuttle we have now. Whatever electrical power he shall need, solar panels can more than provide it. Should he require gravity, it will be trivially easy to spin his ship for that purpose. Naturally, he shall have mechanical manipulators of some sort, the better to physically interact with his immediate environment. He will be able to move about in orbit at no cost in fuel or reaction mass; his ship will have all manner of conductive wires in it, exploiting the Earth’s magnetic field for thrust as if it were part of an planet-sized electric dynamo.” Kirri looked like she wanted to interrupt, but Doc spotted it and didn’t let her: “The particular technology I here speak of has been in use by a variety of satellites for rather more than a century, so one can hardly object that it’s either hypothetical or untried. But I digress. In any case: This Brain will of course have a living component… but that component’s organic needs will be sufficiently restricted that they can be satisfied with nothing more than gene-tailored algae. So, the question becomes: Can the likes of you, I, or Shean compete with that?”
   She didn’t look worried, just puzzled. “Well… no, I don’t suppose…”
   “Nor do I, Kirri. Nor do I. Therefore, the exigencies of economic efficiency ensure that conventional personnel must, and eventually will, be wholly displaced by Brains. Exactly what percentage of spaceborne Brains do you imagine will choose to avail themselves of the leisure activities you provide, if I may ask?”
   Now she got it. I scratched my chin for a second. “Then why’s the Company still workin’ on the Rock? The Brains must know what’s goin’ to happen. They’d have told the Company that New Ceres will go bust real fast. And yet, in the past six months they’ve pushed up immigration. Haven’t had the time for proper maintenance, that’s probably why Hermes pranged. And we keep bringin’ up more and more people…”
   Doc gestured at me. “And here we have two fine specimens of the other type of sophont, Kirri—us, he and I. We who are the dreamers, the doers, those who wish to learn, who want challenges. There’s nothing for us on Earth, because whatever we might want to do, the Brains do it better. There was a time when we unfortunate pure-organic types could at least compete in orbit, to be sure… but that era will soon be ancient history.”
   In a quiet voice I speculated, “I wonder if they’re tryin’ to get us up here—all of us dreamers an’ troublemakers—so it’s easier to take us out—”
   Kirri burst in with, “That’s insane!”
   “Is it, truly?” the Doc asked. “That scenario is merely a logical consequence of the innate characteristics of Brains as compared to pure-organic sophonts—and the Brains are nothing if not logical.”
   “There’s also a bunch o’ facts that don’t make no sense if I’m wrong,” I pointed out. “Like, did’ja know they’ve cut the immigration fee in half? Why d’ you suppose the Company’s enticin’ people to jump onto a train wreck in the makin’? And how come there ain’t no medical clinic whatsoever up here that can Brainify a body?”
   “Well, the Company has psychological profiles of all us emigrants—they know we’re not likely to want to become Brains. It’s not some kind of evil conspiracy; it’s just that it wouldn’t make sense for them… to spend…” Kirri looked at us, looked from one to the other. Slowly her ears and tail slumped. “Good God…”
   “It would appear that this problem is one I shall have to deal with after all,” the Doc said. “So much for the vaunted blessings of modern medicine… Kirri, we simply cannot involve the Brains at all. Not a one of them in general, and especially not Mike in particular. This, of course, means that the existing rebel network cannot be involved with our work; if it is, he will be involved.”
   She sighed, her tail limp on the ground. “So we start over. Do it the old fashioned way.” She grinned, “At least we can use the old rebellion as a decoy, keep the cops busy.”
   Chills ran up and down my spine. Suddenly this had all gone from theoretical, to real. Maybe I could advise them… Snortin’, I shook my head. I knew this wasn’t goin’ to work, and yet, what other choice did I have? Sure, I could have just let fate make me obsolete, it would have been easier. But maybe this would give me a shot at the stars. At least it’ll be good for somethin’. “So Doc, Kirri, you two got any plans? I’m just the dumb rocket jock who stumbled into this.”
   The Doc refilled his pipe. “I think you underestimate yourself, dear boy. Be that as it may, I must acknowledge that I’ve given this topic a certain amount of thought ever since I got up here, and I flatter myself that my insights and conclusions may be of some value here and now. As I see it, the success of this enterprise is critically dependent upon three things We must control the drive system, we must control local space traffic, and above all, we must deal with Mike when the time comes.”
   Kirri nodded. “Looks like it’s going to be up to us to lead the rebellion.”
   “Naturally,” Doc said. “Of course, the optimal cell system dictates three-member cells… including the leadership.”
   It actually took me a moment to realize Doc was talkin’ about draggin’ me into this mess. Me! “What!?” Snortin’, I turned my muzzle to look directly at one, and then the other. “I don’t want to lead a rebellion! I won’t tell, but count me out.”
   The Doc looked at me. “Excuse me, Shean, but given the sentiments you expressed earlier, may I ask what else you would rather be doing? For instance, would you prefer to die in the reality games? It’s what you’ll end up doing if you survive long enough. Everything else will be too boring for you.”
   Kirri scratched her muzzle. “Okay, I accept that we need to do something, but I’m still not willing to accept that the Brains are evil—”
   “Thankfully, you needn’t do so,” Doc said. “The Company is run by Brains, just as is virtually every company, correct? And the Company’s management makes its soullessly efficient decisions, regardless of the cost in sophont lives. Tell me, Kirri: When poorly-maintained equipment causes deaths, does it matter to the corpses whether their demise was actively desired or, instead, that the possibility of harm to employees was deemed an acceptable risk? Whether the Brains are evil or good, they are most assuredly a threat!”
   “Dunno if they're evil, m'self… but why else’d they yank the survival bags out o’ the shuttles? I mean, are trained pilots so common we’re that easy t’ replace?”
   “A most cogent query, Shean, and one to which I don’t know the answer. Something doesn’t add up here, I freely admit it. But it hardly matters whether the Brains are carrying out a hidden agenda, or are, instead, actively evil; either way, they simply cannot be trusted! In any case, the rebellion is a necessity—and it should be fun!”
   “Fun, Doc?” Kirri asked.
   “Indubitably! This shall be the most fun I’ve had in years. It’s true that we risk getting caught, with the attendant spectre of who-knows-what punishments, but the intrinsic hazard only adds to the spice! But regardless of whether we win or lose, at least we’ll have tried. And that will put us a cut above most of the walking dead out there.”
   I sighed and flicked my ears. I had a bad feelin’ about this—a bad feelin’ o’ bein’ sucked down a drain and into the dark depths of disaster. “Well… if you’re goin’ to do this thing, you’ll need the head of the engine team, Phillip Alexandros. There’s also Darrvid Ruprecht, he’s in charge o’ near space control—you’ll need him on board to sneak anythin’ by.”
   “Of course,” the Doc said. “And we shall also need someone to be the rebellion’s public face—a personage who is known, and has desirable associations.”
   “That’s me!” the vixen said. “If you want someone associated with desire, I’m your girl!”
   “Ah… thank you, Kirri, but no. Neither you nor I are suitable candidates, albeit for different reasons. Rather, I believe Shean—”
   “No way, Doc! I don’t do politics!”
   The Doc, Bob, reached out a hand. “Shean, please reconsider. The rebellion needs you—we need you. If we’re in this, we’re in this together, ‘until death do us part’.”
   My head was spinnin’. “You’re goin’ too fast! I won’t play figurehead, and I can’t be a real leader, not for somethin’ like this. I’m just a damn rocket jock, for God’s sake! Who are we to decide for everybody off of Earth? What right do we have? You want it, you can have it!”
   “We have the right of brute necessity—the right of those who do a job that must be done. Nobody else is doing it; therefore, it’s up to us to take responsibility for our lives, and for the future of our world.” He stood up and turned, pullin’ a worn leather book off the shelf. “To be sure, the odds that one or more of us—perhaps all of us—will die are quite significant. Unlike certain fictional revolutionaries, we haven’t a convenient deus ex machina at hand to run the revolt for us, or guide us with probability projections. But in all honesty, and all good conscience, what choice do we have?” He turned and looked at me. “Shean, this struggle is going to be ugly. People will die. Our success is far from certain. There is even a good chance that we shall end up dead at the hands of the people to whose benefit we directed our labors. Nevertheless… your contacts and your reputation will be invaluable. We need you, Shean. The future needs you.”
   “You ain’t much good at speeches, Doc.” I should know—used to be on the debate team.
   “Shean,” Kirri said in a cold voice, “you know that we can’t risk spies. If you don’t—”
   The Doc motioned for Kirri to be quiet and looked at me. Looked deep into my eyes. “Shean, you know that I abhor coercion; I won’t even attempt to force you. As well, you know the price, both of success and failure. And, finally, you know what your options are; either you elect to join us, or you knowingly accept obsolescence. What do you have to lose? Isn’t it better to die for a hope, to die trying, than to surrender before the fight even starts? Shean, it’s up to you.”
   “Now tell me somethin’ I don’t know,” I snorted. “Hell, I’m the one who figured it out! What makes you think I care if I’m obsolete, Doc? You got any idea what a spaceship pilot’s life expectancy is? Odds are, I’ll be dead long before they get around to discardin’ me!”
   Very well, Shean. If that truly is your choice, I won’t even try to dissuade you from abandoning this necessary venture. But if you’ll allow me to, I would ask you one question before you leave: If you walk away, you will have left untold numbers of innocent lives in harm’s way when you had the power to do something about it.
   “Is that the sort of person you want to be?”
   Pullin’ my ears down, I shook my head. I wished I had a tail to whip back and forth, but wishin’ wouldn’t help anythin’. The logic was irrefutable—hell, I’d seen the problem myself. Either try this, or end up out of work and livin’ off the state like near everybody else… I kicked the leg of my chair, hard, with a hoof; the composite cracked, and I stumbled onto my hooves on the floor with a loud clomp, and then fell all tangled up.
   I sighed. “Fine. We’re here. I’m here. If you want me, you got me. Let’s do it. I guess somebody has to.”

-= 4 =-

   “So Darrvid, what’s the ETA on my ship? They won’t tell me anythin’.”
   It was a few days later, I’d invited Darrvid out for a drink. To be with a friend, to relax, to thank him for what he’d done… and to recruit him into this revolution I’d found myself in. I was supposed to trust the people I recruited, and there was nobody off Earth I trusted more than Darrvid. The Doc gave me one of his bug-jammin’ gizmoes and I’d sat us in a semi-private booth. Darrvid never could stand hamburgers, poor bastard, so I was sharin’ wings with him.
   Darrvid yawned, his muzzle stretchin’ wide open showin’ off all his teeth, and I couldn’t help but shudder. I knew he’d never eat me—hell, I was an omnivore m’self, as it made the internal plumbin’ more efficient—but y’ don’t dump a million years of evolution that easy. “Still going to be a couple of weeks. At least they think they know what happened!”
   “Oh? Do tell.”
   “The current theory is that the last maintenance check wasn’t up to spec. The tech, what was his name..? Ensign Kenneth Lamber, I think. Right, this Lamber checked you off as clear. The scuttlebutt that I’ve picked up said he had a hot date and was running behind schedule.”
   “Lamber? Don’t recognize the name.”
   “It happened at the High York side of your run. Wouldn’t let that crap happen here.”
   I sighed, foldin’ one ear down. “Nobody gives a damn any more, do they? You’d think he’d have cared—”
   “Shean,” Darrvid lowered his voice, “the guy’s human.”
   “Don’t tell me you’ve bought into that ‘all humans hate us’ crap!”
   Darrvid wolfed down a couple spicy chicken wings. Well, they claimed to be made of chicken, leastways. I had my doubts. “Shean, they do hate us. We need to do something about it.”
   “It’ll pass.”
   He lowered his voice and leaned close, the thick stench of garlic caressin’ my nostrils. “Shean, we need to do something. The world isn’t going to change.”
   I blinked, and finished off my beer. “Refills!” Then I lowered my voice to match his. “Fine, we gotta do somethin’. What d’ we do? That’s one of the reasons I came up here. Guess I’ll have to inspect the shuttle myself next time.”
   “Old friend, you’re far too trusting a person. It’s not going to change. Have you—”
   Darrvid flicked his ears as the barmaid, a female squirrel, approached with our refills. And more wings. He winked as new glasses clunked down in front of us, and then the basket of wings. She left, wigglin’ her behind, her tail wavin’ like a long furry snake.
   I could smell a hamburger she was takin’ to somebody else… “Ah, you were sayin’?”
   “There’s a group of us who are planning on doing something about it.”
   I stared at him, my ears erect and alert. It couldn’t be..! It’d be too funny. A joke. I giggled, and then grabbed a wing and tore off the meat. The spice tore at my lips, burned my nostrils, but didn’t clear my head. I giggled again.
   “What’s so funny, Shean?”
   I lowered my voice and leaned so close that my exhaled breath rustled the hairs on his muzzle. “You tellin’ me you’re part of those mutineers?” A snicker burst past my lips.
   He blinked.
   “Gonna overthrow the company by throwin’ damn big rocks with the aid of Mike the Brain?”
   Cockin’ his head, he whispered, “You a member, too?”
   I started laughin’, and couldn’t stop. Others in the bar turned and looked at me, but I was oblivious. Tears poured down my face, and I started coughin’ as Darrvid stood up t’ pound on my back. By the time the humour poured out of me, I’d spilled my drink, and was cradlin’ the sides of my head below my eyes in my hands, with my chin restin’ on the damp table. At least Darrvid had the presence of mind to rescue the wings from drownin’.
   “Shean, you all right? No more beers for you tonight. This isn’t funny! Things can’t go on as they are.”
   “Darrvid, if only you knew… If only…” I leaned back, the bench creakin’, and nickered in disbelief and amazement, beer drippin’ from my chin.
   “Shean, maybe this isn’t the best time.”
   “Darrvid.” I leaned close and whispered into his ear: “What would you think if I said I came here tonight to recruit you?”
   He howled with laughter. The Rock’s gravity is pretty low; that’s how I grabbed the wings before they hit the table. I laughed with him. We were in no danger of bein’ tossed out, just a couple of old friends sharin’ a joke. And we were; an insane, ironic joke. At least Darrvid managed to keep his beer, I had to signal for another refill. Tossin’ a tencoin to the waitress when she came, I also snagged some napkins to dry up the drink. Darrvid was still out of it. I soaked up most of the beer, and pulled out Doc’s little doohickey. Pushin’ the right sequence of buttons, I watched the light blink and change from green to red before puttin’ it beside the bowl of wings.
   “Oh God, Shean… I needed that, I really did. When you were going to die, I could almost see my life flashing before my eyes. If a company goon had shown up right then, I think I might have ripped his chest open right then and there. Thank God that Stapledon showed up!”
   I tore the meat off another wing and thought as he looked at me.
   “So, Shean.” He snickered. “Are you going to recruit me into your cell, or am I going to recruit you?”
   Swallowin’, I licked the spice off my lips, and then swallowed some beer. “Darrvid, I’m not a member of the mutineers.”
   “Then how do you—No way! No way in hell are you a company fink!”
   “Keep your voice down! Darrvid, just… just shut up a minute and listen to me. You know that Stapledon joker saved my butt?”
   “Of course! I just wish he could’ve stayed a bit, let me buy him a drink and thank him in person.”
   “You couldn’t have. He was a damned Brain.”
   “Think about it. Think about what he did.” Then I laid out what I’d seen, and what Kirri said Mike had passed on. “That was a Brain.”
   “What’s wrong with that?”
   “We’re screwed is what’s wrong with that!”
   I explained, same as I had to Kirri. “And once they’re here, why do they need us? Think about it. Why are they makin’ all the furs want to come here? What’s goin’ on?”
   He sighed. “Okay, Shean… let’s say this is all true. If you aren’t in the Mutineers, then how do you know all this? I’m going to have to tell my cell leader—”
   “Darrvid, don’t! Didn’t you hear what I said? This is all a plot of the Brains! To get those of us who don’t fit up here and out of the way. All in one place, where they can get rid of us—real efficient-like. The damn Ceres Brain, Mike, is manipulatin’ all of you. There’s a new rebellion, one against the Brains. The real deal.”
   “What are you talking about?”
   “I’m talkin’ about you guys bein’ set up by the Brains! They’re pullin’ the strings, Darrvid. Hell, one’s runnin’ the old rebellion! There’s gotta be a new one, and that new one needs you.”
   “What about the old one? I can’t leave it.”
   “Then don’t. Just go on as normal—anythin’ else could tip off the Brains. Consider it a cover for the real revolution.”
   “Okay Shean, let’s say you’re right. Let’s say I join in. What’s the plan? More catapults?”
   I swallowed, my throat suddenly dry. Tryin’ to cover my nervousness I gulped down half my beer. I hated lyin’ to a friend, especially Darrvid, but the Doc had hammered in that we had to practice security, and it had to start now. No exceptions. “Darrvid, I…”
   His nostrils wrinkled. I’d brought us here in the hopes that the spice and the alcohol would hide any cues I was givin’ off, but it seems it weren’t workin. “What’s wrong, Shean?”
   Pinchin’ my eyes shut, I tried to force myself to keep from shiverin’. “Darrvid, I’m… I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you everythin’. I wi—”
   “Is that all!?” He lowered his voice back to a whisper. “I’ve been in this business for a long time, I understand the realities.”
   That just made it harder. Swallowin’ again, I just forced out what I had to say. “Stayin’ near Earth won’t work. Brains are here, and nothin’ can stop ’em from infiltratin’, either by war or by peace. We have to get away, out of their reach. Not sure where. Maybe the asteroids, maybe Saturn, maybe further. I…” and here it came, “I don’t know.”
   Darrvid sighed and looked at me, his brown eyes borin’ into mine. “Shean… I…” He sighed, and his ears relaxed, foldin’ half down. “Shean, you do what you have to. I—I didn’t recruit you into the old rebellion because I knew you’re not the type of person to get into this sort of thing. Too kind and too forgiving. So, why now?”
   “Darrvid, it wasn’t easy. I’m still not sure.”
   “If you’re not damn sure then get out now!”
   “Darrvid, I am sure this has to be done. I can’t go back to Earth, not permanently anyway. Odds are I’ll die first from the crappy company equipment, but s’pose I don’t? What if I gotta retire, forced back to Earth to rot until I go mad? And, even if I die on the job, I can’t give up the responsibility to those who’ll be screwed. I… I just can’t.” I grabbed a wing and tore into it, turnin’ away so that I could see Darrvid clearly out of one eye. I hated this! I hated the lyin’, and I hated the necessity. But, the Doc was right. It had to be done.
   Darrvid reached over with a warm black-furred paw and laid it over mine. “Shean, those are damned good reasons. The best reasons. There’s no glory in this, I know that.”
   “How can you be so sure?”
   “You remember Iarrn Fromb?”
   “Yeah—” Time was, Iarrn was the best engineer on the docks. Silly lookin’ rabbit, one ear half chewed off from a gear, but he knew his stuff. About a year ago he’d vanished.
   “He was in the rebellion, too. Cell below me—I recruited him. The company goons cornered him and he cycled out through an airlock to make sure they didn’t break him.”
   All around us, oblivious to the tragedy, the vid kept blarin’, showin’ some reality bloodsport from Earth.
   “Fuck…” I whispered.
   “Yeah. Made me re-examine my commitment. Firmed it up an awful lot. Told me this wasn’t a game. Told me that something had to be done.”
   “Scuttlebutt said he’d gone Lunaside. Where’d that come from?”
   Darrvid didn’t flinch but looked me straight in my one eye. “I started it. Cover for the revolution, to try and convince the company that he knew nothing—their information was wrong.”
   “Oh God…”
   “Shean, I’m still here for his memory. I know you’re not telling me everything, and I don’t want to know. Hell, I wish I didn’t know you were involved. ’Cause of Iarrn I got some cyanide. Keep it with me always. Iarrn didn’t betray me, and I will not betray anybody else. Ever.” Reachin’ into the chest pocket of his shirt he pulled out a small capsule and clenched it in his hands. “Shean, if you’re serious about this, I… I think you should get one of these. Just in case.”
   I looked at what he was holdin’ and my spine felt cold. He was right, and yet… “I don’t know. I just don’t. My mind says you’re right, but…”
   “Listen to your mind.”
   “Why—why do we have to do this, Darrvid? So much wisdom in the past, so much pain and revolution and death, and we never learn. Never.”
   “Shean, it’s not us, it’s the humans. They have it in for—”
   “Darrvid! Shut up about the damn humans! Sure, some are assholes. I’d be the first to admit it. But not all. We’re not breakin’ away from the humans, we’re breakin’ away from the Brains. There’re humans in this new rebellion, and they’re welcome. And when we leave, there’ll be humans along with us. Darrvid, we’re all in this together. Don’t let your hatred cloud your vision.”
   “Goddamnit all! You know what they did to me!”
   “Darrvid, I know. And you know just as well as I do that all humans ain’t slime, just like all furs ain’t saints.”
   “What do you expect me to do?”
   “I expect you to do the best you can. When this is over, if we survive, give the people who come out with—an’ I mean all the people—give ’em a little trust. At least until they betray it. Is that so hard?”
   “Shean, you have no clue how hard that is. No clue at all!”
   Turnin’ my head I looked at him, focusin’ my cone of depth perception on his close set eyes. “No Darrvid, I don’t. And I’m thankful I don’t. I wouldn’t want anybody to live through the hell you did, least of all me. But, you can’t let your passions rule you. If we’re goin’ to make this work, make this a better world, then we can’t keep people out just because of what they look like! And we can’t let people in for just the same reason.”
   “I don’t know…”
   “Darvid, you’re a better person than those bastards. Don’t let their memory turn you into what they were. Please don’t.”
   “You know, we’ve had this conversation before. It never seems to change anything, does it?”
   I put my other hand on top of his. “Well, Darrvid, all anybody can do is the best we can. It’s all I ask. Just try.”
   “I… Shean, I’ve—”
   “You don’t need to say anythin’. I know. So: You in, or you out?”
   “Shean… I… Okay, I’m in. Hell, was there any doubt once you asked me? If I had a voice in this, I’d say you should be leading the thing.”
   I snorted, drops of beer specklin’ my nostrils. If only he knew… “Darrvid… I…” I could feel my ears burnin. “Thanks for the trust.” I reached into my pocket and pulled out one of the Doc’s jammers and handed it over. “This is for you. Use it whenever you talk about rebellion matters. As far as we know, it blocks all electronic eavesdroppin’. Second thing you have to remember is, we’re fightin’ the Brains. They’re smarter’n us, faster’n us, and we haveta assume they got all our possible moves an’ countermoves worked out. That means you talk about nothin’ in an unshielded area, and, as much as you can, figure out a reason to do things that has nothin’ to do with plottin’ rebellion. Just like I’m talkin’ to you now as a friend. Now, who you want for your cell members? We need to control New Ceres space, and that means we need your office. We need it solid. Once the bell rings, we need to make sure, abso-damn-lutely sure, that nothin’ gets on or off this rock. You got me?”
   “Of course I do, Shean. Why do you think they recruited me in the first place?”
   I snickered. “Good point. Just keep it in mind though. Your cell’s in charge of your office when it happens. You got to do this right.”
   Slowly Darrvid nodded.
   “So, any ideas for the next member? Doesn’t need to be somebody in charge, just somebody you know can manage, and somebody you trust.”
   “How about Grr—”
   “Don’t tell me! I don’t need to know. I don’t want to know!”
   “But I’ve known you for fifteen years!”
   “Forget all that! The less I know, the less I can betray. You know that!”
   “Yeah Shean… Yeah, I do. You know—”
   “Is this guy in your current cell?”
   I sighed. “Darrvid… Okay, you trust this person. Granted. But just because they’re a member of your current cell, don’t mean they should or need to be in this new rebellion. You got that? If you trust them, if they’re right, then sure. Just… think about it.”
   He licked his lips. “Yeah, you’re right. As usual. You always were the smart one.”
   “Oh, come on! Don’t start givin’ me a swelled head. It was you who talked me out of my panic there. Why do you think I’m buyin’ you all this beer tonight?”
   “Hey! I was just doing my job!”
   “It still saved my tail. Thanks. Really.”
   “Yeah, I know.”
   “Darrvid, I got one suggestion, and then your cell is your cell. There’s somebody I’ve seen ’round the control room. Female. Don’t know her name. Human—”
   “Darrvid, we just had this damn conversation! D’you know who I mean?”
   He scratched behind his one ear. “Yeah, I think so.”
   “Is she a good worker? Does she schmooze with the company goons? Do you trust her to do her job?”
   “Don’t tell me. Just try and look at her with an open mind. If you can trust her, if you think you can, then feel her out. Take her out to dinner as an apology for the way you’ve been treatin’—”
   “I haven’t done anything wrong!”
   “Darrvid, don’t give me that. I know you’re tryin’, but I’ve seen how you act around humans. If you can, try it. If you can’t, well, it’ll come in time.”
   He swallowed the rest of his beer. “You know Shean, sometimes I feel like a stupid fool around you. An evil bastard. You’re too good for this world, you know that?”
   “I got lucky in my upbringin’, is all. You didn’t. My turn to crap out will come. Thought it’d come last week when I lost the drive.”
   “Shean, for you, I’ll… I’ll try. No promises, mind!”
   “No problem. Only do it if you can trust her. Try is all I ask.”
   “Shean…” he looked serious. “There is no try. There is only do. Or do not.” Then he lost it, laughin’ like a jackal.
   Damn old space opera vids! I couldn’t remember how many times we watched that corny old series. I just shook my head. “Do what you can, friend.”

-= 5 =-

   Ignorin’ the hostile stares of the humans I pushed past, I got off the bus onto the dirt road. The doors hissed shut behind me, pushin’ me off my hooves and I caught myself before my muzzle hit the gravel road as the bus roared off, and got back up. Still wasn’t used to the full gravity there on Earth. All around me were the scents of dust, water vapour exhaust, oil and grease, and people. So very, very many people… Mixed in with that were the scents of dry grass, sun-beaten ground, green leaves and ripenin’ corn.
   Yeah, I was back on the homeworld. My ship was fixed; I’d flown her to High York with no problems. Now I was takin’ some leave time to run some errands, both for myself and for the rebellion. Seems I had a nephew to ask up to New Ceres. Around my neck was a horse-head pendant, inside o’ which was a tiny vial of cyanide. Person I got it from asked if it was in case I got screwed again in a no-win situation and wanted a quick death. He’d heard of my near crash into New Ceres. Hatin’ lyin’, I’d just nodded.
   Leanin’ down, I checked the rubber shoes over my hooves, then shrugged myself into the backpack properly, rather than just lettin’ it hang over my shoulders. Carryin’ it that way was fine in a bus, but not for runnin’. The bus let me off about five miles from the stables I’d been raised at, and though I coulda rented a bicycle, hooves and pedals never did go together. Like on my other visits, I planned to just run. I started slow, joggin’ down the side of the gravel road, and then sped up a bit into a steady ground-eatin’ pace. It was odd: Horses were great sprinters, but lousy for endurance. Humans couldn’t sprint worth a damn, but Jesus, they was good at long distances. The gengineers who’d dreamed up my race’s DNA seemed to have tried for the best of both. I wasn’t complainin’. It allowed me to obey my instincts and just run.
   My body settled down to what it was bred for. Hooves poundin’ on the gravel, the rubber shoe surroundin’ them providin’ a bit of a cushion and keepin’ pebbles and stones from bein’ caught. It was relaxin’. Didn’t think, didn’t worry, just ran. My breath gasped in and out, the slight oiliness of Earth rushin’ in and out through my nostrils. Too soon I reached the driveway to my first home, and turned down it. The thuddin’ of my hooves softened as I was on grass and dirt rather than stone, runnin’ between old wire fences with the rows of gene-cut corn wavin’ in the slight hot breeze. The ground was cold and dark, deep below were pipes that let water seep into the soil as the summers had been hot and dusty ’long as anybody could remember. In the old days there’d been regular rain to keep the dust down, but not no more.
   On my left, the fence gave way to sun-dried wood, the scent of aged pine rich in my nostrils as I gulped down hot air. The grass there was long, and some colts saw me and bounded down to race me, their arms pumpin’ at their sides, tails held high, as their hooves pounded into the soft soil. I’d never trained for racin’–my mind wandered too much for that kind of life to keep me happy—but these were young ones, too young and gangly-limbed to keep up. There were a few professional racers on the farm, they’d’a left me in the dust.
   Most of the colts and foals helped around where they could, or just relaxed. I’d been told when I left that the place was largely kept up by government subsidy, to allow the small variant of the anthro-horses to breed. Wasn’t much demand for them, and we, as a species, had never been much for brains. There were a few of us that were exceptions, nobody knew why. I’d done some tests when I was young; my IQ supposedly tested out somethin’ over 200. Never believed it, though.
   Slowin’ down, I let the best of ’em just beat me to the gate, and there I stopped, my breath movin’ slow and easy. It didn’t take long for ’em to get the gate open and come boundin’ out and around me. I tried to visit once a year, for friendship’s sake, and I always brought gifts. They knew that, even those who had yet to meet me, and I was slowly buried in hot sweaty bodies afore I shushed ’em away and started diggin’ the gifts out of my pack. I never brought them anythin’ major, just little toys or puzzles. By the time I had ’em all sorted out, been introduced to those I’d never met, there was time for my favourite to find me.
   “Uncle Shean! Uncle Shean!”
   I had just enough time to turn around before thirty kilos of chestnut energy leapt onto me and hugged, sendin’ us both tumblin’ to the grass. The others just snorted and laughed and grinned.
   “Uncle Shean! You’re home again!”
   “You got me there, Cæsar!”
   “They accepted me! They did! They finally did!”
   I managed to push him off me enough to sit up, bendin’ my knees and ankles into a comfortable sittin’ position. “Did they? Did they really? Congratulations!” I hugged him and snuggled him against me as he rested his fuzzy chin on my shoulder.
   “They sure did! They’re goin’ make me into a Brain!”
   Pushin’ him away from me, I just stared, eyes blinkin’, ears flickin’ back and forth.
   “Uncle, you all right?”
   I swallowed. This was Cæsar, my favourite nephew. Grabbin’ him, I hugged him against me so tight I could feel his heart pumpin’ in his chest.
   “Ow! What’s that for, Uncle?” He squirmed in my grasp.
   “Oh, God! I don’t want to lose you!”
   “But you’re not going to!”
   “I thought you said you wanted to be an astronaut, like me?”
   “Sure—and I will be!”
   Shovin’ him away, I held him at arm’s length by his shoulders and looked into his muzzle. “What the hell you talkin’ about?”
   Around me the others chanted: “Uncle said a bad word! Mom’s gonna wash your muzzle out with soap!”
   I ignored ’em and pressed on: “Cæsar, you know as well as I do that Brains are too big to fly space ships!”
   His voice lowered to a conspirational whisper. “They are now, Uncle. But in the interview, they told me that was going to change. They want me! I’m smart, my brain is—they said something ’bout a diff’rent bi-o-chem-i-cal balance. I’m not supposed to tell anybody, but I couldn’t keep it from you, Uncle Shean!”
   “How the hell did they force you!? You’re not even of age yet!”
   He slapped my hands away and I let them fall to my side. “Uncle, I’ll be sixteen come this October. And Mr. Crimshaw co-signed the papers with me. It’s what I want to do.”
   “But, we were goin’ to explore the moon together…”
   “I’ve been all over the moon by remote presence! I want to fly, like you fly!”
   “But… as a Brain!?”
   He stood up. “It’s the wave of the future Uncle. You can join me! We can cruise the asteroids together! Explore the stars! We can live all those stories you told me!”
   “I’d be a Brain, though!”
   He just glared at me, breath pulsin’ angrily through his nostrils, ears pulled tight against his skull. “You had to give up your tail—”
   “But you’ll give up everythin’!”
   “I’ll still feel them! Go your old—old fashioned way! I’ll still be there when you’re dead! Dead!” I could see tears pourin’ from his eyes even as he struggled to keep them hidden. Then he turned, and in a hail of hooves an’ tail, he ran off, leavin’ only scents of youth and dreams and sweat and sadness behind.
   I just sat there watchin’ him go.

-= 6 =-

   I just watched Cæsar disappear in the dust. The other foals soon left, too; I think they knew I needed to be alone. Eventually I stood up, feelin’ every year of my age. Cæsar—a Brain!? It couldn’t be! I didn’t believe it. And yet, he’d been so certain. Was he really that old? I thought back to his foalin’, to my leavin’ for advanced school, flight trainin’… Countin’ the years confirmed he’d be sixteen in just a few months.
   But he seemed so young!
   Turnin’, I walked towards the barn. The big barn, not the small one. There was someone I needed to see—needed to see bad. The other foals were stayin’ away, I guess they could tell somethin’ was wrong. It didn’t take me long, my hooves thumpin’ in the long dry grass that crinkled beneath them. Fire was a danger, but with the dampness of the ground they always tended to smolder out before doin’ much. The big barn was just as I remembered; dry, dusty, smellin’ of straw and horse. Sunlight danced in the dust and my hooves rang on the old wooden planks. I thumped my way through to the field behind and Bucephalus was there to greet me.
   I’d been there when he’d been foaled, been the first thing he saw. We’d always had a practice of raisin’ the new horse foals with their mothers and one of us anthros. Kept us from forgettin’ our roots. For those of us who were goin’ to be jockeys, most often that horse would be the one we rode; for those of us who stayed to help, most often that horse was the one we harnessed and worked with. For me, I got the black runt of the litter. Everybody hereabouts knew I wasn’t long for the farm—it couldn’t hold my mind—but for that birth, late in the season, I was the only one free when old Sunshine Maid dropped her foal.
   Openin’ the gate, I let him clomp in, his unshod hooves thunkin’ on the wood as he pressed his huge muzzle against my shoulder and snuffled in my mane. His hot breath caressed my neck and blew through the long hairs along my spine. Wrappin’ my arms around his strong neck I pressed my muzzle into his mane and let his scent fill my bein’. “God, Bucephalus, I need you. God, but I need you!”
   He nickered in my ear and nibbled gently at my neck, his strong teeth not even breakin’ my skin.
   I let my tears fall into his mane as he sniffed at me and nickered gently. He probably just wanted attention, but I’d always thought there was somethin’ more. He’d have been sold off long ago—he was as much a misfit around here as I’d been; never had taken to a plow—but I sent back enough money to have him stabled here and cared for. My family wasn’t rich, so if I couldn’t support him, he’d have been sold. Everybody had to carry their own weight. The subsidies only kept the farm goin’, and the corn growin’.
   Leanin’ against him, I cried.
   I’d had such hopes for Cæsar! Bringin’ him to New Ceres, showin’ him around, gettin’ him settled, raisin’ him as we journeyed to the stars together. But now… Now I couldn’t tell him a fuckin’ thing. Not a word. I couldn’t even talk to him any more, no tellin’ what I might mention that would set the Brains on to me.
   Raisin’ my muzzle I looked around. Tack was where it’d always been, and yet that would take time. I couldn’t stay here. Not now, not right that second. I clucked at him and crouched, and then leapt high and clambered onto his wide back. Even though he was a runt amongst horses, he was a monster to me. I’d named him after Alexander the Great’s mount, for he was as black as Alex’s horse was said to be. No white markin’s, though, and no fear of his shadow.
   His big head looked back at me. I could see a few white hairs below his lips, he was growin’ old. Old like me. Outdated, like all of us spacers. With long-remembered movements of my knees, I gently guided him back out into the field. He didn’t need encouragin’, he wanted this as much as I needed it. It didn’t take long for him to work his way into a ground-swallowin’, bone-shakin’ gallop. Well, bone-shakin’ for anybody but me. Somehow we’d both learned how to survive his rough movement. I leaned into him, the wind of our passage whistlin’ through our tangled manes. I could smell him, smell his scent as he ran, could feel his lungs swallowin’ air and shovin’ it back out as the ground blurred below us. We approached the gate leadin’ to one of the windin’ paths along the creek. He slowed, crouched down on his hindquarters, and leapt. For a second we flew, muscles still, wind howlin’, and then we slammed to the dry ground on the far side and back into the gallop.
   Soon we were under the dry trees. There, Bucephalus slowed to a steady canter, his hooves thumpin’ on the packed ground as the path wound down towards the creek and our favourite place.
   I just hung on, enjoyin’ the moment… runnin’ away from Cæsar, the rebellion, the whole chaotic mess of what used to be an ordered life.

-= 7 =-

   I got back early in the evenin’, the sun was a huge red circle through the clouds and haze. First thing, it had been drilled into me from birth, was to care for your horse. I’d let Bucephalus drink from the creek—we filtered it locally—but now I led him to his stall, rubbed him down, brushed him, checked his hooves for problems, fed him some grain and a candy treat, and nuzzled his neck for a minute as he nuzzled mine.
   Closin’ the stall behind me, I trotted down the packed dirt path and into the smaller barn, where us anthros lived. Where I’d lived in my youth, and still had a bed. Had to pay rent, but like I said, there ain't no free lunch, not in this world, or any other.
   Dinner was mostly over, but old Aunt Neeola was there, her fur almost entirely gray, as was her mane and tail. She looked at me over her glasses, not that she needed them. I’d paid for and gotten her surgical correction years ago—I think she just liked the look. “So, Shean, back again? How long this time? A day? Two?” She clopped over and spooned grain porridge out of a bowl; I could see mushrooms and chunks of meat in it. Then she pulled a couple cobs of corn, cold and fresh, out of a basket on the table and put them on the plate beside the stew.
   “Stew again? Come on, it’s stew every time! Stew when I come—”
   “Shean Eeysmarn! You cut the chatter and sit down and eat and listen. And don’t talk back ’til I’m done.”
   I sat down on the chair, not needin’ the tail hole, and noisily scraped it up against the table, my rubber-coated hooves squeakin’ on the floor. It was nice comin’ home where things were in the proper scale.
   “You should take your galoshes off afore you come in here.”
   Swallowin’ the rich porridge, hot and spicy, I tried answerin’. “I’m sorry, Aunt—”
   “I thought I told you to keep your trap shut and eat!”
   I nodded and resumed eatin’, my ears turned to focus on her voice.
   “Now, what the hell have you gotten yourself mixed up with this time? I come here expectin’ a nice quiet dinner, and all I hear are the foals yammerin’ ’bout you, and Cæsar in his corner all quiet and solemn and red-eyed. You know he idolizes you, don’t you?”
   “I…” I just nodded.
   “And no sign of you at all! Little Anaole, she saw you take that big brute of Bucephalus out, Lord knows where. So I wait, and you’s come back all hot and sweaty, with a stench about you so bad your Aunt can barely be in the same room as you!”
   Lowerin’ my ears, I nodded.
   “So, Nephew: What’s going on between you and my grand-nephew?”
   I thought about shruggin’, thought better of it, and just kept eatin’, one ear half lowered.
   “You can talk now.”
   I swallowed my mouthful and blinked tears as I hit a jalepeno.
   “What’re they feedin’ you up there? You’re reactin’ like a tourist!”
   Swallowin’ the last bit, I gasped, and refused to reach for the water. “Sorry, Aunt, it—umm—caught me by surprise.”
   I watched her roll her eyes from where she stood almost behind me. “Shean, I’m a mite older than you, and a damn sight wiser. Next time you try and pull a lie on me, it better be a damn good one! Now, answer my question.”
   I knew from long experience that there was no escape. I sighed, long and quiet, and then turned my neck so that I could see her clearly out of one eye. “You know, I came to say good-bye, and to try and bring Cæsar up into orbit. Give him what he always wanted, what he deserved. Should have been the happiest day of his life.”
   “What do you mean, say good-bye?”
   Damn—that one slipped out. I forced down a couple lies, they’d never work on her. Seems I’d grown so used to lyin’ that it was my default response. Another bit of innocence lost. “Aunt Neeola, I can’t tell you.”
   “What do you mean, ‘you can’t tell me’?”
   “I can’t. It’s simple as that. And you can’t tell anybody that I won’t be comin’ back. I shouldn’t have let that one slip out, but I did, and there’s no puttin’ it back. Best I can do is minimize the damage.”
   “You some kind of criminal on the run? If you bring the damn army here, I’ll—”
   With a loud screech I pushed the chair back and stood up, my muzzle just a bit below hers. I lowered my voice. “Oh, God, Aunt Neeola, I can’t tell you. Simple as that. If I tell you, I’m riskin’ the lives and freedom of thousands.”
   “You don’t trust me!?” Her eyes blazed with a fire I recognized. This was her house. Though the Morgans owned it and she just rented, here she was judge, jury, and executioner.
   I grabbed the water and threw it down my suddenly parched throat. “Aunt, we private here? Utterly private? No foals snoopin’?”
   She cocked her head and looked at me, ears stiff and proud. I watched her lookin’ at me, and then had to focus away, countin’ the tight braids that made up her mane. “You’re serious, ain’t you?”
   I nodded.
   “Well, then. You just wait right there! And finish off your dinner, I’ll be back in a minute.”
   I sat down, pickin’ up one of the cobs and chewin’ the sweet corn off it. My ears followed her clompin’ hoofsteps as she went to one of the doors that led further into the stable and yanked it open with a bang. There were giggles, and the clatter of tiny hooves, “This is private! I catch you snoopin’, I’ll cane you!”
   She always threatened, but I’d never seen her do it to anyone. But she had psychological ways of gettin’ revenge, so I knew she’d be obeyed.
   Next she clomped over to a panel and kicked it with a hoof, the sound loud on the hollow wood. “That goes for you too, Chrisopher! Now scat! And take Galen with you!” This time there was more muffled clatterin’ of hooves, but no gigglin’. I heard her clompin’ back to me, and watched her grab a chair and drag it screechin’ over beside me. “Okay, Shean. Now, what the damn hell is goin’ on?”
   I pulled out Doc’s little gizmo from a pocket and put it on the table. Pushin’ the button, I watched the lights blink and go red.
   “What kind of contraption is that thing?”
   “It makes sure we’re not bein’ listened to.”
   “Why in God’s name d’ you think I chased all those—”
   “This takes care of electronic eavesdroppin’.”
   She blinked and looked at me. “Okay, Shean Yoseph Eeysmarn. What have you gotten yourself into now?”
   In a low voice I explained about the Brains, an’ Stapledon, and the new revolution.
   “Now, let me get this straight. You’re going to revolt against the Brains and take that New Ceres place out to Saturn?”
   I nodded. It wasn’t a lie—we figured to stop there for water before goin’ further.
   “What kind of madness you got? The Brains have done nothing but help us!”
   “Aunt Neeola, you don’t get it. You remember what I was like before you got tired of me and fronted me the money for that fancy technical school? All starry-eyed and dreamin’. You couldn’t get a day of work out of me, and you knew you’d end up killin’ me one day.”
   “I remember.” I was surprised at the warmth in her voice.
   “Right now, up in orbit, it’s nothin’ but people like me! We don’t fit anywhere else! We want to do things ourselves, do them our way. We don’t want the Brains doin’ it for us. We don’t want to sit and watch the world, and we definitely don’t want to get into those damn reality games.”
   “You always were a wise one…”
   “Think about what’s gonna happen. The Brains get life support small and cheap enough that they can run spaceships, or even smaller. Soon we’re all useless—Brains do it all cheaper and faster. All of us get obsolete. So I can be Brainified, or I can watch the vid, or I can enter the reality games. Which do you think I’ll end up doin’? And we’re all like that!”
   “But… revoltin’…”
   “All we want to do is leave so we can live our way! Nothin’ more. You like the Brains runnin’ everythin’, cleanin’ up the planet? Well, good for you. We don’t. We’re just… we’re just movin’ away to our own homestead.”
   “You could just ask the Brains to let you go.”
   I looked at her, and cocked my head. “S’pose they say no? If they refuse, we’re out in the open and screwed. We’re probably dead anyway, but at least we’ll have tried! So what if I stayed behind and slit my wrists one day? My own choice, my own fate. But I can help everybody who needs this, help everybody earn their freedom! It’s a responsibility, and I take those very seriously. Hell! You’re the one taught me that.”
   “I still think you should just ask—”
   “Do you know what it’s like up there? Substandard equipment. Every safety precaution abandoned because it costs too much! Hell, I came that close to dyin’ because the Company was too cheap to put spacesuits on the damn shuttle! Woulda cost ’em about 20 kilos payload. And you know who runs the Company? The damn Brains do! If they care so much about us in space, how come a damn spacesuit ain’t worth twenty fuckin’ kilos o’ payload!?”
   “I can’t say as I know what you’re talkin’ about, but you believe. And if they don’t put no seatbelts in that rip-roarin’ car you drive, then you might have a point. But still…”
   “Aunt Neeola, don’t you think I’ve thought about this? Maybe we should’ve asked, but the risk is just too damned high! Supposin’ I’m right; if I ask now, I’m signin’ the death warrant for thousands of people, furs and humans both. I can’t do that!”
   “Shean, you finish your dinner ’fore it gets cold. I need to think on this a mite.”
   “Eat! An empty stomach does nothing.”
   Once I would have rolled my eyes, but she was stubborner than a mule, and a hell of a lot more so than I was. So I dragged my chair back and dug into my meal.
   “And don’t wolf your food down! You’ll choke and die, and then where’ll your rebellion be?”
   Ears red, I slowed down, finishin’ the stew and strippin’ the rest of the corn off the cobs. Finishin’ the water, I turned my chair back to look at her.
   “Okay, Shean. I don’t like it, but I don’t see a whole lot of options with this thing. I’ll keep it quiet, pretend like everything’s normal. But that’s as far as I go!”
   “Aunt Neeola, I didn’t want you in this in the first place, but… thanks.” Before I realized it I was on my hooves and huggin’ her tight. She hugged back a long while afore lettin’ go.
   “Now, what about Cæsar? What’s gone bad between you and him?”
   I blinked at the change of subject. “He tell you what he’s goin’ to do?”
   “Not really. He’s keepin’ it all secret. Somethin’ about leavin’ and goin’ to a special school. Wants to surprise me, I think. Gonna become a Brain, ain’t he?”
   If I’d been drinkin’ I would’a choked. “Yeah, that’s what he told me.”
   “And now you don’t trust him.”
   “Of course I do! I—I…” I sighed as she looked at me. “It’s not like I don’t trust him, it’s that I can’t trust him. Anythin’ I tell him goes straight to the Brains when they network him in. I got to keep secrets from him. And I may have to fight him. Hell, I may end up havin’ to kill him!”
   “Kill him!? Don’t you even think it!”
   “Aunt Neeola, there’ll be somethin’ like twenty thousand souls on that rock when she leaves orbit. If a Brain decides to shoot at us, I gotta be ready to take it out. Even if… Even if it’s Cæsar. It’s responsibility! It’s either Cæsar or twenty thousand others! What else can I do?”
   She nickered thoughtfully. “Shean, you really put your hoof in it this time, didn’t you? Never one to leave things alone. Yeah, you’re right. It’s a big heap o’ shit.” She sighed, for the first time soundin’ her age. “You and he’ll stay apart. Come near to breakin’ his heart. I’ll do what I can, comfort him, tell him… tell him that you’re afraid of what he’s become.”
   “True, ain’t it?”
   I nodded.
   “Well, you do what you came here to do. Say good-bye to Bucephalus, spend your time with him. Maybe you can write a note for Cæsar; I’ll give it to him, scan it in or read it to him, when you’ve done what you have to do.”
   Standin’ up I looked at her. Thought about the times I’d driven her close to canin’ me, all the times she’d held me when I cried out my frustrations. I remembered comin’ home from that technical institute, in tears from the abuse and outright hatred of some of the students, both humans and furs. She’d held me as I cried it out, and she’d given me the strength to go back.
   Plannin’ it for once, I threw myself into her arms one last time, and let all my frustrations and fears and deceits and lies sob their way out as she slowly rocked me back and forth.

-= 8 =-

   I stayed there a week. Kept to myself, rode Bucephalus every day. Set up a trust fund to keep him fed and happy till he passed away. I could see Cæsar watchin’ me in the distance, and I had to tear my eyes away from him. It was his choice, I respected it, and I refused to hurt him more by yellin’ and screamin’ at him. Everybody knew somethin’ was goin’ on. Most of the foals didn’t have what humans would call smarts, but we all had wisdom. We all knew somethin’ was wrong with the herd, and that the alpha female, Aunt Neeola, wasn’t doin’ a thing about it. It was unsettlin’, to all of us. Even the human who owned the farm, old Mother Morgan, knew somethin’ was goin’ on. I’d visited her, sat down for tea and cakes—she was over a hundred—and both of us carefully avoided talkin’ about it.
   Last day afore I left, I trotted into town, wasn’t far, only ten kilometers or so. Took me a while but I found a little plush anthrohorse, same golden chestnut colour I was. Brought it back to Aunt Neeola and asked her to give it to Cæsar after I left. I could see Cæsar leanin’ on the fence watchin’ me as I jogged off towards the bus stop.
   And then I waited there, with only my pack of clothes, and a few momentos from home I didn’t want to give up. Some ribbons from school, a worn hardcopy picture of me and Bucephalus—had it on disk, but that printin’ of it meant somethin’ special—the small detritus of a life left behind.
   I got on the bus. Pushed past the humans, managed a bit of smile at those I knew, avoided the strangers who glared at me, and sat in the back, watchin’ out through the window as I rode away from Bucephalus, away from my childhood memories, away from home.

-= 9 =-

   Normally after a visit home, I’d get off at the Dallas Spaceport and prep my shuttle for flight and passengers. If it was an early mornin’ launch, I’d spend the night in the pilot’s hostel. This time I got off at Kennedy Station, as Doc Tierra had asked me to look up a few people he knew. One he wanted me to get somethin’ from, and others he wanted me to try and drag up to New Ceres. They’d be a second cell under me, specialists, because I was the only one of the top cell that went to Earth on a regular basis.
   Buyin’ a ticket should’ve been easy; the station wasn’t crowded. Hell, it could have held twice the people it did. Accordin’ to the official WorldGov census, there were somethin’ like eighteen billion sophonts on Earth. I’d seen pictures of the station when it’d first opened, and the small crowd in there now made it seem abandoned. Maybe it was off-season or somethin’. The line moved fast, and bein’ short and an equine, I was barely noticed in the line. Thinkin’ of what Kirri thought, and standin’ there anyway, I tried to keep my eyes open for any of the hatred she mentioned. Didn’t see any. Had to stand up on the tips of my hooves to see over the counter, but that wasn’t the human’s fault. Needed to show my ID twice, and let the dog mannin’ the booth check my retina twice afore he’d sell me the ticket. He thought I was underage with stolen ID.
   Turned out my magtrain wasn’t due to leave for a couple of hours, so I went to the cafeteria. Place was mostly empty, so I sat down near the door and waited. Pullin’ out my tablet, I downloaded that day’s paper and started browsin’ it.
   I was near halfway through it before I realized I hadn’t been served.
   Lookin’ up, I watched a human come in, sleek and fit—probably paid for that body—and as soon as he sat down a female raccoon, her claws clickin’ on the stone, padded over and took his order.
   Maybe she hadn’t seen me.
   So I waited till she got back with the man’s order—some kinda sandwich, I could smell the hot beef and salami—and called out, “Miss!?”
   I guess she didn’t hear me, so I waited ’til she came back with the guy’s dessert and this time I got up and clopped after her. “I’d like to order.”
   I woulda sworn she sped up and rushed back to the kitchen.
   I checked the time—wouldn’t have time to eat anyway so I left, my rubber-coated hooves squeakin’ a bit on the polished stonework. I’d get somethin’ on the train. Makin’ my way down to the platform, I sat and waited the half-hour till I could board.
   “Hey you!”
   My ears swiveled—was a human in a slick black business suit. His skin was dark, almost the same shade as his suit.
   He must have noticed me lookin’ at him. “Get over here!”
   Standin’ up, I shucked my pack over my shoulder and clopped over. Probably wanted to ask directions or somethin’.
   “Don’t just stand there, boy. Get my bag! I’m in a hurry.”
   I looked at his briefcase beside him. Couldn’t see anythin’ else.
   “Come on! Quit your gawking. There’s just the one. Don’t know why they hire kids—”
   “Umm… Sir, I think you’re plenty capable of carryin’ your own bag.”
   “I’m the one paying for this here train with my taxes and my fare! You can just do your job and carry my bag.”
   Raisin’ my muzzle, I looked him straight in the face and watched his eyes narrow. “I’m sorry, but I don’t work here. I’ve got to board, too.”
   “Shut your lying trap and get my bag!”
   I may be slow, but I sure ain’t stupid. I’d been raised on the lovin’ farm, gone to school, and then gone straight into space. The times I’d been in cities could be counted on one three-fingered hand. I could feel my tail muscles twitchin’, even though they had nothin’ to move. “Sir, I’m not your servant. I’m a passenger. I don’t know if they have servants on this train, you’ll have to ask somebody who works here.”
   “Now look, you! Don’t give me any of your crap! Just take my damn bag!”
   Thank God I saw the train doors open and heard a female voice state: “All aboard for Express to the Buffalo-Hamilton-Toronto Gigaplex, with stops in…” Turnin’ away, I trotted, probably a bit faster than I needed to—of course, he probably massed three times what I did—and climbed up into the train.
   “Get back here, you! I’m not done with you!”
   I ignored him and started movin’ backward. Didn’t take long ’til I reached the end of the train and sat down a few seats behind a pair of goats. I remembered readin’ somewhere they’d originally been bred as mountain guides and rescue workers. Their horns were long and curved, I could smell musk an’ soap, and they’d clearly had their fur recently trimmed quite short. They ignored me, talkin’ between themselves about somethin’. Wigglin’ a bit to get comfortable, I called up The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, and started readin’ it. It’d been a while.
   After a while I switched off the tablet and looked out the window. It wasn’t a real window of course, the trains went through near-vacuum underground tunnels. The sites were just 3D projections of an imagined perfect wilderness. For some reason, I just couldn’t concentrate on my readin’.
   What Kirri said about prejudice on Earth kept goin’ through my head. I’d never really thought about it before. I’d been raised with a carin’ family; the humans who owned the farm lived in their own house, and we had to wipe our hooves and get permission before enterin’, but that was about it. Sure, there’d been hazin’ and cliques when I made technical school, an’ I wasn’t invited into any fraternities, but then I probably wouldn’t’ve had time anyway. After that I’d gone to space, where nobody cared what you were as long as you did the job. On my leaves home I went to the spaceport, went to the farm, and then returned.
   Out of curiosity, I got on the net and did some searches on racial prejudice. There was a lot o’ material. I eventually narrowed it down to a readably small pile. There was similarities between what Kirri’d said, and how 20th-Century blacks had it in the old United States of America. They had segregated schools, always sat in the back of the bus, there was restaurants for whites only. Hell, there’d been cases like that into the 21st century when it was clearly illegal and frowned upon by the majority of society.
   I’m short, but then I mentioned that. And the structure of the equine muzzle has us always appearin’ to be lookin’ down. So, to a human, I was below them, and I never did look ’em in the eye—not even when I was starin’ ’em right in the face. I thought about the day so far, and though my sample set was sadly lackin’, there were sickenin’ conclusions. I always rode on the bus to and from the farm at the back without even thinkin’ of it. Hell, I could remember gettin’ the early mornin’ one on a holiday and bein’ the only sophont aboard, and I still went to the back. Even on the train now, even though there were no signs, I still went to the back… ’cause that’s what I’d always done.
   Just as the humans seemed to believe—no, not believe, they just knew—they’re superior to us furs. And us furs, or at least me, had innate habits that put us below them. Without even thinkin’ about it.
   I remembered the restaurant. The human had been served immediately; I’d been ignored, actively avoided. And than that damn fool on the platform. Though I could be readin’ too much into it… Like I said, too small a sample set. Maybe I was just unlucky. Or maybe it was just that prevalent..?
   Sure, the 20th Century wasn’t gettin’ re-run, but there was parallels. There weren’t no menial jobs any more; janitorial work was all done by machines. And it seemed that most people just stayed home and did their work, or lived off the dole in their VR world or the reality games. Reminded me of a story, or part of one… what was it? The Huddling Place, by Clifford D. Simak. As I recall, it was about a doctor who stayed home all the time, visited by virtual presence, and, when he had to go to Mars, couldn’t leave his house anymore. Acute agoraphobia. Was that what was happenin’ to humanity? Everybody becomin’ Brains, stayin’ home…
   Maybe I was readin’ too much into things..?
   Pullin’ out the headset from its compartment in the tablet, I slipped the plugs into my ears and clipped the microphone to my chin. Don’t know why, but I needed to talk to someone, and I remembered my token social arts teacher from university. We’d both loved SF and exchanged contact information. Hadn’t talked to him for years, but this time… His address was still in my space, so he hadn’t blocked me. System kept it automatically updated. I buzzed him, waited. Maybe he was out?
   Then I heard his voice, more melodic and richer than it used to be. “Shean? Shean Eeysmarn, is that you? My, but the Lord works in mysterious ways!”
   Focusin’ down, I saw that the camera on my tablet was active, but there was no picture of him. Generally rude, unless he was takin’ a bath or somethin’. “Sorry Peter, I hope this isn’t a bad time. I need—”
   “Don’t worry about it! The Lord brought us together and I’m here to help.”
   No picture. Always usin’ the damn ‘Lord this’ and ‘Lord that’. Fuck.
   I broke the connection.
   Even he’d gone and become a Brain.
   Suddenly I felt old, old, even though I’d barely passed thirty.
   The incomin’ call light went on and I heard a recorded voice in my ears. “Dr. Peter Tosh-Hammond would like to speak to you. Do you accept?”
   I just sat there, lookin’ at the shinin’ red light, my spine cold and chill.
   Finally I whispered, “Accept.”
   The screen stayed dark, didn’t surprise me. The… emotion in his voice did, though. “Shean? Are you all right? What’s wrong?”
   Shoulda ordered a drink before I answered. “Oh God, Peter, why’d you do it?”
   “Do what?”
   “Become a Brain.”
   “Is that why you called me? The Lord took me into his arms six years ago!”
   “Six years?” That’d put his conversion right after I graduated… “It wasn’t me, was it?”
   “Shean,” the voice sighed. “Yes, I suppose it was. You were one in a million; smart, sharp, and interested. Everybody else I taught was there because they had to be. But you, you cared. After you left, my heart just wasn’t in it any more.”
   “Shean, what do you have against being a Brain?”
   “Shean, listen to me. It’s still me. I’m still the same person.”
   I wondered if he could detect the tears in my eyes. Old friends becomin’ Brains, nephews becomin’ Brains… “I—I don’t know…”
   “Shean, you haven’t called me in seven years. Just a few e-mails after you graduated describing your first flight, and then silence. As the Lord comforts us, why did you leave me?”
   “I had my duties!”
   “Yes, you had your trials, your training flights as co-pilot before they stopped using them, your first solo. And what are you now? Captain of a spaceship? Shean, you drive a glorified taxi. I thought you wanted to explore space!”
   “I’m doin’ the best I can!”
   “And for how much longer? A decade? If the Lord lets you survive that long. You remember when we discussed The Mote in God’s Eye. We talked about it, and the future, and humanity, and what first contact would mean, until the early hours of the morning. You said that you wanted to meet aliens, to show them that we existed as sophonts, that we counted.”
   “Peter, not now. Just… not now.”
   “Become a Brain. Join us! Eventually we’ll figure out how to get around the life support problem. We can go to the stars together!”
   “You’re goin’ to grab all of us, aren’t you? Absorb everybody into your clique. And if we refuse, what are you goin’ to do!?”
   “Shean, we… We’d never force anybody.”
   “And what about Cæsar!?”
   There was a pause before he responded. “Shean, who’s Cæsar? Assuming you don’t mean Julius Cæsar, or Cæsar from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.”
   “Like you don’t know!”
   “Shean, I don’t know. What’s wrong?”
   “You know damn well that Cæsar, my nephew Cæsar, chose to become a Brain!”
   “What?” There was a second’s pause. “Cæsar Eeysmarn Santher? I swear to God that I didn’t know!”
   “I… I was to be his sponsor. Train him. Teach him. Show him… show him the stars from beside me.”
   “Shean, I didn’t know. I had nothing to do with it—it was his choice, free and uncoerced.”
   If his face had been on the tablet’s screen, I couldn’t have seen it at this point anyway. “Why the fuck did you take him! Why!?”
   “Shean, we didn’t take him. You can check the records. He came to us! We tried to talk him out of it, to get him to wait until he was of age. But he refused. We did everything the Lord requires of us!”
   “Shut up about the fuckin’ Lord! Just shut up! Shut up and take your fuckin’ attitude with you! Just… Just go away!!”
   I hit the tablet a bunch of times, don’t know how many, until I finally got the disconnect. And when he tried to call back, when I heard the generic message in my ear, I ripped out the headphones and threw them across the room, snappin’ the damn wire out the side of the tablet.
   Then I just cried.
   Some time later I removed Mr. Tosh-Hammond from my approved contact list, and then just watched the fake landscape roll by in the fake windows.

-= 10 =-

   It was early evenin’ by the time I hit Union Station. After my conversations with Mr. Tosh-Hammond, I did some web searchin’ and found a list of fur-friendly establishments in Buffalo-Hamilton-Toronto. The hotel wasn’t the best, but it had a good small clean room, which was all I really needed. I’d never grown used to havin’ a huge space, what with always bein’ in space where air-filled cubage was a luxury, or stayin’ at home where there was always family underhoof. I had to keep myself from lookin’ around, always sure somebody was followin’ me, spyin’. Just try to act normal, the Doc said…
   The first name on Doc’s list was Dr. Nicholine Holder, the ‘gengineer-in-residence’ at the University of Toronto. Part of me wondered why they hadn’t renamed it since Toronto didn’t really exist no more, but old traditions die hard. The next day it rained, and I caught the streetcar outside and made my way through that tangled old city along the old and new tracks, windin’ my way to the address usin’ the GPS linked to my tablet. At least the streetcar was fast; weren’t no private cars since long before I was born.
   I don’t think any one person switched all the cars with me, but who knew? Hell, I’d been at this barely a week, and already I was lookin’ round every corner, suspectin’ every soul. I tried to force myself to relax, to concentrate on my surroundin’s.
   Even in the rain, the campus was pleasant. Most of it was grass with old gothic buildin’s covered in gengineered ivy that sucked the smog an’ pollution out of the air. Unlike the rest of the city, the air smelled nice. The grass was kept long, no longer chopped and mowed; I took my time wandering through it, the steady rain hissin’ down on my umbrella, and the grass shushin’ around me under the weight of the water. There wasn’t much scent, just rain. A few miserable students, most human, a few furs, hurried past me. They were scurryin’ under their umbrellas, trying to stay dry. Well, ’cept a pair of otters playin’ in the rain—probably skippin’ class.
   The hallways were dim, and scented with the age-old sweat of fear and eagerness of students, along with a hint of cleanser, old wood, stain, and polish. My rubber boots squeaked on the floor; I shook off the umbrella and put it in my pack. With my tablet helpin’, it didn’t take me long to work through the maze of halls and offices up to where Dr. Holder was supposed to be. Her secretary was a dainty young deer doe, too young to be faculty so I guessed she was a student. Her scent was odd, though. It was strongly male, but she dressed and looked female. At least she was expectin’ me, even though I was nearly an hour late, and, after a disapprovin’ look at my drippin’ legs and damp mane and pants, she motioned me in.
   Dr. Holder was an old woman, bald except for wisps of white hair, and pockmarks that might have been from radiation—no way to be sure, and I wasn’t goin’ to ask. At least her perfume wasn’t strong, just a faint hint. In fact, the dominant scent of the room was the old books that lined one of the walls. The others contained a few displays of stuffed animals, and some sealed jars of near-term modified embryos. She was spry, though, and stood up to greet me, even though she was taller sittin’ than I was standin’. “Mr. Eeysmarn?”
   I nodded and shook her hand, the naked skin on my palm still damp from the rain that hissed and pattered against the large windows at the back of office.
   “Let me see now… my memory isn’t what it once was…” She pressed some keys on the computer on her desk. “Oh, right. Dr. Tierra sent you. You’re here to drop off some samples he’d run, so I can check them for radiation damage in case the hull of New Ceres isn’t as good shielding as they thought.”
   At that I heard a beep from my backpack; I looked at the pouch that contained Doc Tierra’s little anti-spy devices.
   Dr. Holder, amused, raised an eyebrow at me. “Oh, don’t worry about it. He passed that tech on to me a few years ago. You have Bob’s latest schematics?”
   He’d actually sent me with a device for her. Reachin’ into my pouch I pulled out two, put mine on the table and activated it. “The other one’s for you.”
   “Oh, good!” She took it, twisted somethin’, and a tiny card slid out.
   “Don’t you want to..?”
   “No need. The hardware doesn’t change, just what it’s told to do.” She slipped the card into the computer on her desk. “There, mine’s all updated. You can switch yours off, save the battery.”
   I licked my lips. “I’d rather not.”
   She shrugged. “Your choice. You know how to check them?”
   “Of course I do!”
   She sat down and pulled two bottles of water from a drawer in her desk, the wood squeaked both as she opened and as she closed it. “Like some?”
   I looked at the water. How far could this woman be trusted? Lure me in, give me water, a chemical cocktail to make me spill my guts… I clenched my hands around my horse-head pendant…
   “Mr. Eeysmarn, I’m not on their side. I’m on my own side. If you’re that tense, somebody will notice, and then it’s all up.”
   I glared at her.
   “Oh come on! If I’m on their side, it’s already too late for you. A platoon of thugs could be outside my door right now—”
   Jumpin’ up, hooves clompin’ on the floor, I spun around and stared at the door.
   She just laughed and I turned to look at her. “You need to relax. After all, what law are you breaking? Think about it. So you’re discussing a hypothetical activity. Nothing against that. So grin, relax, enjoy pulling a fast one.”
   “How the hell do you know!?”
   “Because I know Bob. He’s always talking about this sort of thing, so I’m not surprised— and there were some code words he used when he contacted me. Now, take your drink and have a seat. Don’t be shy.”
   “I don’t know…”
   “Well, I know this is important. I’ve cleared the day, so sit down.”
   The hell with it. With that I hopped up on the chair. “Well, you see—”
   “Relax! From your ears going every which way, I can see you’re not happy here. Tell me. Whatever it is, if you haven’t broken a law, then they can’t touch you.”
   As she said that I became conscious that they were. “Sorry—it’s just—”
   “Mr. Eeysmarn… do you mind if I call you Shean? No? Good. Shean, I’ve known the Doc for years. If he’s trying to get me to go up to that death trap with him, my answer is still no. I’m too old to go up there and float around like an otter in a fish tank.”
   “Well, ma’am—”
   “Call me Nicholine.”
   “Oh… well… Miss Hold—Nicholine… Oh, hell! I’m none too good at this yet! Too honest for my own good, I suppose.”
   “What, convincing old women to leave their nice warm homes? I don’t think anybody’s very good at that.”
   This wasn’t goin’ well. We needed some contacts on Earth to get supplies, and if we were gonna be betrayed this soon, might as well get it over with. “No, not that. We’re takin’ New Ceres away from Earth to get away from the Brains.” There, I said it. Immediately I felt better.
   She took a sip of water as I tapped a hoof against a leg of the chair. There was no hope of stoppin’ my ears from flickin’ toward every sound now. She put down the bottle and screwed the cap on.
   “You know, I’ve told him for years that he’d end up doing this.”
   “You did?”
   “Absolutely. It’s the only logical course; a man like him, persons like me, I’d guess like you as well, can either get away from the Brains, or become them. And lordee knows I don’t want them sticking God knows what in my head.”
   I snorted. “Well, you comin’ up to New Ceres, or stayin’ down here?”
   “Go up there? On a rocket?”
   “Don’t worry. I’ll be flyin’ it.”
   She looked at me with new respect. “At least Bob hasn’t gone senile. You—”
   There was a knock at the door. “Dr. Holder?” I recognized the secretary’s voice. “Dr. Archibald called—you were going to have lunch with him?”
   She stood up with a suprisin’ speed and stalked to the door, her soft shoes paddin’ on the polished wooden floor, the hem of her dress shushin’ against her legs. Yankin’ it open, she stood back as the secretary stumbled in. “Brynna, you tell him that I’m too busy. I’ve got all the lectures I care to give, and if he wants more he’s just going to have to do them herself. I have a friend here, and I’m spending the day with him. You tell Archibald that!”
   “Just ignore his threats. If he tries anything with you, I’ll have the Standards Council down on him like a sled of bricks. And as for me, I can take care of myself. Now you get going; tell him to come back tomorrow, and I might let him treat me to lunch. And you can take the day off and get some studying in. You’re still iffy on reading introns in blastocyst cells. You study that and we can go over it in detail tomorrow. If you don’t get an A on that test, I’ll be looking for a new secretary.”
   I watched Byranna’s ears flip all over, and I could smell the fear oozin’ off her—him—gaah! Scent still said ‘him’. “Yes, ma’am.”
   “Now, you just pass my message on to Dr. Archibald and be on your way. Your studies are far more important than dealing with some bombastic fool full of his own self-importance.”
   “Yes, ma’am. And thank you. I’ll tell him.” So sayin’, she curtseyed and closed the door with a loud thunk.
   “Who’s Dr. Archibald?”
   “Just the chairman of the university.”
   “Are you sure..?”
   “Shean, I haven’t needed work for years. I just enjoy it, especially the teaching. And Archibald knows it. All he’s good at is plants, and he knows damn well that if I walk, the status of the gengeneering department falls into the sewers. Besides, I’ve got ten offers right now. So don’t you worry about me.”
   “And what about Brynna? There’s somethin’ odd…”
   “Brynna? Odd?”
   “Her scent.”
   Snappin’ her fingers she cried, “Ah-hah! I knew the retrovirus hadn’t started working on her glands!”
   “Of course! Brynna used to be Bryce. Male buck. Came here to work under me. Found out she was really transgendered—you know, female soul in male body and all that—and together we’ve been working on changing her over. They’ve done it to humans for centuries, you’d have thought somebody would have realized by now that furs are just as susceptible to genetic errors.” As she was talkin’, she walked back around her desk and sat down on her chair.
   “Sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”
   “No way you could have known. I keep an eye on her, keep her morale up. You think you have it tough? She’s got both the anti-fur prejudice and the gay/cross-dresser prejudice. So,” she leaned forward on her elbows, her eyes glitterin’ like a cat’s, “you’re going to revolt. Why tell me? Why did Bob send you down to chat me up?”
   “Well, you know that we’re leavin’ near-Earth space. We’re tryin’ to get as many furs of each species on board as we can, but we simply ain’t gonna get enough. For example, I know of only eight of my genome in space right now. We need at least 50 pairs of each genome, preferably closer to 200.”
   She nodded. “And that means sperm and eggs in storage.”
   I nodded eagerly. “I fly up and down regularly, but we can’t figure out a way to safely get a hold of the material. We can’t think of an excuse. Given that the Brains are our enemy, and that they’re smarter and faster, anythin’ we try to hide we have to assume they figure out. All we can do is provide reasonable cover stories for everythin’ we do, so the Brains don’t get curious.”
   “Which is where I come in.”
   “Yup. Given your specialty and reputation, you can get a hold of the material, and the support equipment. Maybe limited supplies to study long-term exposure to the shielded environment aboard New Ceres?”
   “Hm. I’ll need a test group and a control group, and different levels of shielding for the dependent variable.”
   “We’d want to make sure that enough for breedin’ purposes has the maximum shieldin’.”
   She scratched her chin. “Out of curiosity, Shean, how much of that request was rote memorization, and how much do you understand?”
   I looked at her and my hoof stopped tappin’ on the leg of the chair. “Umm… why do you ask?”
   “Just humor an old woman.”
   “Well… my specialty’s flight. Orbital calculus, basic engineerin’, and physics, that kind of thing. The Doc supplied the numbers, and I trust you to deal with the shieldin’. I knew y’ need a certain number for genetic diversity, but I didn’t know the exact figure.”
   “Did you think about direct manipulation of the eggs and sperm to improve diversity?”
   I licked my lips as my hoof started tappin’ again. “No, ma’am. Thinkin’ about it, my gut feelin’ would be to not depend on it—if there isn’t enough sperm and eggs, and population, I’ve already decided not to breed.”
   “Good. We can do a lot now, but most of it is still trial and error. In some of the early experiments to create you furs, something like 90% never came to term, and 90% of those who did were put down before birth due to obvious defects. We don’t talk about it much, it’s only really mentioned in the more technical books. Even those of your ancestors who were let come to term have a high chance of some kind of undesirable recessive. Your figure, 50 pairs, is for human breeding pairs; for furs, I’d want at least twice that.”
   “I guess you’re the right person then, ma’am.”
   “Call me Nicholine.”
   I licked my lips nervously. “There’s one more question I’d like to ask, ma- Nicholine.”
   She smiled.
   “It’s kind of, well, personal.”
   “You’re opting out of current Earth society. Plotting property theft on a terabuck scale. What harm in my knowing something that makes only you nervous?”
   I turned away, even though I could still see her. Damn arc of vision—“Well, it’s my tail…”
   “Yes, I did notice that yours is missing. There have to be facilities to repair—”
   “You don’t understand! I, ah, had it… removed.”
   “It was a requirement—”
   “What the hell kind of requirement would cause a fur to remove their tail!?”
   I swallowed. “Well, it wasn’t—written if you know what I mean… There were strong… hints that I couldn’t continue in the space program with a tail, as a pilot that is. What with the special suit and seat—”
   “I thought that was outlawed!”
   I remembered myself then, young and innocent, and oh-so-naïve. Yeah, I could have fought it, and I could have won. I doubt I’d have graduated the flight academy, though. “Nicholine, what’s done is done. I just wanna see if you could arrange to… umm…”
   She giggled and I felt my ears heat up.
   “…get it shipped up, too?”
   She quickly drank some more water to muffle her giggles, though she was still smiling. “Shean, my boy, you may be expert in your area, but you know nothing about biology. Your tail is long gone—ground up into fertilizer, I’d imagine.”
   “Oh, don’t you worry. These days, it’s trivial to grow replacement limbs, including tails. The facilities are already up at New Ceres; you just have to ask.”
   “Oh… oh!”
   “So don’t feel you need to concern yourself. Now, when are you slated to go back up?”
   I pulled my tablet out of my bag. “Current schedule says next Tuesday, three pm launch. It’ll probably be closer to eight pm, but it’s gotta be ready by three.”
   “That’ll be no problem. Hell, my students can use the exercise!”
   “I—Thank you ma—Nicholine.”
   “And you tell Bob that I’m still not going up there. I’m too old, it’s a job for the young. And I’m perfectly happy down here! But I’ll be rooting for you.”
   I nodded.
   She started tapping keys on her computer. “So, Shean: Where would you like to go for lunch?”
   “Umm… Lunch?”
   “My treat—celebrate our alliance. Oh, and can you turn that thing,” she pointed to the bug scrambler, “off? I’ve got to set everything up to get the sperm and eggs ready for you. We can go and eat after that.”
   “Well… Thank you, then. I don’t know who else we could have gotten to do this.”
   “I don’t either, son.”
   I nodded.
   “And now, see, you’re relaxed.”
   And then my ears started flickin’ all over again, like a deer’s.
   “Shean, Shean! You worry too much. Revolution is a slow business. Knowing Bob, he’s got the cell structure all plotted out to seventeen decimals’ precision, and he’s got a continuously updated probability sketch of all possible events. Reality is too chaotic for such work to have any relevance, of course, but it keeps him busy.”
   I blinked.
   “Shean, it’ll come when it comes. Do what you always did, relax, otherwise you are screwed. Now come on, let’s have lunch. I can tell you some stories, tell you that you’re not in imminent danger, or at least not any more than you had been in earlier. Hmmm, I can teach you some mantras to relax.”
   “You need them. And if you don’t come, no sperm and eggs! Now, let’s go eat!”
   I went.

-= 11 =-

    “Captain Eeysmarn, we’re showing 18 seconds ’til launch. All the lights are green here. How are things on your end?”
    “Everythin’s green here, Control. I’m go when you are.” I switched to the internal intercom. “This is your Captain speakin’. Take-off is set for twelve seconds. I really hope you’re strapped in, because I ain’t goin’ clean up your messes.”
    Concentrate on the job. I counted, and concentrated, and I felt myself relaxin’ into the routine.
    “Same attitude as always I see, Captain,” stated Lieutenant Nikklicole, the raccoon currently mannin’—or was that womannin’?—the control tower. “Eight seconds… Five… Three… One… Ignition!”
    Onboard systems, slaved to the launch field’s Brain, sent the ‘go’ code as I pulled the main throttles back. With a roar of fire and a dragon’s growl, my shuttle taxied faster and faster, and soon took off. I took her through to ramjet, then scramjet, and then the rocket. Once we were well an’ truly upstairs, I talked to the passengers: “We’ve hit orbit. You may now unstrap and enjoy the view. Barf bags are at every seat; if your anti-nausea drugs ain’t workin’, use a bag. We’ll arrive at Tether Station Five in roughly twenty-eight minutes, and we rendezvous with High York about half an hour after, dependin’ on traffic. Enjoy your flight.”
    Nicholine’s experimental packages were safely onboard—I’d packed them myself, real carefully—and I’d done a basic hardware check before the Phoenix got fueled up. Too many systems to check fully, but it made me feel better. I’d managed to see one other person on the Doc’s list, a human, and he was goin’ through the physical and basic trainin’ to move up to New Ceres in a few months. The third name was dead, murdered two weeks back. She was a deer fur, and the cops figured a batch of humans-first bigots done it. It was bein’ investigated.
    Nicholine’s mantras did help. By the time I reached orbit, my stomach felt fine. Maybe freefall helped too.
    Dockin’ with Tether Station Five went without any problems; the tether hooked my shuttle with a satisfyin’ clunk and rotated it from its low orbit into the higher orbit of High York. That, o’ course, bein’ the primary refuelin’ and dockin’ facility for flights to th’ Moon and in an’ around Earth. It was a bunch smaller’n its original blueprints called for; construction got scaled back when they started the internal terraformin’ of New Ceres. Even so, the place was largely empty. Most traffic was automated, and most passengers stayed over only a day or so before movin’ on. There was a small permanent scientific community, but most of the cuttin’-edge work was at Lunar Farside and automated luna-stationary satellites in orbit over Farside Base. I’d launched only three hours late, and my schedule had me switchin’ to the orbital transport Hermes in nineteen hours. Fortunately, weren’t no problems dockin’ with High York.
    Fifty years ago there’d been separate pilots for each leg of the Earth/Orbit, Orbit/Lunar Orbit, Lunar Orbit/Lunar Surface run. Nowadays there was a shortage of trained personnel, so we all doubled up. Pilots specialized in either Earth/Orbit or Moon/Orbit flight, and shared the pilotin’ of the orbit-to-orbit runs. Given the current excess of space, I had my own cabin assigned to me; I sacked out for six hours, grabbed a cheeseburger at the cafeteria on the half-G level, and scanned through my tablet to see who was available on station for EVA buddy. Not only did regulations require it, but I hadn’t been vacuum-side for more’n two years. Last time was when the Enterprise collided with High York. We’d got everybody who could out there to clear the wreckage, and restore the symmetry of the station before its unbalanced spin ripped it apart.
    I was lucky—in the right place, and small enough to squeeze into the wreckage of the Enterprise and pull out three survivors. That was back before the regulation forbiddin’ suits. I figured they’d thrown out my old suit, so I bought a new one when I moved to New Ceres. I just hoped whatever I borrowed here wasn’t in too bad a shape.
   However, in terms of buddies, I hit today’s jackpot: Edward Nabigon, feller I’d worked alongside durin’ the rescue, was still aboard—an’ he was now head of construction and repair on High York. In fact, schedule said—crap! He was on duty until an hour before I was due to depart. Not enough time… Still, he might know someone. I pulled out the new headset and plugged it in and dialed him up.
   Besides the mantras, I’d also learned keepin’ busy helped me relax.
    Eddie’s face appeared in the screen. Time was he’d o’ been called ‘African American’, though he come from Brazil last I heard. Never could detect any accent though. “Shean!”
    “Hey, Eddie! Been a long time. Got a favour—”
    “The good news is, Lamber lost his rating and got booted Earthside!”
    I couldn’t help but grin.
    “The bad news is, he’ll be back up here in six months or so. We just don’t have enough trained people. Thank Heavens you survived!”
    “You think you’re thankful, Eddie? I’m the one was lookin’ to meet the Breath Sucker nice and personal! Anyway, that’s not why I called.”
    “I want to EVA and inspect the Hermes.”
    “Now, Shean, we’ve taken steps to keep that from happ-”
    “It’s not that. I’d expect nothin’ less, even in these shrinkin’ budget days. I just… well, I’d feel more comfortable if I could look ’er over myself.”
    He nodded.
    “Anyway, if I’m goin’ outside, I need a buddy. Thought of you, but you’re on duty, so I thought you might know—”
    “Hell, Shean, I’ll go with you! Ever since you boys on New Ceres took almost all our construction crew, I’m only here in case of emergency. I’ll just log it as an external inspection.”
    “Thanks! You know where I can get a suit?”
    “Yours is in locker 57 on level 18. I’ll have it sent up to the docking bay and meet you there in, say, two hours?”
    “My suit? I thought they dumped it when Directive 18-912B came down!”
    “It was supposed to be. But then a bunch of us pointed out that with the excess space, we could store them here. Both to keep the space from being wasted, and in case they changed their minds. Didn’t take much to sell them on it, after all they can still be dumped later. Keeps them from being a navigation hazard right now.”
    I snorted. “That’s good to hear. Given my size, I usually end up gettin’ the skunk suits. Sure, the skunks claim to be de-scented, but from the stench I can’t tell.”
    “I’ll see you at Lock C at the core at 1100, then. Look forward to seeing you in the flesh!”

-= 12 =-

   It took a while t’ download the Hermes expected pressure values and circuit diagrams into my tablet. While waitin’ for that, I finished a nice leisurely meal, and was at lock C inspectin’ my suit. It was strapped to the transport, and the transport was strapped to the wall. One sniff o’ the crotch confirmed that the suit was indeed mine. I shit my pants when I saw one of the survivors of the Enterprise move, and nothin’ ever got that completely out. Last pressure inspection stamp was dated six months ago, so everythin’ was in order. Slippin’ the Doc’s bug-jammer into one of the suit’s external pockets. I nodded to myself; no tellin’ whether or not I’d need it…
    I unfolded the undersuit from its pouch beside the outer suit, and shook out its spongy rubber. Yeah, it stank worse—you never, ever got those things clean. I took it into one of the nearby changerooms and dumped my normal clothes into a thumbprint-locked bin. Then I wiggled, literally, into th’ undersuit. I’d hooked up the plumbin’, not that I expected to be out there long enough to need it, but because you always assumed you’d be out there indefinite-like. Anythin’ to minimize the chance of a stupid error. With the damn thing on, tubes stickin’ out and floppin’ around, already pantin’ to try and cool off, my fur was already drenched in sweat. Not to mention the pain and itchin’ as the rubber pulled and yanked at it. Makin’ my way out, I found that Ed wasn’t there yet. Well, I squashed my rage—not easy; you try standin’ around in one of them rubber sweatbaths ’cause somebody’s late—an’ just drifted there. My breath came out in rapid pants as I tried to stay cool, and one hoof reflexively tried to tap somethin’.
    Thank God Eddie came boundin’ up from behind a few minutes later, jumpin’ from wall to wall of the corridor; such tricks was against all regs, but everybody did it when we was in a hurry. He had his undersuit on, too, and the tubes were bouncin’ and jostlin’. If he hadn’t been hurryin’ like the dickens, I’d have caught his scent long before I heard the soft rubber of his boots squeak-thumpin’ against the wall as he shoved off towards me.
    “Hey Shean! Got hooked up with a dispute down on level 25. Some nerfs fresh off Earth on their way to Anderson. Didn’t want to obey regs.”
    ‘Nerfs’ was freefall newbies—they tended to bounce around out of control, like old-fashioned spongy toys. “No problem! I’d have waited. Chewed you out later, but waited.”
    He spun around and absorbed his momentum on his feet with a loud squeak, and then grabbed the cart. “I need to get out of this can more.”
    “Why don’t you take some vacation? Go to Earth, visit family…”
    “Contract option won’t let me—I can only leave if there’s a certified officer to stand watch. And there’s only one of those left here: Me.”
    “Sure is, but they can’t stop my retiring, and I’ll have a nice, hefty nest egg when I do.” He looked at me for a second, runnin’ his eyes along my form with all the danglin’ rubber bits. “You putting on weight there, Shean?”
    “A whole lot less’n you have!”
    “Hah! Well, my suit’s in the lock, I use it often enough. You get suited up out here, I’ll meet you in the inner lock.”
    “Gotcha. Be there in a bit.”
    The outer suit you climbed into like a clamshell, backin’ into it and wigglin’ your legs down the legholes, and your arms down the armholes. The gloves were integral to the suit. Hadn’t done it in so long that I was a mite awkward, but then I remembered the trick of twistin’ your legs and waist in just the right way. I’d never been able to figure out how people without nice thin hooves was able to get into the things. The gloves were stiff, heavy rubber that squeezed tight against the skin—not so secure as the fat, bulky gloves, but with a whole lot more dexterity. O’ course, if you wasn’t careful you could freeze your fingers off… With the suit still open, and the helmet floppin’ off the back, I pulled myself in through the lock and pressed the button to lock and seal the door behind me. I moved slowly, as the suit’s mass-balance threw off my instincts.
    “There you are! What took you so long?” He was ready for buddy inspection just as I was.
    “You hush up. I ain’t worn any o’ these since Enterprise.”
    “That long? Did I ever thank you for that?”
    “I can’t count that high, Eddie.”
    “Well thanks. I still owe you.”
    “Oh, give it a break! I didn’t do nothin’ anyone else wouldn’t have done.”
    He nodded and we went through hookin’ up the plumbin’, inspectin’ the fit, makin’ sure everythin’ was plugged into what it was supposed to be plugged into. Once we’d both inspected each other, Ed grabbed a pair of oxygen bottles and scrubbers. About fifty years ago they decided to switch the suits to a closed system. Made coolin’ a bitch, but it saved the exhausted CO2 for use in the station’s algae farms. Saved shippin’ about a tonne of CO2 up from Earth every year. Pluggin’ in each other’s air systems, we sealed each other up. After mutual pressure tests (we both passed), we switched to normal life support and pulled our way into the outer lock. Eddie tethered us together, and he passed me a safety line after grabbin’ one himself. Then we cycled through, Ed securin’ himself to the lock wall before the outer door opened.
    I’ve floated around Saturn, and even that don’t compare to the view from Earth orbit. Forget the dockin’ ring, though. The centre of High York was hollow, ships docked there to minimize dealin’ with the station’s rotation. But your eye’s drawn to this blue glow, and then you see the monstrous blue-speckled white sphere of Earth… It hangs over you like an endless wall, a paintin’, but it glows with life and screams its reality all around you. Pictures don’t compare, holos don’t compare. Everybody, even the oldest hands, just hangs there for a moment t’ look at the thing hangin’ over ’em: The homeworld. The wide-screen cloud and water and land and faerie-lights on the farside of the day/night terminator… Yeah, I could see it through the cockpit of my shuttle, but this was different. Not sure if it was the wider view, or the perceived closeness as I just hung there.
    But, my entire blood always sang with the reality of it.
    “Okay tourist, sightseeing’s over. Let’s go and give that Hermes of yours a look-see.”
    I shook my head to tear it away from the blue wall hangin’ over us. “You was starin’ just as much as me, so give it a rest.”
    He chuckled and I knew he knew I was right. “Sure I was. Can you see the Hermes from here?”
    I looked around, turnin’ my head inside the plexiglass sphere that was all that kept the Breath Sucker at bay, and spotted it. There weren’t many active ships around anymore—not enough demand. Just two or three for each stage of the Earth-Moon journey. The Hermes was the only one at High York. “Yeah, I got it.”
    Eddie uncoiled line from his waist. “The buddy line should be long enough, or at least that’s what the calculations say. You unclip yourself and jump, I’ll feed the buddy line. When you get there, clip yourself down and I’ll come over. Clear?”
    “Sounds like a plan. Let me know when you’re ready.” Holdin’ one of the handles by the exterior lock, I flipped down the sight on my helmet and lined up the Hermes.
    “Ready when you are, Shean. I’ll feed out the line, and loose us from the lock when you’re there.”
    “Thanks.” I unclipped myself, crouched down, and then kicked off. I felt the line tuggin’ behind me as Eddie reeled it out, and I tumbled slow.
    What can I say about driftin’ through emptiness, all by yourself ’cept for the sound of your breath and the sight of it mistin’ and clearin’ on the helmet that keeps the Breath Sucker at bay? You feel alone, utterly and completely alone. One of the reasons for the cautious protocol, for the lines and buddies, was to help deal with that feelin’. You never went out by yourself, and you never had no connection with somethin’. Ed was kind enough t’ let me go first, but I remained linked to him, and him to the station inside the lock. When everythin’ around you exists only to kill you, suckin’ and pullin’ at you, you never take chances.
    I moved slow; I’d jumped for accuracy, speed not bein’ needed, and my instincts had forgotten the mass effects of wearin' a suit. Even though I seemed to be driftin’ free, I was tethered by the thin cable that glittered bright yellow in the sunlight that passed through the girders and spokes of High York’s unfinished bits. When it shone on me, my helmet darkened and polarized, but my eyesight was still splattered with dots for a few minutes. And the Hermes crept closer. My course wasn’t perfect, but that was the problem with not doin’ it for years. At least I wouldn’t miss it; now, that woulda been embarrassin’. I curled up into a ball and spun faster, and then stretched out when my hooves was pointin’ at my ship. Didn’t need radar to tick off the distance; in fact, I found it so distractin’ that I always turned it off. The hull loomed over me, antenna and RCS jets loomin’ on their posts. There was hand-holds scattered all over, and I saw I’d land right smack-dab between two. “Crap!”
    “Anything wrong, Shean?”
    “Nothin’ much. Just gonna land out o’ reach of anythin’.”
    “I can hold you tight and try and swing you over.”
    “Let’s not go for that yet. I should be able to grab an RCS post. Just gimme a sec…” I felt the hull press against my hooves and crouched down, absorbin’ the momentum of my jump. I didn’t stay in contact, instead ended up floatin’ a few inches away. “Landed safe. Now tryin’ for the post.”
    “Gotcha. All the cables and umbilicals are on the far side, so you don’t need to worry about them.”
    “I figured that’s why we took the long way.” I lined the sight up on the RCS post and then gently stretched my legs pushin’ myself out. The trip was short this time, the yellow line coilin’ and curvin’ behind me into the dark distance where Lock C lay in the shadows. High York spun slow, and my line curved to reflect that. ’Course, it didn’t need a lot o’ degrees-per-second; just enough to generate 2/3 of a standard Earth G at the outermost deck. Reachin’ out, my body tumbled, and I wrapped my thick rubber-gloved hands around the post. “Got it!” My breathin’ was harsh in my ears. Guess I was more nervous than I thought.
    “Read you 5-by-5, Shean. How’s your grip?”
    I pulled myself a bit closer, hands wrapped around the warm metal. I could feel my palms beginnin’ to sweat, but there was some insulatin’ layers inside the rubber. “Got a right fine grip, Eddie. Let me just pull myself down—there’s a handle at the base.” Crawlin’ down the post with only my hands, my legs trailin’ uselessly behind me, I grabbed a handle. “Got it! Clippin’ on.” I pulled my safety line from my belt, made sure it was clipped securely to my suit, and then clipped it again, to Hermes. Length looked to be about 10 metres, which would be fine for the inspection. “All secure. You can come over when ready. Let me know when you’ve jumped, and I’ll start pullin’ in the buddy line.”
    “Read you 5-by-5, Shean. Unclipping from the lock, closing the outer door. Jumping… now.”
    I felt a slight slack on the line, and began gently pullin’ it towards me, coilin’ it. Just like Eddie, I had clips all over my belt. When he was close I’d clip the coil so our buddy line was maybe five metres or so. In the distance, sunlight glittered off a white-suited figure as it drifted out of the shadows: Bastard had no tumble at all. “I see you, Eddie. Jump looks clean.”
    “Thanks. Be there in a bit.”
    I hung there in silence, slowly driftin’ outward as my line stretched from the Hermes. Soon Eddie slipped past me, wavin’, so I clipped our buddy line tight against my belt, and began pullin’ myself back down. Then we started crawlin’ along her.
    For the first while, the inspection was silent ’cept for exchangin’ and confirmin’ data. I could see the new metal, gleamin’ and silver, against the slightly pitted dull aluminum of the old hull. Meteors were damn rare, but micrometeors weren’t, and two centuries o’ satellite launches had put enough crap in near-Earth orbit that you always got hit by flakes of metal, and even the odd nut or bolt. The damage had been fixed well—Darrvid wouldn’t have it any other way—and it wasn’t long ’til we was in darkness, checkin’ the umbilicals. I clicked on the lights attached to my wrists and looked over the connections, the tank pressure, and anythin’ else I could confirm without difficulty.
    “Why don’t you come to New Ceres, Eddie?”
    For a long moment his breath was the only thing I heard in my headphones. Then he said, “I’ve got my job here.”
    “Oh come on, Eddie. There’s work just as rewardin’ on New Ceres. You said yourself there’s next to nothin’ for you to do here."
    I heard his breathin’ get louder. “I—I like it here. Umm… What do you show for O2 pressure?”
    I looked inside the access compartment and read the number. “Four MPa.” I punched the data into my tablet, and it agreed with me.
   “Value confirmed,” Eddie said, checkin’ the value with the mainframe. Damn right, it was duplicate effort; like I said, you don’t take no chances when you’re in the grip of the Breath Sucker.
    I nodded, closed the hatch with a click I heard through the material of my suit, and began pullin’ myself over to the next access port. “What’s this place got that New Ceres don’t? It’s fallin’ apart. Prob’ly be abandoned, ’cept as a fuelin’ point, once the Rock’s finished.”
    “I…” Then there was a click in my headphones, and silence except for my own breathin’. I watched Eddie pull himself along our buddy line, his wrist-mounted flashlights paintin’ crazy shapes on the hull. Stoppin’ in front of me, he pressed against my chest to stop his motion. He tapped the side of his helmet with one gloved hand, and then made a cuttin’ motion beside his one ear.
    I thought about it for a sec as he looked at me. Sure, cuttin’ off radio was against regs, but everybody I knew did it. I’d done it before, and I would again.
    Killin’ my radio, I nodded.
    Eddie grabbed my hands and pulled himself close, and handed me the direct wire for his radio. I plugged it into my suit so’s we had a secure private connection. Then he spoke: “Shean… I… I don’t know why, but, well, I need to tell someone. You can keep a secret?”
    I felt my ears flickin’ wildly out of consternation, the hair of their tips slidin’ around the inside of my helmet, stretchin’ and pullin’ at the earphones at their bases. “Umm… sure.”
    At that point he hugged me. Some humans on Earth did it, some didn’t. Usually it was only between close friends. So, a bit hesitantly, I hugged back, clenchin’ his body with mine.
    “Shean—I—I think I love her.”
    Huh!? “Umm… love who?”
    “Who’s Liz? If it’s a fur—”
    “No…” He must have seen me frown as he went on. “She’s not—it’s nothing like that. I have nothing against you people, you know that!”
    I nodded. “Well, sure. Who then?” I was wrackin’ my brain, tryin’ to remember a Liz on High York, but hadn’t had any luck.
    He muttered somethin’ before raisin’ his voice again. “You probably know her as Elizabeth. The Brain on High York.”
    God! Before I could even think about it I’d pushed him away from me. He struggled for a second, and then grabbed our buddy line and pulled himself back up to just in front of me, waitin’ for me to speak. I licked my dry lips, and sipped some water from the nipple; it went down like a lump. Reachin’ down, I pushed the Doc’s gizmo deep into the pouch and then I pulled myself the rest of the way to Eddie. I licked my lips. “Eddie… I’m…”
    “I know it’s frowned upon but—”
    “Eddie! It just… surprised me. Wasn’t what I expected.”
    He nodded.
    “I… Eddie, I’ve been damn lucky in my upbringin’. What was taught to me was that as long as two sophonts loved, no matter their form, then more power to ’em.”
    He hugged me again and our helmets clunked together. “Thanks. Thanks! I owe you another one, now.”
    “Eddie, I…” I could see his eyes starin’ at me, desperate. I hugged him. “Ed, I’m sorry. I just… It’s odd. Unexpected. But, why me?”
    “I, I had to tell someone. And, well, you’re a fur, and you furs are more open about marriage than us humans. How many of your matches are interracial?”
    Crap. Sure, there was marriage between different species of fur, but there were so few of us compared to the humans that we tended to band together. Children were through artificial insemination, even when two furs of the same species married. Even more so than now, we were paranoid about the genetics of our children. “Eddie, that’s different. There aren’t enough of us—”
    “You won’t tell anybody, will you?”
    “I… God, Eddie, does… does Elizabeth know?”
    He turned his head away. “I haven’t told her. I—I’m pretty sure she knows…”
    “Eddie, just tell me everythin’.” I checked the HUD: Twelve hours of O2 left, and three hours ’til Hermes was due to leave.
    “Shean, I… I don’t know. It just kind of happened. Almost like in a storychip. I started talking to her about personal things, not just business or inquiries. She started talking back. You have any idea how lonely they are? Never touching anybody, most people just treating them like computers. It’s why a lot of them keep their conversion secret from friends, sometimes for years.”
    I remembered Peter…
    “I think I knew about two months ago. She… she invited me over, I guess you’d say. Let me into her vault, and I stood there, shivering in the cold, looking at the metal canister that held her, cradled and embraced by support machinery. Frost dripped from the steel, and slid down a drain in the floor. We talked there, for hours. Almost missed my shift.”
    “Well, why don’t you get’cherself Brainified?”
    “We’ve talked about it. Long talks. The problem is, I’d have no choice about where they put me. High York only needs one Brain. They’d put me down on Earth somewhere, or maybe in one of the Lunar bases.”
    “So? Talk by radio.”
    “It doesn’t work that way! Sure, we can talk, but the lightspeed limit—there’s at least a second time delay. She’s the one who told me about it. I didn’t think it was much either, but then she told me how she thinks so fast, and how it seems like an eternity. She said she’d invited me down because even the tenth-second delay from the switching and wires was annoying.”
    “Shean, I just—I had to tell somebody. I couldn’t tell somebody too close to me, but you saved me, patched my suit. I feel like you’re a friend… don’t even know if that’s the right word.”
    I just looked at him, the only sound my breath. How the hell did I get into this situation? Here I was, plottin’ revolution against the Brains, makin’ myself treat them as the enemy, makin’ myself hate them. And now… this.
    “Shean—I’m—Oh, never mind. Just… forget I said anything. Just don’t tell anybody.”
    “Ed, wait—I…” I snorted, spittle collectin’ on the helmet before bein’ sucked into my breathin’ air. What the hell was I goin’ to tell him? Best lie was part of a truth, or so I’d been learnin’ recently. “Eddie, it’s just… I got a nephew on Earth. He was goin’ into the space program, I was gonna show him everythin’. But, I just found out, a few days ago, he’s becomin’ a Brain. I guess… Brains just ain’t in my best book right now.”
    “Did he make his own choice?”
    “Well, yeah. He’s just underage, but it was all legal.”
    “Isn’t it his right to choose?”
    I sighed, and blinked back tears as the pain of Cæsar’s choice ripped through me all over again. “Of course it is! It’s just, well the shock I guess. I…” and then I knew, and I felt ashamed. “Eddie, it was, well, a betrayal. I felt like he’d lied to me all these years, strung me along, and then, laughin’ly, took himself away.”
    “Would he do something like that?”
    “I… he…” I thought back. “No. No, he wouldn’t. I… Ah, hell…” Now, finally, I hugged Eddie, really hugged him. And, you know what? It did make me feel better.
    “This is one seriously fucked-up world we live in, isn’t it?”
    “Yeah.” I nodded. “Hey, I had a thought. You know the ship that saved me, that Captain Stapledon?”
    “What about him?”
    I described what I saw of the ship. “I think he’s a Brain.”
    “Think about it. Ask Liz. If Brains are gettin’ a small support system, then you could still be a Brain. There’s lots of work for you in orbit. You can dock with High York, talk to her then. Shouldn’t be hard to rig up a high speed cable the two of you can use.”
    “I’ll ask! Thanks!”
    Then the needs of the rebellion made me speak. I felt cold, dirty, but I had to ask. “Eddie, can you…” I licked my lips. “…let me know what happens. I… I guess I’m kinda involved now. If there’s Brainships, maybe…” I hope that my hatred of the very idea just came out as nervousness. It must have. “Maybe I’ll become one, too. If it’s possible. Dependin’ on the rules.”
    He nodded. “I can do that, no problem.” And so Edward Nabigon agreed to leak privileged information to the rebellion.
    At that instant I hated it. Hated the very idea. It was only the thought of all the sophonts who needed a way out that kept me from tellin’ Eddie, tellin’ Liz everythin’, right there.
    I checked the time. “Ed, I… Well, I wish you the best. We’d better get back. Not much more we can do here. And… I need to make a call. I really need to.”
    “No problem. I made sure to check her myself,” he patted Hermes, “yesterday.”
    “And you didn’t tell me?”
    “Seemed to me like you needed it.” Unpluggin’ his cable from my suit, he pushed us apart, driftin’ slowly away. He switched his radio back on; so did I.
    “Let’s get back, then,” I said. “I guess I’ll lead, ’cause you’re kinda driftin’ there.”

-= 13 =-

   It wasn’t hard gettin’ back. After rackin’ my suit and arrangin’ for it t’ be cleaned, I took a hot shower to rid m’self o’ the stink of sweat and rubber. I had about an hour left, so I sped down the halls to the lower levels where I could run. Tearin’ into a booth, I plugged my tablet into the station comm outlet and dialed home. There’d be a 1.9-second delay in transmission each way, but I’d dealt with that before, and could again. Signals was never straight line anymore, always bouncin’ from satellite to satellite. Of course Aunt Neeola answered, and I assured her that nothin’ had happened. She nodded, and then I said I had to speak to Cæsar, to apologize. Her muzzle vanished and a couple minutes later I saw Cæsar’s.
    “Uncle Shean?” He yawned. From the disheveled look of his fur, she must’ve just gotten him out of bed. I checked the time—11pm there. That figured.
    “Cæsar, I’m… Oh, hell, I’m sorry.”
    “Uncle, you don’t need to apologize.”
    “Just shut up and let your elder speak for a bit.”
    He nodded.
    “I… Cæsar, when you told me you was becomin’ a Brain, it was a surprise. More a shock. I—I guess I just needed some time to deal with it. It’s your choice, I respect that choice.”
    “I’m gonna honest here, so you just listen. I’ve got about fifteen minutes, then I have to run. When you told me, hell, I felt you’d betrayed me. You damn near ripped my heart right out then and there.”
    “Uncle! I didn’t mean to.”
    “Cæsar, just… God, I’m just sorry. My mistake. When you’re ready, I’ll be up here. At least we can talk. And… And I wish you the best. The best in everythin’.” I blinked tears out of my eyes.
    “I—Uncle Shean, I… thanks.” I could see he was snifflin’ too. “That means, well, it means more to me than you can imagine. You wait for me, don’t take any risks, you hear!”
    “You’re startin’ to sound like Aunt Neeola.”
    “I… Just be safe. I’ll be there. Love and hugs, Uncle!”
    “Love and hugs, Cæsar!”
    And then we disconnected.
    Brains wasn’t the enemy. Not then, an’ not now—if they still exist. They’re… well, they’re just different. Thinkin’ of them as the enemy, thinkin’ of them as evil, that made plottin’ against ’em easy. But now, well, now it was hard. But at least I was doin’ it the right way.
    The moral way.

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