by Bill Hafoc Rogers
©2008 Bill Hafoc Rogers
Hed been sitting alone for hours at his table in the corner of the Cometary Orbit Spaceport Pub and Grill. A tiger he was, dressed in plain, sturdy clothes that spoke of a life in the wilderness. A guy like that, it didnt make sense for him to be anything but a soldier; yet in spite of being an outdoorsy hunting cat, there was nothing of the military about him.
He was pouring his own drinks from a glass bottle. That was unusual, tooand usually a bad sign.
Maybe he was still in control Id been watching him on and off, all afternoon and into the evening, and the level of the golden liquid in the bottle was only dropping slowly. Still, over time hed drained half the bottle. That much alcohol had to be having an effect on him.
I finally decided to go talk to him. But now I wasnt sure: What would he think of me? Did he even swing my way? And why would he be interested? After all, he was unique, but you can find vixens like me in every spaceport bar in the Federation. Still, it couldnt hurt try to get a little closer.
My instincts told me Id do better with him if I kept the sex-bomb thing under control. So I didnt put anything into my walk as I crossed the room.
Hi. My names Cassie.
He looked up at me, and a smile touched the corners of his mouth. It looked good there. It looked like he hadnt smiled in a while, either. Of course it is. Im Thomas, he said.
Do you mind if I sit down?
Not at all. I could stand having someone to talk to. He looked at me with a bit of significance. Nothing more.
Thank you. I sat. More would take care of itself later, if there was any later.
So: What brings you to my table?
Curiosity. I dont know when Ive ever seen a tiger in the Cometary Orbit. Or anywhere around Kennedy Commercial, for that matter.
You might say Im not from around here. May I pour you a drink? He picked up his bottle.
I took a glance at it: The label said it was something called Jim Beam, whatever that was. It also said the alcohol inside was seven years old. I had no idea why that was good, but the makers seemed proud of the fact. The bottle itself was real glass, heavy enough it would have made a good weapon. The stopper was a cork that had been sealed in place with wax. In short, it looked very expensive. Well, of course it would be.
I hope you wont be offended if I order something from the bar instead. Im a little scared to drink real, distilled alcohol instead of synthetics.
Understandable. He set the bottle down, picked up his glass, and took a tiny sip. This stuff is pure murder. Ill feel like a bloodstained rug tomorrow morning.
I waved, and Boris came across from the bar with my usual Bloody Mary. He laughed, gave me a friendly look with just the right amount of wicked leer in it, and went back to the bar to draw some more mugs of beer and trade jokes and stories with the customers.
If you know itll make you feel bad, why do you drink it? I asked, turning back to face him. But he didnt answer for a moment. He was watching Boris go back to the bar. There was something in Thomas eyes hate, maybe?
He looked away, looked at me, looked down into his glass. I dont know. He picked it up, took a sip, mumbling into the glass as he did. Maybe Im just tired of things that are too damn well-engineered.
I thought you looked unhappy. I guess I was right. Would you care to talk about it?
He probably shouldnt have wanted to. After all, wed barely met, and he knew nothing about me except that I was a busty vixen in a red dress, and my name was Cassie. But theres something about me that makes people want to talk.
So he let what control he had slip from his face. It filled with anger and loathing. Look at him, he sneered, nodding at the bar.
At who? Boris? The bartender?
The bear, yes. Boris, if thats his name. His name would just have to be Boris, wouldnt it? Look at him. Laughing, talking with the customers. Ever-so-nicely cutting off that drunk otter near the jukebox there, so skillfully the otter took his cup of coffee and his free autocab ticket home, and took no offense at all. Plenty of muscle Boris has, too, in case things get out of hand. But hes got just the right amount of paunch to look like the perfect, cheerful bartender. Hes the sort of guy who becomes your best friend in ten minutes.
Boris is very good at what he does.
I bet he is. I bet he has brothers and uncles and cousins tending bar in spaceports across the whole Federation, too. And if I asked him, I bet hed tell me he loves his job.
Whats wrong with that?
Thomas poured himself a little more Jim Beam. Oh, nothing at all. Absolutely nothing in the whole damned Universe wrong with it.
A child could have picked up on his sarcasm. But you dont believe that. Why not?
His look was grim. Do you really want to know?
Getting clients to lower their guard, open up to me In some ways, its not so very different from what my non-sentient ancestors used to do when they went hunting for prey. Or so I imagine. Of course, I dont eat my clients; what I get from them is pure pleasure. So I waited. And sure enough, the big cat decided he really did want to talk to me
The red crosshairs showed where the Federation space station should be. His suits navigation system projected a green circle around the intersection of the two red lines, which meant he was heading straight for it, assuming the suits gyros and nav system were any good. But he still saw nothing but emptiness and the distant stars.
He keyed the communicator again. Mayday. Mayday. Calling Federation outpost, can you hear me?
Terror clutched his heart. What if the Federations technology was so far ahead of the Independent Provinces that they didnt need border stations any more? What if a small space probe could do everything that had once required a manned station half a mile across? Then there would be nobody to hear him. Or if they heard him, theyd be too far away to get to him in time to save him. Nonothe station had to be there still. Or something else, maybe patrol boats, picket boats, something. There had to be!
But what if there wasnt?
In that case he was dead. He had to calm himself. He had to control his breathing. Must not hyperventilate. Must trust that somebody had seen Electra, and had seen his spacesuit eject itself from her airlock. Must have faith that somebody would come.
It seemed like he was alone forever
Clang! His suit rocked and spun, then stopped. Something thumped against his helmet. Dont worry, Ive got you, somebody said. The sound was distant and muffled, but clear enough.
Who? Who are
He turned (or something turned him), and he was looking at the mirrored faceplate of another helmet. The faceplate touched his. Lights came on inside the other furs helmet.
He was looking at a black face, all black. It seemed to have dogs ears. No, they were sharp, and the muzzle was narrow. Not a dog, but a fox then. The face was black, all black; black fur, black skin inside the ears, black eyes. Even the so-called whites of the eyes were black. It was terrifying!
But the face smiled. The posture of the ears and the rest of the expression looked friendly. The foxs teeth were white, Thomas noticed. That was good. That bit of contrast added definition to the face, made it look like a real person instead of some kind of monster.
Karl Spanner at your service: Chief Petty Officer, Orbital Tech assigned to Outpost Kuiper. Hang onIve got to strap your suit to mine, and then Ill take you home. Hows your oh-two?
Thomas checked his oxygen gauge and, incidentally, his clock. Hed been in space an hour and a half, and had used as much oxygen as youd normally use in two. He must have been starting to panicbut it was all right now. Looks like about four hours, plus reserve.
Plenty. Chief Spanner turned Thomas around again. Thomas heard clicks and thumps, probably straps being attached to his suit. There was something disturbing about Chief Spanner; the fox seemed to have touched him a few more times than could be readily accounted for by the standard number of limbs. But that was just a feature of his working spacesuit, no doubt.
Now they spun again. Thomas felt giddy and told his stomach that no, he was not going to get sick! They stopped spinning. He was facing about the direction he had been, if that bright star there was the one hed been watching earlier. Something kicked him; a series of distant thuds and a low humming sound. Thrusters.
A pop, a hiss in his ears. There, Chief Spanner said into his headphones. Were safely on our way to Kuiper now. How come you didnt call us? You do know how to work your suits radio, dont you?
Of course I do, and Ive been calling! I dont know what quantenge it uses, though. I guess its tuned to the standard emergency settings.
Quantengeyou mean, your suits got a tachyon communicator? Damn!
He shrugged. It can come in handy when you need to abandon ship somewhere out between the stars.
I guess it would but even so, it sure does seem like overkill! Ordinary VHF radio works fine, suit to suit. We were listening for you on the usual distress frequencies, 121.5 kilohertz and 406 megahertz. Well, no harm done, and alls well that ends well. Your suit has a dead-standard audio cable connection, among other things. Im just surprised the connections still match, what with your lot splitting off after the Revolution a century and a half ago. So youre an escaped slave, eh?
How do you know that? Do you get so many of us here?
Oh, no, not many. But we know that all furs in the so-called Independent Provinces are slaves. Not like the Federation! We havent had slavery since the Revolution. Were free here, all free to do whatever we want.
Sure is! Believe me, youre going to love it here. I knew you must be a slave when the boss called me about you. We dont know if its an escaped slave, or a human, or what, he said. But I said, what else could you be? Me, I work in deep space and I love itbut you guys are all ground-grippers over there. Most of you wouldnt dare risk a space-walk like you did, not unless the hounds of hell were at your heels. But human or furry, people will risk anything for freedom. The boss had to agree and here we are.
His heart soared. So it was true! Slavery was finished in the Federation. Of course hed assumed sothat was what the whole Revolution was aboutbut the history books Master shouldnt have let him read didnt say anything about how all that worked out. They didnt know who had won the Revolution. Or, more likely, the Exclusionists wouldnt admit what they did know.
So Ive made it? Im free?
You sure are. Welcome to the Federation! Well be home in twenty minutes.
Outpost Kuiper, as they approached it, looked familiar. That surprised him. It looked just like the historical database pictures of deep space stations from before the Revolution. But maybe it really was that oldif it still worked, why abandon an old station?
All right, Chief Spanner said. Well be coming into one of the shuttle hangars.
Ive worked in orbit some. I doubt Im as good as you, but if you unstrapped me I could come in through a standard man-lock.
Really? Youre a tiger, and youve done orbital work?
Masters ranch was the only one on a border world thats mostly water. We only settled the place a few years ago. We didnt have enough people to specialize much, yet.
Really! Thats amazing. But weve already set up for Hangar Twelve. Might as well continue as planned.
Fine. And thanks for all the trouble.
That, there, would be the main generator, at the end of a mast extending out along the stations axis. Traditionally that would be the south end, if the histories were right. The shuttle hangar module should be at the other end. Ah, yes, there! As the great wheel of the station turned, a flat disc attached to the north end of the main axis remained stationary. That would be the shuttle hangars, with docking rings for larger ships along the mast further north. One of the black-bordered shuttle doors was open. He could see lights inside, and tiny objects moving. That would be their destination: A hangar with its door open, its air held in only by the stations force fields.
Thump, hiss, thump thump. They turned and approached the open door. Thomas could see their reception committee now. Two spacesuits, unusually large, floated inside the hangar. Why were these people suited? Theyd depressurized the hangar? Why? And why did the suits have Thomas blinked.
May I ask a personal question?
Depends on how personal. There was a chuckle in the tone of the voice.
Do you have, um, four legs? Or six limbs, I mean?
Sure. We all do, in my section. Were Starfoxes. You saw how Im all black? Thats part of my modifications to resist radiation. Six limbsnot a centauroid form, exactly; those are ground-grippers. Were set up to grab things, not to run.
They were coming in. Chief Spanners friends seemed more than happy in zero gravity. One of them was holding onto a ladder with long, flexible fingers attached to a left hindfoot; his tail was wrapped around the ladder rungs too. The second was just spinning at ease in the center of the hangar. He looked unpleasantly like a big spider.
He braced himself for the forcefield at the hangar entrance, but there was nothing. They just sailed in. The floating starfox grabbed him too. He heard clicks, sounds as if Chief Spanner was unstrapping his suit. They hustled him toward the wall of the hangar and seemed surprised when he grabbed a handhold, twisted loose, and jumped for the door. He grabbed another handhold there and waited. The hangar door had slid closed, and now his suit began to relax as air pressure started to build around him.
It looked like there were no forcefield projectors around the hangar door. This hangar must not have them. Station Kuiper must be ancient! Back home, airlocks had been equipped with secondary forcefield doors for nearly a century.
Ooh! Nimble for a ground-gripper, somebody said once the air pressure built enough that sound would carry.
Thomas, these are Spacers First Class Elliot and Spanner; Janet Spanner.
Thomas nodded. Pleased to meet both of you. A relation of yours, Chief?
Chief Spanner laughed. Were all relatives. I have cousins in every space station and every major starship across the Federation.
And on planets too?
Well, some. We go there for training, or when we want to. But why would we want to live on a planet? Our job is out here, among the stars, and we love it.
Commander Parks was a male human. He didnt seem old, although with antigeriatrics it was hard to tell.
His office wasnt large, but it was impressive. The desk was heavy, polished wood, beautifully made. Most of the rear wall was a window that looked out toward the nearest star, a star so close it almost rated as a sun.
Thomas felt awkward sitting in a chair in the presence of a human, but Parks seemed to expect it. There were no slaves here, Thomas reminded himself.
So you were your masters personal servant?
No. Commander? The way you say that, is there something youre trying to tell me?
Now Commander Parks looked embarrassed. Thomas knew humans well enough to know what those red ears meant. I didnt mean to offend. Major Hrruar told me you said there werent any soldiers on your masters planet, and then
Thomas roaredwith laughter. You thought I was Masters bedslave?
The Commander blinked in surprise. You werent? But you said youre not a soldier!
So thats why she grinned at me like that! Gods protect us, she thought I was a concubine Commander, that sort of thing is illegal. The Exclusionists think concubines were one reason for the Revolution. The humans in the central parts of the Federation went soft on the furs because they cared about us too much, and they cared because they were bedding us. Thats the theory, anyway. If Master has a slave or two for personal services, its illegal and secret. It was also illegal and secret that he had us educated, though, so I wouldnt be too surprised if the other was going on, too.
Im just trying to understand you, Mr. Thomas. You had a perfectly good ship. You could have come right up to the Station and never have risked jumping into space. If you werent your masters lover, why would you give him back his ship?
Thomas sighed. Because its almost hurricane season.
How to explain hurricane season to someone who lived in a totally controlled environment Well, normally, Master would never use a light freighter like Electra for servicing weather satellites in low orbit, but with the hurricane season coming on, theres not enough time to do all the work with the two shuttlecraft. Masters not alone on that planet, you know; he has a couple thousand furs with him too, and if they dont have warning of a hurricane theyre all cooked. And then without Electra he cant trade with the settled worlds, and his whole colony might go bankrupt. Hes trying to give us more freedom than most slaves, more freedom than the law allows. He has visitors from the home worlds, too. I think hes up to something, something thats not bad for furkind. I hope so, anyway.
But he was your master.
He couldnt help that, could he? He was born heir to an estate. He was a good man anyway, as far as I could tell from the few times we spoke. But forget all that. Just say I was worried for my brother and sister slaves and leave it at that, all right?
But if you werent a soldier, um
Shes quite the soldier herself, isnt she, the Major? I went to shake her hand and she started to return the salute Id never given. With those claws of hers she almost couldnt shake my hand without cutting me. And she assumed I was the same. Is that the way it is here? Do I have to be a soldier just because Im a tiger?
No, of course not. Youre free. What do you want to do? What did you do before you escaped?
I was a farmer.
Parks boggled. A farmer?
Yes. I loved the work I did in the fields. I had a little truck garden, too, and a flower garden. He smiled, feeling a bit of a tear in his eye. Back home the daylilies would still be blooming, and the roses would soon be out. And hed never see them, never see his little patch of bright colors beside the tractor sheds, again. Freedom, yes, freedom was worth it. But the price of freedom was a hard one.
Well Parks said, looking a bit uncertain. Or perhaps he was skeptical. Theres agriculture on Bensons World, of course. I have some friends there. We can send you there and see how you fit in. Youll have a modest stipend until youre on your feet; the Federation provides that to newly-escaped slaves. In addition, were going to confiscate the spacesuit you brought in. Its got some amazingly advanced features we want to study. Well pay you for it, generously. You wont have to worry about money for a long time.
Money. He hadnt thought about that; money had always been something for Master to deal with. Well, you managed it the way you managed your grain supply, he guessed. Seed corn you saved no matter what. Some you had to budget out to feed the livestock. If you were lucky, there was a bit more to trade for luxuries. He could handle that.
Thank you, Commander Parks.
Youre welcome. Well send you on as soon as we get you your identity ring and outfit you with a few other things youll need. I hope you can find a place to be happy here.
Why did that sound so doubtful?
It seemed unusual that there were no autocabs to take him all the way to the farm. But he didnt mind the walk. It was only three miles. It was good to be in the fields again.
Around him were fields of grain, ripening in the sun. The breeze was cooler than he was used to, but the new blue jacket he liked so much kept off most of the chill. The cooling touch on his face was actually pleasant.
He recognized oats, wheat, and barley. There were no exotic varieties, and no crops but grain. It was a bit monotonous, but the big open fields must make it easier to maneuver whatever monster agricultural machinery the Federation used these days.
This must be the place! It was a neat enough farmstead. The house, or barn, or whatever it was, seemed a little strange; it was big, and long, and had a dozen or more doors spaced evenly on its long sides. But the doors were too small for any tractor Thomas had ever seen.
And here were his hosts. They were huge anthropomorphic draft horses, nearly eight feet tall and with muscles on their muscles. One was obviously male, the other obviously female. They wore nothing except hauling harnesses, elaborately decorated but very sturdy, very serviceable. Thomas tried not to stare.
The male had his ears back, but the female seemed unafraid of him. As well she might! He might be a tiger, but she was over two feet taller than he and could probably have ripped him to bits in a heartbeat.
Thomas Darkstripe, he corrected, giving her the family name theyd invented for him. You were expecting me?
Yes, we were. Youre welcome, of course, but were a bit confused. Im Dot. This is my mate, Doc. Dot offered him a huge hand to shake. Doc didnt, and Thomas noticed with a shock he hoped he didnt show that the stallions harness was equipped with locks, and his wrists were cuffed to his sides.
Is this your farm?
Well, it belongs to us and to the other teams who live here. Theyre all out in the fields as usual. Its not plowing time, unfortunately, but theres still lots of cultivating and weeding to keep us interested. Doc and I stayed in to greet you when you arrived.
We havent had much need for security forces here in the past sixty years, Doc said, nodding to him.
Im not military. I was a farmer back back back where I came from. When I was a slave.
Youbuthow did you manage to farm?
Well, I was good at running and maintaining tractors.
Tractors! Why would anyone want to plow with a tractor? No getting harnessed in the morning, no throwing yourself into the harness as you break the soil behind you. The smell of the fresh earth, the creak of the harness, the good honest sweat of a days toil, everything thats good and perfect and beautiful in life, and youd give all that beauty to a unfeeling machine? Tractors! But then, you couldnt pull a harness very well, could you? We were wondering where wed find one small enough to fit you.
Not that Id mind seeing you in one, Dot said, with a grin. Thomas felt his ears burn.
Well, I also grew vegetables and flowers.
Oh, oh, that explains it! I dont know why anyone thinks there could be anything more beautiful than a square mile of wheat ripening in the sun, but some furs do like the look of other plants. Bensons World belongs to us, me and our cousins, and were all grain farmers. Its almost all the planet produces. But some worlds have truck farms, and any large city will have parks that have the flowers you love. Something for you to think about, if we cant convince you of how beautiful grain is, and how much fun it is to grow it.
Finally, I came here. I worked in the parks. All the landscapers who tended trees were squirrel-morphsall of them related to each other, of course. All the landscapers who tended shrubs were deer, living hedge-trimmers, and again all related to each other. They let me plant flowers because the humans and some of the other furs like flowers. Theres no species thats yet been engineered to want to plant flowers, I guess. Need I go on?
I sipped my Bloody Mary. So draft horses love growing grain, light horses love pulling carts, squirrels enjoy tending trees and deer like nibbling shrubs. If theyre happy in their lives, whats wrong with it?
He gulped at his drink and went on. The last straw, he said, was when I bought a meat pie from this sad little guy in dark glasses. I asked him if he loved his job, and he said no. He was a mole, you see. Hed worked in the sewers, but his kind kept dying when they ran into pockets of bad air. So now machines maintained the sewers, and he had to earn a living as best he could.
He spent an hour telling me of the excitement of exploring tunnel systems, the wonderful smells he used to enjoy down there, and how much he loved burrowing through clogs. He loved his job. But his job was gone. Now he was almost the last of his species. Without their jobs, theyd stopped breeding and were going extinct.
He stared at his glass. I heard him out. And then I came in here and started drinking. And Im going to keep drinking.
It makes me understand, finally, something I heard Master say long ago. He said humans never should have created furs. My species came about by accident, he said. Your species, we planned. Which means youre perfect for what you do. We were too eager to have our vixen-girls and our tiger-boys to think out the implications of that.
Well, heres the implications: You all love your jobs. I escaped my slavery, but you can never escape yours. You and your descendants will be slaves, now, always, and forever.
Youre drunk, Mr. Darkstripe. Dont you think you should let me find you a ride home?
No, no, no, he said, with some real anger. He got up, leaving his bottle on the table, and headed out into the night.
He never heard me coming up behind him. The way my feet are made, they never do. One quick stab with my dagger at the base of his skull and it was all over. His body jerked as I severed his spinal cord, but Im sure he never felt a thing; the neural jammer built into the blade saw to that.
And then I carried him into an alley and threw him behind some recycling bins. Im a lot stronger than I look.
I got out my phone and punched speed-dial. Samanthas Escort Service, the phone said.
Sam? Its Cassie. Im through with this client. Do you have anything else for me?
Did you make him happy?
I looked down at him as he rested there. He was at peace, without any more doubts or fears. It was better for him this wayand much better for the security of the Federation. Oh, I gave him the time of his life.
Good, Sam said, with a giggle. You could go home for the evening, but weve gotten a call on a tigress whos feeling lonely. Poor dear, she was crippled in an assault ship crash. Now shes just pining away for lack of a little sympathetic companionship.
Send me her data and Ill be on my way.
Youre not too tired?
I laughed. You silly! Of course Im not too tired.
I love my job.