by Bill ‘Hafoc’ Rogers
©2008 Bill ‘Hafoc’ Rogers

Home -=- #17 -=- ANTHRO #17 Stories
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   He’d 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 didn’t 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, too—and usually a bad sign.
   Maybe he was still in control… I’d 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 he’d 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 wasn’t 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 couldn’t hurt try to get a little closer.
   My instincts told me I’d do better with him if I kept the sex-bomb thing under control. So I didn’t put anything into my walk as I crossed the room.
   “Hi. My name’s Cassie.”
   He looked up at me, and a smile touched the corners of his mouth. It looked good there. It looked like he hadn’t smiled in a while, either. “Of course it is. I’m 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 don’t know when I’ve ever seen a tiger in the Cometary Orbit. Or anywhere around Kennedy Commercial, for that matter.”
   “You might say I’m 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 won’t be offended if I order something from the bar instead. I’m 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. I’ll 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 it’ll make you feel bad, why do you drink it?” I asked, turning back to face him. But he didn’t 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 don’t know.” He picked it up, took a sip, mumbling into the glass as he did. “Maybe I’m 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 shouldn’t have wanted to. After all, we’d 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 there’s 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 that’s his name. His name would just have to be Boris, wouldn’t 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 he’s got just the right amount of paunch to look like the perfect, cheerful bartender. He’s 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 he’d tell me he loves his job.”
   “What’s 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 don’t 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, it’s 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 don’t 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 suit’s navigation system projected a green circle around the intersection of the two red lines, which meant he was heading straight for it, assuming the suit’s 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 Federation’s technology was so far ahead of the Independent Provinces that they didn’t 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, they’d be too far away to get to him in time to save him. No—no—the station had to be there still. Or something else, maybe patrol boats, picket boats, something. There had to be!
   But what if there wasn’t?
   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. “Don’t worry, I’ve 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 fur’s helmet.
   He was looking at a black face, all black. It seemed to have dog’s 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 fox’s 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 on—I’ve got to strap your suit to mine, and then I’ll take you home. How’s your oh-two?”
   Thomas checked his oxygen gauge and, incidentally, his clock. He’d been in space an hour and a half, and had used as much oxygen as you’d normally use in two. He must have been starting to panic—but 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 he’d 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. “We’re safely on our way to Kuiper now. How come you didn’t call us? You do know how to work your suit’s radio, don’t you?”
   “Of course I do, and I’ve been calling! I don’t know what quantenge it uses, though. I guess it’s tuned to the standard emergency settings.”
   “Quantenge—you mean, your suit’s 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 all’s well that ends well. Your suit has a dead-standard audio cable connection, among other things. I’m just surprised the connections still match, what with your lot splitting off after the Revolution a century and a half ago. So you’re 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 haven’t had slavery since the Revolution. We’re free here, all free to do whatever we want.”
   “That’s wonderful!”
   “Sure is! Believe me, you’re going to love it here. I knew you must be a slave when the boss called me about you. ‘We don’t know if it’s 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 it—but you guys are all ground-grippers over there. Most of you wouldn’t 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 he’d assumed so—that was what the whole Revolution was about—but the history books Master shouldn’t have let him read didn’t say anything about how all that worked out. They didn’t know who had won the Revolution. Or, more likely, the Exclusionists wouldn’t admit what they did know.
   “So… I’ve made it? I’m free?”
   “You sure are. Welcome to the Federation! We’ll 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 old—if it still worked, why abandon an old station?
   “All right,” Chief Spanner said. “We’ll be coming into one of the shuttle hangars.”
   “I’ve worked in orbit some. I doubt I’m as good as you, but if you unstrapped me I could come in through a standard man-lock.”
   “Really? You’re a tiger, and you’ve done orbital work?”
   “Master’s ranch was the only one on a border world that’s mostly water. We only settled the place a few years ago. We didn’t have enough people to specialize much, yet.”
   “Really! That’s amazing. But we’ve already set up for Hangar Twelve. Might as well continue as planned.”
   “Fine. And thanks for all the trouble.”
   “No problem.”
   That, there, would be the main generator, at the end of a mast extending out along the station’s 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 station’s 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? They’d depressurized the hangar? Why? And why did the suits have… Thomas blinked.
   “Chief Spanner?”
   “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. We’re Starfoxes. You saw how I’m all black? That’s part of my modifications to resist radiation. Six limbs—not a centauroid form, exactly; those are ground-grippers. We’re set up to grab things, not to run.”
   They were coming in. Chief Spanner’s 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. “We’re 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 didn’t seem old, although with antigeriatrics it was hard to tell.
   His office wasn’t 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 master’s… personal servant?”
   “No. Commander? The way you say that, is there something you’re trying to tell me?”
   Now Commander Parks looked embarrassed. Thomas knew humans well enough to know what those red ears meant. “I didn’t mean to offend. Major Hrruar told me you said there weren’t any soldiers on your master’s planet, and then—”
   Thomas roared—with laughter. “You thought I was Master’s bedslave?”
   The Commander blinked in surprise. “You… weren’t? But you said you’re not a soldier!”
   “So that’s 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. That’s the theory, anyway. If Master has a slave or two for ‘personal services,’ it’s illegal and secret. It was also illegal and secret that he had us educated, though, so I wouldn’t be too surprised if the other was going on, too.”
   “I’m 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 weren’t your master’s lover, why would you give him back his ship?”
   Thomas sighed. “Because it’s 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, there’s not enough time to do all the work with the two shuttlecraft. Master’s not alone on that planet, you know; he has a couple thousand furs with him too, and if they don’t have warning of a hurricane they’re all cooked. And then without Electra he can’t trade with the settled worlds, and his whole colony might go bankrupt. He’s 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 he’s up to something, something that’s not bad for furkind. I hope so, anyway.”
   “But he was your master.”
   “He couldn’t 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 weren’t a soldier, um…”
   “She’s quite the soldier herself, isn’t she, the Major? I went to shake her hand and she started to return the salute I’d never given. With those claws of hers she almost couldn’t 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 I’m a tiger?”
   “No, of course not. You’re 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 he’d 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. “There’s agriculture on Benson’s World, of course. I have some friends there. We can send you there and see how you fit in. You’ll have a modest stipend until you’re on your feet; the Federation provides that to newly-escaped slaves. In addition, we’re going to confiscate the spacesuit you brought in. It’s got some amazingly advanced features we want to study. We’ll pay you for it, generously. You won’t have to worry about money for a long time.”
   Money. He hadn’t 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.”
   “You’re welcome. We’ll send you on as soon as we get you your identity ring and outfit you with a few other things you’ll 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 didn’t 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.
   “Mr. Thomas?”
   “Thomas Darkstripe,” he corrected, giving her the family name they’d invented for him. “You were expecting me?”
   “Yes, we were. You’re welcome, of course, but we’re a bit confused. I’m Dot. This is my mate, Doc.” Dot offered him a huge hand to shake. Doc didn’t, and Thomas noticed with a shock he hoped he didn’t show that the stallion’s 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. They’re all out in the fields as usual. It’s not plowing time, unfortunately, but there’s still lots of cultivating and weeding to keep us interested. Doc and I stayed in to greet you when you arrived.”
   “We haven’t had much need for security forces here in the past sixty years,” Doc said, nodding to him.
   “I’m not military. I was a farmer back… back… back where I came from. When I was a slave.”
   “You—but—how 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 day’s toil, everything that’s good and perfect and beautiful in life, and you’d give all that beauty to a unfeeling machine? Tractors! But then, you couldn’t pull a harness very well, could you? We were wondering where we’d find one small enough to fit you.”
   “Not that I’d 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 don’t 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. Benson’s World belongs to us, me and our cousins, and we’re all grain farmers. It’s 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 can’t 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-morphs—all 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. There’s no species that’s 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 they’re happy in their lives, what’s 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. He’d 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, they’d 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 I’m 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 you’re 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, here’s 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.”
   “You’re drunk, Mr. Darkstripe. Don’t 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 I’m 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. I’m a lot stronger than I look.
   I got out my phone and punched speed-dial. “Samantha’s Escort Service,” the phone said.
   “Sam? It’s Cassie. I’m 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 way—and 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 we’ve gotten a call on a tigress who’s feeling lonely. Poor dear, she was crippled in an assault ship crash. Now she’s just pining away for lack of a little sympathetic companionship.”
   “Send me her data and I’ll be on my way.”
   “You’re not too tired?”
   I laughed. “You silly! Of course I’m not too tired.”
   I love my job.

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