"Excuse me, sir? Is it going to rain?"
I looked down from the beautifully cloudless sky to smile at the young human who asked the question. He was wearing a cadet’s uniform no doubt he was worried it might get wet.
"No, I checked the forecast this morning. It will be totally clear all day." The cadet glanced down at the umbrella I carried, then gave me a wary look that made me chuckle. "And no, I’m not crazy and I’m not trying to trick you. I always carry an umbrella today, rain or shine."
The cadet still looked dubious, but he nodded respectfully. "Can I help you find anything, sir? I have a break before my next class and I can take you anywhere you’re trying to go."
"I’m headed over to the administration building. I know where it is, but… it’s an awfully long walk for an old man like me to take on his own. How about you escort me there and I’ll tell you the story behind this umbrella? And before you groan," I added as he seemed about to, "this works out for you too. If any of your instructors see you helping me it’ll make you look good. Deal?"
He seemed to consider that for a moment, before shrugging and giving me a smile. "Why not?" he said, and off we went.
So it was a day just like this one, totally clear sky and the forecast assured me that there would be no rain. But something – I guess I’ll never know what it was – something made me want to take my umbrella with me when I went out that evening to run some late errands. I felt like such an idiot walking towards the bus station. People actually stared at me! The forecast was never wrong, of course. Never.
I was nearly at the station when the sky started to darken with clouds blown in out of nowhere, and a few minutes later it started to sprinkle. By the time I got there it was raining hard. I heard later that there had been some computer glitch at the weather station, but at the time I was quite pleased with myself and I’ll admit I enjoyed watching everyone scramble around and try to cover themselves. Except… there was one human woman standing there with a smile as she looked into a growing puddle.
I don’t mean any offence, but I had never been really attracted to humans – too much bare skin! If it hadn’t been for the rain I doubt I would have said anything to her. But seeing her there, smiling and enjoying herself while everyone else was in a bad mood… I was interested. And my umbrella gave me the perfect entrance to talk to her.
"Excuse me, miss?" I said, "Would you like to share my umbrella with me?"
She was several centimeters taller than me, so she had to look down when she spoke. "Your umbrella isn’t big enough for the two of us, some of your fur will get wet."
I smiled and held out my umbrella anyway, stretching out my legs so I could hold it up high enough. "Won’t be the first time." She smiled back at me and we moved our bodies close together. She was rather…ah…well endowed compared to the usual Caitian, so even though I could feel my back getting wet I wasn’t exactly unhappy. I was even beginning to like the way the water looked on her skin.
"Thank you," she said. "It’s nice to know someone had enough foresight to bring an umbrella."
"I don’t know what happened with the weather forecast, I’ve never known them to be wrong before. But you looked like you were enjoying yourself."
"I think this might be the last chance I get to see rain for a long time. It’s a nice surprise."
Before I could ask her what she meant the bus pulled up. We sat together for a while without saying anything – I am sure a young man like you knows how awkward that kind of situation is. Eventually, though, I found my courage.
"Do you live here, or are you on vacation?"
She chuckled. "I suppose it depends on how you define ‘live.’ I share a room over at the Academy."
"Oh, you’re a cadet?"
"I graduated about a month ago. How about you?"
"I’m an architect, I graduated a while back but you have to work for a licensed firm for a bit before you can take the test to get a license of your own. I still have about a year left. Our firm designed that new hospital they are building near the river."
She leaned against the side of the bus, tilting herself to get a better look at me. "That sounds like an interesting job. I’ve always loved things like that; I wish I had paid more attention in my art classes back in school."
I grinned. "I think it’s funny someone who just graduated from a place that teaches you how to fly starships around thinks my job is interesting! I mostly do calculations at the moment, though."
She smiled, but we both fell silent again. I wanted to say something… I didn’t know when she’d be getting off and I didn’t want to miss my chance. So, I decided to be direct.
"Hey… are you heading anywhere important?" I said, "There’s a nice coffee place nearby, I’d love to hear about what your life was like in the Academy. It’d be my treat."
Her smile turned a little sad. "Thank you, but I’m actually heading back to my room. I’m leaving for my first deployment early tomorrow and since it’s my first I have to be back at the Academy tonight. I think they got tired of people getting drunk and missing their ships in the morning! I won’t be back for a long time so I’ve just been enjoying my last day on Earth. That’s why I was so happy to see the rain."
I had to work hard not to let my ears and tail show how disappointed I was – I’ve always thought you humans were lucky not to have to worry about showing your emotional state so openly. I tried to think of something nice to say, some compliment or a way to wish her luck or anything… when another thought occurred to me. This woman was spending her last free hours on Earth by herself. Even if it couldn’t go anywhere, maybe I could at least keep her company. And…well, I’d been lucky with the umbrella. Why not give it a shot?
"When do you have to be back?" I said, "The coffee shop isn’t that far from the Academy. I could treat you and then walk you to your room; it might be a fun way to spend the evening."
She looked down at the floor, but I could see she was grinning. "Don’t you have anything to do? I don’t want to keep you away from something just so you can keep me company."
"I can run my errands tomorrow. Besides, if you don’t then I’ll have to find another girl to share my umbrella with and that’s the kind of inefficiency an architect just can’t tolerate."
She had a beautiful laugh. "Okay. I should have enough time. Where do we get off?"
"That was pretty smooth," the cadet said. "Maybe I should write some of this down."
I chuckled and shook my head. "I’m afraid that all my stuff was played out years ago, you’ll have to find your own material. You shouldn’t need it anyway, just go out wearing that uniform and you’ll find some girls. I’m sure you’ve experimented with that yourself!"
He grinned, and I continued my story.
We sat next to a window in the coffee shop so that we could watch the rain falling. Our conversation was filled with the little nothings that you use when you’re getting to know someone. I was mostly looking at her. I noticed lots of small things I’d never consciously thought about when I looked at humans – like that little line of fur you have above your eyes. She had these beautiful blue eyes, I’ll never forget the way they looked. And though I’m sure you won’t believe it seeing me now, I think she enjoyed watching me too. Soon, though, we talked more seriously.
"I hope you don’t mind me asking," she said, "but are you from Cait? I’ve always wanted to visit."
I shook my head. "I’ve been there a few times but I was born here on Earth. My parents all emigrated from Cait years ago when my father’s job moved." I paused. "I didn’t like Cait much to be honest with you. I think you would have a good time, but there are parts of its culture I didn’t like much."
"Really? What didn’t you like?"
"This will sound funny to a human, but the problem is that my father only has one wife." She got this look on her face that made me grin, and I continued, "At least in traditional Caitian society, a huge amount of social standing comes from the amount of wives in your family unit. Since my father only had one he was treated…well, differently. Nothing really bad but it was always there. When we visited his family we’d always be served food last, old ‘friends’ of his wouldn’t really want to talk to him, that kind of thing. The idea is that since he only has one wife something must be wrong with him – and his wife, too, for picking such an obviously inferior man."
"I…don’t really know what to say. I knew Caitians liked to have six wives but I didn’t realize there was a stigma against not doing so."
"It would take a lot of work to find six, but one is abnormally low. My father takes it hard; I think he even suspects there really must be something wrong with him. It pisses me off! Maybe it’s cause I was born here but I don’t think anyone should care. My family loves each other, what does it matter if there are two or six or ten or whatever? I really hate traditions like that."
She nodded slowly, so I continued.
"My parents are really trying to pressure me into meeting someone soon," I said, "and you should have seen how mad my mother got when I told her that I didn’t care about meeting my firstwife. I’d like to meet someone, but I want it to be whatever relationship works for the two of us…or three or seven or eleven!" We both laughed. "Who knows. Maybe one day I will have six wives… but if I do, it’ll be because we all want it and not because it’s tradition. And it will certainly not be because people will think less of me otherwise."
"I really respect that," she said, "and I understand better than you might think. I’m originally from the HCKNA." I blinked at her, and she gave me another sad smile. "That thought that just crossed your mind that I might be racist – no, don’t say anything, it’s a reasonable response – that’s one of the reasons I left. Not the only one, though." She sighed.
"You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to."
She shook her head. "No, I do. My family was very traditional and my mother expected me to get married quite young and start making grandbabies for her. I too know what it’s like to get pressure to meet someone. She’d keep trying to set me up with these good religious boys – what I might want in a mate never even crossed her mind. My father tried to support me but he was really dominated by mom, I never knew what brought them together." She grinned suddenly. "So of course I had to rebel. I started dating two guys – two guys my mother wouldn’t really approve of – at the same time. They knew about each other, even really liked each other, and we were all pretty happy with things… until my mom found out. She called their parents, I never saw one of them again and I wasn’t allowed to see the other alone." She shook her head. "I got out of there as soon as I was legally able to, didn’t say goodbye or anything. I just left."
"I’m really sorry…now I don’t know what to say…"
"It’s okay. Actually, things turned out well. When I got here I found that my father had deposited some money in my name with a message – Good for you! " She smiled. "Divorce is hard there but he eventually separated from my mother and he told me that I was the one who gave him to courage to do it. That made me feel good. He came to my graduation last month."
"I don’t think I’d ever be strong enough to do something like that. I’d have a terrible time leaving everything."
"Don’t be so sure," she said. "It looks like you’ve already made a few good choices in your life." She reached out and rested her fingers on the back of my hand, moving them slowly up and down over my fur. "Like asking me to have coffee with you."
I looked over to see the cadet smiling with a blush on his face. "Ahhh, so you’ve had a girl do that to your hand too," I said. "I wonder what it feels like for a human, without the fur in the way?"
The cadet grinned. "It feels good, sir."
To continue the story, we spent quite a while in that coffee shop. Mostly looking at each other, but we talked a little more too. Many things that won’t interest a young man like you. It’s enough to say that we were happy together.
Eventually, though, we had to start heading to the Academy. We stayed close to each other, not saying anything. Maybe you’re too young to have had this happen, but when you really connect with someone you don’t have to talk much. It’s enough to just be near them. Once, though, she did speak.
"I like the way you walk," she said, "it makes me smile. It always looks like you’re about to fall over, though!"
I laughed. "Hey, you’re one to talk! I’ve never figured out how humans can even move with those straight legs of yours!"
She laughed back at me, and then got a sly look on her face. She stood up on her tiptoes and started trying to imitate the way digigrade legs work – I swear to you it was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. She even ‘accidentally’ bumped into me so I had to put an arm around her. That was a smooth move on her part. As for me, maybe I ‘accidentally’ kept it around her as we kept walking.
It didn’t take me long to notice that we were headed in a different direction than the Academy. When I asked her about it she told me we were going to take a detour – we ended up at the spaceport next door. I don’t know if you’ve ever just watched the spaceport at night, but the colors the shuttles make when they come and go are very beautiful, and the rain made it even better. We stood there, my arm around her… I don’t know how long, but it was wonderful. I tried to pretend that we’d be able to stay there forever, but eventually she pulled away gently and smiled at me.
"I only have about twenty minutes left." She reached out a hand to touch my face, and continued "Thank you for making my last night on Earth a good one."
"Thank you for letting me," I said, and then I hesitated a little. "This… will probably come out wrong, but I want to tell you something. I’ve never really been attracted to humans before, but I think you are beautiful. I wish this didn’t have to end here."
She looked into my eyes, and then towards the Academy, and then back at me. "How far away do you live?"
I smiled and shook my head. "I’m flattered, but it’s half an hour round trip regardless of what we wanted to do there."
"I know what I want to do there. Actually… it’s not uncommon for people to be late for this. It’s one of the reasons they do it, so if you’re late now you won’t miss your ship. I’ll get in trouble, get chewed out but I can handle that, and I’ll just be put on some duty I don’t want for a few days. Let’s go to your place."
"I can’t do that to you, it wouldn’t be right…."
She put a hand over my mouth. "Take me home with you. I’ll be okay. It’s my last night on Earth, remember? Let’s make it perfect."
So I did. We…
I saw the cadet stiffen, and I noticed a group of very important looking officers heading away from the now nearby administration building. They all looked over at us, and one of the group broke away and started heading in our direction.
"Well," I said, "looks like I should finish up. I took her home – I am sure a young man like you knows what we did there – and when she left she told me that I’d better send her a message to make up for the punishment she was going to get. And that is the story of one of the best nights of my life. If I hadn’t had that umbrella with me, or if it hadn’t rained like it did, I would have never met her. So now you know why I have this with me."
"That’s a good story," the cadet said. "Did you ever see her again?"
"Cadet!" said the figure approaching us, now clearly visible with the rank insignia of an admiral. "Is this old Caitian bothering you?"
"No ma’am! I was escorting him to the administration building, ma’am."
I tried hard not to laugh. "Yes, I did see her again. And now, so have you."
The cadet looked back and forth between the admiral and myself as she spoke. "Were you telling him the story of how we met?" I nodded, and she continued "See, what I bet this old man hasn’t told you yet is that he eventually did get six wives. But not a single one of them is Caitian!"
I grinned. "That will have to be a story for another time, I’m afraid. Thank you for the escort, young man. And here, why don’t you take this." I handed him the umbrella, which he took gingerly with a questioning look.
"I thought it wasn’t supposed to rain today, sir?" he said.
"Oh, it’s not. But like the admiral here said, I already have six wives. If anyone’s going to get lucky with it today it’ll be you. And who knows? Maybe it will rain after all and you’ll share it with a girl you like."
The cadet smiled and nodded to me. "Thank you, sir. Ma’am," he said, and then started back in the direction we came from.
"He’s going to look completely absurd with that umbrella, dear," the admiral said, "but that was sweet."
"Hey, maybe it will rain!"
She shook her head. "There’s an outdoor meeting – that’s where I was headed. It’s been checked thoroughly, dear. It won’t rain today. But if you can keep a secret – I wish it would. Might wash some of those blowhards away!" We both laughed, and then she got a more serious look on her face. "I’m so sorry I’m going to miss our anniversary. This function is just politics but I have to attend and it looks like I’ll be getting home even later than I thought. Weren’t the others going to take you out somewhere?"
"They were, but I decided to relive a little of the past and so I’ve been walking around. I was going to see if I could say hi to you, and then I’m headed to the spaceport.
She blinked. "Why are you headed to the spaceport?"
"Cause it’s the last place we went that day. I still love to watch the colors there. And…" I was suddenly a little embarrassed. "Being there always makes me feel like you’re with me, no matter where you are. When you were away on missions sometimes I’d go there and remember how beautiful you are."
She looked into my eyes just the way she had that night, then at the receding group of officers, then back at me. "Let’s go to the spaceport together."
"I thought you had to go to this function!"
"Screw it. They’ll grumble when I’m late but I can deal with it. Besides, I’m an admiral now! What’s the point of getting this far if I can’t break the rules occasionally?" And so she took my hand in hers and we started walking.
We hadn’t gotten more than halfway there when it started to rain.
Copyright © 2008 Farinata
The Chakat universe (and this version of Caitians) is thanks to Bernard Doove.
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