Piece of Mind
By Bernard Doove © 2013





R'Tarmarra Gliksãrnn gazed at the sight of what was to be his future home through the viewport of the starship’s common room. It was a very blue world, shrouded in many places with clouds, but with hints of green and brown on the scattered small continents that were visible. Chakona was so very different from the hotter and drier world on which he was born, but he had to forget Kà'iît – or Cait as the more leaden-tongued species called it – and learn to love this cooler and wetter planet. It was not as if he could go back now.

The press of the other gawkers trying to get a look at Chakona while they could, eventually got too much for him to bear, and he slipped away to the sanctuary of the cabin that had been his home for the past twenty-seven days. It was sparsely utilitarian, but a berth on the Voxxan tramp commercial starship had been all he could afford, just like most of his fellow passengers. Chakona and Kà'iît were located at roughly opposite sides of the Federation’s boundaries, so he had to endure this arrangement while the ship made its way via various ports of call. At least the alien ship had provided the isolation that he craved. The fox-like crew were mostly disinterested in him, and the very few of the passengers who were his own species had not had much opportunity to bother him as he had spent much of his time in that cramped accommodation.

The irritation and pressure on his thoughts that had built up during his foray into the common room seeped away as he busied himself with finalising his packing. He could have saved himself the unpleasant experience, but it had likely been the sole opportunity that he would ever have to see Chakona from that vantage point, so he had chosen to make the sacrifice. All too soon though, he would have to deal with a far worse situation. In only a few tresarks… no, minutes – he had to get used to the Terranglo terms – before the ship docked at the Chakona Gateway space station. He found the bottle of medication and took one of the small green tablets that helped him to cope in those high-stress environments. By the time he got there, it should have fully kicked in.

It seemed like no time at all before the Passenger Services officer came tapping at the door. He had not even noticed when the ship had docked.

“Time to disembark, sir. Do you need any assistance with your baggage?” the male Voxxan asked, looking down at the Caitian.

That always irritated R'Tarmarra. At 137 centimetres tall, he was at the short end of the normal height range for male Caitians, but hardly unusual. His species might be small in stature, but they were hardly weak. You did not become your planet’s top predator by being helpless against much larger prey.

“I'll be fine, thanks,” he replied, trying to keep the irritation out of his voice, aware that the crewman was genuinely concerned and trying to do his job.

The Voxxan nodded and continued on to the next cabin.

R'Tarmarra had only two average-size pieces of luggage, and he hefted them with ease. The bulk of his possessions would be shipped down to the spaceport for him to collect later. He made his way to the forward deck where an airlock was connected to the space station by an umbilical tube. He noticed that there were no windows in it, which did not particularly surprise him. Standing safely at a ship’s observation port was a lot different from realising that you were one thin tube away from death in the vacuum of space.

The tube emptied into a corridor that led to an arrivals hall. Apparently they had arrived simultaneously with a pleasure cruiser because there was a very large crowd waiting in line to be processed by immigration before being allowed to shuttle down to the planet. Judging by the sheer number of different species, they had to be morphs from Earth. No other world in the Federation had ever produced a plethora of genetically engineered intelligent species as the humans had. Despite the multitude of forms, they did exhibit a degree of sameness in their behaviour, so perhaps they were a tour group from one particular country. R'Tarmarra couldn't imagine spending all that time and money just to go to another planet for a holiday, but of course he wasn't rich and did not have the luxury of time to spare either. He sighed and braced himself against the onslaught of the pressure of coping with the crowd. Fortunately his medication seemed to be working efficaciously.

Avoiding eye contact with others in the queue, he managed to forestall unwanted conversations, and thus was able to remain focused on trying to keep the hubbub in his head down to a dull roar. He distracted himself by looking at the chakats in the lines. They were the first that he had ever encountered in person, so despite having seen plenty of images of them, he still found the centauroid herm feline species quite fascinating to look at. Sleekly powerful in build, and a riot of colours and patterns, they were one of the most remarkable of all the Terran morph species. They were also one of the more intimidating. All the adults and even the teens stood taller than him, and massed four or five times his own. If they were not so downright friendly, he would have had second thoughts about moving to their adoptive homeworld. And of course there was that empathic Talent of theirs… R'Tarmarra desperately tried to keep that thought out of his head.

Thankfully quickly, despite the size of the line, it was his turn to approach the counter. He presented his passport to the chakat official who placed it in hir reader. Shi examined the information on the screen and frowned slightly.

Turning to face R'Tarmarra, shi said, “Sir, you are required to be interviewed by the Chief of Immigration.” Shi touched a button that summoned an officer – a skunktaur this time. “Please accompany Officer Zwitnak to the chief’s office.”

Shi handed R'Tarmarra’s passport to the officer who nodded and indicated to the Caitian to follow him. “This way please, sir.”

He was led to a side door which took him past several interview rooms. The skunktaur entered the final door where another chakat was squatting behind a desk. Zwitnak handed the passport to the chakat who nodded.

“Thank you, Zwitnak. Please be seated, R'Tarmarra. This should not take long.”

R'Tarmarra put his luggage to one side, chose a chair best suited to his kind and made himself comfortable. While the chakat busied hirself checking his passport and visa, he looked hir over. Shi had faun coloured fur lightly dappled with brown and white spots, with hair matching the brown of the spots. Shi was dressed in a light blue top over which shi wore a jacket with Chakona Immigration Service emblazoned upon it, and with a nametag proclaiming hir to be Wildgrain. It was hir very lengthy tail that most caught his attention though because it indicated that shi was quite elderly, and thus probably very experienced. Also very calm and collected, making it hard for him to get a read on hir, which made him a bit nervous despite being sure that he had followed all procedures correctly.

“Relax, sir. This is mostly a formality due to your immigration visa type. Your request to formally change your name before being put on the rolls as a new citizen of Chakona must be ratified by a responsible person, and that means me.”

“I suppose that you find it odd or suspicious that I want to change my name?” R'Tarmarra realised that the chakat’s empathic sense had been picking up on his concern.

“Quite the contrary, actually. Many of your race who choose to settle on Chakona are escaping from your world’s strict cultural values. Some want to avoid censure from their family. Others see it as a start to a completely new life.” Shi looked at him keenly. “Some do it to escape bigotry and hatred.” Wildgrain then smiled reassuringly. “Whatever your reason, you do not have to justify it to me. Chakona’s only concern is that you are not trying to evade the law or otherwise bring trouble to our world, and be a responsible and valuable new citizen.”

“Thank you. I would prefer my reason to remain private.”

“And so it shall. And so it shall. I'm curious to know what your new name means however, Arrak Menurr'tak.”

That confirmed what he had already read from hir – that shi had formally accepted the name change. “It comes from an old phrase that translates to ‘Wanderer of the Lonely Path’.”

“So I could call you Wanderer then?”

“It would be fairly accurate, but I'd prefer to keep it to the Caitian version, please. There are still some things that I don't want to change.”

“Very well R'Arrak. Your visa is approved. Officer Zwitnak will guide you to the exit from Immigration. Welcome to Chakona!” Shi handed him back his passport card.

“Thank you, Shir Wildgrain, but please drop the honorific. It's just Arrak of Chakona now.”

“I understand. Good fortune, Arrak.”

As Arrak was about to exit the office, he paused, then said, “Shir Wildgrain – may I ask what your empathic rating is?”

Shi grinned broadly. “E5·8,” shi replied.

That confirmed what Arrak had sensed: this meeting had been a test by a powerful Empath. He was glad that he had taken the medicine to steady his nerves, otherwise shi might have felt the need to dig deeper, and that could have been very uncomfortable for both of them.

Zwitnak guided Arrak to a side exit and repeated Wildgrain’s good wishes, and then the Caitian had to brace himself for the crowds in queues for the shuttles to the spaceport. Luck was with him as he found his shuttle nearby and already boarding, which meant that he had to spend the least amount of time in the crowds.

Of course the shuttle was not a huge improvement. It had only basic seating and no windows, so there were not any opportunities to sightsee along the way. Fully two thirds of the seating was of the type that could be adapted to suit both bipedal and taur species. While chakats, foxtaurs and skunktaurs basically squatted in an alcove with an upper back support, an adjustable fold-up seat enabled the two-legged morphs to sit in the same place. Because he was so small however, Arrak was directed to one of the smaller biped-only chairs designed for people with tails. Unfortunately most races were bigger than his, and the shuttle was built to cope with all of them, and so he had to ask for a steward’s assistance to stow his baggage in the overhead locker which was set too high for him. It did mean that the seat was comfortably roomy for him though.

The trip down was something of an anticlimax, with inertial dampers taking away most of the sense of movement. Arrak felt the touchdown though, and minutes later they were at the gate and disembarking.

The Gateway station had been mild in comparison to the landside spaceport. The bustle of activity made it difficult for him to navigate the crowds, but he pushed forward with determination, guided by the plentiful and informative signage. A lot of advance planning meant that he knew exactly where he needed to go after exiting the security gate. Baggage services was first so that he could make arrangements for the cargo pod of his possessions to be held until he could confirm a delivery address. Then he made a beeline for the maglev station, purchased a ticket, and found the correct platform for the service to Harrn'tuk'harr, the Caitian settlement on Flinders Continent.

Right on time, the maglev train pulled into the station. This time he had a window seat, and he was determined to enjoy the view. For one thing, he wanted to start learning more about his new homeworld, but more importantly, it helped him ignore the rest of the people boarding the train, not a few of whom were Caitians also. He really was not in the mood to try coping with them as yet.

The journey was fascinating however. The transition from a highly modern spaceport and facilities to farmland was quick, and then even that was left behind as they traversed virtually unspoilt wilderness. He had to remind himself that Chakona was still a relatively young colony world, and despite the massive growth in immigration, sparsely populated and unexploited. The scenery gradually changed from heavily forested areas which thinned out to become vast plains as they hurtled northwards and closer to the equator. Despite the air conditioning on the train, Arrak could tell that climate was shifting towards one that more suited his species.

The ultra high-speed journey was completed a little under two Chakonan hours – another thing that he would have to get used to. He would have to keep referring to his PADD which he had synchronised with the local time during his journey. And then there were the base 10 numbers that gave him a headache every time he tried to use them. Why couldn't the other species adopt the more sensible base 8 like Kà'iît did? Just because they all had two extra fingers did not make it right!

Exiting Ginna'mai train station was like stepping back into familiar territory. Harrn'tuk'harr was located near the northernmost end of Flinders Continent, and only a few hundred kilometres from the equator. Between that and the other geographical features that influenced the weather patterns, its hot dry climate closely resembled the more populated areas of Kà'iît, which of course was why this location was chosen for the site of a Caitian colony town. Looking around, he could see that his species represented the majority of the people within his view, with only the occasional chakat or other species mingling with them. Even the architecture, although modified to meet Chakona’s requirements, was strongly reminiscent of the style of his city of birth, with earthen walls and numerous breezeways.

It was dead easy hiring a PPTV – a Public Personal Transport Vehicle – the Chakonan cross between a taxi and hire car. The AI readily accepted his credit chip on which he had pre-loaded some Chakonan currency, and he directed it to take him to his new, if temporary, residence. The journey from the starship was beginning to weary him, and he was certainly not in the mood to look around and familiarise himself with the area as yet. In fact, with so many other Caitians surrounding him, he was feeling the intolerable pressure on his mind growing once again.

The AI guided the PPTV swiftly and unerringly through the town traffic, taking him to the outskirts where it pulled up in front of a basic apartment complex. A sign on the foyer doors read ‘Hrrar'tuk Transient Immigrant Accommodation’ – written in both Terranglo and Ratarsk. This would be his home for the foreseeable future until he secured employment and could acquire a more suitable permanent residence.

Arrak entered the building and found the superintendent’s office immediately on his left. By Caitian tradition, the welcoming party was always on the guest’s left side, and Arrak took this as a good omen. A female Caitian answered the buzzer at the office window. She appeared to be of middle age but still very appealing to a young adult like Arrak, and the smile with which she greeted him had genuine warmth.

“I don't believe that I have seen you here before, and judging by your clothing and luggage, I would say that you're a newly arrived immigrant. I have a booking for someone due today. Would you happen to be Arrak Menurr'tak?”

Observant and intelligent too! “That is correct. And you are?”

“M'Sarrn Tirtark, Firstwife of R'Karssn, manager of these apartments. Let me be the first to welcome you to your new home.”

M'Sarrn stepped over to a nearby chiller unit and took out a glass jug and a tray of fruit. Arrak was surprised to recognise it as tirrik, a fruit resembling a Terran fig that was native to Kà'iît. M'Sarrn poured some of the liquid in the jug into a ceramic mug and offered the food and drink to him. Pure water and tirrik fruit were the traditional offerings of welcome from a host to the weary traveller, and Arrak was suddenly overwhelmed by the unexpected comfortable familiarity of the ritual on this strange new world. He took a bite from the fruit and washed it down with a mouthful of water.

“Welcome, Arrak, and may your stay bring you comfort and happiness,” M'Sarrn said ritualistically but with genuine feeling.

“Thank you, M'Sarrn. I must admit that this was more than I expected to find when I arrived. I will sleep better for it tonight.”

She flashed him that beautiful smile of hers again. “I like to get all new arrivals off to a good start. Now let's deal with the bureaucratic details and get you settled in. I'm sure that you'll be wanting to unwind from your journey.”

She took care of all that with prompt efficiency, and then took him up in person to his apartment. She showed him the important highlights before bidding him a cheerful farewell. Then Arrak was left standing there, trying to take in his new home.

Typical of transient immigrant accommodations, the single person apartment was small but cosy rather than cramped, sparsely furnished, but with a couple of extra touches to make it less Spartan. It had all the basic necessities including cooking facilities, and it was painted in colours pleasing to the Caitian eye. Overall it looked like a pleasant place to live for a few weeks.

Arrak used the comm unit to contact the spaceport and arranged for his possessions to be sent to the apartment, and then he sank into a chair, willing to put off unpacking for a short time to relax for a while. However, it was not long before he started feeling the inevitable pressure of the presence of all the other people in the neighbouring apartments, so he got up again and opened up his luggage. First he found his medication and took another dose before he began sorting out what to put where, which helped distract him from the discomfort. He hoped that the cargo pod would turn up quickly though; he was tiring fast.

It was three and a half Chakonan hours before that arrived, however. Realistically it was a very prompt service, but nevertheless Arrak’s nerves were decidedly frazzled by then. He quickly ferried his goods from the delivery dock up to his room, dumping them hastily to go back for another load. That completed, he frantically unpacked one particularly heavy piece of equipment. It was big, barely portable, and required a lot of power, but after Arrak wrestled it into place, plugged it in, and switched it on, he collapsed onto his bed in blessed relief. Tomorrow would be soon enough to unpack the rest. For now, his day was done.


 

Arrak let himself sleep until his bladder forced him out of bed. After attending to that and having a much needed shower, he then prepared a large breakfast and ate it at the table in front of a window that overlooked part of the township. It was bathed in the sunshine of a clear early summer’s day, and once again he was struck by the familiarity of the scenery.

“Perhaps it won't be so hard to get used to this place as I thought it might,” he murmured to himself.

With a good rest and meal to fortify him, Arrak decided that he was up to some exploration to familiarise himself with the township. After he made arrangements to get the empty cargo pod picked up, he chose an appropriate day robe, brushed his mane, took another dose of his medication, turned off the power, and secured the apartment. Making his way downstairs, he gave a friendly wave to M'Sarrn in passing.

Harrn'tuk'harr proved to be a vital, growing settlement with obvious signs of pride in their corner of Chakona. Arrak could see the blend of traditional Caitian designs incorporated into new and exciting advancements in techniques. However, even more obvious were all the things that you never saw on Kà'iît, or at least not publicly, such as openly gay couples, both female and male, and not necessarily of the same species either. Such things were not merely a cultural no-no on Kà'iît, but would have also been devastating to their all-important status there and all their colony worlds, and a Caitian without status might as well be dead. It was a far kinder fate than what Caitian society would put them through otherwise. Of course, even they might have fared better than he would have if he had stayed on Kà'iît. Chakona had been his one source of hope for a better life, and he could strongly empathise with all the other victims of social bigotry who had come to this world to start a new community where such things did not matter.

And its success showed. Never had Arrak encountered a more friendly community. Perfect strangers gave him warm smiles, and he found himself smiling back. It felt good. Despite the inevitable mounting mental pressure of being amongst so many people, Arrak managed to cope with spending most of the remaining daylight hours wandering around the town, seeing the sights and the people. Nevertheless, he sighed with relief when he reached the sanctuary of his apartment and once more could block out the world.

Arrak cooked up a meal with some of the supplies that he had acquired while meandering through a market that he had encountered. After cleaning up, he set to the task of unpacking his remaining goods before turning in for the night. He had a very big day ahead of him.


 

Crucial to obtaining a resident’s visa on Chakona was first guaranteeing that he possessed skills that the world required, and that he could get employment there. Although still a young world, relatively speaking, and in need of immigrants, the government nevertheless maintained strict immigration standards. These ensured that virtually 100% of the adult population could be employed, and everyone could have a very good basic standard of living. Arrak had secured a job long before he had left Kà'iît; all he had to do was turn up for the induction interview.

Arrak was not prepared to risk his newly acquired knowledge of the neighbourhood to walk there, or even take a bus, so he took a PPTV once again to the government building wherein was located the local sub-office of the Chakonan Department of the Environment. It was fortunate that they had a branch office here, so he did not have to travel to the headquarters located in Amistad. The building was shared by all the other government services, but it was clearly signposted, and Arrak had little trouble locating the correct floor and office. The receptionist confirmed his appointment and asked him to wait for a few minutes, but it was a quarter of an hour before he was shown into the office.

A Caitian female with all-black fur – a rare colour for their species – stood up to greet Arrak with the common arm-clasp that their kind exchanged on occasions such as this. She introduced herself as M'Lessala Rarñaprr, and then urged him to sit down and did so herself.

“So, R'Arrak, you just arrived on Chakona when? Yesterday?”

“The day before yesterday, actually, and please just call me Arrak.”

“You would not be the first to drop the honorific. I myself prefer to be just called Lessala outside of work, and you will find that many prefer the informal style of address here in Harrn'tuk'harr. So how are you feeling after your long journey?”

“Surprisingly comfortable and rested. I am very impressed with what our kind has built here. I spent a lot of yesterday looking around and unwinding from the long trip.”

“Yes, Harrn'tuk'harr has grown rapidly since its inception, but not without some valuable help from our chakat benefactors. Nevertheless our community grows stronger every day with the addition of newcomers such as yourself, and as it does, it attracts even more Caitians wishing to escape the rigid strictures of the homeworld. We envision that it won't be too many more annums before we can incorporate as a city. However, that is for the future, and right now we are here to get you started in your new job.”

M'Lessala rummaged in her desk drawer and pulled out a folder. She took out a map and spread it out on the desk. “As was detailed in your job description, you will be doing ground surveys as follow-ups to the aerial surveying. We have indicated areas that are of particular interest to us.” She pointed out examples of the places that she meant. “You are to further assess the potential of those sites as detailed in the reports that are included. You will coordinate with your partner to determine any effects upon the environment that exploiting them will cause, and submit a cost/benefit analysis that we will assess for following up with a detailed extended exploratory survey.”

“Wait! My partner? I thought that I would be doing these surveys by myself?”

“You will be, in as much as you'll be the only geologist. However we always team you with a biologist who will be surveying the same area, but with an eye on how your findings might affect the ecology. The Chakonan government is very strict on that matter; something along the lines of not repeating the mistakes of the past. And just like you, hir work will be followed up by a large team if necessary.”

“Hir? I'm going to be partnered with a chakat? Why not a Caitian?”

M'Lessala frowned. “You are taking up employment with a federal agency whose employees come from the entire Chakonan community. Where possible, we use locals, but if one isn't available, we draw on the staff pool. As it happens though, Chakat Windrunner currently is a local as shi has been living here with some Caitian relatives. Do you have some sort of problem with working with chakats? If so, you have made a poor choice coming to Chakona to live and work.”

“No, no!” Arrak replied hastily. “It's just unexpected, is all. I suppose I expected to ease into things a bit more slowly,” he lied. “And yet, why do I need to work with hir anyway? I'm sure that I can work more efficiently by myself, and shi could probably do so also.”

M'Lessala snorted in amusement. “Your knowledge of this land is sadly lacking. We never send out our people solo. There's always a minimum of two in case of emergency, or at the very least, to watch each other’s back. Chakona, and Flinders Continent in particular, is home to some vicious predators. A scimitar cat can easily kill an unwary chakat, let alone a Caitian, and that's just one of the very real dangers that you may face. I'm sure Windrunner will be happy to fill you in on the more gruesome details; it might help keep you alive. That's if you still want the job. Remember though, it was advertised as potentially hazardous work.”

Arrak realised that he had miscalculated. There was no way that he was going to be able to operate in solitude as he had planned, but neither could he afford to lose this job. “Yes, I still want the job. I'm just going to have to mentally adjust because of my misconceptions,” he reassured her.

“Very good. Let's officially sign you up and get you started.” M'Lessala produced a PADD with his contract displayed upon it. Arrak gave it his biometric signature, and she printed a hard copy for him. She then downloaded all the project data and job parameters onto his PADD, in addition to the folder of maps and information. That completed, she got up from her chair and said, “Come with me and I'll introduce you to your partner.”

As she led Arrak out into the hallway, M'Lessala said, “Because we're just a small branch of the Department of the Environment, we only have a few offices which mostly get shared. Whenever you are in town, you will be working in the same office as Windrunner and whichever of the other survey teams happen to be there. It's a bit cramped if you're all there at once, so I suggest you try to coordinate with them for use of the facilities. On the flip side, we have the most up-to-date equipment, and a really good café in the building.”

They entered an office and Arrak immediately saw a chakat with a pale creamy brown coat with medium brown paws, hands, ears, and muzzle. Hir hair was a slightly redder shade of the same brown. If he had been more familiar with Terran cats, he might have recognised the pattern as resembling that of a Siamese cat, but despite being ignorant of that, he found it appealing. He was no expert on judging the age of chakats, but shi seemed to be fairly young, perhaps in hir mid twenties. Shi wore hir hair shoulder-length, quite unlike the long, uncut tresses typical of Caitian females. Hir only item of clothing besides a hip pouch was a green pullover with a ‘CDE’ logo on it.

The chakat looked up from hir work on the computer screen and smiled. “Hi, Lessa. Is this the new guy?”

“Yes, Windy. Come over and I'll introduce you.” The chakat did so, looming several centimetres over the two Caitians, and M'Lessala continued, “This is Arrak Menurr'tak. Arrak, this is Chakat Windrunner.”

Windrunner looked for a moment as if shi was going to offer Arrak a hug – the common form of greeting amongst chakats – but appeared to change hir mind and exchanged arm clasps instead. “I'm Windrunner, child of Forestwalker and Boyce, and I'm very pleased to meet you.”

Because shi had been formal, Arrak decided to reciprocate. “I'm Arrak Wanderer of the Lonely Path, and the pleasure is mine.”

“That's a cool name! Windy and Wanderer – we make a good match.”

Arrak gave hir a lopsided grin. “We'll see, but could you stick to just Arrak for now?”

“Sure thing! If you're ready to get to work, I've already made a start on how we can proceed with the survey. You can look it over and let me know your thoughts.”

Hir phrasing startled him for a moment, wondering if shi was a Telepath as well as an Empath like other chakats, but then he realised that it was his incomplete mastery of idiomatic Terranglo that was at fault. “Sounds good to me,” Arrak replied. He thought it would be best to get immersed in the work rather than let the chakat act on any of the other impulses he knew that shi was thinking. M'Lessala said, “I will be available if you need me, but I'll let Windrunner show you the ropes and leave you to your work for now.” She left the office, and Arrak looked at Windrunner expectantly.

Windrunner put a hand on Arrak’s shoulder and steered him over to hir desk. Indicating a terrain map on the monitor, shi said, “Now this is site CAS73345. As you can see….”


 

Windrunner certainly believed in diving headlong into a project, and shi had kept him so busy that his usual problem of coping with being around a lot of people was mostly pushed to the back of his mind where he could ignore it. By the end of the day, they had settled on a course of action, arranged transport to the site, and requisitioned the equipment that they would need. They settled on a time to meet in the morning, and then called it quits for the day. Arrak left for home feeling very positive about the start to his new job.

That feeling did not last too long as his concerns resurfaced about how he was going to cope with an empathic partner while out in the field. He castigated himself for not considering the possibility which, in retrospect, should have been quite obvious. His only hope was that he was overestimating the scope of the problem. After all, before this day, he had never had to work with a chakat before.


 

Arrak rendezvoused with Windrunner in the underground vehicle garage. A fully serviced aircar awaited them, already packed with their equipment. They took a few minutes to check that everything was there before adding their own personal packs, and then they were ready to leave.

“Have you driven an aircar before?” Windrunner asked.

“Yes, but I don't have much experience with them.”

“Would you mind if I drive then?”

“Not at all. I'm sure that I'll get plenty of time to practice later. Right now, let's just get going.”

“Good idea. Just let me adjust the configuration first.” Shi pressed a button and the bottom half of the seat back lowered to be level with the seat cushion, forming a couch-like arrangement suitable for a taur driver. The upper half swung away to allow hir to get in, then returned to its original position to give hir back support. Arrak made some adjustments to the passenger seat to match his own stature, and then they were ready to go.

“Adventure ho!” Windrunner cried as they exited the garage, amusing the Caitian, then shi shifted into flight mode and they shot into the air.

Aircars were expensive, and the anti-gravity units that enabled them to fly were energy hogs. However, where they were going, there were no roads, and the aircars were the most efficient means of getting around in the wilderness. And they were also fast! What would have taken a common PTV several hours to traverse, they would travel in a little over half an hour. It was still too long for Arrak however.

As soon as they were on course, Windrunner had set the autopilot. Then the questions began, and Arrak was a captive audience. He had managed to avoid discussing himself the previous day due to the hectic preparations, but now he had no excuse.

“So what brought you to Chakona?” Windrunner started off with the obvious first question.

Arrak had a ready answer for that one. “I had to get away from the prejudice that was ruining my life.”

When Arrak did not elaborate, Windrunner prompted, “What kind of prejudice? And how was it so bad that you did not move somewhere else on Cait rather than emigrate? And why not one of Cait’s colony worlds?”

“Whoa! Enough questions! Look – I couldn't go anywhere else, and if I wanted anyone to know the whole reason, I would have said so already. It's a very personal matter, and I would appreciate it if you didn't pry into that.”

There were several seconds of awkward quiet. ‘Well, that certainly was a terrible start to a conversation,’ Windrunner thought.

Arrak said, “I'm sorry. I didn't mean to snap at you, but you have to leave that subject alone.”

Windrunner nodded. “Okay. Umm… so what wouldn't be a touchy subject? Family?” Shi saw him grimly set his jaw. “Right – not family. Part of the problem, I guess. How about your likes and dislikes?”

For a moment, shi thought that he was not going to answer, but then he sighed and said, “Reading.”

“Reading? What kind of books? I like reading also. Brought up in a family of avid readers actually. I like adventure type stories, and the occasional detective novel.”

“Historical stories,” Arrak replied.

“Ooh! Have you read…” Windrunner began.

Caitian historical novels,” he interrupted.

“Oh. Of course. I can't say that I've read any of those, and I guess that you haven't read any Terran ones either.”

“You'd be right, although I might find them interesting, now that you've mentioned it.”

“Okay, so what do you like that we might have in common?”

Arrak pondered that for a while, then grinned and said, “Music! We've had bands tour from other parts of the Federation. It gave me a taste for exotic tunes.”

“Great! I've brought along an extensive music library on my PADD. Let me synch it up with the car’s sound system.”

For the rest of the journey, Windrunner would play one of hir favourite tunes and then get Arrak’s opinion of it before moving along to the next. While some did not impress him, several were so good that he asked hir to send him copies.

As they flew on, the terrain gradually changed from savannah to low forest, then a mountain range hove into view, and the ground-level altitude began rapidly rising as they entered the foothills. The GPS signalled an alert that they were approaching their coordinates, and Windrunner resumed manual control while Arrak checked the view against their map.

“There!” he exclaimed, pointing at a patch of relatively level ground that had been laid bare by a land slip. They had seen this on the aerial map, and had agreed that it would make a convenient landing site in the midst of the dense vegetation.

“I see it.” Windrunner manoeuvred the aircar to one side of the clear area, picking the place that looked the most even, and settled down. The vehicle came to rest at about fifteen degrees from the horizontal, but the all-terrain model had an extra trick – levelling jacks. A touch of a button extended the hydraulic jacks and automatically brought the car to dead level.

“Looks like we'll need to move a bit of earth and rubble to make a fairly level spot for the tent,” Arrak observed.

“I could do with the exercise anyway. Office work makes me too soft,” Windrunner replied with a grin. “You dig out the equipment, while I dig out the dirt.”

“Fine by me.” Arrak was not about to argue with a being who out-massed him about four to one, much of that being muscle. Chakats might look a lot like soft females, but they rarely hesitated to demonstrate that they were also tough in a masculine manner. It was easy to forget that they were herms though, so it still was a bit jarring sometimes.

Windrunner found their pick and shovel, and immediately set about levelling a patch of ground that shi figured best suited their needs. Arrak paused to don a jacket first because the higher altitude had reduced the ambient temperature to below that which was comfortable for him, and then he methodically unloaded their equipment. Windrunner had their site prepared by the time everything was unpacked, and shi threw hir tools back into the car’s storage bin.

“Phew! That got the blood pumping. Give me a moment to have a drink, and then I'll help you with the tent.” The chakat found hir chill-flask and took a few hefty swigs from the contents. “Ah! I needed that. Okay. Let's get this thing set up.”

The tent was hardly a simple affair of fabric and poles. It was in fact a high-tech portable field hut built of extremely low-weight but high-strength materials. Nevertheless it was quite large and was more easily handled by two people. While Windrunner used hir strength to carry it unassisted, it took Arrak’s help to manoeuvre it quickly into the desired position. After that it was simple because all they had to do was attach the power unit and step back. The smart fabric unfolded itself like a flower unfurling, spreading over the cleared area first, then expanding upwards, stiffening into walls, and then a roof. When it had finished expanding, Arrak fired pegs into anchor points, securing it to the ground, proof against most winds short of hurricane strength. With that, their field research building was ready to move in.

Arrak had unpacked the car and arranged the equipment in logical order to move it into the tent efficiently, and so little time was wasted setting up inside. Arrak could tell that Windrunner was pleased with the speed with which this was accomplished, and shi praised his organisation. He did not feel the need to point out that his focus on the work was an aide to distract him from his problem, although to be fair, it was not difficult as yet.

With the last of the equipment set up, Windrunner said, “Okay, partner, what do you want to do first? Stop for an early lunch, or get started on some work?”

“You did the most physical work, so if you're hungry, then I'd say we do lunch. If you're not, then I'd like to have a look around at least to give myself a starting point.”

“Nah, I'm fine, and I'm in the mood to look around also. I'll just grab an energy bar for now. Grab your pack and let's get going.”

They both had their field packs ready to go, so it was just a matter of putting them on and securing the tent against possible encroachment by the local wildlife.

Windrunner looked at Arrak expectantly. “Seeing as I'm here to assess the effects of any exploitation based on what you find, I'd say that means that you get to determine our starting point. Lead on McDuff!”

Arrak had no idea what the reference to McDuff was, but he took the hint. “Okay, the most positive indications for the copper deposits were over there,” he said, pointing to the southwest and upwards. He then set out in that direction.

“Don't forget to turn on your proximity sensor,” Windrunner reminded him. “You don't want to find out the hard way that some local predator is stalking you.”

Arrak was embarrassed by his oversight, and flipped the switch on the belt-mounted sensor unit. He could feel the chakat’s amusement spilling out, but at least shi was not castigating him, so he decided to treat it as a learning experience.

Windrunner of course already had hir own unit going, and while they were together, it would serve to warn both of them, but if they split up, they did not have to remember later. Despite the fact that both their natural senses were quite sharp, the inevitable distractions of their jobs might result in a critical delay, and Chakona’s unexplored territory was no place for the unprepared.

As it turned out, the most dangerous animal that they encountered during the afternoon was more likely to accidentally trample them to death rather than attack them. Arrak gazed in awe at the small herd of grazers which, if he had been familiar with Terran animals, he might have called giant bunnies. With nose to the ground, their shoulders were as high as Windrunner was tall, but when they rose up on their hind legs to look around, they towered at twice that height.

“What are those?” Arrak asked. “And are they dangerous?”

“Those are labrohas, and no they aren't dangerous unless you startle them and they stampede. Unsurprisingly, most people don't fare well when one of those multi-tonne beasts hops on them.”

“Labrohas? That's not a Terranglo word; how did they get that name?”

Windrunner laughed. “Actually the person who discovered them named them Large Brown Hares because that's what they resemble, and that remains their official name. However hir colleagues scolded hir for being so unimaginative and promptly renamed them using the first letters of each word: La-Bro-Ha. Guess which name stuck?”

“Well that's one name I won't forget in a hurry.”

“You should try their meat. Some enterprising people are trying to domesticate them because their meat is quite tasty.”

“I'll look it up when we get back to Harrn'tuk'harr. For now though, you're the biologist, so you can watch them all you like. I've got rocks to sample.”


 

Several hours later, they both dropped their field packs in the tent and started preparing hot beverages for themselves. Windrunner offered Arrak some coffee, but he declined, preferring instead his favoured brew of harjikk leaves. The chakat sniffed the result and wrinkled hir nose up at it.

“You really like that?” shi asked doubtfully.

“It tastes better than you think,” he replied. “Want to at least give it a try?”

“No thanks!” shi said fervently. ‘Not while it smells like horse piss!’ shi added mentally.

Arrak winced at hir emphatic disapproval, but at least he knew that shi was not going to encroach on his stash of his favourite drink.

They both took a few minutes to relax and enjoy their beverages, but it was not long before the energetic chakat was back on hir paws and preparing lunch.

“”Have you any preference for eats, Arrak? Or would sandwiches do? I have plenty of meats if that's your thing. I know Caitians tend to like that.”

“Meat sandwiches would be fine, Windrunner.”

“Coming right up!”

Although Caitians were technically omnivores, they still tended to eat more meat than grains or vegetables. Meat sandwiches were actually a popular compromise, and whole restaurants were in business just to make exciting combinations of various meats and breads with spices. A simple slab of meat with salt on some buttered bread was more than enough to please the average Caitian though.

While they ate, they discussed the results of their initial survey.

“There are very strong indications of a large seam of copper ore along the ridge, just as the aerial surveys predicted,” Arrak stated. “If the results of further testing bear it up, we could be looking at a major copper mining operation here.”

“Can you say if that seam is all on this side of the mountains?” Windrunner asked.

“Much too soon to confirm that, but if you want an educated guess, then I would say yes. We need some far more detailed exploratory measurements, but the geology seems to lean towards that conclusion so far.”

Windrunner was relieved. “Good! The other side of the mountains drains eventually into Silvergleam Lake which is a major freshwater supply for half the continent. I'd hate to see possible contaminants flowing that way.”

“So you're not worried about this side? Arrak asked curiously.

“Of course I am, but it's nowhere near as critical. Unless I find something that changes that assessment, of course. That's the major reason that I'm here for, after all.”

Arrak chewed thought fully on his sandwich before saying, “You chakats have built a world up from a colony to a major member of the Federation. How did you do so without screwing up the ecology in places? Surely you couldn't have always been able do the right thing?”

“Oh, nobody said it was easy. I have to admire the founders though because they truly put their words into action. They were convinced that they could exploit a world without inflicting significant harm upon it, as has happened in areas on every other colony world. Turns out that if you put enough effort into it, it's possible to do almost anything, and people can live in harmony with the environment.”

“So it's people like you who make sure people like me don't spoil things for everyone?”

“I wouldn't put it so harshly, but yes, that basically covers it,” shi replied with a hint of amusement.

Arrak shrugged. “I'm fine with that. It's my job to find the stuff, not recommend how it's exploited, or even if it is.”

And that will make working with you a lot easier,’ Windrunner thought. ‘Nothing worse than a single-minded all-or-nothing professional.

Arrak gave hir a reassuring smile, surprising hir a little, but hir empathic sense could tell that it was genuine.

When the two were fully satiated, Arrak said, “I'm going back to start collecting samples. Are you ready?”

“Ready when you are. I recommend taking extra water because it's likely to get very warm this afternoon.”

“I'm better adapted to heat than chakats are, so don't worry about me.”

Shi just grinned. “You're the newbie here, remember? Of course I'm going to fuss over you.”

Arrak had to admit that shi was right, so he packed an extra flask anyway.

That afternoon was spent intensively gathering samples, he of rocks and shi of various plants and bugs. Windrunner set up numerous automated sensor stations to monitor the local wildlife in their absence. Arrak used his own specialist equipment to take subterranean readings, and storing the data on his field PADD. He was not used to the longer Chakonan day as yet, but he was fully prepared to take advantage of it to get as much done that afternoon as possible.

It was a weary but satisfied duo that returned to the campsite as Chakastra began to set behind the mountains and long shadows crept over the surrounding landscape. Sunlight still touched the plains further away to the east though, and Arrak paused to admire the scenery until it too was swallowed up by shadow.

It's a beautiful world. I think I might grow to like this,’ he mused, then headed into the tent where Windrunner was already starting to prepare their meal. He busied himself with copying the data that he'd gathered on his PADD onto their main computer, and then did the same for Windrunner’s. He set up an analysis routine to process his data and left it to do its job before turning his attention to Windrunner.

“Need any help?” he asked.

“Nope. The field meals are easy to prepare, and it won't be long before everything is ready. Just make us something to drink, please.”

“Coffee for you again?”

“No, I think I'll have tea instead.”

“How do you prepare it?”

“Much like your harjikk brew. Boil the water and I'll give you instructions.”

Arrak followed hir directions and admittedly found the aroma interesting. “Mind if I try some?”

“Go ahead,” shi urged.

He brewed a similar mug of tea for himself, although he withheld the sugar that shi had wanted until he was sure that he wanted it too. He sipped it, then took another bigger sip. “Hmm, slightly bitter, but I like that. Not as full-flavoured as harjikk. I could learn to appreciate this, but I think I'll stick to harjikk for now.”

“To each their own,” Windrunner agreed.

Both had worked up a big appetite, and the meal was eaten mostly in silence as they each concentrated on the food in front of them. The chakat’s serving was far larger than his, but shi was getting through it far more quickly, and they finished up almost at the same time.

“I'll clean up, seeing as you did the cooking,” Arrak offered.

“Thanks. I think I'll turn in to bed so that we can get an early start tomorrow. I recommend that you don't leave it too late to do so also.”

“Already? I thought you'd want to do some work on your data first?”

“Nah. I think better after a good night’s sleep. Besides, chakats need a lot more sleep than Caitians do.”

“Okay, but am I going to disturb you as I work? I'm not ready to sleep yet.”

“You won't disturb me because I'll be sleeping on a mattress in the aircar.”

“Why not have the mattress in here? I was going to put my sleeping pad over in the corner there.”

Windrunner shook hir head. “No, you're not. No one sleeps in the tent. Have you forgotten already the warning lecture on the local wildlife? The tent is strong, but it won't keep out the worst predators. The warning sensors might wake us too late. The car is the only completely safe place to sleep, and there's enough room for the both of us.”

Arrak did not know what to say about that. He did not want to be in such close proximity to Windrunner for such a long period, but shi was absolutely right, and besides shi was nominally in charge of the team as the senior partner. He could only hope that the chakat would not be as bad as being with one of his own kind. “Alright, I suppose.”

“Hell, I've had far more enthusiastic bedroom partners,” Windrunner griped.

Arrak looked at hir in shock before he realised that shi was joking. “Oh, go to bed and stop smirking!” he said irritably.

The grin did not fade, but shi did head out of the tent with a cheery “Goodnight!”

Arrak cleaned up and then settled down at the computer to work on the day’s data for a while, and then planned where they should do their next survey point. It was several hours later before a huge yawn reminded him that he needed to get a good rest also, so he saved his progress and shut down the computer. Before he left the tent, he checked the perimeter sensors to ensure that nothing of consequence was prowling the area. Given the all clear, he exited and sealed the tent, and then went to the rear door of the aircar, the light of two moons providing plenty of light for his night vision. He entered as quietly as possible so as not to disturb Windrunner who was sprawled on hir mattress on the floor of the cargo space. He saw that the chakat apparently slept in the nude, but that was common enough amongst Caitians also, so he was not concerned about it. There was enough room left though for him to find a place for his sleeping pad, so he unpacked it, and let the memory material unfold into its normal bowl-shape. He curled up into it with a contented sigh. Perhaps it was not going to be so bad after all.


 

Arrak woke up with a start, his heart pounding, memories of a bizarre dream skittering around the edge of his consciousness. Beside him, Windrunner was twitching, hir hind legs kicking, and shi was making a strange mewling sound. Arrak groaned; this was one of the things that he had been afraid of happening. He did not know if this was going to happen to him every night, and worse yet, to hir as well. He sighed and took the only action available to him and whacked hir with his pillow.

Windrunner woke with a start. “Wha..? No! Don't…. Oh.” Shi was quiet for a long moment as it registered upon hir where shi was and what was happening. “Sorry, Arrak. I was having a nightmare. Funny – I haven't had one in a long time. It was weird too.”

“Just try to forget it and go back to sleep. We both need our rest.”

“Okay. Sorry again.”

“So am I,” he murmured, aware of hir guilty thoughts and knowing that shi was not fully responsible for them.

Fortunately for both of them, the remainder of their sleep went uninterrupted.


 

“It's been raining while we've slept,” Arrak observed as he exited the aircar, the false dawn giving him more than enough light to see that everything was still dripping wet.

“That's common enough for this locale at this time of year. Best thing is that it also usually stays dry for the remainder of the day, so it shouldn't interfere with our work.” Windrunner stepped out of the car and looked around as shi stretched hirself.

Arrak was fascinated by how shi was so alike a Caitian in that way, and yet so hugely different in size and power. Shi was both beautiful and intimidating at the same time. Shi was also still nude.

“Aren't you a bit chilly?” Arrak asked as he shivered slightly and drew his jacket a bit more snugly around himself.

Windrunner grinned. “Nah. We chakats are better adapted to the cooler climates. It has to get a lot colder than this before I need to wear anything.” Shi noticed the odd looks he was giving hir. “Ah! You haven't been on Chakona long enough to be aware that it's a clothing optional world, so you're a little bothered by my bare tits.”

“Umm, well, I wouldn't say bothered, just… distracted, I suppose,” Arrak mumbled. “They're somewhat bigger than a Caitian’s.”

“Better get used to it. While most people who aren't required to wear a uniform still wear clothes out of a sense of fashion, you'll inevitably run across those who like the wind in their fur, so to speak.” Shi reached into the aircar to fetch hir top from where shi had discarded it last night and pulled it on. “However, I won't tease you. Not until we know each other better anyway,” shi added with a wink before shi headed for the tent.

Arrak just stared after hir for a long moment. For someone who said shi did not want to tease him, shi was doing an excellent job of it! He shook his head to try to disentangle his thoughts from that scene and then followed hir into the tent.

Breakfast was the first order of business. Arrak offered to do the cooking this time, and he prepared them both a hearty breakfast of eggs and grrnal strips, the latter Windrunner pronounced an acceptable substitute for something shi called bacon. He decided that he would have to try that out when they got back to Harrn'tuk'harr, providing that he could find a vendor that sold it there in the Caitian stronghold. Windrunner prepared their drinks and some toast while he was doing the cooking, and they both ate their fill.

By the time they had cleaned up and prepared their packs, the sun had risen fully and they were able to set off for the next survey site.

The day proceeded much as the previous one, except that they had more time to work over a larger area. It was also a lot more humid due to the recent rain, and Arrak was not used to that, so he was grateful for when the lunch break came and they settled down beneath the shade of a tree.

“How are things going at your end?” Windrunner asked as shi unpacked hir food.

Arrak took a swig of water from his chill-flask before replying. “Both good and bad. The work is going well, but my initial data is saying that this isn't a good site. After looking at last night’s results, I suspect sites three and four are far more likely to produce good results.”

Windrunner shrugged. “A negative result is still a result. Besides, this survey isn't all about your copper, y'know? I'm getting some excellent data. I've already identified several significant new species of plants and not a few animals to add to our knowledge of this world. Some are quite pretty too,” shi added as shi thought of a rainbow patterned lizard that shi had spotted.

Arrak grimaced. “I'm not quite so enthusiastic about such things. Lizards just look like tasty snacks to me. Are Chakonan lizards edible by us, by the way?” he asked as he held up a piece of jerky by way of demonstration.

Windrunner gave him a funny look before shi replied. “Much of Chakona’s plant and animal life is compatible with both Terrans and Caitians. I'd have to test one for toxicity though to be sure, so I don't recommend snacking on one just yet. Bright colours frequently indicate poisonous creatures.”

“I know that. Just curious.”

Windrunner looked at him intensely. ‘If you aren't going to take the local fauna seriously, you're going to get hurt.

“You're overreacting, Windrunner. Field safety was part of my training too,” Arrak said irritably.

“I'm sure it was, but I wanted to be sure. And Arrak… I didn't say that warning aloud.”

Arrak froze in the middle of taking a bite of his jerky as the implication sunk in.

You're a Telepath, aren't you?’ shi accused him with hir thoughts.

Arrak abruptly threw down the jerky, got up and ran away from the startled chakat. He disappeared into the trees in moments.

Windrunner was up onto hir paws in moments and took off after him. “Arrak! Come back! It's not safe by yourself!” Shi could tell by the sounds that he was making that he was not slowing down though. Shi was not concerned that shi would lose him though – between all hir senses, shi could track him anywhere. Nevertheless shi almost overshot him when he did come to a halt. If it had not been for the low moaning he was making, shi might have missed that he was now on a branch far up a tree. Windrunner had heard that Caitians were capable of remarkable leaps, but even so this was impressive. Perhaps it was spurred by whatever was causing him such anguish. He was leaning against the trunk of the tree, eyes screwed shut and both arms wrapped around his head as if to try to keep the outside world from getting in.

“Arrak, what's wrong? I'm not upset that you didn't tell me that you are a Telepath.” Whatever it was, the intensity of Arrak’s emotions were battering hir own empathic senses, and shi had to actively block some of it even as shi tried to make sense of the mixture of fear and despair that dominated his feelings. For once, shi regretted that shi had not paid more attention to hir mother’s lessons on empathic manipulation. Shi was not an E5 like hir, but an E4 like hirself should be able to do the job. Shi thought hard and then shi remembered. ‘First – proximity! Get as close as you can, preferably touching.’ Windrunner assessed the tree and then started climbing it with ease, the retractable claws in hir paws finding secure grip in the soft bark. Shi reached his level and reached out to put a hand on his shoulder.

Arrak jerked away as if he was burned. “No! Go away! Don't hurt me!” he screamed.

Windrunner decided not to try actually touching him but rely on hir close proximity alone. Shi sent a wave of calm in his direction as best as shi could do. “I'm not here to hurt you, Arrak. Why would I want to do that? I only want to help.”

“Just get out of my head! Leave me alone! Just go away and let me be!” he yelled, although not quite with the same vehemence.

Windrunner hoped that shi was achieving something with hir efforts. “I'm not going to leave you here by yourself. It isn't safe, and you obviously need help.”

Arrak opened his eyes and glared at hir. “You can help by going away and getting out of my thoughts!”

Windrunner frowned in puzzlement. Shi was only trying to calm his emotions; shi had no telepathic ability and couldn't get into his thoughts even if shi wanted to. “You're the Telepath – just block me out.”

“I CAN'T!!!” Arrak screamed. “I can never be alone in my own mind when anyone else is around. Why must you people torture me so? Why can't I just be normal? Why?” He degenerated into heartrending sobs.

The chakat realised that perhaps doing what he asked was the best course of action for the moment until he got this out of his system. Shi backed carefully down the tree and then moved away from the tree. Shi did not go far though, keeping hirself within comfortable range of hir empathic senses in order to watch over him. Shi settled down amongst the leaf litter and stilled hir mind. If hir thoughts were the cause of his distress, then let there be none… or at least as close as shi could get to that condition.

Eventually Windrunner sensed that Arrak had calmed down. Before too long, shi heard him jump down from the branch and start walking in hir direction.

“I know you're there,” Arrak said without pausing. “I'm going back to the camp.”

“Arrak, do you want to….”

Arrak cut hir off. “No, no yet!”

Windrunner let him go ahead and shi quietly followed him. Apparently he had no difficulty finding his way back to where they had left their field packs. Without a word, he repacked what had been taken out, and then he began the hike back to their encampment. Windrunner quickly followed suit. Not a word passed between them during the entire trek, and the chakat tried to keep hir thoughts to hirself also. There was a slight delay as they had to divert around a herd of labrohas, but otherwise the trip was without incident.

Arrak dumped his pack inside the tent, and then went back outside to the edge of the clearing where a fallen tree provided a convenient and comfortable seat which overlooked the plains to the east. He gazed at the sight for several long minutes while Windrunner watched him with concern, unsure if shi should attempt to talk with him again. Eventually he gave a huge sigh and, without turning to look at hir, said, “You have questions. You might as well ask now that everything is ruined.”

“Are you sure?”

He just nodded.

“I don't know where to start, I have so many. Why were you hiding your Talent? Why were you so terrified? And why did you say that you couldn't block me out?”

“I can't because I'm flawed. This cursed ability of mine has no off switch. It's always on, and always at 100% of its receptive ability. Why do you think you caught on to me so quickly? It's because I can hardly tell the difference between spoken speech and thoughts directed at me. I have to think about everything I hear and determine if it was actually said aloud to me or not, but I keep slipping up.”

“Yeah, I kind of noticed that. So you can't ignore it at all? What's that like in a crowd?”

“Try to imagine being in a room with tens of vid units all turned on at once and tuned to totally different channels, and every one of them is spouting endless streams of boring trivia. ‘My footpads are aching.’ ‘My Secondwife is going to kill me if I'm late.’ ‘Should I buy the red robe, or stick with the green?’ ‘My tail itches badly!’ ‘Where am I going to get the money?’ ‘Move your fat arse!’ ‘I wonder if anyone noticed me doing that?’ ‘Why do I always have to deal with idiots?’ ‘That perfume reminds me of my dead grandmother.’ ‘They still haven't fixed this damn path!’ ‘If one more moron asks me to check for that out-of-stock item, I'm going to claw them!’ ‘It smells like shit in here!’ ‘Won't this girl ever shut up?’” Arrak paused to look Windrunner in the eye. “ ‘Arrak's got a cute butt’,” he added with a hint of a smirk. “And so forth. It never ends.”

Windrunner felt a blush of embarrassment. “Sorry about that.”

Arrak waved his hand dismissively. “No, you haven't any reason to apologise. Your thoughts are your own, and if it was within my ability, they would remain yours alone. But I can't stop it. Ever since it manifested, I've had to try to cope with this endless babble in my head. And just to make things worse, it isn't just people. I ‘hear’ animals too. Oh, not coherent sentences or words; more like a stream of consciousness – ‘Hungry… Prey… Stalk… Run… Leap… Bite… Kill!’ At least those are much less distracting. I can sense that labroha herd’s contentment interspersed with thoughts of predators… what preys on something that big? ... Anyway, without words, it's like background noise that can mostly be tuned out. That's why I wanted to work solo in the field. Them I can take, but you I struggle with constantly.”

“How do you cope back in the city? If your range is high, you must be hearing hundreds of people.”

“It's not easy, and it can wear me out very quickly sometimes, although my endurance has improved over the years. However, at home I have a portable telepathy-blocking shield. It's not perfect, but like the animal thoughts, it dulls the voices into the background so that I can get a much-needed respite.”

“Well, that's something at least,” Windrunner admitted. “But hasn't there been some attempt at curing your condition? Or perhaps some form of training?” Windrunner noticed him shudder and his emotions darkened. “There's that fear again. Why are you so afraid? That was blind terror that I felt back there.”

Arrak was quiet for so long that Windrunner feared that he was going incommunicado again, but at last his emotions stabilised once more and he responded. “Sorry, but I had a panic attack. Being discovered as a Telepath so quickly was a shock – more of one than I had anticipated.”

“But why? Telepaths are common on Chakona. Heck! A third of the skunktaur population alone are Telepaths. The more powerful ones are a vital part of a Federation-wide instantaneous interstellar communications network. It's a very respectable profession.”

Arrak’s bark of laughter contained no trace of humour. “Did you know Kà'iît’s Telepath centre is manned entirely by non-Caitians? And every one of them always stay within that facility while they do a tour of duty?”

“Huh? Again, why? I mean, if you are a Telepath, that implies that there have to be others of your race with that ability. It's not some magic thing that comes out of nowhere – it has to be in the Caitian genome.”

“The Caitian word for a Telepath is Krarr'trk'gnur,” he replied with a seeming non-sequitur. “Want to know what that translates as? Literally it means ‘Stealer of Thoughts’, but more loosely and commonly known as ‘Mind Thief’. There's an enormous amount of fear and bigotry associated with Telepaths. Back in history, any Telepath who was discovered was invariably put to death, and worse, if they had any children, they might have been killed also in an attempt to eradicate his or her bloodline.”

“That's barbaric!” Windrunner exclaimed. Shi would have objected more except that shi suddenly recalled mentions of the witch trials that were held back in Earth’s own history. “Surely they don't still practice that now though?”

“No, but the alternative might be considered worse if you are discovered. You face fear, prejudice and even violence that can make your life miserable until the day you die.”

“And you were one of those people?”

“Up to a point. My life was shattered when I was just sixteen years… no wait – base ten… that's fourteen Caitian years old. Not much more than a moon had passed since my birthday when I was struck down by a strange illness and hospitalised….”


 

Tarmarra groaned softly as consciousness returned. His head was pounding, and it seemed that everyone around him was talking at once. He tried opening his eyes, but the harsh illumination hurt them, and he shut them again. Then he tried opening them slowly to try to adjust to the brightness. He blinked away the tears that this caused and his eyes found focus. He looked around to ask the people to please quiet down a bit because it was aggravating his headache, but was startled to realise that the room was almost empty but for three other beds, only two of which were occupied, and one of the patients was asleep. The other one had noticed Tarmarra waking up though, and was watching with the curiosity of someone who was bored and had nothing better to do. No one else was around, but the voices still continued as if invisible ghosts were talking out of thin air.

Thank the goddess my shift is almost over.

The patient in ward seven has soiled the bed again!

Why hasn't that drug been administered as yet?

I want to go home!

I'd kill for a cup of harjikk right now.

“Where… where are all those people who are talking so loud?” Tarmarra asked the other patient.

“What people? There's no one here right now but us.”

What idiot prescribed this?

I'm so bored.

They've put me down for a double shift again!

The new intern looks hot!

I swear this paperwork is breeding.

M'Trîrsk is going to cop an earful when I see her next!

These and other voices continued to babble incessantly, and Tarmarra moaned, “Why won't they shut up?”

The other patient started pushing the call button repeatedly.

I'm in a room with a mental case!

Damn, I haven't got time for this.

I wonder if she likes me?

The child has died. What am I going to say to her parents?

Tarmarra did not notice that the instruments that were hooked up to him had started making warning sounds because the voices kept drowning them out.

What's going on in ward three? Oh, pthskk!

Doctor M'Sisshik! We have a situation!

Where's a nurse when you need one?

I hope someone comes soon.

I swear it was just gamba fruit, mother!

“Go away and leave me alone!” Tarmarra screamed.

What in hell was that? I think I'd better get out of here now.

Who's that screaming?

Doctor, it's the Gliksãrnn boy. His neural monitors are going crazy.

Prepare a sedative just in case.

A fairly elderly female Caitian dressed in medical green with the emblem of the Tree of Life on it, rushed into the room, closely followed by a nurse.

“Make them stop, please!” Tarmarra begged.

“Make who stop?” the doctor asked as her eyes scanned the instruments.

“Everyone! They're all shouting at me!”

He's hearing voices?’ “Calm down, Tarmarra. There's nobody shouting at you.”

“Yes there are! Where are they? Why are they doing this to me?”

Is he delirious? His temperature is virtually normal though, but his brain activity says that something big is happening. But if it's what I think, it shouldn't be happening.’ “Tarmarra! Concentrate on my voice and try to calm down.”

Tarmarra looked at her with tear-filled eyes. “Doctor, what's wrong with me? Why is everybody shouting at me? What have I done wrong?”

“We're still trying to figure that out, Tarmarra. I don't really want to do this because you have only just regained consciousness, but I'm going to give you a light sedative that should help you.” She nodded at the nurse who stepped up to administer it.

Tarmarra’s hope that the voices would stop was not granted, but mercifully they faded to the point that he could mostly ignore them. However, he now seemed to lose all his energy and he slumped back into the hospital bed. Through the drug-induced lethargy, he continued to pay attention to what the doctor was doing as best as he could.

Doctor M'Sisshik re-examined Tarmarra’s brain scans, noting the type and location of the excess activity. There seemed to be an odd blank area though. She called up his medical records and discovered that he had been admitted to hospital previously about two and a half years ago after suffering a fall resulting in an injury to the head. At the time, it seemed that he had recovered without any discernible consequences, but the shadow on his scan seemed to say otherwise. If it had any relevance to his current illness, she could not say for certain, but it seemed the most obvious course to pursue.

The nurse chose to speak up then. “Doctor, he said that he was hearing voices. He could be a mind-thief!”

M'Sisshik frowned at the nurse. “M'Kret'tak, I don't want to hear such unprofessional talk from you again. The boy is most likely just delirious as a result of his brain injury, and we don't want unreasoned fear interfering with his treatment.”

“Yes, Doctor,” the nurse replied, but she continued to glare at Tarmarra suspiciously.

M'Sisshik transferred some data from the monitors to her medi-PADD and then smiled at Tarmarra. “Try to rest, but if you continue to have problems, I'll be on duty for a while longer. We want to see you up and healthy as soon as possible.” ‘And let's hope that M'Kret'tak is wrong about her guess.

Tarmarra was sure he heard her say that last part, although he had not noticed her lips moving. He recalled all the wild tales that he had heard of the mind-thieves, of how evil they were, and how they ripped your thoughts away and made you do horrible things. But that wasn't him! He couldn't do that! He wouldn't do that! But there were those voices still muttering away in the background, talking about anything and everything like he was in the middle of a crowded social and trying to eavesdrop on everyone at once. No! It was like the doctor said – he was delirious from the illness. It was all a fever-induced delusion. It had to be!

Tarmarra tried to ignore the voices and sleep, and eventually he did so. He had no idea how long that he slept, but the dreams that he had made sure that it was not a very restful one. He was almost glad to be woken by visitors. His father and two of his wives, including Tarmarra’s mother, had come in to check on his progress.

“Ah! The sleeper awakes!” his father, R'Terrn'prrt announced. ‘And about time too.

M'Larsst'nuk leant over the bed to fiercely hug her son. “You had us so worried! One moment you were normal, and the next moment you had collapsed. The doctors still won't tell us what happened to you. How are you feeling now?”

For Nashar’s sake! Stop smothering the boy!’ Tarmarra thought he heard his father say. The other voices were growing in volume again, so he was not completely sure.

“I'm not… feeling too good, mother. My head hurts. I hear… things.”

M'Larsst'nuk frowned in concern. “What kind of things?”

He hears voices, like a mind-thief.

Tarmarra looked up to see the patient in the other bed watching him intently. He responded cautiously. “All kind of things. The doctor said I was delirious, and it's still bothering me.”

“Do you need any medication? Do you want us to call the nurse?”

Tarmarra was M'Larsst'nuk’s only child, and she tended to coddle him at times. As usual, he rebelled against that, even if he really did want something to quiet the cacophony in his head. “No thanks. Not now anyway.”

M'Sarra, R'Terrn'prrt’s Firstwife, spoke up. “You're just causing your son distress, M'Larsst'nuk. Ease up a little.” She took Tarmarra’s hand gently. “We have been concerned about you though. Your sisters all want to come visit too, but we said it would be too soon.”

“Thank you, Mother Sarra,” Tarmarra replied in a heartfelt manner. His sisters were overwhelming at the best of times.

The rest of the visit went much as a typical hospital visit does, with the exception of Tarmarra having to try to concentrate on ignoring the voices that were growing more insistent again. Mercifully for him, it seems that he had regained consciousness close to the end of visiting hours, and the nurse turned up to shoo his parents out. M'Larrst'nuk gave him another crushing hug which he endured stoically, and M'Sarra gave him a kiss on the cheek. R'Terrn'prrt hung back a moment to have a private word.

“Tarmarra, you're my only son, and I worry for you. Be strong,” he said with gentle gruffness.

“I'll try, father.”

And may Ariz grant you strength.

“Thank you.”

A troubled look was on R'Terrn'prrt’s face as he rejoined his wives.


 

Tarmarra was relieved to get the medication that dulled the voices once more. Unable to determine a better course of action as yet, Doctor M'Sisshik gave him another bigger dose later that enabled him to sleep fairly well. After breakfast, he was surprised by his father turning up again in the company of another doctor, a male one this time.

“Tarmarra, this is Doctor R'Kana, an old family doctor who has been referred your case. Please feel free to tell him anything that is bothering you so that he can find a way to help you.” “Anything at all!’ Tarmarra thought he heard him add.

Tarmarra looked over to the other beds. The suspicious patient was away getting some sort of therapy, and the other had been discharged that morning.

R'Kana said in a kindly voice, “We're quite alone. Please don't be afraid to tell me everything.”

Tarmarra felt reassured despite never having met this person before, and so he decided to be completely honest. “Doctor, I keep hearing people talking as if they're right here in the room with us. Most aren't talking to me, but they just keep saying random stuff, and they just won't stop! It's really, really bad! Doctor M'Sisshik said that I had a brain injury. Is that what's causing this? Can you fix it?”

R'Kana turned away to study the neural monitors. ‘I see what Doctor M'Sisshik means, but I don't think it's the cause. Have you heard people talking specifically to or about you, rather than just random voices?

“Yes, or at least I think so. I can't tell if it wasn't just part of the delirium though.”

R'Kana looked at R'Terrn'prrt and nodded. “It's confirmed. He's a Telepath.”

Tarmarra was confused by the use of the non-Caitian word that the doctor had used. It sounded like one of the Terranglo words that the Federation workers used.

R'Kana looked upon him kindly. “It means that we have to transfer you to another facility for specialty treatment, but at least we know what part of the problem is now.”

Tarmarra was not sure whether he should be relieved or worried. To find out what was wrong with him was a good thing, but something that needed specialty treatment was usually a bad thing. “What's going to happen there?” he asked.

His father spoke up. “Hopefully they will be able to stop you hearing those unwanted voices and give you some good advice for the future. I've been there myself when I was about your age, and they do good work.”

R'Kana said, “I will arrange the transfer immediately.” He fished something out of his coat pocket. “In the meantime, I want you to take some of this medication. Take one right now, and one pill every three metsarks. That should enable you to cope until we have you at the new facility and we can determine a better course of action for you. For now though, don't discuss this any further with anyone except Doctor M'Sisshik, and only if she asks. Tell her that Doctor R'Kana has taken over your case, and she should understand.”

“Thank you, Doctor,” Tarmarra said with heartfelt gratitude.

“You're welcome, Tarmarra. Be strong, young one. You have much ahead of you.”

R'Terrn'prrt tousled his son’s mane. “We'll get you right again soon, son. Don't you worry.”

“Thanks, Dad. Love you!”

Love you too, Son.


 

A patient transport vehicle turned up about four metsarks later to pick up Tarmarra, and he was discharged from the hospital by Doctor M'Sisshik personally. When they arrived at the facility, he was surprised to see that it was not another hospital, but a place that was signposted as “The Virdoana Rehabilitation Centre”. He was guided to a waiting room where he was asked to sit. Before long, his father turned up and gave him a hug.

“Everything has been arranged, Son.” He handed Tarmarra some physical copies of some forms. “You've been admitted into this facility’s program to deal with your problems, and Doctor R'Kana will soon be along to get you started.”

“What is this place, Dad? I was expecting another hospital.”

“It's a facility intended to treat people like us, Tarmarra. Yes, I've had something related to your problem in the past, so I know what they do. Doctor R'Kana will explain everything.”

“Okay. How long will I be here?”

“That depends on what they find when they examine you. Whatever it is, your mothers and I hope that you get better soon.”

Tarmarra did not have to wait too long for R'Kana to arrive. He ushered the boy into his office with a warm smile. “Make yourself comfortable, Tarmarra, and I'll start giving you some of the answers that you're looking for. Have some water if you like,” he said, indicating the water cooler in the corner.

Tarmarra did get some water and then sat down.

R'Kana did something on the keyboard in front of him, and suddenly the voices that had continued despite the medication suddenly faded into the background.

Tarmarra gasped. “What did you do?”

“I just turned on a strong force field designed specifically to be resistant to Telepathy,” R'Kana explained.

“There's that word again. What does it mean?”

R'Kana sighed. “Tarmarra, what I am about to tell you is going to be disturbing, but let me reassure you that it isn't as bad as it may seem. A Telepath is the Federation Terranglo word for what we miscall mind-thieves.”

“What?! I'm no mind-thief!”

Calm down, Tarmarra!’ R'Kana said without opening his muzzle.

Tarmarra stared at the doctor. “I heard you say that! I did! How can I do that?”

“You can do that because it is a natural part of you and me. That is why the name mind-thief is so misleading and wrong. We do not steal thoughts – we ‘hear’ them and ‘speak’ them, almost as naturally as we do with sound.”

“Then why does everybody say that they're evil and not to be trusted?”

R'Kana sighed. “To answer that, I need to give you a history lesson, as well as a biology one. To start with, Telepaths are nowhere near as rare as you may think. The fact is that a large portion of the entire population of Kà'iît has at least a latent ability. It's the fundamental reason for why Caitians are known to be so good at languages and communication. While Telepathy cannot actually translate, it is a huge help in making relationships between words in different language and retaining an instinctive use of them. Most Caitians do this subconsciously, completely unaware that they are using a psionic talent. It's ironic that our world is known for producing great linguists but virtually no Telepaths, when in fact the majority of those linguists are in fact low-level Telepaths, say just T1, and our race may be one of the most overall Talented of those in the Federation.”

Tarmarra was incredulous. “But if that's true, why is it that these… Telepaths…” He was slowly getting used to the word. “…are called mind-thieves, and people fear and hate them?”

“Why did you?” R'Kana asked. “The first thing that you did when it was hinted that you might be one was to deny it because you feared and hated them too. And why was that? Because you had been taught that they were to be feared and hated.”

“But why?” Tarmarra insisted.

“That's where the history lesson comes in. This is something that you will never learn in school, and is in fact banned from being taught. Once upon a time, centuries ago in fact, Telepaths were known openly, and the stronger ones used their gift to good purpose. However, as happens throughout history, they became jaded and corrupt, and some started abusing their ability. The strongest amongst them wrested control from whole nations, and ruthlessly suppressed the populations. However, as usually happens, they overreached themselves and the people rose up against them. Not even the most powerful Telepath can deal with a horde of angry people sick of being abused. The Telepaths were hunted down and ruthlessly executed. Their children were killed also in case they had inherited their parent’s ability, which of course they had because it's a genetic trait, although they did not know enough science back then to understand that. After that, anyone who exhibited even a trace of telepathic ability was also put to death. A culture of fear and mistrust was fostered, and that's when the term ‘mind-thief’ was created just to reinforce that idea. It worked so well that now nobody trusts a Telepath, not even those who come from the other races in the Federation.”

Tarmarra tried to digest this information. “But if nobody trusts mind-thieves…”

“Telepaths,” interrupted R'Kana. “We don't use that derogatory term amongst ourselves.”

“Okay, if nobody trusts Telepaths, how come there's a place like this, and people like you?”

“Despite misinformation, hate and prejudice, there's one incontrovertible fact, and that is Telepathy is a natural and permanent part of the Caitian genome, and it will continue to manifest despite everything. As I said, most people are no more than T1 level, and basically are not aware of their ability. People like your father are less common. He would be considered a T2. He's aware of his ability to communicate with other Telepaths, but never tells anyone about it. I'm a T3, and I can ‘hear’ non-Telepath thoughts if the person is close, and my range to other Telepaths covers an enormous distance. T4 and T5 are stronger still, but much rarer. However, because we do communicate by thought, we found each other, and we've slowly built up a network designed to discover and support newly emerged Telepaths. While a few seem to have it from birth, most Telepaths come into their Talent at puberty. That's a period of changes and uncertainty that's bad enough in any teenager as it is without the added burden of Telepathy. Having a feared and hated Talent suddenly thrust upon them at this time is extremely stressful for them, and that's where we come in to help.”

“So you can tell me how to stop these voices in my head?” Tarmarra asked, leaning forward eagerly.

R'Kana’s expression changed to one that was more concerned. “That's what troubles me. You see, I should not have to tell you. It's like when you hear a noise that is too loud and you clap your hands over your ears to block it out; it's instinctive. The same is true for telepathy. You should be able to instinctively raise a basic mental shield against stray thoughts. However, it's quite apparent that you cannot, and I think that I know why. Your medical records indicate that you suffered a head injury with minor damage to the brain as a consequence. You apparently healed without any discernible after effects, but I think otherwise. The location of the injury is in the region that we have determined controls the telepathic abilities. To put things bluntly, Tarmarra, it's possible that your Talent is broken. I intend to run various tests to determine the validity of that hypothesis and, if confirmed, provide whatever means that we have at our disposal to help you.”

Tarmarra slumped back into his chair in disappointment and fear. “What… what if you can't fix me?”

“If it comes to the worst, we can provide you with a supply of that medication that I gave you earlier. It's the best that we have in controlling the ability with drugs. We use it normally for Telepaths who are sick, affecting their control of their ability. Seeing as non-detection is an essential part of their daily lives, we always have a ready supply of it on hand. Other ways may involve teaching mental discipline to try to ignore it, or at least be aware of it so you don't give yourself away so readily as you did in the hospital. You were very fortunate in that Doctor M'Sisshik is a rather more enlightened member of the medical profession. She is only a T1 but she is aware of the more Talented population, and the efforts that we go to in order to help the newly emerged Telepaths. She has often referred many pubescent children to us to save them from unintended consequences. Your father was one of her earliest referrals. We are all dreading the day that she retires from her job at the hospital because it's hard to find and place someone else suitable for the job.”

“So I got this ability from my father?”

“As I said, the gene is present throughout the population, but of course if a parent has stronger ability than average, then it's likely that you inherit that also.”

For a brief moment, Tarmarra felt a surge of resentment towards his father for saddling him with this problem. However, he had to admit that R'Kana had a point about the widespread genes, and he had always had a good relationship with his father, so he pushed it aside. “What about that force field thing you're using here? I can hardly hear the voices any more.”

R'Kana shook his head. “It's too big, heavy, and power-hungry. It's utterly impractical for use anywhere other than set up permanently in a room that you want to shield. If necessary, we can supply you with one, but that isn't going to help you with day-to-day stuff. And another thing – this force field is one of the strongest that we possess, and it's still not good enough to completely stop your ability from hearing telepathically. You really have to have alternatives.”

“You're making this sound hopeless,” Tarmarra said bitterly.

“I don't mean to, but neither am I going to raise any false hopes before we test you. And now it's time to do just that. Are you prepared for the return of the voices?”

“Can I take another of those pills that you gave me?”

“I'm afraid that would interfere with the test results, so no. I'll pass around a request that the staff try to keep their personal mind shields in place to minimise the mental chatter, but I'm afraid that you'll have to bear the rest yourself.”

“What rest? If the others can block their… mental voices, why should I hear them anymore?”

“Because this is a real rehabilitation centre for all people. The entire east wing is dedicated to non-Telepath patients. We would have a very difficult time trying to restrict admissions to Telepaths only, and the suspicions that would raise. We can segregate them though, but that means that there will be plenty of stray thoughts for you to overhear, and evidence so far has shown that you are fairly sensitive.”

Tarmarra gave him a glum smile. “I suppose that I can put up with it for a while. It was just so scary before because I didn't know what was happening, and I couldn't block it out. I won't like it, but I reckon that I can tolerate it.”

“Good lad!” R'Kana said with approval in his voice. “Okay, I'm turning off the force field now.”

Instantly the babble of voices returned, but Tarmarra decided to treat it as if he was in a noisy music hall and try to tune it out. He only partially succeeded, but as he had hoped, it was tolerable.

R'Kana was observing him, and he nodded in approval. “Good. Now let's get you to the testing facility and hopefully get some answers for you.” He led Tarmarra out of the office, up a couple of floors, and into a different wing of the building.

Apparently there were less people working there because the voices seemed quieter and fewer. Tarmarra was introduced to a technician and asked to cooperate with her.

“First we're going to do a very thorough scan of your brain,” M'Laasa said cheerfully. “We have copies of your records that we obtained from the hospital, but they don't go into enough detail for our needs, so we'll be doing an extra-fine scan around the damaged area of your brain. This is going to take a fair amount of time, so please be patient with us.”

M'Laasa and another technician strapped him into the bed of the state-of-the-art 3D scanning unit and began a series of scans that would map out his brain to a very fine degree of detail. For Tarmarra though, it was just a long, boring experience just lying there doing nothing. Even the voices got quieter as the general ambient noise level diminished as the word got around concerning his plight. He almost fell asleep at one stage.

Between tests, a question occurred to Tarmarra. “Is everyone who works here a mi– er… Telepath?” he asked M'Laasa.

“That depends on what you define as a Telepath. R'Kana probably has told you that most people have a T1 level of the Talent, even if they don't know it. Well, a few of them work here, but they don't consider themselves as Telepaths. There are even a couple of T0 people employed here.”

“What? But how? Weren't they scared of the mind-thieves? I know I was. Maybe I still am a little… it's all too new for me to think of myself as one because they… we… are supposed to be evil and dangerous.”

M'Laasa laughed. “Yes, I know all that, but some people don't take things at face value and we're curious about the truth behind the legends, so we look deeper. If we dig deep enough, we find ourselves attracting the attention of people who don't want to be noticed, and if they like what they see, we get recruited.”

“You talk as if from experience,” Tarmarra accused.

She grinned back at him. “Guilty! I'm a T0 – not even a trace of Talent. However I find it a fascinating field of study. You are actually going to help our understanding of how it works due to the nature of your injury.”

“But aren't you afraid of what Telepaths can do?”

“Tarmarra, Telepaths aren't monsters. They are people with a special ability, but otherwise ordinary people with ordinary lives. Some of those people abuse their ability, but it's no different from how non-Telepaths abuse their ordinary gifts to cause pain and suffering. The Telepath community strives to remember the mistakes of the past, and deals with the occasional rogue to preserve the safety of all. Far from being people to fear as they were in that horrible past, they now see themselves as Kà'iît’s protectors. They are very slowly trying to turn around the community’s attitude towards Telepaths also, but it's going to be a long and difficult task due to how ingrained that is. Not even when Kà'iît joined the Federation and it was shown that Telepaths were an integral and respected part of it did that greatly affect the poor perception of them. I'm proud to be able to do my small part to help with that task.”

“Well, I'm glad someone is happy about it, because I sure am not.”

“Take heart, lad. We're pretty good at this sort of thing. If there's a way to fix your problem, we'll find it. However, to do so, we need lots of data, so it's time to do another scan.”

Tarmarra sighed. “Yes, ma'am.”

As it turned out, the 3D scanner was just the first of a long series of tests. Next he was hooked up to a very uncomfortable helmet arrangement with multiple probes to monitor his brain activity. A string of people came in to ask him questions from the concise to the sublime, and noting the readings that resulted. Telepaths of various levels asked him to try to read them or project to them, get through their mind shields, or try to block them with his own. By this time, the medication that Tarmarra had taken hours earlier had completely worn off, and he seemed to be very sensitive to stray thoughts. He was feeling very tired from all of this when R'Kana returned.

“So, are you ready for the next tests?” R'Kana asked.

Tarmarra groaned. “More? How much more?”

“Oh, lots of things yet,” R'Kana replied cheerfully.

“Can't they wait? I'm starving!”

“Good, because I'm here to take you to lunch.”

Tarmarra looked at him hopefully. “You're not just yanking my tail?”

R'Kana’s smile grew wider. “No, I'm not. The tests can wait. The fact that you care more about getting food than your problem is proof enough that it's time for a meal. Besides, you're a growing lad, and you need to keep up your strength. Come along now.”

Tarmarra walked with him out of the testing facility. “How come you're doing this for me personally? I mean, you seem to be in charge around here, but you're spending all this time with me.”

“You're right, I do have to spend a lot of my time running this place, but you are a special case, deserving of extra attention. Frankly I'd like to be personally doing your tests, but I can't spare that much time from my main obligations as head of this facility. However, we all have to eat, so why not spend that time with you?”

“I suppose so.”

R'Kana took Tarmarra to a cafeteria within the facility where apparently both staff and patients were welcome. He was told to choose whatever he wanted because the cost was added to the bill.

“That's another thing,” Tarmarra said. “Who's paying for all of these tests, etcetera?”

“Your family’s health insurance covers everything being done at this facility.”

“Insurance covers Telepaths?” Tarmarra blurted out in surprise.

“Insurance covers medical expenses incurred at licensed facilities, and to the world at large, we are just another accredited diagnostic and rehabilitation centre. The insurance company might not know that we specialise in Telepaths, but that doesn't concern us because the health problems are quite legitimate and legally covered.”

“That's a relief. I hate to think this would be costing my parents otherwise.”

“Just be glad that we live in an age where these things are possible. Imagine if you were living in the past and with no recourse.”

Tarmarra shuddered. He'd had plenty of time to think about what R'Kana had told him about history while undergoing the scans, and he'd managed to think of some ugly possibilities.

While they ate, R'Kana chatted with Tarmarra. To his surprise, he asked questions about just about everything except telepathy and his problems, instead focused on Tarmarra himself.

“So, have you any idea what you want to do yet when you grow up?”

“Well… maybe geology. That field trip that we did into the Rrkarñess Ranges was fascinating.”

“I did a field trip like that too when I was about your age. Twisted my ankle! Kind of put me off that idea.”

Tarmarra laughed. “I'll try to be more careful.”

R'Kana grinned. “If it doesn't work out, you could always consider a career here.”

“Yeah, and I'll come for your job,” Tarmarra replied cheekily.

R'Kana guffawed. “Touché! Okay, I won't try to influence you any more. Time to get back to the tests though if you're full up.”

Tarmarra had to admit that he was replete, so they went back to the diagnostic wing. He was left in the hands of some other people this time, and they gave him the medical examination of a lifetime. By the time they were finished, he reckoned that they had probed every body part and taken every imaginable specimen. If it had not been so fascinating, he would have quickly tired of so much prodding and prying, but he was still happy that it was called to a halt hours later by R'Kana.

“Enough for one day, I think. Your parents have arrived for a visit.”

“Mother also? Does she know about us?”

“Yes, so you're safe to discuss what we've been doing.”

R'Kana led Tarmarra to what appeared to be a ward wing. “You have been assigned a private room for your stay here. It's equipped with one of the telepathic shields, so you should be able to get some good sleep there.”

He opened the door to one of the rooms, and Tarmarra saw his parents sitting on chairs inside. They got up as he rushed inside to hug them, immensely relieved to see them again. After a long moment while they just appreciated being together, Tarmarra eventually asked, “Why didn't you ever tell me about Telepaths?”

“We were waiting to see if the ability manifested in you first. Only one of your sisters is a Telepath also,” R'Terrn'prrt explained.

“We thought you might be because I'm a T2 also,” M'Larsst'nuk added. “However, while we were prepared to tell you everything about it if it manifested, we did not anticipate the problems that you have had. If we'd had even an inkling of it, we would have prepared you in advance.”

“Has the situation improved?” R'Terrn'prrt asked.

“Kind of. Now that I know what's happening, I can cope a lot better, but I still can't seem to block anything out.”

R'Terrn'prrt looked up at R'Kana. “Doctor, have you made any progress?”

“We're analysing the results of our tests already, but we won't have preliminary results until tomorrow. Tarmarra’s condition is virtually unknown, and we have to be thorough.”

“Is there anything you can tell us yet?” M'Larsst'nuk insisted.

R'Kana looked a little sad. “Only not to hold out too much hope for an easy answer. Tarmarra’s brain injury looks very serious. However, as I said, it's too soon to come to any firm conclusions as yet.”

M'Larsst'nuk looked crestfallen. “I see. Thank you, Doctor.”

“I'll leave you alone with your son for now. Here's the power switch for the telepathy shield,” he said as he indicated it. “I suggest that you don't stay too long as Tarmarra is probably very tired from all the testing that we did today.”

Tarmarra’s parents did take R'Kana’s advice after catching him up with the news. Apparently the rest of the family had been told that he was suffering from a virus that had debilitated him, and he was now recovering here. He would have to expect visits from his pride-mothers and sisters if he was still here tomorrow evening. M'Sarra had arranged with his school to get copies of the lessons that he had missed, which M'Larsst'nuk dutifully handed over to him. They had also brought some changes of clothing, and advised him to bathe and groom. After a couple of days in a hospital, he was looking and smelling a bit on the grungy side.

M'Larsst'nuk gave her son another fierce hug before they departed, and then Tarmarra was at last alone with his thoughts. It had been a very trying day, full of revelations that still daunted his young mind. For a while, he just sat on the edge of his bed brooding over it all, contemplating how this was going to affect his life. Then he cursed, threw off his day-robe and went to bathe. He turned up the heat of the water as high as he could tolerate and tried to let it wash away his troubles, but the quiet murmur of the voices refused to go away.


 

After so many tests the previous day, Tarmarra could not imagine how they could find so many more to do, but they did. More tests on his brain were the main focus, but he got the impression that they were grasping at ephemeral hopes of finding something positive. After lunch, he was left alone for a change, and after rapidly growing bored, thought he might as well do that schoolwork that had been left with him. At least he could do that back in his room where he could use the shield to mostly block out the voices again. It was mid afternoon when R'Kana turned up with Tarmarra’s father.

“I asked R'Terrn'prrt to come because we have a diagnosis which we will need to discuss,” R'Kana began without preamble. “We have confirmed that the injury that you sustained to your brain a couple of years ago is in the area that controls telepathic Talent. Our tests show that you have zero ability to block telepathic transmissions. The ability to create a mind-shield seems to have been completely destroyed, and there's no way of replacing that function naturally.”

Tarmarra groaned, his worst fears realised.

“I'm afraid that isn't all,” R'Kana told Tarmarra sympathetically. “We also measured your telepathic ability, and you are easily a T3, and would probably qualify as a T4 if it wasn't for your disability. That means that you can pick up the thoughts of non-Telepaths who are in close proximity, as well as all the T1's who are unknowingly broadcasting their thoughts constantly. You are in effect a high-powered receiver without the ability to tune in only one band.”

“You mean that if I go out into a crowd, it would be like every one of them was trying to talk to me at once?” Tarmarra said aghast.

“I'm afraid so.”

“That's going to drive me crazy!”

“We are aware of the problem, and have been trying to come up with solutions. That was the purpose of all those extra tests that we did today. Frankly though, we have very few options. The best is the force shield that muffles telepathy, although with your degree of talent, even that is obviously not enough.”

“Yeah, I can still hear the voices constantly, like they were in the next room.”

“Right – good enough to ignore, but never enough to completely block it, and not portable enough to be a constant solution. The second is the medication that I gave you yesterday. It's the best that we have for repressing the telepathic centre of the brain. However, like the force field, it cannot completely stop the voices at the normal dose, and higher doses may render you sleepy or even do you harm. We only usually use it for patients who are recovering from other illnesses and lack the strength to keep up their own shields. The third option is risky – brain surgery. Even with today’s modern procedures, operating on the brain is always a very risky business, and as yours has already suffered trauma in the past, it adds a complicating factor. The fact is that to stop the voices, we would have to destroy the part of the brain that enables you to hear them, but even the latest research cannot pinpoint that. It's not like a cancer cell where the difference is obvious. We would run a real risk of doing unintentional damage, and because of its location, you could end up with damage to your ability to learn and think. We are not confident enough of avoiding this possibility to recommend it as a course of action.”

Tarmarra shuddered. Even with the prospect of being stuck with the voices, that alternative frightened him more. “So I'm pretty much stuck with the pills if I want to go out and have any sort of life?”

“Well, there's always the possibility of learning a mental discipline to deal with them. Are you aware of the Sisterhood of Raftir?”

“Umm… don't they run a school?”

“They are a religious group who worship Raftir, the Goddess of Wisdom, and they are dedicated educators. They run schools all over Kà'iît. What isn't generally known is that the Sisterhood is comprised entirely of Telepaths, and the students that they accept are also exclusively Telepaths. Their mission is to give a safe environment in which young Telepaths can learn, and also to guide them so as not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Their long-term goal is to eliminate the fears and misconceptions about Telepaths so that one day we won't have to hide what we are from the general population any more.”

R'Terrn'prrt commented, “Although with how ingrained those fears are, I doubt that we will see much change within our lifetimes.”

“I'm afraid that I must agree with you there,” R'Kana said sadly. “Anyway, the Sisterhood teaches lessons on how to control telepathy, and they might be able to help you deal with the voices through mental discipline. It won't stop them, but at least they might not drive you crazy. I'm going to recommend enrolling Tarmarra in their local school because even if the mental training doesn't work out, at least he will be in a situation where he won't run the risk of being exposed as a Telepath in a hostile environment.”

“So that's it?” R'Terrn'prrt asked. “My son has no prospect of a completely normal life?”

“Sorry, but no. While advances in medical science are happening constantly, we can only heal, not replace something that is completely gone.”

“Thank you, Doctor. Could you leave us alone for now? Tarmarra and I have much to discuss.”

“Very well, R'Terrn'prrt. Please remember that we will always be happy to help you out in any way that we can in the future.”

“Understood, and again thanks.”


 

Switching schools mid-term was quite a jolt for Tarmarra, and took a lot of explaining to the other members of his family who weren't telepathic. However, it was for the best for the reasons that Doctor R'Kana had explained. It did not make it easy though. For one thing, just because his fellow students were also Telepaths did not mean that they were any less than normal Caitians in every other way. In other words, some were real jerks. While the teaching Sister had explained his disability to the class and asked them to be considerate of him because of it, a handful went out of their way to annoy him with thoughts directed specifically at him. If it had not been for the medication, Tarmarra did not think he could have coped in those first few weeks. The Sisters weren't easily deceived though, and the offenders were soon put in their place and things settled down for him.

Unfortunately, while school was a haven for him, he still had to travel between it and home, and that was a daily torture for him twice a day. Most of the time as he travelled on the train home, he buried himself in a book to try to ignore the exasperating babble in his head. The problem was that he still had a hard time distinguishing random thoughts and spoken words addressed to him. Sometimes he failed to respond when he needed to, but worse, sometimes he responded to something that had been unspoken, eliciting curiosity, or even suspicion. The fear wore him down, and he was so relieved at the end of the school week to spend a couple of days away from the public. Mostly he spent it in his room that was now shielded with a force field. Sometimes his den-mothers would try to get him to go out and play more with the local children as he once had, but he mostly resisted that. He missed it, but the intensity of interaction had almost given him away on more than one occasion, and he had reluctantly given it up. M'Sarra was the only one of R'Terrn'prrt’s mates who knew of the Telepaths in the family who wasn't a telepath herself, but as Firstwife, she had the responsibility of dealing with how it affected the family. She decreed that due to lingering effects of the illness that Tarmarra had suffered, he was excused from any social activities that he did not feel up to coping with, and that was the end of any further objections.

The Sisterhood did their best to try to instil some form of mental discipline in Tarmarra to help him cope, and it did help some. After a year at the school, he was getting adept at ignoring the voices, although it took a physical toll on him. At the end of the day, he was always tired, but at least he wasn't as mentally exhausted as he had been in the first few weeks. It was beginning to look as if he might have some hope of having a semblance of a normal life.

That hope was badly battered one day during the school holidays. Tired of staying at home all the time, Tarmarra decided to take the risk and go out. It was a beautiful day, milder than normal, and perfect weather for outdoor activities. His bicycle had been mostly neglected lately, so he decided it was the right time to correct that. After checking that the tyres had enough pressure, he put on his helmet and tail strap, and headed out with no particular goal. He took a bike path that led out past the city walls and out to one of the nature trails. There were a couple of others with the same idea, but they were few and far between, which meant that there were hardly any people around spreading mental noise.

I should have done this ages ago,’ Tarmarra thought to himself. ‘This is even better than being in my room with the force field on.’

Tarmarra rode the trails for much of the morning before feeling tired and hungry, and then he decided to head home. It was at the junction of two of the trails that everything went wrong. Tarmarra was riding at speed when another bicycle came out from the branch to his left, immediately into his path. He tried his best to avoid the idiot who had entered without looking, braking hard and steering to the right, but the dirt track was not conducive to quick stops, and he skidded into the front wheel of the other’s bicycle. Both he and the other rider came crashing down, sprawling in the dirt.

Tarmarra started to get up, wincing in pain as an abused wrist protested the effort.

Stupid tail-less son of two fathers!’ came from the other rider as he started getting up himself.

The double insult rankled Tarmarra. To be called tail-less was to liken him to a local beast known best for its ugly looks and bad smell, and the two fathers part referred to being the product of a deviant sexual act. “What did you just call me?” he demanded. “You're the stupid tail-less one for not looking first!”

The adult male who had crashed into him paused, and then looked up with hatred in his eyes. “I didn't call you anything… out loud… mind-thief!”

A great chill ran through Tarmarra. He had gotten careless and had let many moons of lessons be forgotten in the heat of the moment, and responded to the other’s thoughts.

You are a mind-thief, aren't you? Yeah, I can tell that you're stealing my thoughts right now. Well, I'm going to put a stop to that!’ The male got up with determination in his eyes.

Tarmarra was terrified. He had known that some people were paranoid about Telepaths, and he had even heard about incidents involving them, but he never really believed in his heart that people could be really that crazy. “No, you've got it all wrong!” he said desperately.

“Then why are you so afraid?” was the reply.

Tarmarra tore his eyes from the advancing male and frantically brought his bike upright. The male made a lunge in his direction, but Tarmarra made a running start before leaping onto the saddle. Even so, it was terribly close. He looked back to see the male grabbing his own bike, but the front wheel was bent where Tarmarra’s had hit it, and he threw it down in disgust before staring at the retreating boy. Even before a bend in the trail took him out of sight of the male, Tarmarra knew that he would never be able to come back here again.

He was still shaking by the time he got home. He practically threw the bike into the corner of the shed, vowing never to ride it again. He headed straight for his room, intending to lock himself away from the world for a while, but his mother met him there with a very concerned look on her face.

“I could feel the pain in your thoughts without even trying,” she said. Her normal mind-shield would keep out stray thoughts usually, so to have caught her attention, it had to have been something truly bad.

Until then, Tarmarra had kept in control, but as his mother’s arm enfolded him, he burst into tears. M'Larsst'nuk held her son while he shook and wept for several long moments before she gently asked, “Tell me what is wrong so that I can make it better.”

Tarmarra managed to give an account of the incident while his mother looked him over solicitously, seeing if he was injured. Aside from some fur scraped off in places, and the sore wrist, he had mostly come away unhurt. The same could not be said for his psyche.

“My dear son, I wish that you never had to learn for yourself what some people are like, but most of us have to witness something like this before we know in our hearts that we can be victims. You just came closer than most, and I thank Ariz that you came through unscathed. But you must never put yourself in a situation like that again, or else you may not be so fortunate.”

“A situation like that? Mother, it was a chance incident during a normal activity! How can I avoid that? How can I hope to have a normal life?”

“I… I'm sorry, sweetie, but I just don't know. You just have to be more careful than ever. Promise me that you'll do that? I couldn't bear to lose you.”

“Of course I promise, mother, but can you promise me that things will get better?”

M'Larsst'nuk had no answer to that.


 

After the bicycle incident, Tarmarra had mostly kept to his room when school was out. He started spending more time at school, taking on extra studies, and his teachers remarked on his dedication to his learning. However, it was not just a matter of education, but that the school was a refuge from a world where he could be attacked for no good reason, where a slip of the tongue could turn him into a monster. In a school run by Telepaths for Telepaths, all he had to contend with were the usual dramas that happened between teenagers. That he could cope with.

The day came for his Coming-of-Age ceremony. These were big family affairs of the type which he normally tried to avoid, but as he was the centre of attention, that was hardly practical. Only one of his aunts was also a Telepath, so he had to endure a lot more discomfort during the socialising. The ceremonial crossing of the waters was actually a relief, and he was given the honorific for the first time. R'Tarmarra realised that he was now an adult, and it was time to face the future like one. It was time to choose a career.

R'Tarmarra could have chosen the safe route. The Sisterhood was always looking for teachers for their schools, even male ones. That would have allowed him to take on further studies at his school in order to become a teacher there in a couple of years. However, that held no interest for him. He had discovered something that not only interested him, but offered him the prospect of long bouts of solitude. He enrolled in a university with a career in geology in mind. He applied himself to his studies and generally avoided talking with people, gaining a reputation for being anti-social. And he never ever opened his mouth to reply to someone until he was 100% sure that they had spoken aloud, even if it made him look slow at times. In fact he cultivated the impression of being somewhat odd in order to distract people from the truth.

Three years passed, and while he nearly gave himself away a few times, things never progressed beyond curious looks. The day came when he and his class were graduating and for once he wanted to celebrate. He accepted an invitation to graduation party that had the typical things found at such – music, dancing, females hunting for husbands to increase their status, and of course alcohol.

R'Tarmarra had been legally permitted to drink alcohol since his Coming-of-Age, but in fact he had never had a drink up until then. He decided that it was time to change that record. Unfortunately, if he had tried alcohol before then, he would have found out how badly he could hold his liquor. In short, he became very drunk, very quickly, and along with his sobriety, his inhibitions went out the window. With misplaced confidence, he started trying to gain the attention of the females. Unfortunately for him, his carefully cultivated image of being a weirdo worked against him. M'Murrasa was the third fem that he hit on, but unlike the first two, she had less than polite thoughts about his attentions.

What a creepy male!’ M'Murrasa thought as she strove to fob him off. ‘Who would want a korrok like him as a husband? I'd never get much status with him hanging around!

A korrok was a big dull-minded herd beast, and a pejorative term for a lazy, good-for-nothing male who let his wives support him. R'Tarmarra was incensed. “What did you call me?!” he roared, attracting the attention of others around him.

“I didn't call you anything,” M'Murrasa replied, taking a startled step back from him. ‘Oh, Goddess, he's a crazy drunk!

“I'm not crazy, and I'm not a korrok either!” he snarled.

Sure, you're not!’ another voice said mockingly.

“Who said that?” demanded R'Tarmarra, whirling around to face the others.

“Nobody said anything, so cool off!” one of the males said warningly. ‘If he doesn't, I'll be able to show M'Murrasa what a great potential mate I could be.

“You? A great mate? Ha! How you even graduated, I don't know, you moron!”

The male looked at him in shock. “I… I didn't say that out loud, did I?”

M'Murrasa’s eyes widened in realisation. “No you didn't, and I never called him a korrok out loud either. He's a mind-thief!”

With those words, R'Tarmarra was instantly shocked sober. In the time that took him to realise the enormity of what he had just done, the attitude of all those within earshot of the incident had changed. Some were fearful, but most were outright hostile.

“Is it true?” one asked. “Are you a mind-thief?”

“N-no!” he stuttered. “D-don't look at m-me like that.”

Hey, R'Tarmarra!’ someone called insistently.

R'Tarmarra looked towards the voice before realising that he had responded to a non-vocal call.

“He heard my thoughts! He is a mind-thief!”

R'Tarmarra dropped the drink that he had been holding and bolted for the door. One of the females tried to trip him, and a male got a fistful of his fur before he slammed through it. He ran as fast as he could, but with no idea where to go. Shouts and footsteps behind him only reinforced the telepathic knowledge that a large number of the class had chosen to pursue him. He took off across the campus, altering course for the train station that was adjacent, wildly hoping that it could take him to safety. Sadly, athletics was hardly his forte, and he was quickly run down by some of the faster students. A blow to the back made him stumble and fall, and moments later several started laying into him with fists and feet.

“No! Stop! Please! I haven't hurt anyone! Ow! Please leave me alone! Arrgh! Please don't hurt me. Stop… plea…” A blow to his head sent everything black.


 

“I woke up in hospital two days later,” Arrak told Windrunner. “I had three broken ribs, a fractured arm, severe internal bruising, and a concussion, but I was still alive. My life was ruined though. There was no way now that I was going to be able to get a job once rumours of my being a mind-thief spread. And believe me I tried after I was well again. Even after all that I had learned about the prejudice towards Telepaths, I was still appalled by how even the whiff of it was enough to put off any potential employer. Nowhere on Kà'iît would I be free of the stigma, and not even on one of our colony worlds, because they were even more picky about who they accepted as immigrants, and they had the same fears and prejudices.”

“So you came to Chakona instead,” Windrunner commented.

“Yes, I'd learned about the Caitian colony here, and how all sorts of things were tolerated there that were either forbidden on Kà'iît, or led to such a reduction in status that your life was basically worthless. Frankly, even I had to adjust my thinking to realise how prejudiced I was towards them, and for less valid reasons than those prejudiced against Telepaths. It was admittedly a bit of an eye-opener for me, but it gave me hope. The world even had thousands of Telepaths living there openly, so hopefully I would never have to fear for my life again.” He laughed humourlessly. “Didn't take much to set off a panic attack though, did it?”

“You had good reason though, so it's forgivable. Why were you so dead set against me being your partner though? I certainly have no prejudice or hatred of Telepaths.”

“Chakats are Empaths. You can tell when people are trying to deceive you. I was always aware of your thoughts and hiding that fact from you. I always thought that it was inevitable that a chakat would realise that I was a Telepath after a while.”

“Yeah, we can detect lies – when we're looking for them. You don't think a chakat could function in a normal society if shi was forever looking for untruth? Little white lies are the lubricant of a harmonious society, and we speak them just as much as any other species. The only thing that you had to fear was your own fears.”

“Fear was the only thing that kept me safe for so many years,” Arrak pointed out. “But perhaps my own fear of the futility of hiding from a chakat made me careless – I don't know. Anyway I still want to live and work with my own kind, but even if Caitians on this world tolerate Telepaths, it doesn't mean that they like them. Therefore I intended that no one knew so the fact would not accidentally slip out, and thus I did not want to be with a chakat. Otherwise I have nothing against your kind.”

“I believe you, and I know that you have more than enough justification for your concerns, but I think that you do the people of Harrn'tuk'harr an injustice. Many Caitians have no fear of Telepaths.”

“And how would you know this?” demanded Arrak.

“Personal experience,” Windrunner replied confidently. “My sire was mated in accordance with Caitian tradition, and his Firstwife and Fifthwife are both Caitians. Their families have always maintained close ties with ours.”

“Are any of you Telepaths?” Arrak asked pointedly.

“Umm, no. However both work in Star Fleet, and that inevitably brings them into contact with Telepaths.”

“I don't think that you could get into Star Fleet if you had such a blatant prejudice, but that doesn't mean that their relatives don't feel otherwise about us.”

Windrunner sighed. “I see that I'm not going to be able to convince you, but that's your decision. I promise to keep your Talent to myself.”

“Thank you, but do you think that you can still work with me, knowing what you do about me now?”

“Huh? What exactly do you mean?”

“I mean that I'm not kidding or exaggerating when I say that I ‘hear’ everything that you're thinking. I don't want to, but I do,” Arrak told hir bluntly.

“Oh? What am I thinking now?” shi asked with a sly smile.

Surprised, Arrak for once deliberately tried to listen into hir thoughts, and was startled to ‘hear’ the equivalent of mental static. “Oh, that's right. You did this back when you were waiting for me to get over my panic attack. I could tell that you were there, but not what you were thinking about. How are you doing that?”

“My empathic Talent has similarities to your own. Chakats don't like to broadcast their feelings indiscriminately, nor unintentionally eavesdrop on those of others either, so we kind of partition our minds to some degree. We have our public face and our private face, and unless someone is deliberately looking for something, all they see is the public face if that's what we want. I was just keeping my thoughts as well as my feelings behind that partition. Try again, but more strongly.”

Arrak concentrated this time and, armed with this knowledge, noticed a soft resistance. He mentally pushed against it, and it gave way, letting him ‘hear’ hir inner voice.

I like the colour blue,’ shi was repeating in hir head.

“I prefer red,” he said with a smile. “That's a pretty good trick, but can you keep it up all day?”

“Don't need to. There's not that much that I feel the need to keep totally to myself. You already know that I think that you have a cute butt,” shi added with a wink.

Arrak actually blushed. “Um, yeah.”

“See? It works both ways. I know that you are embarrassed. Not that you have any reason to be. However, now that we both know what the other can do, can we continue working together?”

“Yeah, I think so. I'd like to try anyway.”

“Good. I'd like that too. Today is pretty much shot though and lunch was interrupted, so how about we have an early dinner?”

“Okay. After dinner we can put in some extra time working on the data that we did manage to get before… you know.”

“Fine by me. I'll cook.”

Windrunner decided that they both needed some comfort food, so shi broke out the steaks that shi had been planning to save for much later in their assignment. Shi also prepared a dessert based on a Caitian fruit that they grew locally that had a flavour resembling a peach. The familiar food helped Arrak cheer up considerably, and he was in a much better mood as they cleaned up after the meal.

“So what exactly happened after the graduation day incident?” Windrunner asked as shi scoured the grill.

“Hmm? Oh, I found out that my parents had fired off an official legal complaint to the university. Telepaths may be hated and feared, but it's still illegal to assault one, let alone a mob lynching. Turns out that the campus security people who had broken up the mob could not identify the culprits.”

“How convenient,” Windrunner said with a roll of hir eyes. “I suppose that you tried naming names once you were coherent again?”

“Yes, for all the good it did. It was my word against theirs. Every one of them insisted that they were not part of the mob, and remarkably the only video that caught the incident was at a distance, and ruled inconclusive. Well, you didn't have to beat me up again to convince us that all further efforts would be futile, so we started looking into my other options. As I said, a few tentative tries at finding employment failed miserably. A couple of very promising jobs didn't even get to the interview stage. It became obvious that my name had somehow been flagged, and my employment prospects were slim at best.”

“So that's when you decided to come to Chakona?”

“Actually it was M'Sarra who suggested it. She had read an article about the Caitian colony that had been established here. Of course it also talked about the ‘bizarre and perverted’ people who supposedly populated it, but we could read between the lines. Some research discovered that the colonists were basically people whose lifestyles clashed with the hidebound morals and prejudices of Caitian society. Of course the first settlers also had the pioneering spirit necessary to establish a new colony, but the important thing was that they considered other people’s business to be none of theirs unless they chose to share. I was not thrilled about the prospect of emigrating from Kà'iît, but it certainly seemed to be my best hope for a decent future. After all, nobody on Chakona would have heard of me.”

“How long did it take to arrange? I know that Chakona has some strict immigration requirements.”

“Not as long as I thought it would. It turns out that they had a need for more geologists, especially ones who were willing to work at isolated sites in virtually unknown territory, so finding a job wasn't terribly hard. I also knew how to speak Terranglo, which I am very grateful now that the Sisterhood forced me to learn. I didn't have any encumbrances either, so I was pretty much put on the fast track to immigrate. My biggest hurdle was putting the money together to pay for the starship travel here. Fortunately we were able to find a Voxxan trader that took on passengers for a far more modest fee than the commercial passenger companies. After that, it was just a matter of packing and preparing for a new life. Oh, and changing my name.”

“Why did you do that? Were you that worried that people would track you down or something?”

“Yes, there was a bit of that. Never underestimate the impact of a stray word in the wrong place. However, it was also symbolic. I was starting a whole new life, and leaving the old one behind me. It was actually easier for me to cope that way. I don't regret it. I am Arrak Wanderer of the Lonely Path now. R'Tarmarra was left behind on Kà'iît.”

“Well, Wanderer, I reckon that your name makes a lot more sense to me now, but I hope that your path isn't that lonely. You have me at least at your side,” shi told him as shi lay hir hand on his shoulder reassuringly.

“Thanks, Windy. I appreciate it,” he replied as he patted hir hand.

They spent extra time working on the data and specimens that they had gathered during that day’s aborted schedule. Both were fairly satisfied with their results by the time that they decided to call it a day.

Just as Windrunner had said, hir surface thoughts had all been of the non-personal kind, and focused on hir work, and Arrak had been busy enough to completely ignore them. It was only when they were turning in for the night that another problem occurred to Windrunner.

“Arrak – that weird dream that I had last night – is there a possibility that you had something to do with that?”

Arrak thought for a moment before replying. “Maybe partially. Your dream thoughts leak out just as much as your conscious ones, and I can still pick up on them when I'm asleep. Also, I project as well as receive, so it's possible that our dreams interacted, giving them their weird quality.”

“That makes sense, I suppose, but I really don't want that happening every night.”

“I'm not sure what I can suggest to do about the situation, but perhaps this can help.” He held up a bottle of pills. “This is the medication that I told you about. It dulls my telepathic ability, but I don't like to use it much because it makes me lethargic, which isn't too helpful when you're trying to work out in the field. Perhaps a double dose tonight will stop the dreams from happening? It certainly won't matter if it makes me sleepy now.”

“If you're willing to try it, I would appreciate it.”

“Well, the only real alternative would be for me to sleep separately from you in the tent.”

Windrunner shook hir head. “Out of the question. We simply don't know this area well enough to rule out the danger. While there are places on Flinders Continent outside of the towns that have been determined to be safe, this area is yet to be thoroughly assessed. We're amongst the very first explorers, and you don't want to become famous for being eaten.”

Arrak shivered. “Okay, pills it is. Goodnight Windy.”

That night, their sleep was uninterrupted, so they declared the experiment a success. Arrak was happy to be able to get a solid night’s sleep without his personal force field.

“I'm going to have to look into getting more of these sooner than I had expected if I'm going to use them at double the normal rate,” Arrak declared.

“Can you even get them readily here?” asked Windrunner.

“I checked before I left Kà'iît, and it seems to be fairly easily obtained from the Skunktaur Archipelago at least. I imagine that they may need it occasionally to treat their own Telepaths too.”

“That's good. I'd hate to find out that you have to import them from Cait.”

“Yeah, and it's pronounced Kà'iît,” Arrak said a little exaggeratedly.

Windrunner stuck hir tongue out at him as shi mentally replied, ‘It hurts my throat when I try to pronounce it that way!

He just grinned back at hir. “Time for breakfast!”

As they headed out to the third site later, they once again encountered labrohas grazing. They weren't sure if it was the same herd as they had seen previously, but they treated them with the same caution as they circumnavigated them without disturbing them. Once out of earshot, Windrunner said, “I'm always glad to see them; they're very reassuring.”

“How can those huge beasts that can trample us with ease be considered reassuring?” Arrak asked curiously.

“Because they have pretty keen senses, and if any predators were around, they would likely skedaddle very quickly. If they're not concerned, then the chances are low that danger is about.”

Arrak snorted in disbelief. “What could harm such big animals like them?”

“You should have studied fewer rocks and more biology. For every living thing, there is a predator. That's nature’s balance. In fact there are a couple that prey on the labrohas, the worst of which is the scimitar cat. They'll take on even a full-grown one, if they can catch it first. You would make just a quick snack.”

“Urk! Thanks for that image! I don't think that I ever want to see one of those scimitar cats.”

“They're why your field pack always contains a heavy-duty stunner,” Windrunner pointed out.

“I know that, but it still feels a bit unreal to me.”

“Believe me, it gets very real once you've been forced to use it for the very first time.”

“How many times have you had to use your weapon?”

“Twice so far. Two times too many, actually. I was shaking for the rest of the day after the first time. I'm a biologist, not a big game hunter.”

The day went without incident though, and with the weather being exceptionally pleasant, both enjoyed their work a lot. Although they mostly stayed within earshot of each other, the distance was generally enough for the mental noise emanating from Windrunner to be reduced to a low murmur that Arrak found quite tolerable. He was even ‘hearing’ some of the local fauna because the mental ether was so quiet. Things looked like they were going to work out far better than he had feared, and at least as good as he'd hoped for doing the trips solo.

The one thing that still worried Arrak was the threat of the predators, especially the scimitar cat. Windrunner had shown him pictures of the sabre-toothed felinoids, some of them with familiar objects next to them to give them scale. They frightened the crap out of him. He hoped that he would never encounter one of them in the wild.

On the thirteenth day of their survey, Arrak’s proximity sensor started giving off a warning beep. It startled him enough to drop his chipping hammer. He fumbled for the sensor to look at its display screen, and it showed a suspicious creature approaching from the north-east. Worse yet though, it was downwind from him.

Oh, Goddess, here we go!’ he thought as he dived into his field pack to look for his stunner.

Arrak’s comm chirped, and Windrunner’s voice said, “Arrak! Have you gotten the proximity warning?”

Not wanting to waste time answering the comm while he searched for the elusive weapon, he instead shot a strong thought in hir direction. ‘I know! I know!

Eek! Not so loud!’ came the mental response. ‘And stop panicking. I can feel that from here just as clearly as your mental voice!

Can't find my stunner!

It's in the outer right-hand pocket where it's always kept.

Oh right. Yeah, here it is.

I'm coming to join you, but be ready to act without me.

Arrak fumbled with the power switch, and after a few moments the ready lamp illuminated, and the power gauge displayed 98%. It was already set to the highest intensity. “Better to start on the safe side,” Windrunner had told him. Now all he had to do was point and shoot. Anyone could do it. Easy! … He wished he could convince his trembling hands of that.

The proximity sensor went into high-alert mode. Whatever it was, there was not much distance separating them now. Where was Windrunner? Then he saw a large head poke out from behind some bushes, and two eyes stared directly back at him.

Arrak moaned. A scimitar cat! Why couldn't it have been a dire rat instead? He could cope with those.

The cat started stalking in his direction, its eyes mesmerising him. ‘Where are you, Windrunner?

Almost there!

The distance was closing rapidly. Oh Goddess, it's enormous! I can feel its thoughts… hunger… anticipation.

What are you waiting for, Arrak? Shoot!

Arrak’s finger jerked reflexively on the trigger at that command, and a beam of light screamed out to hit the cat on the right thigh. It roared in pain before a second, better aimed shot got it on the skull, and it collapsed unconscious.

Arrak almost followed suit as he sunk to the ground in relief. Windrunner came bounding up to him, breathing hard from hir run.

“Are you okay, Arrak?”

“I think I peed myself,” he said hollowly.

Windrunner laughed in relief. “If that's the worst that has happened, you can count your blessings.”

Arrak looked up at hir. “Weren't you able to get a shot at it?”

“Yeah, but I waited for you to do it first.”

“What?! Why? A few more steps and it would have been on me!”

“I would have shot it before that happened,” shi tried to reassure him.

“Were you trying to scare me to death?” he demanded hotly.

“No, I was trying to make you realise that you have to be prepared to defend yourself out here. It's an unforgiving wilderness, and you must be able to pull that trigger in a crisis. If you hadn't been able to do so, I would have taken it out, but it would have jeopardised any future expeditions that you hoped to make in the future. Anyone who you get teamed with has to know that they can depend on you to defend them if they cannot.”

“I suppose so,” Arrak said sullenly. Then something occurred to him. “How come those stunners made so much noise? Energy weapons are normally very quiet.”

“The stunners have dual emitters slightly out of phase with each other. The interference backed by a lot of power results in that noise.”

“But why?”

“Because we're trying to not kill them.”

“Huh? I don't get it.”

Windrunner gestured to the surrounding landscape. “This is all natural wilderness, and like the rest of Chakona, we try to interfere with nature to the absolute minimum. Killing animals indiscriminately, even scimitar cats, is not permitted, and that's why we're equipped with stunners only. They make that loud and unique noise because that's the last thing that the dangerous creatures hear before they get knocked unconscious and wake up with a giant headache. If they hear it again, they start associating it with what happened previously. Eventually it's hoped that they learn to avoid people entirely.”

“You're conditioning them!” Arrak exclaimed.

“Exactly. Because you got in two hits before rendering it unconscious, this scimitar cat will have an extra strong association with the pain it can cause.

“That makes sense. So what do we do now?”

“We go back to camp. We don't want to be anywhere near here when this guy wakes up.”

“I surely agree with that!” Arrak said, grabbing for his pack.

The two then beat a hasty retreat.

Later that evening as they were heading off to bed, Windrunner asked, “Still feel like sleeping in the tent by yourself?”

Arrak just gave hir a dirty look before settling into his sleeping pad. He could not help overhearing hir mental giggle though.


 

They altered their planned itinerary for the next day to ensure that they were as far away as possible from where they had left the scimitar cat. However, they did not detect it for the remainder of the survey project, and Arrak was genuinely disappointed to leave the area behind when it was finally finished. Nevertheless, after spending so much time away from everyone but Windrunner, Arrak found himself more mentally rested than in years, and he was actually looking forward to seeing some fellow Caitians again.

They spent the morning packing up their campsite, and ensuring that they left it in virtually the same condition as they had found it. Perhaps future teams could use the same site, but for now it would be left up to the whims of nature. They began the flight back home, and because he no longer had to be cautious as to what he said to Windrunner, the conversation on this journey was far more animated. It was almost disappointing when it ended back where they had begun.

Arrak and Windrunner unloaded their gear and took it up to the office, leaving the rest of the department’s equipment to be taken care of by the garage staff who would also clean and service the aircar to have it ready for its next task. They ran into M'Lessala on one of their trips back and forth between the garage and the office.

“Welcome back,” she said with a warm smile. “So how did the job go for you?”

“Didn't you read our daily reports?” Arrak asked in surprise.

“Of course I did, but I'm not talking about the survey. I meant how did it work out between you two? Am I going to have to assign new partners to both of you for future tasks?”

Arrak looked at Windrunner and they exchanged grins. “No,” he replied. “We've reached a very satisfactory understanding. I think that I speak for Windy when I say that we would prefer to remain team-mates.”

“Excellent! Well, I won't hold you up any more. I'm sure that you both want to finish up and head off home. I'll debrief you about the project first thing tomorrow.” She then left them with an airy wave.

After they finished unpacking, downloading their data onto the department’s computer, and storing their samples, they called it quits. It was only then that Arrak realised that he did not know where Windrunner lived, or with whom if anyone, so he asked.

“I share an apartment with another chakat in the southern section of town,” shi informed him.

“Is shi your mate then? You never mentioned one before.”

“Nah. Emeraldeyes and I are really just roomies with benefits. We both have families elsewhere – hirs in Wanganui, and mine mostly in Marpletown, although I do have a couple of relatives here. We both got jobs that brought us here to Harrn'tuk'harr, so it was convenient for us to rent the apartment together and split the cost. It also saves us from having to go back home every few weeks.”

“You miss your family, or just other chakats?” he asked curiously.

“Well, yes, but it's also a matter of necessity.”

“How so?”

“There's a drawback to being Empaths. We interact with other chakats empathically even before we are born. We spend almost all our lives in normal day-to-day contact with others. But if we ever get separated from that empathic interaction for an excessive period, we start getting what you might call withdrawal symptoms. After too long, it can begin to severely affect our mental health. A lone chakat could eventually go irrevocably insane. Right now, after spending so many weeks away, I am really in need of a bit of empathic interaction again, and probably so will Emerald.”

“Is that why chakats have such a reputation for being… what's the term? … oh yeah, touchy-feely?”

Windrunner laughed. “Yeah, that's a lot of it. Anyway, I've already called hir to let hir know that I'm on my way home, so I had better get going. See you tomorrow, Wanderer.”

“Bye, Windy.”


 

Windrunner did seem a bit more lively to Arrak the next morning when they met back at the office. As for him, he had taken a low dose of his medication which proved enough to dull the telepathic chatter to an ignorable level while they worked to collate their results and write up reports. The office work was the least favourite part of the job for Arrak, but fortunately for him, they only had to provide the basic data which would then be bumped up to the next level to be analysed in the minutest detail. After just a few days, they were done and ready to go back out into the field once more.

Windrunner and Arrak were assigned two more projects before there was a lull during which they both took a couple of days off. Shi used the time to make a visit with hir family in Marpletown, while he took the opportunity to find a more permanent home. He eventually located an apartment that was larger and more spaced out from its neighbours. This reduced the number of people around him, thus adding to his comfort. By coincidence, it was also located not too far from Windrunner’s residence, and so started the habit of hir stopping by his place in the morning to pick him up, and they would travel to work together.

Their working relationship grew increasingly comfortable as they became completely familiar with the other’s need, techniques, and quirks. They even started not bothering with the comms while out in the field because Arrak was now totally at ease with his partner, and kept a mental ear tuned to hir calls. He never had to call for help again, although he did have to stun a couple of dire rats once. His life looked like it was as good as it could get, and he told his family as much when he wrote home to them. The sole sticking point was when they had asked if he had found a potential Firstwife yet, and he had to prevaricate. He left them with the impression that he had a couple of prospects, but in fact he had not really tried yet. It was not as if he did not want a mate and family, but he still did know how to go about finding one who would not mind him being a Telepath with a broken Talent, but who also would not blab if things did not work out. However, he was young as yet, and perhaps time would bring a solution. In the meantime, Windrunner would occasionally introduce a Caitian friend to him on social occasions, so the potential was there.

Half a year passed, and winter came to the southern hemisphere. Not that it was noticed due to the fact that Harrn'tuk'harr was located in the tropics. However, Arrak and Windrunner’s next assignment was located a lot further south, and at a significant higher elevation. Located in the Kimba Ranges, the Angel’s Peak Ski Resort was blanketed in snow, and was very cold.

Windrunner parked their aircar in a lot that was located behind the main group of resort hotels and shops. Arrak very reluctantly followed the chakat out into the cold fog that was hanging around the mountain that day, and was quickly chilled to the bone. They trudged their way through the snow, heading towards the administrative offices of the resort.

“T-tell me ag-gain w-why we're h-here,” Arrak said between chattering teeth, shivering strongly despite wearing virtually all of his clothing. This was no place for a heat-loving Caitian to endure. On the other hand, Windrunner seemed perfectly comfortable with the mere addition of a heavyweight coat on hir upper torso.

Windrunner sighed, but patiently went through their assignment once more. “The resort wants to expand its operations and needs an environmental impact report done.”

“And w-why d-do they n-need a ge-geologist too?”

“Because they want to do some blasting and construction, and therefore they need a report on the safety and suitability of doing so in their preferred location, and alternatives provided if it's not suitable,” shi repeated.

“And w-why d-did they h-have to s-send us n-now inst-stead of in s-summer?”

“Because the resort needs to start work on the final plans as soon as possible in order to have the new additions ready for next season. Even so, someone will have to come back after the snow melts to re-examine the environment, but if it's possible to see any problems now, it will save a huge amount of wasted time.”

Shi had already been through all this with him several times, and shi was beginning to see just how deeply he hated the cold. None of their expeditions so far had strayed much further than into temperate climates.

“G-goddess! Wh-why aren't y-you c-cold with n-nothing on b-but that c-coat?”

Shi smiled smugly – shi was not above rubbing it in to hir partner. “Chakats are optimised for cold climates. It has to get a lot colder than this before I would need to put on more insulation.”

“N-now y-you're j-just sh-showing off!” he whined.

“Oh, for Makers sake! Look there!” Windrunner pointed out a skier who went by. “She's a Caitian too, and she doesn't seem to be having any problems with the cold.”

“S-see the wh-white fur? P-polar C-Caitian. Thick f-fur and b-body f-fat.”

“Okay, I didn't know about Polar Caitians, although I suppose it would be very strange to find one living in Harrn'tuk'harr where I could meet one. What about that one?”

“N-not even a C-Caitian. H-he's a T-Terran m-morph.”

“Oops, yeah.” They walked on for a while longer before shi tried again. “What about that one?”

Arrak stared. “Y-you're r-right. W-why isn't sh-she c-cold?”

“Must be the clothing if she's anything like you. Tell you what – we're a bit early still, so we're going to make a stop first.”

“Oh? Wh-why?”

“To stop your whinging!” shi said emphatically as shi grabbed his arm and dragged him into a nearby shop.

Arrak groaned in relief as the warmth of the shop’s interior washed over him. It took a little while longer for the shivering to stop, but by then Windrunner had found a shop assistant free, and brought him over.

The arctic fox took one look at Arrak and said, “Don't tell me – he's freezing to death, right?”

“Yes,” Windrunner agreed, “and he's not doing so quietly.”

The fox chuckled and shook his head. “You Caitians are so bad when it comes to the cold that they make a special line of snow-wear just for your kind. And because we're the snow resort that's closest to your town, we make a point of stocking that type just for those of you who are crazy enough to brave the cold. We can outfit you from head to toe, and you'll be as warm as toast. Can I interest you in trying some styles out?”

“Lead on!” Arrak commanded.

They left the sales fox very satisfied with the amount that he had ended up spending, but Arrak did not regret it one little bit. The clothing worked as advertised, and that was what counted. Perhaps he would not have too many uses for the snow boots, but the super-insulated cold weather gear could come in handy for other field work that took him into cold territory. Right now though, he was warm, and that was all that mattered.

“How are we doing for time?” he asked, belatedly realising how long they had spent in the shop.

“We'd better hustle, or else we'll be late for our appointment. You're a fussier shopper than I thought.”

They hastened to the main resort office, barely getting there by the appointed time. They were introduced to the general manager, a chakat named Snowdasher. Arrak wondered if shi had been named for hir love of snow, or had changed it to match hir passion, and passionate shi definitely was! Shi spent much time waxing eloquent on the plans that they had for expansion, the extra business that it would draw in, and how it would benefit the entire district. Arrak found himself wishing that shi would shut up and get down to the nitty-gritty. Perhaps shi sensed his mood because shi abruptly got down to business. Shi hauled out detailed maps showing the topography of where they wanted to build, as well as two alternative sites. Shi also issued them badges that authorised them access to areas that were off-limits to the general public, and assigned one of the staff as a liaison for any special requirements that they might need.

Immediately after leaving the administrative offices, they went into a café and fortified themselves with hot drinks before getting down to work.

The snow cover was quite a hindrance to both of them, although it did give an essential picture of what underground life was like in the winter to Windrunner, and Arrak had packed instruments designed to cope with the conditions. The work was somewhat slower than normal, but proceeded at an otherwise satisfactory pace. They spent several days on the main site before they were satisfied and moved onto the second. Again they spent nearly as much time as on the first. Some bad weather during the survey of the first site had delayed them a little, but they were blessed with good conditions throughout the time spent at the second site, at least until the end of the very last day that they spent there. After a gloriously sunny start to the day, the clouds quickly gathered after midday, and snow started falling later in the afternoon. As it got heavier, Windrunner declared that they were done with that site, and to head off before things got worse.

Arrak watched the snow falling from the window of the room that they had been given to use during their stay. While they still had to share it, it at least had two beds and was a lot less cramped than the aircar, and a tent would have been out of the question. He found the fluttering flakes quite fascinating as he had never seen falling snow before that afternoon.

“Do you think this snow is going to affect our survey of the third site tomorrow?” he asked.

“Depends on how much it snows, and if it even stops,” Windrunner replied. “I took a look at the weather forecast, and there seems to be a large mass of cold air moving through at the moment. We might have to take the day off from the field work tomorrow. If it becomes too much, we may have to postpone surveying that site until later.”

“The fresh snow cover will be good for the skiers, I suppose.”

“Yeah. Snowdasher can't complain about that too much.”

“I won't be too sorry if we have to leave early. My snow gear might keep me warm, but the environment tends to chill my spirit despite that.”

“Snow is a lot more fun when you're in it for recreation rather than work. Oh well, I suppose there could be worse jobs. After all, we can relax and enjoy ourselves in a resort at no cost at the end of the day.”

“You make a good point,” Arrak admitted.

Windrunner got up and started heading for the door. “Speaking of which, I'm going to checkout the crowd downstairs. It feels like they're having a lot of fun, so I'm going to do a bit of socialising, have a few drinks, sing karaoke, that kind of thing. Wanna come?”

“No thanks. The mental babble is bad enough from here. I don't think I could put up with much in the thick of things.”

“Aw! Just for a little while?” shi wheedled.

Arrak thought about it, then shrugged. “What the hell – I can put up with it a bit. I can always retreat to the room if it gets too much for me.”

“Great! I'll even buy you a drink to celebrate the occasion.”

“No!” Arrak said with finality.

“What? Oh! Sorry, Arrak, that was insensitive of me.”

Arrak had not touched alcohol since the graduation party. He had sworn off it permanently after that. Never again would he let a drunken slip nearly get him killed or worse. “It's okay, Windy. I'll let you buy me one of those coffee drinks instead that you keep insisting are so good.”

“Deal! Come on – fun awaits us!”

When Arrak finally returned to the room, it was much later than he had planned. Although the mental pressure of the crowd had been as great as he had expected, its tone had been a lot different from the all-Caitian ones with which he was familiar, and actual noise of the revellers had pretty much overwhelmed it anyway. The bonus was that he never had any trouble understanding what anyone had said to him no matter how noisy the talk and the music had gotten. For the first time in years, he was able to enjoy a social event without having to worry about his Talent. There were only two things that he regretted, the first being not trying this out before, and the second was the coffee. Maybe some Caitians liked the bitter stuff, but he was not one of them.


 

Even Arrak had to admit that the pristine cover of snow over everything looked pretty. Not that it motivated him to go out in it any quicker, but the view from the restaurant as they ate breakfast was spectacular.

“So, what do you think?” he asked Windrunner.

“I really don't know. We're just going to have to go out there and check it for ourselves.”

“I was afraid that you were going to say that. I might just have to climb on your back to see over the snow though.”

“I don't think it's quite that bad,” shi replied with a laugh.

When they did get out there though, it was more a question of where rather than how deep because the snow hid or disguised all the landmarks.

“The GPS says it's over that way,” Arrak said, pointing across the slopes.

“Good enough. Let's go.” Shi started pulling the sled loaded with most of their equipment in that direction, ducking under a bright orange tape barrier that had been recently set up.

Arrak paused to look more closely at the tape, noting the ‘DANGER – NO ENTRY’ printed continuously along its length. “Hey, Windy! The other barriers didn't have Danger printed on them. Do you think we should check this out first?”

“Most of the places in which we've been working that are banned from the general public have some element of danger. That's why they keep the public out. This isn't any different.”

“Okay, if you say so.” Arrak tightened the hood of his outfit against the cold, blustery wind, and struggled to catch up with Windrunner, but his progress was severely hampered by constantly sinking into the loose powdery snow. The chakat’s much broader paws and four-footed stance enabled hir to make better progress despite dragging the sled, and he was falling behind. He tried to follow in hir path as shi broke trail through the snow, but he still kept losing ground. The conditions were so bad that he was already seriously considering insisting on calling off the job when he heard a shout behind him. He looked around and saw a resort employee gesticulating at them. He had been so focused on trying to get through the snow that he had not even noticed the morph approaching.

“What the hell are you doing there? Get out of that area right now!” the person yelled.

His voice was blown away by the wind, but of course Arrak still heard him clearly due to his telepathy that was now alert to his thoughts. “It's okay!” he yelled back. “We have a permit to be out here!” However, his words were lost to the wind, and Arrak wasn't about to reveal that he was a Telepath by projecting his response mentally.

The person seemed to be getting even more agitated, and his mind was a jumble of anger, concern, and indignation at being ignored. Arrak sighed and started trudging back towards the person. At least the furrow that he had made was more conducive to travel, so he was able to get back within earshot of the person who had yet to move beyond the tape barricade in a much quicker time than it had taken to get out there. He could now see that the morph was a male lynx who apparently had been skiing along the barricade and posting more signs.

“Call your friend back now!” the lynx insisted.

“We have permits to enter all areas,” Arrak replied as held up his badge.

“Are you idiots?” the lynx yelled. “Didn't you see the other warning signs? This is an avalanche danger area. That slope could go at any time!” He waved one of the signs that he had been carrying in Arrak’s face for emphasis.

A chill ran through Arrak’s spine that had nothing to do with the weather, and he whirled around and screamed, “Windy – get back here as fast as you can! This area was marked dangerous because of avalanche risk!” Of course he did not rely on his voice alone, so Windrunner got the message clearly.

Oh, Makers! I never thought of that. I'm coming!” Shi dragged the sled around and started heading back towards Arrak.

“Your friend has good ears. Let's hope that shi has good legs too. Anything could set off an avalanche at any time.”

Just then, a sound like a muffled thump reached their ears from upslope. Arrak looked aghast as a wide crack in the snow started to widen rapidly. It looked like half the mountain was beginning to slide downhill.

“Forget the sled! Run for your life!” he screamed both vocally and mentally.

Windrunner had already figured that out. Shi started bounding away from the sled, covering more ground with those leaps than if shi had tried to run instead, but even that was not enough. In an astonishingly short amount of time, the avalanche had picked up enormous speed, and it roared past Arrak and the lynx, sweeping up the hapless chakat before shi even got halfway to safety.

“WINDY!” he screamed in horror, and then started stumbling downhill as fast as he could.

Behind him, the lynx was already on his radio, calling for Search & Rescue. As soon as he had done that, he started skiing down after Arrak. He caught up to him quickly and grabbed him by the arm. “Get on my back!” he ordered.

Arrak was confused, and the lynx yanked him behind and repeated the order. “Climb on!”

Arrak did so clumsily, and the lynx immediately started skiing downhill at a far faster speed than the Caitian could have managed.

“Does your friend have a comm with hir?” he asked.

“Yes, shi does,” Arrak confirmed.

“Good! Search & Rescue might be able to home in on its signal.”

“Can they do it in time? Will shi even have survived the avalanche?”

“Chakats are tough. Shi's more in danger of suffocating than injury from being hit by the avalanche.”

“How can you tell where to start looking?”

The lynx hesitated a moment before replying. “I don't know – I can only give you an educated guess.”

Arrak was horrified by that admission, and he looked out over the tumbled snow and mentally yelled hir name again. To his utter relief, he got a reply.

Arrak?’ came hir dazed response.

Where are you? Are you alright?

I – I don't know. I curled up into a ball just as the avalanche hit me, and now I'm buried. I can't tell what's up or down. I can't even move from the weight of the snow.

Arrak could feel hir fear palpably, and realised that shi was empathically broadcasting it strongly. ‘Hold on! We're coming for you!’ But how? Where?” Then he had his answer. “Stop!” he yelled at the lynx, and jumped off his back. “Shi's over this way!” he said, heading across the slope with certainty.

“What? How could you know that?” the lynx demanded to know.

“I'm a Telepath, and I've got a link to my partner. I can feel hir over there.” Arrak didn't give a damn about his secret right then; he just needed the lynx to believe him without hesitation.

“Right – I'll get Search & Rescue to home in on us as soon as possible.”

Meanwhile Arrak made use of the natural leaping ability of Caitians to bound across the loose snow, making almost as good speed as the chakat could. He swung his head back and forth, trying to home in on Windrunner’s thoughts. Abruptly he came to a point were they were coming from below him.

Windy! Speak to me! How are you doing?

I've got a small pocket of air, but it's getting stale fast.

Arrak could feel the terror in that admission, but at least it helped him narrow down his focus.

I'm right above you now, Windy. I'm coming to get you out. Stay calm and relax as best you can.

He took out the small shovel that was part of his field pack and started digging frantically. The lynx quickly joined him but had no digging tool, so he moved snow by hand as best he could. Arrak could not tell how deeply that Windrunner was buried, and his Talent was not precise enough to even hint, so he assumed the worst and dug as fast as he could.

Windy – can you hear or see anything yet?

There was a long pause in which he feared that shi had lost consciousness, but then a weak reply came. ‘No, not yet.

Arrak could feel the fear and desperation in that reply. He even could sense the claustrophobic sensation of the snow all around hir, and he realised that hir empathic floodgates had to be open to him through their link. Despite his tiring muscles, he continued digging frantically. Suddenly he became aware of others joining him in his efforts, and the hole began to grow at a much faster rate. He spared a glance aside and guessed that the newcomers were the Search & Rescue team that the lynx had called.

Hang on, Windy! Help has arrived. Can you tell if we're near?’ There was a very long silence. ‘WINDY! Please talk to me!

For another long moment, all he could sense were hir fading emotions, and then one weak thought: ‘I… see…’ Then there was nothing more.

“I've found a leg!” someone shouted.

Arrak practically pounced on the spot, frantically clearing away snow as fast as he could without injuring Windrunner. Shi was still curled up, trapping a pocket of air within hir, and a cloud of warm, stale air came out as the snow was removed. At the same time, fresh air moved in to replace it.

Breathe, Windy! You can get oxygen now, so breathe!

Maybe it was the cajoling, or perhaps just a reflex from the fresh air, but Windrunner did breathe. The rescuers worked quickly to clear away the snow enough to free hir from hir imprisonment. They wrestled hir limp form out of the hole and placed hir on a rescue sled, covering hir with a thermal blanket before the snow-bike sped off uphill to the medical facilities.

Arrak felt as if part off him was being taken away. “I need to go with hir!” he told the rescue team.

“We have questions about this incident,” the leader of the team, a herm Amur tiger, said.

Arrak replied, “They can wait until later. I have to go be with my partner.”

“You can't help hir at the moment, so you might as well answer my questions now,” the tiger insisted.

Arrak drew himself up to his full height, his small form filling with fury. “I will not stand around here while Windrunner’s condition is still unknown. If you want to ask me questions at the hospital, so be it, but if you try to hold me back now, I will go through you!” Arrak added a mental punch to that statement.

Despite the fact that the tiger was far taller and outweighed the Caitian by at least double, shi got the distinct impression that holding Arrak back was not conducive to hir good health. Shi had never felt so intimidated in hir life, and it made hir realise that Caitians weren't quite the puny race that shi had always envisaged. “Get in my snow-trak, and I'll take you there. You can answer my questions along the way.”

Arrak didn't argue – he was getting what he needed. They would deal with the consequences later.


 

When Windrunner opened hir eyes, the first thing that shi saw was Arrak’s concerned face. His expression turned to relief when he saw that shi was awake.

“Windy – how are you feeling?”

“Like an avalanche hit me,” shi replied with a slight smile.

“Yeah, I think that might be part of it. But how do you feel aside from that? I felt all that fear and desperation while we were linked up. That was a terrifying experience, and I wasn't even the one trapped in the snow.”

“It was awful at the time, but because you were there, I had hope. I'd probably be dead now if wasn't for you and your Talent. You have no idea how comforting it was to hear your mental voice while I was trapped. You helped me keep calm because of that.”

“I've never been so glad to be a Telepath in all my life,” Arrak admitted. “However, do you think you could stop broadcasting your emotions now? It's a bit discomforting now that you're safe.”

“Huh? What do you mean? I'm not doing anything different. You could be picking up on me because you haven't broken your link with me yet.”

“What? I relaxed that as soon as the medics brought you here to recover.”

“No you haven't. I can feel your mental voice echoing your words in my head.”

That puzzled Arrak. “I swear I'm not doing anything. It's you who are still sending signals. I can feel your confusion and denial.”

“But I'm not…” Windrunner froze in shock as realisation flooded over hir. “Oh no!”

Arrak’s brow furrowed in confusion and concern. “What's wrong, Windy?”

“I have to see if I'm right,” shi answered obscurely. Shi picked up a pen that was lying on the cupboard next to the bed, and before Arrak realised what shi was going to do, shi jabbed it into the palm of hir left hand.

“Ow!” Arrak exclaimed, shaking his own left hand. “What the hell?”

Windrunner burst into tears. “I'm sorry, Arrak. I'm so sorry! I never meant this to happen.”

“I don't know what you're talking about, and why did my hand hurt when you stabbed yours?”

“It hurt because we've empathically bonded. You feel what I feel, and I feel what you feel. I'm terribly sorry that I did this to you!”

“How long until it wears off?” he asked.

“That's the problem – it doesn't wear off. An empathic bond lasts a lifetime.”

“What exactly is this empathic bond that you're talking about?” Arrak was even more perplexed now.

“It's something that usually happens between two chakats, although it can happen between a chakat and another species, but it's triggered by an exceptionally intense emotion between the two. Normally it's because the two love each other very much, and the bond actually strengthens their relationship. But when you linked with me and I reached out so desperately to you, the strength of that emotion must have caused us to bond also.”

“You mean that I'm going to go through life feeling everything you feel, and vice versa?”

“Well, the intensity of the physical side depends on the proximity. If I jabbed my hand and you were on the other side of the city, you might feel some discomfort, but no pain. However, that's not the important part.”

“It seems pretty important to me!”

“It's nothing in comparison to the price we pay for it. From now on, we will need each other. Not want, need. We won't be able to spend more than a couple of months apart without desperately needing to be with each other again. The bond will draw us together as surely as two magnets, and the more that we try to resist it, the worse that we will feel. Our lives are now inextricably bound together, and it's all my fault.” Hir tears started flowing afresh.

“How can it be all your fault? I'm the one who reached out telepathically. If I hadn't done so, the bond would not have happened, right?”

“But I desperately wanted that contact, and I followed it with an intensity that I never use. If I hadn't, then the bond wouldn't have happened.”

“You're determined to take all the blame, aren't you?”

“Empathic bonds only happen with chakats,” shi pointed out.

“But it's a two-way street, isn't it? Those chakats who bond – they want that degree of intimacy, don't they?”

“Well, I suppose so.”

“Windy, while I sat here waiting for you to wake up, I had a lot of time to think, and I came to realise just how much I appreciate you. You've been my partner for months now, and I have never felt this comfortable with someone before. You have given me back a life that I thought I had lost when my Talent first showed up. When I almost lost you, I was devastated. I know now that I would need you even without this bond. In fact I don't think the bond would have happened at all if I didn't need you so much. I want to keep being your partner and so much more.” He took hir hand and gazed earnestly into hir eyes. “Windrunner, will you be my Firstwife?”

Windrunner gaped in surprise. Slowly that turned into a smile, and the tears began to flow even more, but from a different emotion this time. The happiness of the thought of being his mate overwhelmed the sadness of what shi had done to him, and shi realised that shi had needed him too for quite a long time. The bond wasn't an aberration – it was a confirmation. “Yes, I would be honoured and overjoyed to be your Firstwife, Arrak.”

And for the first time, they kissed.

They took their time over it, each not only enjoying it, but feeling how the other enjoyed it also. Arrak thought he would never get over how good that felt. If the bond was supposed to have its drawbacks, its benefits far outweighed them. The degree of mental intimacy was breathtakingly awesome.

Something suddenly occurred to Arrak as he drew back from the kiss. “That felt so intimate, but normally I'd have the usual mental background noise spoiling things. However, I don't ‘hear’ the voices in my head, although I can really hear the noises being made by several people outside of this room. What's going on?”

“An empathic bond isn't limited to just emotions and touch. It's a full two-way merging of everything we are. Just like skunktaurs can share their Talents with chakats, we now share each other’s abilities. When we're together, you will be able to really feel another person’s emotions, and as for me, I will be able to talk telepathically. Unlike you though, I am not brain damaged, so I can block out others. We are alone together in our thoughts, my love. Consider it my mating present to you.”

It was true! For the first time since his Talent had manifested, there were no voices whatsoever in the background, only hirs, and only when shi talked to him directly. His mind was uncluttered by even the dull background noise that both the force field and the medication still let through. It was the most exhilarating thing that had happened to him in years… well, the second-most anyway. ‘I love you so much!

I know, and I love you too,’ shi replied, and a truer word he had never heard spoken.


 

Arrak reviewed his email draft.

Dear father, mothers, and sisters;

This letter is to inform you that we have now set the date for the ceremony with a Mentarkan priestess to formally unite us as husband and wife. It will be held on Eighthday of Week 18 of Chakonan Year 114. That's less than two moons from now. I know that it will be virtually impossible to afford either the time or money to come here for the ceremony, but I want to formally invite you anyway. You will be in my thoughts as we say our vows.

I cannot express how wonderful this is going to be for both of us. Windrunner completes me, and when shi tells me that I do the same for hir, I know that shi is telling me what is in hir heart. And to think, all it took to give me peace of mind, was to give hir a piece of my mind, and shi a piece of hirs.

Your loving son and brother,

Arrak, Wanderer of the not-so-Lonely Path.

Yes, that was perfect.

SEND


 

 

EPILOGUE

Windrunner cuddled and kissed hir new husband on their honeymoon night. “Have you considered us having children, my love?”

Arrak grinned. “You may be the biologist, darling, but even I know that that's genetically impossible.”

“Uh-huh. I don't think I've told you much about my sire, Boyce, have I?”

“Your father, you mean?” The human, Boyce Kline, had attended his daughter’s mating ceremony along with some of his wives, including two Caitians and two chakats. He had assumed that he was hir step-father, and hir actual sire was perhaps dead.

“No, I mean my sire. Let me tell you about the Kline hybrids,” shi began with a sly smile.

 


 

Characters and story copyright © 2013 Bernard Doove.
Illustration by Seth Triggs.

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