Book 1 of The HEL Jumper
“Yes? You may enter,” Qul’Roth called with unconcealed annoyance as yet another human sought to pay him a visit. He understood the logic behind the admiral’s suggestion, but that didn’t mean he enjoyed the end result. It was in no way instructive or useful to face human after human who only spoke to him at the insistence of their superior officer. Turning to face the door of his cabin, the Ghaelen saw a young woman of average human height with black hair and brown eyes. She was thin and shapely enough for her species, he supposed. Her face was one that would be appealing to male humans according to his education, as she was symmetric and soft on the eyes. He far preferred the substantial haunches and lengthy muzzles of females of his own species, but it would be a long while before he saw such a sight again. The human stood politely just within the doorway.
“Envoy Qul’Roth of Ghaela, my name is Alice Winters of Earth. I greet you in the hopes that our meeting may further the Order.” The envoy sat slightly straighter at his desk, surprised to be greeted so formally.
“I did not know there were any of your division on this ship. Well met, Alice Winters of Earth. May our meeting further the Order,” Qul’Roth replied, waving one of his long, thin arms at the human in a customary greeting. As Ghaelen supported almost all of their body weight on their hind legs, they tended to remain in an almost seated position when not in motion. Given that the human before him was courteous enough to greet him in the way of his own people he decided it worth the effort to return the favor, taking a couple of paces on all fours before sitting back again and extending his hand to her. She took it softly and shook.
“I’m not Alpha Division if that’s what you mean, Qul’Roth. I’m a member of Beta Division,” Alice clarified, pointing to the patch on her uniform’s arm. All the humans aboard the vessel that were not military wore single piece, black jumpsuits. Qul’Roth found that desirable. It was Order, easy and neat. She was looking him over intently, taking note of his black and white striped fur as well as a couple of the native plants from Ghaela he’d brought with him to furnish his otherwise uninteresting cabin aboard the Event Horizon.
“I see. Why are you here, Alice Winters?”
“Would it surprise you if I said it was just to talk?” She asked innocently, seeming at ease in front of him. He waved her to a human chair that had sat unused in the corner of the cabin until that point. He preferred to simply sit back on his own haunches when at work at his desk.
“Given the…professional relationship between our species and your admiral’s orders, yes, that would surprise me,” Qul’Roth elaborated, not bothering to attempt to communicate in broken English. He could never achieve the fine dexterity of the tongue necessary for some of the language’s sounds. Instead he relied on the translation programs that were omnipresent on every computer within the HEL and on any Ghaelen vessel that spent any amount of time in human occupied space. Alice sat and crossed her legs politely at the knees.
“I’m a xenobiologist by training and passion, Qul’Roth,” she explained concisely.
“So you are here to satisfy your personal curiosities? Do you not have more important things to do that would benefit your species or this ship?” He replied sharply.
“You mean like learning about our partner species and its representative on one of the most advanced ships in our fleet…while we’re in jump space?” Alice shot right back, gesturing to the ‘viewport’ where the simulated exterior view of the ship showed nothing but the purest of black. “If you’re busy I can leave you be, but don’t expect me to be scared away that easily. My master’s thesis was on the species of the pacified worlds. None of your kind was willing to speak to me about them. I know rather little about our uplifters for a xenobiologist.”
“And yet you clearly managed to achieve your degree. I commend your determination in service of your species and learning.”
“Yes, Qul’Roth. I spoke with plenty of the soldiers who played God at your behest, got their hands dirty killing aliens that couldn’t fight back,” Alice challenged. The Ghaelen narrowed his black eyes at her.
“We all serve the Order. That was the condition of your species’ uplift, a situation you have more than taken advantage of.”
Alice sighed, shook her head, and bit her tongue. “Forgive my passions; I’m not here to rehash those sorts of debates. Perhaps that’s best left to Alpha and your governing council after all. I’ve had very little direct contact with your kind despite my degree, as I said. This is my first time off-world. I may not interest you, but you interest me. Do those horns make it difficult to deal with the doors?”
Qul’Roth looked down at the female human in confusion. “The continuation of my species is more important than the size of your doors. It is not a problem. Should one of my sisters find my antlers of sufficient size and quality I will have no reason to care for the inconvenience of your architecture. You picked a rather intriguing ship for your first voyage, Alice Winters. I was barely able to sort my affairs and send a message to our picket ship before your admiral had us at the warp point. The acceleration was impressive, getting from your moon to the solar warp point in but a day.”
“It’s quite the ship, I agree. So he really did leave you in the dark, did he?” Alice responded, unable to help a smile thinking about Kaczynski and his seemingly innate ability to inconvenience everyone around him while still doing the right thing.
“He did, though I do not believe this will present any issue to our council. If the Lancer did encounter something out of the ordinary, the Order compels us to discover what that is,” the Ghaelen declared solemnly, scratching at the tuft of longer fur that hung from his chin. “Though its crew could have just as easily made a mistake and gotten themselves killed.”
“You’re wrong!” Alice shouted, standing and glaring defiantly at the Ghaelen who seemed taken aback yet again by her reaction. He gestured for calm.
“If they did make a mistake we will catalog it so that others may learn from their deaths. Your species will be served well in either eventuality. There is no need to be upset,” he insisted.
“And if your brother was on that ship?!” The human fumed, feeling the hair on her neck bristle in anger.
“I have a planet of brothers and sisters. So long as something is gained, measured losses are acceptable to advance the Order,” Qul’Roth replied almost serenely, absolute in his convictions. Alice saw red, clenching her fists tightly at her side.
“I’m going to leave you be, Qul’Roth, as I’d prefer not to cause an incident so soon on our trip. But I will say this. You should be thankful that our species are allies,” she whispered, meeting his eyes with cold fury and the conviction of a human; a human who held the bonds of family near and dear to her heart. “You will never be able to fight for your planet, your billions of siblings, or your precious order the way I can fight for my brother…or the way he can fight for me. But I apologize for losing my temper. I hope our next conversation can be a bit more pleasant.” With that she bowed and left his cabin, leaving the Ghaelen to ponder her words for a brief spell before opening a new audiolog on the personal device that hung from his neck as a glittering disc.
“Personal log of Qul’Roth of Ghaela, miscellaneous entry. I just concluded the most curious conversation with a human female who insisted that their bonds of family would be the key to victory if our species ever came into armed conflict. Perhaps this is what the humans refer to as a ‘fit of passion’? She was not directly threatening and acted courteously within the dictates of the treaties between our species, so there is no harm done. I still do not believe she should be here at all given her age and profession, but I suppose that human admiral had his hand in this as well. I shall endeavor to speak with her further as the voyage continues in the hopes of convincing humanity that the Order is the one true path, a path without conflict. Young minds can be most pliant and I should make the best of this unexpected situation. End of entry.”
The first jump of the Event Horizon took six days, depositing its passengers in an unremarkable star system featuring a red giant and a handful of rocky orbiting bodies. Alice had been on the bridge as they came out of warp, at Natori’s behest, but the Lancer’s comm buoy had provided them with nothing out of the ordinary. The scout ship had logged an examination of the star’s emission spectrum, and a handful of reports from the planetoids in orbit as well as the one gas giant in the system. With that done, they had leaped to the next star, leaving their destination coordinates with the buoy. Kaczynski ordered a jump along that path six days later.
With the ship in warp space yet again, Alice Winters set out from her small cabin to explore the Event Horizon. Even after three weeks it still seemed to hold plenty of secrets and wonders, from genetic sequencing and tissue culture labs to nano-manufactories larger than her berth. As the day cycle aboard the ship began, she decided to head to the rear of the vessel to take her meal in the military mess hall. There was not an enforced separation of crew during mealtimes, but with the armory, drop pod bays, barracks, and about half of the military hangars at the aft of the ship it just made sense for the majority of the military personnel aboard to eat in the smaller mess hall there. It was a bit of a journey to the vast civilian cafeteria in the front of the ship, closer to the hydroponics bays. Following a short, familiar walk along well marked passages full of bright light, sharp angles, and clean surfaces, Alice arrived at the nearest warp pipe station. The ship’s VI hailed her.
‘Good morning, Alice Winters of civilian deck B-2. What is your destination?’
“Good morning, Cassia. Can you send me to the station nearest the military mess hall on deck A-8?”
‘Of course. Please step into the pod and remember to remain supine until the pod has come to a complete stop. Thank you and have a nice day.’
Mandatory safety instructions conveyed, the hatch to the tube system opened to reveal a pod sized for one person. Alice climbed inside, laid down, and hit the button to acknowledge she was secure within. The pod and the station closed before the airlocks to the front and rear opened and she was rocketed away from her deck towards the back of the ship. These journeys had still not worn thin on Alice, the young woman shrieking happily the whole way as she felt the subtle climb of the pod away from the gravity center of the ship and the twist that took her from hull section B to A. Before long she felt the pod drift back down toward the center and she arrived at her destination.
A few minutes later Alice found herself among marines and pilots, eating what she admitted were passably egg and potato-flavored nutrient blocks along with a few leaves of fresh lettuce that she was told were grown from seeds aboard the vessel itself. The food earned no accolades beyond what the civilians had access to, but the environment was relaxing and reminded her a bit of home. Invariably her thoughts drifted to her father and then to her brother, her distracted state only interrupted by a well-built soldier seating himself heavily on the bench opposite her.
“Penny for your thoughts, beautiful?” He asked confidently as Alice focused on his uniform. He was a jumper, a sergeant from the looks of it.
“Good morning, Sergeant Lipper,” she replied professionally, reading his name off his chest easily enough. “What can I do for you?”
“Care to tell me what a civilian is doing all the way down here in our neck of the woods? And such a pretty one at that, miss…Winters?” He asked undeterred, leaning an elbow on the table.
“Flattery will get you nowhere with me, Sergeant. Just figured I’d stop by and see how the other half lives,” she replied with a smirk. The jumper narrowed his eyes at her.
“And a bit of fire in you, too! Thought you civvies were all too scared to brush shoulders with the likes of us,” he bragged, puffing out his chest a bit so his jump wings were on prominent display.
“Oh would you give it a rest, Lip?” Another burly man called from the table next to theirs, his skin a dark olive color. Alice saw he was part of a group of three other jumpers, two men and a woman. “Just because you can’t land yourself a girl in the force doesn’t mean you have to go chasing after every civilian with a pretty face!”
“And maybe I just have a taste for the finer things in life!” Lipper shot back, turning to Alice with a smile and a wink. “Don’t mind private
Mendes, Miss Winters. He’s still a bit salty over yours truly being chosen to lead this merry little band.”
Alice felt a cold mask play over her face as she leaned forward, enjoying Lipper’s presence less and less with each passing moment. “Oh don’t worry, Sergeant Lipper. You HEL Jumpers don’t scare me.”
Lipper chuckled and leaned forward as well. “Is that a challenge, Miss Winters,” he asked smoothly. She fixed him with as steady a look as she could manage.
“No, Sergeant. It’s just that…how can I put this?” Alice wondered, leaning back and tapping her chin. She raised her voice so his squad could all hear. “When your baby brother makes First Lieutenant in Omega’s Jumper corps, some Beta boy flashing his sergeant’s insignia just doesn’t get me going like it used to.”
Lipper looked as though he’d swallowed a frog as his squad burst into laughter, pounding the table and hooting and hollering as even a few marines and pilots within earshot joined in. Alice stood and looked to her right, receiving a wink and what seemed almost a grateful nod from private Mendes. She returned it. “Don’t worry, Sergeant. I’m sure there are plenty of ladies aboard this fine vessel who would swoon at the idea of a HEL Jumper showing interest in them. Maybe stop by our cafeteria someday?” She suggested before collecting her tray and stepping out into the aisle between tables, giving a courteous nod to the rest of Lipper’s squad. “Private Mendes, it was a pleasure to meet you.”
“The feeling is very much mutual, lady Winters,” he replied, his English colored by a thick Brazilian accent. “You have a good day now.”
“Maybe I’ll see you again, drop by one of your simulations or something,” Alice proposed to ensure there were no hard feelings, taking her tray to the receptacle next to the food service window. She watched as it was lowered out of view and shuttled off to ensure that any remaining waste was recycled properly. Before leaving she took a final look over her shoulder, seeing Lipper rejoin his squad with a sour look on his face. The other male on the team put an arm around his shoulders and went about lifting his spirits. She was sure he’d be back to his cocksure self in no time. It was satisfying to be complimented, of course, but she hadn’t enjoyed Lipper’s demeanor. He might make some girl happy, but Russell would hate his guts,
she concluded, remembering the disappointment of the first comm buoy. They all knew that early buoys were unlikely to hold anything in the way of clues, but it stung all the same to feel no closer to him. Where are you?
Winters tossed and turned as his mind was consumed by turbulent, unclear memories. Eventually he roused himself, forcing his brain back to the surface of the waking world via force of will. He brought a hand to his head and sighed deeply, unable to recall anything important. His self-reflection was halted as he realized abruptly that he was alone. “Veera?” He called loudly, happy to hear the sound of talons against earth as his wife responded to his hail. The snows of Mara had melted, leaving the grassy plains and wooded forests that characterized the river along which they traveled ready for spring. Instead of cold, biting air that would force him back under the ursae fur; the cool, moist air felt good against his bare chest.
“Are you well, Russell?” Veera’s voice came from somewhere outside the tent to his right.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just wondered where you’d gotten off to.”
“Oh…uh, no problem. Why don’t you go back to sleep for a bit and I’ll see if I can find some food?” Winters cocked a brow at her unusually evasive voice. He threw back the blanket, surprised as small clumps of gold and black fur floated into the air before being carried out of the tent on a breeze. He looked down to find more fur on the leather floor of the shelter as well as a few additional clumps stuck to his body. The human smiled devilishly as he twirled a few hairs between his fingers. It was time.
“Nonsense, Veera. It hasn’t been warm for that long, no sense in foraging yet. I’ll get dressed and we can go hunting, just give me a moment. We need to teach Fenrir anyway,” Winters insisted, throwing on his clothes and lacing up his boots before exiting into the diffuse light of early morning. He looked about but saw no sign of Veera; that was until he caught a glimpse of the tip of a familiar tail poking out from behind a tree. Winters walked towards her, not bothering to silence his footfalls. She yelped as he reached out and grabbed her tail, holding her arms across her naked body as he circled around the tree, looking her up and down. “Veera, what’s going on?”
“I…oh gods,” she said with embarrassment. “I’m sorry, Russell. I did my best this morning but it was all over. Russell, no!” Veera shrieked as he took her into a bear hug, making sure to get plenty of her shedding fur all over him. When he was done he withdrew and tilted her head up so he could look into her eyes.
“Do I look like I care about a bit of fur?” He asked. They both looked down.
“That’s…more than a bit,” she whispered, seeing herself all over his shirt and pants.
“Did you eat yet?” He asked kindly. She shook her head.
“Then come on, let’s get a bit of meat and kina in our systems and then we’ll go to the river,” he encouraged before giving her a conspiratorial look. “Io and I prepared for this occasion.”
“Meylith be merciful,” Veera moaned, nevertheless taking his offered hand and heading back to the tent where Fenrir was waiting on all fours at attention, anticipating his morning meal.
“Yes yes, buddy, I didn’t forget you!” Winters ensured the beast, scratching him under his chin. “Now let’s all eat up so we can give Veera a good brushing!” His wife stood rigid and flared her feathers indignantly.
Winters stopped short several paces from the slowly flowing river, kneeling down and unhooking Fenrir’s collar from his leash. “You go on, boy. We’ll be here,” he encouraged. The young hyrven looked around for a moment before walking off into the trees to do his business. Winters smiled as Fenrir then promptly made for the river. The pup dipped a tentative paw into the flow, withdrawing rapidly as the water proved quite frigid. He settled for a quick drink before plopping himself down about a foot from where Veera was seated. Winters sighed deeply and tapped his bracer a couple times. “Hey, you might want to see this,” he told Io softly. The AI booted up and looked around sleepily before turning away from him and using his visor to take in the scene.
‘I daresay, sir. Is this what they refer to as the beauty of the wilds?’ She asked, almost reverentially. Her partner nodded.
“Yeah…yeah it is,” Winters confirmed, taking in another breath of rejuvenating air. The abundant moisture carried all the scents of budding life, filling his head and lungs with air that was so clean and pure that it alone seemed to set him at peace. The dawning rays of sunlight from the west filtered through the trees along the banks and scattered off the thin mist rising from the river, dyeing all before him in tones of bright morning gold. The silence of winter had left them behind, replaced by the calls and cries of native Maran fauna, emerging from the snow to begin life anew. There in the center of it all sat Veera’s naked form, her back, tail, and the curvature of her body on full display as all of Winters’ senses demanded that he take in the panorama before him. After scratching Fenrir gently on the head, Veera turned and fixed him with a curious look.
“Darling?” She beckoned softly, watching as Winters made his way to her and knelt at her side. They shared a simple, lingering kiss. “Are you alright?”
“I was taking it all in, thinking about how lucky I am,” he replied softly, looking out at the shards of Seil’s light that reflected off the river’s surface. “Not sure how many people ever get to see anything as naturally striking as all of this. Don’t know exactly what, but something about being in the middle of nature gets me thinking about that sort of stuff; not to mention you, my striped beauty,” he winked, rubbing Veera’s back as her crest shook subtly.
“You’re such a flatterer,” she teased, leaning against him. “But you’re right. Even having lived my entire life in the village and surrounded by the forest, I’m not sure how many times I just sat around like this and watched the world go by. I’m glad you’re here with me.”
“Quite the honeymoon, isn’t it?” Winters asked kindly, blowing his palm clean of Veera’s fur and holding up a large brush in his right hand. “Shall we?”
“It will all come off eventually,” Veera tried, though her protest lacked any sort of conviction. Winters held the object up for her inspection.
“Io designed it, so I think you’ll find this to be rather enjoyable,” he said, showing her that the brush consisted of two sets of bristles. The longer ones were rounded at the tip and larger in diameter, meant to be in direct contact with the skin. Interspersed among them were many finer and sharper curved bristles that would catch and hold her hair. She thought they almost resembled teeth. “But hey, if you don’t like it we can stop, alright? It’s not like anyone’s going to mind you getting the floor dirty,” Winters joked, quieting his light laughter as Veera gave him a hesitant look.
“It’s just embarrassing,” she whispered.
“Why?” Winters questioned curiously.
“Oh…I don’t know,” Veera admitted, throwing her claws up for emphasis as a fish leapt from the river to snatch at something in the air, sending a shower of droplets and ripples along the sheen of the water’s surface. “I know it doesn’t make any sense given how intimate the two of us have been but it’s like…it’s like if you were to clean the dirt from under my claws or something.”
“Well, did you know that humans have places called spas where you can go and hire someone to do just that?” Winters asked, continuing as Veera gave him an unbelieving expression. “It’s true. You can have your fingernails or toenails tended to, or get a massage, or take some time to rejuvenate your skin.”
“I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised, given that your kind pays people to create all that sex stuff,” Veera admitted. “Have you ever been to a spa?”
“No, can’t say I have. It’s more of a female thing. Just let me give this a shot, alright? It’s not like I’m doing it because you need it or anything, I just want to. We’ve been making good time for more than a cycle. Don’t you think a morning of relaxation sounds pretty nice?”
Veera huffed and shrugged her shoulders, though she eventually held out her right arm for him. “I guess it is very peaceful here,” she whispered. Winters smiled and shifted to face her, taking her arm in his left hand and running the brush gently from her shoulder down to her elbow. He took great care as he repeated the motion a couple more times, dodging the tips of her feathers before pausing to remove the accumulated hair from the brush and send it on its way down the river.
“You think they’ll find it?” He asked with a chuckle, one that Veera shared with him.
“I wonder if they’ll imagine I’ve been eaten. Ratha might enjoy that,” she joked, rolling her head slightly to the side as the sensations against her skin and fur proved most relaxing. By the time Winters moved to her left arm Veera was quite comfortable, her protests long forgotten. “Russell, what’s a honeymoon?”
“What we’re doing right now!” He replied jovially, rotating her arm so that her palm faced upward, allowing him to get at the fur on the underside of her forearm.
“It’s something exactly like this that most couples do after they get married,” he explained, moving to her shoulders. Veera instinctively lowered her head and exposed the back of her neck to him. She felt protected. “It’s a special kind of vacation. It just means going somewhere away from where you live, somewhere new or fun or exotic. A honeymoon is a trip that couples go on to be alone together, to grow closer to one another before returning to the ‘real world’, so to speak.”
“I’m not sure I understand what you mean by the real world,” Veera replied, drawing out the vowels as Winters began running the brush in long, pleasing strokes down her back. “But the concept sounds rather lovely. Not many in the village have time for such things…though I suppose in a way most newlyweds get the winter months to relax. Oh that’s nice…” She trailed off as Winters reached the small of her back and took her tail in hand, being delicate with what he knew to be a sensitive part of Veera’s anatomy. “Alright I cave; this feels amazing! It’s a lot better when someone else does it for you!”
“Yeah that’s a pretty universal concept,” Winters quipped, earning him a light swat from Veera.
“You know what I mean, Russell!”
“Which is precisely why I take some amount of joy in twisting your words,” he replied, laying himself gently against her back and reaching up so the brush hovered just above the top of her sternum. “May I?”
“Please do,” Veera purred, relaxing into his warmth as he brushed the downy fur of her chest. With him doing all the work she took it upon herself to keep their conversation moving. “Russell, would you tell me more of your family? I feel like I have a basic idea of the people your parents are but I don’t know much about your brother and sisters. What’s it like to have siblings?” Veera reached up and took his hand in hers as the brushing stopped momentarily. She could envision the contemplative look on his face even without turning her head.
“I was going to say it’s wonderful,” Winters began in a conflicted tone of voice. “But it wasn’t always. That doesn’t mean it was their fault I just…”
“Shh, Russell. It’s alright, start from the beginning,” Veera encouraged, moving his hand with hers to keep him at least partially occupied with her grooming. “Whatever happened in the past turned you into the man I know and love today. I’m sorry if I’m prying, I just-”
“It’s fine,” Winters affirmed, nipping her ear gently just because he could. “I just didn’t get along very well with my older siblings when I was a teenager. My brother Adam is almost a decade older than me, he’s thirty two. My elder sister, Emily, is thirty. I watched them grow up; saw all the attention they got from my parents for their accomplishments. My brother took his role as the eldest very seriously. He still does to this day. When I hit high school and didn’t measure up I lashed out. Told you about some of this already,” Winters sighed, shaking his head as he reflected on what seemed a distant past. “My brother was too mature, too old to understand what I was going through and unable to empathize with feelings of failure and inadequacy. I thought it was his fault. It wasn’t. My older sister didn’t understand the inner workings of a teenage boy’s mind. They were both on to the next stage in their lives. Turns out even family will grow distant when you keep pushing them away.”
“Russell?” Veera called to him as her heart sank at the regret in his voice.
“I’m just getting the bad stuff out of the way, Veera. You know how things went from there; how my father got me into Omega and gave me far too much responsibility for me to wallow in whatever it was that dominated me in high school. My last full family memory is all of us together at my parents’ house. It was a celebration for my promotion to first lieutenant. We all prepared and ate dinner together, talked for hours. My father, brother, and I had a good smoke on the porch.” Winters laughed in remembrance. “Alice was put out that she couldn’t join us. I’m sure she swiped one of my dad’s cigars as revenge. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that whatever else happened growing up my parents kept us all together, made sure we understood that friendships and relationships might come and go but you’ll only ever have one family. Blood is thicker than water, they’d always say. Adam and Emily never said anything about it, but the way they acted I knew that everything was forgiven. It’s funny. I’m the tallest and strongest in the family but to them I’m still their baby brother. There’s…something comforting in that, actually,” Winters admitted as he moved to brush Veera’s legs.
“Meylith blesses your family,” Veera purred with surety. “Can I hear about Adam and Emily a bit?”
Winters was about to fulfill her request when something profound stalled his thoughts. He stopped brushing and moved back so that he and Veera could look one another in the eye. “Can I ask you something first?”
“Oh? Of course, what is it?” Veera wondered, eyes searching her husband’s suddenly thoughtful face.
“When Cauthan are mated in your village, how do the families of the two respond to that? Do they consider themselves united?” He asked.
“Not exactly, no,” Veera replied, her tail flicking behind her as she considered how to explain her customs. “We consider ourselves all united in a way, Russell. That’s not to say we are all brothers and sisters, but being mated means the forming of a new family, a distinct entity.”
Winters nodded his head and hummed in understanding, remembering Veera’s occasional references to him and Fenrir as her new family. He gave her a broad, genuine smile. “Did you ever want siblings, Veera?”
“I wouldn’t wish what I went through on anyone else,” she replied solemnly. He kissed her nose.
“Answer the question, sweetie.”
“Of course I wanted siblings, Russell,” she whispered, glancing at the river when his eyes became too piercing. “That’s just not what the gods decreed.”
“Maybe not,” Winters admitted, returning to his task and letting another clump of winter fur float away down the river. “But humans do things a bit differently. There’s so many of us, you know? That and the whole idea of letting your family go like that…I don’t know. I’m glad we don’t have to.”
“What do you mean, Russell?” Veera asked, her feathers tickling his forearms as he lifted one of her legs to get at her calves with the brush.
“I mean,” he began with a wink. “That when humans marry it’s considered to be not just a union of two individuals, but a union of families. We refer to them as ‘in-laws’. Some people get along splendidly with theirs; others choose to have minimal involvement. It’s really up to each family to figure it out. What I’m trying to say is that when you married me…you got yourself three siblings in the deal too.”
Veera took a moment of silence to absorb what her human had said. “I…what would be expected of me if I ever get to meet them?”
“Hey now, no need to sound so nervous! I was trying to make you happy,” Winters said, picking up on the hesitance in her voice. “I mean honestly there wouldn’t be any expectations as far as I’m concerned. I think for a while they’d just be adjusting to the fact that, oh you know, the baby brother went off and married an alien.” Winters couldn’t help a long, boisterous laugh, which Veera soon joined. A nagging fear clawed at her mind though, and she quieted again.
“Do you…think they’d accept me?” She asked.
“Veera, they wouldn’t even know that your stripes are unusual,” Winters insisted. “And yes, I think they would. I know my mother would love you, in no small part because you love me. And if she comes around, I doubt anyone else will…oh boy.”
“Wait, what?!” Veera asked with alarm as Winters seemed to suddenly grow nervous. She looked around them but didn’t see or hear anything. Her danger sense was dormant as well. Whatever it was that had her human worried, it was within his own mind.
“No it’s just…something tells me my younger sister might like you a little too much,” he muttered, standing and walking to her other side so he could tend to her right leg. “But let me tell you about Adam and Emily first, yeah?”
“If you insist,” Veera acquiesced, suddenly much more invested in gaining knowledge of her husband’s family. According to him it was also her family. “But I’ll not be letting you off without an explanation.”
“Heh, fair enough. Let’s see then,” Winters pondered where to start. “Adam is the oldest and, like I said, he’s always taken that very seriously. No small part thanks to my father, I’m sure. He got good marks in school, stayed on the straight and narrow, went to college, went to law school, got a job…basically the only thing he hasn’t done is find a wife. Huh…that might be awkward if we ever get back,” Winters considered. Veera cocked her head at him.
“What is law school?”
Winters paused to scratch his chin, inadvertently giving himself a face full of fur that prompted a loud sneeze, startling Fenrir. The hyrven gave him an accusatory look but protested no further, settling back down to enjoy some morning sun. Veera was giggling as she brushed a few stray hairs from his cheek. “Thanks, Veera. Anyway, law school is where one goes to become a lawyer. That’s what we call people who are in charge of settling disputes between individual humans or other entities like businesses or the government.”
“Don’t you have leaders like Antoth who can do that?” Veera inquired. Winters shook his head.
“Not exactly, no. There are so many of us that it’s impossible to know everyone well enough to do what Antoth might if there was an altercation in the village. Not to mention people lie, cheat, and steal. The truth isn’t always what it seems to be. Where I come from we have a strict set of rules on how to handle such disputes. I fear we’d be here all day if I were to explain it fully, though. In summary, my brother works for the rulers of my state. He works on cases where the state itself brings a claim against a person or a group of people. I guess the closest analog would be if someone worked for Antoth and argued that criminals were guilty before the rest of your village.”
“That seems rather extravagant. Aren’t they guilty by definition?” Veera asked in confusion. Winters bobbed his head side to side to acknowledge her point.
“Not exactly. Where I come from you’re presumed innocent until proven guilty by a group of your peers. It’s my brother’s job, as part of a team, to convince a group of people called a jury that a certain person is guilty of a crime. Other lawyers work to defend the person. At the end of the process a verdict is rendered.”
“That does sound like quite the elaborate affair,” Veera replied, not having a good sense of what Winters was talking about. She just couldn’t imagine a group of humans so large that something like lawyers would be necessary. Winters nodded in acknowledgment.
“I know I didn’t do a great job of explaining it, but that’s what he does for a living. It’s hard work and he has to read a ton, late hours. It’s probably why he’s still single.”
“How old is he again?”
“He should have at least three or four cubs by now!” Veera stated with shock. “How is that possible?!”
Winters couldn’t help a broad smile at how simple certain things were on Mara. “We’re just…honestly I don’t even know how to explain it. We just feel like we have more time in life for those things. Many of us do…some of us don’t. But I can assure you my mother would agree with you! Shall we move on?”
Veera didn’t mind much. Their conversation was secondary to the soothing sensation of the brush on her muscles and her winter coat being stripped carefully away. She lolled her head onto his shoulder. “Well I don’t mind being on your mother’s good side. Your older sister is…Emily, you said?”
“Yeah, that’s her. She followed the same path my brother did. She got great marks in school, went to college for more education, graduated with a degree in economics and went to work for some company or another. I don’t remember. She’s moved from job to job a lot. Before I left on this mission she was at some fashion firm in the city. Honestly she might be somewhere else by now, but I hope she found a job worth keeping.”
“And does she have any cubs?” Veera inquired as Winters cupped her face in his hands and began to very gently brush her cheeks. She purred, closed her eyes, and leaned into his touch.
“She has a boyfriend. Not sure how serious they are by now. But no, no children last I checked.”
Veera gave him a pointed look. “Your mother may not like me as much as you say, then.”
“I think my mother will be happy I managed to get married at all,” Winters countered with a self-effacing grin. “Besides, she has three other children to give her grandchildren, you know? That and…well…”
“We might never get back to your home. I know, Russell.” Veera nuzzled him tenderly. “Even so, I’ve enjoyed learning about your…my new family just a bit. We can stop now if you like.”
Winters considered her offer for a moment and eventually stood, feeling a couple pins and needles in his feet. “How about we keep going for today, hmm? You feel any cooler?”
Veera took a moment and turned her face towards the sun, taking in its warmth and the cool breezes that gently floated over the water. She stood and took his hand as Fenrir rose and followed, heading for their campsite. “I really appreciate this, Russell. I feel lighter!”
“You don’t need to thank me,” he insisted, having found plenty of enjoyment in the act itself, to say nothing of the fact that he could see just a bit more of the definition in Veera’s figure. “Besides, I still owe you a bit about Alice.”
Veera gazed at him with lightly fluttering feathers, always looking carefully at her mate’s face. He had no feathers or scales but she was learning that much was there, plain for her to see. “You love her very much, don’t you?”
“Yeah…I miss her a lot.”
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