Amber was doing her best to be soothing. "Med-diagnostics says his pulse has strengthened and slowed. His color is better too, Lani."

            "Yeah. I suppose so, but did they have to feed him that stuff? I thought she was giving him water. It's alcohol and some drug—that crushed-up seed she showed us. From what I can work out it's some kind of hallucinogen."

            She scowled. "It's given him a hell of an erection."

            "Well, that's one muscle that's working, Lani."

            Amber put a hand on her shoulder. Lani fought off an irrational desire to shrug it off. By now she'd come to accept that most of the stories about gay women were ignorant BS, but it took a while to shake the reaction completely. "I don't know how best to say this so I guess I should just say it. We don't know what damage that poison did. He could never recover. Or he could be brain-damaged. He stopped breathing."

             Lani felt her nails cutting into her palms. "I know. But I've got to try. Thanks. You've been great and I've been a bitch. A stupid bitch, at that."

            "We both made judgment mistakes, I guess."

            "Yeah. Look, sorry," said Lani, awkwardly.

            The little perp—Bhangella—came into the long, thatched hut. "They're calling us to eat," he said.

            "I can't leave Howard here." She wasn't leaving him unwatched, that was for sure.

            Amber stood up. "I'll get some help to carry him out there with us."

            A few minutes later, Lani was wishing desperately that they'd left Howard where he was and stayed to sit vigil over him. They wouldn't have had to sit here around the fire and eat pieces of not very well charred animal. The cooked roots and vegetables were one thing, but meat that had squealed when she shot it?

            By the looks of her, Amber wasn’t any happier about it. "We have to look like we're enjoying it," she Amber, sotto voce.

            "Next time I ask to borrow your shotgun, see that you shove it up… Don't give it to me," said Lani, looking warily at the “feast.”

            "I can see the appeal of vat-protein again. I never thought I wanted to see another vat," said Amber. She drank some of the stuff in the gourd. "Holy Susan. That's… strong. Enough of that stuff and you won't care that you're eating half raw dead meat. Here, have some."

            Lani did. And some more. Whatever it was, it loosened the tongue a bit. A little later, having eaten some of the meat without gagging to much, she said "I've been meaning to ask you…"

            "Ask. Whatever that stuff is, I don't think I should drink any more of it."

            "Why did you do this? I mean, come with us. Uh. You had everything."

            "Except a life," said Amber, pulling a face. "The old story I suppose. I broke up with my girlfriend. After five years. She works… worked with me. No way I could avoid seeing her every day, and nowhere else that either of us could work. Kretz came along and, well, I could get out of there. Really get out there. Right out of the whole world. I'd… I'd been thinking of taking myself out of it completely before. You can only put on a brave face for just so long." She laughed. "I suppose that whatever else comes out of this I haven't really thought about Jean for days."

            "There have to be easier cures, though."

            Amber shrugged. "Maybe. Maybe not. We never really did develop a cure for broken hearts. At least not a cure that leaves no scar-tissue to stop the thing working properly."

            "Why isn't it simple?" asked Lani, feeling as if she was going to burst into tears.

            "Yeah. I thought we weren't going to drink any more of this stuff?" said Amber, who just had.

            Lani looked blurrily at the gourd. "I can't drink any more. I finished it. If this is what they gave Howard no wonder he's unconscious."

            "You know I read somewhere that before the Slowtrain left, before Diana, that all men regarded women as inflatable sex dolls that could cook and clean house."

            Lani blinked owlishly at her. "I had an inflatable mattress once."

            "So?" said Amber, looking almost equally owlish.

            "So they must have needed a lot of puncture repair kits," said Lani after deep cogitation. She looked at Howard. "I'd have less problems with an inflatable man."

            Amber agreed. "Or me with an inflatable woman, but they'd be less fun."

            "We could get a bulk order of puncture kits."

            "And comp-installed ‘cause misery’ units, so they'd feel real."

            "And buy a dishwasher."

            It seemed very funny at the time.


            Dandani judged that Chief Fripara-wa-reepal was a worried man. Too worried to be thinking too much about what his youngest daughter had said about a hunter called Dandani. "I put not one, but two arrows in him, chief. He should be dead. But the other one may not be dead, but he's pretty sick," he explained.

            "But he's getting better," said the chief sourly. "I think we should change your name to 'hunter-who-could-not-hit-a-jaguar-from-the-inside.' I think you saw women and shot skewed."

            He wasn't serious. Except maybe about the women. However, Dandani knew it was obligatory to look affronted. "I always hit what I aim at."

            "With arrows for small birds," said the chief. "Anyway, we need to talk about what we do now, not your lousy marksmanship."

            "We do what uThani always do," said he-who-talks-to-strangers. "We behave like good little ignorant savages. 'We don't understand what you say', while we listen and learn."

            "And then we cut their throats and hope more don't come looking," said the chief. He sighed. "But maybe their throats don't cut any easier than they poison, old man. Dandani fools around with too many women, but he doesn't miss."

            He-who-talks-to-strangers shook his head. "We don't cut their throats. We don't let them go home either. We see if they can solve our other problem."

            "Hmm. It's nine warriors so far. Who are we going to send?"

            "Him." He-who-talks-to-strangers-pointed at Dandani. "And Nama-ti-spaniti-goro-y-timi."

            "Good," said the chief. "Even if they get killed, it will get him away from my youngest daughter."

            So he hadn't been that distracted, Dandani thought. But like a good uThani he misled. It was how the small tribe had survived.


            Kretz was increasingly convinced that Miran in general were better observers of behavior than humans. Maybe it came of having to survive tempers at sex-changeover. Sitting on the far side of the circle he'd noticed that the local humans took tiny sips from the gourd they passed around. By the time he tried to warn the others it was too late. Well, for the females, anyway. The little male appeared to be behaving with circumspection.

            Their spokesman came and sat down next to him. "So, demon," he said conversationally, "why does the other demon try look like people and you don't? Him better demon?"

            Transcomp had given Kretz a number of approximations on “demon.” None of them had been flattering. Obviously it was one of those words that depended on your viewpoint. He thought about his reply, carefully. "If I change my appearance too much, I cannot talk across the distances to all the other demons, and they will have to come and look for us. One of us had look as we do."

            "Hmm. Teeth very small for Jaguar-demon," said the speaker.

            How did you answer that? He did recall the picture Amber had showed them. Best to head off the question with another. "How come you speak the language of hu… the women."

            The speaker pulled a face. "One man learn. In case outsiders come back. Clever. O-Mike Computer teach." He looked at the two women, lolling against each other. Giggling. "Be very sick tomorrow," he said, clinically.

            Interesting. So there was some kind of live computer network, even in this primitive environment. Well, miniaturization could take computing power and robots to the microscopic. Big machines were still more efficient for doing tasks of scale, a fact the miniaturization lobby eventually learned.

            The speaker shifted his attention to the little human male. "You demon's child?" He said conversationally. "Which one your mother?"



About Eric Flint

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