(Copyright) 1997 - 2006 G. Dallman
March 14, 1997 Version 3.0
Revision Date: 05/20/2006
The word that was a Name echoed through Howard's mind. He still found it difficult to control his emotions, as the joy of his discovery was tempered by the incredible nature of his Soul's Desire. 'How could I be so emotionally attached to someone I've never met?' he thought, trying to picture Someone, who under normal circumstances he would never have dreamed even existed!
Howard's weakness and disorientation had diminished, but were still present. Just then, his stomach growled loud enough to draw attention, pointing out to all the cause of his weakened condition. Among those who's heads were turned by his growling gastric gorgon, was a female Dirhal with four gold rings in her ear. She walked over to Aarrl and exchanged a few words with him, all the while scrutinizing Howard in a way that he found disquieting and intensely embarrassing. This was the first time he'd seen a usually dour Dirhal smile in such an open-mouth, canine manner. It was apparent to the Human that the female Watcher knew exactly what effect she was having on him.
Aarrl lowered his head toward Howard, relaying her words.
"SubCaptain Krrfinn suggests that you might join her FourTens in the refectory."
At the mere suggestion of food, Howard's stomach gave another spasmodic snarl. This was answer enough for Aarrl, and he indicated the Human should follow the group of Watchers exiting the chamber.
In hope that his clothes had been returned, Howard wanted to stop by the sleeping den, but the throng Dirhal about him and Aarrl behind, seemed to be totally absorbed by thoughts of food as he, trapped amongst them, was double-timed past the den and down the corridor. The sounds of claw-clicks and muted Dirhal conversation echoed from the walls.
The excursion to the refectory yielded the same scenery as the previous day; nothing but blank Yellow-green metal walls, broken only by the gaping doors of empty sleeping dens. It had become obvious that this massive ship had one function, and that involved massive Butt-Kicking. The fact that a vessel like this existed at all, indicated to Howard that somewhere Out There, were beings that could be very nasty to meet in some dark interstellar alley. He added that impression to the growing list of things he wanted to talk to Aarrl about.
In his weakened condition, the trip to the refectory seemed to go on forever, but was in fact less than a kilometer. On the way, they trudged up three long inclines that connected one deck with the next. Howard was curious as to the use of ramps instead of stairs and asked Aarrl about this. He was told that the design was a concession to the Sennal morphology. Because of their digitigrade stance, walking down stairs was difficult for them to do rapidly. A FourTen of Dirhals trying to double-time it and then tumbling down a flight of stairs could be very disconcerting!
As they approached the refectory, Howard detected a fine, spicy-meaty aroma wafting into the corridor. On entering the refectory, he was again astonished by the austerity of his surroundings. The room was about fifty meters on a side, with rank after rank of low, lozenge-shaped cushions. There were no tables. In all, there was enough seating capacity for four or five hundred Dirhal.
At the end of the refectory farthest from the door, was a row of rectangular serving windows reminiscent of a similar arrangement at his old grade-school cafeteria. After queuing up at a window and receiving their food, the forty-something Dirhal present found seating among the maze of futons and sat eating silently, cross-legged, their bowls in their laps. 'This ship is beginning to more and more resemble a space-going monastery,' Howard thought: 'Sleeping on the floor, cold showers, mandatory prayers, and now a silent meal on the floor!'
As he took his turn at the serving window, Howard half-expected to seen an old 'Lunch Lady' lean out the serving window, instead, a pair of black-furred hands darted out to deliver an oddly shaped metal spoon and two large, turned, wooden bowls. One bowl was filled with what looked and smelled like stew, and the other with water. The hands that served him were far too small to be either Gashka or Dirhal, but withdrew before Howard could notice any detail. Like so many other things, he dutifully filed it away for future reference. The 'Future Reference' file was getting Really Big! Howard took his bowls and headed for one of the vacant cushions. Aarrl followed close behind with Gashka-sized bowls that must have held enough to feed a family of seven.
At their approach, Krrfinn, who was seated alone on a futon in the middle of a veritable sea of similar unoccupied mats, patted the space on the cushion beside her in a very Human-like gesture. Thus, Howard found himself sandwiched between Aarrl on his right and the Dirhal alpha female on his left. As he sat, she scooted her furry butt to press against his unclad thigh. As she moved closer, the Human could smell her scent, which immediately seemed to trigger unbidden reactions deep in his subconscious. Conflicting and exceedingly embarrassing emotions and sensations warred with hunger. Howard looked over at Aarrl, hoping for some moral support, if not diversion, but the Ursine suddenly developed an acute interest in the lighting fixtures. Howard felt the atmosphere in the refectory was getting too warm. He was sure the environmental controls must have malfunctioned!
Despite his extreme discomfiture, the Human was nonetheless famished. The stew was hot enough that it slightly burned his fingers through the bottom of the bowl, and the aroma was becoming better every moment. Balancing his water bowl on his right knee, Howard dipped his spoon into the stew and carefully tried a small amount of the broth, avoiding for the moment the cubes of unknown meat and vegetables. Krrfinn watched intently, as her long, pink tongue absently lapped at her water.
The flavor of the stew was slightly gamy and it needed a bit of salt, but was much better than some he'd tasted. Under the flavor of the Mystery Meat, there lurked a myriad of subtle spices, tasting of cinnamon and pepper, with a hint of a minty tang. Howard avoided thinking about what kind of critter had given its all for the stew, and ate, studiously pretending not to notice the warm, furry pressure against his left thigh and the tail sensuously swishing against the small of his back.
With the diversion of eating soon eliminated, Howard was further reminded of his precarious position by a stealthy zephyr of hot, stew-scented breath on his left cheek, followed by a sharp, piercing pain as Krrfinn nipped his ear. The Human yelped, grabbing at his wounded aural appendage! When he turned to look at Krrfinn, somewhat confused by this sudden attack, the intensity of her stare left no doubt as to her intention.
Having thus secured his undivided attention, Krrfinn leaned in front of Howard and growled a few words to Aarrl, her eyes never leaving the Human. As the right side of her head passed in front of him, Howard was tempted to reply in kind, but held back, fearful of sending a message he had no intention of delivering on.
Silent seconds passed. Howard's ear still smarted and Aarrl appeared to be engaged a curious inner dialog, which judging from the expression on his muzzle, he found exceedingly humorous. A moment later he looked at Howard while pointing at Krrfinn with his spoon.
"The SubCaptain asks that you share her pallet, next sleep-period."
"What?!" the Human squeaked, nearly choking. His worst fears were confirmed! Howard tried to speak but all that came out was an inarticulate, squeaky gargle. He looked at Aarrl, in the forlorn hope of an ally in his impossible situation, but the Ursine's allegiance was elsewhere. Panic! For a moment, Howard considered bolting, but was sure Krrfinn could run a lot faster than he, and flight might also be considered part of the game he was desperately trying not to play.
Finally getting his vocal apparatus under control, the Human fought to form panicked words through gritted teeth, "Aarrl… Tell her I can't!"
At first, he thought his desperate plea had fallen on deaf ears. Finally, after torturing Ripley with his silence, Aarrl regarded Krrfinn with a knowing glance, as they engaged in a muted, half-spoken conversation.
"I have reminded the SubCaptain that, as you are S'Challh, your affections are elsewhere. She asks forgiveness for her impetuousness. She but wishes you to feel welcome among her kind."
"Some Welcome!" Howard muttered, "A big wet doggy smooch would have been more than enough!" He turned to look at Krrfinn. She didn't look the least chastened, as her muzzle now bore an expression that he could only describe as that expectant look of a dog waiting for a treat! He was sure it wasn't the end of the matter.
Howard would have given anything to be anywhere else at that moment. The minutes drug by as they sat in silence, Aarrl once again entertained by his inner dialog. Krrfinn finished her meal as though nothing had happened, occasionally aimed a meaning-filled glance in the Human's direction. After several eternities, the SubCaptain rose, licking Howard's wounded ear as she stood. The remainder of her command sprang to their feet with her. As she strode purposefully out the door, Howard almost fainted with relief.
After his relief started to fade, it was replaced by anger. Howard felt that Aarrl had set him up, or at least had been an accomplice in the humiliating fiasco. He stood, bringing his eyes almost level with Aarrl's as the Ursine sat.
"Why didn't you help me?" he shouted.
Aarrl sat unmoving for a moment, as though considering his reply, his tongue frozen in the act of licking gravy from the back of his spoon.
"Did I not explain your reticence?"
"Ya, after leaving me on the hook for an… an hour!" Howard sputtered.
Aarrl stared at the Human, his head tilted to the side in his typical questioning manner. When the Ursine spoke, his tone was slow and measured, as though he were explaining a difficult concept to a dull child.
"You exaggerate, Human. It would have been best if you had not declined. Her offer was genuine and meant as a traditional kindness. Also, she is alpha mate to Raall. He may construe your refusal as an insult to himself also. However, I have no doubt you will have - many - other opportunities to reconsider. Once Krrfinn has caught scent of her prey there will be no respite."
It hadn't occurred to Howard that his refusal might have political repercussions, nor did he care. He was again alarmed at the prospect of again having to fend off the 'good intentioned' SubCaptain. While Aarrl's last statement was delivered with a shading of humor, Ripley failed to share it, and... the Ursine's seeming malicious emphasis of 'many' added to the serpentine knot of dread already writhing inside him.
As Howard stood, legs braced, still looking into Aarrl's humor-tinged eyes, it occurred to him, despite his terror, how ludicrous his situation was. He was picking a fight with a creature who could beat him senseless while still sitting down, with a spoon in one hand and the other tied behind his back!
Seeing that his Human antagonist had run out of steam, Aarrl dropped his spoon into his now empty bowl and got to his feet.
"Come, for you to achieve your Soul's Desire, we have much to do. Alignment will not wait."
Aarrl's words snapped Howard out of his funk. He was going to ask Aarrl what 'Alignment' referred to, when the Gashka turned and strode toward the door, dropping his bowl into a strategically placed bin. Howard did the same as he followed, noting with relief that they were headed back the way they had come. He was missing his clothes more than ever!
As they arrived at their sleeping den, the Human was startled to see a black shape about 130 centimeters tall, emerge from the shadows and drop a package on his pallet. The creature quickly disappeared through a side-door that, in the den's dim light, hadn't previously been evident. The diminutive creature's slightly musky scent still hung in the air. From his brief glimpse of the small being, Howard saw that, with its long sleek body and wedge-shaped head, it had the outward appearance of a bipedal otter.
"It is a Toccal," rumbled Aarrl. "They were created to serve those who serve the Patrons. If there are any who could be said to serve as 'crew' to SoulRipper it is the Toccal. You are fortunate to have seen one, for they are very shy."
As Howard approached his sleeping pallet, he could see that the package the Toccal had delivered was indeed his clothes, cleaned and neatly folded. He wasted no time in putting them on, feeling much better afterward.
While the Human was getting dressed, Aarrl watched intently. Howard didn't think Aarrl was as much interested in the mechanics of him putting on his clothes as he was in the question of why humans felt such a compelling need for them. The whole situation was probably totally illogical to a creature born with all the garment he would ever need.
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