A sailboat glides across the waves, sails billowing in the wind. A tall, thin man with glasses stands at the helm, steering the ship towards a distant goal. Behind him, her arms wrapped around him, stands a slender female alien covered with white, spotted fur, her head resembling that of a feline, a long, fluffy tail and bare, digitigrade feet on the other end.
"Tell me again why we're sailing north," Rrsh'Dhana suddenly whispers into Anthony's ear.
"Because someone I won't mention ate all the smoked salmon, and it's cheaper up north," he replies with a grin.
"You're impossible!" she exclaims. "You're only using it as an excuse to go sailing."
"Guilty as charged," he admits. "But it sure feels good to be back on the open sea again after spending the winter laid up in a harbour."
"Yeah. I must admit that it feels good to be traveling again," she says. "There's something that I don't understand, though. How can we be sailing against the wind? I can understand how the sail works when we go with the wind, but against it?"
"A good question," he responds. "I would have thought that you, an experienced pilot, would have guessed the answer by now."
"Stop teasing, and tell me," she demands, expressing her claws and, penetrating the fabric of his shirt, dimpling the skin of his chest. "Or do you want me to press harder?"
"All right then," he replies. "No, the wind isn't pushing us, it's pulling us. You only think of a sail as something to catch and block the wind. Instead, try looking at the sail as a large aircraft wing, with low pressure on one side and high pressure on the other side instead of above and beneath. It's the same principle working on the sail as on the wing."
"So we're flying with a boat?" Rrsh'Dhana asks, her ears twitching in bemusement.
"Something like that, yes," he replies. Then, since the wind is changing, he loosens the ropes securing the boom, shifting it into another position while at the same time relieving tension on the sail.
"Why are you slacking up on the sail?"
"When we relieve tension on the sail, the curve changes. You see, the same shape on the sail isn't always the best for all wind directions, or even all wind speeds. It's a common beginners mistake to always tighten the sail as much as possible. A good rule, however, is that the further up against the wind, the tighter the sail needs to be."
"It seems so obvious when you say it; why didn't I see it?"
"Because of association," he explains. "Everyone considers sails some 'boring old stuff' and aerodynamics as modern technology, never thinking for a second that they're the same."
"I guess that I should learn to sail this boat soon," she mumbles as she rubs her muzzle against his shoulder.
"There's no time like the present," he responds, grasping her hands and pulling her around from behind him. "Place your hands on the tiller." Then he puts his hands on her shoulders to steady her. "Stand with your feet far apart to maintain a better balance. That way you'll also get more leverage to turn the tiller, too," he explains. "Now, the main instrument we use is the compass. We try to keep as straight a course as possible unless the wind suddenly changes, then we might have to alter course so that it matches the new wind direction until we can reconfigure the sail. We also try to steer directly into large waves, since if we get hit broadside by a large wave, it can capsize the boat."
"What would we do if a wave capsizes us?" she asks, shuddering at the thought of ending up in the cold water.
"That depends on the weather," he replies. "In good weather we'd probably remove the sails and try to right it again. In bad weather though, we'd just have to abandon the boat. There are stories about sailors who have stayed inside the upturned hull of their boats, waiting for rescue, but I wouldn't even consider that."
"Because it might suddenly sink," he states. "It may be safer on the fast multi-hull regatta racers, since they have airtight compartments made of strong composites, but not this wooden hull."
"So, try to keep a straight course, but be wary of big waves and changes in the wind; that's it?"
"There's more, but yes, that's the gist of it." Then he kisses her on the back of her head and heads for the hatch leading down to the cabin.
"What are you doing?" she asks, suddenly anxious of being left in control of the ship.
"Only getting myself a cup of tea," is the muffled response from down below.
The ship is anchored near a beach. Rrsh'Dhana is busy frying a large fish for dinner when she suddenly asks, "Will we be sailing farther tonight?"
"No," Anthony replies. "Night sailing is very exhausting, even dangerous sometimes, so I prefer not to do it unless I have a very good reason. Besides, I know something that's much more fun to do at night."
"You mean, like brushing my back?" she ventures, the tip of her tail twitching sensuously.
They have just raised anchor and set the sails when they hear a call on the radio. "You keep the boat on course; I'll check what's going on," Anthony says as he climbs down the ladder to the cabin and out of the wind to better hear.
When he returns a few minutes later, he has a frown on his face.
"Something wrong?" Rrsh'Dhana asks.
"Not really," he replies. "That was the major on the radio. As you know, there are still a few wolves loose on the surface. The major has just received a report on a possible sighting on one of the Shetland islands, and wondered if I could take a quick look since we're in the area, so to speak."
"And what did you say?" she prods. "Did you agree to do it?"
"I told him that I would discuss it with you first, then get back to him."
"What happens if you take the assignment?"
"We'll have to change course and cross a stretch of open ocean to get there, and that means sailing at night. We'll probably arrive at the island sometime tomorrow evening. Then I can talk to the villagers in the morning and check any recent tracks if they're close. If I consider it safe enough, I may try to narrow down the search area, too."
"Not try to capture the wolf?"
"Probably not," he replies, frowning slightly. "The wolves have become very unpredictable since we shot down the fleet and ended the war. Some surrender without a fight, yet others, particularly high-ranking officers, fight like crazy."
"And what happens if I say no?"
"Then we continue on our present course and someone else gets to investigate."
Rrsh'Dhana ponders the situation for a few minutes, then softly ventures, "Promise to be careful?"
The next evening.
When the boat glides towards the small harbour the docks seem deserted, and the only lights visible are the ones marking the ends of the piers.
"The place looks abandoned," Rrsh'Dhana comments.
"Yes, it can look that way," Anthony states. "The people on these islands are mostly fishermen and farmers, and they usually go to bed as soon as it's dark, and are up and at work again before dawn." Then, as they finish furling the sails and securing the mooring lines, "Speaking of going to bed early, we better do the same. These people don't respect those who sleep all morning."
The sun has barely risen when they step onto the docks to meet one of the locals.
"Greetings! I'm Anthony," he says, then gesturing toward his companion, "and this is Rrsh'Dhana, a close friend of mine."
"I'm Angus McDougal," the local responds, peering wide-eyed at the alien. "Welcome to the island."
"Thank you," Anthony says. "I understand that you may have a wolf on the loose?"
"Yes," the man replies, casting furtive glances towards Rrsh'Dhana. "Some of the lads spotted a figure a few days ago. They didn't try to follow it, but they did find a few tracks, so we know that they weren't spinning a tale."
"Where are the kids now?"
"They're in school," the man replies, "but if you will come with me, I can show you on the map where they saw it."
"Sounds good to me," Anthony says. "Lead the way."
Angus' office is small and cluttered, stacks of paper piled on just about every available surface. "The lads saw the wolf, or whatever it was, here," he states, pointing at a red pushpin sticking out of a map hanging on one of the walls.
"Was that the same place that they found the tracks?" Anthony asks.
"No, that was here," Angus replies, touching a gnarled finger to a point on the map, somewhat closer to the village.
"That's not very far away," Rrsh'Dhana comments.
"No, it isn't," Angus agrees. "That's what worries me."
"Are the tracks still visible?" Anthony suddenly asks.
"They should be," Angus replies. "We covered them with a tarp to protect them. I can show you if you like."
"Yes, if you would be so kind," Anthony says. "But first I think that I need some stuff from the boat. Oh, and bring a map."
Angus quickly removes the map from the wall and folds it neatly, then they all return to the boat. "Nice boat," Angus comments while Anthony loads equipment into a backpack.
"It's not much, but it's home," Anthony states. Then he unlocks the rifle from its wall mount and digs out a package of ammunition from a cabinet and starts loading the magazine.
"Dangerous work capturing wolves, I guess," Angus ventures, pointing at the rifle.
"It can be," Anthony says. "I don't think I'll need the rifle, but I prefer to be on the safe side." Then he shoulders the backpack, and grabbing the rifle in one hand heads for the hatch. "Shall we go?"
"Here are the tracks," Angus says as he lifts an old tarp that has been draped across a sandy patch about a kilometer from the village.
"They look like wolf tracks, all right," Anthony observes while examining the uneven marks in the sandy soil. "He's also walking barefoot, but that's not unexpected given the quality of the boots that they were supplying to the common soldiers. But there's something strange about them."
"What is it?" Rrsh'Dhana asks, curiously.
"They're so small," Anthony replies. "Not much larger than your feet. They usually picked the larger ones for infantry, and the officers all have good boots. It may be a Fang pilot."
"I take it that you don't believe that, either," Rrsh'Dhana prods.
"No," Anthony replies. "Most fang pilots are captured almost immediately because we know where they're shot down. Besides, most of them are junior officers and haven't been pumped full of propaganda, so they know that we don't torture prisoners."
"Then what are we dealing with here?" Rrsh'Dhana finally asks.
"Are you certain that it's a wolf that made the prints, then, and not someone like your friend here?" Angus asks, glancing carefully at Rrsh'Dhana.
"I'm certain," Anthony states. "The pads are shaped differently and the claw marks are much more visible. Wolf claws are wide, stumpy and only semi-retractable, so they make nice big marks." Then he gets down on one knee and starts measuring the marks and the distance between them.
"See anything?" Rrsh'Dhana asks.
"Maybe, I'm not certain," Anthony replies as he works his way towards a cluster of trees. "It looks as the wolf walked towards this thicket." Then he disappears into the woods. When he reappears a minute later he has a worried expression on his face. "Rrsh'Dhana," he calls, "I think you should take a look here."
"What did you find?" she asks as she joins him..
"That," he replies, pointing to some spots on a rock. "Your nose is much more sensitive than mine. What does it smell like to you?"
Rrsh'Dhana goes down on her knees to get a closer look and sniff at the spots. "It's not blood, but the smell reminds me of sickness, disease," she finally says, shuddering as she stands up.
"I was afraid of something like that," Anthony says, morosely.
"We have an injured wolf walking around," he states. "There have been a few cases of very sick or starved wolves heading towards small towns to surrender. Some of them lose their resolve if they're spotted before they get close, though. This means that instead of a wolf-hunt, we now have a rescue operation on our hands."
"I can get a search party organised," Angus offers.
"No," Anthony quickly counters. "That's the worst thing to do now. We have an injured and probably scared wolf out there. There's no telling how he'll react if he sees a large group of people coming after him. No, the only way is for me to track him alone."
"No!" Rrsh'Dhana almost shouts. "You promised that you wouldn't do that."
"Yeah, you're right," Anthony says, frowning. "But what should we do? It may take too long to get someone else to track the wolf."
"Why are you so concerned about this wolf?" Rrsh'Dhana asks.
"Too many lives have already been lost because of the war," Anthony says after a pause. Then he sits down on a rock before he adds, his voice heavy, "Many of them by my hands. Too many to count. I still see them before me when I wake in the middle of the night."
"But they're wolves," Rrsh'Dhana says. "It was kill or be killed when you fought them."
"Yes," he almost whispers. "But killing still isn't right. Most of those that died by my hands were ordinary males -- farmers, fishermen, herders and carpenters -- conscripted and brainwashed by their leaders to fight in a war started for no other reason than greed. Most of them didn't even know which planet they were fighting on, or why."
"But..." Rrsh'Dhana says, concern and confusion evident in her voice. "If you feel that way, why did you become a wolf-hunter?"
"Because," he replies, "while I worked as a wolf-hunter I only killed three wolves, a Fang pilot and two officers. The pilot died when I shot down his craft, and the officers were killed in self-defense. During that same time I tracked down over three dozen more wolves, all of whom are alive and well in prison camps."
"You became a wolf-hunter to save lives?"
"No," he replies. "I became a hunter to take back control of my life. Saving lives was something that just happened along the way."
"And now you want to save another life?"
"If you let me, yes," he replies. "If not, then we'll return to the boat where I'll report back that there's a wounded wolf somewhere on the island and recommend that they send in a team as quickly as possible."
"But you believe that the wolf has a much greater chance of surviving if you go after him?"
"I'll let you do it, but on one condition," she finally states. "I'm coming with you."
"There's no way to talk you out of it, is there?" he asks, receiving only an all-too-human shake of her head as an answer. He then turns to Angus, "We'll try to be back before dark. I have a small radio in my pack. If we're late or something happens, we'll call in and let you know."
"We'll be using channel sixteen on the maritime band," Anthony states.
"You won't call in periodically then, to let us know that you're all right?" Angus asks worriedly.
"Can't," he replies. "It might reveal us to the wolf; they have very good ears."
"Well, good luck, then," Angus finally says before heading back towards the village.
"You can still change your mind," Anthony offers as he digs into his pack and extracts a few items that he passes to Rrsh'Dhana.
"No way," she replies. "But what are these packs?"
"The two small ones are bandages," he explains, "and the large one is a camouflage net. Just drape it over yourself." Then he adjusts the strap on his gun so that it hangs at elbow height before he takes another net and drapes over himself.
"But this net doesn't have the right colours for this landscape," Rrsh'Dhana comments as she fumbles a bit with the unfamiliar fabrics.
"It doesn't have to," Anthony states. "The wolves don't have as good a colour vision as we do. We mostly use the nets to hide our silhouettes." He then hands her a brace of small plastic bottles. "These all contain water. When you drink, make certain that you empty the bottle. Water sloshing about in a half-empty container can be heard for quite a long distance."
"Anything else?" she asks.
"Yes," he replies. "If I suddenly stop for no obvious reason, you do the same. If I dive for cover, you do it too. If I crawl, you try to crawl lower than I." Glancing at her butt and grinning mischievously, he then adds, "And if you crawl, keep that fluffy tail of yours down." Before they begin, he familiarises her with several important hand-signals.
As they follow the path, Rrsh'Dhana can't help noticing how Anthony changes before her eyes, becoming more alert and moving with the carefully measured steps of a predator stalking prey. They stop a few moments here and there while Anthony goes down on one knee to examine a track or a dark spot. One place they see clear, claw-tipped handprints and scuffmarks where the wolf must have stumbled and fallen. Another place Anthony stops to examine some bushes, revealing a spot where the grass has been crushed flat as if someone had lain there, hiding or resting for a short while.
In the early afternoon, as they enter an area so inhospitable that even the local sheep stay away, Anthony suddenly steps off the track, to parallel it about fifty meters to the left. As they near a rise they go down on their hands and knees and crawl towards a boulder near the top, Rrsh'Dhana only remembering to keep her tail down when he turns to look pointedly at her. He peeks carefully around the boulder for a few seconds, then waves her forward. It is a strange sight that meets the alien's eyes when she peers around the boulder. There, in a tree-lined hollow, she sees a large escape capsule on its side, the hatch at an awkward downward angle, the tattered remains of a brake chute entangled in the branches of the nearby trees. In one tree something dark and lumpy is suspended from a branch.
Anthony takes out a small device with an earplug and a long microphone attached to it. The earplug he inserts in his left ear and the microphone he points towards the capsule. He listens for a few seconds before nodding and putting the device back in the backpack. Then he takes out a couple of ration bars and hands one to Rrsh'Dhana before he unwraps one for himself and settles down to wait.
For a long while nothing happens, then the hatch moves slightly. In an instant Anthony returns to full alertness and reaches into a pocket to withdraw three heavy balls connected by strings. As they watch, a fur-covered foot drops down through the hatch opening, then another, and soon the wolf is out. The small, bedraggled alien half limps, half staggers away from the two observers and towards some bushes. A few minutes later the wolf emerges again, now looking even more pitiful. As the figure stumbles towards whatever is suspended in one of the trees, Anthony slowly rises with the balls and string in one hand. He starts spinning the balls in a lazy arch, then faster and faster until they blur into a whirring circle. Quickly shifting them into a horizontal circle above his head he suddenly releases the strings, twirling the orbiting balls towards the wolf where the bolo wraps tightly around its legs. Once the alien falls, Anthony runs down towards it while stripping himself of the camouflage netting. As soon as he reaches the wolf he throws the netting over its head and arms, entangling them in the mesh. He then sprints past the capsule, casting a quick glance towards the hatch as he passes it. Then he stops, unstraps his rifle and creeps carefully back towards the grounded pod. Outside the hatch he pauses to listen for a few seconds, then peeks carefully inside. Seeing no one inside, he turns his attention back to what's happening nearby. "Rrsh'Dhana!" he calls. "You can come down now." Seeing that the wolf isn't trying to free itself from the net, he turns his attention to the shapeless lump hanging from the branch, but quickly turns back when he notices the stench of rotting meat. Rrsh'Dhana arrives just as Anthony drags the net off the wolf. The wolf still makes no attempt to resist, only mumbling, "Raesh'ghii, raesh'gii," over and over.
"You know wolf tongue better than I," Anthony says to Rrsh'Dhana. "What's he saying?"
"She is saying 'no pain, no pain' " his female companion replies. "I guess she's begging us not to hurt her."
"A wolf female?" Anthony asks, shocked. Then he looks down at the quivering form, noticing the slender arms and legs, a small nipple poking through the chest fur where the rags covering it have slipped off, a frightful wound in one thigh, the thin, matted fur and the look of terror in the large dark eyes. "But... The wolves don't have female fighters..."
"This is definitely a female," Rrsh'Dhana states. "I saw and met a few on their world before I came here." Then she adds, " What's wrong?" as she notices that he's trembling.
"I just physically attacked a woman," he answers, his voice quivering, "that's what's wrong. I attacked a defenseless, injured, sick woman!"
"But you had no way of knowing," Rrsh'Dhana states, trying to calm him.
"No," he mutters, "but that doesn't make it any better." Then he hurriedly digs into his backpack, withdraws a wolf-type first-aid kit and tosses it to Rrsh'Dhana. "There's a pain-block in there. Could you please inject a dose into her leg?" he asks, pointing to the large open wound in the wolf's upper thigh.
Rrsh'Dhana, wrinkling her snout in disgust at the almost overpowering smell of corruption and filthy fur coming from the wolf, sits down next to the trembling creature and gingerly opens the kit to withdraw a small auto-injector, which she presses firmly against the wolf's thigh. "What now?" she asks.
"If you could clean and dress the wound, that would be a great help," he replies. "I have something else to do." Then he draws a broad-bladed knife from the sheath hanging from his belt and starts hacking at a nearby sapling. Rrsh'Dhana starts cleaning the wound, flushing it first with water to remove grime, then with a disinfectant spray, wiping away clotted blood and puss with a rolled up bandage. She finally wraps another bandage around the wound and secures it with a gauzelike material wound tightly around the leg. In the meantime Anthony chops down two of the small trees, strips them of branches and ties them together with two shorter pieces of wood before wrapping the camouflage netting around them to create a simple but sturdy stretcher. This he places next to the wolf and then takes out one final item from his backpack; a thin silvery, thermal blanket. With Rrsh'Dhana's help they wrap it around the now unconscious female and lay her gently onto the frame.
"Is there anything that we should bring?" Rrsh'Dhana asks as Anthony repacks his equipment into his backpack, preparing to move out.
"There's nothing out here, but I'll check the capsule," he replies as he walks over to the open hatch and climbs inside. A few minutes later he returns with a small bundle, which he tucks inside the backpack before shouldering it. "If you grab the foot-end, I'll take the head-end of the stretcher," he says, gesturing towards the end of the frame, "and we'll get going."
"What was in that bundle?" she asks after they've been walking a few minutes.
"Pity and despair," he replies after thinking a few seconds. "An old brush, a couple of pretty rocks and a broken necklace. The brush and necklace are both cheap plastic, children's toys made here on Earth. She probably found them on the village rubbish dump."
"That's sad," Rrsh'Dhana says. "I wonder how long she's been hiding here?"
"Has to be almost a year," Anthony states after thinking about it. "The only time a capsule of that size could have come down undetected, except for the beginning of the war, was the night we destroyed the wolf fleet. To protect our electronics we switched off the most critical systems like radar right before the bombs detonated, and we didn't power them back on for at least ten minutes. Most of the escape pods were launched half an hour later, when it became obvious to the wolves that their ships were doomed. Of course, since most ships only had one or two capsules, we recovered mostly higher officers. Finding this one occupied by a single female is strange, very strange. It does explain how she's been able to survive undetected for so long, though, since pods like these were stocked with supplies to last sixteen wolves at least a week, maybe more."
When they enter the village after nightfall, the only person still outside is Angus.
"I see that you found the wolf," Angus comments, glancing at the makeshift stretcher. "Did he put up much of a fight?"
"No, she didn't fight," Rrsh'Dhana replies.
"Is there a doctor nearby?" Anthony asks.
"No," Angus answers. "He had to leave and won't be back for a few days. This wolf, he's badly injured, then?"
"She," Anthony stresses, "is suffering from an infected wound on her thigh, dehydration and starvation. Possibly a few other things, too. But if there's no doctor available, we'll just have to make do."
"We could try to call for a helicopter," Angus suggests.
"No good," Anthony counters. "There's only a few helicopters around and they won't dare a night-time landing around here. Besides, I'm not certain that she could stand the shaking and buffeting she'd get during a long helicopter flight. We'll inject some painkillers and antibiotics to stabilise her, and bring her in the slow way."
"Anything I can help you with?" Angus offers.
"Yeah," Anthony replies. "Help us lower her down the hatch."
After putting the female to bed in the small cabin and injecting her with additional medications, Anthony leaves for a few minutes, only to return with several paper-wrapped packages. "How is she?" he asks as he stows the items in the small fridge.
"Sleeping," Rrsh'Dhana replies. "She woke just after you left, but she fell asleep again almost immediately."
"Shock, exhaustion and injury tend to do that," Anthony comments. "She'll wake again in a few hours. Until then we'll take turns watching over her."
"Who takes first turn?"
"I'll do it," Anthony replies. "I have a few things to do anyway, but I can tuck you in if you want, or maybe give you a backrub."
"Oh, would you?" she asks, then turns and walks slowly back to the cabin, her tail swinging seductively from side to side.
"You gotta love spring," Anthony mumbles to himself as he follows her.
"Is she awake yet? And is that eggs I smell?" Rrsh'Dhana asks as she enters the rear cabin for breakfast.
"Yes, those are eggs, but no, she hasn't given any sign of being awake," Anthony replies as he lifts the frying pan off the stove and places it onto the table. "She may be shamming, though. Would you check on her? You should be less intimidating to her than I would be."
"Maybe," she replies. Then she unceremoniously dumps most of the eggs on a plate and fills the rest of the plate with sausages. "Lets hope that she doesn't find your cooking too intimidating." Then she fills a cup of tea, and, carrying the plate in one hand and the cup in the other, heads for the forward section.
"My cooking isn't that bad," Anthony mutters softly as he cracks more eggs into the frying pan and sets it back onto the stove.
"You're right, she's pretending to be asleep," Rrsh'Dhana says as she returns moments later. "She was breathing too irregularly, particularly when she smelled the food."
"Nice to know that those long muzzles are good for something," Anthony comments.
"I thought you liked muzzles," Rrsh'Dhana says, pouting like a spoiled child.
"I kind of prefer them a bit shorter and broader, more like yours," Anthony says, grinning mischievously.
"Why, thank you," Rrsh'Dhana responds before leaning over and licking him on the cheek, her long, rough tongue making a rasping sound as it passes over the stubble of his week-old beard.
"My pleasure," he says, "definitely my pleasure." He then refills his mug and walks over to the ladder. "We need to get under way now, or we'll have to sail into the night. The wind isn't too strong today, so I'll be running the engine for a while."
"You won't be needing me up on deck?"
"No," he replies, "but the weather's too nice to sit down here all day." Then he quickly climbs the ladder and starts rummaging about on deck.
"You're right, it IS nice weather today," Rrsh'Dhana says when she climbs up on deck an hour later.
"Yes, and the wind seems to be picking up a bit, too," Anthony comments. "We might be able to use the sails soon."
"That's really good news," she states. "I don't like the engine noise."
"It's not that loud, is it?" he asks.
"No, but the frequency sets my bones shaking," Rrsh'Dhana replies, her ears laying flat against her skull at the mention of the sensation. "I checked up on our passenger a few minutes ago. She ate everything I put on the plate; she even licked it clean."
"Then I guess my cooking wasn't too intimidating after all," Anthony says, grinning. Then he continues in a more serious voice, "On the other hand, she was about to eat that rotting sheep carcass yesterday, so she must have been starving. What's she doing now, by the way?"
"Sleeping again, but this time I think it's real, not faked," the alien replies. "Isn't there anything we can do about her smell?"
"Not right now," he states after a few moments deliberation. "Most wolves don't like being touched by strangers, so I don't think she would appreciate being washed by us. We'll have to wait until she can do it herself."
In the evening, when they're ready to eat dinner, they look in on their passenger to see if she is awake, only to find her pretending to be asleep again. Deciding not to call her bluff, they leave a plateful of stew in the cabin and return aft to eat their meal in silence. After dinner they retreat to their cabin to prepare for bed. As they sit there, Rrsh'Dhana on the bed and Anthony behind her, gently brushing the fur on her back and tail, they hear the door to the other cabin slowly open. Rrsh'Dhana looks questioningly first at the door, then at Anthony, but he only shakes his head and continues brushing her. Then they hear slow footsteps and the soft click of claws on wood as the wolf female makes her way down the short corridor. As they continue to listen they hear the doors in the corridor being opened and closed one by one, until finally, the door to the rear cabin is opened and closed again. A few seconds later they hear a creaking sound.
"That's the ladder!" Anthony exclaims, jumping off the bed and hurrying out the door, with Rrsh'Dhana following at a slightly slower pace. When the feline enters the rear cabin she sees Anthony with his arms around the wolf, half restraining her and half supporting her frail,unclothed body. She is shaking and sobbing but not making any attempt to break free.
"How far did she get?" Rrsh'Dhana asks.
"Just a few steps up the ladder," Anthony replies. "It's difficult to climb when you're both weak and have an injured leg. Could you go and get her something to wear?"
"Is a bathrobe OK?"
"That would be perfect," Anthony replies. Rrsh'Dhana hurries to their cabin and soon returns with one of his spare terrycloth bathrobes, which they manage to wrap around the shivering alien. He then gently seats her on the bench and Rrsh'Dhana sits down beside her. As his companion starts talking quietly to the wolf, Anthony begins making a fresh pot of tea.
"Has she said anything yet?" he asks as he puts three cups on the table and fills them with tea a few minutes later.
"Nothing," Rrsh'Dhana replies, resigned. "She won't even give me her name."
"Tell her that I'm very sorry about the way I treated her yesterday, and again today. Tell her that I was afraid that she would hurt herself, and that if she wants to climb the ladder now, she's welcome to do it." While the feline is translating, Anthony walks over to where his backpack hangs and retrieves the small bundle he picked up at the landing site the day before. This he puts on the table and slowly pushes it towards the wolf, then sits down as far away from the hatch as possible and begins sipping his tea. The wolf looks first at him, then at the hatch, then at Rrsh'Dhana and back to him again before she grabs the bundle, gets up from the bench and limps slowly towards the ladder, wincing at the pain in her leg. Then she clumsily ascends the steps, somehow managing to hold the small bundle in one hand while climbing. As soon as she is up, Rrsh'Dhana follows her.
A couple of minutes later the feline climbs back down the ladder and is soon followed by the wolf, still clutching the bundle in her hand.
"Why don't you show her how to use the toilet, shower and stuff?" he suggests. "Maybe even lend her a brush."
"Why not?" Rrsh'Dhana responds, nodding. "Anything else?"
"Stress to her that this boat is probably the safest place for her right now, and that neither of us will hurt her. Also tell her that she's free to go anywhere on the ship, with the exception of our cabin, and that if there's anything she needs she has only to ask."
"I can tell her that," she says, nodding again, "but what are you going to do?"
"I'm going back to bed," the man replies, stifling a yawn as he gets to his feet and heads for their cabin. "I got less sleep than you last night, and I'm tired."
Anthony is standing by the stove, frying sausages, when he hears the door open. "Good morning Rrsh'Dhana," he says, without turning to look. "Sit down, breakfast is almost ready," he adds. Then, when no response is forthcoming, he turns around to see what's wrong. There, in the doorway, stands the wolf, looking uneasy but sniffing the air. Deciding that breakfast is the better part of valour, he waves her to sit down at the table, then dumps most of the sausages on a plate and places it in front of her. Next he pours a cup of tea and puts that, too, in front of her.
"Why's she getting all the sausages?"
When Anthony turns towards the doorway he finds Rrsh'Dhana standing there, pretending to be annoyed.
"And a good morning to you, too," he says as he steps over to give her a hug. "I would have saved you more sausages, but she has the greater need. Don't forget that wolves are closer to being a pure carnivore than you or I."
"I know," his companion says as she slips out of his embrace and sits down by the table. "At least I can enjoy the jam." Then she grabs a slice of bread and spreads a thick layer of strawberry jam on it.
"Sorry to disappoint you," Anthony says, noticing the wolf female's reaction to the jam's sweet fragrance, "but she can enjoy it just as much as you. She just can't digest the bread." Then he, too, sits down to eat breakfast.
A few days later.
"Good wind today?" Rrsh'Dhana asks as she climbs out on the deck.
"Almost too good," Anthony replies. "I had to reef in the mainsail a bit, but we're doing OK. The ships movement isn't causing any discomfort is it?"
"No problem yet," she replies. "I didn't think the ship could move this fast though."
"This isn't fast; only about eight knots," he counters, "A sixty foot ocean racer could probably do almost twice that in this wind. Of course, those boats are built strictly for racing, not living, so they aren't all that nice inside. They also need a much larger crew."
"A knot?" she asks, bewildered. "Isn't that what you get when you tie two ropes together?"
"That, too," he replies, smiling. "It's also a nautical speed measurement. One knot is one nautical mile an hour. One nautical mile is 1850 meters. This means that eight knots is about fifteen kilometers an hour, or three times a fast walking pace."
"And there are sailboats that can go twice as fast?"
"Yes, and there are even multi-hull designs that go faster than forty knots in favourable wind," he replies. "Of course, those are built mostly to set new speed-records. Now, how's our passenger doing?"
"She's resting in her cabin. I checked her wound and it looks much better. The swelling has gone down and there's much less infection. Those antibiotics are wonder medicines. She told me her name today, Dara, and an age, about nineteen when you translate from one calendar to another."
"That's young," Anthony comments. "I really wonder what she was doing on a spacecraft. She didn't by any chance tell you?"
"I tried, but she refused to answer and became very nervous, so I decided not to push the issue."
"She's not highborn," he muses aloud. "Most lower class wolves aboard spacecraft either do drudge-work or serve as soldiers. And most of those are either there against their will, or they've chosen it instead of prison back on their homeworld."
"Why do they have to be forced to work aboard a spacecraft?" Rrsh'Dhana asks.
"Remember the life pod?" When she nods, he continues, "That pod had room for sixteen wolves, but the ship probably had a crew of nearly two hundred. If it was a carrier, it also had a complement of sixty-four fighters, if all were operational, which could be pressed into service taking one passenger each. Of course, those craft also had maybe eighty or so pilots for them. That means very few of the regular crew could hope for a ride down in a fighter. Even the most illiterate wolf can do that kind of math."
"That's awful!" Rrsh'Dhana exclaims. "But... Trained crew is expensive. How can they waste them like that?"
"They only received limited training, and couldn't do much more than their assigned task," he explains. "That would normally mean a much larger crew, but they were also made to work longer shifts. You probably didn't notice it because of the customary separation of crew and officers on the wolf ships. They were also, as you now know, skimping on shielding. Why bother if the officers quarters and critical areas are in the middle of the ship?"
"You're joking, right?" she asks, shocked.
"I'm afraid not," he replies, gravely. "We took tissue samples from officers, pilots, soldiers and the few crewmembers that we got hold of, and checked them for traces of radiation. The best guesses, based on our own unfortunate history, is that after five to ten years a crewmember would be in danger of suffering from sterility, cancer, blindness or a host of other radiation-related diseases. And he would most probably have damage to his genetic material, with high risk of malformed, retarded or stillborn offspring."
"Yes, it really is. That information was released to the public only a few days ago. It's hoped that it'll help turn mankind's opinion away from hating the wolves in general, to only hating their leaders."
"Why this concern for the wolves?"
"We may have won the war," he states, "but we still have to win the peace. If we do nothing now, the war will flare up again. Many of the wolves that are in captivity are being schooled in all manner of skills thought to be helpful in rebuilding their civilisation. The training is, of course voluntary, but as an incentive, those who receive schooling will be prioritised to return home as soon as we get hold of suitable transport ships."
"Is that all?"
"No," he replies. "There's also the food. All wolves get enough, but meat is in short supply, and most have to make do with Soya products. We get an amazing degree of co-operation in exchange for a strictly meat meal from time to time."
After dinner, Anthony switches the radio to a music station and sits down in the one big chair in the cabin. Dara, wrapped up in a light blanket, is sitting on the end of the bench, sipping on a glass of milk and watching the others cautiously. Rrsh'Dhana takes out a box of chocolates and puts it on the table before settling down in Anthony's lap.
"You know," she whispers, "we could use another chair."
"Why?" Anthony whispers back, then reaches out and grabs a chocolate with one hand and start stroking her soft belly fur with the other.
As they sit there enjoying the evening, Dara suddenly gets up and rushes to her room, obviously upset by something.
"I wonder what that's all about?" he asks before continuing to ruffle Rrsh'Dhana's fur.
"Me too," she responds. "I haven't seen anyone react like that to seeing us cuddle up before, and your people are much more intolerant towards mixed species bonding than most."
"You'd think that she would be used to it now," the man comments. "She's in the cabin next to ours, and the interior walls aren't exactly soundproof."
"I'll try to have a female to female chat with her tomorrow," Rrsh'Dhana says, purring. "She'll probably be calmer then."
"I hope so," he states, frowning, "because I don't want to have to lock her in her cabin when we reach port tomorrow evening."
It's late evening when the ship glides towards the outermost docks in the harbour. Very few people are out, and of those, only one, a sergeant, really notices the ship. He watches with anticipation as the ship slowly glides closer and closer, to bump against the old tires hanging off the edge of the docks. When a figure on the ship throws the mooring lines to him he hurries to drop them over the bollards, then he climbs aboard.
"Hello Henri," the man on deck says jovially as they shake hands. "Out for an evening stroll?"
"Something like that, yes," the sergeant replies, grinning. "I was told that you picked up another unusual passenger?"
"Yes," Anthony replies. "She's resting in the small cabin."
"Good," Henri states. "And your kitten, she's well, too?"
"She is," Anthony replies, raising an eyebrow in amusement, "but I can't say the same for you if she ever hears you call her that. But what brings you here this late?"
"Well, you know," Henri explains, "I have all these forms and papers to fill out, so I wanted to get a head start on them by getting her name, age, birthplace and which ship she was on."
"Just that?" Anthony prods, frowning slightly. "That could probably have waited until the morning."
"I also wanted to sound her out, you know, to better plan the interviews later."
"Well, OK, you can talk to her for a few minutes," Anthony finally concedes, "but remember that she's still weak. And I want Rrsh'Dhana present."
"Fine with me," Henri says, then quickly descends the ladder before Anthony can change his mind.
When Anthony climbs down and enters the rear cabin an hour later he finds Rrsh'Dhana and Henri at the table, discussing Dara. "How did it go?" he asks.
"Not too well," Henri replies, frowning. "She gave me her name and age willingly enough, and even talked about the time on the island. It seems she was happy there despite the hardship, but every time I tried to ask her anything about the ship or anything that could be used to track down her relatives she clammed up on me."
"I was afraid that would happen," Anthony says, then takes out a small stack of papers from a drawer. "Here's my report of everything that's happened. Maybe there's a clue in here."
"Maybe," the sergeant states, dubiously.
"What's going to happen to her?" the feline asks.
Henri shrugs his shoulder and replies, "I don't know yet. We're not even certain what her status is. Can we call her a POW? I personally don't think she should be sent to any of the prison camps, but on the other hand, she wouldn't survive long if we released her. I'm going to recommend that she stays here for the next few days -- that is, if you don't mind."
"No problem with us," Anthony states. "But what about her wound?"
"I'll bring a doctor sometime tomorrow," Henri replies. "No need to risk an upset by moving her." Then he stands up and heads for the ladder. "I've got to go now. See you both tomorrow." He disappears up the ladder and out on the deck.
"I'm surprised that Henri is doing the interviews," Rrsh'Dhana states. "Isn't he the major's aide?"
"Henri is much more than that," Anthony replies, nodding, then elaborates. "Yes, he's a desk clerk, but he's also one of the best interrogators around. Most of what we know about wolf society comes from his interviews. Whenever wolves are brought in for questioning they see him sitting at his desk, minding the phone and pushing papers. They tend to label him 'not dangerous', so when he starts up a casual chat with one of them they think it's only idle curiosity. He also listens in through the intercom when the major is doing an interrogation, and several times he's picked up clues the major missed."
"But don't the wolves catch on?"
"Some do," he admits, "but you see, he's genuinely interested, and he never asks them to reveal any military secrets. It's difficult to be angry at that kind of enthusiasm. He even visits some of them in the prison camps, bringing them tea, coffee and chocolate."
"But if he's such a good interrogator, why is he still only a sergeant?"
"Because he doesn't want to be promoted," he replies. "With promotion comes additional duties and responsibilities. That means less time to do what he calls 'real work', getting information."
"But why study the wolf society?" she asks, puzzled. "I would have thought that military strategy would be more important."
"Because," he replies, "if you know your opponent's strategy, you know what he plans to do, but if you know how he thinks, you will know his strategy before he does. That has been quite useful when tracking wolves."
The sound of someone moving in the corridor awakens Anthony.
"It's only Dara," Rrsh'Dhana whispers in his ear. "She's been walking around, and she's even been up on deck the last few nights. She'll be back in her cabin soon enough."
"If you say so," he murmurs back, nearly asleep again from the soft purr of her voice.
"Shit!" he cries as he throws off the blanket and almost falls out of bed. Without bothering to grab any clothes he bolts naked from the cabin, heading aft towards the main hatch, only stopping to snatch a waterproof flashlight and switch it on, an anxious Rrsh'Dhana close behind. Once on deck he starts sweeping the beam of light across the water near the boat as he slowly makes his way from the stern towards the bow. Then he finally sees what he's looking for close to the bow, a few air bubbles rising through the water. "Get a rope!" he shouts before diving into the cold, dark water.
She quickly locates a rope in the cockpit, then returns to the bow to watch him search the muddy bottom, coming up to breathe now and then, only to dive again, watching his pale body move back and forth while the flashlight makes a weak cone of light in the inky water. Then, a minute or two after diving in, he returns to the surface, this time without the flashlight, but with a dark, limp bundle in his arms.
"Throw me the end of the rope," he calls out to Rrsh'Dhana who throws him one end and secures the other end on a pulley. After tying the wolf in the rope, Anthony swims around the bow of the ship and climbs a ladder hanging off the dock while Rrsh'Dhana hoists the unmoving wolf onto the deck.
"She's still alive, I can hear her heart beating," he states after pressing an ear to the female's chest, "but she's not breathing." He quickly rolls her over on her belly and by pushing down on her chest to compress her lungs he's rewarded by a gush of cold seawater. Then he rolls her onto her back again, and, placing hands on each side of her muzzle to stop air escaping, starts mouth-to-muzzle resuscitation. He breathes for her one minute, two minutes, taking long slow breaths, until she finally starts coughing up additional water and resumes breathing on her own.
"She'll be OK?" Rrsh'Dhana asks, worried.
"Yes," he replies, exhausted. "She only needs to get dry, something hot to drink---and a breath mint!" Once he catches his breath, he continues, "Could you put on a pot of water, then dig out some large towels?"
"Already on my way," she replies as she disappears down the ladder.
Dara is moaning and beginning to come to when he gathers her in his arms and carries her to the hatch, and she begins to struggle weakly when he drapes her over his left shoulder and carries her down the ladder. He puts her down on the bench just as Rrsh'Dhana arrives with a stack of towels and two bathrobes. They start drying the wolf, he taking the back, tail and arms and she drying the feet and body, all while Dara weeps and mumbles, "Shii raeghra, shii raeghra, raeh'ra."
"What's she saying?" he finally asks when he takes a short break to gulp down some hot broth and wipe some of the water from his own shivering body.
"Something like 'no life, please' or something like that," Rrsh'Dhana replies. "I think she wanted to kill herself."
"I wonder what she's so afraid of that she would rather die," he mutters.
"I don't even want to think about it," she says as she continues to rub at the wet fur.
"Did someone have a party without inviting me?"
When Anthony drags open his eyes he sees a grinning Henri standing by the ladder. Turning his head slightly he sees Rrsh'Dhana propped in a corner of the bench, asleep, and with Dara, also asleep, lying next to her, the wolf's dark-furred head in Rrsh'Dhana's lap. On the table there are several empty and half-empty mugs and the floor is almost covered in wet towels.
"No, unfortunately not a party," Anthony grumbles. "Could you help me put them to bed?" he asks, walking over to the sleeping females.
"Of course," the sergeant replies. "What do you want me to do?"
"If you could carry Dara to her cabin, that would help," he replies as he gently lifts Rrsh'Dhana in his arms and heads down the short corridor.
"Do you mind explaining what happened last night?" Henri asks moments later as they start gathering up towels, putting away dirty cups and airing out the rank smell of wet fur.
"Nothing much," Anthony responds. "Dara tried to drown herself, then spent the rest of the night crying."
"Not a good time to try to ask more questions, then," Henri comments dryly. "I think I'll do a little bit of investigation somewhere else, give you all a chance to rest up, and maybe look in again later."
"Good idea," Anthony says, "I was up half the night, and the others were still awake when I passed out."
Anthony and Rrsh'Dhana are sitting together in the big chair when Henri drops by.
"Is Dara up?" Henri asks, not seeing her in the cabin.
"No," Rrsh'Dhana replies, "but she is awake, if that's what you're wondering about. She hasn't left her cabin since she woke; she just lies there, crying. I don't know what she's gone through, but I want to rip someone to pieces, very small pieces."
"Unfortunately I do have some idea of what she's gone through, and I, too, want to rip someone to pieces," Henri states, his eyes cold and sharp with barely repressed anger. A moment later he sighs, then quietly asks, "Can I see her?"
"Go ahead," she replies. She then expresses her claws for a moment before continuing, "Just don't do anything that hurts her, or..."
Henri only nods, then slips quietly into the corridor.
"Do you think he'll be able to do anything for her?" she suddenly asks Anthony.
"I don't know," he replies, shaking his head sadly, "but I hope so. It's heart wrenching to listen to her crying all the time."
Half an hour later, Rrsh'Dhana, beginning to feel worried, unwraps herself from Anthony's embrace and pads quietly through the corridor to peek into Dara's cabin. Then she just as quietly pads back to the aft cabin and snuggles back into her companion's arms.
"Well?" he whispers into her ear.
"She's still crying, but now she's crying on his shoulder. I guess that's an improvement from soaking the pillow."
"That depends," Anthony states quietly, "on whether he's holding her, or she's holding him."
"She had her arms wrapped tightly around his neck," she says, then snuggles closer, rubbing her ears against his cheek.
Rrsh'Dhana's single, barked word almost makes Henri freeze in his tracks. "She's sleeping," he finally replies.
"Good," Rrsh'Dhana states, her eyes piercing. "Now then, when you came here this evening you knew something about her past, didn't you?"
"Yes, but it's mostly circumstantial," the sergeant replies, almost defensively as he sits down by the table and pours himself a cup of tea from the ever present pot. "This morning, I got a contact at NASA to calculate the capsule's trajectory for me. Her capsule, like all the others we recovered, had to be launched mechanically since the poorly shielded electronics were dead. Therefore it wasn't much of a challenge to calculate where it originated. In that area there were five ships: an infantry transport, a supply freighter and three larger battleships. The two smaller ships didn't have large enough crews to warrant a sixteen-crew life pod, and we recovered the pods from two of the battleships. That left one. Then I checked through the lists of prisoners until I located a pilot who had been stationed on that last ship."
"And?" Rrsh'Dhana asks, becoming even more curious.
"That's where it begins to get nasty," Henri replies, his voice cold. "The pilot said that there was a rumour aboard that the higher officers had a young female there to 'keep them company', as he put it. He also hinted that she probably wasn't there voluntarily."
"The bastards!" Anthony snarls.
"Correction: deep-fried bastards," Henri counters. "That particular ship was maneuvering into a lower orbit when the warheads exploded. With no way to change course, it burned up when it plowed into the atmosphere less than a day later. With no available life pod, there was no way any of them could get off the ship alive."
"But why was she alone in the pod?" Rrsh'Dhana asks.
"She explained that right before she fell asleep," Henri replies. "She used to hide there sometimes. When the bombs exploded and the lights aboard died, she snuck in and dogged the hatch, hoping to get a few moments to herself. The mechanical release was connected directly to the hatch locking mechanism, and with the electronic lock disabled, there was nothing to stop the pod from launching automatically using stored kinetic energy."
Two weeks later.
Anthony and Rrsh'Dhana are up on deck, enjoying the fine spring weather, when a van drives up and Henri climbs out and approaches the boat.
"What are you doing here today?" Rrsh'Dhana asks.
"I'm here to take Dara to see some police officers," Henri replies. "Under Earth military law, what happened to her is punishable by death, and the higher ups intend to use it as an example both to establish Earth law in the solar system, and to make certain that if any of the perpetrators survived, they're introduced to a firing squad. There's also talk about possibly granting her asylum on humanitarian causes." He pauses a few seconds before asking, "Would you perhaps have something other than that bathrobe that might fit her?"
"Maybe one of my casual evening robes would fit," Rrsh'Dhana replies. "It's not as if I ever use them." She disappears down the hatch, only to return ten minutes later with Dara, dressed in an ankle-length blue robe, in tow. Henri smiles warmly and takes the nervous wolf's hand in his, and together they climb onto the dock and walk towards his van.
"Is it me, or did Dara look different today?" Anthony asks as they watch the vehicle disappear up the road.
"No, it's not you," Rrsh'Dhana replies. "I think it's the first time Dara has really brushed her fur since we found her. When I entered her cabin a few minutes ago she was sitting there brushing herself. I think she was actually disappointed that it was I who entered. It was almost as if she was expecting, or maybe hoping for, someone else."
"Yes, really. And do you know what's even stranger?"
"No, I don't have a clue," he replies, smiling softly while wondering what could make her so excited.
"The brush," she explains. "It wasn't that old, broken one, or even one of mine, but a new one, quite expensive looking, too. I wonder where she got it?"
Anthony is fast asleep when the sound instantly snaps him to full alertness. He reaches out and gently shakes Rrsh'Dhana awake. "Quiet," he whispers. "I think there's someone moving around on deck."
The feline listens for a few moments, her ears twitching as she tries to pinpoint the sound, then states, "It's only Dara. I can hear her claws clicking on the wood."
"But it's past midnight," he complains. "What's she doing up now?"
"I think she just returned from wherever Henri took her," she mumbles, then snuggles up against Anthony's back, slipping an arm around him to let it rest possessively on his chest.
Anthony and Rrsh'Dhana are enjoying a quiet and very late breakfast when the door to the forward section opens and Dara enters, dressed in a sari.
"That isn't one of yours, is it?" Anthony whispers the question to Rrsh'Dhana.
"No," she replies, admiring the multicoloured cloth, "but I wouldn't mind having one like it in my size. It's beautiful." They both watch as the wolf does a lazy pirouette before she sits down by the table and pours herself a cup of tea.
"Someone had a nice evening out," Anthony dryly comments.
"Seems like it," Rrsh'Dhana agrees. "Now if you'll excuse me, I'll try to get some details." She quickly moves over, ending up next to Dara and starts whispering to her. The two females are soon engrossed in their discussion, now whispering, then giggling. Anthony, knowing that he won't be able to get a word in, grabs his cup and climbs up on deck to enjoy it in the sunshine.
"Is Dara awake yet?"
When he turns to the source of the voice he finds Henri standing on the docks, fidgeting with his shirt-collar and rubbing his neck. "Yeah, she's up," Anthony replies. "She's in the rear cabin, talking with Rrsh'Dhana about last evening. If you want to stop her from revealing everything, you'll have to hurry."
"I need to get moving, then," Henri yelps, then climbs aboard and disappears down the hatch. Anthony smiles and turns his attention back to his cup of tea.
A while later, Henri returns topside, followed by Dara and Rrsh'Dhana.
"What's going on?" Anthony asks, noticing that Dara is carrying a bundle.
"Well," Henri begins, still fidgeting and rubbing the side of his neck, "I got a paper this morning saying that I'm responsible for Dara's well being until further notice, and I figured that since my house is mostly empty it would be more practical to let her stay there."
"As long as we can come over and visit now and then," Rrsh'Dhana says, grinning.
"Anytime," Henri replies cheerfully. "Now, if you'll excuse us, we have things to do." He picks up Dara's bundle and jumps down onto the docks. Dara looks first at him, then at Rrsh'Dhana and Anthony, then back at Henri before she quickly hugs first Rrsh'Dhana, then Anthony. Moments later she jumps down onto the docks and grabs Henri's hand possessively.
"Did you notice how Henri was rubbing his neck?" Rrsh'Dhana asks as she hugs Anthony.
"Yes, what about it?" he mumbles into her ear.
"Dara told me she bit him there last night," she replies, chuckling. "Gave him quite a scare, it seems. She also said that he 'tasted interesting', and that she might try to get another taste sometime soon. I guess that means she must be getting over her experience on the spacecraft."