“Looks like my stop is just ahead.”

“What? You want out, here, in a storm like this? I’ll be the first to admit I’m a crazy fool to be driving in this mess, but you’ve gotta be trying to kill yourself.”

“I’ll be fine. Besides, you’re going to be late enough getting to Winnipeg.”

The trucker shook his head. “Late or not, I don’t mind going a bit out of my way to get you out of this storm.”

“I really have to go on my own from here, William. Wish I could explain it.”

“Religious thing?”

“Something like that.”

William grunted at the familiar excuse, easing back on the semi’s throttle. They’d already been traveling slow; the blizzard had left most roads nearly impassable. Outside the windows of the heated cab was nothing short of a frozen wasteland. The locals had jestingly deemed the weather phenomenon a ‘light snowstorm.’ Sustained winds of thirty miles per hour, gusts upwards of sixty. Ten degrees Fahrenheit with a wind chill of twelve below zero. The snow, falling generally in a horizontal fashion with the winds, left the visibility near zero.

“Gotta say, you’re the first hitchhiker I’ve picked up in a long time. We’re not supposed to. Couldn’t just leave you out there. Wouldn’t have felt right.”

“I wasn’t expecting anyone to stop, but I really appreciate the ride. Wish there was something I could do to repay you. Mm, there’s a thought.”

William waved his right hand dismissingly. “Don’t worry about - eh?” The trucker peered curiously at the thick white envelope being pressed against his palm. “What’s this?”

“Some funds to make up for the trouble.”

“Jadyn, I can’t take your money -“

“Where I’m going, I could just as well set fire to the bills for heat. Hate to see good currency go to waste when the funds could help someone else in need.” Jadyn pulled on his gloves as the trucker peeked inside the envelope. “Buy yourself a steak or something.”

“Sweet mother of God! There’s got to be over ten thousand bucks here!”

“Twelve thousand, nine hundred and seventy… three dollars. I think. Make sure it’s a really good steak. Give the rest to SETI for me if you don’t want it. Send them some anyway if you don’t know what to do with it. They’re on the right track.”

“You’re carrying around scratch like this and you’re hitchhiking…” William shook his head, setting the brakes as the truck slid precariously to a stop. “It’s not genuine, is it?”

“Totally legit. Came out ahead at a casino - receipt is in there if you get stopped at the border and have to explain.”

“Huh, okay. Oh, your cassette -“

“Can’t take it either.”

“Religious reasons,” William muttered, tucking the envelope into an inconspicuous inside shirt pocket.

“Nope. I don’t have a tape player.” Jadyn grinned as his host cackled with laughter. “It’s been a pleasure, William. Do yourself a favor and wait at the next truck stop for this crap to blow over.”

“Seriously think that’s a good idea. Take care of yourself.” William handed him a business card. “Drop me a line or something when you get where you’re going. I’ll feel better knowing you didn’t die out here.”

“Will do.” They shook hands briefly; Jadyn shouldered his backpack and adjusted his parka’s hood. Taking a deep breath of the last warm air he’d inhale for several days, he cracked open the door and eased to the ground. Wind whipped under the truck and around his insulated pants as he slammed the door shut. With a final wave he stepped away from the steel and iron behemoth.

William honked the horn twice in farewell. Oily dark clouds of poorly-combusted diesel spewed forth from the exhaust stacks as the vehicle slowly rolled down the road once again. Jadyn watched his former ride vanish into the wall of snow and slowly took stock of his surroundings. The highway they’d been traveling led due north; the last roadside sign had indicated the port of entry to Canada wasn’t more than a few more miles down the road. His own destination waited to the east, some dozen miles along a separate highway. The roads were fairly easy to pick out, now that he was standing upon them: the higher mounds of snow slicing through the low-lying land surrounding them.

Everything was draped in an endless blanket of white. The snowy ground at his feet blended seamlessly into the mass of airborne flakes, making an estimate of visibility nigh on impossible. The blizzard had raged on for almost two days. Had he not suddenly felt pressed to follow his schedule he’d have waited out the storm in a hotel. Instead, some subconscious madness drove him to begin walking in the whiteout. William’s welcome offer of a ride had been nothing short of a miracle. The only other vehicle he’d seen had been abandoned in a ditch. Upside-down.

“What the Void am I doing out here,” he muttered, adjusting his ruby-lensed goggles. “Should have arranged extraction for somewhere tropical… But noooo, have to do the rendezvous where there’s a low number of natives, which conveniently happens to be a winter wonderland at this time of year… I’ll kill her… reboot her… and kill her processes again… Yes… And then… And then I’ll take a nap in a warm bed…”

The wind howled across the wintry plain as he began his trek to the east. He was thankful the moving air was at his back. Slowly, the road began a gentle climb upwards into a region of hilly terrain. The range had been named the ‘Turtle Mountains,’ formed by glacier movement thousands of years prior. Nature apparently thought the job hadn’t been finished and spawned the blizzard to make a further attempt. The wind only worsened as he walked onward, icy fingers of air reaching through his winter clothes and extracting his body heat. He knew that the cold would only get worse at nightfall and prayed to the Spirits for shelter against the wind. His sleeping bag, advertised as good for extreme cold, had yet to have the claim verified. There was no small doubt in his mind that the conditions were beyond the ‘extreme’ rating of the materials.

A little over a mile from the start of his walk he discovered a promising roadsign framed in ice. Visions of a place to camp for the night danced through his head at the suggestion of a small picnic area a mere five hundred feet away. His watch noted that the remaining daylight was short in supply; he decided to take a look at the area and see about settling down for the day.

Snowdrifts and broken trees filled the driveway to near impassability. Wading through the mess took far more time than he anticipated, but proved worthwhile - an abandoned vehicle sat silent in the clearing, waiting for an owner to return. The black sport utility had mostly disappeared under the snow. After peeking through the windows he confirmed no one had been trapped within the vehicle. However, all the doors were securely locked. A brief internal debate later Jadyn found himself shaking broken glass off his gloves. Survival - or at the least, the semblance of - versus a window netted a shattered window.

“Looks like a shelter to me,” he whispered, unlocking the back door with a grin. He found the rear seats folded down flat, saving him the trouble of figuring out how to make the change himself. Gently setting his pack on the upholstered floor, he removed the bungee cords securing his sleeping bag to the hiking frame and unrolled the insulated bedding into the open space.

Making some final adjustments within his refuge, he took stock of the area around the vehicle. Even with the slight shelter of naked trees and the vehicle’s profile there was still too much wind for a safe fire. Little metal camp stoves sat on posts near what were likely picnic tables under the snow, but getting any heat out of them would require standing in the wind once again.

Void with it, he finally decided. Maybe once the weather calms down -

A loud CLANK and a feral scream of agony turned his attention immediately to the forest. Gazing at the surrounding treeline, he retrieved his flashlight and started following the cries of pain to their source. The wind played tricks on his ears as he searched the trees, darkness settling where his flashlight failed to point.

“Oh, Goddess…” Jadyn grit his teeth, finally discovering the origin of the ruckus. Deep within the brush and snow outside the boundaries of the picnicking clearing, someone had set a steel hunting trap. The interlocking metal jaws originally designed to catch large animals had instead captured a small white fox. Its left foreleg had been caught deep between the blades. Were their places reversed, he imagined his bicep would have been well within the bite of the trap. The trap, the snow, and the fox’s previously pristine white pelt were spattered with rivulets of crimson. A branch no bigger than the creature’s foreleg had also wedged in the trap, quite possibly preventing the complete amputation of the appendage.

The fox bared its teeth at his approach, growling a warning. With quiet reverence he knelt down in the snow, just outside arm’s reach of the creature’s muzzle.

“What are we going to do with you, little one,” he spoke above the wind, shaking his head in disappointment. There were so many more considerate ways of trapping, versus letting the victim bleed or starve to death; though tolerant of the practice in general, he’d never partaken in the activity. “Can’t just let you bleed to death out here. Guess that means I get to figure out veterinary medicine this evening…”

The white fox gazed back at him for a time, no longer growling in his direction. Jadyn listened to the wind whistling through the trees as he considered what needed to be done. He wasn’t a vet; first aid, however, was still first aid. There had to be some amount of parallel. After all, most organic life forms could be classified as ‘animal.’ Humans tended to forget that they were neither vegetable nor mineral regardless of what they ate.

After a few minutes of contemplation, the fox finally laid its head down on the snow and whimpered imploringly. Jadyn inched forward through the deep snow to get a better look at the mechanical contraption restraining its foreleg. Grabbing hold of what appeared to be the spring, he put pressure on the thick metal loop. Stars shot through his vision as he doubled his effort; he cursed the limitations of his human form and pressed harder. The spring inched open, slack creeping into the metal jaws with excruciating torpor.

The fox quickly took the initiative and removed its paw from harm’s way. The trap’s teeth snapped back shut with a dull clank as Jadyn let loose of the spring. He’d half expected the fox to limp off into the night, exercising its newfound freedom; instead, it - she, he corrected himself, observing a distinct lack of male anatomy - she sat down on the snow, staring up at him with the lame paw held off the ground. Blood continued to drip onto the snow.

“Aren’t we the tame one?” he questioned aloud; the fox whimpered slightly, her body language registering as helpless and plaintive. He moved closer to the small creature, shining the flashlight on her injury. The flesh had been absolutely shredded, but the foreleg didn’t appear to be at any strange angles. He hoped the bone hadn’t broken.

Carefully picking up the fox in his arms, he trundled back to his makeshift shelter. Doing his best not to aggravate the creature’s injury, he placed her on the end of his sleeping sack and pulled the vehicle’s door shut behind himself. Dark had fully invaded as he rummaged through his pack for his first aid kit. “What I wouldn’t do for one of the suspicious models,” Jadyn muttered, popping the latches on the innocuous plastic box. Inside was nothing that couldn’t be found somewhere on the planet already: dressings, bandages, tape, scissors, tweezers, splints, and other tools; various medications, antiseptics, and painkillers also held a place. He’d only taken the kit along as a show of good faith. Until today, he hadn’t even opened the lid.

The vixen hobbled to his side and waited as he took out a dressing and a roll of gauze. She was far too tame for a wild fox, likely someone’s pet to be so trusting of a ‘human’ presence. Tossing his winter gloves aside, he donned a pair of sterile rubber gloves. She whined as he probed gently around the wound, trimming the surrounding fur as he worked. Judging that the bone hadn’t been broken, he tore open a packet of an antiseptic and anesthetic ointment. The lacerations ran deep below her skin, possibly into the muscles below; she wouldn’t be walking around with the foreleg for quite some time to come. Barks of pain escaped her muzzle as he applied an ointment-laden dressing to her wound. He quickly wrapped several layers of gauze around the dressing, finishing off with a few pieces of tape to secure the bandage.

“And that’s that.” Jadyn nodded to himself at his work. While he didn’t put the same level of concentration into binding his own wounds, those of others were another story altogether. Satisfied, he snapped the latches on the kit closed and placed the box back into his pack. Searching around for another few seconds he drew forth a bottle of water, a package of jerked meat, and a small metal bowl he’d often used for cooking. Several instant-heat glove warmers kept his drinking water thawed; he’d dropped in freshly activated ones shortly before disembarking William’s truck. The water steamed slightly in the cool air as he poured some for the vixen. She sniffed at the dish curiously, taking a few tentative laps before drinking down the contents with gusto.

“What to call you,” he mused aloud as she started gnawing on a piece of the meat. Pulling off his boots, he crawled between the layers of his sleeping bag to try and warm up. As an afterthought, he clicked off the switch on the flashlight. Batteries were no concern - the power source was something much more novel - but he didn’t feel like watching the snow outside the car’s window. The broken glass let him hear the storm clearly enough to picture what was going on. “You’re the same color as that snow outside… Maybe Viraneivo, think that’s roughly ‘endless white’ in Ancient, closest description of a blizzard I can think of… Just ‘Vira’ might be easier on the tongue. What do you think?”

Through the darkness, he heard her wuff quietly; the sound felt somehow like acceptance. He felt her sniffing at his neck and opened the drawstring at the head of the sleeping bag slightly. Being careful of her injury, she crawled into the warmth of the insulated bag and curled up on his chest. Shortly, he realized she’d fallen asleep.

“Dream well, Vira.”

By morning the storm had blown out. Sunlight streamed into the windows of the vehicle, slipping under heavy eyelids and nudging him awake. His drowsy mind took several minutes to realize sunlight didn’t have a wet nose or whiskers to nudge with. Blinking the fog of sleep out of his eyes, he glanced at the furry white friend he’d made in the night. Gears slowly turned in his head as she scratched at the window, and he opened the door to let her out. The fox barked happily and limped her way into the morning. Within five minutes she’d returned and scratched at the door again, requesting to be let back in.

After sharing another meal of water and dried meat with the vixen and changing her dressings, Jadyn packed the rest of his things. He hated not leaving anything to make up for the broken window; noting the license plate number, he scribbled himself a reminder to look up the owner. He hadn’t given William all his funding, but leaving cash in an abandoned vehicle with unlocked doors wouldn’t have been the brightest thing he’d ever done. At the least, he could wire his nameless savior the funds to repair the damage.

The wind had all but died; his watch reported the air temperature around fifteen degrees. The day had the potential for getting several more miles off his walk. Vira looked at him expectantly as he shouldered his pack and donned his goggles.

“Well… Can’t really leave you here, can I? If you are someone’s pet, your home must be somewhere relatively nearby… But even so, you’re alone out here. You can’t possibly hunt with a leg like that. Guess I take you with for now… For lack of a nearby veterinarian, I’m sure Bee will fix you right up. Need a better way of carrying you all day, though… Hm.”

A flash of inspiration later, he’d designed a makeshift sling out of an extra flannel shirt and some light twine. Vira wasn’t very large, perhaps five to six pounds; the improvised pet carrier seemed to suit her just fine. Her additional weight wouldn’t slow him down too much on his walk, provided she didn’t try and squirm out of the sling too often.

Plows and sanding trucks had cleared the road sometime in the morning, leaving the path eastbound far more than simply passable. Numbers danced through his thoughts as he started walking - with five to six hours of light remaining and a generally brisk pace, he guessed he could make most of his remaining trip by sundown. And then, he only had to wait.

“Wonder how she’s fared this year… I swear, she’s got the easy job, sitting on her tail and downloading everything… You may like your planet, Vira, but… Goddess. It’s a backwards little ball of dirt, rock, and water… The people certainly are nice enough here, until you watch the news and see how bad it is everywhere else. You’re lucky you’re not human and off dying in one of their silly wars.”

Vira sneezed, rolling over slightly in the sling and burying her head.

“Oh, am I boring you? So sorry.”

Jadyn walked on for a time in silence, occasionally whistling or humming various tunes to himself. The pieces ranged from old folk songs from home to pop hits in the local sectors. Even a few melodies from Terra snuck into his head as he distracted himself from the task of hiking along the road.

As day approached evening, he found himself standing at a four-way intersection. The northern road looped around and across a lake for nine miles, the path eventually ending a mile east of the intersection. Either route would get him to where he needed to go.

“North…? Or east…? Doesn’t really matter, I guess. The rendezvous point is about four and a half miles along… I suppose we - hello, what’s this? A hotel, one mile east and one north… Mmm… Spend the night on the cold ground around a fire with dehydrated food rations, or get a warm room and a bed and something substantial to eat?”

Vira whined quietly. He hoped that the cry meant she didn’t want to spend another night in the cold. He knew he didn’t. And hotel rooms had showers. Warm showers. With clean water. And soap.

An hour later he was standing in the lobby. A young lady of what he guessed was Native American descent sat behind a counter, watching television; she glanced up at him as he approached the desk. “Good evening,” she greeted warmly.

“Hi. I need a room for…” He peered at his watch, pondering the day to come. If for some reason she didn’t show up on time… “Two nights, I suppose.”

“All right… A single for two nights…”

“Do you have a suite open?”

“There’s one that isn’t reserved. Also, there’s an extra fee for pets in the rooms.”

“I’ll take it.”

The woman nodded, pushing a form across the counter. He filled the document with the false information he’d long since memorized, flashed an equally false ID, and paid cash for everything in advance.

Tossing his pack down on a chair in the suite, he let the little white vixen down to sniff around her new surroundings. After diving through the shower and donning the only clean clothes he could find in his pack - denim jeans and a black tee-shirt with a stick figure running while holding scissors - he ordered two steak dinners from the hotel’s restaurant. One had been cooked to ‘rare’ for his companion; they wouldn’t send raw meat to the room, citing health codes and other nonsense. She seemed to enjoy the generally fresh red meat despite the slight searing. To his surprise, she didn’t finish the entire steak, and instead gnawed on part of a baked potato loaded with cheese and soured cream.

“Done?” Jadyn queried, noticing her waning interest in the meal as he finished his own. He popped the foam carton of food into the suite’s miniature refrigerator for her breakfast. Changing out her dressing once more, he found an impressive yet curious amount of healing already visible. With the rudimentary tools he’d been forced to use, what he saw shouldn’t have been possible on anyone but himself. If he hadn’t known better he’d have dated the wound at nearly two weeks old.

“Wonder if she didn’t sneak me some of her special brews, after all… Huh.” Wrapping her leg back up in a fresh dressing, he sat the vixen on the end of the bed and flicked on the television. His fingers idly scratched through the fur between her ears as some peculiar crime drama played out on the screen.

“The television alone proves that humans are primitive, Vira.” He flipped channels a dozen times, finally tossing the remote aside. “What advanced culture would knowingly inflict such a device on - Well now, what do we have here?” he wondered aloud, tracing a small, lightweight chain around her neck. A trinket dangled from the silver links, but didn’t resemble any identification tag he’d ever seen. After some thought he recognized the design as what someone had called an oriental dragon, crafted masterfully from silver and gold. A teal green gemstone sparkled magnificently in the light, the eye of the dragon.

“So… No tags, you’re incredibly tame, and someone had to care a lot about you to give you a necklace like this… You were someone’s pet at some time. Or maybe… Nah.” He laughed, shaking his head. Another option flashed in his mind, but the very possibility was so ludicrous he immediately discounted the idea.

He found the vixen looking back at him as he let go of the trinket around her neck, her slitted eyes a remarkable shade of teal he’d never seen in a native fox. She seemed to be gauging him in her own way; there was a sense of curiosity in her eyes, a depth he just couldn’t quite place. The only other time he’d seen a remotely similar look was when he’d first met a vulden who’d -

A vulden… who’d been pretending to…

“My Goddess,” he whispered, his ludicrous idea suddenly less so. “You are! You’re sapient, aren’t you?”

Vira blinked at his quiet revelation; her surprised look only reinforced his conclusion. He frowned, making a quiet growling noise in the back of his throat, but she didn’t return the greeting. Something wasn’t adding up. He felt he was missing a vital variable somewhere in his thinking.

There’s got to be a simple explanation here… Okay. She doesn’t comprehend Vuldaani, so she’s not one of them. The whole sector is a no-travel zone without special permission. I’m the only one supposed to be doing a survey at present, anyway. So. If she’s not from out there…

There’s another sapient race that evolved here?

“Crap, crap, crap,” he muttered to himself, flopping back on the bed and staring at the ceiling. Vira carefully walked up beside him, looking down at his face. He recognized the concern in her features - now that he was looking for body language - and presumed it was for his own well-being. “I’m okay. Just… shocked. Awed. I don’t suppose you can speak like this?”

She shook her head a little in a negative reply.

“Didn’t expect so. But obviously, you comprehend me.”

A nod.

“Guess that’s a start… Can’t say I’ve heard it’s normal to have a conversation with a vixen around here. I should stop referring to you as a pet, at any rate. You might have masqueraded as one in the past, but as far as I’m concerned we’re on equal footing - opposable thumbs notwithstanding.”

Vira barked quietly, giving his cheek a lick. A thank you? As gracefully as possible with her limp, she padded to the head of the large queen-sized bed and curled up on a pillow. Within minutes she seemed asleep.

“Sure do snooze a lot, don’t you?” Turning down the volume on the television out of courtesy, he tuned to the local news and fell asleep halfway through the broadcast.

Jadyn woke in the morning with an unfamiliar weight on his chest. It wasn’t uncomfortable, but the fact it was present was evident. Little Vira wasn’t possibly more than ten pounds; this felt more like a hundred. He inhaled deeply, the faint scent of his supposedly ‘perfumeless’ shampoo mixed with the earthy scents of the forest filling his nose. The weight shifted slightly as he moved through a gentle stretch of his arms.

What the Void? he wondered silently, opening his eyes. The world was a blur. He blinked several times to clear his vision, trying to make out what was lying on top of his chest.

A heavy blanket…? No… A full-body fur coat… Reaching out, he touched the pelt, feeling body heat and a heartbeat. Good Goddess, the coat’s still attached to its owner…?

A pair of teal eyes watched him intently behind a soft pink nose. Surrounding the slitted green pools lay a distinctly foxen face covered in white fur as clean and bright as the carpet of snow outside. The face was almost too familiar as the last of his slumber evaporated.

Kshorahii Tarisali…? No… Who is this?

They looked into each other’s eyes for a time, waiting for one to break the uneasy silence. “Good morning,” he finally whispered.

The foxen face swiveled slightly, apparently not expecting such a placid response. “So far, I would tend to agree with that sentiment,” she replied, the voice soft and feminine. She spoke English with a precise diction - nary an accent to be heard. “And you?”

“Do I agree? I’m not even sure I’m awake yet. I don’t usually find such a lovely vixen lying on my chest when I wake up in a room I’m sure I went to sleep in alone.”

“Alone?” she questioned, sitting up while remaining on top of him. Fine silk robes draped from her shoulders, shimmering blue in the sunlight trickling through the suite’s window. An embroidered oriental dragon twisted around the garment, gold and silver threads catching an occasional ray of light as she breathed. “Were you really?”

Dragon… Jadyn’s eyes immediately shot to her neck, a familiar green-eyed silver-and-gold oriental dragon hanging from a fine silver chain. “I suppose I haven’t been alone since I pulled you out of that trap, have I?”

She grinned, shaking her head. “No, you haven’t.”

“So, what are you? A shapedancer? A visitor from another planet? A really nice dream I hope I don’t wake from anytime soon?”

The vixen laughed, poking him squarely in the chest as her tails - two tails? he asked himself - as her tails swished in concert behind her. “What if I told you I’m as real as you?”

“I’d probably be stuck with another reality check I can’t foot the bill for. Do I keep calling you Vira, or do you have a name you prefer?”

“I’m Tarioshi. Friends call me Tari.”

“Can I call you that?”

“Are you a friend?”

“I’d prefer not to be an enemy to those teeth. Jadyn Tzeki. Just ‘Jay’ works for me.” He poked her knee, confirming she was still there. “Not a dream.”


“And likely not human, unless there’s a large and unnoticed fork in the family tree. What do you put on your driver’s license?”

“‘Other.’” Tarioshi laughed again. “My race is called kitsune. It’s oriental - I’m from Japan.”

“Japan…” he thought aloud, trying to recall where the country was located. Wasn’t it across one of the oceans? “Long way from home.”

“I’m from there. It’s not home. Not anymore.”

“Ooh. I could sing a few bars of that. Lots of magical foxes running about on this world?”


“Bless you,” he replied.

“I didn’t sneeze. Kami - we’re spirits of the land and elements. Different areas have different spirits. Generally, coyote spirits live in this region, but we don’t get along very well. I’m really just passing through to visit some friends up north.”

“Huh. I’m really not as well versed in legends and myth as I should be, I suppose - Wait. I helped a spirit out of a corporeal hunting trap?”

Tarioshi rubbed her cheek. “Yeah, I know how it sounds. It’s kind of an involved thing to explain.”

“Fair enough.” Jadyn sighed, peering at the ceiling. “I think breakfast is in order.”

“You’re taking this rather well,” she observed.

“I hope you’re not too disappointed, but you’re not as high on my scale-o’-weirdness as you might think. I’m slowly coming to terms with the concept that there are other sapients on this fair planet than the obvious, though.” Jadyn sat up slightly, waiting as the kitsune vixen slid off his torso. She remained kneeling on the bed as he stood and stretched. “How’s the arm?”

Tarioshi’s ears drooped slightly in shame. “My shapeshift tore it up pretty badly. I can’t move that arm much at all.”

“Why didn’t you say something sooner?”

“I’ve been trying to heal it myself…”

Jadyn grumbled a curse under his breath, grabbing his pack and digging out the first aid kit. “Can you roll up that sleeve far enough for me to take a look?”

“Probably not.”

“Then you either need to take it off or come to terms with me cutting into what looks to be an expensive silk robe.”

Tarioshi nodded; the garment evaporated into the air, leaving her in a white spandex halter and matching jogging shorts. Jadyn donned sanitary gloves once more and inspected the wound. The bandage he’d put on her before was not to be found - not unexpected, since there was no way it could have fit her current body nor the injury it had been intended to patch. There wasn’t any blood, but that could have been because she didn’t have any left. He’d seen butcher shops with more meat hanging around.

“Stitches would be a really good idea, but I’ll assume you dislike doctors about as much as I do.”

“No doctors,” she confirmed.

“A vet?” he joked.

“If I try to shift forms again, I think it’ll just get worse. It’s taking most of my concentration to keep it the way it is.”

“I was just kidding. Why’d you shapedan…er, shift, anyway? You could have stayed as the quadruped until this healed.”

“I really wanted a shower and those controls don’t operate well without thumbs.” Tarioshi winced as he applied the same ointments he’d used the day before. “Sadly, I didn’t get the shower, either.”

“It burn?” he queried.

“Not really. Just cold.”

“Good, good… Either way, it’s a sign that nerves are still working.”

She watched him work, helping hold the bandage with her good arm while he taped it down. “I wanted to thank you for the help… Especially after you figured out I wasn’t an ordinary fox.”

“You’re quite welcome.” He eyed her sidelong as he put his things away. “Definitely nothing ordinary about you.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“You just did. But go ahead.”

“Yesterday, you made a reference to humans, as though you aren’t one…”

Jadyn bit down on his tongue, riding the endorphins in an effort to counter his panic. Crap. Crap crap crap. I forgot all about that… “You calling me inhumane?” he dodged, hoping he’d kept a straight face.

“No, not at all. I’m just curious as to your wording.”

“I talk to myself a lot. Helps pass the time when I’m out walking. Most of what I come up with is nonsense.”

“Uh-huh,” Tarioshi grunted. “You’re one of us, aren’t you?”

“What?” Jadyn laughed, shaking his head. “No.”

“You are! You’re taking this far too well. I’ve never had a human flirt with me like you are, either.”

“I what?” he questioned, thinking back at what he’d said and done since he woke up. “I suppose I might have, a couple of times. Not that you aren’t deserving.”

“There you go again. And I didn’t want to say anything before, but you absolutely reek of magic. Who are you, really? What family?”

“I’m not kitsune, nor… ‘Kami,’ wasn’t it? Today was the very first time I’d ever heard those words.”

“There’s no way you’re a human.” Tarioshi tapped on her chin. “But if you say you aren’t one of us…”

“Tari… I really can’t explain.”

“Why not?” she pressed.

“I just… There’s no good reason, okay?” Jadyn growled, walking to the telephone and lifting the directory of services the hotel offered. “Besides,” he added in a mumble, hunting for menus, “I don’t even believe the truth half the time.”

“Try me.”

“Do the math,” he countered, growing quickly more frustrated by her insistence. “You say I’m not human, and I say I’m not kitsune. What does that leave?”

“Well, an oni would have devoured my spirit already… Most other spirits don’t like to interact with humans all that much anymore… Ha! I know. Aliens!” she laughed.

Jadyn picked up a menu, glancing over the breakfasts available. Ooh, that omelet looks good. Wonder if they put olives in it…

“Er, you were supposed to laugh with me…” Tari spoke uncertainly.

Damn it anyway… Slapping the menu down, he turned to face her. What’s the worst that could happen? As far as humanity is concerned, she doesn’t exist, right? So I’m really not talking to anyone at all. “I’m a five-hundred year old alien, by the Gregorian calendar, and I’m on your world finishing a survey to determine the possibility of contact in the future. Happy? Now, what do you want for breakfast?”

Tarioshi stared at him incredulously. For a full fifteen seconds, no other emotion touched her features. Even her tails froze in mid-flick. Slowly, a grin tugged at her muzzle, becoming a snicker, then a quiet chuckle. Finally, she fell over on the bed in fits of laughter. Her face was growing obviously red under her fur as the hysterics forced tears from her eyes.

“I won’t take this personally,” Jadyn noted quietly, wondering how her disbelief had crawled so deeply under his skin.

“You… You should… take it… personally!” she gasped between cackles. Easily ten minutes passed before the semblance of control appeared; every time she met his gaze she’d broken back out in laughter. “Oh, Maker… Really, Jadyn. If you didn’t want to tell me the truth, you could have come up with something better than that… Look at you! An alien…”

“So delighted to be a source of amusement,” he snapped, walking to the door.

“Hey - where are you -“

“I’m going for a walk before I break something I don’t own.” He slammed the door behind himself, storming down the hall.

The bitterly cold air outside the hotel did nothing to cool his simmering temper as he stood by the front doors. He was honestly less upset with Tarioshi than he was with himself. Being in precise control of his mental facilities had long given him a sense of pride. Yet somehow, her laughter and preceding attitude had pushed buttons in his psyche that no one else had found in years. Decades, maybe. He still didn’t know what exactly had frustrated him into anger - her insistence, his breaking of silence for the first time all year, the laughter…

Just has to be the stress of the year getting to me, he decided. I’m a day away from leaving this rock… A day away from my own body… Yeah, that’s got to be it.

But what the Void am I going to do about her? I can’t just leave her with that injury. It’s not going to heal right without help, and she can’t get treated here while looking like that… Bee could get her fixed up in no time, but then I’m breaking even more rules… And then there’s the gut feeling that I shouldn’t take her along, but what else can I do?

Where’s my adult when I need one?

Taking a few final breaths of the cold air, he stepped back inside the building. He took a quick pass through the restaurant, picking up a pair of to-go boxes labeled ‘spanish omelets.’ Eggs, ham, hashbrowned potatoes, various vegetables, all topped with cheese and salsa. A few truckstops had offered the concoction; one had exchanged the ham with chicken, having run out of pork.

A ‘do not disturb’ sign hung from the doorknob when he returned to the room; checking his pockets, he discovered the key missing. Cursing quietly, he glanced up and down the hall before moving close to the portal.

“Tari?” he called, knocking lightly. “I come bearing food… and apologies.”

“Sec,” she replied quietly. A moment later the door clicked open, just enough for him to pass. A furred hand touched his shoulder and turned him around after the lock clicked shut again. “Before you say anything, I want to apologize for my… outburst. Part of our nature - some of us, at least - we play tricks on people, work mind games, stuff like that… We’re normally helpful to those who help us, though. Then I go and get carried away like that after what you’ve done for me and drive you off… You seem to believe in this fantasy you’ve created - who am I to shatter it? Er…”

Jadyn frowned. “You’re trying to do it again.”

“That came out wrong. I’m really sorry, Jadyn. I didn’t mean -“

“Yes, on some level you did. And it’s okay. Were I in a right state of mind you’d have a hard time getting me that upset about anything. Under normal circumstances I’d have helped you make fun of me instead of storming off in a hissy fit. You somehow found a quick way into my head to light what’s left of an already dangerously short fuse.”

“We can have that effect,” she admitted. “It’s not something I try to do. Sometimes nature prevails.”

“I don’t know about you, but my nature demands breakfast right now.” He smiled, offering her one of the foam cartons. “It suggests you eat, too.”

“Smells great.” Tarioshi followed him to the suite’s table, sitting across from him. “So… What’s got you all stressed? Other than me, of course.”

“I…” Jadyn sighed. He’d already told her the truth, whether she believed him or not. The options left were either damage control or disclosure. ‘Admit’ he’d made it up. or go on with what she still thought was a mere daydream. “Well, try to keep an open mind? Whether you believe what I said earlier or not, it’s still my ‘fantasy.’” He made quote marks with his fingers, grinning slightly.

“Okay, I’ll play along.”

“Gracious of you. I’ve been here for almost a year, wandering the country and learning about the intra- and intercultural interactions that make this part of the world tick. I’ve been beat up and run out of towns. Then a few miles down the road I’ve been welcomed into homes and lives. I’ve talked with more people than I can count, laughed with some, cried with a few… My off-handed remark about the planet wasn’t a terribly fair generalization.”

“What, that it’s a backward ball of dirt, rock, and water? I’ll give you that one, actually.” Tarioshi grinned. “In your so-called ‘outside’ opinion, is Earth really so bad?”

Jadyn inhaled slowly, poking at a corner of the omelet distractedly. “It has its issues. Individually, Terrans - sorry, you fall under that umbrella… Humans seem sane, one on one. Get larger groups together and the collective IQ plummets. If we were to show up tomorrow en masse and say ‘howdy, neighbors,’ there’d be mass panic on the streets. The only way to know a world is really ready for what’s outside their star is to wait until they step outside of its warmth for the first time. Sending probes doesn’t count, although they are a good way to let us outsiders know you’re getting closer.”

“Mm. Okay. If you’re really an alien… Where’s all your funky gadgets? Why aren’t you short and grey with big eyes? Asking with an open mind, of course.”

“Of course you are.” Jadyn smiled. “I only could take what could reasonably be found here, with a couple discreet exceptions. And the ‘grays’ as I’ve heard them called by people here… I have one idea of what they’re referring to.”

“Which is?”

“Crash test dummies.”

Tarioshi laughed. “You can’t be serious.”

“Humans test their automobiles with mockup people. Why should aliens be different? The testers grow generic artificial bodies embedded with thousands of sensors, then drop them in a vehicle and smash it up.”

“How’d the dummies wind up here?”

“I’ve a feeling that kids are crashing them on purpose just to screw with the population. No one is supposed to be in this sector without a whole lot of paperwork.”

“All right… What’s your spaceship look like? A flying hubcap?”

“Har. Not so much. It’s a little larger than a two or three-story house, slightly more graceful in the air than one. Hull as black as the night, mottled with a mix of forest green and indigo blue where the skin is absorbing sunlight. Two wings, low along the hull…”

“Why do you need wings in space?”

“Don’t,” he countered. “But, part of the engine array is mounted from tip to tip along the underside. It also looks better with them, and they’re handy for atmospheric entry when there’s no engine power to keep us aloft.”

“That could be a bonus - er… What’s that beeping sound?”

“Hm?” Jadyn listened to the noises in the room. “Don’t hear anything.”

“I think… Yeah. It’s probably just outside of human hearing… It’s coming from your pack.”

“Oh, she didn’t…” He grumbled, grabbing his pack and unceremoniously dumping the contents on the floor. He hoped Tarioshi wouldn’t immediately notice there was about three times too much junk to fit within the apparent volume of the container. “There?”

Tarioshi squinted, ears focusing on the sound. “Hard to tell… Think it’s still in the bag.”

“Yeah, I know what it is then… Funky alien gadget number three.”


“You’ve seen me using one and two, even if you don’t realize it.” Jadyn sighed, reaching in a different pouch of the bag and unclipping a hidden pocket. A small silver sphere fell into his palm as he shook the pack. Half the orb was blinking faintly. “I swear, I’ll set up a repeating task that kills her.”

“What is that thing?”

“A beacon. I’m being ‘paged.’ Who knows how many times I’ve missed a call. Well, someone does…” Jadyn gave the sphere two short half-twists; the blinking changed to a steady glow. “Should take about… Three… two… one…”

Silence sat in the room for two more seconds before his watch beeped. With a shrug, he pushed down on the face; the backlight changed from green to red, the only indication that anything was different. “So good of you to give me a beacon I can’t hear with these ears, sparky. Why are you breaking comm silence?”

Why aren’t you at the rendezvous point, furball?” a female voice replied anxiously. Tarioshi stood up, eyeing his timepiece curiously. Jadyn simply grinned at her as the voice continued. “Problems?

“Not… really, no. I’ve got a day left,” Jadyn pointed out.

Bzzt! Wrong! You’re two days late.

“What? We agreed on -“

We agreed on two days ago, which you have missed by two days. Didn’t you listen to what I just said? You just don’t realize how much of a pain in the -” The voice suddenly paused. “Someone’s with you. I can hear breathing that isn’t yours.

“Long story. Listen -“

Why did you answer the blinky thing’s blinky-thinging if someone was around to see it?

“Would you PLEASE stop interrupting me for five seconds? Goddess, Bee, you’d think everything had fallen apart or -“

It has!” she wailed across the communications link. “The local military already caught more than a few glimpses because of system failures I can’t fix without you! And I really - Ah, damnit, here they come again. Okay, can’t wait for you at the island - let’s see about doing some rumormongering on our way out to the parking spot…

“You about to do what I think you’re going to do?”

If your idea involves a case of cheese-in-a-can and a thousand origami ducks, allow me to offer a resounding ‘no.’

Jadyn groaned, snatching his things off the floor and stuffing them back into his pack. “Doesn’t even pay to get out of bed… Tari, anything lying around that you need?”

“Uh… No, not that I know of. …Why?”

“You’re about to be abducted by aliens, is all.” Hurriedly scrawling a note for room service that they were checking out, he tossed the room keys on top of the napkin and took a final glance around. “If that’s not too objectionable.”

“Er… You really weren’t kidding, were you?”

“And to think you didn’t believe me five minutes ago.”

“Yeah, but…” Tarioshi sighed. “You know what that sounds like?”

“Probably like you telling me you’re spiritual in nature, yet you were stuck in a corporeal trap.”

“That’s different!”

“Right. Bee, two for transport.”

Two? Blah. Hope you don’t get sick on carnival rides, miss.

The pair vanished from the suite in a shimmer of light, leaving behind only a faint scent of ozone and a howl of surprise.

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