Risa

By: FireMane     

 

 

      "Are you sure you won't take a job in business instead?" Joram asked, for the third time that evening.  Risa sighed.

      "I'm positive.  Besides, my papers already went through and I've been assigned to my ship.  Even if I wanted to, it's too late to back out now."  She poked at the food on her plate, then speared a mushroom with her index claw.  Joram had already picked apart his dinner, leaving him free to try and talk her out of her plans. 

      "I still don't understand how you could do this." He said, more weary than bitter this time.  They'd had a number of fights on the subject, and by this point it was mostly repetition.  "We had plans, Risa." The vixen shook her head.

      "No, Joram, you had plans." She reminded him, "You've got a great future mapped out, and I'm sorry that I don't fit into the way you want me to.  That doesn't mean we can't have a future together at all."

      "But you'll be in service for five years!" Joram protested, his tufted tail beginning to lash behind his chair.

      "I'm not asking for you to hold the flame for me.  I want you to go on with your life.  If that means you find someone else, then go for it." Risa didn't have to read Joram's mind to know what he was thinking.  "It isn't that I don't love you.  I do.  I hope that when I come back five years from now, you'll be waiting with open arms to welcome me back.  But I know that things don't always go as planned, and five years is a long time to wait."  She reached across and touched him, letting her feelings flow into him.  "I do love you, Joram.  You know it.  I want you to be happy, but I can't let you plan my life for me."

      "I will wait for you." Joram promised, and she felt his conviction flowing through the bond she'd established.  They finished their meal in silence.  She invited him to stay, but he told her he wasn't in the mood.  It was a lie, and she knew it, but she let him go. 

      When he left, she went back to her room and curled up on her mat, running through old apprentice exercises to calm herself.  Leaving Joram behind for five years was the only part of her decision she regretted, and she knew that she was risking losing him, no matter what he believed.  But the prospect of losing Joram, however painful that might be, was less frightening than the thought of losing herself.

      One of the benefits of being a gifted telepath is knowledge of one's own mind, and she could see, with some degree of certainty, how her thoughts would change over time.  It was tempting to stay with Joram, but she understood the dangers of taking such a dominant mate at this stage of her life.  Until she could be certain that she knew herself, until she could know herself as an independent agent, she would run the risk of molding to the personality of another.  She could have lived her life as Joram's mate, but if she did so she knew that she would eventually become nothing more than that, and the idea of being an extension of someone else's personality didn't appeal to her, no matter how much love she felt for him.

      The next day she finished putting her affairs in order.  Her mission wasn't going to be dangerous, but it was customary to make plans as though one were going off to war.  As a GT, she had her choice of assignments, and she'd requested the Forerunners.  Her new ship, the Inquisitor, was slated for an exploration tour that would take over half of her enlistment to complete.  She boxed up what few things she wanted with her, mostly old keepsakes from the Academy of Social and Mental Sciences, and found a long-term storage compartment for the rest of her belongings.  She drew up her heritage list, the items she wanted to pass on to specific people in the event of her death, and posted it with the State. 

      She was surprised to find Joram waiting for her at the dock.  He wasn't happy, but he wasn't angry, and for that she was grateful.  A tearful parting was something to remember fondly, but spiteful words had a way of growing in the memory. 

      "I... wasn't expecting you." She said.  "I'm glad you came, though."

      "I will wait for you." He reaffirmed, taking her in his arms.  "Five years, or forever." Risa smiled.

      "Don't make yourself miserable for me, Joram."

      "Your uniform looks good on you." He said, changing the subject.  She laughed.

      "A shame I won't wear it much." Her uniform consisted of a black vest with her badge of office sewn on the shoulders.  She checked the time.  "I've got to go.  I'm running late."

      "I know.  Good luck." He let her pull away from him.  "I love you."  She gave him one last quick nuzzle in farewell, then hurried off to board her ship.

 

      "Risa Tomani?" The captain asked as she boarded.  She nodded.  "Good to have you aboard.  I'm Captain Trin.  Would you like me to show you your quarters?"

      "Yes, sir."  The captain was an older fox, his muzzle streaked with gray strands.  The Captain spoke with her on the way.

      "I understand that you're fresh from Academy?  Don't worry about it, we're all a bit new at this.  I used to command a Warbird, back when you were probably taking your entrance exams, but I requested a transfer to the Forerunners after we lost our Navigator." Risa turned to stare at the captain in shock.

      "How did that happen?" Only the engines were more heavily protected than the Navigator's booth, and with good reason.  Without the Navigator, the engines would be nearly useless. 

      "Terran was... awake... during the battle." Risa's shock turned to horror,

"There was a subsystem failure, and he was never sedated.  He was broadcasting when he died."  The captain paused. "It wasn't the sort of thing you get over."

      "I see."  The captain gave her a reassuring smile.

      "Don't worry.  I've had the Navigator's booth triple-checked.  You're more likely to die from core breach than empathic shock."  Risa looked at him curiously, and he grinned, letting her know the irony was intended. 

      "Thanks, sir, I'll sleep better knowing that.  I guess."  They shared a laugh, then the captain left her to get settled in.

      "We'll push off in four hours." He informed her, "I'll expect you to be ready to take us out, Navigator." Risa nodded.  After stowing her belongings, she slipped out of her uniform, and decided to grab something to eat.  The Navbooth life-support would keep her supplied with everything she needed to get by, but she knew from many long sessions during training that being fed through a tube was a lot less fun that having a good meal.  A few other crewmembers were in the galley, and she was greeted warmly and invited to sit. 

      "Hi!  You must be the new Navvy." An older vixen said, "Have a seat, and grab some eats!" 

      "Thank you, senior officer....?"

      "Marya.  And this is Hamon." She gestured to a male sitting next to her wearing the jumpsuit of a Core Engineer.  "Grabbing a bite on your way to the 'booth?" Risa nodded.  "Good, I'd hate to think you were out of uniform on your first day here!"

      "No, Ma'am." Risa agreed, "Though I must admit, I wasn't expecting everyone to be this social.  The captain, maybe, but I've always heard that crew and Navigators don't tend to get along."

      "Most crews assume that the Navigator is a stuck up, mind-reading bitch."

Hamon explained, making Marya's ears dip in annoyance and Risa's to stand upright in surprise.  "You've heard about what happened?"

      "With your last Navvy?  Yes."

      "I figured the captain told you about that.  Terran wasn't a popular man, you know.  When he wasn't in the 'booth, he stayed in his quarters.  He never fraternized with the rest of the crew.  I figured he was stuck up.  When he died, it was like I was inside him, feeling what he was feeling..." The engineer shuddered, "Nobody deserves what he went through.  Not just the pain, but... he wasn't stuck up.  We were.  He was just waiting for someone... anyone, to treat him like a person instead of as part of the ship.  We all assumed he knew what we were thinking, but he never once tried to read us."  He checked the time.  "Damn.  I've got to check the core before he shove off."

      "I'd better get to my booth." Risa said, rising. 

      "Listen, I didn't mean to scare you, kid." Hamon told her, "We've been on Recovery for two years now, and some of us still aren't really over it.  But

I want you to know, any one of us would rather die than lose another Navvy.  We'll take good care of you.  Now hurry, or the captain'll have your tail for dusting." Risa nodded, and bolted down the rest of her food.  Being late would be bad, but leaving a meal half-finished was inexcusable. 

      The Navigator's Booth was, in every visible way, identical to the simulator she'd used at the Academy.  She climbed up the side and slid down in, and the system embraced her.  She'd gagged the first few times she'd used the sim, as the life support tubes invaded her body, but by this time she barely noticed.

The booth began to slowly fill with gel, kept at the same temperature as her own body, and the world around her began to fade away as all normal stimuli were removed.  In mere moments, she transcended, her consciousness freed from the limitations of her senses, and her awareness grew to encompass the ship.  The constant steady vibration of the engine beneath her vanished as the booth produced a counter-wave to compensate, and was just as quickly replaced by the engine's cosmic harmonic, a sort of spiritual hum of raw power.  It drew her, and she let herself move toward it, resisting just enough to keep control. 

Merging with the engine was the most dangerous part of the operation, and if she let it, the sheer magnitude of it would destroy her.  Her training had prepared her for this, however, and if she were to fry herself, she would have done so before.  Many students did. 

      She entered the raging chaos at the heart of the ship, and it tore at her, pushing her in a thousand directions.  The temptation was to fight, to push back, to give in to fear and ego and try to subdue the engine's power.  Risa knew better, for that way lay madness and death.  She pulled gently at the sea of entropy that besieged her, and took it slowly into herself, feeling her own power and control grow, imperceptibly at first, but in time, she found herself alone, the chaos locked safely within her.  And then she could hear the Others, vast reactors that made the ship's engine look like a candle flame.  Behind her, in the port, she could hear Navigators, both active and resting, and closer, the tiny presence that was the Captain's Will.  In the distance, she could hear the Galactic Core calling, a tight cluster of stars which sang seductively to her. 

Old sailors spoke of making random jumps, but Risa knew better.  Any Navigator lax enough to let their attention wander jumped Core-ward.

      The captain gave the order, and the ship was launched, propelled outward by a device which, when all was said and done, was little more than a high-tech slingshot.  With no atmosphere to slow it, the ship hurtled out into the depths of space.  Hours passed, and Risa took no notice of them.  Within the booth, there was no time, only infinite space, and the awareness.  She was a vessel, a conduit, and information flowed through her.  The Navigator was also the ship's primary means of communication, able to gather information instantly across distances that would take hours, years, or even centuries to cross even at the speed of light.  The information passed through her, and she took little notice of it, the sensory deprivation so advanced that she could not perceive her own voice as she conveyed her messages.  They reached the edge of the system, and she felt the captain give the signal.  She reached out for their destination, just as she'd done at the Academy, and found its song.  What came next was new for Risa.  Every Navigator went on their first flight a virgin, knowing nothing beyond expectation.  She had the destination fixed in her mind, and she let the captain know it was safe to jump.  The engines, which had until then lain dormant, surged into life.

 

      "Risa?  Navigator, are you injured?"  She became aware that someone was speaking to her, and she looked up to see the captain leaning over her.  She looked around, and found herself lying on the floor next to her booth.  She nodded as best she could, her body wracked with sobbing, and he brought a towel and began cleaning the gel out of her fur as best he could. 

      "Sorry." She croaked when she could finally speak again, "I'm so sorry."

      "There's nothing to apologize for, Navigator.  You brought us out in clear space, and relayed the local information before you left the booth."

      "I don't remember it." She whispered, "I just don't remember any of it."

      "That's common your first time." The captain assured her, "Don't worry.

They wouldn't let you out of the Academy if they weren't sure you could handle this job." Risa nodded.

      "Thank you, sir.  Is there anything else I need to do?"

      "Take a shower, get some rest, and find something to eat." Risa managed a smile.

      "Is that an order, sir?"

      "Damned right, Navigator.  Get going." Risa picked herself up, and staggered back to her quarters.  One of the many benefits of being a Navvy was the comparative luxury of the quarters.  Only the captain had better, and even that wasn't by much.  The rest of the crew slept in bunks, but Risa had a mat all to herself, as well as separate sanitary facilities.  Of course, she'd heard that wasn't entirely luxury.  Many long-term Navigators, especially those on commercial ships that had to make frequent jumps, developed problems from being on life-support for so long.  Her own body felt slightly abused, but she suspected that was more from however she'd exited the booth than from the booth itself.  The shower was welcome, however, and she let the water pound away the gel and sweat.  When she was done, she stood over the dryer and let it fluff her fur dry.  Food and sleep were vying for her attention, but in the end, the booth's nourishment hadn't been that bad, so she flopped down on her mat, and slept.

      She dreamed of colors exploding in her mind, of burning, burning cold deep within her, of phantom sensations.  She dreamed of agony like she'd never known, but that wasn't why she'd left the booth crying.  Even the pain, terrible as it was, became lost in the glory of the jump.  Risa had thought that she was aware when she became the engine, but she was literally omnipresent when they made the jump.  She touched every star, every mote of dust, everything that ever was or ever would be, she felt the Galactic Core, pulling her like a tide toward... what?  A fiery death at the heart of entropy, most likely, but she couldn't help but wonder if there wasn't something else there.  Every Navigator felt it.  In her dreams Risa remembered the moment of the jump, and knew that there was a part of her that would always be there.  She understood now why the Academy sent their students blind to face the abyss, why she was here now, with no way to return without facing the Jump again.  If she could have walked away from it, right then, she would have.  Now that she knew that she would have to endure it again, she was already coming to terms with it, her mind was already beginning to adapt.  The second time wouldn't be so bad, she told herself.  She knew what to expect.  She woke up crying, but it wasn't so bad.  She could adjust.  She ran through the apprentice exercises, in order, and in the end, she found her calm.

      She woke again, hours later, with her stomach protesting her decision to put sleep before eating.  She took a few moments to make herself presentable, then slipped her vest on.  She hoped the galley would be empty this time.  She didn't really feel up to talking just then. 

      She turned the corner to enter the galley, and found most of the crew gathered.  As she entered, the captain called the crew to attention.

      "Navigator on deck!" He called, and they gave a textbook salute, bowing

45 degrees, ears respectfully folded, tails held low.  The captain gave her a smile, and bellowed, "At ease!" The crew rose, slowly, and Risa couldn't find her voice.  The crew radiated a sort of gentle fondness, a curious sort of pride.  She felt like a child on Naming Day, surrounded by family.  The crew broke ranks then, and each approached her with congratulations.  The captain came last.  "Congratulations, Navigator."

      "Thanks." Risa managed, "I wasn't expecting any of this."

      "You weren't supposed to." The captain informed her, "If you'll excuse me, I'm needed on the bridge.  We'll be jumping again in six hours.  Again, congratulations." The captain left, and she was led to a table spread with food. 

      "We thought you might like a snack." Marya said, coming to stand beside her.

      "Hope you're hungry.  You know what regulations say about leaving food." Hamon joked, standing on the other side.  Risa laughed.

      "Don't tempt me, I feel like I just might eat it all myself!"       

 

      She managed to remain conscious and aware through the jump this time, although she'd been wrong.  It wasn't any easier the second time around.  This jump was into an unexplored system, and she remained in the booth long enough to scan for signs of telepathic communication.  When she determined that no other telepaths were operating in the area, she sent her thoughts homeward, relaying their findings.  They would check again several times as they passed through the system, not just for telepathic communications but also to listen for the mental whispers that would indicate large-scale life on or beneath one of the planets of the system.  It was rare, but not unthinkable, to find civilizations, post or pre-space flight, huddled in shelters beneath the ground.  Joram's people had been found that way, driven below for several generations by orbital bombardment.  Of course, it wasn't simply a search for sentient life.  As they passed through, a survey of the system would be made, to judge the relative worth of establishing mining colonies.  Risa's duties, however, were fulfilled for the moment, and she slowly, achingly untangled herself from the engines. 

      Her limbs felt weak, and she knew that she'd need to start her exercise regimen before they made another jump.  Spending half her waking hours floating motionless in the booth was already starting to take a toll on her body, and if she wasn't careful, it would only get worse.  But first, a shower... and a meal.  Her stomach felt hollow, and she wasn't certain how long it had been since the feast they'd eaten.  It might have been as little as an hour, or as much as a day, since the booth effectively nullified her sense of time, but she was fairly certain that they would have alerted her had she remained immersed for more than ten hours at a time.  Though nobody ever orders a Navigator to leave the booth except under emergency circumstances, there were limits to what was considered healthy and proper. 

      Risa's instructors had warned her that the feeling of merging with the engine, of being Aware and filled with power, could be addictive, and now she truly understood that.  She'd felt it before, but it had been easy to resist.  The jump made everything different, though.  She felt an emptiness inside that had nothing to do with hunger, as though a piece of her soul was missing.  Even merging with the engines didn't compare with the feeling of the jump, but the engines were... soothing, somehow.  As long as she was merged with the engines, there was always the possibility of the jump.  It was there, she could feel it, and if it didn't make her whole again, it made her remember that she could be whole, that the emptiness wasn't forever.

      Months later, Risa still had nights where she would wake up in tears, but she learned to accept these.  Her exercise regimen was a chore, but it rapidly became part of her daily routine, and although she did lose a bit of muscle, she managed to continue to meet the basic strength regulations.  It didn't hurt that the requirements for Navigators were significantly lower than for the rest of the crew.  If she had difficulty lifting heavy objects, well, that wasn't what she was onboard for.  The crew was happy to accommodate her, on those rare occasions when a task proved beyond her strength, and she found that they were true to what Marya had told her.  She felt a strong sense of belonging, of welcome, flowing through the ship, and she let herself be caught up in it. 

      At times, the emptiness would become painful, and she tried to fill it in any way she could.   Food was an obvious answer, fulfilling a physical need to banish a spiritual ache, but she soon realized that eating brought her little pleasure.  She put herself into her exercise, but found that she tired too quickly, and besides, working up a sweat had never appealed to her in the first place.  She socialized, but though the crew was happy, even eager to make her feel accepted, she knew that there would always be a barrier between them.  There were things they could never understand, and things that she could never talk about.  She'd never realized how lonely it would be to be the only telepath onboard.

      She tried making bedfellows of her crewmates, but that, too failed.  Though it was well-known (and the subject of more than a few crude jokes) that telepaths were responsive in bed, she found only a few willing partners.  It was enjoyable, certainly, and even fulfilling in it's own way, but it was over so quickly.  There were moments when the emptiness would retreat, and she would feel whole again, but the feeling lasted only minutes.  After a while, even that faded, and the act became mechanical, meaningless.  There were no hard feelings, or angry words, because it was understood at the outset that there was no relationship to begin, or end.  It was often joked that sex between crewmembers didn't count, and for the most part, the crew followed that standard. 

      In the end, it was the Booth, or nothing.  Risa was careful to keep up with her exercise and with her friends, but there was always a part of her that was counting the seconds until she could merge with the engines again.  If the others noticed, they made no comment, for which Risa was grateful. 

 

      A year later, their tour was nearly over, and Risa felt that she was as adjusted to life as a Navigator as she could possibly get.  She could sense the current of anticipation, almost impatience, running through the crew as they looked forward to returning home.  Sleeping arrangements that had lasted for months ended, as crewmembers prepared to join their mates and lovers again after more than a year of absence.  She suspected that it was this impatience that drove the captain to give her subtle encouragement to spend more time in the Booth than usual, just as everyone else was putting in extra hours, hurrying to finish the last few systems before they would be able to make that final jump back.  Whatever the reason, she gladly took the opportunity to immerse herself in the Booth for half a day at a time.

      It was during one of these marathon sessions that she noticed an odd ripple of fear pass through the crew.  She was readying herself to pull away from the engine and extract herself from the Booth, when she felt a growing sense of emotional detachment.  The engines pulsed in a comforting rhythm, and she felt pain and suffering, but she was aware that it wasn't her own.  Presently, she stopped feeling even that, becoming aware only of the womb-like bliss of the engine.

      Risa woke to find herself floating inside the Booth.  She could feel the vibrations of the engine through the gel, and knew that the isolation effects were off.  She gave the command to begin the extraction process, and the gel slowly began to drain from the tank, to be replaced by oxygen.  As the tubes began to remove themselves and the buoyancy of the gel ceased to support her, Risa began to feel the sheer weight of her own body pinning her to her station.  Her breath became labored, and she found herself unable to lift her arm to the level of her head to climb out of the booth.  She halted the extraction, and the Booth slowly refilled, her life-support systems reconnecting.  She looked down at herself, raising her arm as far as she could manage, and found that her hide draped loosely from limbs that no longer had the muscle to support themselves.  The dizziness began to pass, as the life support system fed her lungs with oxygen.  When the Booth was full and she was once again weightless, she heard the Captain's voice in her ear.

      "I hope you wake up to hear this, Navigator.  You're probably wondering what's going on.  There was a bacterial colony festering in one of the air ducts.  It should have been caught before we left, but I'm afraid that section of the duct is shielded by the equipment that surrounds it." The captain laughed, which broke down into a coughing fit.  "It's another failure in a fail-safe system.  I'm starting to think I'm jinxed.  By the time we started noticing the symptoms, everyone on board was infected.  Your life support air supply is entirely separate from the rest of the ship, however, and there is a very good chance that you escaped exposure.  When I found out, I had the Booth put you under sedation.  You've already sent a message homeward to let them know our status.  They should be sending a rescue ship for you once the ship can be certified as clean.  Until then, the ship will be placed under quarantine, and you'll be kept sedated, to protect you from the empathic shock.  Sleep well, Risa.  It should only be a few days."

      'A few days?' Risa wondered, remembering the way her fur hung limp on her body, 'Surely more than that.'

      "Computer." She spoke, and winced at the cracked, weak mutter that emerged, "Activate voice recognition."

      "Confirmed."

      "Number of days since last transmission?"

      "6562 complete cycles." The computer's modulated voice conveyed no feeling, only the raw data.  '18 years!' Risa felt a tightness in her chest that had nothing to do with her weakness.

      "Ship's status?"

      "Quarantined."

      "Estimated time until quarantine is lifted?"

      "Unable to determine."

      "Biological scan of ship." Risa ordered.

      "No harmful biological or chemical agents found."

      "Reason for quarantine?"

      "Unable to determine."

      "Medical status?"

      "Severe muscle atrophy, 50 to 80% effective tissue loss in most muscle groups.  Cardiovascular system 10% degradation.  Neurological system functioning at 80% normal.  Likely cause: residual sedative in blood stream.  Psionic signature: deep purple, near black."  

      "Ok, so I'm centered off the scale, and I have the strength of a tuber."

      "Unable to confirm." Risa sighed.

      "How much trouble is the cardiovascular damage going to cause me?"

      "Equivalent of average female Navigator for subject age group."

      "So really, it isn't a problem?"

      "Unable to confirm.  Potential for complication exists."

      "Outlook for rehabilitation?"

      "Accessing sickbay medical system." The computer paused while it downloaded the necessary programs.  "With access to full medical facility, recovery of 75% muscular capacity possible."

      "Activate isolation routine."  The world around her once again began to fade away, and Risa let herself flow outward, amazed at how easily she transcended.  She merged with the engine, and cast her mind homeward.  Making contact was not a problem, but as soon as her signature registered, she found herself blocked off.  Growing angry, she pushed, only to find herself rebuked with a wave of feedback.  She returned to her normal consciousness.  "Replay any response."

      "Navigator Risa of the Inquisitor," She heard herself say on the playback, "You are ordered not to attempt contact again.  The Inquisitor is quarantined indefinitely to prevent the possibility of contamination.  I repeat, make no attempt at initiating contact with any ship or planet."

      "It's been 18 years!  The ship is clean!" She yelled, feeling her voice become immediately raw after so many years of disuse.

      "Confirmed." The computer replied.

      "Shut up!"

 

      Risa tried twice more to leave the booth, but there was just no way.  She began emptying out the booth, forcing herself to breath on her own for as long as possible before cycling the gel back in.  It was tempting just to merge with the engine permanently, leave her withered body behind and just live out whatever time was left to her in the gentle peace of the union.  More tempting was to try and make an infinite jump.  She'd been taught it was impossible, but how was she to know for sure? To be caught in the jump, forever... it was tempting.  But she wasn't willing to give up just yet.  It felt too much like running away. 

      "Computer.  Reactivate voice recognition."

      "Confirmed."

      "What is the Inquisitor's current mission?"

      "The mission statement is obsolete."

      "Please state it anyway."

      "Last valid mission: Survey systems for mineral content and signs of sentient life."

      "Please project course of exploration.  What areas remain unexplored?  Based on previous surveys, which seem most likely to support life?"  The computer presented her with a view of the galaxy, highlighting those areas that were explored.  "This will do just fine."     

      "Unable to confirm."

      "I know.  Activate isolation routine, and prepare the ship for jump."

      "Warning: Engine has not received maintenance as scheduled."

      "I'm aware of that.  Confirm current rank; Navigator Risa."

      "Current rank: Captain, by default."

      "Override warning, Captain's authority."

      "Confirmed."

 

      Jerry leaned back from his computer, arching over the back of his chair and popping his spine in three places.  He glanced at his clock, and typed a quick message to the chatroom to let them know he'd be away for a moment.  The walls of his den were adorned with pictures of various big cats, and a large stuffed lion draped itself over his monitor.  After checking the time again, Jerry reconsidered and logged off.  The chatrooms were pretty dead, and he was starting to feel like a couch potato anyway.

      Standing just an inch shy of six feet, Jerry did not resemble a potato in any meaningful way.  In fact, given his sedentary hobbies, he was in extremely good shape, a result of good breeding and a childhood spent in hard work.  A hopeful yowl greeted him as he pushed through the door to the kitchen, and a bit of shadow broke away to dance around his feet.

      "Ezekiel!" Jerry laughed, picking the cat up and nuzzling her, "I've already fed you.  Look, your dish is barely touched!" The cat did look, then turned back to him and repeated her plea.  Jerry put her down, and opened the fridge to find his own supper.  He put together a thick sandwich, and between that and some potato salad, he had a decent meal.  Despite the fact that he was the only one in the house (the only one on two legs, at any rate), he sat at the kitchen table rather than taking his meal into the living room.  It was an old habit, ingrained by his mother, and he'd never really been able to break himself of it.  After dinner, it was time to feed the kids.

        "Toby!  Grey!  Beggar!" He shouted, balancing three bowls in his arms.  He set down the bowls just as three canine forms came bounding toward him.  Beggar was an old collie, while Grey was a greyhound, though like many of his breed he lacked the color for which he was named.  They both began to bolt their food, until a bark from Toby made them shrink back.  Toby, the dominant male of the group, was a wolfhound Jerry had found a few years back, suffering from a bullet wound.  Jerry still wasn't sure what mix he was, but it was obvious that he wasn't entirely lupine.  Toby ate his meal at a leisurely pace, while Grey, Beggar, and Jerry watched.  When he was finished, he took a few sniffs of their bowls, gave Jerry a wary look, and loped away, leaving Grey and Beggar to finish.  It had taken Jerry a good bit of effort to convince Toby to let the other two eat, and he still had to stand watch to make sure he didn't just chase them away.

        "Jerry," He heard someone call him.  He looked around, a bit miffed at someone trespassing on what was clearly labeled as private property.  The last thing he needed was some idiot coming in and getting on Toby's bad side.  He'd had enough trouble convincing Tarkin not to call animal control for him in the first place.  He couldn't see anyone, though, and Grey and Beggar never let anyone get within a half-mile of their yard without going into a frenzy of barking.

        "Hello?" He called, startling the dogs, who looked up at him with half-guilt, half-annoyance.  "Who's there?"  Jerry shook his head. "Guys, I think the quiet is finally getting to me.  Bark if Toby comes back." As though they needed encouragement to bark, "And Grey, I found your prints near the hutch.  Stay away from the rabbits!"  He turned back inside, leaving the dogs to eat.

        "Jerry, can you hear me?" Jerry whirled around, making the dogs jump back and watch him with puzzlement.  Jerry was sure the voice wasn't coming from more than three feet away, but he couldn't tell which direction it was from.  "Jerry, I need your help."

        "Where are you?"

        "Very far away.  I am speaking to your mind." Jerry nodded.

        "A drink.  I definitely need a drink right now."  He went inside, and pulled out one of his few precious bottles of beer, left from before his parents died.  Sitting at the table, he cracked it open, and, before his nose and tongue could advise him otherwise, he took a nice, long pull from it.  He grimaced at the flavor, wondering when he'd actually manage to acquire a taste for the stuff.

        "Jerry, what are you doing?" The voice in his head, which bore a disturbing resemblance to his mother's, sounded farther away.  Dimmer.  Jerry took another pull at the bottle, noting that, unlike the last few he'd had, this one was vanishing quite rapidly.  By the time he was done with his second, the voice was gone.  He finished off his entire supply, just to be safe.

 

        "Jerry!" He shot out of bed, desperately trying to put some shorts on before his mom came in.  Then reality set in, as well as his hangover.  Forgetting the mental shout that had awakened him, he set out in search of aspirin and coffee.  "Jerry, I'm sorry, but I need you to help me."

        "I'm not going to talk to a voice in my head." Jerry warned.

        "Speak with your thoughts." The voice advised, "Form the thoughts in your mind, and will them to be heard."

        "LIKE THIS?" He asked.

        "A little less.  You needn't shout."

        "This?"

        "Better." Jerry was beginning to accept his descent into dementia as he had his breakfast of caffeine and painkillers.

        "Ok, spooky voice in my head, what can I do for you?  If I'm going to be crazy, I might as well get started."

        "I am in orbit around your planet.  And you aren't insane."

        "Fair enough.  I have an alien spooky voice."

        "Please, Jerry.  Yes, I am what you would consider an alien.  I am from a distant star.  My computer suggests that your species has speculated on this idea."

        "We speculate about it quite a bit, yes.  What... I have to admit my curiosity.  What do you look like?  Are you just a voice?"

        "I have a body, I promise.  In fact, that's part of the problem."

        "It's a bad thing that you have a body?"

        "I'm..." Jerry realized that he could sense her hesitation, not just hear it in her mental voice, "I've been badly crippled.  I can't leave my station onboard, and the rest of the crew is dead."

        "That's not terribly original."

        "I promise you, Jerry, I wasn't trying to be.  I'm going to need your help to escape from my ship." Jerry laughed out loud.

        "Orbit is a little out of my means right now.  I can't even leave the state."

        "When the time comes, I'll land the ship near you."

        "But Agent Scully STILL won't believe it."

        "What?"

        "Nothing.  Wouldn't that attract a lot of attention?"

        "Yes, I've noticed that your planet has an extremely active short-range surveillance.  You must have an impressive planetary defense system."

        "What makes you say that?"

        "You don't seem worried about long-range threats."

        "Well, we're still only speculating about alien life."

        "I meant collisions with debris, asteroids, and rogues.  Your system has a lot of that, judging from your satellite."

        "You really don't know much about us, do you?"

        "I know that you aren't on the Forerunner schedule for another few centuries, and that you've been broadcasting electromagnetic waves for quite some time now.  I know that your atmosphere is compatible with my biology. There's a very good chance that your food is acceptable for me to eat.  Past that, no, I hadn't really considered it."

        "So your ship is damaged and you're forced to land on a primitive planet, where you hope some kind native will take pity on you?"

        "My ship isn't damaged." The voice corrected.

        "Then why can't you just go home?"

        "They won't let me.  My ship is still registered as being quarantined."

        "Ouch.  That has to suck.  You know, you never told me what you look like.  Are you afraid to tell me?"

        "If you'll let me, I can show you."

        "Uh... what does this involve?"

        "Just open yourself up for a moment.  Relax." Not seeing what it could hurt, Jerry let himself unwind as much as his fading headache would allow, closing his eyes and taking deep breaths.  He felt a strange tickle in the back of his mind.  "You can open your eyes."

        "My God, you're a vixen."

        "Did I come across as being male?" The vixen asked, curious.

        "No, I just... There are about a thousand geeks who wish they were here right now." Jerry looked her over.  "You know, you look a lot like an Earth species called a 'fox'."

        "It's a big galaxy, and certain parallelisms are to be expected." Risa explained. 

      "Ok, I'll buy that, though I have a really hard time believing that every

furry fanboy's wetdream is currently in orbit waiting for me to rescue her."

      "I'm not sure exactly what you mean by that." Risa admitted, "But I assure you, I'm very real."

      "Assuming that you are, the question that springs to mind is, Why me?  There must be a lot of other people out there you could get to save you.  For God's sake, call NASA!"

      "To begin with, there aren't that many people I can communicate with.  I'm a Gifted Telepath, but transmitting more than emotions requires two telepaths."

      "Whoa, hold the phone, I'm not a telepath."

      "Actually, you are.  Your species appears to have a natural predisposition toward telepathic ability, but for some reason it's extremely repressed.  You are more talented than most, and it was very easy for me to establish a rapport with you."

      "Really.  Fascinating."

      "You still don't believe me, do you?"

      "No, but I'm adjusting to the idea of being a crazy old hermit.  It'll take few years to make the 'old' part stick, but I'm sure I can manage it."  He walked around the image.  "So, are all of your people naked?  Inquiring minds want to know."

      "No, I have a uniform I wear when I'm not in the booth.  Would you like me to appear in that?"

      "Might be less distracting." The image blurred, and reformed wearing a black vest with insignia.  "Or perhaps not."

 

      "So, what exactly do you need me to do?" Jerry eventually asked, after he'd managed to grab a bite to eat.  Risa's image had wandered around the house with him, occasionally asking him to look in a particular direction.  She explained that, although she seemed to be standing apart from him, she could only perceive things that he gave his attention to. 

      "I need you to pull me out of the ship once I land, and help me regain my strength.  I've been asleep for about 18 years, so I've lost a lot of muscle tissue.  The onboard systems suggest that, with work, I can get back a good bit of it."

      "So I get to be a knight in shining armor and physical therapist?"

      "That's about the size of it."

      "What happens if I say no?"

      "I have a few other options.  I can go into a trance and live the rest of my life on the psychic plane.  I can try to do a jump to nowhere, but I'm not sure how well that works.  I can try to find someone else to help me.  But you're my best chance."

      "I'll need some time to think about it."

      "I'm not going anywhere soon." Risa reminded him.

      "True.  Would you like to watch a movie?"

 

      They watched "Forbidden Planet," one of Jerry's favorites.  Risa found it interesting, and in truth it was similar to legends she'd heard of her people's early space explorations.  The ending disturbed her, reminding her of another old legend.  She said as much to Jerry, who was intrigued.

      "Really?  What part bothers you?"

      "The energy being is basically Jerrica's Abomination."

      "Whose abomination?"

      "It's an old, old legend.  Jerrica was a powerful Gifted Telepath, so powerful that she was Telekinetic as well.  She fell in love with a man who was in love with someone else.  Her jealousy was so great that it consumed her, eventually taking on a life of its own.  Jerrica sent it after the lover, but when it turned on the man she loved, she threw herself in its path to save him.  Once she died, the Abomination faded." Risa laughed. "That's the short version.  The actual story is a play that takes about three hours to act out."

      "And you could do that?"

      "Oh, no, I'm nowhere near that strong.  Telekinetics are as rare among my people as Telepaths are among yours."

      "I though you said a lot of humans are Telepaths?"

      "A lot of humans have strong potential." Risa corrected, "The species overall is more inclined toward it than most species I've seen.  But you don't seem to have many actual telepaths, and the few I detected at close range are highly focused and shielded."

      "How about me?"

      "Hard to say.  Back at the academy we had tests to determine how strong your potential is, but I don't have the equipment.  Just the fact that I can reach you like this suggests that you're at least as strong as I am."

      "So... why didn't Jerrica just... brainwash her boyfriend?"

      "Well, for starters, people notice that kind of thing, and it's more than a little illegal.  Secondly, that sort of thing is hard to keep up for long.  Now, if it had been the other way around, and they'd basically been attracted to each other, it might have worked."

      "What do you mean?"

      "Well, one of the drawbacks to being a telepath is that you become very responsive to other people's desires.  If you're around a person of strong will for a long time, it can warp your personality to meet their needs.  It's like magnetization."

      "So, given time, Jerrica might have conformed to her boyfriend's idea of the perfect woman?"

      "Basically.  That's one reason I went into space in the first place.  My boyfriend was very strong willed."

      "Is he still alive?" Jerry felt Risa give him a mental shrug.

      "No way for me to tell, really.  They won't let me make contact with my home anymore."

      "I'm beginning to suspect that you're not a hallucination."

      "Really?  Why's that?"

      "Because I'm just not clever enough to come up with this stuff on my own.  Unless my subconscious has been holding out on me."

      "Well, you probably would never have guessed you were Telepathic, either."

      "True." There was silence for a few minutes, then Jerry laughed.  "I'm sorry, I haven't had company for a long time, and I'm not sure how to entertain a guest who isn't really here."

     

      They talked a bit longer, getting to know each other.  Jerry explained his own situation, how his parents had died recently, leaving him a ward of the state.  The local sheriff had taken responsibility for him, and he was allowed to keep his parent's ranch once he'd completed high school.  He'd been strongly encouraged to go to college, but he'd never really had sufficient interest in structured learning.  He had a trust fund that met his needs, with enough left over to save for a rainy day, and he had time to keep up the small ranch and still devote much of his time to his hobbies.  They watched a few more movies, although he had to explain some of the background in order for her to understand.  He went to bed, and Risa agreed that she would refrain from speaking to him at certain times.  Having lived in a sealed environment with a sizable crew, she understood the need for privacy. 

      Jerry spent the night dreaming of Risa, the way she'd first appeared to him, in all her vulpine glory.  His very pleasant slumber was only slightly marred by his embarrassment at waking to find himself making arduous love to his pillow.  Risa sensed his discomfort when she contacted him later in the day, but found him evasive when she asked him why.  Jerry realized that, although they were communicating by telepathy, Risa apparently couldn't read his mind for information he didn't feel like sharing... either that, or she chose not to for ethical reasons.  Either way, he was glad he didn't have to explain the situation.

      To distract her from the question, he took her on a guided tour of the ranch.  Risa, seeing the place through his eyes, could feel the connection he had to his home, and wondered what it was like to belong to one place so completely.  Every place she'd called home in her own life had been temporary, somewhere to stay until she found something else, and the idea of permanency was both refreshing and a little frightening.  She began to see how difficult it would be to keep her existence a secret.  This ranch wouldn't be her home; it would be her world, once she landed.  With that in mind, she tried her best to see the place as he saw it, not as an isolated prison, but as a sanctuary. 

      "And this is the computer room." He concluded, having saved the best for last.  He turned around, allowing Risa to see everything. 

      "Who's that?" She asked, indicating a framed picture of a lion-morph on the wall.

      "That's a picture someone drew for me." Jerry explained, "He doesn't have a name."  Risa didn't respond, though he could still feel her there.  "Is something wrong?"

      "No... It just reminds me of someone."

      "I'll admit it's nice to think that there are other races out there.  Especially ones that are so anthropomorphic."

      "I'm really amazed at how accurate some of your pictures are." Risa commented, examining some of the other pictures adorning the wall.  "Some of these could pass for relatives of mine!"

      "If it wouldn't blow your secret, I'd pass that on to the artist.  I'm sure they'd be thrilled."

      "Well, some of the pictures are stylized, of course.  And I can only think of a few species that are as well endowed as these."

      "You have breasts." Jerry pointed out, without thinking about it.

      "Of course.  Mammary glands are a fairly common adaptation.  But even my species is overly endowed as far as most are concerned.  There are a number of crude jokes about my species that revolve around that fact."

      "I see.  Well, um..." Jerry coughed, "They seem about the right size to me."

      "Judging from these pictures, I'd guess I'm a little small by your standards."

      "Oh, no, not at all, in fact, I... I'm going to talk about something else, if you don't mind."

      "As you wish.  You have a very nice living space.  I look forward to seeing it in person."

      "Yeah, about that... is there anything special you'll need?  Special food, or equipment?  You said you'd been injured."

      "According to the medical computer, all I'll need is an exercise program to help me regain my strength.  My muscles have atrophied a bit from being on life support for so long.  Mostly I'll just need your help until I can redevelop my lost muscle tissue."

      "I think I can do that.  Heck, I nursed Toby back from a bullet wound, I should be able to nurse a vixen back to health."

      "So you'll do this?" Jerry didn't answer her immediately.  When he did, it was with a laugh.

      "Of course I will.  I'd never forgive myself if I let the only anthropomorphic vixen in the Alpha quadrant slip between my fingers!"  

 

      Risa, having little else to do, had been giving a lot of thought to how to land the ship without attracting too much attention.  A quick inspection of the planet’s weather patterns told her that it wouldn’t be more than a month before a storm would develop in the area that would likely prove sufficient to obscure her landing from sight.  Risa was confident that the ship could affect a landing and reach escape velocity again, despite the lack of crew, so all Jerry had to do was retrieve her from the booth once she’d landed.  The ship would then take off again, and launch itself at sub-light speed until it left the system.  Stranding herself in this manner was a vital part of Risa’s plan.  She understood that, so long as the engines were within reach, she’d never fully adapt to life on Earth.

      “Ok, I guess I understand all this, but surely you’ll be picked up on radar?”  Jerry heard Risa laugh in his mind.

      “I may not be flying a Warbird, but the Inquisitor is equipped with electronic counter-measures that should be more than a match for anything your planet can field.  Just to be safe, I’m going to create a flare that should account for any anomalous data in the area.”

      “A flare?  What kind of flare?”

      “A solar flare.”

      “You can do that?” Jerry ask, astonished.  He felt Risa shrug modestly in his mind.

      “I’m pretty sure I can.  Stars are reactors, just like the ship’s engines.  I’m just arranging conditions so that, when the reactor lets off pressure, it does it in the way I want.”

      “Still that’s… not something I’d thought of as a telepathic ability.”

      “That’s probably because your species hasn’t discovered reactors that can

power a Jump yet.”

      “Ok, Miss Advanced Technology, how am I going to find you, once you land?”

      “Jerry, we’re talking to each other with ease over an amazing stretch of distance.” Risa reminded him, “When I land, we’ll be even closer.  You shouldn’t have any trouble finding me.”

       

      Less than a month later, Jerry stared nervously at the dark skies above. 

The storm had gathered just as Risa predicted, and it was shaping up to be one of the worst in recent memory.  Soon, if all went as planned, Risa would send him the signal to drive to the landing area.  The prospect of meeting her filled him with a mixture of desire and apprehension.  He couldn’t deny that his physical attraction to Risa played a large part in the ease with which he’d agreed to help her, and he was eager to meet her in person.  At the same time, however, as the day approached, he began to see more clearly what he’d committed himself to.  Not only would Risa be in poor shape physically, he knew of her only what she chose to share with him.  Communicating with her at range was quite a different thing from being able to live with her, and he knew that once she landed, there would be no going back.  He’d felt like banging his head against the wall when he realized that he’d committed the same sort of mistake he’d always laughed at others about online; He’d invited his cyber-girlfriend to live with him.  There was something about her, though, that made it easy to agree, and it wasn’t just his hormones that thought so.  After living with her as a mental companion for only a few weeks, he felt as though he’d always known her, and when he felt her presence in his mind, he felt a subtle sense of completeness. 

      “Jerry.” Risa’s thought startled Jerry out of his contemplation.  “I’m about to begin.  Are you still sure you want to do this?  I’m sensing a lot of hesitation.”

      “I’ve just got pre-date jitters.” Jerry assured her.  “Just make sure you can land without drawing too much attention.  I don’t want to have to try and scrape you off the aspens.”

      “I’ll be there.” Jerry felt her withdraw, and as she so did he could feel her own fear, crawling at the edges of her mind.  Once he was sure she was completely gone, he retrieved the note he’d typed out the day before and left it on the table.  On the off chance that Risa wasn’t as she’d presented herself, there would be some record of what had transpired.  He also recognized, as he was leaving, that the note, by itself, was likely evidence enough to have him put into protective custody, at the very least.  Ezekiel regarded him curiously as he stepped out the door, as though she knew what he was up to.  “Keep the place warm while I’m gone.”  He closed the door, and the cat padded over to sniff at her food dish.

      Risa was one with the engines.  She reached herself out to the star at the heart of the system, just as she had with the ship’s reactors, and was almost immediately overwhelmed.  The Sun was a fiery mass of pure chaos, and as she tried to absorb it into herself as she had the engines, she became intensely aware of her own arrogance.  Amplified as her powers were by the engines, they were still dwarfed by the psionic signature of Sol.  Having navigated by the stars for so long, she was surprised to find this one different. 

She tried to pull away, and found her consciousness being drawn deeper into the heart of entropy.  As she grew closer, she began to sense a deeper pattern in the star’s song, a cosmic awareness that resented her intrusion.  Everything she knew told her that such a thing was impossible, but as her mental defenses were shattered she was forced to admit that it was all too real.  Within the ship, her voice gave the command to begin the landing, even as her thoughts were scattered to the depths of space.

      It took Jerry longer than he’d planned to reach the landing site.  Though Risa’s plan had required a storm for cover, he hadn’t taken it into account when planning his route.  He sat in his jeep and watched the sky, though he knew he would likely hear the approaching vehicle before he saw it.  He was still amazed at how compact Risa’s spacecraft was.  It seemed impossible that a ship that small could contain the kind of crew Risa described.  He tried to tune the radio to a decent station, but found only static.  He thought for a moment that he felt Risa trying to reach him, and then pain exploded through his head.

      The sound of the horn woke him, and he peeled his face off of the steering wheel.  He looked around dazedly, trying to remember exactly what had happened.  If not for the fact that he was stopped, alone, on the side of the road, he would have assumed that he’d been in an accident.  His ears were ringing, and when he reached up to try and clear them, his hand came back stained with blood.  The haze in his mind slowly lifted, and he used the vanity mirror on the passenger shade to take a look at the damage.  His nose and ears were smeared with blood, but otherwise he seemed uninjured.

      A sudden sense of urgency seized him, and he got out of the jeep into the pouring rain.  Risa was in danger.  He knew it, just as surely as he knew where she was.  He scrambled through the darkness of the woods, toward a clearing he’d often visited as a boy.  As he entered the clearing, he should have been awestruck by the sight of a vast, black alien craft, but he had no time for wonder.  The hatch was open, and he crammed himself in, though it was a tight fit.  He forced his way through the corridors, navigating the passages he’d never seen as though they were part of his own home.  It was like trying to walk through a storm drain, and he finally gave up and got to his hands and knees, crawling his way through tunnels that would have been more appropriate in a child’s playground.  The door to the navigation room was open, and there was easily enough room within for him to comfortably stand.  The booth stood before him, and his hands flew over the alien keypad, beginning the routines that would release the Navigator.  Pumps thrummed into action, and the top of the booth began to cycle open.  The thin ladder climbing the side of the booth threatened to bend under his weight, but he ignored it as he reached into the gelatinous interior and pulled Risa free.  He wrapped her carefully in his raincoat, and held her against his chest as he made his way out of the ship.

      He made it out of the ship with minutes to spare.  The hatch irised shut, and the ship lifted out of the clearing and back into the sky, leaving Jerry and Risa earthbound.  Jerry laid Risa down in the back of his jeep, making certain that her breathing wasn’t too labored, and climbed into the driver’s seat.  He was halfway home, skidding through standing water at speeds he would have shunned in dry weather, when reality set in.

      “Holy Fuck!  She’s a dwarf!”  He pulled/slid to the side of the road, and waited for the adrenaline rush to fade.  Now that he was no longer in the grip of whatever compulsion he’d been in the throes of, he began to notice the details that had eluded him before.  He turned to look at his passenger, and confirmed his sudden realization.  Risa was the exact image she’d presented him, if emaciated and matted with some kind of goo, but she was, at most, three feet in length, if one counted from the tips of her ears to her footpads.  He also noticed that he had a migraine the likes of which he’d never before experienced, and he spent the next fifteen minutes just sitting by the side of the road clutching his head.  When the pain had subsided a bit, he took a deep breath and reminded himself that, although his libido had been a deciding factor in rescuing Risa, there were other, still compelling motivations.  Most importantly, she was a living, sentient being, the only one of her kind in this half of the galaxy, and she needed him.  Risa stirred weakly, and muttered incomprehensibly.

      He forced himself to think rationally.  Now that Risa was free of the booth and her ship was flying into deep space, the dangerous part should be over, but he still felt a deep, nagging sense of urgency.  Now that he no longer seemed to be flying on autopilot, he recognized that Risa hadn’t planned on being unconscious for her arrival.  It was possible she’d underestimated the stress of landing, but he didn’t think that would prompt such a level of panic within him.

      He knew his first priority was to get her home.  Even with the storm, they were running an unacceptable risk of being discovered.  He started the jeep again, and cautiously pulled back onto the road.  He spent the rest of the trip trying to navigate through the sheets of rain and wishing that the insistent feeling in his mind would stop.  About halfway home, he discovered that he could control the feeling somewhat.  It was a feeling like concentrating, but not, like furrowing his brow to make a headache go away, but without actually moving his face.  By the time he pulled up his own driveway, the feeling was completely gone.  He picked Risa up and held her close to his chest as he dashed for the front door.  As he fumbled with his keys, he could hear his phone ringing.  He counted four rings before he finally got inside and was able to reach the phone.

      “Hello?” He answered, pressing the receiver into his shoulder with his ear.

      “Jerry!” Sheriff Tarkin sounded surprised, “I was about to hang up.  Where were you?”

      “I was checking on the animals.” Jerry lied smoothly, “Beggar gets worked up by thunder, and it can really set off the other dogs.”

      “Well, Dr. Doolittle, just make sure that wolf of yours doesn’t get out.  And try not to catch pneumonia, while you’re at it!”

      “And I’ll eat all my vegetables, and wash behind my ears.  Trust me.”

      “I have been.  Don’t make me regret it.” Tarkin warned. “I’ll come by to check on you tomorrow.” The sheriff hung up, and Jerry put down the phone with a sigh.  He’d figure out what to do about his guardian visiting later.  He took Risa upstairs, and laid her down in the spare bedroom.  He wondered if the disappearance of the urgent feeling in his mind implied that whatever emergency prompted it had passed, and was answered by a sudden renewal. 

      “Come on, Risa.  I don’t know what to do.  You’re the alien expert.  This has been your plan all along.”  He touched her, gently, and felt her fur squish with gel.  He was seized with a sudden desire to clean her.  Not knowing what else to do, and not seeing how it could hurt, he fetched the washtub he used to bathe the dogs and filled it with warm water.  He realized that, small as she was, Risa was too tall to lie down in the tub, and settled for giving her a sponge bath.  The gel came out of her fur easily, and she didn’t resist as he gently lathered her with shampoo, then rinsed her, noticing as he did so how thin and frail she seemed.  He was no vet, but he knew she should have more meat on her than that, if only by comparing to the mental image that she’d shown him.  He also couldn’t help but notice that, even taking the size difference into account, her breasts were somewhat less than advertised.  When he was done, he toweled her dry, and held her.  He’d done this with many wounded animals, and he knew that it helped, though he couldn’t say how.

      Slowly, the thought fragments that had been Risa gathered themselves together, as though drawn by gravity toward a central point.  Pieces fell back into place, and her ego began to reconstruct itself.  At first, she was only aware of momentary existence, without even the awareness of awareness, but gradually, a sense of self began to emerge, a vague feeling of identity.  Her mind reached out to gather more of itself.

      Jerry felt a familiar presence brush against the edge of his thoughts, and he reached out to it, though if he’d thought about it, he couldn’t have said how he did so.  The proto-Risa that had developed fled from this strange, powerful tug, but was unable to escape.  She was near a psionic signature greater than her own, and by years of conditioning, she reached out to it, through it, allowing it to amplify her own tiny will.  The remaining pieces of her returned in a flood, channeled by the latent power Jerry possessed. 

      Risa opened her eyes and stared at the god-like creature that held her.  Even as her mind began the task of putting itself back together, she became strongly aware of her own dependence.  He wasn’t as powerful as the monstrous presence that had nearly destroyed her at the heart of the sun, but her own battered mind was pitifully weak by comparison to his.  She had reassured herself, when she’d formed this plan, that if all else failed, she would have her powers to fall back on, but now she knew better.  If not for his own natural gifts and her years of training, she doubted that she would be able to manage basic telepathic communication with Jerry, even at such close range.  As it was, she could sense his emotions, and she felt his concern for her.  Mixed in as well were several other emotions, frustration, fear, helplessness.  He spoke, and she could only stare back at him uncomprehendingly.

      “Risa?” His voice spoke in her mind, threatening to shatter her again.

      “Please… not so loud.” She whimpered, struggling to maintain her sense of self against the barrage of his thoughts.  Relief flooded into her through their bond.  “I’m ok, I think.”

      “What happened?”

      “I’m… not sure.  I found something in your star that I’ve never heard of before.”  She guided him through the memory.  “There is some sort of entity residing within your star.  It didn’t want to be disturbed.”

      “Amazing.  Are you sure you’re alright?” Risa nodded, and felt her head swim.

      “I’m… exhausted.” She finally admitted.  He felt her give an odd sort of cough against his chest, and heard the slightly bitter laughter in her mind.  “You’d think that after sleeping for 18 years, I’d be well rested.”

      “Well, you’ve had a busy day, you know.” Jerry reminded her, but even as he spoke, he could sense her mind becoming dormant.  With a sigh, he tucked her into the guest bed, and retired to his own, figuring that if she needed anything, he’d only be a mental shout away.

 

      The next morning he was awakened by a repeated buzzing.  It was only after hitting his alarm twice that he recognized it as the doorbell.  He was still clothed, not having bothered to undress before collapsing into bed, so he dashed downstairs while running his fingers through his hair.

      “Did I wake you?” Tarkin asked, when he answered the door.

      “Um, yeah.” Jerry confessed, “It was pretty rough last night.”

      “Trouble getting to sleep?” The sheriff asked, as he came in.

      “Not really.” Jerry’s eye’s suddenly widened as he realized Risa was probably still in plain sight.

      “Something wrong, Jerry?  You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

      “No, I just… realized I need to feed the animals.”

      “Maybe you should try eating something yourself every once in a while.”

      “Of course.” Tarkin went to inspect the animals, passing by the guest room as he did so.  He paused, and Jerry’s heart caught in his throat.

      “What’s that smell?” He looked in the room, and took a few steps in, and Jerry had a sinking feeling in his gut.  “Did one of your animals piss in here?”

      Jerry could smell what the sheriff was talking about as soon as he got near the door, but that was secondary in his mind, if that.  The sheriff was staring at Risa, right at her.  He walked over to the bed, and put his hand down on the bed, not four inches away from her body, then rubbed his fingers together.  Jerry came in behind him.

      “Um… I’ve been having a little trouble with Zeke leaving ‘presents’ for me.” He explained, praying that whatever god was looking out for him would keep him in its favor a while longer.

      “Well, get it cleaned up.  If it keeps up, you might have to keep her outside.”

      “Of course.” Tarkin raised an eyebrow, clearly expecting an argument.  Jerry was not at all inclined to be contrary, and he led Tarkin outside, where he fed the dogs.  Tarkin glared at Toby with obvious distaste, and Toby bared his teeth from time to time to let him know the feeling was mutual.

      “I don’t think I need to remind you what’ll happen if that monster ever gets loose?”

      “And yet, you always do.” Jerry noticed, as Toby loped off, eyeing the Sheriff.

      “Don’t be a smart-ass.”

      “Sorry.”

      “You’re doing a pretty good job.  Are you sure you won’t consider at least going to the community college?  You’d make a good vet.”

      “It’s too far away.”

      “You could get a place in town.  Hell, I wouldn’t mind it if you stayed with me.”

      “I know.  For one thing, you could keep a closer eye on me.”

      “Don’t be cute, either.” Tarkin warned, “Listen, I need to get back to town.  I want you to think about college, I mean, really thing about it.  I don’t want to see you throw your life away.”  Jerry nodded, and finally, the Sheriff left.  As soon as his SUV pulled away, Jerry dashed into the guestroom.

      “Risa?  Are you alright?”

      “Yes.  It’s sad, though.  I just woke up and I’m already exhausted.”

      “Why didn’t he see you?”

      “He almost did.” Risa admitted, “But I convinced him to see what he expected to see.  It should have been easy, but it was almost more than I could manage.” In truth, it wasn’t a task Risa had much experience with.  She’d practiced such things at the Academy, but only as a brief exercise.  That sort of tampering was strongly discouraged.

      “Any explanation for the bed?”

      “Older Navigator’s sometimes have problems with bladder control from being on life support so much of the time.” Her embarrassment tinged her thoughts, “The nickname for it is ‘Navigator Dribbles’.  I guess I have the worst case of it in history.  I’m sorry, I hadn’t thought about it, or I would have warned you.”  Jerry forced himself to smile.

      “It’s ok.  I knew you’d need help when I agreed to this.”

      “I may not be a very powerful telepath at the moment, Jerry, but that doesn’t mean I can’t tell when you’re lying to me.” Jerry sighed.

      “I’m sorry.  I… had other expectations.” Risa felt her heart tremble with a sudden burst of fear.  What would she do if Jerry abandoned her?  It was true that she had led him on, albeit unintentionally.  When she’d shown him her form, she had used her old self-image, since she had little idea of how she looked in her current condition, and the size difference was as much a surprise to her as it had been to him.  Only a few species she knew of were off of her size scale, and those generally came from radically different environments. 

      “It’s my fault.” Risa confessed, “I should have thought this through more before I got you involved.”

      “It’s alright.” Jerry repeated, and this time, he surprised himself by actually meaning it.  While Risa wasn’t the furry sex-goddess he’d originally seen her as, she was still someone he’d come to know and care about.  He realized that she really wasn’t asking much more of him than the other creatures he’d nursed back to health, and more than that, she was company.  He’d gotten used to having her around, in spirit if not in flesh.  If she couldn’t be a lover… and he knew he’d been getting ahead of himself with that idea anyway… then she could certainly still be a friend, and he had precious few of those these days.  “The question is, what can we do about it?”  Risa slowly shook her head, a gesture that was apparently shared by their species.

      “I’m not sure.  In the long run, there are exercises I can do that will help, and I’ll have to add those to my rehabilitation.  In the short term…” She looked at him.

      “I guess…” Jerry paused, reluctant to make the suggestion.  “Would you mind if I… had you wear diapers?  Until you learn to control yourself again?”

      “I’m not sure I understand.” Risa admitted, “You’re talking about some kind of garment, I know that much, but the concept isn’t really clear to me.  I may not have a cultural equivalent to compare with.”

      “Well, it’s a… loincloth? I guess.  Does that make sense?”

      “Yes, I’ve seen a few species that wear those.  I must admit, it’s not as cold here as I thought it would be.”  Jerry felt a moment of worry as he noticed her thoughts kind of blur as she became distracted from the original topic.  “I mean, you’re wearing so much clothing.”

      “Well, I don’t have fur.” Jerry pointed out.

      “True, but it’s still very warm, even if you are a bare-skinned species.”

      “It has a lot to do with… certain religious ideas.”  Now he got a strong sense of confusion from Risa.

      “What is… religious?  It seems like some kind of philosophy.”

      “I’ll… explain it later.”  Risa accepted that, and he noticed her eyes drooping.  “Sleepy already?”

      “Yes.  I told you, it was harder than I expected to hide myself from notice, and it’s even a bit tiring to talk to you like this.” Jerry nodded.

      “Well, I tell you what.  I’m going to give you another bath, and then I’ll lay you down on a couple of towels on top of a trash bag so you can take a nap.  When you wake up, I’ll see what I can find for you to eat.” He felt Risa’s thoughts become more incoherent as she slowly lost her fight with sleep.  “I’m going to leave to get groceries.  It shouldn’t take me long, so I should be back before you wake up.”  He knew that Risa had heard him and understood well enough, but she was past the point of answering.  He lifted the dozing vixen out of the wet patch she was lying in, and once again sponged her clean, then toweled her dry.  He realized he already had a load of laundry to wash, and it was only Tuesday!  He put her back to bed, covering the wetness with his makeshift waterproof pad, and slipped out to go shopping.

      Risa was still asleep when he came back, and he noticed that, even as emaciated as she was, she was really cute.  He couldn’t really think of her as sexy, small as she was, but she was definitely cute.  He sighed, though his disappointment was gradually diminishing, giving way to a fondness.  He woke her, and got her cleaned off with a washcloth.  As he did so, he realized that he hadn’t thought his plan through very well. 

      “What’s wrong?” Risa asked, still giving the impression of being half-asleep.

      “I didn’t take your tail into account.” Jerry answered. “Let me show you.” He opened the bag of disposable diapers he’d bought (which had raised a few eyebrows and had required a bit of quick lying) and showed one to Risa.  It took a little explaining, but he soon got the idea across.

      “That seems… unsanitary.” Risa finally said.  “I mean, it holds your wastes against your body.  Isn’t that… unhealthy?”

      “A little, I guess.” Jerry admitted, “How do your people handle this sort of thing?”

      “Shortly after birth, a device is installed that controls the function of those muscles.  When a certain pressure is reached, the parents take the child to the lavatory and relieve it.”

      “Then how do you toilet train?”

      “When the child is ready, the parents show it how to relieve itself.  Eventually, the child learns to recognize the sensations that indicate fullness, and the device is eventually disabled.”

      “Why would you ever disable the device?” Risa seemed puzzled by the idea.

      “Because it’s part of becoming an adult.  I suppose you could leave your Regulator on, but it would certainly be socially awkward.”

      “But how would anyone know?” Risa gave another cough-bark, and he heard her laugh in his mind.

      “Because the children’s version isn’t designed to be discrete.  It’s designed to make sure everyone knows that their wastes need to be eliminated.”

      “I see.  There’s an adult version?”

      “Oh, yes.  Though it doesn’t signal audibly like the cub’s Regulator does.”

      “Like having your pager set to ‘vibrate’ I guess.”

      “Something like that.  People tend to be embarrassed by it, though.  Most people who have to have the surgery done lie about it afterward.”

      “I see.  Well, this is the best way I know of to fix the problem.  And it’s just until you can get your muscle control back.”

      “Jerry?” There was a sudden urgency in Risa’s thoughts.

      “Yes?”

      “I’m hungry.” Jerry could feel her hunger, a sudden hollowness that demanded to be filled.

      “Ok, but I don’t think you should try to eat too much, at first.  Your stomach doesn’t really have that great a capacity, at the moment.  I guess I’ll just have to sit you on a diaper until I can figure a way to fit it around your tail.”

      Dinner was an even greater ordeal than Jerry had imagined.  He tried to sit with Risa at the table, but she couldn’t really reach the table all that well, and even had difficulty holding herself up well enough to eat.  He eventually laid her on her belly over a diaper on the floor while he searched through the garage and came up with his old high-chair from storage.  Ordinarily, it would have been a tight fit for Risa, but as it was, her thin limbs and narrow waist fit easily, and her tail lolled easily between two bars of the back.  He positioned the diaper under her again, and helped her try a few bites of meat.  He reasoned that, being a fox-like creature, her diet was likely very protein dependent, with a few vegetables in the mix for trace elements and roughage.  Though at the moment, the thought of roughage took him places he didn’t want to go.

      Risa’s jaws, however, were not at all up to the task.  The first thing she noticed was that her mouth felt strange, and that the meat was oddly... crunchy.  When she inquired to Jerry about it, he had her open her mouth for inspection.  The meat had done an excellent job of extracting her loose teeth from her mouth, and she presented him a snaggle-toothed smile.  He felt her remaining teeth, and as he gave one an experimental wiggle, it fell out.  Risa was alarmed by this, but not nearly as worried as he would have expected.  Risa explained that her species renewed their teeth several times in their life-cycle, so their teeth didn’t fuse to their jaws the way adult human teeth did.  She was not, however, looking forward to cutting an entirely new set of teeth. 

      Jerry retrieved the meat/tooth lump, and considered what to do.  He took her plate into the kitchen, and eventually decided to dump the entire contents into the blender.  A few minutes later, he had a pulpy mixture he found mildly nauseating to consider.  Risa spooned this mixture easily enough, though he realized that, if her stomach had been any less shriveled, she wouldn’t have had the strength to make it all the way through the meal.  He didn’t think she’d want to start her exercise regimen right after eating, and she was agreeable.  While she was eager to regain as much of her independence as she could, she wasn’t looking forward to starting a grueling course of physical therapy.  In truth, just being free of the booth was a giant step in the right direction, as her body had to contend with the full effects of gravity again.  It was also, unfortunately, constantly draining, and despite having slept most of the day, she was already fatigued. 

      She recognized that it wasn’t just her body that was demanding that she sleep.  Her encounter with the psionic entity had shattered her ego, which still needed time, and dreams, to completely heal.  She knew that she had nearly been completely destroyed by the ordeal, and the thought was terrifying.  As it was, she knew her will was fragile and sensitive, and she could feel a grayness around the edges of her thoughts, a dullness that she hoped would only be temporary.  She looked up at Jerry, who smiled and nodded, understanding.  Her stomach, used to being fed in a steady stream instead of all at once, was diverting blood to deal with this unaccustomed burden, and she felt herself being lifted up as she once again drifted off.   

      Jerry once again made an absorbent nest for her, and tucked her in to sleep off her meal.  Once she was settled, he disposed of the diaper she’d been sitting on, and wiped down the chair.  Then he set about fixing the rest of the diapers so they’d fit.  He went through a full roll of duct tape, but he finally succeeded in adding a tail-slit to the back of every diaper in the bag. 

      When he finished that, he checked in on his guest, and found her still deeply asleep.  She stirred a little, and he knelt by the bed and gently stroked her fur, eliciting a contented sigh.  Smiling, he left her to finish her nap, and stole away to see to his chores.

      The dogs were more difficult to control than usual.  As soon as he came into their enclosure, they were jumping around him begging for attention and sniffing him.  Toby caught scent of him and laid his ears back, growling softly.  Jerry brought out their food, and this was enough to entice Toby nearer, where Jerry cautiously offered a hand to sniff.  It took some convincing, but Toby eventually seemed to admit that Jerry was still the same person.  Jerry realized that he should have showered first, to wash Risa’s scent off of himself, but just as quickly concluded that the boys would have to get used to it eventually.

      The dogs suddenly stopped eating and went into a complete barking frenzy, turning this way and that in an effort to locate the intruder.  Jerry could feel what had set them off, as he could feel his own hackles rise. 

      “Who’s there?” He demanded, casting the thought abroad instead of speaking.  “I can feel you.  Is that you, Risa?” He heard Risa’s answering thought from within the house, little more than a vague buzzing annoyance at being awakened.  Grey and Beggar stared at him nervously, but Toby returned to eating, satisfied that whatever it was had been sufficiently frightened. 

      After a few more tense moments, Jerry had to agree with Toby.  Whatever presence he’d felt was gone.  He thought of Risa’s description of the malevolent thing at the center of the solar system, and suddenly wondered just how far it could reach.  He forced himself to be calm, telling himself that he was likely placing far too much importance on one strange incident. 

      He gathered up all the wet laundry Risa had already generated, and put it in the wash.  He checked on his guest, and decided to go ahead and try out the diapers, if only so he could put the bedding in the wash as well.  Risa fussed a little in her sleep as he once again cleaned her off, but he could tell that she never fully left her dreaming.  The diaper bunched a bit around the base of her tail, and he wasn’t positive it wouldn’t leak, but he figured he might as well see how it worked before trying to fix it further.  He held her, marveling again at how little she weighed, while he tried to strip the bed one-handed, and he chuckled as he felt her cozy herself into his chest.  He realized the mattress was going to need more than just dabbing with a wet cloth, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to drag it outside while holding a napping vixen.  He toyed with the idea of digging his old crib out of the garage, but decided she was a little large for that, and settled for tucking her into his own bed, with a towel under her in case the tail-slit did end up leaking. 

      He paused in the doorway to watch her sleep.  As he watched, she sighed softly and snuggled deeper into the covers, and while he didn’t know what she was dreaming about, he could feel the waves of contentment and peace that were radiating from her sleeping mind.  He felt a sudden urge to take her in his arms and hold her again, to feel her breathing, but he knew that he had a lot of other things to attend to.  As he turned to leave, he felt again the presence that he’d confronted on the porch, and his heart began to race.  A touch on his neck sent an involuntary shudder down his spine, and he swung around, only to have the same thing happen again.  He sensed a faint laughter in his mind, as though he were hearing it at a great distance, and for a moment, he thought that Risa was playing some kind of joke on him.  He dismissed that as ridiculous, since Risa was quite obviously asleep, and while he didn’t doubt she could fake the appearance of sleep, it was apparent that her mind was dormant and incapable of such effort. 

      Besides, Risa wasn’t telekinetic.

      He reached out to find whatever was teasing him, but it vanished just as quickly as before.  He stood there, not wanting to leave.  He sat on the bed next to Risa and put an arm under her head, cradling it protectively.  He knew that he was, in all likelihood, helpless against the entity that was threatening them.  If it was the same thing Risa had faced in the heart of the sun, what chance did he have against something that had nearly destroyed a well-trained telepath?  Still, he couldn’t bring himself to leave her, and he held her while she slept.  Eventually, he drowsed off himself.

      He guessed that he’d been asleep about an hour, and Risa was finally showing signs of being rested enough to want to get up again.  First, however, it was manifestly obvious that she needed to be changed, and he was glad he hadn’t waited to try out the diapers.  The modified diaper, surprisingly, held up well, and did a good job of containing the mess she’d made.  He picked her up and carried her on his hip back to the guestroom, where he’d left the rest of her diapers, and in short order, he had her cleaned and changed into a fresh diaper.  If Risa had any complaints about this treatment, she kept them to herself, and in the immediacy of the problem, he forgot to tell her about the strange visitations he’d had.  When he was done, she gave him a very gap-toothed smile, and he couldn’t help but laugh. 

      “Do you want to try to walk now?” He asked, and she nodded.  He held her hands and supported most of her weight as he led her around the house.  He could sense the growing ache in her legs as they went on, and he gradually increased the amount of lift he was applying until her feet stopped touching the ground.  Risa bark/laughed as he pretended not to notice, and she walked on air for a few more minutes until the put her back on his hip and resumed carrying her.  “Let me know if you get hungry, ok?” Risa nodded, but he could tell that she was still pretty full from lunch.  He guessed that her feeding pattern was going to be unpredictable for a while still, until her body adjusted from being fed a constant stream of nutrients.  Not knowing what else to do, he deposited her on the couch, and turned on the television.  This was fine so long as he was in the room, but when he left to finally drag the soaked mattress outside to air, he realized that she couldn’t understand the programs without his mind to translate for her.  “Would you like to try learning my language?  It might make things a little easier.”

      “I guess so.” Risa agreed half-heartedly, “I was never really good at language arts in school though.  It was always easier to cheat and read the meaning from someone’s mind instead of learning the symbols.  I mean, it seems like the symbols are more about concealing the meaning, instead of making it clear.”

      “I guess language is like that.  But it could be important for you to be able to understand things when I’m not around.”  He flipped to the educational channel, and left her to watch Sesame Street for a while.  He finally got to drag his mattress outside, and propped it against the back wall so the evening sun could dry it out and keep it from mildewing.  He fixed some dinner for himself, and finished it off, staying attentive for any signal from Risa that something was wrong.  When he came up behind her to see how she was doing, he found her leaning against the arm of the couch with her head on her paws, engrossed in the program, even if she hadn’t understood most of the words.  He smiled.  Even if she was a little scrawny, he found her cute as a button, lying on the couch like that wearing just a diaper.  He thought to himself that the only thing that would make the picture more cute is if she were sucking her thumb, and to his amazement, one of her paws curled up and found it’s way into her muzzle.  “Risa?” She turned to look at him, and smiled around her thumb.  “Never mind.  Are you hungry?” She shook her head.  “Do you need to use the bathroom?” Even though she was replying mentally, she took her thumb out of her mouth to answer.

      “I don’t think so.”

      “Have you felt like you need to yet?” She shook her head.

      “Not really.  I’m having a hard time telling.”

      “Have you noticed when you get wet?”

      “Not yet.” Even if he hadn’t been able to sense her feelings, her face did a good enough job of conveying her sense of shame, as her ears were folded back, though not flattened in anger.  Overall, she looked like she was expecting him to smack her with a rolled-up newspaper, and he sat down next to her to reassure her.

      “Listen, I’m not upset with you.  I know you’ve been though a lot.” He pulled her into his lap and held her.  “I’ll admit, this isn’t what I expected.  But it isn’t that bad.  You’re less trouble than a human child would be.” Risa agreed, not really paying attention, just letting her relief flow through her.  While he held her, he gave her diaper an experimental prod and found it soaked.  “Lets get you changed again, ok?” Risa nodded, looking down at her diaper curiously, as though wondering how he could tell she was wet when she couldn’t.

      When he was done, he suggested that she might try exercising her upper body, since she’d already exercised her legs trying to walk.  He decided to do the same, and he got out his weights and began his routine, while Risa attempted to do sit-ups and push-ups.  She tried, but the best she could manage was to raise her head and shoulders slightly off of the ground before flopping back, exhausted.  Watching her, Jerry reminded her not to over-exert herself.  It would be a long time before she even had a little of her old strength back.  When they were done, her stomach suddenly decided it was ready for dinner, but the rest of her was protesting that she didn’t have the strength.  Jerry seemed to sense her dilemma and he told her he had just the thing.  He carried her into the kitchen and propped her up on the counter while he rummaged around in the fridge. 

      Risa almost fell of the counter when a large gray form suddenly materialized in front of her.  Ezekiel peered into her eyes and gave her a good sniffing, while Risa quivered.  Jerry responded instantly to her fear, reaching over and pushing Zeke off the counter.  The cat stared at him reproachfully, then sat down to stare at Risa.  Jerry noticed that Risa had resumed sucking her thumb.

      “Don’t worry, that’s just Ezekiel.  She’s a cat, a common animal on Earth.” Risa nodded.

      “She frightened me!” Risa sent, not taking her thumb out of her mouth this time.  Jerry decided it was time to ask about that.

      “Risa, have you always done that?” Risa seemed to know what he was talking about, and she took her thumb out of her mouth and regarded it curiously.

      “No, I’ve never done that before.  Though I can’t imagine why.  It’s very calming and reassuring.” Jerry nodded.

      “I was just wondering.  Do any of your people do that?”

      “Not that I know of.  Why?”

      “Just curious.”  Risa accepted that, which worried him a bit.  At first, he’d thought that Risa was regressing a little as a result of everything she’d gone through, which was reasonable enough.  However, it was apparent that she was picking up habits that were foreign to her culture.  More importantly, he’d just lied to her, and she hadn’t caught it.  Still, he found that he couldn’t resist thinking of her as a child.  To a large degree, it alleviated his frustrations, and it made it much easier to do the things he was having to do for her.  A week before, he wouldn’t have been able to visualize Risa in diapers, but now it seemed a perfectly acceptable, and practical, solution to her problem. 

      Likewise, it seemed only natural that he was preparing a bottle to feed her before bed.  He hoped that she wasn’t lactose intolerant, and he decided to have her try a little milk just to be safe.  She held it down easily enough, and he decided to risk giving her the entire bottle.  As he carried her up to his room, she gave the bottle a quizzical glance, and he got the feeling that this was something else her people didn’t do.  A casual question posed to Risa confirmed that her people didn’t bottle-feed.  Their children were breast-fed until weaned.  Risa didn’t bother asking why he was wondering, and didn’t seem to make the connection with the bottle he was holding.  He’d warmed it to a nice temperature, and Risa found drinking from the bottle a delightful experience.

      He cradled her in his arms in bed and held the bottle while she happily drank.  He found himself humming softly, and was pleased to see Risa’s eyes slowly sliding shut.  His approval and pleasure washed over Risa like a wave, and she found her self tumbling down into a blissful slumber.

      When she was well and truly asleep, he shifted her off onto the towel he’d put down for her nap earlier, and slid down under the sheets himself.  He’d originally been leery of sharing a bed with her, one of the reasons he’d put her in the spare bedroom for her first night, but he realized now that he needn’t have worried.  There was nothing wrong with her sleeping in his bed, and this way he’d be there if she should need him in the night.

      Risa woke him once, about five hours into the night, to have her diaper changed, and she had trouble getting back to sleep, which surprised both of them.  Jerry couldn’t think of much she could do without him, so he asked if she wanted to watch some more television, but Risa wasn’t very interested. 

      “I’d suggest you read a good book, but you can’t read English.  Likewise with the computer, besides, you can’t hold yourself up to eat, I doubt you’d be able to sit up to reach the keyboard.  If you like, I can go get some of my old toys, and you can see if there’s anything in there you’d like to play with.” 

      Risa considered objecting, but she realized that he needed to sleep, so she just nodded.  She didn’t think she’d find anything in his old toys that would be particularly engaging, but she also knew that it would be nice to have something to occupy her attention while he was sleeping.  He left and returned with an armload of toys, which he spread out before her. 

      There was a small menagerie of stuffed animals, including a lion which reminded her a bit of Joram.  There were also several little plastic men, some toy cars, and a few aircraft.  To her surprise, there was also an angular-looking spacecraft, which reminded her of her people’s fighting ships, the Warbirds.  Jerry had also rinsed her bottle and refilled it with water, in case she got thirsty while he was sleeping.  She took the lion and the spaceship, and cuddled with one while she examined the other.  She looked to Jerry for a cue on what she was supposed to be doing, and he rolled over and decided he could put of sleeping for a little while longer.  He soared his jets through her airspace, and let her pretend to shoot them down with the Warbird.  Risa giggled, feeling silly for playing a child’s game, but she knew that just having her arms above he head was exercise she needed, so it wasn’t all frivolity.  Besides, she could tell that Jerry was having fun playing with her, despite his need for sleep.  He showed her how to roll the cars along the bed, though he couldn’t quite convince her that they weren’t supposed to leave the ground, and by the end of an hour, she was giggling joyfully soaring her spaceship and driving her cars, and he reminded her that she had some water, if she wanted it, before he returned to his slumber.

      When he woke up again, it was late morning, to judge by the quality of the light filtering through his curtains, and Risa was curled up next to him, clutching her lion plush and contentedly sucking her thumb.  He let her drowse through being changed, and carried her downstairs for breakfast.  He tried her out on scrambled eggs, and she managed to finish off an egg and half’s worth.  He could tell that her arms were aching by the time she was done, and several times she lost her grip on the fork, dumping lukewarm egg down her chest.  While he cleaned her up a bit, he asked her if she wanted to play some more or just watch television while he worked around the house.  He wasn’t surprised that she wanted to rest her arms for a little while, and he sat her down on the couch again with instructions to call for him if she needed help.  Risa asked for and received a bottle to drink while she watched TV, and Jerry left to deal with his daily chores.

      He felt someone approach behind him as he was washing the dishes, but he wasn’t very startled to discover that nobody was there.  He could sense Risa in the living room trying to follow the simple plot of the show she was watching, and knew that she wasn’t what he’d felt.  A touch on his shoulder was the next evidence of the presence, followed by the feeling of fingers running through his hair.  He once again had the impression of a woman laughing, somewhere distant, but perhaps not as distant as before.  Whatever it was, it seemed content to play with him a bit, and after it had it’s fun, it vanished, just as it had the day before.  Jerry decided that if all he had to put up with was a benign poltergeist, he could live with that. 

      Being in the habit of picking up after himself, another trait ingrained by his mother, he didn’t have much to do in order to keep the house clean.  He checked in on Risa before attending to the animals, and she smiled at him around her bottle, which was almost ready to suck air.  She held up her arms, and Jerry could sense her sudden desire to be held.  He sat down next to her and cradled her while she finished off her bottle, then she settled her head against his chest, listening to his deep, slow-beating heart.  Risa took comfort from the feeling of his powerful arms surrounding her, and let herself be swaddled completely in the feeling of him, of his essence, his strength.

      “I need to feed the animals.” Jerry whispered, rousing her from her reverie, “Would you like to come with me?”

      “Will they be scary?  Like the…” Risa couldn’t find the right word.

      “Cat.” Jerry said, out loud, enunciating it carefully.  “Ezekiel is a cat.”  Risa nodded.  “Come on, I’d like to hear you try to say it.”

      “Ka… ath.” Risa lisped, with obvious effort.

      “Not bad.  It’ll be easier after you teeth grow back in.  Let me see your mouth.” Risa opened wide for him, and he realized that, even if she lost her teeth, he was going to have to do something about her breath.  The milk from the night before lent her mouth a very sour air, and he knew Risa didn’t like the film it had formed on her remaining teeth.  She wouldn’t need to worry about that for long, however, judging from what Jerry saw when he examined her jaw.  Several of the teeth she’d had left had vanished, and Jerry suspected that he’d be seeing them again one of the next few times he had to change Risa.  “Looks like you’re going to lose to rest of these teeth soon.” He confided, “I’ll have to get you some teething biscuits or something.  I bet having all those teeth coming in is going to drive you nuts.”  He picked Risa up, and let her pretend-walk though the house to exercise her legs on the way to feeding the dogs. 

      He’d expected the dogs to make a scene when they saw Risa, given her resemblance to a fox and their reaction to her scent the day before, but he was amazed at how calmly they greeted her.  Even Toby gave her little more than a cursory sniffing, which prompted Risa to giggle nervously.  Emboldened by this, he took her around the ranch, introducing her to his little menagerie.  By the time they were done, Risa was quite worn out, and in need of a change.  He got her into a dry diaper, and sat her back in her highchair for lunch.  Tired as she was, he didn’t think she was up to feeding herself, so he fed her what little she felt like eating.  He took her back upstairs for her nap, and she cuddled with her lion plush as he tucked her in.  He kissed her on the forehead, and she squirmed at the unfamiliar feeling of his lips on her fur. 

      He checked his mail and his email while she slept, and logged on to a couple of his favorite chat-rooms.  He was greeted warmly, and asked about his prolonged absence.  After a moment’s thought, he decided to tell the truth.  Or at least, some of it.

      “Yeah, I’ve been taking care of a vixen.”

      “Which kind?” One person asked, trying to be witty.  Jerry smiled at his computer screen.

      “Oh, the small kind, of course.” He answered, “She’s in pretty bad shape, so she needs a lot of attention.”  The topic of conversation veered off, and after catching up on current events, Jerry logged back off. 

      Without warning, the presence returned, exploring him more thoroughly this time, beginning with his head and feeling it’s way down.  He spread his arms and didn’t resist the examination, and the presence eventually seemed satisfied.  Un-phased by this visitation, he shut off the computer and went to check on Risa, who was still sleeping soundly. 

      Risa once again soiled her diaper during her nap, and Jerry decided to give her a bath, after consulting with her for a few minutes to make sure frequent bathing wouldn’t strip her hair of too many oils.  She hadn’t thought to bring any of her own toiletries from her ship, so they made do with the dog shampoo he had on hand.  He’d noticed a horse-shampoo at the grocery store, and he made a note to himself to pick some up when he went out again.  If it really did work on manes, tails, and bodies, it should be safe enough for Risa.

      He put her in the regular bathtub this time, and he smiled as she accidentally splashed a bit.  Sensing his amusement, she splashed a bit more, and it wasn’t too long before he had to suggest she settle down, though she could tell he wasn’t at all unhappy with her.  He got her scrubbed clean, and he toweled her off before laying her down and spending about half an hour fluffing her fur out with the hair dryer.  He decided to let her air out for a while, and he spread out a nice old blanket for her to play on.  He brought in all the toys he’d shown her the night before, as well as some building blocks. 

      Their days quickly settled into a routine.  He’d wake up and get Risa changed and let her feed herself, then set her down to play or watch TV while he worked around the house, then they’d go out and visit the animals, and sometimes he’d let her crawl around and explore a bit outside.  After lunchtime, Risa would take a nap, leaving Jerry a bit of private time, then they’d spend the afternoon working out and playing.  After her workout, Risa would usually be too exhausted to feed herself, so he’d rock her to sleep while feeding her a warmed bottle.  Eventually, Risa started sleeping through the night, and needing shorter naps during the day, much to Jerry’s relief.  As predicted, she also lost the rest of her teeth by the end of her first week, but she didn’t begin really teething for a few weeks after that.  After the first week, Jerry began more aggressively teaching Risa to speak, by speaking to her in a clear manner, repeating simple words until she made the association with what he was trying to say.  It frustrated her to no end that he would block her off when she tried to get the information from him directly, especially since he did it so effortlessly.  Still, she had to admit it was effective, as she was picking up quite a few words she wouldn’t otherwise have made the effort to learn.

      Soon, she was even able to watch children’s programs without Jerry to translate for her.  For the most part, anyway.

      The sheriff visited several times, but Jerry found him very easy to manage by this point.  While in his house, Tarkin heard only what Jerry wanted him to hear, and saw only what Jerry permitted.  When Jerry’s birthday finally rolled around, the sheriff stopped visiting.  The clerks at the grocery store stopped questioning his purchases, even when he started buying jars of baby-food in large quantities.  Even the strange episodes of the unexplained presence became less and less frequent, and Jerry began to try and attribute it to imagination, or just as residual psionic effects from Risa’s encounter with the star-being.

      Thus, Jerry was completely unprepared when Risa’s adult form walked into his computer room during her nap.  He mentally checked on Risa, and found that she was, in fact, sleeping. 

      “Risa?  Are you projecting in your sleep?” He asked, but he knew that wasn’t the explanation even as he asked it, for Risa’s mind was dormant, incapable of that kind of concentration.  “Who are you?” The vixen smiled.  She was the perfect image of Risa, exactly as she’d first appeared to him, tall and healthy and dressed only in her own fur. 

      “Jerry.  I’m free.” The image reached out, and caressed his cheek.  “Oh, how I’ve dreamed of touching you like this.” Her voice echoed curiously, and he realized that he was hearing her both in his mind and in his ears.

      “Are you real?”

      “Is anything real?” The vision countered.  “I’m as real as I need to be.  I’ve left my body behind to be with you.”

      “But how is this possible?” Jerry asked, “You aren’t telekinetic.  You said so yourself.”

      “I wasn’t, no.  But I’ve finally recovered from having my mind shattered, and the experience has given me new strength.”

      “But what about your body?  Don’t you still need it?” She nodded.

      “Of course.  Without my body, I’d fade away.  But my essence is free from it.” She walked around behind him, and put her arms around his neck, leaning down to whisper in his ear. “Think about it.  We can be the perfect family.  Just you, and me, and my helpless infant body.  You’ve already been treating me like a child while I recover.” She nibbled on his ear, ever so gently.  “Now it will be the truth.”  Jerry knew this was wrong, he knew it in his heart, but at the same time he wanted so much to believe in it. “Then make it true, Jerry.  You have the power to accept this, to confirm it or deny it.”

      “I… Yes.  I believe.” And with that, Jerry felt a sort of lurching, as though the universe were a computer screen being degaussed.  He couldn’t tell if the change was within himself, or in the universe around him, but he knew that reality, though perhaps only his reality, had conformed to his desires. 

      “Good.  There’s something I’ve been wanting to do ever since I met you, and I’d hate for you to think it was all just a dream.” She swiveled his chair around, and knelt in front of him, unbuttoning his pants and making her intentions very clear by smiling up at him and licking her lips.

 

      Risa knew that something was very, very wrong, but she couldn’t say exactly what.  Jerry had started blocking her off more and more, and now she was entirely limited to communicating with her slowly increasing English vocabulary.  It was frustrating, because she knew that she shouldn’t have this much trouble learning the language, despite her protests about her language skills.  It seemed like it took several tries just to memorize a given word, and then mastering the ability to actually say it was an ordeal in itself.  There were still a lot of basic things she couldn’t remember the words for, and it frustrated her that Jerry wouldn’t just let her speak with her mind. 

      It didn’t help that she never really felt fully awake, either.  She wasn’t sleeping as much as she had been at first, and she couldn’t shake the feeling of mental fuzziness she was used to having right after waking up.  Still, she knew she didn’t have much to complain about. 

Jerry was happy with her, she could tell that much just from reading his face, which she’d discovered was quite expressive, and she had lots of time to play with her toys.  She had no real demands on her time, and the only time she was even mildly uncomfortable was when Jerry didn’t change her, feed her, or put her down to sleep quickly enough, or when her incoming teeth began to ache.  She had challenges to face, too, so she wasn’t bored.  She was learning how to walk again, now that she was regaining her strength and Jerry was commenting on how well she was filling out, a subtle hint that she was becoming a little heavy to carry around constantly.  It was difficult, but certainly rewarding, as the feelings she got from Jerry as he watched her waddle and stumble around the house were almost pure ecstasy.  And she also had her lion to keep her company when Jerry wasn’t around.  He still had hints of Jerry’s smell underneath her own smell and the smell of the intervening years.

      She was in the middle of a nap when a nearby disturbance woke her.  She stared sleepily at the figure in the doorway, then became more alert as she realized it wasn’t Jerry.  The vulpine figure stepped closer, and Risa could make out features that were nearly identical to her own.

      “Shhh, it’s ok, baby.  Mommy’s here.” Risa was pretty sure she wasn’t dreaming, but she wasn’t sure exactly how else to explain the situation.  Her double laughed.  “Sorry, I was just trying to get used to it.”

      “Who are you?” Risa asked, trying to make sense of the situation.  She couldn’t be in two places at once, could she?  It was very confusing.

      “I’m you, silly.  Or rather, I’m the part of you that you lost.  The part you couldn’t gather back together quickly enough.” Risa’s eyes widened, and her pulse quickened, bringing a measure of clarity back to her mind.

      “Jerrica's Abomination!” The entity smiled, as though proud.

      “You still remember that.  I’m impressed.  Even when you only have half your mind, you’re still pretty clever.  You’ll make a very good child, maybe even an adolescent someday.  No, I’m not quite the same as Jerrica’s abomination.  I’m something… more.” She reached down and gently rubbed Risa’s stomach, causing Risa to squirm involuntarily.  “You see, I’m the combination of three different people.  There are all those parts of yourself that never got brought back together, and then there was Jerry’s fantasy of you.” She looked over her shoulder, and Risa could barely sense Jerry in the next room.  “You know, it’s a good thing his species is so repressed.  If he’s an example of what they’re like unfettered, they’d be a force to reckon with if they ever tapped that ability.  He’s powerful, Risa.  He’s probably more powerful than Jerrica was.  So powerful that he created me without even really thinking about it.  And now I’m going to be his lover, and you are going to be his child.” Risa began to protest, but the entity shook it’s head. “No, don’t bother arguing.  Do you remember why you left us in the first place?”  Risa tried to remember, but it seemed like such a long time ago suddenly.  “You never did find yourself out there among the stars, did you?” She laughed. “And you thought Joram was dangerous to be around.  Jerry’s done to you in the course of a couple of months what Joram might have done to you in ten years.  You know he sees you as a child, Risa.  And, more and more, that’s how you’ve come to see yourself.  You’re conforming to his expectations, just as you’ve always known you would.”

      “No!” Risa denied, “I’m not a child!  I’m an adult!”  But even as she protested, she could feel the truth of it slipping away.  Though Risa tried to fight it, the entity was merciless in showing her how, step by step, she’d willingly diminished herself in Jerry’s eyes to the status of a dependent child.  “But you said three!” Risa protested, though suddenly trying to think about numbers was making her head spin.  “Me and Jerry makes two.  Not three!” 

      “Of course.  Joram died, you know, only a year after you left.  Jerry was born that same day.  He’s not a total reincarnation, of course, but he has Joram’s memories dormant within him.” The concepts associated with their conversation were becoming increasingly difficult for Risa to understand, but she understood what came next well enough.  “I swore I’d wait for you, Risa.  Five years, or forever.  And now, you’ll never leave us again.”  Risa whimpered and put her thumb in her mouth for comfort, and within a few minutes, she no longer remembered why she’d been upset.