TPhai sat in his twelve-foot by twelve-foot cell and felt he was the freest creature alive. Sitting on the edge of his cot, he swung his gangly legs up and stretched his seven-foot frame onto the mattress. Serving with the humans in the Bug War, he had endured many hardships. None was more tiresome than the powersuit. MI troopers used powersuits routinely in combat and could spend days inside them. But because TPhai was TPhetti (a Skinnie as the humans liked to call him) and a methane breather, he could be stuck in his sealed suit for a week or longer without respite. The specialized Skinnie suit provided a breathable methane atmosphere and the 150-degree temperature that he found barely tolerable; but it was terribly confining especially to a being accustomed to the broad open canyonlands of his homeworld. That was why the small environmental research capsule was such a godsend. The capsule resembled a deep-sea submersible with its thick metal walls, airtight hatches, and sealed portholes; it was designed as an enclosed research environment for short-term experiments in deep space. In this situation, however, it sat in the forward cargo bay of the Valley Forge and had been adapted to accommodate the needs of the Skinnies. Other ships like the Roger Young and the Ticonderoga had entire decks converted to the Tophet environment to support their large contingents of the off-worlders. But TPhai was alone of his kind on this ship and the tiny chamber was the only place he could live without his suit. It contained a standard issue cot, a lavatory, a small chair, a computer monitor mounted in the bulkhead and a slender cabinet to store the discarded powersuit. Any man confined to this cell would have thought himself ill-used; TPhai felt he was in heaven.
He lifted his head to stare at his feet hanging awkwardly off the edge of the bed. The fit of Skinnie to cot was not a good one. It was no matter; with five spatula shaped toes arrayed circumferentially around a padlike foot it was easier to dangle his feet than to situate them comfortably on a mattress.
Nestled on the floor of the cell, just beyond his suspended feet, was TPhais special prize: a twelve-inch, high-output ferroceramic heater. TPhai could endure the powersuit, confinement and all. He could abide the artificial atmosphere, with its stale metallic smell, concocted by the humans. But he could not bear the endless cold. No matter how often SICON specialists adjusted the temperature of his suit or the chamber; he couldnt escape the chill. In an act of desperate boldness, TPhai had requested the heater from the quartermaster and three weeks later he got it. One day when Rico spotted the appliance in his cell, he had asked TPhai where he had gotten it. When TPhai said the quartermaster, Rico was amazed.
Quartermaster Sergeant Delaney gave you a heater? Rico exclaimed incredulously, How in heavens name did you winkle anything from the claws of that old skinflint!
I asked him politely, was TPhais completely accurate reply.
Rico paused, pondering this staggering achievement. Asked politely, huh? Jeez, maybe Ill give that a try next time.
As the warmth from the heater fan washed over his feet and passed up his body, TPhai could feel the knots and kinks in his long legs and narrow shoulders start to loosen. In the soothing warmth and unaccustomed space, he could let his mind wander from the small cold world of powersuits and ships to the warm suns and familiar canyons of his home. In his eleven months away from Tophet, TPhai had seen many strange sights. Many like the bugs and their conquered worlds were dark; those memories had no place here. In this pleasant place, his mind would dwell on the beauty he had known sometimes in the unlikeliest of places. In basic, at Camp Currie on the Great Plains of the United States, his fellow recruits would decry the harsh, spartan conditions of their lives; TPhai, on the other hand, was endlessly amazed by the wonders of this new world. Much to the amusement of his human NCOs, he would stand for minutes transfixed by a pine tree or the incomparable spectacle of a rainbow. When he moved on to Camp Spooky in the Canadian Rockies, he would endure the miserable cold just to marvel at the miracle of snow. Lovely as these memories were, they were pale reflections of his remembrances of home. He could close his large black eyes and see before him the canyons and valleys of his clan lands. He recalled how the canyon walls near his home would burn with blazing reds, yellows and golds in the dying light of the TPhetti suns; how the myriad volcanic geysers in the Valley of Light would spring to life in unison, forming pillars of fire that seemed to support the roof of the sky; or how the dust devils could skitter across the desert like playful kittens.
Before long, his thoughts turned to his most precious memory, his family. Involuntarily, his hand moved to the photos inside his tunic. Carefully he withdrew the slender metallic album and opened it. As he looked at the photographs, he touched the images with his fingers, trying to draw himself closer to them. The slender album contained only two images. On the right were his children, TPhal and MRette, standing side-by-side. The image had been recorded just a few days before he had shipped out to Earth and Camp Currie. Now that seemed a long time ago. The day he left, he could tell the two were frightened; their father was going away on a strange alien ship to fight in a war far away. TPhai had tried to be light hearted; as though he was only going on a short holiday. His children knew better. The strange armored aliens bristling with weapons, the grim faces and hushed voices of the clan members watching over them; these told them a different story. TPhal stood tall at his fathers departure, suppressing the faint quiver of his lower lip. MRette the youngest had no time for such displays of bravery; she clung helplessly to the elder clan mother, unwilling to even watch her father leave. The humans would say she wore her heart on her sleeve. TPhai smiled ruefully at the comical phrase. Little MRette was so like her mother, full of fire and emotion. At that thought, TPhais eyes settled on the left side of the album, the image of LWar, his mate. He sat up abruptly, never taking his eyes off the image. He could never be at ease when remembering his beloved. He stared hard at the image, as though he were trying to look through it and see his LWar alive beyond it. It was not often that he allowed himself this opportunity to explore the terrible empty place in his heart that was once filled with her. He could not help wondering where she was; wondering if she was. The uncertainty gnawed at him. He would seek her with his thoughts, seek a sign, a spark that would let him know she was there. But he never found it. He closed his great black eyes. He wished he could cry. What a silly thought. In the eternal desert of Tophet, any creature that expended its life water so foolishly would not last long. But silly or not, he envied the humans. More than once he had seen Dizzy cry over Zander or her brother. He had learned not to stare, for humans were strangely self-conscious about crying. He had wanted to tell her how beautiful he thought it was; to see the lifes water pour from her eyes, to spend oneself in memory of another. After only a few moments, he slowly closed the album. Like time in the chamber, these thoughts were a luxury he allowed himself only rarely. There were duties to be performed, responsibilities to be fulfilled. His squad was depending on him; so were his children. Tenderly he returned the album to its place, close to his heart. With practiced efficiency he donned his suit and departed.