A naturalist named McClendon hired me as a guide, to take him through the Tochopa National Forest north of east of Carbonate. Gundy didn’t want me to go by myself. This McClendon was a stranger and Gundy wasn’t certain that he trusted him. I reassured him that I could handle myself.
McClendon is a professor at some school I’d never heard of on a planet I’d never heard of. He is a human with glasses and a golden beard. Like all Autumn-Men, he is tall and slender, with long limbs and soft features.
He is soft spoken too. This is his first time to the Tochopa National Forest, but he has read about it. He marvels at the trees and the plants. We must stop every so often so that he can collect samples, take pictures with his bulky Kodak camera or for him to make quick charcoal sketches.
“I’m a naturalist,” he explains as we start again. “I specialize in evolutionary biology and biogeography.”
I have to admit that I am unfamiliar with those words, and McClendon simply smiles. “I study the process that created biological organisms and their distribution across worlds.”
I nod my head.
McClendon talks frequently. Sometimes I understand him, sometimes I don’t. I keep my eyes open, looking for any threats. Mountain lions often don’t come down from the Black Hills into the forests, but it’s not unknown–and we are skirting the edge of the Lumpong Agency.
The Tochopa National Forest is covered in all different sorts of pines. There are Hawatama ponderosas–tall and narrow with dark red bark. Then there are the smaller Tochopa pinyon pines–shorter and broader, with branches spreading up to twenty feet across. Short grass and squat sagebrush cover the ground alongside discarded needles and pinecones.
McClendon is red faced and drenched in sweat. We stop under a pine tree to rest and eat some lunch. He says a few jokes and I laugh politely.
We finally set up camp in the evening. We haven’t gotten far, but McClendon seems impressed with the progress. He spends an hour cataloguing everything he’s seen and collected before joining me for dinner. A cold chill settles in and I shiver reflexively.
McClendon clears his throat and he says he’ll offer me money. I’m confused and his faces turns red. After a few moments, I understand and I decline.
The second day is much of the same. If McClendon is upset, he doesn’t show it. He talks to me about the flora and fauna. I nod politely and smile. He enjoys it. When we set up camp for the second night, he again offers me money. It’s more money this time, but again, I decline it.
The third day is much of the same. After setting up camp but before McClendon can say anything, I push him to the ground and start pulling off his clothes.
I may be many things, but I’m not a whore.
McClendon’s hands are soft and gentle, and his beard tickles me. I’ve long since learned that there’s not much difference between a human male and an orcish male physically, so there’s no surprises. We finish and lie together next to the fire.
“Have you ever been to space?” McClendon asks me.
I shake my head. I haven’t.
“I’ve studied more than a dozen worlds, and I’ve studied dozens of biospheres,” McClendon says. “What I should have studied were the orcs.”
“There’s been orcs on every world I’ve visited.”
I sit up and stare down at him, confused as to what he means.
“You don’t know? There are orcs everywhere, all across the cluster. Thousands and thousands of tribes and ethnic groups, and billions and billions of you.”
I had trouble comprehending that. It is difficult for me to imagine life outside of the northern Hawatama Territory, let alone the stars beyond.
“Not all of them live on the agencies or reservations. Most have assimilated into society at large.”
I look away from McClendon and into the fire, my mind swirling. I am having troubling understanding the concept. Orcs elsewhere? Orcs not living on the edge?
“Washington doesn’t trust Muslims. Haven’t since that Mahdi Revolt back in ’17, not that I blame them.”
McClendon places a cold hand on my back and I lay down again, unable to still my mind.
In the morning, I feel McClendon pressed against my back and I oblige him before we set out again. My mind is elsewhere. I can hear McClendon talking at me about trees and other worlds he’s been to, but all I can think of are other orcs on other worlds. Orcs that didn’t have to live on reservations.
I am paying enough attention to see the saber cat in the distance. The large cat stands on a small hill about two or three miles from us. I tell McClendon to stop and I whisper that there’s a saber cat. His eyes grow wide and the color leaves his face. I tell him not to worry.
I unsling my hunting rifle, hold it in the crook of my arm and watch. The saber cat is a large animal that weighs almost a thousand pounds with jaws powerful enough to tear a man in half. It descends the hill and begins to approach us. I raise the rifle and fire off one, two shots. I shot above the saber cat’s head, just close enough to scare it away.
McClendon let out a sigh and put a hand on my shoulder. “Thank you.”
I nod my head.
That night, we repeat the same thing we’d done the night before. McClendon’s gentleness surprises me, but I don’t dislike it. He points out the constellations as we lie in each other’s arms. The sky looks like a black cloth that someone had poked little holes in. He points somewhere on the southern horizon, just above a rise of trees.
“And that’s Old Earth,” he says. I’ve heard that phrase used before, but had never given it much thought. “That’s where we came from.”
“Humans at least.”
I nod my head.
The next day is warmer, but we’re turning south to loop back to Carbonate. We pass a spring, and I see movement, so we stop to investigate. There’s a young woman with blue-green skin bathing naked. A nymph. It’d been years since I’d seen one this far north. McClendon is staring at her, and I feel a wave of jealousy run through me.
We can’t stay here, so I pull McClendon back onto his horse and we continue on our way.
The last few days continue as the rest. We ride during the day, with McClendon collecting samples and pictures–I know he’s taken a few pictures of me, but I allow him. We lay with each other during the night, and McClendon’s attitude changes. He talks less about the world and more about him. He tells me about his life, what he’s done and what he hopes to do. I have this strange feeling in the pit of my stomach that I can’t explain. I say little, still acting the part of the savage.
We return to Carbonate a week after setting out. McClendon hadn’t said much for the past few hours, and he bids me a hesitant farewell. He checks into a room at the Roadside Inn while he waits for his train. I take the mustangs back to the stables before turning to my own room in the Roadside Inn, which is on the first floor next to the lobby.
I shower to wash the dirt and grime off me. After I’m done, I begin to dress but I’m interrupted by my room phone. It’s McClendon. He wants to see me again to talk. I agree and go up to his room on the third floor. It’s the standard one room motel room. There’s a painting of seashore hanging above the bed. I have never understood that choice.
McClendon kisses me on the mouth, and I’m surprised at how forward he is since he’d never kissed me when we were out on the trail. “I want you to have this,” he says, presenting me with a choker made from turquoise, silver and ivory. I hesitate to accept it, but I relent and let him put it around my neck. “I want you to come with me.”
“I’m leaving for Samawa tomorrow, and next week I’m taking a PanAm clipper for the shores of the Salt Sea.”
That’s on the other side of Redstone.
“I want you to come with me. I need you. And after that, I’m going back to Odysseus.”
I don’t know how to answer this. He’s asking me to leave my home, leave my people, leave my world. Can I? He’s spent the past week filling my mind with stories of other worlds where orcs are more accepted. Could I even believe him? I need to think.
McClendon pulls me onto the bed and we make love for what seems like hours. His skin his softer and smells sweater after a shower. He’s more passionate and earnest now. After he finishes inside me, he leans down and whispers, “I love you.”
Once he falls asleep, I sneak out of the room. I go to the stables to get some mustangs and head back out. I don’t want to be in town when he wakes up.