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Dr. Scott MacDallan was, by dint of much sweating and swearing, trying to turn a wriggling, ungrateful little demon of a breech-birth infant for head-down delivery, when the stray arrived on the doorstep.
Mrs. Zivonik had a history of easy births without complications or he'd have done a simple Caesarian, but turning an infant wasn't complicated and the monitors in place showed him neither baby nor mother were in distress, so rather than create an incision and put the woman out of work for several days, he simply took the time-honored step of reaching in for the baby, grabbing it in one hand, and rotating it right-end around instead of wrong-side down. Mrs. Zivonik was doing fine, too, was even cracking terrible jokes despite the sheen of sweat soaking her and the occasional sharp grunts, gasps, and deeper groans when the contractions hit. Scott had just touched the baby's toes and was wondering why he'd ever thought this would be easy--while trying to ignore Evelina Zivonik's sounds of acute discomfort--when a wave of emotional anguish strong enough to knock him cock-eyed rolled over Scott like a naval battle cruiser.
His involuntary grunt and sharp movement drew a startled sound from his patient. "Doc?" Scott blinked, fighting the urge to panic, and managed, "Uh, sorry. No problems, you're fine and the baby's fine." For God's sake, Scott, pull it together! Before your patient thinks you're as loony as your misbegotten ancestors. Some of them had been burned at the stake ...
Scott blinked as Evelina Zivonik leaned up far enough to peer over the top of her distended belly. "That's good. But you don't look fine."
Just beyond the bedroom door of the Zivonik home, Fisher--who had the run of Scott's home and office, but not of his patients' homes--began bleeking in acute distress. He'd never heard the treecat make a sound quite like it, in fact, and the emotional wallop he was getting from his companion was enough to shake him into blurting out the truth.
"I'm not fine. Or rather, my treecat isn't."
"Your treecat?" she echoed. A thread of fear colored those two words. Treecats were viewed with awe and no small measure of worry by their human neighbors, who were almost universally uncertain how to respond to their presence.
"Yes. He's upset, very upset, I'm not sure why." Careful, Scott ... you're treading thin ice here. "I've never heard him make a noise like that," he added, glancing worriedly toward the closed bedroom door.
"Well, I'm not actually in serious labor yet," Evelina said uncertainly, the worry stronger this time. "If there's a problem with the treecat, you need to go find out what it is. If he's hurt or sick ... well, I'm not exactly going anywhere, so you should find out what it is."
His professional ethics would permit no such conduct, of course. Abandoning a patient in the middle of a procedure just to comfort his friend was out of the question. But Fisher's deep distress was not to be denied. Fisher knew how to open doors, of course, and the bedroom door was closed, but wasn't locked. Scott hesitated, torn between the need to reassure himself that a treasured friend wasn't in peril and the need to bring this baby into the world.
"Why don't you call him in here?" Evelina suggested, correctly interpreting his hesitation. "Irina has told us all about Fisher and showed us pictures, but I've never actually seen a live treecat." The hint of wistfulness in her voice decided Scott in an instant.
He flashed her a grateful response. "Thanks. Fisher! Come on inside, Fisher, it's not locked!"
The door swung open and a cream-and-grey furred streak shot across the floor on collision course with Scott's shoulder. He grunted softly at the impact, one hand still trapped in Evelina Zivonik's womb, the baby kicking and moving under his fingers.
"Bleek!" The treecat touched his cheek with both front hands, then pointed urgently at the window.
"What? Is there some danger outside?"
That wasn't the feeling he was getting from his companion of nearly twelve Terran months, now. He was getting better at reading Fisher's emotional "messages" all the time, thanks to an empathic ability of some sort that he carried in his extremely Celtic Scots Highland genes--an "ability" that still scared him silly on a rational, scientific level. The first time it'd happened with Fisher, he'd literally thought he was hallucinating. Only later did the truth sink in--and that was almost worse than a hallucination. On Sphinx, the kind of legacy he'd inherited from a long line of charlatans, parlor tricksters, and other assorted loons was met with mere skepticism and ridicule. But there were human worlds where professing to ownership of anything remotely similar to what his more ... flamboyant ... relatives (all on his mother's side of the family, thank God, so the name MacDallan hadn't been connected with them) was punishable by incarceration for fraud--or outright insanity.
What he was getting from Fisher now was not so much a sense that there was some kind of danger outside as more a sense that something outside was in danger. Or distress, maybe. It was also abundantly clear that Fisher wanted him to go outside, urgently. "Fisher, I can't go outside right now. I'm trying to deliver a baby."
Grass-green eyes shone brilliant with distress. The treecat made a pitiful sound. Just then, a chorus of childish voices erupted out in the main part of the house.
"Daddy! Come quick!"
"It's a treecat, Daddy!"
"Aunt Irina! Hurry! There's a treecat outside!"
"He's hurt or sick or something! Hurry, Daddy! Hurry, Aunt Irina!"
Scott and Evelina Zivonik exchanged startled glances.
"Go," Evelina said firmly. "I've had six babies. This one's going to get himself born just fine, whether you sit here and sweat to death with worrying or take five minutes to go out there and maybe save a life. You're the only doctor for a hundred kilometers. If there's an injured treecat out there, then it needs you more than I do right now. Besides," and she gave him a wry, sweaty grin, "I could use a breather from all that mauling."
Scott flushed; he'd continued working to turn the baby even while trying to determine what was wrong with Fisher, and "mauling" was probably what it felt like to poor Evelina Zivonik.
Fisher touched his cheek again. "Bleek?" The sound tugged at his heart, not to be denied.
"Thanks," he said with heartfelt sincerity. "I've never seen Fisher this upset. I'll be right back." He eased his hand out of Mrs. Zivonik's womb, reaching for a towel with the other. That bit about Fisher being more upset than Scott had ever seen him wasn't exactly true; but Scott didn't like talking about the injuries he'd suffered the day he and Fisher had first made one another's memorable acquaintance. The treecat had saved Scott MacDallan's life. The very least he could do was repay the favor to a treecat in trouble.
So he hurriedly scrubbed off and jogged outside, where the Zivonik brood danced around their father and Aleksandr Zivonik's younger sister, Irina Kisaevna. Aleksandr and Irina stood a good twenty yards to the side of the house, peering up into a picket wood tree's lower branches. Scott had no more than cleared the doorjamb than the most anguished sound he had ever heard uttered by a living creature smote him straight through the skull bones. The sound keened up and down like a banshee driven insane, voice torn by more pain than can be endured. Fisher, who huddled on his shoulder, wrapped his tail around Scott's throat and shuddered non-stop. "Bleek!"
Scott broke into a run, even while reaching up to soothe his companion with one hand. "Where is it?"
Aleksandr pointed. Scott peered up into the tall picket wood closest to the Zivonik house, toward one of the long, perfectly horizontal branches that made the picket wood so unusual among trees. "Up there."
Scott had to look closely, but he spotted the treecat near the trunk, sitting up on its haunches like an old Terran ferret, longer and leaner than one of those ancient weasels, yet with a head and certain other characteristics far more feline--except, of course, for the six limbs, a trait it shared with the massive and deadly Sphinxian hexapuma it so closely resembled in all but size. The treecat keening in the Zivoniks' backyard picket wood was larger than Fisher, about seventy centimeters long, not counting the prehensile tail, which effectively doubled its length, yet the little arboreal was far too thin for its length. It did look sick--or injured. Its coat was mottled cream-and-grey, like Fisher's, but even from this distance, Scott could see dirt and darker stains that looked sickeningly like blood.
"Fisher?" he murmured, trying to soothe his small friend's violent tremors. "Is it hurt? If I could get to it, treat it ..."
The hair-raising cries halted. The strange treecat made a pitiful sound, tiny with distance, then moved haltingly down the trunk toward the ground. Scott's pulse raced. He wanted to break into a run, wanted to rush toward it, and was afraid of frightening it away.
"Aleksandr," he said in a low voice, "I think maybe you and Irina should take the children back to the house. If anything spooks it, we may never get a chance to help, and I think that treecat needs help very badly."
Aleksandr nodded. The set of his mouth was grim. "Come on, kids. And no arguments!"
Irina Kisaevna glanced involuntarily toward Scott, concern darkening her vivid blue eyes. Of all the humans Scott had met before being adopted by Fisher, Irina alone seemed to grasp the depth of the bond between himself and the remarkable creature who'd come into his life nearly a full Terran year previously. Widowed when her husband had died in the plague that had devastated the human population of Sphinx, Irina had become a close friend during the past couple of years. Scott enjoyed her company, her quick, incisive mind, and her ability to make him feel rested and at ease, even after a difficult day; but when Evelina's latest pregnancy had turned difficult, she had moved in with her brother on the Zivoniks' farmstead--thus depriving Scott of her delightful company and occasionally intuitive insights into his relationship with his treecat.
"Irina," he said quickly, "I'd appreciate your help."
Warmth flashed into her beautiful eyes. "Of course, Scott. It would be my privilege." She, too, peered toward the slowly descending treecat in the big picket wood tree above them.
Scott waited while Aleksandr herded his youngsters back toward the house, The whimpering treecat had reached the lowest branch of the picket wood, where it stopped, bleeking piteously. Fisher replied, then pointed. Scott made a hopeful guess at Fisher's meaning. "It's okay if I go to him?"
He couldn't pick up anything like sense from Fisher, but the emotional response was unmistakable. He hurried toward the picket wood trunk and peered anxiously upward. The strange treecat was shaking where it huddled on the low branch. The dark stains were blood, long since dried, matting the once-beautiful pelt in a leprous patchwork. The treecat was far too thin, looked half starved, in fact. Was it an outcast, that no treecat community would help it? Did treecats have outcasts? Whether they did or they didn't, Fisher was certainly urging Scott to help the stranger, so there was no clue to be gleaned from his own treecat's behavior.
"Hello," Scott said quietly, speaking directly to the treecat above him. "Can I help?" He projected all the warmth and welcome he could summon.
The reaction stunned him. The distressed treecat let out a warbling, broken sound, then jumped to the ground and ran straight to Scott, clasping his leg with all four upper limbs and holding on as though life itself depended on the strength of that grip. Fisher swarmed down, touching faces with the stranger and making the soft, crooning sounds Scott recognized from his own occasional bouts of emotional distress. Scott crouched down, offered a hand. The bloodied treecat bumped it with his head, begging for the touch, leading Scott to wonder if this treecat had been around humans before. He stroked the treecat gently, trying to determine from that cautious touch how badly injured it might be.
He found no wounds to account for the blood, not even a sign of swelling or inflammation. But the treecat clung to him and shivered and made broken little sounds that horrified Scott nearly as much as they did Fisher, judging by the emotional aura his own treecat was projecting. Something truly dire had happened to this little treecat--and Scott received a strong premonition that whatever it was, it meant serious trouble for him and his companion. When Scott tried to pick the treecat up, it let out a frightened sound that prompted Fisher to rest both of his true-hands on the other's nearest shoulder. A moment later, the filthy, blood-matted treecat swarmed into Scott's arms, huddling close. Fisher jumped up to his customary perch on Scott's shoulder, still crooning gently.
Irina hesitated some distance away, biting her lower lip uncertainly. Scott nodded her closer with a slight movement of his head and she approached slowly, while Scott stroked the painfully thin treecat reassuringly. When Irina stood beside him, the stray let out a strange, mewling little sound, gazing up at her through grass-green eyes as deep and wounded as a hurt toddler's.
"Poor thing," she whispered gently, offering a cautious hand.
The trembling treecat permitted her touch, arching slightly in Scott's arms as she stroked gently down its spine. But it was Scott the stray clung to, all four upper limbs clenching in Scott's shirt.
"Will you let me take you inside, I wonder?" Scott asked aloud, moving cautiously toward the Zivonik house. "You're hardly more than fur and bones. You need food and water and God knows what else." The washboard ribcage under his hands spoke of a prolonged deprivation and he could see cracked, dried skin around the treecat's mouth, eyes, and delicate hands, indicating dehydration, as well. Scott stroked the distraught treecat gently, whispering softly to it, as he and Irina slowly approached the meter-thick stone walls of the Zivonik house. The most cursory examination told him the treecat was male and--thankfully--uninjured despite the dried blood in its fur.
Irina called out, "Alek, the poor thing's half-starved. Get some meat scraps for him, a dish of cool water, whatever we've got left from dinner last night!"
"Karl, drag out that leftover turkey," Aleksandr said, shooing the children inside. "No, Larisa, you can look later, after the treecat is out of danger. Nadia, go check on your mother. Stasya, get some water for the treecat. Gregor, run some hot, soapy water and bring out a handful of clean towels."
"Kitchen's this way," Alek escorted him into the house.
Scott moved cautiously inside with his unexpected patient, Irina trailing anxiously at his shoulder, and entered a brightly lit kitchen just in time to see Karl, their oldest son, setting out a platter with an enormous, half-stripped turkey carcass. The boy set it down on a broad wooden dining table built to accommodate a growing family.
"Dig in," the boy addressed the bedraggled treecat shyly, cheeks flushed from excitement. "Help yourself." Stasya, the Zivoniks' middle daughter, was carrying a basin of water to the table, eyes round with wonder as Scott set the thin treecat down. It paused for only a moment, as though making certain the offer were genuine, then tore into the carcass with ravenous hunger. The children hung back, stating raptly at the wondrous creature on their kitchen table; very few humans had actually seen one in person. Even stolid, broad-shouldered Aleksandr Zivonik hunkered down to watch the starving treecat tear into the carcass with surprisingly dainty hands, visibly entranced by the sight of his diminutive sentient guest.
Scott smiled gently. "Fisher," he said, reaching up to stroke his friend, "I have to go back and help deliver that baby now. Can you stay with him?" Scott had no idea how much his treecat actually understood of what he said, but he and Fisher generally had little trouble communicating basic things. Fisher simply swarmed down his arm and jumped to the table, crooning softly to the battered treecat, which was busily stuffing strips and hunks of turkey into emaciated jaws. Scott hauled his dirt-streaked shirt off, smiling gratefully at Irina when she carried it toward the laundry room, then scrubbed his arms with hot, soapy water and disinfectant at the kitchen sink and hurried back to check on Mrs. Zivonik.
"Mama's doing fine," Nadia, the oldest of the Zivonik daughters said at once. "How's the treecat?" she added anxiously, edging toward the hallway.
"Eating your turkey dinner. Go on, see for yourself."
The girl darted for the door. Scott found his patient nearly as apprehensive as her daughter when Evelina gazed up at him. "It wasn't injured?" she asked anxiously. Clearly, Mrs. Zivonik was as worried over the sudden appearance of an ailing treecat on their doorstep as her husband. So little was known about treecats, the abrupt appearance of a healthy one was often enough to upset the most steady of settlers; a starvation-thin one with blood in its fur was genuinely cause for fright--and Evelina Zivonik wasn't the only one afraid of the reasons for that treecat's condition. Scott was considerably disturbed, himself, despite nearly a full T-year of daily contact with a treecat to accustom him to their sometimes startling habits and behaviors.
And the last thing Evelina Zivonik needed during a breech-presentation, difficult labor was to fret over this unexpected development. He tried to reassure her as he resumed his interrupted work with the baby. "No, I didn't find any actual injuries. Of course, I can't hazard a guess when he last had a solid meal and anything to drink, but he's wolfing down turkey as fast as he can tear it off the bones, so there's nothing wrong with his appetite."
"Nadia said it's covered with dried blood?" Worry still knotted her brow into a deep furrow.
"Yes, but none of its own. Whatever's happened, we can't communicate with treecats very effectively, so I doubt we'll ever know where the blood came from. The important thing," and he gave her a firm, reassuring smile, "is that your little neighbor is doing just fine, so there's no sense in worrying about it. So I want you to relax for me and let's see if we can't get this baby of yours born, eh?"
Evelina Zivonik gave him a wan smile and nodded, then dug her fingers into the bedding and groaned as a contraction rippled across her distended belly. Scott reached once again for the recalcitrant infant attempting to get himself born feetfirst and scowled in concentration, moving by feel and instinct. After several minutes of awkward squirming, during which Evelina grunted sharply only a few times--a stoic woman, Evelina Zivonik--Scott's effort and sweat finally paid off. "Ahhah! Gotcha!" Scott grinned as the baby under his groping hand finally cooperated enough to turn around inside his mother's uterus. "Head down and rarin' to go. Okay, Evelina Zivonik, let's see if we can't get this latest son of yours born!"
Humanity had discovered the existence of the Sphinxian treecats only fifteen Terran months previously, when eleven-year-old Stephanie Harrington had caught one raiding her parents' greenhouse--with several bunches of purloined celery strapped to its back in a neatly woven net. No one knew why treecats were so hyped on celery, but ever since that first, fateful encounter, treecats had been popping out of the woodwork, so to speak, all over Sphinx, importuning their new friends for all the spare, stringy stalks humanity's kitchen gardens could grow. The sheer number of treecats who had abruptly come calling suggested a far-flung and quite sophisticated communications system of unknown origin, all the more remarkable because the treecats had succeeded in hiding from a high-tech civilization for fully half a Terran century.
Enter one eleven-year-old genius with a camera and a battered, shattered glider, and fifty years of secretive observation from the treetops had ended with treecats exploding onto the scene, seeking out human companions in the same way little Stephanie Harrington's crippled treecat had come to her rescue, leaving its own kind to live with her family. While the adoption rates were not very high compared to the overall human population--perhaps one in only a million or so--compared to fifty T-years of total secrecy, during which humanity hadn't even suspected the treecats' existence, the sudden switch in tactics on the part of the treecats was startling.
Clearly, the treecats were as insatiably curious about people as humans were about treecats--yet humanity still knew almost nothing about their newest neighbors. Not even their level of intelligence could be accurately determined, although Scott had begun forming his own ideas along those lines. Thanks to his somewhat bizarre genetic legacy--one he'd sooner have been slow-roasted over coals than reveal to anyone, let alone the xenologists here to study the treecats--Scott was somehow "tuned in" to the emotions of a sentient alien, one that was, he was beginning to suspect, a whole lot smarter than any human on Sphinx had begun to guess. He also suspected that eleven-year-old Stephanie Harrington wasn't telling the full truth about her treecat, either, not if Scott's experiences with Fisher were any indication. And he was beginning to suspect he knew the reason for her silence.
One of the most intense feelings close association with a treecat engendered was an overwhelming protectiveness, an almost subliminal sense that whatever an adoptee learned about his or her treecat, it should under no circumstances be made public knowledge too quickly. Treecats clearly needed the help of their human friends to avoid the fate of so many other indigenous, low-tech, aboriginal populations throughout human history. Caution and secrecy seemed the better part of wisdom until more could be determined about the simple basics of treecat biology, sociology, and culture. Not to mention how humanity was going to react in the short-term, never mind the long-run.
And that was a difficult job, even for an adoptee. Even one like Scott, who had the somewhat unexpected advantage of his ancestors' irritating tendency toward "second sight" flashes of empathy or whatever it was that Scott experienced on a daily basis with Fisher. That the treecats possessed some level of telepathy or empathy was obvious from the reports made by any "adopted" human. But no instruments existed to measure a thing like telepathy, much less an empathic trait. Understandably, the xenologists were massively frustrated.
At the moment, so was Scott MacDallan.
The "stray," as the Zivonik children had christened the emaciated treecat, had filled his cadaverous little belly and promptly gone to sleep. After the successful delivery of squalling young Lev Zivonik, the stray had graciously suffered Scott to plunk him into hot, soapy water to remove the caked blood and dirt. But he--for the stray was definitely male--would not let go of Scott afterward, no matter what enticements were offered. He simply held onto Scott's shirt, which Irina had thoughtfully laundered for him while little Lev was getting himself born, and shivered.
And Fisher displayed an urgent desire for Scott to go outside. Scott suspected that Fisher was relaying what the stray was feeling; or perhaps Scott was also picking up a sense of urgency from the thin treecat clinging to him, but what he couldn't fathom was why the treecats wanted so earnestly for him to hike into a picket wood wilderness after a long, intensive delivery that had left him tired enough to want to go directly home and collapse for the evening.
Each time he quietly suggested they might go back to town and return later, however, Fisher grew nearly frantic and the strange treecat emitted choked, mewling sounds like a kitten being mauled in the jaws of a killer dog. Scott swallowed hard and tried to sound a reasonable note. "But Fisher, it'll be dark in a couple of hours and I really need to get some sleep. I don't want to fly after dark, not as tired as I am."
Aleksandr asked, "Can you get a sense of how far away they want you to go?"
Scott shook his head. "I can't get that kind of detail. Nobody can. All anyone can really pick up is a sort of subliminal sense of intelligent feeling," he lied through his teeth, aware of Irina's sharp glance. "Well, occasionally, sign language and pantomime can convey a pretty clear meaning, but it's maddening, trying to communicate with a sentient that can't speak your language, knowing you can't possibly learn how to speak its language, either." He considered the problem for a moment. At length, he suggested, "Fisher? Could we fly there?"
He received a bewildering flash of confused emotions, closed his eyes to try sorting them out. Anxiety, sharp fear, rage ... Scott blinked, stared at his friend. Rage? Fisher huddled on the table in front of him, looking forlorn and solemn.
"I'm not sure why," he said slowly, "but I don't think the treecats want me to use the air car. They're afraid of it. Not Fisher, I mean, he's flown with me dozens of times, but if I'm reading Fisher's reaction right--and that's a big if, I'll grant you that much--I'd say the stray's scared witless of the idea."
Alek lifted one shaggy brow. "Really? Well, we could set out on foot now and if we haven't found anything in an hour, we could turn around and come back, put you up in the boys' room and get a good night's sleep, then start out again tomorrow."
"Bleek!" Both treecats spoke in unison.
"I think they approve." Irina smiled.
Alek added, "I've got a spare rifle. It's not likely we'll run into a hexapuma, and peak bears don't generally come down this low in a valley, but I don't go hiking without a good rifle in my hand."
Scott glanced up. "No, I don't blame you. I've seen what hexapumas and peak bears can do to a man inadequately armed. I've got a rifle of my own in the air car, though, thanks." He scraped back his chair, offered his shoulder to Fisher, who jumped lightly to his accustomed perch. "Let me just get it."
The stray wouldn't go near Scott's air car. Scott retrieved his gear, casting uneasy glances at the emaciated treecat who sat in the nearest tree, bleeking in terrible distress, and wondered why the treecat reacted so violently to air cars. Surely nobody would have harassed a treecat colony from an air car? The 'cats were protected by the Elysian Rule and the fiercely hunger and thirst? Where had all that blood come from? And why was the treecat so afraid of air cars? For that matter, he'd clearly been wary of humans in general until Fisher had showed up with Scott in tow, refusing to come anywhere near any of the Zivonik family. Why would a treecat be afraid of people, yet broadcast its presence so vocally--and when a human turned up in treecat company, cling to that person like a leech and insist they go with him into trackless wilderness?
Despite the overwhelmingly positive reaction of the Sphinxian human population to their arboreal neighbors, Scott could think of several unpleasant reasons why a treecat might be afraid of any number of people, given the history of human race relations, even amongst its own species. While the colonists were, on the whole, good people, there were always troublesome, unpleasant individuals in any population and there had been occasional grumbles about sectioning off large parcels of previously choice real estate as sacrosanct treecat preserves.
None of the darker thoughts occurring to Scott as they hiked deeper into the forest inspired any confidence that this trek would have a happy outcome. So he gripped his rifle, watched and listened for any sign of hexapumas or peak bears, and tracked the passage of time as the sun lowered gradually toward the treeline. By the time the one-hour limit expired, Scott was flagging behind Aleksandr, an increasingly footsore hiker--he wasn't wearing his hiking boots and civilian shoes weren't manufactured with Sphinxian picket wood systems in mind--and was more than ready to turn back. As his watch alarm sounded, he called a weary halt and shut it off.
"That's an hour," he said, unnecessarily.
The treecats burst into a frenzy of bleeking, racing along the horizontal picket wood branches overhead to dance agitatedly just above them, then turning and racing back in the direction they'd been moving steadily for a full hour, now. The urgency he was picking up from Fisher increased at least threefold. He also received the distinct feeling that they were very close to whatever it was the emaciated treecat wanted them to see.
"Five minutes," he agreed reluctantly. "Five minutes, then we turn back."
"Bleek! Bleek, bleek, bleek!"
Fifteen-year-old Karl Zivonik grinned. "Five minutes, huh? Just how hard is it to say `no' to a treecat, Dr. MacDallan?"
"Watch yourself, youngster," Scotty smiled, "or one of these days some pretty little lady treecat might decide you're exactly what she's looking for--and then you'll find out!"
The boy's eyes went round. "Really? Do you think I might ever get adopted?"
Scott chuckled, then slapped the youngster's shoulder. "Frankly, I have no idea. The treecats can't share their criteria for picking friends, after all, since they can't talk to us."
"Have any girl 'cats adopted anyone?"
Scott frowned slowly. "That's an interesting question, Karl. Come to think of it, I haven't heard of any. I'll have to check it out. Maybe the xenology team that arrived to study them will know."
|What Price Dreams?||87|
|The Hard Way Home||233|
|Deck Load Strike||299|
"Look! Look up there!"
Ranjit Hibson twisted in his seat and leaned out over the chartered air bus’s aisle, bending his head sharply and trying to see out the window on the far side as his sister pointed excitedly through it. The scenery was spectacular as the pilot took them up the Olympus Valley at an altitude well below that of the towering peaks on either side, but it had been equally so out of his own window. The stupendous mountains which thrust their huge caps of blindingly bright snow high and sheer against the painfully blue winter sky of Gryphon were awe inspiring, especially for someone who’d spent the last two years aboard an orbital habitat, but Ranjit couldn’t see anything over there to explain the suddenness of her excitement.
"What?" he asked. "It’s just more mountains, Susan."
She turned her head to show him an expression of exasperation dusted with reproach, and he gave himself a mental shake, for his comment had come out in an older brother’s deflating tone, and he hadn’t meant it to. At seventeen, he was five years older than Susan, and as his mother had just finished pointing out to him a few weeks ago (in a rather painful conference), he’d gotten into the habit of ditching his kid sister whenever he and his friends had something "interesting" to do.
It had been an accurate accusation, and that had hurt, because he loved Susan and he knew he truly had been brushing her off and shooing her away as if she’d become some sort of inconvenience. And she could be an inconvenience, he admitted. But so could he, and so could anyone else, under the right -- or wrong -- circumstances. And the fact that Manticore Mineralogy and Mining, Ltd., which employed both their parents, had assigned them to the job of evaluating exploratory asteroid cores for the Hauptman Cartel in Manticore-B’s Unicorn Belt for the past two years had only made it worse.
For all its massive resource wealth, the Unicorn could be a decidedly boring place to grow up. At least the Hibsons were assigned to Unicorn Eleven, one of the newer of the widely scattered orbital habitats Hauptman’s had built to provide housing for its employees, and Unicorn Eleven had the most up to date living and recreational facilities imaginable. But most of its permanent work force tended to be very young -- brand new geologists passing through for evaluation and final training before they were assigned to their own field teams, or equally young processing and R&D personnel just starting their way up those career ladders -— with only a small, hard core of senior station training and management personnel. Kalindi and Liesell Hibson were two of the rare exceptions to that rule: the sort of specialist analysts who were too valuable to use in the field but who were most useful close to the actual exploration sites, where turnaround time could be minimized. For the last few years, Hauptman’s teams had been working what had turned out to be an exceptionally rich portion of the Unicorn, and the need for extra hands was one reason Hauptman’s had picked them up from Three-M on retainer to augment Unicorn Eleven’s normal work force. As consultants from outside Hauptman’s normal career tracks, they fell right in the middle of the gap in the age spread aboard the station: younger than the permanent senior personnel, but older than the transient newbies. As a result, they felt just a bit awkward whenever they tried to socialize with either, and the fact that they weren’t officially part of the "Hauptman team" tended to exacerbate that problem.
What was true for them was twice as true for their kids, however. There simply weren’t many children on Unicorn Eleven, and that was one area in which the invention of the prolong anti-aging treatments didn’t help a lot, either. Prolong was tending to erase a lot of the age-based divisions which had always been humankind’s lot, which would probably be a good thing once civilization fully adjusted to the consequences. Of course, first they’d have to have prolong long enough to figure out what all those consequences were, Ranjit supposed. It had been available in the Star Kingdom for only sixty-four years. To someone his age, that seemed like forever, but it was less than an eye-blink in terms of a culture’s adjustment to so monumental a change. One immediate effect was readily apparent, however: people were waiting considerably longer, on average, to have children. His own parents had rushed things more than many of their contemporaries in that regard, because both of them loved children and they’d wanted to get started early, but that was increasingly rare. Which meant that, despite a total population on the order of eight thousand, there were less than three hundred kids on Unicorn Eleven, and those who were present tended to be the children of the senior personnel and so, on average, older themselves. At seventeen, Ranjit himself was below the median age of the children aboard the station, whereas Susan, at twelve, was actually the youngest one of all.
Worse, the station was far enough out from Gryphon, the inhabited planet of the Manticore Binary System’s G2 secondary component, that the light-speed transmission lag between them was very noticeable. At the moment, it ran to just over twelve minutes each way, and it was growing steadily longer as the relative motions of Unicorn Eleven and Gryphon took them further and further apart, which made it impractical for station personnel to tie into the Gryphon planetary education net as they would normally have done. The Hauptman Cartel had set up an excellent school system within the habitat, and Ranjit rather enjoyed the novel experience of having direct, physical access to his human instructors. But the lack of any real-time link to the planetary net meant Susan had been denied even the electronic friendships with classmates she might have enjoyed under other circumstances. She’d made a couple of long-distance friends aboard Unicorn Nine and Unicorn Ten, the closest pair of Hauptman habitats to their own, but that was it, and Ranjit knew his sister had grown increasingly lonely. She hadn’t needed her own big brother making it worse, but that was exactly what he’d done. Which was the reason he had assured his parents that if they allowed Susan to come along on the field trip Mr. Gastelaars, Unicorn Eleven’s chief administrator, had arranged, he would keep an eye on her.
His father, especially, had been hesitant to let her go, for several reasons. For one, she would be the youngest student on the trip, and it would be the first time she had ever been allowed to make such a lengthy trip unaccompanied by at least one of her parents. For another, the Hibsons were natives of Manticore itself, and the capital planet was a warm world where skiing opportunities were rare. Susan had been only a beginner-level skier (on snow, anyway) when her parents were assigned to Unicorn Eleven, and she’d had precious little opportunity for practice since, but Kalindi Hibson had a pretty shrewd notion that his headstrong daughter would insist she was more experienced than she actually was unless someone sat on her firmly. And for yet a third, he knew that all of Ranjit’s friends would also be along -- including Monica Gastelaars, the chief administrator’s strikingly attractive daughter, who also happened to be seventeen years old -- and questioned just how much time Ranjit would truly devote to keeping an eye on Susan.
Their mother had come down on Ranjit and Susan’s side, however. Liesell had insisted that Susan was old enough for the trip and pointed out that the group would be accompanied by six adults, most of whom were child care professionals and all of whom were experienced skiers. Moreover, the Athinai Resort, the largest and best known on Gryphon (which meant in the Manticore Binary System) was accustomed to this sort of field trip. That was one of the main reasons it had been chosen when the outing was planned, and the Hauptman Cartel had arranged for the resort to provide full-time instructors, all experienced with young people, to ride herd on their youthful charges on the actual slopes. It was unlikely that even their inventive daughter would be able to put much over on that many veteran kid-watchers, she’d suggested. And if Susan could, then her parents needed to find out about it now so that they could take proper precautions -- like locking her in her room until she was twenty. Besides, it was past time Susan got a chance to meet some other youngsters her own age. Then Liesell had sealed the deal by unscrupulously extracting an explicit promise from Ranjit that he would not allow his own interests to distract him from maintaining a close watch on Susan. He’d given her his word, but not without a certain sinking feeling which suggested to him that he had, in fact, been planning on spending just a little less time with his sister than he’d originally tried to allow his parents (and himself) to believe he had in mind.
Which was how he came to find himself looking out Susan’s window and mentally kicking himself for raining on her parade.
"I mean they look a lot like the ones on this side," he told her now, waving a hand at the peaks beyond the armorplast and making his tone an apology for his earlier dismissiveness. "They’re pretty spectacular, but -- "
"I didn’t mean the mountains," Susan said. "Look! See the pinnaces?"
"Pin -- ?"
Ranjit unlatched his seat harness and crossed the aisle to kneel beside Susan’s seat in order to get a better look through her window, and his eyebrows rose. She was right. Those were pinnaces up there -- six of them, in fact, all in Navy markings. They were headed in the opposite direction at what appeared to be (barely) subsonic speed, with their variable geometry wings mostly swept, and their shadows raced across the snowy summits beneath them.
"What are they doing?" he wondered aloud.
"Making a drop," Susan said promptly. She didn’t -- quite -- add "of course," but he heard her anyway and jabbed a "sure they are" sideways glance at her, then darted his eyes back to the pinnaces.
He could see more details of the sleek, hungry-looking craft now, and his pulse went just a bit faster as they scorched over the peaks. They were paralleling the valley’s long axis, heading down it on a direct reciprocal of the air bus’s course, but at a considerably higher altitude to clear the four and five thousand-meter summits of the valley’s walls. They were also flying a nape-of-the-earth profile that was much tighter than they could have managed in pure air foil mode, because they were bouncing up and down over peaks as if they were tennis balls. Ranjit was pretty sure they had to be riding their counter-grav hard to pull off some of those maneuvers, and his stomach lurched in sympathy as he tried to imagine what it must be like for their passengers. Some of the other members of the ski group had seen them now, and he heard other voices repeating his own question about their intentions. And then, suddenly, the pinnaces turned to sweep out across the valley. Their flight path angled well astern of the air bus, but the bus pilot obviously knew they were back there and had decided to give his youthful customers a little extra treat. The vehicle turned sharply, then went into hover, offering a magnificent view down the snow-and-stone vista of the deep, narrow river valley which also kept the pinnace flight in clear sight.
No, Ranjit realized. Not just a single pinnace flight. Another half-dozen of the sleek craft must have been coming down his side of the valley at the same time without his even noticing their presence. Now they came shooting out to meet the ones Susan had spotted, and as their vectors crossed, all twelve of them slowed abruptly and distance-tiny figures spilled from them. The figures were too far away for Ranjit to tell whether or not they wore battle armor, but he felt a thrill of excitement as they plummeted towards the valley floor. Then they slowed magically as their grav canopies popped, and he watched raptly as they continued drifting downward with deceptive gentleness.
"Told you they were making a drop," Susan said with exasperating complacency, and Ranjit gave her another, sharper look. She only smiled sweetly, then batted her sea-green eyes at him, and, despite himself, he felt his own lips twitch in an answering grin.
"You were right this time," he conceded, "but I think it was a lucky guess."
"Lucky guess?" Susan repeated, then tossed her head with a snort. "If you’d been paying attention," she told him pityingly, "you’d’ve noticed that those were the new Mark Twenty-Six Skyhawks. Didn’t you see the extra pulser under the nose and the ventral and after gun turrets? Or the extra underwing hard points?" She snorted again, harder. "I bet you didn’t even notice the new chaff dispensers or the ECM pod on the vertical stabilizer!"
"Ah, no," Ranjit admitted. "I must have missed those somehow."
"Well you shouldn’t have," she said severely. "Because if you’d happened to recognize what they were, you might have recalled that according to my last issue of the Royal Marine Institute Record, the Mark Twenty-Sixes’ve been specifically optimized for the Marine Corps’ use."
"They had Navy markings, Sooze," Ranjit pointed out, but there wasn’t much hope in his voice. Susan was only an average student in most of her courses, but she had a mind like a docking tractor when her interest was truly engaged, and she was seldom wrong about anything to do with one of her pet obsessions, however trivial her information might have seemed to any normal person. In fact, if he wanted to be honest about it, he couldn’t actually recall the last time she had been wrong about one of them. Not that he intended to bring that up at this particular moment.
"Well of course they did," Susan said, turning to give him the full advantage of her pitying expression. "Every pinnace and shuttle in inventory belongs to the Navy...officially. But the Corps were the ones who really wrote the requirements for the new Skyhawks, because they wanted a better combined delivery and fire support platform for space-to-ground assaults; the Navy just paid for ’em and built ’em. Well, they provide the ships to carry them around, too, of course, but that’s what chauffeurs are for." She wrinkled her nose in tolerant contempt for such useless sorts, then shrugged. "But if a bunch of pinnaces designed to double as light assault shuttles are flying around in the middle of the Attica Mountains playing NOE with mountain peaks, what do you think they’re up to? Photo mapping for a new spaceport?"
"You know, you can be amazingly irritating when you put your itty-bitty mind to it," Ranjit observed, and she grinned.
"You only say that when I prove you’re a doof," she shot back. "Of course, that does seem to happen a lot, doesn’t it?"
"Just take your victory and go home with it while you still can, kid," he advised her, and punched her shoulder lightly.
"Ha! One of my many victories, you mean!"
Ranjit smiled again, but he also let it drop. He’d had too much experience arguing with her to do anything else.
Much as he loved his sister, he was convinced that her genetic code must have dropped a stitch somewhere. She was a slight, slender child who shared with Ranjit the dark complexion they’d both inherited from their father, but unlike her brother, she had their mother’s green eyes to go with it, which made for a startling contrast even (or especially, perhaps) after so many centuries of genetic homogenization. That was what people always noticed first about her; it was only later that they realized her design schematic included nothing remotely resembling a reverse gear. Susan Hibson had a whim of steel and absolutely no idea of how to give in -- gracefully or otherwise -- to anyone, anywhere, over anything, and Ranjit couldn’t remember the last time she’d truly set her mind on a goal and failed to achieve it.
It was, perhaps, unfortunate that she persisted in setting those goals to suit her own idiosyncratic interests. Devoting just a little of that determination (one might even say obstinacy, if one were careful to say it quietly enough that she couldn’t hear one) to academic endeavors might have produced a radical improvement in her grades, for example. But that simply wasn’t an area of particular concern for her. No, all of her attention was focused, for some reason no one else had ever been able to fathom, on the Royal Manticoran Marines.
It had to be something genetic, Ranjit mused. Some previously unsuspected mutation which had been nurtured by the Star Kingdom’s ongoing military buildup against the People’s Republic of Haven. Certainly no one else in the family had ever been especially interested in a military career, and if Susan simply had to be bitten by the military bug, why couldn’t she at least have decided she hungered for the Navy? The Marines, even more than the Royal Army, were one of the areas of military service in which size and physical strength still mattered, and Susan was never going to be a big woman. Kalindi Hibson was wiry and muscular, but he also stood just under a hundred and sixty-three centimeters tall. Ranjit, who favored their mother’s side of the family more than Susan did, was already over one-eighty, but Susan took very much after her father when it came to size and bulk, and he doubted she would ever break one-fifty-five. Yet where Ranjit had no particular desire to embrace the rigors of a military lifestyle -- especially not if, as the alarmists insisted was likely in light of the Peeps’ expansion in the Star Kingdom’s direction, he might also someday get to enjoy the experience of having ill-intentioned strangers actually shooting at him -- and found the very thought of boot camp revolting, Susan actually looked forward to the experience.
It was all profoundly unnatural, Ranjit thought, settling back into his own seat and fastening his harness once more. And if he were honest, it was a little frightening, too. He was young enough to have trouble truly believing in his own mortality, but the thought of having those ill-intentioned strangers shooting at his kid sister instead of at him was a chilling one. Which was probably one reason he didn’t let himself consider it very much.
At least it’ll be another four-plus T-years before she can legally enlist, even with parental approval, he thought now. In the meantime, I guess I’ll just have to go along with Dad and hope that it’s a "phase" she’ll grow out of. Of course -- he grimaced out his own window -- I don’t recall her ever having grown out of any other phases, but hey! There’s always a first time, right? Yeah, sure. Right.
He snorted to his reflection in wry amusement and returned his attention to the craggy mountain walls.
Copyright © 1999 by David Weber
Posted May 9, 2010
If you associate David Weber's name with guns and ships sci fi as I tend to do and, if like me, you're not a big fan of that type, here's a nice introduction to another side of his writing. It is another very good collection of stories set in David Weber's Honor Harrington world including 2 by David Weber. All but one of the 5 involve the treecats whom I find fascinating. They are an unusual alien species. Mr. Weber's 2 stories add background and interesting information to characters I've met in his other books, but reading them isn't necessary to enjoy these stories. They are definately stand alone stories. It's an entertaining and fun read.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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