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Waving good-bye to their parents and friends, their beloved river and forests, to their home world, Petaybee, Murel and Ronan Shongili strapped themselves in for another launch into space.
So soon! It seemed they’d only arrived home and now it was time to go again.
It’ll be great fun, sure it will, Ronan assured his twin sister in thought-talk. We’ll see new places, meet new people, make new friends—
I’d have liked a bit more time with the old places and old friends nevertheless, Murel complained. But here we are again. It feels as if we never left. She looked around the lounge of the Piaf, a luxury liner much larger and more sophisticated than Kilcoole, the tiny village that was home. The lounge alone was as long as Kilcoole’s main street and could have held eight of the village’s largest building, the latchkay lodge, inside.
Except for that, Ronan said, with a meaningful nod at the one big difference in the lounge since their last trip.
Since they’d traveled from school back to Petaybee less than three short months before, the small saltwater tank had been replaced by an enormous one that dominated the lounge and dwarfed its occupants. Now the tank held a single Honu, the sentient sea turtle that was the sacred totem animal of their friend Ke-ola. The tank looked vast and empty despite the energetic game of tag between the Honu and Sky, the twins’ river otter friend. On the return journey, if all went well, the tank would hold many more—and even larger—Honus traveling with their people to what would become their new Petaybean home.
During takeoff, the ship’s owner, Marmion de Revers Algemeine, and Captain Johnny Green, its commander, remained on the bridge. Marmion’s friendship had helped their family, their village, and their planet countless times over the years. The twins had known her all of their lives, and by now she knew their most important secret, as well as their father’s. Many people on Kilcoole knew but very few outsiders. Johnny was not an outsider, since he’d been born on Petaybee. When the time had come for him to leave the Company Corps, he had chosen service with Marmie over life on Petaybee, but he was Petaybean all the same.
Ronan, Murel, and Ke-ola watched the liftoff from the lounge’s viewport and the bank of screens that flanked it. Ke-ola was the reason for their current journey—and the reason Ronan and Murel were using thought-talk. They didn’t want him to overhear their complaints and get the idea that they hadn’t wanted to come.
The actual sight of Petaybee receding to a cold white and gray ball seemed no more real than its image on the screens. The cabin’s pressure and gravity were so well maintained that the ship might have still been on the ground. They could not hear or smell or taste the passage, or feel it in the wind that was not there. They felt no sensation of lifting or moving.
The water in the tank didn’t so much as slosh, but the Honu and Sky swam to the side to watch the departure. Then Sky tagged the Honu’s shell and they began their game afresh.
The twins and Sky had become swimming friends before they were sent away to Marmie’s space-station school. When they returned, Sky was waiting to help them find their missing father, even though Da had been lost at sea where river otters didn’t ordinarily go. For their sake, the otter had even allowed himself to be transported in a helicopter, which was how he, as the first and only otter of any kind to inhabit Petaybee’s skies, however briefly, had earned his name: Sky, the sky otter. Murel hoped that now that the little fellow was going into space he wouldn’t want to change his name to Space. She’d just got used to calling him Sky.
As soon as the ship was free of Petaybee’s gravity, the twins and Ke- ola unstrapped and raced to the tank to swim with the Honu and Sky. Ke-ola climbed the ladder to the top of the tank. The ladder had a staging platform on the top and was situated right beside the wide waterslide that ended in a shallow pool from which the water was recirculated into the tank. Sky and otter-kind in general loved to slide. Also, when it came time to remove the Honu from the pool, the slide would allow the tortoise to descend to the smaller pool without injury.
Murel clambered up the ladder behind Ke-ola and pulled off her clothes so that she wore only the harness holding the tiny bag containing her dry suit. A passing crew member would have seen a brief flash of white skin and dark hair before she dived into the water. Instantly she transformed into a silver-brown seal and streaked through the water after Ke-ola, Sky, and the Honu. A moment later they were joined by Ronan, also in seal form.
The water was saline to suit the Honu, but it didn’t smell or taste quite right to the twins. No fish, for one thing. Still, it felt wonderful to be wet again. They dived, surfaced, splashed, tackled, were tackled, escaped, and dived again until Sky suddenly said, “River seals, look!”
He swam to the front of the tank where Marmie stood. She was saying something as she looked up toward the top of the tank.
Ke-ola, who had to go up for air more frequently than the others, was on the surface. He dived again, touched each of the twins, and pointed toward the top of the tank. Then with a pump of his arms and a thrust from his muscular brown legs, he shot upward.
Sky streaked past everyone and flung himself through the opening at the top of the tank that formed the lip of the waterslide. Hah! he cried. Otters first!
Ke-ola surfaced almost at once, followed by the twins. At the bottom of the slide they jumped onto the wet deck and shook themselves dry until they resumed human shape. A privacy screen installed beside the pool provided cover for them to pull their dry suit packets from the harnesses on their backs and pop into the suits before joining anyone else who happened to be in the lounge.
When they came out, Ke-ola and Marmie were sitting in bright cushioned chairs, sipping from tall drinks on the table between them. Sky sat on another chair, grooming his coat. A pot and four cups for tea sat on the table, along with a plate of chocolate biscuits. When Murel picked one up, she found it was just-baked warm.
Marmie smiled as they approached and took the other two chairs. “Ah, mes petits, I am sorry to interrupt your play, but we need to talk.”
“Certainly, Marmie,” Ronan said, sitting erect and using his best manners. Marmie had changed out of the white, fur-trimmed snowsuit she’d worn on Petaybee into a long skirt made of many colored patches of smooth and textured fabric that looked as soft as the coat of one of Clodagh’s cats. With it she wore a long-sleeved turtleneck the color of the deepest part of the river on a sunny day. The fabric shimmered from midnight blue to steel gray with flashes of silver and cobalt. Around the high collar was a copper torc in the shape of a clamshell. Now and then Sky looked up from his preening to peer at the neckpiece.
“What’s the matter?” Murel asked.
“Oh, nothing! But some of your fellow Petaybeans had questions about why you, mere children, only recently returned from school, were chosen for this mission instead of adults still able to travel. Do you two also have such questions? Or any others?”
“It’s okay, Marmie,” Ronan said, with a quick glance at Ke-ola, who seemed more interested in selecting a biscuit.
“Well, actually . . .” Murel said, hesitating. She didn’t want to appear reluctant to help, but after all, Marmie was giving them the opportunity to speak up. Who knew when another chance would come? “I do wonder about one or two things.”
“Yes?” Marmie asked, cocking her head and leaning forward slightly, her light exotic perfume flavoring the recycled air of the lounge as if a few flowers had blossomed there.
“I don’t think I know why exactly you need us to come. Ke-ola can tell his people about Petaybee and that it wants them to come and live there. They’ll believe him before they’d believe us, surely.”
“Yes, chérie, but Ke-ola is not yet considered a Petaybean. It was very difficult to convince the Federation that Petaybee is not only a sentient planet but that people who live there for any length of time acquire a symbiotic relationship to the world. People died—”
“Laverne!” Ronan said. “Liam’s mum. The Corps arrested her and she died when they took her offplanet for questioning. Bunny and Diego have a really sad song about it they sing at latchkays sometime.”
“Yes, and your mother and father fought very hard to convince the company that removing your people from Petaybee and taking them elsewhere would be fatal to them. Ultimately they and other scientists were able to provide enough scientific evidence that the Federation recognized officially what you grew up knowing about Petaybee. The board feels that only people native to the planet have a unique interest in fulfilling Petaybee’s wishes.”
“And they—the Federation—think that if we are symbiotic with Petaybee, we won’t want to do anything that goes against what Petaybee needs because it’s what we need too, is that right?” Murel asked. “Because it isn’t really about wishes, you know, Marmie. Clodagh says we don’t always understand why Petaybee requires what it requires, but it doesn’t ask much of us, so when it does, we should pay attention.”
“Clodagh and the Federation Council are in accord regarding that understanding,” Marmie said, “though of course the council has no idea just how profound your particular link with your planet is.”
“That’s just it. They don’t know how different we are. I was wondering why Johnny couldn’t represent Petaybee. He’s a native and knows all about it too. Besides, he’s the captain of a spaceship and people look up to him. They’d believe him and Ke-ola before they’d believe us.”
“He was born on Petaybee, it’s true, but he has not resided there for long enough periods since leaving to undergo the adaptation that makes other adults unable to leave.”
“So any adult who is Petaybean enough to represent the planet isn’t able to leave, and anyone who is able to leave isn’t considered to be under Petaybee’s influence enough to have its best interests at heart?” Ronan asked. With a snort he added, “Does that ever sound like the PTBs!”
Marmie shook a scolding finger at him but her eyes sparkled with amusement. “Now now, Ronan, not all of the powers that be, as your people call them, are unreasonable. I, for instance, am considered powerful in many circles.”
“Not you, Marmie! I mean, we know you’re powerful and everything but you’re our friend!” he protested.
“Oh yes,” Murel agreed, “You’re completely different! You could be a Petaybean if you wanted to!”
“Merci, chérie. Unfortunately, in this situation, if I were to presume to represent Petaybee, others would accuse me of promoting my own interests when interpreting Petaybee’s. They would say I was taking an unfair business advantage over my competitors. Since Johnny works for me, that is another reason why he cannot represent Petaybee.”
“It doesn’t seem fair,” Murel said.
“Perhaps not but it is as fair as the council could make it. Vraiment, I fear you have me to blame. I insisted that in certain matters the planet be personally represented by a native or natives. As the oldest native-born people still able to leave the planet, you are uniquely qualified.”
“I wonder what they’d say if they knew how unique we really are,” Murel mused.
“With caution and luck we will never find out,” Marmie said. “Your parents and I foresaw that you might one day be called upon for this kind of mission. As you recall, that was one of our reasons for bringing you to Versailles Station to study.”
“This is my fault, isn’t it?” Ke-ola asked. “You having to come to invite my relatives?”
“No, no, Ke-ola, we don’t mind, honest,” Murel said. “We want your people to come, don’t we, Ro? Ever since you told us about them and what’s happened to them.”
“’Course we do,” Ronan said. “And what if we don’t get to be home as much as we’d like for a while? Like Marmie said, it’s only going to be a very short time that we can do this for Petaybee. Pretty soon we’ll be too old too.”
“And nobody put a laser to our heads, Ke-ola,” Murel said. “We could go home and go swimming and have fun all the time, but then if something happened to Petaybee because we had wussed out when it needed us to speak for it, it’s like Marmie and the Federation figure. Anything bad that happens to Petaybee would happen to us too. So doing this is an honor, really. Not one that anybody else could be chosen for, apparently, but an honor all the same.”
“That’s right,” Ronan said. The two of them nodded to Ke-ola and then stared at Marmie, presenting a united front.
She gave the table a satisfied little slap with her fingers and sat back. “Bon! Then we are in accord?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the twins said together.
Marmion walked out of the lounge. She was satisfied, on the one hand, that the children understood as much as possible beforehand what was needed from them and why. On the other hand, it was sad, so sad, to have to ask them to grow up so soon. They had been adorable babies, adorable seal pups, so lively and playful, bright and full of mischief. But she had not known for sure that they possessed the intelligence and resourcefulness needed until she saw for herself how well they did in the space station school, both academically and, after an adjustment period, socially. Their handling of the situation between their science teacher and the Honu had clinched the matter for her. Their actions once they returned to Petaybee had further reassured her and their parents.
Now no one could say she had not been frank with them—
the conversation had been recorded, of course. The children had the facts, and they understood and felt they were up to the task—the many tasks, she feared—that would be required of them.
Oh well, at least they had had some childhood to enjoy. In other places, on other worlds, children were worked to death before they reached puberty, and nobody found it remarkable, much less lamentable, that they had to do so. It was simply how life was in those places.
From the Hardcover edition.