Mitzep:Ten days after Berypt took me to the secret lab and the young jaguars, I was finally able to arrange a private meeting with Lossp in order to tell someone from my ship about what I'd been shown. The shuttle combat course had transitioned from simulator time to flight training, and left me too busy to take time off and travel to the space station without a good excuse.
At the same time, I became something of a celebrity. The Exploration Corps released the public version of my debriefing notes about the flights in human space, and soon other pilots began to ask what it was really like fighting the US Air Force. As if dodging a few laser beams and breaking radar lock-ons had made me the 'ace of aces.' At least they bought a few beers. Worse, the doctrine writers changed our curriculum to incorporate my 'lessons learned,' and I started getting challenging stares from instructors, daring me not to contradict the conclusions they had reached from my notes. As a result of the excitement, there was a renewed focus on atmospheric flight, even though the course was supposed to be deep space-oriented. Our training time in orbit was cut short, and we spent our flight hours practicing stealthy approach to the planetary surface and returning to orbit. Useful enough, but it made it hard to arrange a meeting.
I caught up with Lossp in the crew lounge of the space station during a refueling stop. He greeted me with an uncharacteristic hug.
"H'raawl-Hrkh made me promise to do that. It's from her. Don't make too much of it, though, she's in a randy mood. She wants to hug everyone. Without you, all she's got is us hard-core marrieds and the captain. It's frustrating to her, not having her play-toy." He winked. "I understand you had a message for her, too?"
"I'm not planning to kiss you, if that's what you meant. Yeah, I do, although I really need to let the Captain know first." Looking around to make sure we couldn't be overheard, I told him what I had discovered, and Berypt's suspicions. He sat back and sipped his drink, thoughtful.
"When I was your age, I'd have laughed while the virus slaughtered the lot of them. I did laugh, come to think of it. The war was hard times. There's still a lot of hatred in me, but I can see the point of this. None of this new generation is at fault. It's up to us to teach them to be different, the next time. I think you're right; something's got to be done. So what do you plan to do?"
"I'd like to ask the Captain. He's more likely to know how to handle it than me. Isn't there…." I broke off as Annas walked into the lounge and came up to our table. She was the last person who would help. Lossp stood and offered her his chair, which she refused politely.
"No thank you, Commander. I just came to tell Lieutenant Mitzep the shuttles are refueled. We're cleared for departure in twenty minutes." Her voice was the cold professional one we now used with each other. My refusal of her advances had caused her to make up with her old boyfriend, Sennet. We weren't enemies, but we were very polite now.
The rest of the afternoon was spent eluding opposing force shuttles acting as surrogate Su-27 interceptors. The scenario called for us to pick up a 'landing party' in an abandoned Jaguar military base near the northern tip of the main continent. The clear, cold skies, winter ice and snow cover made it especially easy to detect us their infrared search and track sensors, and we were 'killed' more often than not.
It was almost midnight before we returned to base. The sudden transition to tropical heat there made me want to pull my hair out in clumps as I turned in my flight gear and squished my way back to my BOQ. My roommate held his nose and pointed to the shower when he got a whiff of me.
"Captain Chopka left a message for you. He's calling back in half an hour."
I showered; feeling much better by the time the phone rang. By prior agreement, we talked around the topic, never mentioning the jaguars directly. The Captain said that he had spoken to a friend on the System Commander's staff, who professed ignorance of either sudden acquisition of heightened intelligence on the part of the young jaguars, or any plan to eliminate them. He promised to look into it, and the Captain was inclined to trust him. He told me that Commander H'raawl-Hrkh was especially looking forward to my return to the ship the following week. He hung up. So that was that. I'd done the right thing, passed on my suspicions up the chain of command, and now deserved a good night's sleep.
Three hours and seven minutes later, exactly, Berypt woke me up by banging on our door.
The wall clock clicked over another minute, and I peeked out from under my blanket to watch the sweep second hand move past the top of the dial. Closing my eyes, I counted quietly, "One-and-a-two-and-a-three…" I remembered to count faster as the numbers got bigger, "Eleventy-three, no, I mean fourteen, fifteen." Then I was saying the hard numbers as fast as I could, "Two twenties-ten, two twenties eleven…" When I hit sixty, I snapped my eyes open again. Still five seconds to go! Too fast. I waited until the second hand hit the top again and started over, more slowly. Before I hit thirty, the door lock gave a metallic buzz and Nurse Berypt came in carrying the food tray. I stayed still.
"Kirron, honey, don't go pouncing on me, 'cause you'll make me spill this nice milkshake I've got for you. Come here, kitten. I see you hiding down there behind the couch."
I stretched, uncoiled from my crouch and climbed up on the chair and sat properly so that she could hand me the glass. The shake tasted so good, I didn't mind the bits of broken pill in it. She wiped the fur around my mouth, and I grabbed the towel with my teeth, shaking it for fun. She flipped it over my head, and pulled both my ears. I couldn't grab her paws because I was still holding the glass in both of my own.
"Grrrr." She ruffled my hair and drew back in mock alarm. Unlike the guards, both Nurse Berypt and Nurse Myrska always knew when I was playing.
"Oh! Going to be a wild animal today, are you? Then I guess you don't want to read the new book I brought, then?" She stepped back, taking the glass. I shook the towel once more and pulled it out of my mouth, neatly folded it, and handed it to her. I shook my head up and down, grinning.
"Merreep." "Say please." She opened her muzzle extra wide when she said it.
"Preeze, Nurse Berypt." I tried again, opening my own wider mouth more like the shape of her narrow snout. "Please."
"That sounded good. Did you get on the scales this morning for me, already?" How much do you weigh?" Oh. A tough number, but one I learned in last week's lessons. I checked it on my claw-tips first.
"Four-twenties-nine," I said proudly. She smiled and reached behind her belt and pulled out her clipboard, giving me her pen.
"That was good, Kirron. Do you want to write it on the chart?" I did, carefully forming '89' next to the little 'kg' mark, where my weight went. She smiled and took a big soft-cover picture book off the back of the clipboard, handing it to me in exchange for the pen.
"This book is called: "Why Don't The Wings Flap?" It's about how aircars work. You said you liked the science books, so I found this one. Why don't you sit on your couch and read it while I go get the girls up from their nap."
"Can we go to the big room?" Sometimes she let me run in the big empty warehouse part of the building, and I could climb on the boxes.
"We'll talk about it after they wake up."
She left through the dividing door and I opened my book. The very first picture inside brought made me remember some good and bad things I hadn't thought of for a while. I remembered getting off a plane just like it with my mother.
Mother took care of my brother and I when I was real small and he was a year older, but without all the talking and 'lessons' that the Diyim'yi who had me now used. We both understood her licks, pokes and paw cuffs well enough when she wanted us to 'come,' or 'stay,' or to sit quiet in a clump of bushes while she hunted. She made sounds, and we knew what she meant, but it wasn't speech. Later, when Doctor Lonske explained why she couldn't talk, he said she only had the intelligence of an 'animal,' like my brother, and needed more room than our pen, just like they needed to take me here to these rooms to teach me what I needed to be a 'person.' So they took me and a bunch of specialists and therapists came and taught me, and tested me. I guess being a person means being good at tests. I asked them where mother was, and they showed me a lot of pictures of jaguars 'in the wild' but never any of her.
Then, all of them went away, except for the two nurses. 'Scientists' and 'guards' came then to test me, but always when I was held down, or talking through a speaker in the wall. That was it, except for the two girl cubs. They live down the hall, and the nurses bring them in and play with them every day while I do my lessons. Sometimes, I play with them, but they are too young to talk much. They can run and climb fast enough, so we play chase games sometimes.
I heard a muffled sound of someone arguing with Berypt through the closed door and put down my book. Moving along the wall behind the couch, I could lean against the air register and listen without the video camera showing where I was. One of the males that sometimes came and gave me shots, one she called a 'scientist' in a bitter voice, was complaining to my Berypt.
"When you give them protein supplements in their formula, it throws off the test result! Why can't you read the directions I left for you?"
"If Kirron doesn't get his supplement, you know his muscles will atrophy. My last written instructions from the dietician said not to change the formula, so unless you get him to overrule-"
"We'll see about that! Besides, what do you care? We're pulling the plug on this next week at the latest. Then he'll have to catch his own protein, if they don't just have you put him down."
"I can't do that!"
"Well, they're not going to let them live to scavenge at the dump, not now that you've taught them to open a gate latch. You'll think the same, some night when a jaguar gets inside the wire when you're walking home." He left, slamming the door to the passageway behind him. I stood up and met her at the door when she came in. She looked upset, and grabbed me around the waist and hugged me, more for her own benefit than my own, I thought.
She looked around, staring at the camera for a bit, then told me to get ready to go play in the warehouse. I got all excited and almost pushed her over when I rubbed against her side, but she laughed and pushed me off, saying,
"Bring your blanket and your bag with the strap too, honey. That floor's too cold to sit on. Let me go get the girls."
I ran around my room, getting my stuff that I always carry in my bag, and after a struggle, I even got the book shoved into it, too. When she came back, she had Kessa and Leece following her, both looking sleepy, spotted fur ruffled, and both holding their own blankets. I knew the girls were still tired and wouldn't want to run around much, so I was glad I had the book for later.
She held the door open for me, and we all went down the hall to the electric door. She pushed on the buzzer, and the guard opened it for us. I ran ahead to the second door, trying to get there before he buzzed it, too. I tagged it just as he rang it open, and peeled out into the big room. It felt so good to run, that I threw down my stuff and dashed around the room two full laps before the others even got inside.
She picked up my stuff and led the girls to the far side of the big room, under the opening with the big fan that let the outside breeze in. She spread out all three of our blankets, and sure enough, the girls curled up together in a ball and went back to sleep! I asked Nurse Berypt if I could climb some. She looked around again, and smelled nervous. She must have seen me wrinkle my muzzle at her, because she let out a forced laugh.
"It's not your fault. We're going to have to play a game, a long one, but you will have to help me set it up." She lowered her voice. "Do you remember when you hung from the camera arm? Well, I know I told you never to do it again, but now I want you to. And I want you to pull the wire out of the back, then climb back down here as fast as you can. Can you do that?" She was very nervous, but this sounded like fun.
"Won't the guard be mad?" Once, when he was really mad at me, he poked me with his shock stick. It hurt, so I slapped him. That guard didn't come back, but the new one hated me for it.
"Yes, honey, he probably will be. But I still want you to do it."
I started climbing toward the rafters, looking back every once in a while to see what she was doing. She spread my blanket over both the girls, and was getting some cardboard box scraps out of the bins. I made my way along the rafter to just above the moving camera arm. It was turned to watch me, but I was above where it could go. I pounced onto the arm, and the little servomotor whined in protest until I yanked on the wire. As fast as I could go, I jumped from the arm to the tallest box, then raced around the room, hopping to lower and lower boxes until I could reach the floor.
"I did it!"
"Good boy. Take the girls over by the fire door. I'll make a diversion here." While I did that, she covered pieces of boxes with the blankets, making it look like all three of us were under them. She ran over to the door where we were standing, and reached into her purse, pulling out an IV bag of blood and a screwdriver. She jammed the screwdriver into the door latch and forced it open, causing the alarm (and the girls) to scream. We were outside on the loading dock, and it was night. I hadn't been outside since I was a small cub, and everything smelled strange. There were big bugs flying around the light.
Berypt tore open the blood and spilled it on the floor. She took her paw and carefully placed it in the puddle.
"Let's go, run! Kirron, keep the girls ahead of you, and don't step in any of the blood tracks. Come on!" We ran down the alley and into the night. Every other step, Berypt left a bloody paw-print. We ran until she found a puddle of water, and rinsed it off. Then she took us two streets over, and back the way we had come. I could hear the guards shouting getting louder as we came back toward the warehouse. We were almost back, when she turned away again, angling toward some bright lights. My tongue was hanging out, and the girls were complaining, so we stopped in a shadow behind a building.
"Shhh. We'll walk slower now. Stay in the shadow, and stop whenever I hold up my paw." She led us that way until we got to a fence. On the other side was the airfield, and it was all lighted too bright to hide. There was a large metal trash can near the fence, and she had us all climb inside. We three huddled in one corner facing the small, worried looking vixen.
"Stay here. Don't make any noise, and wait until I bring help." She gave a look that meant almost the same thing as my mother's had: Stay still while I hunt. Then she climbed out and was gone.
Filling out paperwork, the worst part of being an instructor pilot. Not that I had anything bad to write about my student's flying: Mitzep was a natural pilot, and seemed to have a knack for all this low-level work we were doing. He would receive a pass from me on this phase. When he turned me down, I was tempted to take it out on his evaluation, but I decided I'm more professional than that. And then Sennet and I got back together, and, well, it would have been petty to hold it against him. So, here we are halfway through the program: still professional, at least to each other. I looked up at the clock. Sennet was supposed to meet me any minute, to take me to lunch. At a scratch on the door, I called him inside.
"Come on in, I'm just finishing up here." He stepped up behind me and leaned over my shoulder to lick my muzzle. I reached up and scratched behind his ear with my pencil eraser.
"Hello, Annas. Did you finish your flying early today? Or are you not going back up after lunch?"
"No, I'm not scheduled until late afternoon, so I decided not to wear that smelly flight suit all day. Why do you ask?" He looked slightly puzzled at this.
"Oh, I ran into your student coming back from an early morning flight, and thought you'd gone up, too. My mistake." He said it casually.
"Well, it wasn't me. Hmmm. Maybe he thought he needed to practice-not unheard of." A lot of pilots thought of their shuttles as their own, personal cars, but I wasn't going to call a fellow aviator on it.
"Strange." He paused, then had another thought. "Have you talked to your sister lately? In the last few hours, or so?"
"This conversation has taken a strange turn. No, it's been a while. I think she's on night shift, so she might be home sleeping right now. Why do you want to know?" Come to think of it, Berypt had met him the night we saw the wild jaguar. Maybe there was an attraction? No. He had sounded pretty sincere about his female back home. Probably coincidence. And again, none of Sennet's buisiness.
"No particular reason. But if you hear or see anything, oh, unusual concerning either one of them- please let me know. We'd better hurry, to get a good table at the club. I'm hungry!" He seemed to be hurrying me toward the door. Sennet didn't normally act like this. Something was definitely up.
"Sennet!" He looked back at me, seemingly surprised at my outburst. "What are you so concerned about, you don't even know my sister, and as far as I know, you've only met Mitzep once. What's going on?"
He pushed the door closed again. In a serious voice, he said, "I've been recruited by the planetary security office to help them with an investigation…"
"But you're a plastics mold maker. What do you know about security?"
"I was picked because I know you, and because I'm reliable. I hope, that you can convince them you are reliable too, because I've sworn to them that you don't have any part in it." He picked up my phone and started to dial. I began to protest again, but he held up his paw and motioned for silence. "Hello? Yes, I've told her." He handed the phone to me. "This man is a senior security official."
"Hello, Lieutenant. It's important that you cooperate with Mr. Sennet, and that you keep everything he says in strict security. This is very important, vital to the very survival of our people. I hope I can count on your full cooperation." The phone went dead.
"Sennet, what's all this about? Somebody had better start talking."
"Your sister has been working on a very important, very sensitive project. She-"
"My sister is a nurse in some kind of children's ward," I protested.
"That was just a cover. Anyway, last night she disappeared when some jaguars they were studying escaped. There was a lot of blood, and she might have been badly hurt. The authorities are trying to keep this quiet, to avoid panic. We're trying to contact everyone who might have seen her. Mitzep's roommate thinks he heard her talking in their room, late last night, but he's not sure it was her." I had a thought that gave me a cold shudder.
"These weren't smart jaguars, were they? Not like the one Mitzep and I saw behind the museum?"
"I'm not allowed to say. But we've been suspicious of Mitzep for some time, and we need to know what he's been doing. This afternoon, when you go flying, can you try to find out? Discretely, of course."
Mitzep's shuttle left us standing on a small concrete pad, next to a rusted corrugated shed. He had quickly transferred the three young jaguars, a tiny pile of supplies, and myself into the windbreak of the hut's wall, then climbed back inside and took off. By flying low above the savannah, his brief landing should be unnoticed, here on the far edge of our main base's radar coverage. The glow of the shuttle main engine soon vanished in the early morning twilight.
He dropped us on a large island in a river near the coast, where we would be on our own for at least three days, more likely ten, while he found help. Mitzep and I chose this spot based on a quick map reconnaissance: It seemed uninhabited by our own kind, and with the wide river on both sides it might possibly be free of wild jaguars as well. The grass airstrip with the square concrete pad and building was recognizable from the air. We hoped. I sighed and walked around the wall to join my charges.
Kirron had been peeking around the wall to watch the shuttle leave, while the girls were staring out across the savannah, not quite sure what was happening. Kessa had the beginnings of a pout on her face. It was time for action, lest it erupt in a full-fledged cry, one that her sister would certainly join.
"Let's go everybody. Kirron, carry your bag and lead us that way." I pointed toward a clump of live oak trees, or a _motte_, about a kilometer away. Picking up the bundle Mitzep had pulled out of his ship's survival gear, I motioned to the twins, "Come on, Leece, you and Kessa follow him, single file." Unencumbered by any baggage, the girls dropped on all fours and followed the half-grown male. We made good time, and I was glad to reach the cover of the trees. Once inside the live oaks, I called a halt and spread out our small canvas tarp. I had the kids sit in a semicircle in front of me.
"We're going to hide here for a while, and see if the men who want to hurt you are following us. We need to stay hidden so they can't fly over and see us. But this bag only has a little food in it, not even one full meal. So we will have to catch our own food. And that means we'll have to hunt under the trees in the daytime, and only go out on the grass to hunt at night." Kirron looked excited at the idea, his normal reaction to something novel, while the twins looked more skeptical. I was worried most about them: They had been removed from their mother as soon as they were weaned, and never been taught to hunt. I knew Kirron probably accompanied his own mother, even if he likely had never made a kill. And myself?
I'm a city girl: I'll be the first to admit it. Oh, I hunted mice and scavenged a few bird's eggs (it must be instinctive to us Diyim'yi, and they do taste better fresh) when I was young, but hadn't done either in years. It would take a lot of mice to keep the four of us fed. Kirron was almost twice my weight, and the girls were already only slightly smaller than an adult Diyim'yi. I knew from feeding them in the lab just how much meat it would require to keep them going. The emergency rations only contained about five kilos of vitamin and mineral-enriched protein bar, not enough to keep you fed, just to keep you healthy eating an otherwise inadequate diet.
I needed some time to think, without distraction. This seemed a safe enough place, so after I warned Kirron to protect the youngsters and keep them close by, I went on an exploratory hunt. Stalking through the oak grove gave me the first real chance to think quietly, to do some planning since the instant I decided to take the cubs away from the lab. I disengaged my mind from the hunt, while I kept my ear and nose tuned to the undergrowth. It wasn't nearly as important that I catch game right now. I needed to work out the implications of what I was about to do with the cubs.
Our original intent, back when Dr. Lonske started the project, was to select some jaguar cubs who were immune to the old virus, remove them from their wild surroundings (and wild parents) and raise them as modern, civilized, urban children, similar to how we would have raised our own young. When the changes in the project after his departure dried up most of the resources, Myrska and I tried as best we could to continue to acculturate them. Now, in order to secure their survival I would have to undo a key part of that training: I would have to teach them to hunt and kill. And since I only had a day or two before hunger would be a serious concern to these large carnivores who had never even missed a meal before, I needed to start with the basics.
I decided this would be a two-step process. First, I had to be sure the girls could kill and eat game. Then I had to teach all three to hunt effectively. And that brought up a dilemma: Both our species were naturally solitary hunters, and I knew we would only catch enough game hunting as a group. I had seen films of both W'parl packs and M'raeenn prides hunting together and I thought between the two, I could devise a technique that would work out on the savannah, assuming there was something there to hunt. Then repeat as long as necessary; until Mitzep came to rescue us, hoping that something of the polite children I brought here remained, something more than simple savages.
At this point either my nose or my ears brought me back to the hunt. Something, probably a field mouse, was chewing some seeds in a clump of grass ahead of me. Lunging forward, I caught it without killing it. I still feel guiltier about the poor thing's fate than I have about any creature I've killed. Trying to avoid looking at it too closely, I stuffed it into my purse. A few minutes further sniffing around the vicinity found a second one to stuff in there, so I started back. I heard a loud snuffling and rooting ahead of me as I returned, and while I hoped for a feral pig, I was able to kill the armadillo I discovered, slinging it under one arm. I returned the clearing, finding the twins sitting on either side of Kirron while he read to them from his picture book. I was tempted to release the mice and give up, right there.
I set Kirron to work butchering the armadillo with a pocket knife, while I taught "Predator 101" to the cubs. It stressed me more than it stressed them, as I progressed them through stalking and pouncing on a surrogate prey animal (A bundle of my rolled up white scrubs pulled along on a piece of fishing line.) Once they understood the mechanics, and had built up a little excitement and aggressiveness, I got out the mice. Let me just say that I now have proof there is an instinct which makes felines play with weak, helpless prey before they kill it.
I helped raise these little cubs from a time they were still bottle fed, trying to make them two perfect young ladies, yet in both cases I had to force myself not to interfere until the mice were dead. I had each eat her kill whole as a final test, because I wanted them to know exactly where groceries come from. As the last lesson of the day, we ate the armadillo. I grilled some small pieces such as the giblets over a small twig fire, but we divided up the rest and ate him raw. I had as much trouble eating him that way as the kids, but I wanted the taste in their mouths for our hunt that night. Because for what I had in mind to work, we were all going to end up with fresh meat under our claws and between our teeth.
The girls curled up in the branches of a low, twisted live oak tree to sleep until dark. I took Kirron with me to the river to dispose of the scraps of our meal, fill the water bottle, and scout for some kind of game. The island had been some kind of ranch under the jaguars' regime, and possibly some semi-domestic herd animals were still there. We stayed low, both on all fours. The grass between the oak mottes was dense, half-a-meter tall. When we came to the river, we washed as much scent off ourselves as possible, rolled in the grass to dry, then started working our way upwind. We practiced moving steadily, occasionally standing upright to see if we could spot anything. Finally, on a grassy sandbar just offshore, we spotted a herd of brown shapes. We flattened ourselves and inched forward to watch.
"What are they?" Kirron whispered. I had to think. Woodchucks or muskrats were my first thought, only they were too large. Then I remembered seeing a picture.
"Capybara." The 20-40 kg members of the rodent family looked like our food source, if we could catch them.
We crawled back through the grass, carefully leaving the herd behind. We rejoined the twins, each finding our own branch to sleep. The jaguars looked much more comfortable than I felt. We woke up a few hours later, just after moonrise. I explained what I wanted everyone to do, drawing diagrams in the dirt. We moved out. It took two hours to find the herd, another hour of crawling into position, Then Leece found herself near enough to a doe that she thought she could catch it; and charged. That was Kessa's signal to drive into the herd, hopefully picking out one of her own, but, in any case, forcing the rest to run straight toward Kirron and me. Kirron grabbed onto a capybara as it dashed past, Kessa only a few meters behind. The rest turned away from me, and I stood up, looking for Leece. I dashed over to where she was hanging determinedly onto the blunt muzzle of the rodent, pinning it shut with her own much larger jaws, her claws buried behind the shoulder muscles. She had overshot, grabbing too far forward. The animal was still kicking wildly at her, so I leaped in. My claws are not designed to tear like hers were, so I clamped my own teeth into the neck and ripped. Blood filled my mouth, but I continued to chew. She was able to shift her own grip behind the neck and break it the way she was designed to kill. The capybara shuddered and died.
Using our tiny knife, we field-dressed the meat of the two animals into pieces we could carry, eating as much as we could right on the spot. I supervised as we washed both ourselves and the meat as clean of blood as possible before returning to our oak motte. We hung the meat in a tree some distance from where we slept, cleaned ourselves all over again with grass. I didn't mind losing the meat, which would spoil in a few days anyway, but I didn't want any large predators attracted to us while we slept. The cubs also had the gorge and snooze feline trait, I had to push to get everything accomplished before they just curled up on the spot. Finally, just as it was becoming dimly light with pre-dawn glow, I was able to crawl into my own tree limb. A little while later, Leece crawled up with me, and I made room for her with great difficulty. She muttered a quiet, sleepy complaint as I tucked her up against me:
"N'se Berypt? Can we go home?" I wondered.
To: (Redacted. Identity of Foreman Sennet's handler is not conclusively established by this board of inquiry)
SUBJECT: Surveillance of Subject 0014 (Believed to be Lieutenant Mitzep)
Subject 0014 continues to perform his normal duties; surveillance has not revealed any further contact with Subject 0003 (Almost certainly Senior Nurse Berypt) or the test subjects. I believe, but cannot prove, that he transported all of them to a remote location, possibly to the care of a confederate. His training flights during the past ten days have taken him over much of the planet, and have involved daily landings at uncontrolled locations on the surface, as well as three trips to the orbital stations. The possibility of clandestine rendezvous cannot be ruled out; but they would necessarily have been brief. No excessive supply issue or consumption by Subject 0014 can be verified. An Agent (Senior Lieutenant Annas) monitors and reports his flight tracks each evening and all landing sites are searched by project security the next day.
I believe he will lead us to the subjects, and recommend we continue surveillance. I also request an agent in orbit at System Headquarters be directed to check on the activities of his crewmates. The pattern of close fraternization with alien races, especially their past association with the humans, makes their loyalty suspect.
"Not until tomorrow or the next night. Captain says he can't get in to see the Director unless he tells his staff what he wants to discuss. We have to catch him when he's moving through a public place, and his schedule keeps him away until then. We figure we have only a small window of opportunity: you can't bring them up until the last moment, and we can't hide them here long before we've got to get some official cover."
"I understand. We're losing our window in five. Let's try it tomorrow at the earliest opportunity. Leave my arrival time on my room phone as a four-digit number. Add 124 this time. Bye." There was a small amber 'loss of signal' light on the tuning panel. She and I had been in range for a directional shot that would be masked from base for less than two minutes. There was a good chance our radio transmission was undetected. I slowed my shuttle with the thrusters, switched my radio to the omnidirectional antenna again, and called Annas.
"I'm coming down. Tell range control I'll try for a high-speed pass bearing 070, pitch up and exit bearing 135. See you near the ground."
"Roger. Range control says ready. I'm starting my own reentry, and will be above you and overtaking on your right as you cross the target. See you there."
Down into the thickening air, buffeting as I adjust angle of descent manually. My main engine powered down to minimum, my shuttle could only generously be called a glider. Major landforms gradually become distinct as I drop, resolving themselves into the familiar barrier island and harbor on the edge of the deserted region that serves as our bombing range. Although in this case the only bomb I might plant would be myself if I screwed up this approach. This kind of flying used to be the reason I'm a pilot: today, it's only a distraction keeping me from something more important.
I hit my pitch up point, pulling back on the stick as I apply power. Annas calls out my lowest altitude, and I glance at the upper edge of the windscreen, hoping to spot her own craft. No luck, she must be slightly behind still.
"Mitzep, that one looked good. Let's go back to base."
"Wilco. How about a run down the channel?"
"Sounds good! I've got some v on, so you follow me. Crossing to your right." I caught a slight sun flash as she passed my level and pulled ahead, dropping just above the water of the jaguar's now defunct inland waterway system. This area was mostly flat; the challenge lay in dodging the rusting bridges and waterfront structures. I snuggled in behind her and played follow-my-leader. She called again, "We're not buzzing the swimming beach this time, understand? Break inland when we hit the edge of town."
"Wilco. Spoilsport." I was counting on her order, and had buzzed the same beach last week to ensure she gave it. I had other places to be. Since I had dead-sticked down while she had been under power her whole descent, I knew her fuel was tighter than mine, and was counting on that extra time. After some impressive seat-of-the-pants flying, she turned hard right toward base, climbing to 10, 000 meters. I started up after her, and then slowly leveled out. "Leader. I had something that felt loose on that turn. I'm going to try a few more before I land."
"Roger. See you on the ground." She disappeared into the growing darkness. I performed a series of square, flat turns until she was over my horizon, then turned east and dropped to the deck.
It was a seven-minute detour to the island where I had dropped Berypt. The strip was empty when I landed. I jumped down from the ship and found a flat stone near the hut's door, were we had agreed to leave messages. Underneath was a piece of paper torn from a children's book, with a series of calendar dates, including today. These indicated when she had checked in, and that she was still alive as of earlier today. I lined through the date and left my own message underneath the rock, telling her when I would be back for pickup. Then I replaced it and walked back to my ship. The only sounds were the wind moving the grass and the 'ping' noises as my ship's hull cooled. There was no sign of her, of the jaguars, or of anyone else. I left.
Annas quizzed thoroughly me about my 'mechanical problem' and had a maintenance crew standing by when I returned. At least my ship was getting plenty of attention because of this. She finally left me alone to go see her boyfriend, and I went after some food and some time to plan. All I had to do to make this work was to lose her, make an unauthorized landing, then an even more unauthorized rendezvous with Captain Chopka at the space station. All without being shot down or arrested. Finally an idea came to me. I consulted the table of orbital elements for the station, and then made a few calculations. It would take a phone call to the ship to make it work, so I called the operator and tried to get one scheduled. I was nearly asleep before H'raawl-Hrkh returned my call, and my roommate was reading a book. We flirted loudly and graphically over the phone until my roommate left the room for his own bedroom, making a disgusting gesture. Then we quickly coordinated our timing, and she made a last, laughing remark before she terminated the call:
"You've got a lot to learn about what girls want from phone sex."
Mitzep's numbers looked good. Calculation in Jaguar home space was always easier, since the computer didn't have to run any conversions from it's original language, and after all, the builders had measured their own planetary system with more accuracy than they had measured our own home, their former colony. I wanted to get this right the first time. As short handed as we were, I couldn't stay on the bridge to execute this plan, but would need to be in the hangar bay handling shuttle docking, and to release our own cargo at just the right moment.
While the plan required accurate coordination it remained fairly simple: Rendezvous with the shuttle at a point in space where we were hidden from accurate radar tracking, then execute a fast, but routine-seeming return to base. Then hold our breath while the Captain convinced the System Commander we had done the right thing.
A leonine paw unlatched the door and snapped it open. Now navigation was just an annex of the main bridge, and I could hear the click of Captain Chopka checking breakers on the main panel.
"It's time." H'raawl-Hrkh looked through my view screen at the ship's umbilical still tethering us to the station. "Station crew is ready to cast off."
"Six minutes by my watch." She was getting anxious now, too. "We'll be there before Mitzep is."
"I mean 'time to break loose.' It'll take a few minutes to get away from the local traffic, especially since we don't want them to see the cargo." We had 'borrowed' a small painting barge, which was due to make a star performance in our little show. I sighed and got up.
"OK. I've got the tape loaded. Just have us pointing the right direction when the time comes." We undocked with thumps and bangs against the hull. I switched on my displays. Our own radar was off, as I still had the station-provided feed. Major tracks would be updated as long as we were in system, and today's flight wouldn't take us far enough out for relativistic lag. We cleared the local area and, right on schedule, he applied power to bring us onto our new course. I watched the nav comp to make sure the autopilot was taking commands, then settled back to wait.
The biggest manned stations are at relatively low altitudes in equatorial or near-equatorial orbit. There was one weather station in a nearly circular polar one, but we planned this to have as few in our sky as possible when we met Mitzep. He would launch into a steep, elongated polar orbit, and we were going to do likewise, only the return leg of ours would bring us near enough to the station to match with it quickly. But not too quickly-we didn't want to trigger any system defenses. Then it could get interesting. As we accelerated, I tuned the radios, hoping for his call.
Right about now, I thought. He should have just lifted from the island. We had decided to risk use of our secure channel, although anyone recording it would eventually break it. By then we would be safe, or in jail, I guess. Mitzep came in loud and garbled, but mostly understandable.
"Ship, this is shuttle." The secure gear made him sound exactly like a duck. "On schedule for docking. Everyone on board, no injuries. I repeat, no injuries. Let's proceed with the plan." I gestured to the Captain, questioning. He waved me to go ahead, and I switched the radio to his throat mike. He spoke to Mitzep while I climbed out of my seat and left the bridge.
The shuttle bay is at the far end of the habitable area, past both engineering and the forward hold. I walked at a rapid pace, not wanting to be late, careful not to trip on a hatchway coaming. I strapped myself into the seat bay contained the small cargo handling control station at one end of the bay. A video screen showed me the docking brackets in the brilliant sunlight. In the newly installed second set was our painting barge, while the original cradle awaited his shuttle. I could hear the captain calling out range marks in my earphones, and Mitzep's quacked replies.
Just prior to apogee, Mitzep lined his shuttle up with the cradle and I reeled him in. As we started back down, the captain decelerated hard enough to cause us to fall out of orbit. When the g-forces stopped, I released the barge, which I hoped would burn up safely on the way down, and not smack into someone's head. As soon as I signaled the cargo was released, we accelerated and began corkscrewing back into matching orbit with the station we had left two hours before. Once all the shaking stopped, I got up and opened the access tunnel to the shuttle, signaling to Mitzep that it was safe to open his own hatch.
First through the tunnel was a strange vixen, wearing nothing at all. Behind her were two big jaguar cubs, and a large, but still immature male. All were in nothing but bare fur, and all were bloody. I began to back my way to the door worried something had gone wrong. I was relieved when young Mitzep climbed on deck, wearing his proper uniform and a big grin as he saw me. He made introductions.
"I seem to have interrupted their lunch, and there wasn't anyplace on the shuttle to wash up. I'm sure Lossp can find you a cabin and a shower."
"Just time for the shower. I looked pointedly at the bloody prints on the deck. Follow me." I led them to the communal shower in the cargo hold we had converted into a gym. Passing out soap and shampoo, I said to Berypt, "I don't mean to sound forward, but we barely have time to get everyone cleaned and dressed before we dock. Can I help scrub someone's back?" She looked a little surprised; I could tell modesty had become a luxury. But she laughed and recovered. It helped that the cubs were already playing under the streaming water.
"I suppose it couldn't hurt-Kessa! You'll get soap in her eyes. I could use a hand." She lined the kids up started them scrubbing. I began to work soap into her back, and she arched against my claws. Occasionally she winced as I discovered a buried bruise. "Ohhh," she let out a sigh. "Keep going. Rub hard, I've got way too much grass seed, blood and animal grease in my skin." Her fur had good texture, but her muscles were as lean and stringy as I'd seen in a long time. "Have you considered a career in personal grooming?"
"My wife has told me there are three jobs I can't take, and that's one of them. And I can't bring home any pets, so dog grooming is out?"
"What's a dog?"
"I'm sorry, that's just a joke I picked up from the human, Marie. It doesn't translate." She moved over to rinse and stopped another splashing game between the twins.
"Kirron, help Leece with the shampoo bottle. Just use a little bit, honey." She turned back to me. "Mitzep told me you had met aliens, too. Does it help when it comes to dealing with my jaguars?"
"It helps that they're children. I've had entirely too many dealings with the adults. And you meet a lot of aliens in the Corps. More than most folks. You see there are good and bad people everywhere."
We herded the kids through the air dryer, which they loved, and into a cabin for grooming and dressing. We managed to find shorts to fit all three, and I raided Dr. Plaksa's empty cabin for a blouse for Berypt, and pair of silk scarves for Leece and Kessa. I finally found Dave's old field jacket for Kirron, who loved all the pockets. We had fifteen minutes until docking when I brought them into the day room.
All four of them stopped just inside the doorway, piling into one another. I nearly closed the hatch on Kirron's tail. I looked to see what was the matter, and found H'raawl-Hrkh bent over trying to straighten a frozen cub's scarf. Leece was tentatively reaching out to touch the big lioness' face, while Kirron and Berypt both stared in amazement.
"Oh, let me introduce you to our executive officer. I guess none of you have met any M'raeenn before. Boss, I think they've never seen a cat as big as you." She gave out a bass rumble of a laugh and noticed how much white the eyes in the room had exposed. She sat down on a bench seat and motioned the cubs toward her.
"Come on dears, sit here with me. I've never seen pretty spots on girls like you, either." I pulled out chairs for Berypt and myself and Kirron, and we all talked softly as H'raawl-Hrkh stroked the cubs. I told Berypt and the boy what we expected them to do when we met the system commander. While we were talking, the captain docked the ship with only the slightest bump.
"Annas, I've got to get that phone. Wake up, my leg's pinned under you and its fallen asleep." I reluctantly let his cross the room to the phone stand. His back was to me and he spoke quietly. He nodded his head once or twice, agreeing with the caller.
When he turned back to face me, I had arranged myself seductively on top of the sheets. If some stranger was going to get us up several hours early, I had something we could use the extra time to do. He looked at me, not with the lustful expression I'd hoped for, but speculatively. I frowned.
"C'mere," I beckoned. I floofed my tail up over my back, hoping to put him back in the mood.
But what he said was, "That was security. Your student just took off on an unscheduled flight. Do you know anything about it?" This was puzzling. Actually, Mitzep had asked if we could start later than normal. Which explained in large part why I was in Sennet's apartment rather than my own. I was beginning to be concerned. "They want you to follow him. How soon can you get ready? They've called flight operations, who are readying your own ship. Let's go, we need to get moving."
When I got to the flight line, only the Ops officer and a crew chief were there to meet me. Everything else was still closed for the night. I greeted them and did my walk around. As I woke up and thought about it more, I was puzzled by the quiet.
"How come you didn't scramble someone else? He's been gone for almost an hour, I'll never catch up." The Ops officer was less than concerned.
"Look, I don't know nothing about any of that. We got a special from headquarters, all I know. Give you the vector on the other shuttle, and have your ship ready. I didn't get any explanation, and I didn't ask. Sign this, and you're on your own."
While I powered up my shuttle, I looked at the radar plot. Mitzep had flown a reciprocal course on our last training flight, vanishing from radar near where he'd had his 'mechanical trouble'. Maybe he had landed. Sennet suspected that he delivered my sister and those cats someplace; maybe this was it. It was starting to look like his suspicions were correct. I climbed for altitude, setting my own radar for wartime power. Maybe I could find him after he lifted off. The shuttle sped northward.
I saw him before the radar picked him up. This part of the world was completely black at night. Without any remote ranches, research stations, or even campfires to light the savannah, the bright plume of a shuttle main engine on a maximum boost trip to orbit was brighter than a gas pipeline explosion. My radar interrogated his IFF transponder, confirming who was there briefly before he shut it off. I went to maximum thrust myself, and pointed the nose up, reaching for the radio at the same time. I called on our training frequency.
"You know who's back here, Mitzep. Why are you doing this? I can't understand what you think is so important about those savages." He picked up immediately.
"I'm a little busy right now, Annas. Here, I'm going to put your sister on." I could hear cockpit noise as he switched to an open microphone. I definitely heard the squall of a cat before Berypt's voice came through. She was her usual self, whining about how her kittens had never done anything wrong, and I was only able to give her half an ear while I flew. Mitzep had chosen a difficult route. Climbing at max rate headed pole-ward, there wasn't any margin for me to cut off distance. Wherever we were heading, we wouldn't be up there long before we had to turn somewhere else, or come right back down. I looked at my options: I wasn't armed, so I couldn't even do anything but watch when we got there. Maybe I could get some help. I toggled over to channel two, cutting Berypt off in mid whine.
I was able to raise base ops and the regional center, but nobody in orbit. At this time of the morning, nobody was willing to patch me through without an emergency authorization, which Sennet had neglected to provide. The same surly Ops officer I talked to earlier threatened to report me to our squadron commander when I returned to base. He implied that anyone who thought jaguars were intelligent needed there own examined. Meanwhile, I looked at my options, watching my fuel status. Mitzep had just shut off his main engine. I checked his final speed figures on my knee board. He was in a very peculiar orbit. I decided to continue accelerating and overtake him.
Twenty kilometers behind him, my radar picked up a close object. I scaled back my range gates for better tracking. Someone had just brought a starship in on a tangent to our course from outside my cone of coverage. Mitzep was almost at his apogee, and I cut power. I was going to pass both ships at considerable speed as it was, and I decided to capture them on my gun camera if I could. As Mitzep docked with the other ship, I lined up and started shooting film. It looked like his home ship, but there were protrusions and paint patterns that looked different than I remembered. As I closed, I switched back to our channel.
"…break immediately. You must alter course." An unfamiliar male Diyim'yi was speaking. I looked out my windscreen in alarm as the ship fired off its own main engines while one of the protrusions separated from it on a direct heading toward me. I rolled hard left, losing both ship and object beneath my own hull, the planetary sunrise now blinding me. I continued my roll, applying power, figuring if it hit me, I'd never know anyway. I was relieved to catch a diminishing black object against the glare of the sun, one that began to glow as it hit the upper atmosphere. The ship was gone.
It took three corkscrewing orbits before I'd killed enough v to make a return to base. The morning shift was on in operations and they treated me like any other returning flight. Sennet met me just off the flight line, before I went into the Operations building.
"I got a message from security. You're supposed to pretend nothing happened. Mitzep's been reassigned, and that's the end of it. Nothing happened."
He told me to go back to my room and get some rest, that someone would be talking to me later. I was still pretty wound up after the flight, so I took a shower and went down to the dining hall for a late breakfast. There were a few people and the cooks watching TV.
"This morning, the System Commander, Admiral Lannew, was attending a dedication ceremony for a new service arm addition and solar array on Orbital Base One when he suffered a mild heart attack. He was rushed from the scene shortly after he arrived by security and is reported resting comfortably in the base hospital. Doctors expect him to make a full recovery." In other news…." Nothing. No mention of the missing ship, or shuttle, or my sister, or her damned cats. Sennet was right: