Book 4 Chapter 3
"Ooh, that's pretty! Where did you find it?" Jena admired the stuffed rabbit strapped to the top of my book bag. "It looks almost real."
"Three Moons met me on the way home from classes today. We went to that new department store on the 'C' train line. It was a little expensive, but she talked me into it."
Even as I answered Jena's innocent question, a tiny part of my mind asked, "Why are you gushing like that? Boy, have you gone insane?" But another part spoke up promptly: "Stop whining. You're a teenager, now. That's what you're supposed to do." And it had felt so right. The toy was cute, and it would look good on my nightstand.
"Did you buy something to put in your hair tonight? With it long like that, you'll want to either clip or tie it, like I showed you." Jena sounded soo much like a parent just then. I laughed at the overprotective lioness.
"Yes, mom! Honestly, you'd think I'd never been to a dance before. I went on my first date while you were still living in your father's tent. This will be an innocent night of fun."
"OK, smarty, you may have been older in your previous life, but you've never been a young girl. Let me tell you, your date may seem to be a good friend and a perfect gentlemen, but it's Saturday night, now, dearest; and boys sometimes forget their date might be underage."
"Sure. Barks Sharply is three years older than this body, but still, he's half my age. I was a young boy just like him, before: I know exactly what he wants, and he's not getting any. Secondly: I'm a martial arts expert, and my arms are twice as long as his. I weigh 20 pounds more, not that all of it is where I want it! Lastly, I'm pretty sure he's seeing that serval, Sheerrwl. We'll dance, have good conversation, and come home early. I don't think I could handle anything more." Jena ruffed my hair (which I hate) and then smoothed it back off my ears with slightly expressed claws. She leaned it and rubbed her chin across one cheek. It gave me a warm feeling, and I replied with a light peck on the pad of her nose.
"Your body might want things your conscious mind isn't ready for, yet. When I heard noise in your room late last night, I looked in. Your subconscious definitely wants what that young canid has. Or somebody else. And speaking as someone who has very liberal tastes in that department, you're not going to be satisfied with just vixens for the rest of your life." I couldn't argue too much; I'd felt my stomach flip when Barks Sharply asked me to come to the dance, even though I knew Jena'd put him up to it. I risked a long hug, wrapping my arms around Jena's middle. My feelings there bore examination, too. She'd taken me into her home at the Corps' doctor's request, included me in almost every part of her busy life. She'd helped me tremendously, using only her fluent human speech when we were in private, showing me how the human artifacts at the laboratory worked. It almost made up for her insistence I help at the nursery tending the jaguar cubs: children start out sooo messy.
I liked her so much, what I was about to do hurt me all the more: I'd gotten my instructions for my mission. The number on that slip of paper led me to a clandestine meeting with my old handler, Dornek, who directed me to get to Earth at all costs. He'd not been able to give me much: a small tool kit, hidden behind the leather of my grooming comb bag, a stun-shock stick disguised as a lighter. Even less detailed instructions, I'd have to find my own targets once I was on the ground. Just a rough landing area, a large terrain feature easily recognized from space.
And the resupply freighter for the Earth expedition left tonight. Dornek made arrangements for me to sneak aboard, and all I had to do was to lose my date; and leave Jena. More emotions at an unexpected time, I would never have let anything interfere with a mission. I spent a lot of my time when I was waiting for Barks Sharply blinking away tears. It's so hard now. A secret agent shouldn't have to hug a stuffed bunny for comfort.
For three hours I lived the role the way Jena wanted me to. Had I been the person I look like, the dance would have been the beginning of a perfect evening. Barks Sharply had the kind of date I wish I'd had time for growing up during the war. There was a live band, he had (I think so myself) a beautiful date, and our chaperones kept their distance. I had a good time, too: I found myself responding to the attention. It's so much easier to be the center of attraction than to find ways to show that you are interested. I felt sorry for him.
Toward the end of the evening, while Jena and Ulmer were outside on the balcony, I asked him to escort me into the hallway while I went to the bathroom. I let the door swing shut and stepped across the room, pushing up the back window. I climbed out into the alley, leaving Barks Sharply standing by a potted plant in the hallway, holding my small, empty purse.
My ride was leaving from a private freight pad across town, near the docks. A fox I recognized as one of Dornek's men met me at the entrance to the yard, and led me to a 20 foot pressurized container with one end open. The inside of that box would be my cabin for the trip, first to orbit, then the long voyage to Earth. The freighter captain had been bribed to fly the appropriate course, he wanted to know nothing else. There was a small group of dockmen were standing around, waiting for the agent to leave, so they could seal me inside and load the container onto the cargo rocket. I had seen their foreman before: the bandages on his neck and his stiff posture were the clear marks of Jena's would-be assassin.
"What about him?" I asked the agent. I explained where I'd seen him, under my breath. He shrugged
"Expediter. Gang that runs the docks runs the cargo pads, too. They're paid to handle you like eggshells. And you know nobody crosses the boss."
I guess that would have to be good enough. The gang member clearly recognized me, and he scowled, but he pushed his crew to finish their preparations. He and the agent made their final checks of the pressure seals and connections, leaving me momentarily alone behind the container. As the dockman disappeared around the far end and while I looked inside the entrance, double counting supply canisters, there was a blur of movement behind me, and Jena stood there, swallowing her heaving breaths. Disaster, if they found her. They'd kill her for revenge, not just to ensure her silence.
"What are you doing here?" It was too late. I'd have to take care of her myself before the dockman came back around. I put my arm out to her.
"Shhhh! Don't make a…." I jabbed her with my shock stick, giving the big cat the full charge. "..sound." Grabbing her slumping form, I dragged her to the front of the container, burying her behind the ration boxes. I returned to the front as the dockman rounded the corner.
"Seal it?" He motioned for the welding rig and started to close the doors.
"Yeah. Do that." The doors clanged shut. I worked rapidly by flashlight to strap down my supplies, securing her just as tightly to the wall with webbing. Outside, the lifts clanged and shook the container, lifting it into the shuttle rocket, which was in turn up-ended on the pad. I wrapped webbing around my own torso, strapping myself against the bulkhead. I was worried Jena would wake up too soon. A fox stunned with that charge would have been out for hours, but I guessed she would wake up any minute. Fortunately, our rocket was due to lift right away.
She was silent (and secured) during the hard acceleration of the trip to orbit, although her tongue fell out of her mouth between her fangs as we were shifted into the freighter's hold. The container creaked as the seals settled, and it was a relief when my eardrums popped as the ship's air was attached to the coupling. The dim light bulb lit as the power was connected. In perhaps an hour, her eyes flickered, staring at me as she worked her tongue back into her mouth, then struggled against the straps.
"It's for your own protection. If I could have left you on Diyim'yi, I would have done it."
"You're going to Earth, aren't you?" She sounded disappointed.
"We both are. This box doesn't get opened until we get there, sixteen days from now." As we talked, the gravity slowly increased to three-quarter g. "We'll be hungry, and maybe a bit thirsty, since there are two of us." I untangled myself and went to her. "I'm going to let you loose, now. Are you going to be mad?"
"Oh, I'm mad. I consider myself responsible for you. But I should have expected this. You just don't understand that you're really, truly young. You have time for stunts like this later: If you'd have waited, the Corps would have sent you, themselves, in a few years."
"I have an appointment on Earth. By the way, how'd you find me?"
"Your perfume. You 're the only person on the planet who can't smell it, I guess." She snorted through her nose, and her breath came in puffs of fog as the metal walls cooled. The heat of liftoff had given way to the cold of the hold. It occurred to me we'd maybe overlooked one factor.
"Let me get you out of those straps." I helped her get unsteadily to her feet, maybe cringing a little bit as she stood. "This thing is cooling more than I expected. It might be a cold trip." She reached out and held me close.
"Then we'll have to share a blanket, won't we?" She looked around. "You did bring a blanket, didn't you?"
I twitched my poor tail out from under Relloc's leg as she shifted in her sleep. She often half-woke and talked to herself during those arbitrary 'night' periods; murmuring in Diyim'yi or another language I assume was Nurnkh. Poor thing, her brain must be a pretty mixed up place, I thought. So when I started to hear a voice in my own head, I assumed I was just hearing her.
It started as a distant feeling of surprise, growing to pleasure, like you'd get when receiving an unexpected present. It felt familiar, and comfortable, and when I finally became fully awake, I realized I was once again sharing my head with my long-separated twin (or clone, if you prefer), H'raawl-Hrkh. We weren't having a conversation, like you would when speaking; it was, as before, sharing common thoughts. When we both understood a thing, it wasn't clear who had told whom first. We just knew.
She must have let me know the freighter was entering the inner solar system, and I'm sure I let her know about Relloc and what she intended. Neither of us had a ready answer, except that I had to stick with her, and try convincing her not to carry out her orders. If that didn't work, I'd reluctantly stop her. My sister projected a bloody image of the worst outcome, and I tried to convey how unfortunate the spy-saboteur's condition was. I know she felt my empathy as much as a true member of her species could, maybe more than an unaltered one might. I hoped for a less extreme solution.
That mental exchange took a matter of minutes, leaving plenty of other time for us to catch up on what had happened while we were apart. I shared with her my romps with Ulmer and Grauwl-Chorff, we agreed McOwen would be a good catch, one worth working on. We both were frustrate,d being so near our dear Mitzep, yet neither able to be with him. It was just telepathic girl-talk: two sisters catching up on things. I must have expressed the latter need by kneading my claws, because Relloc woke me up by simultaneously arching her back into them and exclaiming in pain as a claw-tip caught. H'raawl-Hrkh's presence faded to a pleasant background awareness just as the alarm clock Relloc insisted on setting each 'day' rang.
"Ouch, dear! Just too rough." She bussed my nose and untangled herself from me. She looked like a teenager after a slumber party wearing my too-long shirt, with rat's nest hair. We were both pretty whiff after three weeks sealed in that box. "That must have been some dream."
"Hmmm," I agreed. Even my twisting, empty stomach felt better now that we were here. "Just thinking."
"Jena, you're too nice to someone who's treated you as badly as I have. What am I going to do with you?"
As she talked, she counted the scratched marks on the side of the box and nodded, approvingly. Yawning and stretching, she muttered to herself as she made a decision. I watched curiously when she took our water barrel and upended it, standing on top. Reaching for the ceramic fixture that held our one light bulb, she gave it a sharp counterclockwise twist, causing it to hang down from its wires. The recess revealed a small crank handle.
"Let's hope this thing isn't frozen." She began to crank it. A three-foot rectangular hatch opening slowly appeared in the corrugated ceiling, whose outline I'd thought was a welded repair to the crate. Dry, below-freezing air from the hold mixed with our own dank, slightly used atmosphere. When she'd lowered it a few inches into the room, she said, "Reach up under there: There should be four clips holding this hatch." I stood and easily found them, dropping it free from the ceiling. She pushed it aside, and it clattered down. This tore the light's wires free, too. In the moment while my eyes adjusted, she reached for the glow plate of a ship's bulkhead access hatch.
"Why did you wait until now to leave this hold?" I was somewhat put out, because I was so hungry. "If we'd have given up to the freighter crew two days ago, we'd be eating breakfast right now." She didn't answer, just pulled the ring on the second hatch. Inside were the yellow and black cross-stripes of an emergency escape pod's entrance. She reached inside and pulled a packaged survival ration brick off the wall, tossing it to me.
"Close that outer door so that the hold doesn't depressurize. Bang our water can against the hull until the crew comes to get you." She pulled herself up into the escape pod. It didn't take telepathy to know that she was trying to leave me behind. As she reached for the hatch closure/eject paddles, I tossed the ration brick back at her as hard as I could, and sprang through the hatch. It knocked her hand away long enough for me to cross the intervening space. She screamed and fought, but I backhanded her in the stomach and got between her and the front of the pod. All five of my sharp ends were pointed toward her soft skin.
"You're taking me with you, Relloc. If I have to, I'll knock you out and activate the pod myself." She glared at me, and I let out a guttural roar. My tail whipped with anger. She glanced around the small pod: probably making one last search for a weapon.
"All right. Hurry up, we have less than 20 minutes to eject this pod on the inbound leg of an eccentric close earth orbit, before the captain swings back out toward the moon. He'll eject us into deep space, himself, rather than be compromised."
"And you were going to leave me with them. Lovely friends you have." I seized the paddles. "Hang on!" I pushed them apart, explosive bolts slamming the door shut with enough force to sever a limb. A rudimentary instrument panel lit up, displaying a rapidly diminishing timing bar. I grabbed for the webbing. "Five seconds!" Another charge blew us free of the ship, and the pod tumbled until its gyros spun up. The blue expanse of Earth spread out above us.
"Better let me into that seat. I'm the one who knows how to fly this." Relloc edged around me and strapped herself in. The seat was as misshapen for her as it was too small for me. An angled glass head-up display projected a blue dot of light on a scribed grid, and she lined it up with a long peninsula a recognized as Florida. A third jerk, and the retro-rockets fired, beginning our long drop.
At first, we fell in eerie silence, the planet growing noticeably wider in our one window. Something began to bang irregularly against the hull, probably a piece of docking clamp, which hadn't blown completely free. The banging became more rapid, slamming into the hull like hammer blows. The window was surrounded with a red halo of hot gasses, the hull began buffeting back and forth, then there was a loud 'crack' and everything jerked, then oscillated. The pounding stopped, the piece torn free from what H'raawl-Hrkh mentally reassured me was the first streamer of our parachute's deployment. The scream of thickening atmosphere replaced the pounding. The heat distortion and vibration blurred our vision, but now either ground or water filled our field of view. Several minutes later, a more powerful shock, as the first real chute deployed. The ground was still coming up very fast. I could see roads and rivers criss-crossing the forest that seemed to be our destination. The final chute followed but we sped toward the ground much too fast to be anything more than jello-filling for the capsule. As it seemed likely we were going to smash into the ground, or spear ourselves on a tree, there was a sharp report, followed by sudden, powerful deceleration. We hit the ground, slamming me into the back of Relloc's chair, then bounced slightly upward. We were down.
I checked myself for injuries. I was definitely going to be bruised later, but nothing seemed broken. Relloc stirred, and I climbed off her, dropping onto the window.
"Are you OK?" She gave me a feeble 'yes', trying to stand up. I looked out the window. It was buried halfway in black earth. A curl of smoke rose from nearby. "We'd better get out of this thing, becacause it looks like we've started a fire."
"I'll get the hatch." She said it in Diyim'yi, a sign she was rattled.
"In English. You're on earth, now." She forced open the hatch.
"Ouch!" She jumped back, holding her hand. "The capsule's too hot."
"Well, we'll just have to wait until it cools."
"No. We've got to get away from here, hide the capsule if we can." She pulled a survival blanket from storage and arranged it over the edge of the hatch. She climbed out, using the cloth to protect her skin. "Come on out, Jena."
I stood on top of the capsule, the blanket giving momentary protection to my bare feet. I looked around, seeing the Earth for the first time in over a year, and for the first time with fully functional vision in over a decade. It looked a lot like a swamp. The capsule sat on a small island, surrounded by water. The single drowned live oak tree held our bright yellow parachutes and the remains of the rocket package that stopped our fall. There were small grass fires around the capsule, but they weren't going anywhere. I looked for Relloc. The girl was trying to pull the chutes out of the tree, working the lines back and forth.
"Give me some help!" I jumped to the ground, and it squished slightly. "Help me hide this parachute." Between us, we rolled the silk into a ball and stuffed it inside the hatch. She stood catching her breath, staring at the capsule. "What would you say that weighs?"
"About two tons. No way we're going to lift it."
"I was thinking we could roll it into the water."
"No way." She kept looking at it. Then she looked at the tree, then back at it.
"Let's do this, then." As she spoke, she unwrapped one of the chutes again. I sat down on the blanket to watch. She cut all the lines from the chute, tripling them together, and then ran over to the tree, looping it around. She ran back; passed it through a lifting ring, then back again, repeating until she'd used all the rope. "Come over here and pull." The first try failed: too much resistance. Another ring tied to the tree replaced the rough bark, and to my surprise, the capsule inched toward it. Once we started, it took two hours of backbreaking effort before the capsule sank beneath the waters. It reached the bank, and the tree, then Relloc stripped down and swam with the rope across to the far shore, and we pulled it in. It floated. I stood up on top as she towed it into the lake, and when it reached the center, I hung on the hatch lid, until it rotated and water flowed into the hatch like filling a bottle. I swam free and joined her on shore, climbing up a shallow scrape in the mud.
As I shook myself dry, and a thought occurred to me. I looked back at where I'd just climbed from the water.
"Did you make that with the rope?" I pointed down. She looked over, puzzled.
"No, it was over here."
"Lets not go swimming again. Do you know what an alligator is?" I indicated the width of the scrape. "It's a big lizard, sort of. They make those when they climb in and out of a pond a lot."
"So?" She didn't seem concerned.
"Well, the width of the scrape is about the width of the alligator. This one was wider than I am. How big do you think it is?" Her eyes got wide. "And no, they aren't vegetarian. Welcome to Florida."