Book 4 Chapter 4
Orbiting above the Earth, the ship was a place of crowded confusion. The unexpected return of Annas' craft and my own shuttle still loaded with passengers filled the already crowded passageways. Supplies stacked in the hallways and double occupancy in the cabins gave it the look of an apartment complex next to a bazaar. Corps had arranged for a freighter to meet us near Earth to restock, but until we landed some passengers, things would be tight. For the first half of the trip, both shuttles had been jammed with foodstuffs and expendables, now filling every compartment. The fresh food went quickly. Crewmembers who looked forward to spreading out into the emptied cabins bustled around, returning their bedrolls to the galley and labs. Food was not exactly running out, but we couldn't wait for the resupply ship to restock the galley.
I made my way forward from the shuttle bay. I wasn't tired, still buzzed with adrenaline from grab-the-rabbit-by-the-throat-flying, so I stepped into the dayroom for a snack. Annas was already there. The vixen was as wired as I was. We got along better now, and based on Jena and Marie's good word, I forgave her for trying to blast me out of space. She'd quit trying to land me for a mate since she'd met both my lionesses and knew the size of the competition. I respected her as a good pilot, fast becoming a good friend.
"Anything to eat?"
"Plaksa says we have fifty pounds of spoiled fruit that still need to be eaten. You can't have anything else until you eat this brown orange." I made a face. We'd made plans to bring some fresh steaks from the Canadians to celebrate the return of our feline second-in-command, enough for the whole crew. Instead, leftovers. We grabbed some fruit and adjourned to the bridge. I tossed a piece to the watch, Commander Lossp, and dropped down the hatch into Navigation. Annas' roommate, a biochemist assigned to support the trade mission, was already in the compartment, idly scrolling the planet across the video display through the high-power telescope.
The conversation turned to what went wrong with the first landing attempts. I flew a traditional fighter-shuttle while Annas piloted the airliner-decoy landing craft. Our plan had been to approach from over the pole, my craft escorting her unarmed, less maneuverable one with the Envoy and her staff aboard. Once she was safely on the ground at a Canadian airfield, I would drop down on the deck and cross into the US, dropping Marie off someplace near the border. We would then reverse the process, our stranded crewmembers now in her ship, me again flying cover. In and out, in less than three hours. Instead, we'd both been forced to abort and return to the ship.
I complained to Annas, "The Canadians weren't going to let any foreign fighters across their border. How come you had to abort?"
"The Americans created a diversion over the Great Lakes, then snuck an F117 stealth fighter in. It's not supposed to be able to fight air-to-air, but they hung two Sidewinder missiles on it somehow. That's what saved us: He went for the intercept instead of waiting until we were on the ground and bombing me on the runway. I could have landed while the fighter CAP chased him home, but we thought it was better to abort. The Canadians said they were afraid they'd send a cruise missile over the border next."
"That sounds like war to me. Why are they putting up with it?"
"Their economy, H'raawl-Hrkh said. They claim the US has threatened sanctions, and since trade with us for a whole year wouldn't bring in as much money as a single day with their next-door neighbor, the best we can hope for is for someone to convince both countries we're not a threat. The Canadian government will help, but they don't want to push it." She pointed a banana at me. "What happened with your landing? I had you on radar after I aborted. You mixed it up with those F-15s pretty well. You should have been able to outmaneuver them."
"Yeah. I've got a fast enough shuttlecraft to work my way around them. It's just a matter of knowing where they are. But that doesn't really help. I'd have to be really unlucky for one of their missiles to get me. It's those airborne lasers that are going to fry us, though. Dave says they don't have more than three of them, and maybe one ground based laser. They're all experimental test models, so far. Based in North America, with range to the horizon, maybe a thousand kilometers. We could land in Europe, or all of Asia and probably be safe."
"I thought I read in Dave's encyclopedia about an ex-soviet laser in southern Russia? Pumped by a nuclear blast as I recall."
"If they had one, it'd have been sold during the 'going out of communism' sale. Besides, anything done with a nuke will hurt the humans more than us."
"That's a pretty big gamble. They could pop one up here, for instance, and never notice it if we were on the dayside of the planet. That's why I wish we'd hug the surface closer."
"Somebody would see us."
"Isn't that the idea?" I say, let's tell everybody we're here! Flashing lights, trailing a big 'Hi, we're aliens! banner. Knock on the door of the space station and ask to borrow some vodka, or something. " "If we could get our folks someplace safe, I'd agree. Of course, we'd be jailed as soon as we got home."
"Yeah, I guess you're right. OK, then. How do we land, this time? You do want to make another try, don't you?"
It was Annas' roommate who came up with the answer. She'd been ignoring us, watching the planet through the 'scope, when she exclaimed, "That's pretty. Look at those swirling cloud patterns." A tropical storm was dying over the Caribbean, with thick bands of clouds radiating from its disorganized center.
"It looks like a big starfish."
"Not really. The arms are bent."
"You know what I meant."
"Hey, what if we came down through that weather? The laser would be blocked by the water vapor. It'd mean they'd have to send fighters in after us." Annas reached around her to reduce magnification and show the whole hemisphere. I thought it might actually work, so I looked at the image again.
"There's just one problem. The storm doesn't reach north far enough to drop off her Envoy-ness. It's subtropical, at best."
"Dave could meet us and drive everyone in, I guess. Unless there is another, more northern storm, later."
"We'll have to do both landings at once, again, because once we try that trick, the Americans will look harder for us during bad weather." We just have to wait until there's enough weather over both landing sites."
"I guess. I wish that supply ship would hurry up. Weren't they due two days ago? I'm tired of canned meat. Hey, Lossp!" She called up to the bridge. "When's that freighter due?"
"They called while you people were flapping your muzzles about the weather. The Captain said they had a bad transition from hyperspace, so he's making a slingshot course correction around the planet. We're going to match orbits on the backside of the moon in 18 hours. Captain Chopka's upset: they weren't supposed to approach earth closer than geosynch orbit, and their perigee was less than 200 kilometers."
"What do you expect from a contract pilot?" Annas balled up one of the scraps of paper we'd been doodling ideas for landings, and tossed it through the hatch at him. "He was probably bottom of his class at the academy."
"Weren't you the bottom of your class?" Lossp leaned around the hatch and tossed it back, bouncing it off her roommate.
"Hey! Keep me out of this." She left the navigation compartment indignantly. Annas fielded the paper ball and caromed it off her head into Lossp as she went through the hatch. She fluffed her tail, snarled and disappeared. We spent another hour until suppertime huddled together, preplanning courses, doing 'what-ifs' with the ship's main navigation computer.
Supper was traditionally a formal affair on this ship, and Captain Chopka had everyone not on watch attend. In addition to the crew: Lossp, Doctor Plaksa, Annas and myself; the Envoy had three diplomatic assistants (one was probably a spy) who were supposed to accompany her to Earth, plus two scientific advisors who would stay shipboard with us. The Envoy sat on the Captain's right, as befit her rank and station, and Marie on his left, as befit hers.
I was still adjusting to that development. I knew Marie was aboard, of course, and I assumed she would share a cabin with the doctor. So imagine my surprise when I met Marie leaving the Captain's cabin after my first watch.
"Hi, Mitzep." I must have had my mouth open, because she put her paw in front of her own and her eyes got wide. "Oh! I guess nobody told you: I married into the Candroc clan as Chopka's Second Wife." While I'd known she was pregnant; at last the rest of the story came out.
"I guess that makes me your half-step-son, or something like that," I mumbled. The Captain came through the door behind her and put one paw on her shoulder.
"That's right. I married Amkha, the Old Lady's youngest daughter, and then took Marie here as second. Let me tell you, my young First Wife is not happy her second is here on the ship while she's at home." Marie gently squeezed his paw, then moved out from under it.
"Mitzep, we're still working all this out. I ask you, though: Whatever else happens let me be the one who tells Dave. Promise me that." I agreed. She went aft to see Doctor Plaksa, while the Captain went forward to the bridge.
They had been together all the rest of the trip, just enough formality between them to make me wonder just how close they were. The Captain was solicitous and correct in front of the passengers, so maybe they were on their best behavior. Both readily joined the crew's nightly card game, and joked and were as comfortable as two old friends should be. I saw her snuggled close under his arm once, and finally decided it just wasn't my business.
That night, after supper when the passengers dispersed to their cabins, the Captain asked Annas, Marie and I to join him on the bridge. He shut the hatch and motioned everyone to find a seat in the crowded space.
"We have a problem. I got a coded message from the Exec, by way of the Canadians. It seems that her sister Jena and someone named Relloc were on the supply shuttle. They're someplace on Earth, now." He looked at Marie. "She says you know her?" Marie nodded.
"I've met her briefly. She's a girl that was one of Doctor Plaksa's patients. Jena was teaching her. Plaksa'd know more than me."
"Good idea. I'll get her." Plaksa arrived a few minutes later, and he read her H'raawl-Hrkh's short message.
"Sorry I took so long. I was talking with the Envoy. I had to find an excuse to come up to the bridge without raising her suspicions. Oh, yes, I know Relloc. And I'm afraid I know why she's here. I just hope Jena's all right."
"She can still communicate telepathically, or whatever you clones do. We'll just have to hope they stay hidden until we can rescue them. Although, a Diyim'yi and M'raeenn will stand out in a crowd. Humans hardly have muzzles, after all." Marie laughed.
"That's half right. I guess we forgot to tell you the best part: Relloc is human, on the outside, anyway." The Captain let slip a choice expletive. Plaksa took up the story.
"And worse than that. Relloc was a trained spy and saboteur. I think somebody sent her for a reason."
We stood together on a crushed shell causeway that ran a straight line east to west. The surrounding swamp was a drowned forest, and Jena looked more like an enormous drowned rat than a lioness. I'm sure my hair was the same way and I knew the ragged piece of parachute silk that was the last item of clothing we had between us was permanently brown. At least the thin hairs on my body shed the mud; no matter how much the resulting film itched. At least, by climbing out onto the road, we had made slight progress toward civilization.
"Which way should we go?" Jena asked, between licks across her furry paw. She still had a faint stain of red blood on her arm from the armadillo she'd killed and eaten. My own stomach still growled: I didn't think I could tear the armored hide of the beast, and Jena was closer to starvation than me. "You made it to Earth, you must have someplace you want to go." She gestured both ways down the road.
"East." We started out. She stayed down on all fours, causing me to look down at her to carry a conversation. "I need to go over to that ocean. That's where my targets are."
"I'm not happy about that idea, you know. These people haven't done anything to you, but they might if you start destroying things." She whipped her tail in disapproval. We'd already gone over this on the long space voyage, and were just re-hashing familiar ground between us. After two weeks discussing it with her I was a lot less sure about the need for my mission, but needed to check and see for myself. I'd spent two years infiltrating the Jaguars; I could afford time to study the humans. But that meant I needed a false identity, money and all the other things that would let me blend in. And, not only did I need to keep Jena on my side long enough to give me the background my briefers couldn't; I also owed it to her. Now she was the alien, trapped on a hostile planet.
The road eventually left the water behind, rising into sandy pine forest with a thin under story of palmettos. As we walked along she pointed out birds, small mammals and types of vegetation. Her ears were cupped and rotated like radar as she padded along and classified the sights and sounds. I mainly swatted bugs. The winter sun got hot enough I started to pull the dress over my head.
"Not so fast girl," Jena observed, speaking softly. "People wear clothes here. Always. It distinguished you from the animals. Like that one, there." She sat back on her haunches and pointed. Standing less than twenty feet away stood a creature, at once familiar and at the same time most alien. It was canine, certainly: as big as a small Diyim'yi, brown and black splotches on white fur, strange ears that hung down loose from its head instead of pointing erect. It sniffed loudly, looking from me to her in puzzlement. It wore a collar.
"What is it?" I whispered. "Is it dangerous?" He let out a whine.
"Dog. Man's best friend. Looks like he wants to be yours, too, but isn't sure he wants to get close enough to me."
"What should I do with it?" I remembered Doctor Plaksa showing me pictures of a radically different canine she'd also called a 'dog.' It had been safe enough to play with children, so maybe this one was harmless.
"He wants to be your friend. Relloc, I want his collar. Speak softly to him and call him to you. I'm going to back away from you. Try saying, 'here boy!'" It took several tries, but each time the dog approached closer. The lioness rumbled as softly as her voice would allow. "That's it. Rub his ears while you unfasten the collar." I fumbled with it with one hand, while I felt his fur with the other. It was thin, more like Jena's than any canine. The collar came loose, and I stopped rubbing. He surprised me when he butted his head under my hand. I looked into his eyes. They were alert and soulful, though empty of intelligence.
"What now?" She approached us again. The dog whined again and pressed his whole body against my legs, shivering, watching her. "Why is he doing that?"
"He expects you to tell him what to do about me. You can chase him off, if you want, or let him stay. You're the person. He's been out here in the woods for a while and he's probably lost, desperate for human company. You qualify."
"Why would any wild animal do that?"
"He's not a wild animal. Dogs are a part of human society, more than I would be. Domestic animals, they call them 'pets.' You'll have to own me, so I need his collar to pretend to be one, and maybe buy a little time to keep me from being shot on sight by some sheriff's deputy." She fastened it loosely around her neck, thumping the medallions hanging from it. "These tags take the place of identification papers for someone like me. They're false, of course, but nobody is going to reach under my chin to check them. Speaking of which, you don't have any identification. What do you plan to do?" This was a concern, one that I used when I tried to argue with my handlers and delay the mission. I figured it would be easy enough to steal what I needed, but I had a problem: I couldn't read their language. Another reason to stay with Jena.
"Well, I guess he can come with us if you think it's all right." I shoved the dog away from my leg. "Make friends, or whatever you are supposed to do. Lets get moving, I don't want to spend the night in this swamp." Jena leaned in and bumped noses with the dog. He whined, but sniffed her carefully. He stuck close to my side, staying between us. The trail began to show signs of approaching civilization: Trash dumps and abandoned cars. We crossed a number of other roads, none looking as promising as this. Finally, rounding a corner, we saw an automobile parked beside a campsite. I ducked down behind some palmettos, while Jena crouched beside me. The dog wandered on ahead, and I was afraid to call him back.
"Did you see anyone," I whispered. Jena shook her head. "I'll take a look around."
"Let me do it. I can circle the camp quietly enough, with the fuss that dog's making. Do you want to introduce yourself to whoever's here?"
"If they're alone. I can probably handle a single human. If I go into the camp, you need to stay hidden." I settled in to watch while she vanished among the palmettos, her dark tan tufted tail occasionally visible above them. For about ten minutes, nothing happened. The dog nosed around some dirty dishes, sniffed the fly of the tent, and relieved himself against a car tire. Silence. Jena appeared once on the far side of the clearing, shook her head negatively. Figuring the camp was empty; I rose up slowly and walked into the clearing.
The car was locked; the tent contained only a dirty bedroll and a pair of pants and boots. I held them against my foot: much too large. I latched box near the fire circle held cooking utensils and a little canned food. I had picked up a can with a picture of meat chunks on the label and a can opener, when Jena coughed. I dropped the can and froze.
Entering the clearing from the opposite end was a large human, a male, I assumed. The dog ran up to him, whining and submissive. The man was rough-featured, weathered and dark from the sun. He wore a dirty white shirt and dark pants, and I saw he had a knife hung from his belt. I watched him warily.
"What you doin' out here, girl? You look a mess, and barefoot, besides." He set a long pole against the car bumper and lowered his string of fish to the ground. He looked me, I eyes tracking from head to feet. I felt I'd been evaluated against some by some unknown standard.
"I was trying to find my animals in the swamp. Lost my shoes, too." I tried a wry smile. He looked at the dog, cuffing it away from his fish.
"Should'a just waited till he came home. Hounds always do, when they get hungry." No need for a girl to risk getting lost over a hound." He looked me over again. "You're lost, aren't you?"
"Not much. Just a little misplaced." We both laughed, me nervously.
"Well, help me get these fish cooked, and I'll give you a ride to town, later. That sound good?" I nodded, relieved. "Get a few more pieces of dry wood, while I start cookin'.
I walked slowly over toward where I hoped Jena was hiding, the trees. She was flattened behind a tree, and whispered while I made as much noise as I could, breaking off branches.
"Be careful, he could be dangerous. I'll stay close." Jena's worries were just that, worries, I thought. I brought an armload of wood back to the fire, where my host was wrapping dressed fish and tubers in metal foil. He took a sip from a dark bottle of liquid, looked at me, paused a bit, and then offered me the bottle.
"I figure you're a bit on the young side, but since there's nothing but swamp water, you'd better have a beer." I took a swallow of the bitter beverage. It was the most awful beer I'd ever had: I hoped it was just the brand, and not some flaw in my human taste buds. As our dinner cooked over the fire, we sat and drank, and I tried to find out more about the area without revealing too much of my own ignorance. He was some kind of market hunter and fisherman, maybe a poacher, selling his catch to local customers. There was some trouble with the authorities, it seemed, and things had been worse lately.
"I expect you saw them soldiers when you walked in," he cleared his throat and spit. "Asked me if I saw a plane crash. Spect their huntin' drug smugglers or sumthin." I must have looked up too quickly, because he stared harder at me. "You saw it? Maybe caught ride with some of them?" He reached over into the cooler, and I tensed, expecting a weapon.
"Hell. None o' my concern! Wanna nuther beer?" We talked about weather and the swamp while we ate our food and drank. When we were done, it was fully dark, and I once or twice saw the glow of Jena's eyes out beyond the fire behind him. He drank steadily and became, more and more loud, cheerful, and in an unsettling way, friendly. He urged me to drink along with him, touched my hand longer than strictly necessary when offering me a refill. Once, standing too suddenly, he tripped and leaned against me. I pushed him off, stepping back from the fire. My head spun as well, and I sat down unexpectedly.
"Yur drunk!," He roared. He wasn't behaving as a good example himself. He made a grab for me, and I fell backwards away from the fire. He leaned in, and I braced against the smell of his breath in my face. A loud growl from close over my shoulder froze him halfway there.
"Migod…" He balanced precariously on all fours above me. "Nice kitty…" It was suddenly unbelievably funny to me, and I convulsed as he tried to back away, pointing at Jena looming behind me. I rolled on one side and smiled at her. Her expression was clear enough to me: disapproval of my behavior, simultaneously trying hard not to laugh at his reaction, in the process. It still showed some healthy fangs.
"You found my cat!" An impish impulse made me reach over and kiss him before I moved back to stand besides her, leaning my weight on her for support. I noticed he was standing in the coals. "You have set fire to your right shoe." I laughed again, and fell over Jena's rump. I think she helped.
With the lioness between us, he rediscovered his manners, and the rest of the night passed without incident. He even offered me the tent and a blanket, while he slept in the car with the doors locked. I didn't offer to explain anything, but he accepted her presence with a muttered remark about 'probably circus folk'.
Next morning, Jena woke me with dawn. She pressed something into my hand, a rifle cartridge. I looked at her, inquiring, and she whispered, "He doesn't know I unloaded it. Lose that one, too. I tossed it into the swamp. Again, she was proving better at tradecraft than me; my opponent, an amateur, had gotten me drunk within hours of meeting, and without her help, would have been able to either overpower me physically, or hold us at gunpoint (or worse.) Again, I owed my life to her at the same time I was exposing her to further risk. So I woke him up and convinced him that the sooner he drove us to town, the sooner my cat and I would be out of his life. But I noticed the rifle stayed beside his door, just inside the car. We started out as soon as it was light enough to drive without headlights.
We turned onto a paved road and he picked up speed. He'd stopped looking back at Jena in the rear seat and was focusing at least half his attention on the road ahead. I was just getting comfortable, when it happened:
We came around a corner into an intersection, where another road turned off to the right. He cursed out load and slammed on the brakes. A green military vehicle blocked the road, while two other cars like the one we were in, but with colored lights on top, were parked to the side. Jena saw the roadblock and roared out in Diyim'yi:
"I'm going to run for the woods! Pretend you're human. Distract them for a few minutes." She reached over him and jerked his door open, knocking him into the road and leaping across his body, accelerating. I jumped out of the car and started screaming, although not as loudly as our poacher friend, who doubtless thought he was about to be eaten. One of the military men started to raise his weapon, and I threw myself on him for 'protection' from the lioness, which ran between the cars, through an open gate across the other road. I had my face buried in the soldier's chest, so I missed the result when his partner fired a burst from an automatic weapon.
I pushed myself away and drew in another breath to scream; only to have one of the civilians yell first.
"Don't shoot the cat! We'll get it with a tranquilizer dart!" Two pneumatic hisses followed by audible 'thud's as the darts smacked into Jena's hindquarter. She took a few more running steps, and collapsed.
It took ten minutes of showing my ID to various and sundry guards, not that anyone bothered to actually read it, before I found Chuck in the basement of the county courthouse in an ad-hoc Emergency Ops Center. Police radios squawked. Soldiers and law enforcement answered phones and wrote on acetate-covered maps with grease pencils. My partner was cursing at his little PDA, trying to hook it into another computer.
"That's not the right plug. You'll short it out again." He dropped the cable with a mild expletive. "What's going on around here?"
"Just enjoying my Florida vacation. Glad you could join us here at the heart of the action. Of course, nothing's going on, you know. That's what I've been telling people all day long, so it must be true." He gave up on the PDA and grabbed his cup. "Let's go get some coffee and I'll fill you in."
Back out through security. Since September, anyone with any kind of government building surrounded themselves with guards and locked doors as if there were thousands of truckloads of disgruntled Arabs cruising around the country, just looking for an assessor's office to destroy. As was always the case, this increased security failed to account for an essential facet of human nature: nicotine addiction. Chuck led me out the unguarded exit the cigarette smokers kept propped open. Once we got away from the rank smoke, the evening air was a warm treat to my midwestern winter-tempered lungs.
"Something crashed back in the swamps yesterday. NORAD thinks it's the foxes. Not from around here, so to speak, although if it had continued another 50 miles east it would have smacked right in the middle of Cape Canaveral. They tracked it using airborne radar, but lost it in the trees before the search teams got there. It's on the ground though, and the army has a cordon around about ten square miles. The good thing is, there aren't but 2-300 people living inside that perimeter, plus the employees of a nature park. I've been talking to anyone who didn't have a good reason to be there all day long. We'll visit the ones with local addresses at their homes tomorrow. Been calling this one a plane crash, no sense making up anything more exotic."
"So we haven't seen any of the aliens? Could they have been killed in the crash?"
"That's what the brass think. We'll probably never know, this one got clamped down so fast. The haul includes a poacher, two drug smugglers who didn't get out of the area soon enough, plus a runaway teenage girl."
"And you said nothing good ever comes out of these 'incidents.' That's probably a good thing about the girl, anyway. Was she hurt?"
"Dirty. Been running a while. Close-lipped, won't say her name, claimed she was looking for her lost cat. Shame of it is, I think she was the only one close enough to the crash enough to have seen if anyone got out. Everyone else won't stop talking about the ball of fire and the boom when it hit, but she doesn't see nothing. I'm hoping a hot meal and shower courtesy of Child Protective Services will change her mind. Maybe you could talk to her tomorrow."
"You think Child Services will make her more willing to talk?"
"You're right," he laughed. "Bring her some cigarettes then." He went back to the EOC and I drove over to check into the motel. The late news showed a graphic of a helicopter crash behind the reporter's shoulder. It looked like this wasn't going to raise much fuss, and would be forgotten in a few days.
Next morning, I drove over to the juvenile center to interview Chuck's runaway. She cleaned up as a pretty girl in her early teens, wearing a donated T-shirt and jeans. She had a wary look, and it was obvious to me she was afraid of questioning. Her file still listed her as 'Jane Doe.'
"I'm not telling you anything. When can I go?" Maybe the cigarettes might have worked. Not much softness here.
"I'm not from Child Services. I don't have anything to do with getting you released. I just want to ask you a few questions. My name is Cindy." She sat, passive. I asked her if she had seen the crash.
Silence. I tried a different approach.
"You told the sheriff you were looking for your cat. Aren't you worried about her?"
"I never said anything about a cat. It must have belonged to that fisherman. He was drinking, I think." She spoke using well-articulated grammar, without contractions or slang. Unusual for a teenager, I wondered about her background. The flicker of concern showed I might be onto something, so I tried again.
"If you lost an animal, it isn't safe out there in the woods alone. There are wild foxes in that swamp. Did you see any?" She flinched.
"I have not seen any foxes. I do not know why you asked me, it was his, and besides, the men with the dart guns took it," she replied. Hmm, a little more concern there. Not a subtle hint, but her denial raised questions. Especially when you were talking about giant foxes. I asked her to describe the men, and it became obvious that they were some kind of game wardens, not one of our Special Ops teams. And that the cat (which wasn't hers, she repeated again,) was at least a concern. She wouldn't say anything else, so I gave her my card and promised to check on the animal. I left her to the tender mercies of the System. When I called Chuck and told him about the interview, he already had a little more information.
"Yeah, the cat." He laughed. "I called them. She was caught with that poacher, out in the back forty of a place called 'AfricaLand Safari Park.'" We're talking about a full-grown lion here, it was lucky it was tame."
"I'll bet. So what was a tame lion doing out there?"
"They find a bunch of new animals that way. This part of Florida is overrun with exotic pets, and dumping near a game park seems to be a popular way to get rid of pets that got too big to keep in the house. They don't recognize it as one of theirs, but they'll keep it as long as it's healthy." A plausible excuse, but I remembered something from last year, an incident he'd probably forgotten.
"Maybe its worth a follow-up interview?"
"Of the girl, or the warden?"
"What about the cat?" I heard him click his teeth.
"Oh. If it's that cat, we'd better get over there before someone gets hurt. Pick me up out front of the EOC."
I woke up feeling groggy, slow and stupid. My tongue was dry and had dirt on it. The air was cool; as was the damp concrete. My crusted eyes opened reluctantly, showing a dimly lit cage, looking through metal bars into a small laboratory. I was alone.
A cough from my left told me otherwise. In the next cage over was a normal lion, a small male with ribs showing. I was afraid for half a second, an atavistic fear from my earlier form. Then I remembered I was bigger (and smarter) than he was, plus it became obvious he wasn't breathing right, when he wheezed as he drew in a bigger sniff of my scent. There weren't any humans around.
"You poor thing," I rumbled in sympathy. It jarred that I now thought of humans as 'them', that I felt as much kinship for this beast as for the apes whose race to which I'd formerly belonged. Loneliness and isolation weighed me down for a few minutes. Gradually, though, I remembered (and felt) the sleeping thoughts of my sister, several hundred miles north. She smiled reassurances in her sleep, and I looked forward to resuming our telepathic closeness, absent during the months we'd been light-years apart. I smiled, too, since I wasn't alone after all. All I needed to do was escape.
Then, having recovered a bit more from the drugs, I examined my cage. There were two doors. One, in the concrete wall, was cat-high, and probably led outside. The other was barred, with a one-inch mesh grill too small for my paws. A sliding bolt that had a small padlock through the eye secured it. The rest of the wall had floor to ceiling bars, four inches apart. Inside were a large water bowl and some straw. With nothing else to do, I scraped the straw into as thick a pad as I could and lay down, waiting for my keepers to return.
The first arrived soon enough, not long after the sunrise coming in through the high, barred windows advertised another day. He was young, early twenties, and wore a safari shirt and shorts uniform.
"Good morning!" He put on a soiled lab coat as soon as he entered the building, greeting us both cheerfully with a steady stream of mindless patter while he worked. I almost answered him once or twice. The other lion moved to the front of his cage in anticipation and resumed pacing, so I copied him, watching.
Our keeper looked us both over briefly, glancing at our water bowls to see if they'd spilled, then prepared breakfast, chopping whole, dead chickens from the refrigerator. He pulled out what looked suspiciously like road-killed deer's haunch, and added some red meat and bones to our bowls. The other lion roared his displeasure at watching someone else handle his food. I watched, starving, but alert for any added medicine. The handler carefully cleaned his workspace, washed his hands and removed the coat before he approached the first lion's cage. Trying to avoid associating his scent with food, I observed approvingly. He unlocked the padlock, and I eagerly watched to see if he opened the door. Instead, this allowed him to release the latch on a smaller access panel through which he slid the bowl. He closed the panel and left the lock hanging open through its eyelet. I waited my turn.
Careful not to crowd too closely to the door, I sat politely until he closed the panel, and then sniffed my food. It was chilled, near frozen, but the chicken was fairly fresh. Still, I grabbed a hold of the piece of deer meat with a length of leg bone protruding, and quickly stripped it of flesh, leaving me a piece about 4 inches long, with a jagged, pointed end. While the keeper was writing on a clipboard with his back towards me, I transferred the bone fragment to my fingers and approached the door, only to drop it and return to my food as someone else opened the outside door.
"Good Morning, Doctor." He greeted the new arrival, an older man.
"Hi, Gavin. How are our new cats this morning." Gavin pointed to the small male.
"He's pretty much our usual case: Malnourished, some atrophy. He definitely has a respiratory problem, like you said yesterday." He pointed to me, next. "This is the female they got at the back gate, of course. She's in excellent condition, healthy, good coat. But Doctor Hammond said there was something wrong with her shape. The hip joints have big straps of muscle in places she shouldn't have them, and the hind legs are much too long. Head is bigger than it ought to be, although she's such a big female, it's hard to tell. Probably is a birth defect. Anyway, he said he wanted to schedule her for x-rays and a scan, if the county hospital will let us."
"Is he coming back in today?"
"No. It'll just be me and you, and I know you were going to be with that pregnant giraffe in the stables."
"Looks like it. She's about to pop." He signed the clipboard. "You've got it. Why don't you hose her off, but lets not get him wet until we find out what that cough is about. See if you can use a long brush through the bars, if she won't fight too much. Don't get her too upset, I might have time to examine her myself, later."
"I won't. Doctor Hammond said she was about as tame as a big cat gets. She didn't even leave a mark on that poacher or the kid, and he'd left her loose in the back seat of the car."
"Sure. That time. You just remember to keep her on the other side of the bars from you. It's too hard to train a new assistant." The doctor left. My keeper, Gavin was apparently his name, opened the outside door to the male's cage, releasing him into the open-air enclosure. Then he gathered up his tools: A bucket of soapy water, a brush on the end of a six-foot pole, and a coiled garden hose. He approached the door, unreeling the hose.
"Here you go, girl. Time to get cleaned up." I folded my ears down, knowing what was coming. I braced for the blast of cold water, and was pleasantly surprised to find it lukewarm. I allowed him to wet me thoroughly, my head against the bars, and the rest of my body perpendicular to it. I kept the bone hidden under my forepaw. It felt good to get the swamp stench out of my fur. Once wet, he went to work with the brush, starting with my head, and, as I'd hoped, working away from the door toward my tail. I waited until he was lathering my rump, guiltily enjoying the massage.
When he had four feet of the pole through the bars, I sprang, roaring at him, causing him to fall backwards to the floor, away from the cage. I stabbed the bone through the grillwork, shoving the lock free to fall on the floor, then rapidly worked the deadbolt aside. I flung the door open and stepped out into the room.
Gavin continued to backpedal on his hands away from my cage, only stopping when his back pressed against the far wall. His mouth was open, but he hadn't managed a scream yet. I considered what to do. I didn't want to hurt him, but I needed to keep him quiet, and it was probably a bad idea to just escape: They were used to dealing with escaped animals here. Maybe it was time to appeal to his better nature. I stood up on my hind legs (using those strange muscular hip joints for their intended purpose) and leaned over the frightened young man.
"Are you going to stay quiet, or do I need to put a gag in your mouth?" He nodded, momentarily stunned to silence. "Good. We're going for a ride, then. Do you have a car?"
"Y..ou…can talk!" I pinned him to the floor with my hind foot gently pressing on his chest.
"Just answer the question. Yes, I can talk. You can't. Just nod or shake your head." He nodded. "Great. Let's get going."
Another male voice spoke from across the room, and I whipped my head around, dropping into a crouch over my hostage.
"Well, that saves us the guesswork. I guess you're not a tame lion, after all." I audibly groaned at the forced Narnia reference. Another would-be literary comedian. Two people had quietly opened the outside door and entered the room while I was busy threatening Gavin. One, the joker, was middle-aged, fifty-ish, balding man loosely holding a pistol. The other, a red-haired woman in her thirties, spoke soothingly.
"We don't want to hurt you. We know where you are from, and we're willing to help get you out of here, if you don't hurt that boy. What's your name?"
I considered just what I had going for me. My hostage wasn't big enough to actually shield me from bullets, and there were certainly enough people with dart guns outside. Maybe this was a good time to give up.
I got luckier than I deserved. Cindy and Chuck, as it developed, had met Chessec before this. H'raawl-Hrkh telepathically confirmed it, so I was more willing to go along with their plans. It seemed that while they were nominally a part of the shadowy government forces that wanted to capture our space flight technology, they were personally opposed to hurting any aliens in the process. After a hurried, softly spoken discussion while Gavin looked on wide-eyed, I agreed to place myself in their hands. I decided to remain silent about Relloc. Chuck announced they would help me rejoin the vixen, shielding me until they could make contact with her.
"We can get you out of here, but we need a place to stash you for the rest of the week. It would raise too much suspicion if we left the search early."
"She could stay at my apartment." Gavin interrupted. He flinched back like he expected me to claw him for speaking after I'd made him stay quiet. I grinned encouragement, and he smiled nervously back. Maybe I showed a few too many teeth. "I could say her original owners claimed her."
"That might work. It would delay the search for a few days, until they couldn't locate whatever false name and address." He gave us directions to his place and a set of keys, and I hid in the trunk of Cindy's rental car. We drove for about half an hour, and she shouted questions and a travelogue through the rear seat cushion all the way to Orlando. Gavin had half of an old duplex north of the University of Central Florida, right near the convention center. She popped the trunk and I peered out while she messed with the keys. Cindy opened the apartment door and stepped in, disappearing from view. She came back to the door and motioned me in, with a big grin on her face. I dashed inside.
"Oh, my." Gavin's apartment was decorated entirely in wildlife, mostly big cats. Every vertical surface was covered with posters, every horizontal one with figurines or plush animals.
"Yes, my exact thought. Oh, my, indeed." She handed me the key. "I wouldn't worry about being discovered. If anyone comes, all you have to do is hold still, and you'll blend right in. I'll leave you to get acquainted with all of them." She left.
I prowled the suite, looking for any other clues to my host's personality. He left few other clues; no family pictures, just a computer and some college textbooks and his - well, it was somewhere between obsession and fetish. I wasn't sure I wanted to know where along that line his interest fell. Girl: what have you gotten yourself into? It didn't help that H'raawl-Hrkh finally had some free time to daydream and commune with me. She wasn't in the slightest bit helpful, suggesting exactly how to greet my little zookeeper when he returned home. And the sad part was, she was probably right. If I played this right, Gavin would give his life on my casual whim. Before I shooed her away, her last thought was half laugh, half pout: 'you get all the fun ones.'
Arguing with my alter ego and devouring all the meat in his refrigerator kept me entertained until Gavin came home. His embarrassed look as he came in the door past an honor guard I'd arranged of plushes made me discard the first three sarcastic jokes I'd carefully prepared in anticipation. He might have cried. Instead, I sprawled on the couch and waited.
"They're a bit much, aren't they," he allowed. If he could have lowered his ears, I'm sure he would have.
"I have a cousin with over a hundred My Little Ponies. She's named them all. I can understand how something like this might creep up on you, and one day you're surrounded by cats. You're lucky: If they were real, they might have devoured you, as little meat as there is in this house. Now don't take this wrong, but do you have any friends? Girlfriends?" I suspected no, but there might be a few dead ones buried in the crawlspace. No, that was cruel. Gavin hadn't given me the impression of being a mass murderer, or anything other than a nice boy.
"A few. Most of us just keep in touch by email or chat. Since we graduated college, we're kind of spread around." He continued with forced bravado. "Not any girlfriends, anymore. Um, I'm not really strictly hetero, to tell the truth. At the present time, no one, but the last one wasn't strictly a her." He spoke with a firmness he hadn't shown to this point, signs that this was either an argument he'd already had, (probably with parents,) or one he'd rehearsed in his head often enough, preparing for the event. Then, challenging, "How about you?"
OK, miss 'too much information,' you asked for that. Remember, you want him to like you after the week is over.
"I deserved that. I really shouldn't have nosed into your personal business. I guess I'd have to say I've got two part-time boyfriends, with an option on a third. Sort of a time-share arrangement, you might say. I haven't been with a human-well, I guess technically my ex was one, but I consider him a worm now." We stared at each other, and he nervously pulled his earring. He gestured across the room.
"Do you want to watch some TV?" I looked at him, then at the TV, then back, as if considering.
"I want to take a long shower. I've got whatever that soap you brushed on me dried against my hide, and it has to come off." Several strange expressions flickered across his face. I let the sentence taper off.
"I'll show you the bathroom." His expression had gone flat with disappointment. All cats like to play with their prey.
"You put it on, and I expect you to scrub it all off."