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Chapter Five

“I think you’ve grown,” Bradford Whitaker said, standing just inside the apartment door.

He was a big man, and he’d put back on at least a little of the weight he’d lost on Sphinx. He’d always struck Anders as being tall, and Anders supposed he was, yet he didn’t seem quite as tall as he had, and Anders realized with something of a shock that he truly had grown in the six and a half T-months his father had been away. Not all that much, perhaps, but enough. Only it wasn’t just physical height, he thought. It was that he was older…and not just by six and a half months.

Anders had already recognized that their near-disastrous excursion into the Sphinxian bush had changed his relationship with his father, but he hadn’t really thought about just how it might have changed. Dr. Whitaker had not showed to advantage dealing with the consequences of their destroyed air van, Dr. Nez’ near death, the forest fire, and the swamp siren which would have killed them all without the treecats’ intervention. He’d retreated into a sort of obsessive behavior in which his decisions had been…suspect, to say the very least, and it was his subordinates—and his son—who’d managed somehow to keep all of them alive until rescue came.

There hadn’t been much time to talk about what had happened before Dr. Whitaker had been jammed aboard the courier boat and sent home to Urako. Frankly, Anders doubted his father had been in any great hurry to talk about it, anyway. He’d probably seen the tiny starship’s cramped isolation as an escape from the way he’d humiliated himself. But Anders knew now that he’d never be able to forget that he’d been right and his father had been wrong. That he, Anders, truly had stepped up and contributed to the expedition’s survival while Dr. Whitaker occupied himself excavating treecat waste dumps and cataloging potsherds.

And yet, as he looked at his father—at the receding brown hair, the complexion which had regained its library pallor since his departure from Sphinx—he realized something else, as well.

He wasn’t angry anymore. He’d been so mad at his father—and, he finally admitted, ashamed of him. Embarrassed by him. His father had failed him, and he’d failed in his academic responsibilities…and in his responsibility for the lives of his team. Kesia had told him even while it was happening that Dr. Whitaker had been suffering from “displacement.” That he’d been so overwhelmed by his own awareness of his ruinous decisions and their consequences that he’d withdrawn into that obsessive concentration on something he understood, something he could convince himself he was actually capable of dealing with. But Anders was his son, and Anders had been failed not simply by the leader of their expedition, but by his father. And that had been the true source of his anger—that sense of betrayal.

But somehow, during Dr. Whitaker’s absence, he’d gotten past it. Not completely, of course. Their relationship would never be the same again, but perhaps it didn’t have to be ruined after all.

“Maybe I have grown…a little,” he conceded after a moment.

“I think you have. But, you know, I think most parents really have a memory of their kids as children, no matter how old they get,” Dr. Whitaker said. “Silly, I know, but here you are, almost seventeen standard, and somehow the mental picture of you I carry around is maybe twelve.” He smiled. It was an odd, almost tentative smile, and he shook his head.

“I brought you a stack of messages from your mom,” he went on in a lighter tone. “I won’t say she’s delighted by the prospect of having you here in the Star Kingdom for at least another eight to ten months, but I told her it was being good for you. In fact, I told her something that she told me it was time I told you, too.”

His voice had turned serious once more and Anders cocked his head, wondering why.

“Told me what, Dad?” he asked.

“How proud of you I am,” Dr. Whitaker said softly.

Anders blinked. He couldn’t help it, and he felt himself staring at his father. He couldn’t help that, either, and to his astonishment, his father met his eyes levelly, his expression as serious as Anders had ever seen it.

“I screwed up, son,” he said. “I made mistakes, I almost got people—including you—killed, and it was all my own stupid fault. And after I’d made the mistakes, I didn’t how to fix them, so I didn’t even try. I let you and Kesia and Calida and Virgil and Dacey deal with them, because…because I didn’t know how to.”

Anders couldn’t have been more surprised if a hexapuma had walked in the door and begun singing “Auld Lang Syne.” He couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard that steady, serious tone from his father. It was obvious Dr. Whitaker didn’t like saying that—admitting that—but he went on unflinchingly.

“I had a lot of time to think about it on the courier boat, and before I went to talk to the Chancellor and the Department Chair and the Faculty Senate. And before I had to face your Mom, too.” His voice changed slightly on the last sentence and he rolled his eyes. “If I’d been tempted to lie to anyone else about it, I knew I’d never be able to fool her. So I didn’t try, and she was just as mad at me as I expected her to be. Especially when she looked at the vids Calida made during the swamp siren’s attack. She was ready to take my head off for putting you in a position like that, but—somewhat to my surprise, actually—she was mad at me for putting myself into it, too.

“But that was when I told her how you’d stepped in to take up the slack. I had to go over my notes, and Calida and Virgil’s, to prepare my report for the Chancellor. That didn’t leave me a lot of room to fool myself, Anders. It’s all there in the record and the vids, even if I wasn’t paying enough attention at the time. So I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the mistakes I made, sorry for the responsibilities I dumped on your shoulders, and sorry for not being the person—the father—you needed me to be. But one thing I’m not at all sorry for.” Dr. Whitaker’s eyes his son’s unflinchingly. “I’m not sorry that you showed me that whatever other mistakes I’ve made along the way, and however much your mom deserves the lion’s share of the credit, between us, we raised a boy who’s turned into a fine young man. One I’m prouder of than I’ll probably ever be able to tell you.”

Anders swallowed hard, feeling his eyes burn. For some reason, his father’s words—the kind of words he’d wanted to hear from him for so long—made him want to break down and bawl.

He wanted to tell his dad that it was all right. That it didn’t matter, since everyone was safe in the end after all. That it was okay. But it wasn’t all right. His father’s apology couldn’t change the past. What had happened, had happened. It couldn’t be undone anymore than a chicken could return to the egg. And even now, he knew his father was still his father. That he was going to be himself again—focused, driven, ambitious—once he got back to work. But maybe if they couldn’t change the past, they could at least change the future. Maybe his dad really had learned something, been humbled by his experiences. He certainly sounded as if he had, and he must have been able to convince the University—and Anders’ mom!—that he had, or he wouldn’t be back here to stay. But there were limits to just how much someone could change, weren’t there?

And would I even want him to really turn into someone else completely? I mean, he is my dad, and despite everything, I really do love him. Anders shook his head mentally. Sure, he’s going to backslide. But not as far—not when he knows how much is on the line if he screws up again and that everyone in the Star Kingdom’s going to be keeping an eye on him! And if he does start screwing up again, this time I’ll have a little something to say to him about it, too.

He looked at his father for another moment or two, then gave him a smile that was only a little lopsided.

“Hey, anybody can screw up,” he said. “Even me, I guess. Maybe not quite that spectacularly, but I’ll probably find a way to do something just about as dumb sooner or later. Heck, I’m your son, aren’t I?”

Dr. Whitaker’s serious, almost somber expression, transformed into a smile and he shook his head.

“Yeah, but you’re your mother’s son, too. Her genetic contribution will probably come to the surface if you start to do something that ‘dumb.’ I sure hope it will, anyway!”

“Me, too,” Anders told him, and then he was wrapping his arms around his father. “Me, too. But it’s good to see you again, Dad. It really is.”

* * *

Anders never knew exactly what his father had to say to the other members of the team. But he spoke to each of them individually, and whatever it was he had to say, it seemed to have worked. There was definitely a different atmosphere, and he thought it was going to be a much better one. Dr. Whitaker was still the senior member of the expedition, still in charge, still had the final decision, but none of the others—and especially not Calida Emberly and Kesia Guyen—were going to accept his orders without question if they disagreed. Not anymore. And that, Anders thought, was probably exactly what his father had needed for years. He’d become too accustomed to the unchallenged authority of his exalted academic position and reputation, but now he’d been brought face-to-face with an awareness of just how bad a mistake he could make…and so had the rest of his team.

The surprising thing was that their new relationships actually seemed to make everybody, including his dad, more comfortable, not less.

“—so Chancellor Warwick made the University’s position very clear,” Dr. Whitaker was saying now, looking at the people seated around the dining table in his and Anders’ apartment for his first working meeting with the entire team. “Calida,” he turned to Dr. Emberly, “you are now officially the team’s executive officer. The Chancellor didn’t go quite as far as saying you have veto authority, but he didn’t leave me with much doubt about whether or not I’m supposed to pay attention to your recommendations.”

He smiled as he said it, and Anders wondered if the rest of the team was as surprised by his father’s attitude as he’d been.

“The Chancellor also made it very clear that if any of you choose to return to Kenichi instead of continuing with this expedition, you’re free to do so and there will be no academic or professional consequences. I told him I was confident all of you would prefer to stay and continue our study of the treecats, but if you’d prefer not to, I’ll understand your decision.”

He paused, as if waiting for someone to jump up and leave immediately, but no one stirred.

“The Chancellor also made it clear that any member of the University faculty will be liable for some pretty severe penalties, tenure or no tenure, if there’s another incident anything like the last one,” he continued, and grimaced. “I expect most of those penalties would probably come down on me, but from what he had to say, I’m confident there’d be enough of them to go around for anyone else responsible for it.”

This time it was the others who smiled—Kesia actually chuckled—and Dr. Whitaker shook his head.

“I’ve delivered Chancellor Warwick’s messages to Dr. Hobbard, and I spoke personally to Minister Vásquez before leaving Manticore for Sphinx. I have a meeting scheduled with Governor Donaldson this evening, as well. And then, of course, I’m going to have to sit down and discuss all of this with Chief Ranger Shelton.” He shook his head again. “I’m not really looking forward to that conversation. Do you think you could get Ms. Harrington and Lionheart to come along and protect me, Anders?”

“I’m afraid not,” Anders said. His father looked at him, and he shrugged. “Stephanie’s on Manticore for the next three months. She’s attending a forestry training program there for the SFS.”

He’d thought his voice had come out perfectly naturally. From the flicker in Dr. Whitaker’s eyes, he’d been wrong.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” his father said after a moment, looking directly at him.

“It was a surprise for all of us,” Calida said. “Frankly, I’m not sure it’s a wonderful idea to take Lionheart into such a radically different environment, but none of the people involved in the decision asked my opinion. And even if they had, I don’t know if Stephanie had any alternative but to take him with her.”

“I don’t think she did,” Calida’s mother put in. “At least, neither she nor Lionheart thought she did! And it’s not as if we’ve been left without any ambassador to treecats. There’s always young Jessica, you know.”

“Jessica?” Dr. Whitaker repeated a bit blankly.

“Jessica Pheriss, Dad,” Anders said. “Stephanie’s best friend. She got hurt fighting the fire and wound up paired with a treecat of her own, remember?”

“Tall girl—red hair?” Dr. Whitaker said after a moment.

“More auburn than red, but that’s her.”

For some reason, Anders was a little nettled by the vagueness of his father’s memory.

Well, of course I am, he thought as he recognized the reason. Jessica was a big part of saving our butts, and Dad was so far gone I don’t think he even noticed she was there!

“I do remember her,” Dr. Whitaker said. “She was with Ms. Harrington and young Zivonik and the others in the forest fire, wasn’t she?”

“Yes, she was,” Anders confirmed, pleased to discover that his father had noticed his rescuers.

“Well, if she’s half as knowledgeable about treecats as Ms. Harrington was—and if she’s willing to work with us—I’m sure she could be a very valuable asset,” Dr. Whitaker went on. “And, in addition, Minister Vásquez made it abundantly clear that she wants at least one SFS ranger assigned as a full-time member of our team. I’d really like to object, but, unfortunately, I’m not in much of a position to do that. And there is a good side to it.” Dr. Whitaker rubbed his hands together cheerfully. “If he’s assigned as a full-time team member, we should be able to get a decent priority from the Rangers when we need to go into the bush!”

Now that, Anders thought, sounded like the Dr. Whitaker he knew. He was a little surprised by how much the thought amused him.

“What about these other xeno-anthropologists, Bradford?” Langston Nez asked. “How are they going to fit into the picture?”

“That’s difficult to say at the moment.” Dr. Whitaker scowled. “What Dr. Hobbard was able to show me about their credentials looked…reasonably good.” He flipped one hand back and forth in a waving away gesture. “I wouldn’t say any of them are absolutely top-drawer, but they all seem competent enough. And unlike that cretin Bolgeo, they’re all from reputable institutions. Really from them, I mean. They were pre-vetted by the Adair Institute before they were ever proposed, and Dr. Hobbard and Minister Vásquez have double and triple-checked the documentation this time! Unfortunately, I’m still not very clear on exactly what it is they hope to accomplish.”

“I did a little research on the data net after we got your message, Doctor,” Calida Emberly said. “The Adair Institute has an excellent reputation. It was established in the first decade or so of the colony here and it’s been dedicated to researching the biospheres of all three habitable planets ever since. According to its site, its primary emphasis up to this point has been on Manticore, rather than Sphinx or Gryphon, which makes a sort of sense. There are a lot more people on Manticore, and their footprint’s already a lot bigger there. I think we can safely say that the Institute’s priorities shifted just a bit when the possibility that Sphinx has a native sentient species hit the boards, though.”

“Yes, well whether or not the treecats are truly sentiment—demonstrably and provably, I mean—remains to be seen,” Dr. Whitaker said. “I hope these people are going to keep an open mind about that instead of slanting their findings to suit their sponsors! But from what you’re saying, at least they’re unlikely to want to rush in and contaminate our contacts with the treecats or start anthropomorphizing them with all sorts of untrained preconceptions. Unlike some other people.”

Anders started to protest the obvious shot at the Forestry Service’s handling of the human-treecat situation—and probably Stephanie, too—but stepped on the temptation. Whatever else might have changed, Dr. Whitaker was still a xeno-anthropologist. He would have been far happier if the Star Kingdom’s authorities had declared the entire planet a nature preserve and decreed that no one—no one at all…except, of course, for him and his team—could have any contact whatsoever with the treecats until he’d completed his study of them. Which probably wouldn’t take longer than, oh, twenty or thirty T-years.

If he rushed himself, that was.

“Well, we’ll just have to see how all of that works out,” Dr. Whitaker continued. “Dr. Hobbard tells me that we probably have a T-month or so before they begin arriving, and I’d really like to have our new relationship with the SFS worked out before we have to start integrating them into our team’s schedule. So, bearing that in mind, Calida, what I’d like to do tonight is—”

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