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Doctor William Howe of the Science Directorate of the Republic of Cinnabar has come to Api to collect samples of the local fauna. To do so, he’ll need to hire local hunters. But he’ll soon find that navigating the backward politics of the Api natives is every bit as dangerous as going out on the hunt.

The Savage

David Drake

Api was the Goliath’s fourth landing. Doctor William Howe was sequencing biological polymers from the survey ship’s previous planets while his assistant, Tech 4 Ramboul, prepared further specimens.

The intercom beeped and flashed. Ramboul pushed accept with her good hand and said, “Lab, go ahead.”

Top, this is Pesly in the boarding hold,” the guard said over the speaker. “We got a local hunter wants to see Doctor Howe.”

“Well, he can bloody well cool his heels on shore for an hour till I come down and fetch him!” Ramboul snarled. “The Doc told ’em to report at midday. Even an Ape oughta be able to figure out local noon, don’t ye think?”

She, not he,” the guard said. “And she says she just arrived from Obelia Village so she hasn’t been signed on yet.”

“Hold one,” Ramboul said, muting the intercom as she turned to Howe with an eyebrow raised in question. “Doc, we got all three the mayor was supposed to send us, don’t we?”

“Yes,” Howe said, “though they don’t impress me greatly. And I didn’t think women on Api were allowed to hunt anyway.”

“Well, what d’ye want me to do, Doc?” Ramboul said.

“Bring her up and we’ll take a look at her,” Howe said, deciding as he spoke. “She can’t be much worse than the three we have.”

“I’m coming down, Pesly,” Ramboul said to the intercom and strode out of the compartment.

Natives were only allowed aboard the Goliath under escort. Api Village had seen a considerable amount of interstellar traffic over the past fifty years, so the regulation wasn’t as necessary as it might have been other places. There were planets where trading vessels had been captured and the crews eaten, but on Api the risks were limited to petty theft and the likelihood that locals would relieve themselves in the corridors. Sure, spacers could be mugged or knifed in the waterfront strip, but that was true in every port in human creation.

Api Village had a north-facing roadstead rather than a proper harbor, but the storms came from the south and virtually all of the planet’s star traffic landed here. The locals were used to off-planet visitors and many of the buildings in Api Village had artifacts of civilization—electric lights were more common than not—but the houses were still hovels inhabited by savages.

The Goliath’s spacers generally referred to the Apian natives as Apes. Howe regarded that as uncultured, but he understood the reason.

Howe finished logging the specimen he’d just processed, a four-legged invertebrate from Powell, the ship’s second landfall. Instead of starting another sequence, he decided to wait for Ramboul to appear with the local.

Ramboul had a permanently stiff left arm. She’d been transferred to the Goliath because she could no longer carry out normal power room duties.

Howe was extremely lucky to get her for his assistant. She knew little about biology, but she worked to extreme precision and she knew the Republic of Cinnabar Navy inside and out. Every member of the Goliath’s crew respected her. Howe’s nominal rank as a warrant officer received only cursory notice, and his civilian doctorate got none at all.

When they’d met, Howe had asked Ramboul how she’d injured her arm. She’d replied, “I did something dumb,” in a tone that didn’t encourage follow-up questions. Howe had learned that many subjects were RCN business that outsiders had best keep their noses out of—even if they happened to be sailing on a ship chartered from the RCN by the Science Directorate of the Republic of Cinnabar.

Through quiet inquiries from others on the Goliath, Howe had learned that whatever “something dumb” was, it had won Ramboul an RCN Star.

The hatch reopened and Ramboul gestured a local through. “Her name’s Joss,” Ramboul said. “She says she’s been a scout and she wants to hunt for you.”

The blond woman had the height and pale coloring of the locals, but the shorts she wore under an Apian singlet were the cut and gray-green color of Alliance uniforms. The left side of her face and scalp were badly scarred; she must have been lucky not to lose the eye on that side. Her hair beyond the scarring was a close-cropped blond. Most of her visible skin was tattooed in red, yellow and bright blue, quite different from the blue-black swirls and striations of many male Apians.

Joss wore a belt knife. The sheath seemed to be lizardskin. The hilt was that of an Alliance utility knife, though the blade must have been shortened to about 5” to fit the present sheath.

“A scout?” Howe said. “What kind of scout?”

Joss looked him over. He had the sudden feeling of being a specimen for preparation. She said, “I left Api when I was fifteen, crewed a freighter to Claiborne. There was a recruiter on Claiborne and I joined the Forces. I got assigned to Heyer’s Commando and got to be a scout. When we were paid off at the end of the war, I came back to Api. I’m tired of sitting on my butt here, though.”

“We’re hiring locals to hunt for us because they know the ground,” Ramboul said, still standing near the hatch. Joss had approached within six feet of Howe and stood in a formally stiff posture. “On your telling it, you haven’t been back here till a year or two ago.”

Joss turned her head. “I learned to size up terrain fast,” she said in a tone that made Howe glad she was no longer looking at him. “That’s why I’m still alive. Even then it was close a couple times.”

She touched the left side of her head, where the ear should have been. She turned back to Howe and said, “Look, you tell me what you want collected and I’ll collect it for you, prep it however you want, and I’ll do whatever else you decide you need. I’ve got plenty of money. I just want a job!”

“What do you mean you’ve got money?” Howe said, leaning forward slightly. He was still seated at the console where he’d been working before Ramboul returned with the local.

Joss reached under her singlet and into a belt pouch that balanced her knife. She stepped forward, holding out a credit chip. “Here, take a look,” she said.

Howe’s console had a standard socket though he’d never had occasion to use it. He inserted the chip and frowned at the data it threw up. “This says you’ve got seven thousand thalers,” he said in amazement. That was more money than he had in his own account.

“There wasn’t much to spend money on most of the places we were sent,” Joss said. “And a couple times there were bonuses for special jobs.”

Howe started to ask what Joss meant by “special jobs,” then glanced at her face and decided not to. He cleared his throat and said instead, “Do you have a gun?”

Joss shook her head. “Women aren’t allowed to hunt on Api,” she said. “God doesn’t want that, you know? You get out in the boonies some and the priests mostly won’t make problems, but I couldn’t bring a gun into Api Village even if I had one. In the Forces nobody cared I was a woman, just if I could do my job. I can.”

Ramboul said, “Doc, I guess I can find some clapped out thing that the armorer don’t care if it drops into the sea. There’s a platform on the port outrigger they use for target shooting, so we can try her there if you want.”

“Yes, all right,” Howe said. “I’ll take Joss to the platform and you’ll meet us with a gun.”

He was out of familiar territory on this, but he was sure that Ramboul could square things with the ship authorities if anyone asked questions.

Access to the starboard outrigger was through the boarding hold on Level Six. To reach the port outrigger, a hatch on Level Four opened onto a ladder—a staircase, to Howe’s civilian mind—slanting down one of the telescoping supports.

There was no railing and the “non-skid” steel treads were worn enough to be slippery. It didn’t seem to bother Joss. Howe wished he could say the same, but he made it without a problem.

The platform was just a flat ten feet wide and fifty feet long molded in the upper surface of the outrigger. There was no railing there either, but at least it wasn’t sloping. Ramboul hadn’t appeared yet. To fill the time in some way other than by looking at a woman who made him uncomfortable, Howe said, “Do many of your villagers go off on ships, Joss?”

She shrugged. “I knew a few who had,” she said, “but not many, no. I left because I’d been raped by an upper-class guy. My old man was just a fisherman even before he didn’t come back after a storm, so I couldn’t make the guy marry me.”

She shrugged and said, “You know how it goes. I guess it’s about the same on Cinnabar, once you get under the surface. We were based on Pleasaunce for a couple months, and I met plenty of girls who’d got the same hand dealt ’em but hadn’t had the luck to sign on with Heyer.”

“I’m sorry for what happened to you,” Howe said. “And I can’t speak to Pleasaunce and other Alliance worlds, but we’re more civilized than that on Cinnabar.”

His tone made the words more of a challenge than he’d intended. Joss looked at him. After a moment she said, “Glad to hear that,” and looked away. There was no emotion in her voice.

Howe didn’t try to continue the conversation, though it was a couple minutes more before Ramboul came down the ladder. He had an uncomfortable suspicion that Joss was right about life on the bottom layer of Xenos society. He found lower animals much easier to deal with; especially after they’d been prepared for genetic sequencing.

Ramboul joined them, holding a carbine in her good hand. She held it out to Joss, saying, “Here. What d’ye think of this?”

“I think it’s a clapped-out turd,” Joss said, ejecting the loading tube to check it, then slamming it home again. “I’ve used worse. What do you want shot?”

“There’s a buoy out there marking the shoal,” Ramboul said, pointing out to sea with her stiff arm. “Can you hit it?”

The orange buoy was about a hundred yards from the platform. Joss put the carbine to her shoulder. The double crack startled Howe, the muzzle blast itself and its reflection from the ship’s hull behind him. A puff of aluminum vaporized by the powerful magnetic flux spurted from the muzzle, flashing iridescently even in the sunlight.

Nothing happened to the buoy. Howe said, “Did you hit it?”

“Naw, look at the splash out there,” Joss said, the carbine still mounted on her shoulder. “This piece of crap holds way left.”

Howe hadn’t seen the splash.

She shot three more times. The buoy didn’t move that Howe could tell, but he heard the structural plastic plick after each shot. He couldn’t be sure because the water was slightly choppy, but he thought ripples spread around the buoy from a vibration that he couldn’t see.

Joss’ trigger finger moved again, but there was no shot. She lowered the carbine and ejected the loading tube, then spun the tube a half turn and replaced it. She shouldered the weapon again. This time it fired. She hit the buoy again.

“The contacts need cleaning,” Joss said. “Or more likely, replacing.”

She offered the carbine to Ramboul, who took it at the balance.

“Doc?” Ramboul said. “I think we hire her, right?”

“Yes,” Howe said. “I think we do. Joss, come with me and we’ll see if the hunters Mayor Glanz picked for us have arrived yet.”

It was past midday. If one of the male hunters hadn’t arrived, Howe wouldn’t have to choose a fourth island to drop a collector on.

A spacer stood at the hatch of the briefing room down the corridor from the lab, and two Apians sat uncomfortably within. The chairs were pressed steel and fixed to the floor; so far as Howe was concerned, “uncomfortably” was the only way you could sit on them.

Ramboul nodded to the escorting spacer, then entered ahead of Joss and Howe. “There’s supposed to be three of you,” she said. “Where’s the third guy?”

“Mewhel was drinking last night,” one of the hunters said. They were both tall and pale. Their right forearms were heavily tattooed, and one had some tattooing on that upper arm also. “He’ll be ready when you pick us up tomorrow.”

“No, he won’t,” Howe said. “Ramboul, call the hatch and tell the guards to bar Mewhel if he shows up. Confiscate the ID chit I gave him yesterday.”

The technician stepped to the intercom built into the desk at the front of the room and keyed it. While she spoke into the intercom, Howe said to the male hunters, “I’m assigning Site Three to Joss here.” He nodded to the woman beside him.

“She’s a woman!” a hunter said.

“That’s an abomination!” said the man with upper arm tattoos as he jumped up from his chair. “The gods won’t permit it!”

“We’re Cinnabar citizens,” Howe said, wondering what he’d do if the fellow attacked him. The Apians were all taller than the norm for Cinnabar, and both these looked fitter than Howe was after spending his adult life in laboratories.

Joss stepped in front of Howe. “You’re Biron, aren’t you?” she said.

The male hunter really looked at Joss for the first time. “Biron’s my brother,” he said in a quieter tone than that of his initial outburst. “He’s Mayor Glanz’s bodyguard. I’m Newer. But how do you know us?”

“You’ve got the same eyes,” Joss said. “I didn’t know your brother well, but he was toadying up to Glanz back then too. Biron’s his bodyguard now? I’m not surprised.”

The exchange, mild though it was, disconcerted Newer; he said back down with a puzzled expression. The other male hunter said, “She shouldn’t hunt, I don’t care where she’s from. It’s taboo.”

“Apian taboos don’t apply to us,” Howe said. “Now, do you two want the job, or do I have to find a couple more replacements?”

“It’s not right, but that’s the priest’s business,” the man said after a moment. “I’ll be here tomorrow, two hours after dawn.”

“She’ll be on a different island,” Newer said. “That’s none of my business. But when the priest learns, he’ll stop you.”

“Then you two are dismissed,” Howe said to the male hunters. “Till tomorrow or till your gods come down and talk to me. Joss—”

He turned toward her.

“—stay for a minute and I’ll run you through the equipment. The other two got the orientation yesterday.”

“Take ’em down to the hatch, Terry,” Ramboul said to the escorting spacer. “I’ll get the other one myself when it’s time.”

The male hunters didn’t speak again, but they glanced over their shoulders as they turned down the corridor with the escort. Joss watched them.

Howe was using a compartment near the main hatch for storage. He was sure he could have found it—almost sure—but he let Ramboul lead anyway. The Goliath had been built as a light cruiser. Much of the ship’s armament had been landed for this mission, but there were still miles of corridors that Howe had no reason to explore. The cross branchings confused him.

Ramboul opened the compartment and switched on the lights, then stepped aside for Howe and Joss to enter. The gear was already divided into three tarpaulin-wrapped bundles. Howe started to open the nearest.

Joss frowned. “How far am I going to haul this load?” she said.

“An aircar will carry you and the gear to the site and drop you off,” Howe said. “You don’t have to carry it at all unless you want to move to what you decide is a better location.”

He pursed his lips and added, “You’ll have to make your own shelter. There isn’t a tent in this lot.”

Joss shrugged. “I’ll want a bigger knife than I brought,” she said. “I guess I can pick up something on the Strip. I didn’t want to try to board carrying something real until you guys knew me.”

“Golightly in the power room bought a panga on Hedwall’s Planet, just for a souvenir,” Ramboul said from the doorway. “It’s pretty stout. I guess he’d let you borrow it if he was sure he’d get it back.”

“He’ll get it if I’m alive to give it to him,” Joss said. “Look, he can hold however many thalers he sets for the value until I come back with it.”

“That’ll work,” said Ramboul. “Doc? I’ll go talk to him right now if you’re all right watching her—” she nodded to Joss “—for fifteen minutes?”

“Yes, all right,” Howe said. “We’ll go back to the lab when we’re finished here.”

As Ramboul scurried off, Howe returned to the opened bundle. “There is netting of three weights,” he said. “We don’t know what will be available on the site where you’ll be collecting.”

“What is it you want?” Joss said.

“One of every species you can find,” Howe said. “There are bottles of preservative and trays to dope the specimens on. Brief contact with the preservative won’t hurt you. Though you don’t want to drink it, of course.”

Joss laughed. “Chances are I’ve drunk worse a time or two,” she said. “But I promise not to waste your preservative.”

“There’s also a camera for shots of living animals,” Howe said, showing Joss the short tube. “Sometimes you might be able to get an image when you couldn’t get the creature itself. You point it at the animal and press down on the red spot. If you hold it down, it keeps recording.”

Joss examined the camera. To Howe’s surprise, she rotated the ends of the tube in opposite directions, releasing the memory chip. She locked it back in and said, “You got a spare chip for backup?”

Howe started to protest that the chip would hold thirty hours of continuous recording and that the camera backed up automatically to the Goliath. After thinking he said, “Yes, I’ll get you one when we get back to the lab.”

None of the native hunters he’d hired on other planets had used their cameras correctly. Indeed, most of them hadn’t fathomed the intricacies of daubing the specimens with preservative before putting them in collection boxes. Fortunately, genetic material didn’t degrade much in the two weeks or so the hunters were out in the field, but unless they were frozen, many of the specimens would be useless for rechecking by the time the Goliath had returned to Xenos.

This hunter seemed to be different. Regardless, there was no reason not to give her a backup if she wanted one. Chips did fail.

Joss tapped the bundle’s thick bottom layer. “These look like ration packs,” she said.

“Yes, enough to feed you for a month,” Howe said, “though you’ll only be out for two weeks. You’re welcome to supplement with locally available food, but I can tell you that Site Three isn’t near any villages. Ah, I know that dehydrated rations aren’t to everyone’s taste, but—”

“Hey, Doc,” Joss said. “I like ’em fine. I’ve been missing them since I came back to Api. I probably could’ve found ’em in the strip in Api Village, but not in Obelia. I’m used to Forces issue, but I don’t guess what the RCN’s got is going to be a lot different.”

“Well, that’s fortunate,” Howe said. Truly, this woman was a fascinating bundle of surprises. “Well, let’s go up to the lab and see if Ramboul has found you a knife.”

Howe wasn’t any judge of knives, but this panga—he would’ve called it a machete—seemed quite serviceable. It had no frills, but the bright copper rivets securing the grip to the steel made an attractive contrast to the dark wood. The flat-backed blade swelled near the short point.

Joss was delighted with it, and she probably was a judge. She started to open the ration pack she’d brought from the supply room, then paused and said, “Sir? Is it all right to eat in your lab?”

It probably didn’t matter, but now that Joss had raised the question Howe said, “Use my office,” and pointed to the room at the back of the lab. She obediently went into it and half-closed the door.

Ramboul nodded at the office and said in a low voice, “We got a good one there, Doc.”

“It certainly seems that way,” Howe agreed, but it brought something to mind that he’d meant to look up but hadn’t gotten around to.

His console was connected to the ship’s RCN database, including information that a civilian vessel might not have had. He found Heyer’s Commando. Before he could begin to read the description, Ramboul called, “Hello, Penn. What have you got for us this afternoon?”

Howe closed the console’s screen and looked up. In the doorway stood a spacer and, behind him, four civilians he was escorting.

“The old guy says he’s the Cinnabar consul in Api,” the spacer said. “The Apes in pretty uniforms are the mayor of this pigsty and his son. Also their bodyguard, God save the mark. He’s right peeved they took his gun away from him down in the hold.”

“The bodyguard stays in the corridor,” Ramboul said before Howe could speak. “The others can come in if they’re polite.”

The older man had bushy gray whiskers, a bad complexion, and a nose red with broken veins. He was dressed in a worn utility suit of offworld manufacture.

“I’m Yves Fancett, consular agent for Cinnabar in Api,” he said, extending his hand across the steel desk. “I’m here to explain your mistake about hiring a female hunter, Master Howe. It’s a natural error for a man who hasn’t lived out here on the fringes.”

Howe didn’t take the hand. He said, “It’s Doctor Howe. Or Professor Howe, if you prefer to use my rank at the University of Florentine. And the hunter you refer to, Mistress Joss, is definitely the pick of the choices available on Api. Much better qualified than the men Mayor Glanz offered me.”

He nodded without warmth to Glanz. The mayor was as tall as most Apians and also unusually heavy. Though he was barefoot, he wore a jacket and trousers of blue offworld cloth with gold braid and a number of dangling medals.

The boy of seven or so wore a similar uniform. He was already running to fat like his father.

“Well, I’m not here to fight about titles, Professor,” Fancett said, retracting his arm. Despite the words, he was squinting with anger. “I just needed to tell you that you can’t violate taboo by hiring a woman to hunt for you on Api. Now that you understand that, Mayor Glanz and I—”

“We understand that no Ape can tell the RCN what to do!” Ramboul said. “And you, Fancett, you’re not even from Cinnabar. I looked you up and you’re from Pleasaunce!”

“We no Apes!” the seven-year-old shouted. “We Friend of the Alliance and my daddy has a letter on the wall of the house saying we friends!”

“Irregardless of where I was born, I am the Cinnabar consular agent,” Fancett said. “I cannot allow you to harm the interests of the Republic by violating local taboo!”

“Take it up with my superiors in Xenos,” Howe said. “If you’re ever there.”

“Yeah, and that’s in Navy House, not those twaddle-talking nobodies in Foreign Affairs!” Ramboul said. “Look, Doc, you want me to get rid of this shower?”

Though she worded it as a question, Ramboul had grabbed the mayor’s right wrist before Howe had a chance to reply. Though Glanz was a much bigger man, she twisted his arm up behind his back with no apparent difficulty. He squealed.

“You let go my daddy!” the child cried and kicked Ramboul’s shin.

She clipped him on the ear with the back of her left hand, sending him into the wall. Obviously, the stiff elbow hadn’t caused her arm muscles to atrophy.

The bodyguard started in from the hall but shouted and stumbled onto his knees when Penn, the escort, kidney-punched him. Ramboul manhandled Glanz into the corridor. The mayor was whimpering with pain.

Fancett scuttled through the doorway and was immediately grabbed by a pair of spacers who’d come from farther down the hall, summoned by the commotion. “I’m leaving!” Fancett shouted. “Don’t hit me, I’m leaving.”

Ramboul pushed the mayor against the far wall and stepped back, breathing hard. She swallowed and said, “That all right, Doc?”

“That’s fine, just get them off the ship,” Howe said. He was breathing hard too and hadn’t even gotten out of his chair. “And take the boy!”

He’d half-considered sending the mayor’s son to the ship’s infirmary, but the child was back on his feet and seemed to be all right except for bawling his head off. “Take him now, for Hell’s sake!”

Ramboul looked at the three spacers in the hallway. “You guys all right with that or do you want me to get some more help?”

The spacers exchanged glances. Penn, the original escort, said, “We’re fine, Top. We’ll take your garbage out.”

The group, spacers behind locals, started for the companionway. Howe felt suddenly weak.

Joss came out of Howe’s office. She’d thrust the sheathed panga under the belt of her shorts. She glanced around the room appraisingly.

Ramboul stepped back in. “Can you imagine the nerve of them wogs?” she said. “And too bloody dumb to know that we was RCN, not from the Alliance!”

“Technician, your language,” Howe said quietly, glancing toward Joss.

The hunter shrugged. “When she says something I don’t agree with, we’ll talk about it,” she said. “Sir? Thanks for the meal. I’ll be back at 0800 for deployment.”

“Ah, Mistress?” Howe said. “Feelings in Api village may be running high at the moment. I’m sure we could find you a berth on the Goliath for tonight.”

He glanced at Ramboul in case he was wrong. Worst case, it might be in the Master at Arms brig.

Joss barked out a surprising laugh. “You think I’m afraid of that lot, sir?” she said. “Bloody hell, I dropped with Heyer!”

She went out of the door. “I better go along,” Ramboul said, following. “For the regulations.”

Howe stood and walked to the doorway, just to be moving. He closed the door before he returned to his desk. Then, because he was there, he resumed reading about Heyer’s Commando.

* * *

Howe didn’t bother going down to the boarding hold to see the hunters off, but he devoted a corner of his display to the scene. The truck—a large-box aircar—pulled out of its storage bay on the port side and loudly circled the nose of the ship to the landing stage on the starboard outrigger.

Api had no permanent port facilities. The ship’s floating walkway ran from the boarding ramp to the mud shore, where stakes anchored it. That was adequate for pedestrian traffic, but the heavy bundles of stores were more easily loaded on shipboard.

The two spacers on guard in a tarpaulin shelter on shore got up from their lounge chairs. When the truck set down on the landing, they waved to the waiting hunters. The two men had come with groups of half a dozen other locals each; wives and families, Howe assumed.

A pair of women tried to accompany Newer up the ramp: the tattoos marked him even in the reduced image on Howe’s screen. The spacers sent them back. When one woman began to protest, a guard jabbed her with the muzzle of her submachine gun.

Joss had been standing a little apart from the male hunters. She followed Newer.

The thin bindle Joss wore diagonally from her left shoulder was from its color an Alliance Forces groundsheet. She didn’t have a gun as the men did, though Howe couldn’t tell whether their weapons were chemical or electromotive. As Joss boarded the truck on the landing stage, Ramboul handed her the carbine she’d used the day before.

Ramboul stood on the tailgate to check the cargo, then jumped off and waved her stiff arm to the driver. The truck’s fans revved, vaguely audible even in Howe’s lab. The vehicle swooped down, raising a rainbow spray from the shallow water. It moved shoreward, gathering speed and steadying its course. When it reached the muddy margin, it began to rise. It curved around Api village and was comfortably above the trees on the other side where it disappeared.

Ramboul came into the lab a few minutes later. Howe paused in preparing to send the next sample—a swimming vertebrate from Alexis—into the sequencer. Ramboul nodded and said, “Everything went fine. Janachek’s driving and he’ll call if there’s a problem with the insertions.”

“Joss and the men getting along in the truck?” Howe asked.

“So far, at least,” Ramboul said, shrugging.

“I looked up the unit Joss said she was with,” Howe said. “Heyer’s Commando. They were a special operations unit. They were partly recruited from noncitizen mercenaries, but partly from Alliance criminals. Of course, being a criminal in the Alliance might just mean one of Guarantor Porra’s cronies wanted your wife.”

“Ah,” said Ramboul, nodding. “What the Alliance calls Penal Battalions. They got sent where it looked like a lot of ’em weren’t going to come back. And also—” she pursed her lips “—they did internal security jobs. Where a subject planet started getting uppity, that sort of thing. Jobs that citizens might, you know . . . might not be willing to do.”

“Well, I don’t suppose it matters,” Howe said. It bothered him, though.

The truck made it back in the early evening. Janachek said that the three hunters had been dropped off without incident.

Shortly before local midnight, the Goliath lifted. It would spend the next two weeks recording data on insertions into sponge space. Howe and Ramboul remained aboard, doing the same testing they’d been doing on Api. When the ship returned, they would begin processing animals from Api as well.

Telemetry from the hunters’ beacons began to come in before the returning Goliath had settled onto her anchorage in the Api roadstead, but Howe didn’t bother to examine the data until the thrusters had shut off. The plasma exhaust played hell across the RF spectrum. Even though his console’s software could correct most signals, he wasn’t in such a hurry that waiting five minutes was going to matter.

Besides, Howe was still recovering from the Goliath’s extraction into sidereal space above Api. The left side of his body tingled as though it had gotten a bad shock, though standing up and walking to the end of the lab and back helped a lot.

“I’m going down to see the truck off,” Ramboul said. “Hell, I thought I might ride along. You want to come, Doc? There’s nothing on Api bigger ’n forty pounds, so there ought to be plenty of room in the truck box. Well, except for fish, I guess.”

“I’ll pass,” Howe said, “but I’ll clear more space in the lab freezer while you’re out.” He glanced at the telemetry again and added, “All three beacons are coming in strong and from right where they ought to be.”

That didn’t prove the hunters were alive or even that something hadn’t carried off everything in the camps except for the frame holding the cube of ration packs. The beacon was built into the bottom of the frame, which seemed a better solution than counting on local hunters to keep track of a separate item.

“Well, I’ll see you around nightfall,” Ramboul called as she started down the corridor.

Hatches opened and spacers called to one another. The ship was coming alive after a voyage that had been more unpleasant than its fifteen-day duration. The Goliath’s primary task was to survey routes through sponge space in a region where the RCN had few charts. This was well within Alliance territory. Until the Peace of Trier two years before, it had been out of bounds for Cinnabar vessels.

Howe went back to the telemetry data, pinging the hunters’ sites one at a time. Apart from transmitting the location, the beacons stored images from the issued cameras.

If there were any images, of course.

Howe started with Site One, which had been assigned to Newer. The camera had taken only one shot and that was probably an accident: it showed Newer’s left leg from the knee down and a patch of leaf litter. The mushrooms on the fallen leaves might be of interest. That was pretty much what Howe had learned to expect from the locals.

Suse, the hunter at Site Two, had photographed nearly a hundred specimens. He seemed to be particularly good on grubs and worms.

All were in collecting boxes, however: the notion of getting images of animals in their natural settings hadn’t penetrated. Howe decided to give Suse a bonus anyway.

He proceeded to the data from Site Three and whistled. There were more images than he could even guess at before he checked the counter—612. On most of them Howe couldn’t be sure of the subject without enlarging the image, but when he checked two at random he found a living animal—a tiny hexapod on a tree-trunk and a scale-winged bird in flight—nicely centered.

A short sequence from ten days ago puzzled him initially. The first was of a mist-net strung six feet in the air between a pair of smooth-barked trees. Joss had slanted the shot along the line of the net so that the morning sun picked up the shimmer of the fine meshes.

The second shot was the same net, also in the morning—but with large holes torn in the fabric. The third was a replacement net—there were twenty-yard rolls of all three weights of netting in the hunters’ bundles—stretched across the same flyway. A long-tailed, short-legged quadruped dangled in it. Howe enlarged the image to get a better view of the net-robber’s head, but that didn’t help much. A carbine slug had almost decapitated the animal.

Howe was still going over the Site Three images when the intercom beeped. Ramboul said, “Doc, we’re in the boarding hold. Do you want to see the specimens before the hunters go ashore?

“I surely do!” Howe said. “I’m coming right down.”

Howe made very good time—for him—despite initially getting out of the companionway on Level Two and having to climb back to Three where the boarding hold opened. He was out of breath when he got there.

A squad of spacers was unloading the truck onto a cargo net. A crane and winch would lift the load to an external hatch on Level Six where the laboratory was, saving the work of hauling the tubs up the helical stairs of the companionways. Starships didn’t have elevators. Those would twist and jam in their shafts with the stresses of shifting between universes.

Ramboul and the hunters had walked up the ramp and turned to Howe when he stepped through the doorway. “They got a good batch of stuff, Doc,” Ramboul called. She held Joss’ carbine in her bad arm; though the elbow was stiff, the hand still opened and closed properly. “More than we have from Coile and Hedwall’s Planet together. Of course, about 80% of it’s from Site Three.”

The male hunters glowered at Joss. She kept her eyes on Howe. She didn’t speak, but Howe thought she looked pleased.

Howe gave to Ramboul the bag of cash he’d drawn from the Purser that morning. “Pay the gentlemen, Technician,” he said. “And add ten florins to the agreed per diem for Master Suse because of his determination to take images of his specimens.”

“Hey!” said Newer said. “I want ten florins too!”

“You want having your arse kicked off the outrigger, Ape!” Ramboul said, turning toward the hunter. “You watch your tongue with the Doc there or that’s just what you’ll get!”

Joss looked as though she wanted to speak. Before she could, Howe said, “Mistress Joss, if you’d like to have your pay in the form of an increase in your credit chip, that can be arranged. And I would like to discuss your images and other matters before you leave the ship, if you’re not in a rush. Do you have a moment?”

“I’d like that, sir,” Joss said. “There’s something I want to talk to you about too.”

“You going up to the office, Doc?” Ramboul called. “If you are, I’ll join you there right as soon as I’ve checked the gun back in.”

“Yes,” Howe said. “I’ll see you then.”

He turned, saying, “Come along, Mistress Joss. I’m particularly interested in the predator you shot robbing your nets.”

At the back of Howe’s mind, he wondered if he ought to ask Joss to guide him. He suspected she was less likely to get lost in the various turnings than he was.

Howe’s office was only marginally better as a social environment than the laboratory itself, but at least the built-in cot folded into a second chair. Howe did that when he and Joss entered.

“Sir,” said Joss, “there’s something I need to tell you.”

Howe turned, expecting some revelation about Heyer’s Commando. He’d already decided that Joss’ military service didn’t matter to him. She did her work, and the past was past.

Joss was holding out a memory chip. She said, “I dropped the camera into a pool while I was packing for pickup. Fortunately I’d just replaced the chip with the spare, so all the images are safe.”

“Ah,” Howe said. “Well, that doesn’t matter, mistress. The cameras are frequently lost. They’re almost as cheap as ammunition for the guns.”

“I used six carbine rounds too,” Joss said, “but I didn’t think I had to mention that. Mostly I was just sighting it in, but it was good to have it for that cat.”

“I was wondering about the animal,” Howe said. “Are they common on Api?”

“I never saw one before,” Joss said. “But I wasn’t out of Api Village until I signed aboard the Floristan when I was 15. And there aren’t any in Obelia that I’ve seen either.”

“I’ll be very interested in what the genetic sequencer has to say,” Howe said. “Occasionally DNA-based life has shown up in specimens from this region, though the specimens I’ve collected on our previous landings have used TNA nucleotides. As you say, the animal you shot does seem kin to a Terran cat, but from its length and short legs it’s diverged farther than would be possible in the three thousand years since the first colonies landed on Api.”

“I took a patch of skin and hair,” Joss said. “And since you gave me plenty of boxes, I packed up his balls too. It’s a thick specimen and I don’t know how well the preservative will have penetrated.”

“You did that?” Howe said. “Well, that’s very good. Remarkable, in fact.”

He cleared his throat. There was no doubt now about what he was going to ask, but he wasn’t sure how to frame the question.

“Thing is, Doc . . .” Joss said, but as she spoke, Ramboul opened the office door.

“All paid off and squared away,” the Tech said. “Except for the mistress here, but I guess you’re taking care of her.”

“Top?” Joss said. She lifted the heavy knife by the sheathed blade. “I have a favor to ask about this panga?”

“Sure,” said Ramboul. “You want me to take it back to Golightly?”

“No,” said Joss. “I’d like to buy it from him. Do you suppose he’d take three hundred thalers?”

Ramboul pursed her lips thoughtfully. “I’m pretty sure he’d take a hundred for it,” she said. “He paid about ten florins on Hedwall.”

“I make that around sixteen thalers,” Joss said. “Would you offer him a hundred florins from me? It’s a nice piece, well-balanced and good steel. And a finder’s fee for you if you like.”

“Yeah, I’ll do that,” Ramboul said, frowning slightly. “I don’t need anything extra for me, but I’ll tell you, drinks are on Golightly the next time we go on liberty together. Want me to do that now?”

“If you would,” Joss said. She watched Ramboul stride out of the office. Then the hunter turned to Howe and said, “Sir, I came back to Api when the Alliance paid me off, but it’s not the same place as when I was a kid and I’m not the same kid either. Look, I did good work for you, didn’t I?”

“You did excellent work,” Howe said. “Your bonus will reflect that.”

“I don’t care about a bonus!” Joss said with unexpected bitterness. “Sir, you’re going to need hunters on other planets, right? Hire me for the job.”

“I usually hire local collectors because they know the region better,” Howe said carefully.

“Compare my haul with what Suse brought in!” Joss said. “And that useless Newer. He’s a lazy scut like his brother, and I remember Biron from back before I left Api the first time. Doc, I can size things up. I was a good scout for Heyer, and we were the best drop commando in the Forces!”

Howe considered in silence. He’d come to same conclusions as Joss before she’d sat down in the office.

To have something to delay stating his decision, he said, “Was Biron the man you had trouble with? The man who raped you?”

“Naw, Biron was just dumb muscle when he was a kid and that’s all he is now,” Joss said. “That guy who did that’s still around, but I haven’t looked him up. You could say that I ought to thank him, because otherwise I’d never have left Api.”

“Do you really feel that way?” Howe said in amazement.

“Me?” Joss said. Her expression suddenly went blank. “Bloody hell, no! I didn’t join the priesthood, I joined Heyer. But you could look at it that way.”

“All right,” Howe said. “I’ll have Ramboul get you signed on as an engine wiper. She’ll know how to do that, but I’ll tell Captain von Hase what I’m doing.”

“Thank you, sir!” Joss said, rising to her feet with an expression of great satisfaction. I’ll be back in the morning before liftoff. That’s 0800, isn’t it?”

“That’s what it’s scheduled for,” Howe said. “But if you want to spend the night aboard, I’m sure Ramboul can fix that.”

“Yeah, I guess Top could fix most anything,” Joss said. “But I want to take care of some things on shore. I’ll be back before liftoff, don’t worry.”

“Well, however you want to handle it,” Howe said. He found a temporary ID chit in his desk and scribbled his signature on it, then handed it to the hunter. Joss was a member of the Goliath’s company now, so she didn’t require an escort.

“I’ll see you in the morning,” Joss said as she walked out the door.

Howe didn’t see Joss before liftoff, but Ramboul assured him the hunter had boarded in plenty of time and was assigned to a power room watch. Starship crews, even on warships, were a broad mix of backgrounds. Neither coming from a tiny backwater nor having served in the Alliance military would make Joss unique.

When the Goliath began to accelerate out of orbit and apparent gravity returned, Howe set one of the “cat” samples to sequence. While that was in process, he decided to look again at the images Joss had made of the creature.

To his surprise the download from Joss’ camera indicated that one image hadn’t been viewed. He called it up instead of finding the “cat” sequence.

Ramboul, looking over Howe’s shoulder at the display said, “We never told her the cameras uploaded automatically, did we?”

“No, I guess we didn’t,” said Howe.

It was a well-framed shot of the heads of Mayor Glanz and his son on a wooden table carved in Apian style. Something was stuffed into the mayor’s mouth. Howe guessed that the object was the mayor’s genitals, but he didn’t feel a need to enlarge the image to be sure.

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