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Thursday, 24 September 2105 – Saturday, 26 September 2105

Feighan woke up panting. His pectoral muscles hurt, as though he had done a thousand push-ups overnight. Despite Oscar’s fine hand on the temperature controls, sweat soaked his twisted sheets. Morning light poured through the unpolarized windows; he groaned.

Oscar said, “Wake-up call number three. It is 7:25 am. You must get Sam to school by eight o’clock. Get up, Mr. Feighan. It is nine degrees Celsius in New York City under cloudless skies. It is 7:26 am. Time to get out of bed.”

Yawning, stretching, gasping at the stiffness that held his upper body in thrall, he lowered his feet to the floor and stood up. Maybe coming back had been a mistake. Three months in the hotel and not once had he writhed through dreams like that. Jesus. If he was going to have to put up with that sort of stuff every night, maybe he should find another place to live.

No, he thought. Give it a few more days. He had, after all, expected that moving back to the penthouse would detonate a few psychological land mines. While he had hardly anticipated giant golden birds begging with the voice of a dead friend, he had tried to brace himself for something unusual—and traumatic.

The shower sprayed him with chill needles. He shivered. “Oscar, order: Make the water four degrees warmer; do it now.”

“Yes, Mr. Feighan.”

The water heated instantly. “Ah, yes  . . . ”

Sam’s scaled green snout parted the shower curtains; his transparent inner eyelids sealed protectively against the mist. “Morning, McGill.”

“Morning, Sam.”

“Are you going to eat before we leave?”

“I hadn’t planned on it. Should I?”

“No! I don’t want to get there late.” He tugged the curtain closed and walked away.

Gingerly, wary of his sore muscles, Feighan soaped his chest. Jesus, it ached. He had probably been flapping his arms all night long. Weird. Stray images still flickered through his mind—he could still see, from the corner of his eye, the flow of white-spattered cliffs and the wink-blink of sunlight on moving water.

Disturbed, he eased his face into the spray. The dream should have dissipated under the shower’s relentless pounding. Could it be more than it seemed?

A thoroughly modern twenty-second century American, he would die of embarrassment before admitting that he sometimes thought his dreams spoke to him. Or rather, he thought that sometimes Somebody spoke to him through his dreams. He suspected it was either the Far Being Retzglaran Itself or one of the Far Being’s emissaries, like the giant gastropod that had so thoroughly complicated his life by kidnapping him at birth. What McGill Feighan could never resolve, even to his temporary satisfaction, was why Someone should be speaking to him. Not once had he received an explanation. At most he awoke with a feeling, an impetus, that lingered with him long after he would have forgotten a regular run-of-the-pillow dream.

Of course, he thought, as he reached for a fluffy black bath towel, early twenty-first century types would have died before conceding that teleportation, telepathy, and telekinesis had any basis in reality. It had taken the arrival of the Flinger Network Control exploratory ship to open that aspect of nature to the world. And even in 2105, years after that first ship had swung into orbit around the planet, years after alien merchants, diplomats, and tourists had begun to roam the Earth, millions of people insisted that it was all a hoax, perpetrated either by Hollywood holo-makers in pursuit of publicity, or by power-mad politicians trying to impose world government on the independent nation-states.

So  . . .  maybe they were not just-plain-vanilla dreams. Maybe Somebody was sending him messages, instructions. And if so  . . . 

Maybe I ought to go to Rehma.

He had been there once, three years ago, for perhaps five minutes. He—

“Hey, c’mon, McGill, I’m gonna be late!”

“Just a minute, Sam.”

A comb and a brush beat his unruly black hair into relative submission. He dressed quickly, easing into his favorite white pants and his knee-high black boots. He pulled on a cable-knit white sweater because any other color would muddy the bright hues of his energy tunic. Then he hurried into the living room.

Sam waited by the Flop Table, book bag in his six-fingered hand. “You know, you’re pretty slow in the morning, McGill.”

“Insulting someone who’s twice your size and grouchy to boot is not the sign of a real quick mind itself, Sam.”

The Rhanghan child thought that one over for a moment, then gave a sheepish smile. “Sorry, McGill.”

“Right.” He frowned down at his ward. “You got everything?”

“You bet!”

“Can I ask a question?”


“How come you want me to Fling with you, instead of me just Flinging you to the front door?”

“It feels better.”

“What feels better?”

“Flinging.” His saurian features scrunched up in thought. “Flinging alone is scary. All the stretching and the lights—it hurts! I mean, I know it’s gonna be over soon, and when you’re with me it’s okay, but when I go alone, I’m afraid the monsters are gonna get me.”

“The monsters?”

“Yeah! They’re just waiting there to gobble you up, and they scare me.”

“Sam, there aren’t any monsters out there.”

Sam cocked his snout and looked Feighan in the eye. “McGill, I know when something wants to hurt me. And you know I know, right?”

He had to admit that that was true. “But—”

“Well, when we Fling, I know that there are monsters right around the edge and they want to hurt us. But since you’re there, they can’t.” He twitched his tail from side to side. “And it’s getting late, can we go now?”

“Sure, kid.” Puzzled, he took Sam’s hand into his own, closed his eyes, visualized, felt, knew, and—


At the last instant before Flopping, he sensed that someone/thing else occupied the spot where he intended to materialize, so he swerved a couple of meters into emptiness and—


A little girl with dark blonde pigtails and a faceful of freckles squealed as they appeared at her side. Blue eyes widening, she backed away, pointing, her mouth opening and closing. She bumped into Sister Mary Margaret, the elderly principal of All Saints School. “Help me, Sister, help!”

The nun glanced sharply in their direction. When she recognized Feighan and Sam, she sighed. “Now, Winona—” She bent down to speak to the little girl. “—mind your manners. Sam is a very nice young  . . .  student who just started in our kindergarten. And I’m sure Mr. Feighan, who is a Flinger and Sam’s guardian, never meant to frighten you.” Lifting her head, she impaled Feighan with her gaze. “Did you, Mr. Feighan?”

He felt like he was seven years old again, and about to be kept after class. “Of course not, Sister.” He smiled at the little girl. “Winona, I’m very sorry I startled you by popping up at your side that way. Let me introduce you to Sam.”

Winona clung to Sister Mary Margaret’s skirt. “Does he bite?”

Sam slapped Feighan’s calf with his tail. “McGill! Did you—”

“Hush, Sam.”

“He talks!” said Winona in astonishment.

“Of course I talk!”

“His problem,” said Feighan dryly, “is not talking.”

Sister Mary Margaret restrained a laugh. “The bell is about to ring,” she said sternly, “and children who are not in their seats when the bell rings will stay in their seats after school.”

“Yes, Sister,” they both said in unison. Winona vanished through the doorway. Sam said, “Pick me up at two?”


“Okay. Bye.” He followed the little girl into the building.

That left Feighan standing alone with the nun, while hordes of small children streamed past on either side. “You do make a rather dramatic entrance, Mr. Feighan.”

“And I am sorry for frightening Winona, Sister.” He felt perfectly foolish. “I’m sure you realize it wasn’t intentional—”

“Yes, Mr. Feighan, I realize that.”

“It’s just there’s no private place around here for me to Fling to.”

“Why do you Fling here, Mr. Feighan? There are other means of transportation.”

“For one thing, it’s quick. I’m not a morning person, Sister, and this lets me sleep as long as possible.”

“Sam is a remarkably bright young  . . .  person, Mr. Feighan. Is it necessary for you to accompany him every day?”

“Necessary?” He squirmed. He hated being grilled by nuns. He always felt guilty, even when innocent. “Believe me, Sister, I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t think it was necessary.”

She raised her thin eyebrows. “Why is it necessary, then?”

“Because  . . .  Well, for one thing, Sam draws a lot of attention here. New Yorkers are pretty cosmopolitan, but they’re not really used to Rhanghans. You saw how Winona ran away from him. I mean, he’s just a kid. That sort of thing hurts.”

“Given that you’re raising him as an American, don’t you think that is the sort of thing to which he should become accustomed? Please don’t misunderstand me, Mr. Feighan. I applaud your concern for his tender feelings—but he’ll encounter xenophobia for the rest of his life. Shouldn’t he be developing a resistance to it now, when he’s still young?”

Feighan shrugged. “Maybe. I’d guess he gets a fair exposure to it from his classmates, but maybe he needs more. I don’t know. Do you?”

Somewhere in the depths of the building a school bell rang shrilly. Sister Mary Margaret’s eyes swept the street for stragglers. “At recess we let the children on the playground. Inevitably, fights break out, especially between the little boys. We intervene, of course—but not immediately. Life poses certain hazards to all of us, Mr. Feighan, and survival demands that we be prepared to deal with those hazards. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“Yes, Sister.” He sighed. “I’ll think about it. And now, if you’ll excuse me—”

“Of course. I am glad we had this talk.”

“Yes, Sister.” He nodded—


—and materialized on his living room Flop Table. “Sheesh!”

“Mr. Feighan,” said Oscar, “while you were out, Ms. Gina Maccari telephoned. She asked that you return her call at your earliest convenience.”

“Thanks, Oscar.” He strolled over to the phone and tapped out her number.

She answered on the second ring. “Hello?”

“Hi, beautiful. It’s me.”

“Hi.” Her voice smiled. “I forgot to ask last night, are we doing anything this weekend?”

“Sure.” He blinked. “Uh  . . .  what would you like to do?”

“Oh, I  . . . ” It was her turn to sound vague. “I was hoping you had a brilliant idea or two up your sleeve.”

“Well  . . . ” He ran through the possibilities in his head—ballet, symphony, Broadway, ball game  . . .  Unexcited, he looked out the window, looked over the rooftops and into the shadow-deep streets, the white cliffs and tumbling water

He jerked away in alarm. Why did the image still haunt him? Then: Why not? “Gina, have you ever been to Rehma?”

“The bird world? No, why?”

“Umm  . . . ” He would tell her of the dream in person—the message demanded a better medium than the telephone. “I was there once, for just a few minutes, and it seemed pretty nice. I was thinking it might be fun to spend some time there.”

“That sounds marvelous! Do we need visas?”

I don’t—”

“You Flingers never do.”

“—but you and Sam probably do. Do you want to check on it?”

“All right. But I’ll have to get back to you this evening, because I won’t be in to work today.”

“Why not?”

“I had my physical the other day, and they called me back in for some more scans. They think I might have a tumor.”

She might toss it off that nonchalantly, but it rocked him. His stomach felt suddenly hollow; his voice shook. Did all his friends have to die young? “Gina, I didn’t—I didn’t know.”

“Neither did I, silly, so how could you?”

“No, I mean—geez, I feel awful, I—”

“McGill Feighan, you stop that this instant. It’s not like I’m dying.”

“But tumors are—I mean, they’re serious, Gina, and—”

“McGill, if it were large enough to be serious, they would have picked it up on the first scan. The doctor said if there is one, it’s no bigger than the point of a needle right now. Which is why I’m going back in; they’re going to look for a needle in a Maccari.”

“That’s not funny.”

“Sorry.” But she sounded annoyed, not apologetic. “Look, McGill, I’ll call you after I get out of the lab and let you know what they found—okay?”

“Sure.” He decided to buy a videophone, so he could blow kisses at the screen when he talked to Maccari. “You take good care of yourself, now, you hear?”

“Will do. And you do the same. Bye.”


The receiver clicked, then hummed vacantly. He paced the length of the living room, hands behind his back, head bowed, knowing it was futile to worry so early and without definite cause, but also knowing that he could not help but worry. He always worried about people for whom he cared, and he cared a great deal for Gina Maccari. If anything happened to her  . . .  Through eyes that were suddenly misty he stared into a bleak future. Then shook his head. And sniffed.

“Oscar, query: Brief overview of the planet Rehma, R-E-H-M-A; answer it now.”

The apartment computer’s speaker snicked briefly in response to a flurry of electronic signals within. “Searching, Mr. Feighan.” It emitted a high-pitched, almost inaudible, whine, then said, “Rehma. The fourth planet of a star moderately larger and brighter than our own sun, with surface gravity and illumination levels comparable to Earth’s. The dominant life form is a large, intelligent avian. The planet has an oxygen-based atmosphere capable of supporting Terran life; humans cannot, however, subsist on Rehmal food due to differences in protein structure.

“Rehma has one massive super-continent—”

“Oscar, interrupt.” The machine would reel off ever-finer detail until it ran out of databank entries. That could take days. “Oscar, query: Does Rehma have associations with the Far Being Retzglaran; answer it now.” Because if his dream of the previous night were more than just a dream, then—

“Yes.” It paused briefly, presumably while its program determined which sentences from the reference banks it should include. “The Far Being Retzglaran is the traditional deity of the planet. Legend has it—”

“Oscar, interrupt.” Better and better. He could query Oscar in greater detail later on, but for now he would just close his eyes, concentrate, visualize, feel, know, and—


The orange walls beamed down at him, while the grey carpet yielded to his feet. The notocactus in the hologram had opened two new flowers in the last day.

This time he stopped at the receptionist’s desk and asked the simulacrum if Walking Mule was free.

“One moment, Mr.—Feighan.”

It vanished, then reappeared. “Go right ahead, Mr. Feighan.”

“Thanks.” The door opened before he reached it and closed without his laying a finger on the knob. “New software, hey, Walking Mule?” He tugged off his boots before he left the patch of clear carpet by the doorway.

“New software?” The Director frowned at Feighan. “No, I—you mean the self-opening door?”

“Yeah, it’s never done that before.”

“You never checked with the receptionist before.”

“Oh.” Chastened but not subdued, he moved into the middle of the room. “In that case, your old software has a bug in it. Your receptionist fades out of view when it checks if you’re available.”

“Damn.” Walking Mule slapped the top of his table in annoyance. “Does it disappear completely, or just go dim for a second?”

“You lose it completely.”

The Director shook his head. “That gizmo’s been nothing but trouble since I took over here. Had the techs up half a dozen times in the last month alone.”

Standing on a fat red cushion, Feighan shifted his weight from one foot to the other. It was like having his feet massaged. “Why don’t you get a human?”

“A human? Say, boy, you been out in the sun too long? You got any idea what a living, breathing receptionist costs?”

“Haven’t the foggiest. Your predecessor had one, though.”

“And my predecessor damned near bankrupted the NAC.”

“There is that. Anyway. Sorry to bother you, but the reason I dropped in was because you asked me to keep you informed of my movements.”

“You going somewhere?”

“On my own time, yes.” At the older man’s nod, he continued. “This weekend, Gina, Sam, and I are going to visit Rehma.”

Walking Mule brightened. “You’re kidding!”

“No, why?”

He held up a sheet of paper. “The Hub just requested our assistance. Some sort of sickness is going around on Rehma and a bunch of the local Flingers have come down with it. They say outbound traffic’s backing up something fierce. The Rehma consortia are looking to hire other Flingers on a temporary, fill-in basis. They are offering one helluva premium.”

It seemed entirely too coincidental to Feighan that he should dream of Rehma just when that planet needed his Talent. “I said ‘weekend,’ Walking Mule. As in, ‘on my days off?’”

“I heard you just fine, McGill—but how’d you like to spend a couple weeks there, starting Saturday?”

He knew at once that he wanted to—but his eagerness troubled him. He would be leaving just when Maccari would most need a friend. Would she understand? Or would she think he was rejecting her because of the cancer? The possibility that he might be doing exactly that, all the while hiding his true feelings even from himself, set off a pang of guilt. He had to admit that cancer scared him. “Well—”

Walking Mule fixed a shrewd gaze on him. “Gina, right?”

“What, do you know everything?”

“Not quite, but I’m workin’ on it.” He folded his hands on his tabletop. “Look, this here surgery’s pretty much routine, McGill. Like having a tooth pulled, only quicker and safer. She’ll be just fine—and besides, you can always Fling back to look in on her.”

“Yeah, but—”

“McGill, they got close to a thousand tourists stranded on Rehma already, and the number’s going up by the hour. They need help in a real bad way. As a favor?”

He could not refuse. His conscience still niggled at him, but Walking Mule was right. The Rehmal Minders could keep tabs on her, and Feighan could visit at will. “All right. Anything I should know before I leave?”

“Nothing your computer can’t dig up for you.” He rattled the sheet of paper. “I’ll get you a copy of this; it’s got the terms of your employment there, and the name of your local contact. I’ll also scrounge around for a couple addresses and phone numbers of Terran residents on Rehma who might have some leads for you—which you will follow only on your own time, right?”

“Scout’s honor, Walking Mule.”

“You were never a Boy Scout.”

“Are you saying I don’t have as much honor as a Boy Scout?”

The Director made a face. “Okay. You better—oh, one other thing.”

“What’s that?”

“The Rehmal are a proud people—”

“Walking Mule, I’m not planning to take a book of bird jokes!” It offended him that the Director could think him so insensitive.

Walking Mule shook his head impatiently. “That’s not what I meant. See, this situation sort of worries me. Something’s going around Rehma that’s incapacitated a whole lot of Flingers, and we’re pretty damn tough. Hell, the FNC immunizes its people against more things than’re listed in most medical dictionaries.”

That had not occurred to Feighan. “Do you think they have something new there? Some kind of mutated virus?”

“Could be. If it is, they could be in real trouble. See, some cultures just don’t like to admit that they’ve lost control, and they hold off calling for help till it’s too late.”

“You’re making me nervous, Walking Mule. Is that what’s going on?”

The Director shrugged. “Truth to tell, McGill, I don’t know. But you’ll be there on the scene. If you think they need help, and pride or whatever’s keeping them from hollering for it, then get in touch with Thurndriddle, at the Hub. You remember ol’ Thurny, don’t you?”

“The Ylsslypn guest lecturer at the Academy? Sure I do. I had to keep it wet that time its automatic mister broke down.” Ylsslypni absorbed atmospheric oxygen through their skin, but the pores closed up if they dried out—or if they were totally submerged. Feighan had stood in a shower stall with the wrinkled grey alien for the better part of the night, adjusting the spray at its command. “But why get in touch with it?”

“Thurny’s latest title is Senior Flinger for Emergency Assistance. It’s in charge of dispatching all disaster relief teams. If things get out of hand on Rehma, talk to Thurny.” He glanced at his watch. “And get to work, now.”

“Right. And, Walking Mule, thanks, huh?”

He winked at Feighan. “My pleasure, McGill.”

At lunchtime, he hurried home. Maccari had not yet called. “Oscar, order: Two ham sandwiches, on rye, Swiss cheese, lettuce, brown mustard, mayo; do it now.”

“Coming right up, Mr. Feighan. Something to drink?”

“Ah  . . .  milk.”

“Very good, sir. Breakfast nook or dining room?”

“Breakfast nook.”

“Yes, sir. In ninety-two seconds.”

“Good. Also, Oscar, query: More information about Rehma; answer it now.”

With the information it had gathered earlier still in its cache memory, the computer did not need to access a databank before replying. “The planet possesses one massive super-continent and hundreds of rocky island chains. Ninety-five percent of the one billion-plus population live on the mainland. Given the choice, the average Rehmal would rather eat grain than fish.”

Feighan wandered into the kitchen, washed his hands at the sink and dried them on a towel that the apartment computer thoughtfully extruded from a slot above the faucets.

Meanwhile Oscar continued. “Culturally, the Rehmal share a common language spiced by scores of local accents almost distinct enough to be called dialects. The language has not diverged further because wings offer the natives a degree of mobility unknown to land-bound life.”

“That makes sense,” said Feighan, mostly to himself.

“Lunch is served, Mr. Feighan.”

A panel in the wall hissed up to reveal a plate of sandwiches. Feighan took it, waited for the panel to close, and for it to reopen again with his glass of milk. He carried his lunch to the table and sat down.

“Will you require silverware, Mr. Feighan?”

“Only a napkin, Oscar.”

“There is a fresh supply on the table, Mr. Feighan.”

“So there is.” He tugged one from the dispenser, unfolded it, and spread it over his lap. As he bit into a sandwich, Oscar proceeded with the briefing.

“The primary political unit on Rehma is the flock, which can number from a hundred to ten thousand individuals. A flock is ruled by a tripartite coalition of wise elders, strong youths, and educated intelligentsia. Though these individuals make all laws governing the flock, they possess only two means by which to punish lawbreakers: demanding community service of those who wish to remain members of the flock, and ostracism. Imprisonment, corporal or financial punishment, and execution are unknown on Rehma. The central government, meanwhile, is extremely weak. It is empowered only to handle planetary matters and settle inter-flock disputes. It is specifically forbidden to intervene in intra-flock matters.”

“Now that I’ve got to see to believe.” He took another bite, and mumbled, “Good sandwiches, Oscar.”

“Hundreds of religions, including dozens imported by Terran missionaries, co-exist in relative peace. The traditional deity of Rehma is the Far Being Retzglaran, about whom thousands of legends abound. Most natives believe that their planet is one of the Far Being’s favorite places in the universe, and even if they no longer believe in Its divinity, they do believe in Its existence and Its near-omnipotence.

“The Rehmal celebrate the arrival of spring with a holiday most aptly translated as ‘Festival.’ Legend has it that the Far Being Retzglaran returns to Rehma during Festival, and those who fly a stretch of The River in Its company lead charmed lives thereafter.”

“Oscar, interrupt.” Feighan swallowed his mouthful and took a sip of milk. “Oscar, query: more detail about Festival; answer it now.”

“The Rehmal year, though carefully calibrated in terms of days, is divided into ten seasons of unequal length and variable starting dates: Thaw, when the polar ice cap starts to melt and The River begins to rise in the 1200-kilometer-long gorges between The Cliffs; Flood, when The River overflows its banks and spreads across the fertile lowlands; Ebb, when The River begins to return to its banks; Sow, when the ground is finally dry enough that planted seeds will not rot—”

“Oscar, interrupt.” He set down his sandwich and sighed. The damn computer could never distinguish between enough detail and too much. “Season names will suffice, Oscar; no definitions are required.”

“Yes, Mr. Feighan. The remaining seasons include Grow, Fruit, Cool, Harvest, Chill, and, of course, Freeze.”

“Thank you, Oscar.”

“You’re welcome, Mr. Feighan. Shall I continue?”

“Yes. Tell me more about Festival.”

“In late Freeze, carefully selected observers fly to the south end of The Cliffs, where The River begins at the edge of the ice cap. In Freeze this part of The River is dry; their duty is to watch for the first trickle of water from melting ice and then spread the word.”

Feighan imagined what the observers must have to go through—the long flight south, with muscles straining against high winds and bitter cold; the lonely encampment at the feet of the glaciers; the hazardous patrol of The River’s frost-rimed bed—and then, marveling at the vividness of those images, he wondered where they had arisen. The previous night’s dream seemed even more like a message than before.

Oscar was still reading out the databank entries. “When the world learns that Thaw has begun, it celebrates. Everyone lays down their tools and flies south to witness the miracle of the New Year. Even the youngest nestlings—those born during the previous Fruit, the season when all Rehmal are born—join the great flocks and arrow south. This year, a billion Rehmal will converge in the air above the ice cap, wheel about to fly north above the riverbed, light briefly and ceremonially somewhere on The Cliffs, and then return home.”

“Oscar, interrupt.” Feighan patted his lips with the napkin and pushed his empty plate away. “Oscar, query: What are the most common theories regarding Festival; answer it now.”

“The River is the source of life on Rehma’s super-continent, and Festival has become an integral, though unintended, part of the planet’s life cycle. Every year the River floods the vast, flat lowlands where the Rehmal raise their grain; it percolates through the soil to replenish the water table and spreads its silt across the surface. It is—”

Like the Nile, Feighan thought.

“—the flood which makes the lowlands so fertile. The Rehmal returning home from Festival fly in sun-blocking flocks above The River, shrunken by Freeze to a fiftieth its normal volume, for over 1200 kilometers. Their droppings fall into the trickle and along the exposed banks. As the spring runoff mounts into a torrent, it sweeps up the droppings, dissolves them into its waters, and then, in Flood, washes them across millions of square kilometers of grain fields.”

He could see the rest for himself: without Festival, the fields would yield less and less each year as Rehmal agriculture exhausted the soil’s nutrition. Without Festival (or massive petrochemical fertilizer industries), Rehmal agriculture could never feed one billion beings. Without Festival, an entire civilization would die.

But why did the Far Being Retzglaran need him?

Oscar interrupted his reverie. “Mr. Feighan, it is nearly two o’clock, and you promised Sam that you would pick him up.”

“Thank you, Oscar.” He set his plate and empty glass in the sink, where Oscar’s attachments could reach and clean them, then—


—stood near the front steps of All Saints School. Stepping out of the pedestrian flow, he leaned back against a sun-drenched wall. His stomach rumbled, complaining that he had not provided it with the usual handful of chocolate chip cookies. Embarrassed, he glanced around to see if anyone had overheard. No one seemed to be paying attention. He patted his belly gently, whispering, “Shut up, you had enough and you know it.”

From the open building doors came the clamor of a school bell. A moment later, a stream of small children spilled down the steps. Clean-scrubbed and noisy, they all looked alike. Even the kids seemed indistinguishable from the general tumult of youth and energy and high, raised voices.

Except, of course, for Sam, who bobbed along in the middle of the crowd like a raft on a babbling brook. He caught sight of his guardian and lifted his tail in greeting.

Feighan stayed put and waited for Sam to detach himself from the current and make his way to shore. “How ya doing there, kiddo?”

“Pretty good, McGill. We did finger painting today!” He held up his hands and spread wide the six fingers on each. A rainbow of pigments outlined the delicate scales of his skin. “Mr. Szcechlowski wouldn’t let me use the paint remover ’cause he doesn’t know if it’s safe for Rhanghans or not, and figured he better not take any chances without talking to you.”

Feighan consulted his watch. He had almost three hours till he had to report back to work—more than enough time to confer with one of Sam’s teachers. “Is he still here?”

“No, he went home, but he said he’d call you this afternoon.”

“Okay. Are you ready?”

“Any time you are, McGill.”

Feighan looked up. At the top of the steps stood Sister Mary Margaret. He snapped his fingers. “Just remembered something, Sam. I have to talk to your principal.”

Sam rolled his eyes. “I’ll wait here, okay?”



Feighan approached the nun alone. “Afternoon, Sister. Do you have a minute?”

“Of course, Mr. Feighan. What can I do for you?”

“I just pulled TDY to Rehma, and—” At her blank expression he caught himself. “Sorry, Sister. The jargon gets to be a bad habit. I’ve just been temporarily assigned to the planet Rehma, I’m not sure for how long but probably not for more than a few weeks, and I wanted to find out what Sam should be studying so that he keeps up with his schoolwork.”

She raised one eyebrow. “Are you planning to take him with you?”

“Well, sure,” he said, puzzled.

“I do not approve, Mr. Feighan. Sam has just started his course of studies here. Even a week-long absence will have a detrimental effect on the child’s education.”

“You don’t think it’s beneficial to expose him to another culture?”

“Of course that’s beneficial, Mr. Feighan. The question, though, is whether the benefits will outweigh the costs—and frankly, I do not feel that they will.”

He took a deep breath. Even chatting about the weather with a nun made him feel at a disadvantage. To have to argue with one—on the very steps of her school, no less—practically incapacitated him. “The problem, Sister, is that I can’t leave Sam alone here in New York City while I’m way out there somewhere.” He waved at the sky. “And it’s only kindergarten, after all.”

She tilted her head to one side. “Where is Rehma, exactly, Mr. Feighan?”

“Uh—” He spread his hands. “Sister, I’m a Flinger, not an astronomer. I know how to get to Rehma, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you where it’s located.”

“I see.”

“Look. We leave Saturday morning. Can I get his assignments for the next couple of weeks tomorrow afternoon? I’ll make sure he does his homework—I’ll tutor him myself every day so he keeps up—and when we get back he’ll fit right in.”

“As the child’s guardian, you have the final say, of course.” She sniffed lightly, emphasizing her continuing disapproval. “If you insist on taking him, I’ll make certain that his teachers provide you with his assignments. Two o’clock tomorrow?”

“I would appreciate it, Sister.”

“Very well, Mr. Feighan.” She turned and went back inside.

He descended the steps soberly enough to please any watching nun. “C’mon, Sam, let’s get our butts outta here quick!”

The blue-white ball of Earth spun through the blackness overhead, and only the immaterial existence of the force field dome bent its beams. Feighan liked the effect. It was good to see the planet as a whole just before leaving it.

He reached across the table and squeezed Maccari’s hand. “I know you didn’t want to talk about it in front of Sam, but we’re alone now, and I’m worried sick. What did the doctors say?”

“The good news—” Maccari sipped from her wineglass. “—is that the twenty-year-survival rate for this kind of tumor—”

“Oh, Gina.” So it was cancer, after all. He winced. “I’m so sorry—”

“McGill, McGill, don’t be so upset. It’s a very small tumor, and a very common one, and as I was saying, the twenty-year-survival rate is over ninety percent.”

“But it’s still cancer, Gina, and cancer—”

“It’s part of life. We have to accept it as such. The oncologist was telling me that three out of every four human beings come down with cancer sooner or later.”

“That’s the bad news, huh?”

She looked into her glass. “No. The bad news is that I go into the hospital tomorrow night for Saturday surgery.”

“So how long are you going to be in for?”

“Three days, that’s all.” Setting down her glass, she stroked the back of his hand with her fingernails. “The surgery itself takes less than an hour, but the blood-flushing and the immunotherapy take a day each. So I’ll be out of the hospital Monday afternoon, but I’m afraid I’ll have to miss the trip to Rehma.”

“No, hey—” He interlaced his fingers with hers. “We’ll postpone it. We’ll wait till you’re out—”

“You have to get there Saturday morning. You start work Sunday.”

“I do?”

“Don’t you read your mail?”

He forced a smile. “I don’t need to. I have friends who read it for me.”

“Cute, Feighan.”

“Gina.” He turned her hand over and traced the lines of her palm. He did not know what to say. He wanted to go, badly, but at the same time, and to the same extent, he wanted to stay till she had recovered. He felt like the rope in a tug-of-war game. “Gina, I—”

She giggled.


“That image. You, a rope!”

He winced. “It came through?”

“Loud and clear.” She leaned forward, bringing her face close to his. Her voice softened. “Don’t worry so much. They need you out there. And even though I need you too, the doctors and nurses and Walking Mule and everybody else will take good care of me till you get back. Go. You’re not deserting me in my hour of need. I don’t think that way, so don’t you dare.”

He kissed her. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” She kissed him back.

A simulacrum shimmered into being beside their table. Muted blues and greens rippled over the featureless oval of its face. Its machine-generated voice said, “Would you care to order now?”

At Maccari’s nod, Feighan said, “Yes.”

“You’re packing a whole lot of books, McGill.”

“And they’re all yours too, kid.”

“Why’d you have to go and get my homework? I’m not going to be home.”

Feighan suppressed a smile. “But you will be doing your schoolwork.”

“Aw, McGill, do I have to?”

“Do you want to explain why you didn’t to Sister Mary Margaret?”

The young Rhanghan paused a moment. He shivered; the knife-blade fins on his backbone trembled. “If I need more crayons, can we come back and get them?”

“If it’ll keep Sister Mary Margaret happy, kid, you bet.”

Maccari spoke from her chair in the corner. “And what are you taking to study, McGill?”

“Very funny.”

“I wasn’t trying to be,” she said without sincerity. “How will you spend your free time?”

“Frankly, I don’t expect to have very much. I mean, I’ll be Flinging at least eight hours a day, and maybe more, depending on how badly backlogged Rehma is; I’ll be tutoring Sam; and—” He had still not told her about the dream.

“You didn’t need to,” she said.

“I thought you weren’t going to do that anymore.”

“McGill, I promised I wouldn’t read your mind—I didn’t promise that I wouldn’t listen to what your mind is shouting.”

Sam said, “How come I never hear any of that? The only time I hear his mind is when he’s gonna wallop me.”

Feighan looked from one to the other. “I’m beginning not to believe this entire conversation.”

“Our Talents are different, Sam,” said Maccari. “I’m sensitive to thoughts; you’re sensitive both to moods and to danger. I mean, you’d never step in a bear trap, right?”

He gave her an exasperated look. “You know I’d never do that!”

“Because you hear it, because you know it’s there. But me, I wouldn’t hear it. If I didn’t see it, I’d step in it. You can sense moods, but you can’t read minds unless they’re broadcasting some kind of danger. I can’t sense danger unless some mind is broadcasting it.”

“And McGill can’t do either, can he?”

“Nope.” She shook her head solemnly. “He can’t read minds like I can—”

“And he can’t hear danger like I can—”

“Which makes me wonder how he survived to such a ripe old age without either of us on the scene, hey, Sam?”

“Yeah. Poor McGill. It must be like being crippled, huh, Gina?”

“It must be indeed, Sam.”

For a moment the two grinned at each other, suppressing giggles.

Feighan cleared his throat.

Sam said, “Gina, I’m reading his mind.”

“Isn’t that funny? I just sensed danger.”

Saturday morning, early, the sun laying horizontal bars of light down the streets of New York. Feighan yawned, hefted his suitcase, and blinked at his ward. “You ready?”

Sam had one eyelid open, and that just barely. “It’s awful early, McGill.”

“On Rehma it’s almost noon.”

Sam’s other eye opened. “Lunchtime?”


“Okay. I’m ready.”

Taking Sam’s hand into his, Feighan closed his eyes. He thought, visualized, concentrated, knew—


They materialized in a huge openwork wicker cage. Through the holes in the floor, they could see leaves, branches—and the ground a hundred meters below. A chill spring wind whistled through the walls. Sam clung to his guardian’s hand. “I don’t think I want lunch after all, McGill.”

“It’s okay, kid, this is just your standard issue Rehmal Flop Booth.”

“I thought they were all white and tiled and—” The cage swayed in the wind; his tail wound around Feighan’s leg and squeezed. “—and safe!”

“This is perfectly safe, Sam.” He pointed to a haze that shimmered just beneath the woven floor. “See? A force field. Now come on, let go of my leg, we’ve got to clear out before somebody else Flops down.”

They made their way through the archway, into a windowless wicker tunnel that spiraled around and down half a dozen times or more before they finally reached the ground. At the bottom, they got in line behind a pair of marsupial Rii-edsch who did not speak English.

The line moved slowly toward the counter. An electronic signboard hung above the counter; across it flashed the words “Customs & Immigration” in script after alien script.

“I’m hungry, McGill.”

“So what else is new, huh, kid?”

An hour passed, and thirty minutes more. Feighan’s patience was wearing thin. At last, they reached the head of the line and discovered the cause for the delay: only four Customs Officers were on duty.

One of the birdlike beings beckoned them to its station and pushed their luggage through the scanner. Predominantly blue and green, it had flamingo legs, great muscular wings folded carefully around a pear-shaped body, and a curving neck half a meter long. Its head came barely to Feighan’s shoulder. Apparently it was molting: as it reached to open Feighan’s suitcase, a handful of turquoise feathers slipped off its chest and floated to the floor. Its thinning plumage gave it a faintly raffish, disreputable air.

He hated watching bureaucrats paw through his socks, and it irked him all the more that this one insisted on a manual search even though the scanner had found nothing. “Is today a holiday?”

With a cough, it straightened, and turned to him. Its beak opened, but it did not answer. Instead, it wheezed horribly, flapped its wings twice, reached for its throat, and keeled over.

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