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Saturday, 26 September 2105–Monday, 28 September 2105

“McGill, I’m starving!”

Feighan bent over to look Sam in the eye. “I don’t understand you, kid—a Customs Inspector practically dies right in front of you and you still have an appetite?”

“I always have an appetite!” He put a dry, scaled hand on Feighan’s shoulder. “I feel bad about the guy who got sick, but the paramedics came, right? He’ll be okay, won’t he?”

“I hope so.”

“So how come I can’t be hungry?”

The Flinger laughed and sat back up. “All right, all right—you can be hungry. What you can’t do is eat. They told us to wait here till the Director could see us.”

“Well, they coulda given us some furniture!”

Shifting uncomfortably, McGill Feighan sighed his agreement. A suitcase did not serve well as a chair, even for him, and he, at least, had approximately the anatomy for it. Poor Sam could either stand or lie on the wickerwork floor. And given the white stains that splotched almost every strand of wicker, he could hardly blame Sam for staying on all fours. Once they got to whatever quarters had been assigned them, Feighan would have to make sure his ward scrubbed his feet.

Clearly, the Rehma Consortium’s decorator had not expected wingless aliens to cool their heels in that airplane hangar of a reception room. Scores of perches adorned the walls, in sizes suitable for the largest known intelligent avians as well as for the smallest, but even if he could climb to one that would hold his weight, he would have to cover its white-crusted surface before he would dare sit. And as he had brought neither newspapers nor sheets of heavy-duty plastic, it would be pointless to clamber up those fifteen-meter walls.

“Even a stool would be better than nothing, McGill!”

“I suspect the hard part would be keeping it clean.”

Sam looked around. “Yeah. This is pretty disgusting, isn’t it?”

“To Terrans, yeah.”

“I’m not a Terran, I’m a Rhanghan-American.”

He tickled the side of Sam’s belly. “I’m not talking whether you have scales or skin; I’m talking cultural background here—and your background, kid, much as you hate to admit it, is pure New York.”

Wings fluttered at the far end of the reception room. An emerald green Rehmal half Feighan’s size and built mostly of bony legs alit in front of them. It wore nothing but its feathers, and a pouch that hung from a string belt. Feighan stood. “Hello.”

The alien’s aquamarine crest stood at attention as it focused on them bright black eyes smaller than marbles. Half bowing, it snapped its long beak shut, bent forward, and ran the edge of that beak along each of Feighan’s cheeks. It then repeated the gesture with Sam.


“That’s how the Rehmal shake hands, Sam.”

“You could have warned me.”

“I didn’t know I needed to.”

The Rehmal, having waited till they finished speaking, opened its beak again. Music spilled out.

“I’m sorry,” said Feighan. “I do not understand the language of Rehma.”

“It’s pretty, isn’t it, McGill?”

“Hush.” He kept his gaze on the Rehmal.

Its head bobbed. Its wings spread just a little. Scratching at the wicker floor, it seemed to concentrate—

O *click*flyer of *click*world, welcome, welcome, six billion times welcome! Long have you flown; tired must you be; deep must you ache to preen. Can with snarled feathers you bear in patience some little while longer? Our Lead would with you speak.

As the voice welled up inside his head, he thought, The staff telepath.

It nodded. Just so.

Aloud he said, “The Director would like us to wait a little longer?”

On her branch, just so.

Tired of waiting, and hungry to boot, now that Sam had reminded him of how long it had been since their last meal, he nonetheless restrained his temper. Shrugging, not caring if the Minder thought him a bit rude, he sat back down. “All right, we’ll wait.”

“McGill, why are you talking to yourself?”

“Shh.” He pointed to the Rehma. “It’s a Minder. It doesn’t speak English, so it’s ’pathing me direct.”

The Rehmal ducked its head beneath its right wing. O *click*flyer of *click*world, our minds on different courses soar, and through the dark of first strangeness have passed without touching beaks.

He shook his head. “I’m really sorry, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Just so! It danced backward, away from them, then paused and extended its wing. If you will deign to wing my Lead?

“Not here, huh?” He stood up again and grabbed his suitcases.

“Is he taking us somewhere there’s chairs, McGill?”

“God only knows, Sam.”

Still facing them, it backed away with a slow, regal step, pausing every now and then to hop, bow, and flourish its wings.

“I wonder,” said Feighan, “if this is their version of the red-carpet treatment.”

Just so! And after the words came an image of a short, fat cartoon character with a sparkly gold crown and ermine robes and a dainty, brass-buckled shoe poised on the edge of a scarlet runner. Just so!

“In that case, thank you.”

It led them, step by prancing step, out of the reception room and onto a sun-dappled balcony. A cool breeze brushed Feighan’s hair and rustled the leaves above their heads. Birdsong filled the air.

Sam stopped, rested his snout on the balcony railing, and gawked out at the trees and the towers of Stonehills City. “Wow!”

“Nice view, huh?” The city sprawled across 200 square kilometers of the rugged granite hills that gave it its name. Six- and eight-lane roads ran along the ridges and leapt the valleys on graceful stone bridges. As far as the eye could see, buildings rose sixty and seventy stories high, each wrapped in perhaps a hundred acres of manicured parkland, each roofed with a heliport and bank upon bank of glittery solar panels. Overhead, helijets lifted and stooped like falcons. “You like it?”

“Yeah  . . .  but how come they have all those skyscrapers? I thought Rehmal lived in trees.”

“They do.” He pointed down to the wickerwork shelters scattered through the boughs of a fifty-meter-tall tree across the way. “See? Those are Rehmal houses.”

“Uh-huh.” It was Sam’s turn to point. “But what are all the New York kind of buildings for?”

“Tourists, mostly, and all companies that depend on them. Remember, Stonehills City is the major tourist center on the planet. Plus there are diplomats, traders, manufacturers, uh  . . . ?” He spread his hands. “They’ve got everything here. Except farming.” He peered over the edge. “See how barren and rocky the soil below is? Back at the Academy, they taught us, if I remember correctly, that this used to be pretty much a desert. They put the Rehma Consortium Headquarters here because they knew they couldn’t use the land for food.”

Just so! The Minder stretched its wings to the sun. Just so!

Sam looked puzzled. “Why not? The trees sure grew.”

“Only because they transplanted each one here individually and hand-watered it for years until its roots reached deep enough to find the underground streams.”

“You mean they wing-watered them, don’t you, McGill?”

“Nope.” He shook his head in mock dismay. “And here I thought you were an observant little kid. For shame.” He turned to the telepath. “If you would be so kind—?”

The Rehmal spread its wings. From the joint closest to the shoulder on each wing sprouted a thin hand with three delicate fingers and a thumb.

Sam rocked back on his haunches and lashed his tail in astonishment. “How come I didn’t see them before?”

“Got me, kiddo. But—”

O *click*flyer of *click*world, the day turns on toward night.

He nodded. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Let’s go, then.”

The Minder gestured for them to step onto a rope-and-plank suspension bridge that dipped over to a gaping hollow in the trunk of the next tree. The underlying force field, though transparent, distorted the view between the boards. Feighan stepped onto it; Sam’s tail slapped down and he dropped his bags. “No way, McGill!”

The Flinger froze. “Do you smell a trap?”

Sam hissed.

“What is it, Sam?” Moving carefully, he retreated to the balcony.

“I’m not going out on that.”

“Is something wrong with it? Is the force field defective?” Feighan had learned to trust his ward’s instincts, and if Sam thought someone had tampered with the bridge or its mechanisms—

“It’s too high!”

Feighan looked down. A hundred meters below, huge gnarled roots muscled their way into the boulder-strewn hillside. Small furry animals with giant ears scratched at the soil. “Sam, it’s like the thirtieth floor, huh? Our penthouse is a lot higher up than that.”

“The penthouse doesn’t wobble in the wind!”

“It’s just swaying a little. I’ll go across first; then you’ll see it’s safe.”

“I want to go home, McGill.”

“Hey.” He squatted to put his face on a level with the child’s. “We can’t, Sam. I have a job to do here. It’s only for a couple of weeks, but in the meantime, you can’t let a little thing like a bridge scare you.”

“I can’t do it, McGill.”

“Okay. No sweat.” He closed his eyes, visualized the far end of the bridge, concentrated, felt, knew—


—and they stood on the other side, looking back at the reception room’s balcony. “Is that better?”

Sam shuddered. “Yes.”

The Minder squawked loudly. Flapping its wings, it rose into the air.

“Over here!” called Feighan.

It banked and spotted them. O *click*flyer of *click*world, for one long moment did this balding fish-eater think it had offended you to the point of *click*flying home to *click*world.

“I’m sorry.” He bowed as it landed by their side. “Sam was a little, um, perturbed by the bridge, so I Flung us across.”

Just so! Its wings opened and made forward-sweeping gestures. Within our Lead doth perch, and would with you your gift discuss.

“My gift?”

From the shadows within came a lilt and a trill. Sam darted inside, leaving his suitcases in the entranceway. “McGill! Chairs! And a couch!”

The Minder stepped to one side and gestured for Feighan to go first. He bowed, said, “Thank you,” and went in.

Sunlight spilled through openings in the wood and fell on Sam, who had already sprawled out on a long sofa upholstered in soft beige leather.

On a perch facing the doorway rested a large Rehmal with an orange crest and burnt umber tail. The whirling color bands of an energy tunic obscured the rest of its feathers, but they seemed to tend mainly to the yellow, with here and there a brilliant glowing scarlet. It dipped its head as Feighan came into the room, then glanced sharply at the Minder.

O *click*flyer of *click*world, our Lead greets you as the morning.

The orange-crested alien hopped off its perch, glided the short distance to Feighan, and laid Rehmal beak to Terran cheek as the Minder had moments earlier. Then it turned to Feighan’s ward.


The young Rhanghan scrambled to his feet and presented his snout. “Pleased ta meetcha,” he mumbled, before crawling back onto the sofa.

Our Lead begs pardon for this fishreek poking into the nest of your mind, but the two-tongued singer lies ill abed and needs must I serve.

He blinked, nodded, and almost let it pass but thought he ought, perhaps, to double-check. Just to be certain he understood. Comprehension should never be taken for granted. “Excuse me, but are you saying you’re filling in because the Director’s translator is sick?”

Just so!

“Ah. Well, an oral translator would have made things easier, but I think you’ll do fine. Please tell the Director that I am pleased to meet him.”


“Ah. I missed that.”

Subtle indeed is the distinction, unlike *click*worlders who

It flashed him an image of a Terran woman who surely bought her bras at a hammock store.

We people of the sky mark our sex in our feathers.

Feighan wanted to pursue the matter, but the Director’s chirp cut the conversation short.

Our Lead begs leave to leave undanced the stately minuet of chat. Matters momentous ride her back like a coat of ice and force her down from custom’s heights. With your good will, O *click*flyer of *click*world?

“Sure,” he said, bemused.

The Minder spoke to the Director, whose translated reply came back at once: As well you know, O *click*flyer of *click*world, a sickness stalks our world, a sickness so insidious that our own *click*flyers number one where once they numbered two.

Startled, he said, “Half your Flingers are out sick?”

Just so! Hence our plea to the centermost city for *click*flyers willing to gift us with their Talent. We asked; you came; we cover crests in embarrassment and love and gratitude.

“You’re welcome.” He began to wonder about the time-and-a-half Walking Mule had promised him. If the Rehmal thought he was donating his time, the potential for misunderstanding—

Our answer gift to your gift, ’pathed the Minder. The merest trifling token of our underlying appreciation. But.


Our Lead begs leave to beg a gift of different texture. The greatest doctor of the sky people scraggles feathers in his frantic search for the source of the stalking sickness. This noble inquisitor into minuteness, a proud-tailed flyer named

It sang a sound.

“Th’hweet?” said Feighan dubiously.

Sam shot Feighan a scornful glance and replicated the sound perfectly. “That’s how you pronounce it, McGill.”

“No, Sam, that’s how you pronounce it. It’s even how they pronounce it. It is not, unfortunately, how I pronounce it.” He turned to the Minder. “Will it offend the doctor or the sky people if I call him Th’hweet?”

Ah, no!

“Thank you.”

The wondrous researcher of the smallest life seeks the assistance of a *click*flyer, that he might more rapidly from outbreak to outbreak travel. Our Lead begs leave to beg you gift us with such assistance.

“Well—” He frowned. “If I’ve got this right, Dr. Th’hweet wants a Flinger to help him get around the planet quickly.”

Just so!

“I’ll be more than happy to help, but there is a problem: I can’t Fling to a place I’ve never been and never seen. Perhaps a na—one of your own people could be of greater assistance.”

The Director gave a rude squawk.

Our Lead, alas, did such an observation make, and her heart still bleeds from the backstabbing of Th’hweet.

“What was the problem?”

As the teachings say, “’Tis a nut best left uncracked.”

“Well, if Dr. Th’hweet won’t take one of your people—”

The doctor most specifically a *click*worlder demanded.

“Okay.” He held up his hands. “Look, I’m here to help. If your Director thinks I can help best by being Th’hweet’s chauffeur, no problem, that’s what I’ll do.”

We cover crests in gratitude. And they did.

Unfortunately, what they could not do was track down Dr. Th’hweet, who was apparently spending the day in the field. Through the Minder, the Director explained that she had to get back to work. With a goodbye chirp, and a wave of a wingtip, she Flung all three of them to the high-ceilinged lobby of the Stonehills Plaza, a tourist hotel reputed to be the best in the city.

O *click*flyer of *click*world, here will be your overnight nest, be that agreeable to you.

Sam’s magenta tongue was already tasting the air, scented with tantalizing aromas from the open-air restaurant beyond the reception desk. Feighan looked around the lobby. A well-groomed Rii-edsch sat in one of the overstuffed armchairs reading a newspaper. An Edbarglan—a long-necked, twelve-legged being with a tortoise-like shell a meter in diameter—made its slow way toward the high-speed elevators. “This will be fine.”

The Minder led them to the desk. Here sing a good many workers with two tongues; should aught you want, just ask. It leaned across the counter and let out an imperious melody.

A clerk hurried over, spreading its wings a hair between steps to cover ground a bit faster. “Hai Chotto matte ku-dasai.” It bowed and brought out a stack of registration cards.

Feighan and Sam looked at each other and sighed. Then Feighan said, “Uh  . . .  do you speak English?”

The native’s beak clacked. “Eng-aw? Sumimasen, Eng-aw dekinai. Chotto matte kudasai.” It turned away, presumably in search of someone who could speak English.

“How come you never learned Japanese, McGill?”

“’Cause all the Japanese speak English, Sam.”

“Then how come the Japanese still speak Japanese?”

“I think they’re waiting for us to catch up.”

“I ought to learn Rhanghan.”

“You probably ought to. We’ll go visit your mother sometime and see what she thinks.”

“Okay.” A moment later, he said, “I’m hungry, McGill.”

“Soon, Sam. Real soon now.”

“If we were in New York I could snack on a roach or something, but I haven’t seen any here.”

“Well, if you do, don’t scarf ’em up, huh? Rehmal proteins and Rhanghan proteins don’t mix.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Means we can’t eat the food here, kid.”

“We gotta go hungry the whole time we’re here?”

“No.” He scratched Sam’s skullbone just the way the child liked it. “It means that we eat stuff imported from home. Like we did on Actu.”

“How come I don’t have to do that back in New York?”

“Same reason I didn’t have to when I was on Throngorn.”

“That doesn’t tell me the reason, McGill.”

“I don’t know what the reason is.” He shrugged. “Terra and Throngorn have similar proteins, so we can eat each other’s food, but why the proteins are similar is out of my league, kiddo.”

A plump clerk with a great deal of scarlet in its feathers landed in front of them. It dismissed the Minder with a wave of its wing. “Right, then.” It looked Feighan up and down carefully. “That’ll be a double?”

“Yes, but with twin beds, please.”

“Well, I didn’t bleeding think you were attracted to scales and tails, guv.”

Feighan’s jaw dropped.

The Minder ducked its head beneath its wing.

Sam said, “McGill, what did he mean by ‘attracted to scales and tails?’”

“He meant, ah—” For the life of him, he could not think of a tasteful explanation.

The clerk bent over so its beak came within centimeters of Sam’s snout. “I meant I see one bloody poof after another come prancing through here ’and in ’and wiv such as they wasn’t meant to be ’olding ’ands wiv, eh? And I can see at a glance, it being as plain as the nose on ’is face, that the guv’nor ’ere ain’t no bloody poof.”

“And what’s a poof?”

“A poof, me fine—”

Feighan cleared his throat. “I think Sam’s a little too young for that.”

The clerk swiveled its head in his direction. “You’re ’aving me on.”

“He’s just a kid, okay?”

“Cor!” It opened and shut its beak several times without a sound. “’E’s got more to grow?”


“Then I don’t think I’ll be visiting ’is world any time soon now, eh, guv’nor? ’Oo’s ’is teacher while you’re ’ere?”

“Ah  . . . ” Feighan scratched his head. “He doesn’t have one.”

The clerk clacked its beak twice and stared hard at the Flinger. Then it let its breath out with a hiss. “Gawd, you Terrans are strange.” It produced registration cards, showed Feighan where to sign, and summoned a bellboy for their bags. In a confidential tone, it told Feighan, “’E don’t speak the Queen’s bloody English, ’e don’t, nor ’is own ’arf as well as ’e ought, poor fish, but ’e’s as ’onest as the night is long—”

“Day,” said Feighan.


“That’s ‘as honest as the day is long.’”

“Bloody idioms!” It made a harsh, cawing sound that Feighan decided, after a few moments, had to be laughter. “Just the other day somebody was asking for something I couldn’t quite remember, and I said, ‘’Arf a mo’, it’ll come to me, I’ve got it on the knack of me head.’ And didn’t that proper confuse ’em.” It laughed again. “That’s wot happens when you learn your bleeding English from old telly programmes.”

“Telly?” said Feighan blankly.

“The ’olovision’s ancestor. Only it’s two-dimensional, eh?”

“Uh-huh  . . .  you were saying about the bellboy?”

“Oh yes, oh yes, ’e’s as ’onest as the day is long—” It gave a small snort of triumph. “—so if you’d like to go straight outside to the terrace restaurant, which I see your young friend there is staring at with what you might call a certain intensity of expression, why, just give the bellboy ’arf a fancy, there’s a love, and ’e’ll take your bags on up for you, and bring the key back to the restaurant.”

Feighan allowed as how that sounded good and parted with half a Flinger Network Credit. Then he caught himself and turned back to the clerk. “Maybe you can help on something else. My girlfriend’s going into surgery this afternoon, and I was wondering if this Minder could, um, sort of keep me posted on how she’s doing? Her name’s Gina Maccari, and she’s the staff Telepath for the North American Consortium.”

“No trouble, guv’nor.” It sang aloud for a minute or so.

The Minder sang back, then turned to Feighan, hopped, bowed, and spread its wings wide.

“That does mean ‘yes,’ doesn’t it?”

“That it does, guv. ’E says ’e’ll leave a message for you at this desk every morning and every evening, so’s you can put your mind at ease before you start your day, and before you tuck in for the night.”

“Thank you.” Feighan bowed to the Minder. “You’ve been very, very helpful.” The Minder hopped again, flourished its wings one more time, and flew out the door.

Feighan followed his ward to the restaurant on the patio. Sam did not wait to be seated; spotting an empty table in the shade at the far end, he scampered over and wriggled into a chair.

Feighan smiled at the obviously harried maître d’, took the seat opposite Sam, and opened the menu laid across the ornate placemat. The courses looked familiar and uninspired. The prices made him groan.

“What’s the matter, McGill?”

“They’re paying me time-and-a-half to work here, but charging me triple to eat here  . . .  I suspect we’re not going to make much of a profit on this trip, Sam.”

“Did we come here to make a profit?”

“Actually, no.” A cylindrical robot waiter set a plate of French bread on the table. “Freeze, kid!”

Sam drew back his hand. “Why?”

“Table manners. Let the robot get out of the way first.”

The young Rhanghan mumbled something that might have been, “I would if it weren’t so slow,” but then again, might have been something entirely different.

Feighan decided to ignore the comment, whatever it was.

They ordered, were served just as Sam finished the last slice of bread, and, famished as they were—for the bread had whetted Sam’s appetite, not dulled it—cleaned their plates within seven minutes. Leaning back, Feighan smiled, sated. Cocking his head slightly so the sun slipping between the branches hit his shoulder and not his eye, he pressed the waiter’s call button and asked for a cup of coffee. “Me too!” said Sam.

About to argue the point, Feighan changed his mind. “Him too.”

“Good lunch, huh, McGill?”

He patted his stomach in answer.

“Are we going to have dessert?”

Feighan closed both eyes, opened one up halfway again, and studied the child. “You are kidding.”

“No! They have strawberry shortcake with whipped cream. It was on the menu.”

He permitted his right eyelid to drift shut. “Kiddo, I think you’re about ready for the record books. You’ve been in kindergarten for all of three weeks, and already you can read ‘strawberry shortcake with whipped cream.’ Now that’s what I call instant erudition.”

“Are you making fun of me, McGill?”

“Me? Make fun of you?” He shifted his head so the sun could wash his face. A pleasant drowsiness crept over him. “Why, yes, Sam, I suppose I am.”

“That’s not nice, McGill.”

“Nor is it nice to tell me you read something you couldn’t possibly have read.”

“But I know my alphabet! Wanna hear me? A-B-C-D-E-F-G—”

“I know—” Feighan yawned. “—you know your alphabet, Sam, and I’m very proud of you for knowing it, but simply knowing the alphabet doesn’t mean you know—”


He opened his eyes in surprise. “Go on.”



Sam sighed. “B-E-R-R-Y. S-H-O-R-T-C-A-K-E. W-I-T-H. W-H-I-P-P-E-D. C-R-E-A-M.” He sat back, tongue flickering in the air, and grinned. “What do you think, huh, McGill? Gonna take it back?”

He nodded. “I’m going to do more than take it back, Sam. I’m going to apologize. I’m sorry that I doubted you. You really do know how to spell ‘strawberry shortcake with whipped cream,’ and that’s pretty amazing, kiddo.” He frowned. “Where’d you learn how to spell that?”

Suddenly Sam seemed uncomfortable. “That doesn’t matter.”

“Sure it does. Where’d you learn?”

“You’ll just get mad.”

“No I won’t. Tell me.”

He dropped his snout. “Off the box at home.”

“What box?”

“The one that used to be in the freezer.”

Used to be?”

“You said you wouldn’t get mad, McGill.”

“You’re right. I said I wouldn’t get mad. I won’t get mad. Used to be?”

“I got hungry  . . .  and I had to learn how to spell it so I could replace it.”

“Well, that was very thoughtful of—”

“May we join you?”

Feighan looked up into a bearded face with merry brown eyes. Next to the man stood a tall, extremely attractive woman in her late thirties. He got to his feet even as they motioned him to stay put. “We’ve finished eating, but if you’d care for a cup of coffee—”

“Or dessert, McGill!”

“—or dessert, please, have a seat. I’m McGill Feighan, and the one with the sweet tooth is my ward Sam.”

“Ernest Williams.” The stranger held out his hand. A centimeter or two shorter than Feighan, he had a bit of a paunch but a powerful grip. “And my wife, Celeste Quandala.”

She wore a white dress and flat-heeled shoes. She used no makeup, but with her complexion she needed none. Her blue eyes gazed directly into his; she smiled. “Hello, Mr. Feighan.” She had white, even teeth.

“Pleased to meet you.” He truly enjoyed shaking her hand. “Are you tourists?”

“Missionaries,” said Williams, holding a chair for his wife.

“Oh, Ernest.” Quandala shook her head in apparent exasperation. “My husband is a missionary, Mr. Feighan—”

“Call me McGill.”

“Thank you, I will. But I’m only a teacher.”

“Only a teacher!” Williams rolled his eyes skyward. “Celeste, you’re doing the Lord’s work. Not in the way I do, yes, but you make it possible for me and the others to spread the Word of God. Don’t say ‘only a teacher,’ don’t ever say it.”

“Ah—what do you teach, Ms. Quandala?”

“Please—Celeste. Or it’s back to Mr. Feighan.” Her smile by itself made Feighan believe in heaven. “I’m an instructor in conversational English at Rehma Rebirth College.” She paused, as if waiting for him to recognize the name.

“I’m afraid I just got here, so I don’t know the school. Rehma Rebirth College. Is that a translation of the native name?”

“No,” said Williams, “it’s from the original English. We witness, you see, for the Rebirth Church.”

He spread his hands. “I feel sort of embarrassed, but the name doesn’t ring a bell. Does the Rebirth Church have many, uh, adherents?”

“We call them ‘communicants,’ McGill,” said Williams. “In America alone we have over fifty thousand communicants. Network-wide, a million, a million and a half, perhaps.”

“So you’re spread across the Network.”

“Oh, absolutely.” He leaned forward, thrusting his beard almost into Feighan’s face. “We have the Truth, McGill. God’s Truth for the community of souls. Our basic—”

“Ernest.” Quandala patted her husband on the wrist. “McGill’s just arrived here; he’s surely tired after the trip, and the last thing he wants is to have to be polite to two strangers—even strangers bearing God’s Truth for the community of souls.”

Feighan made a small noise, which he hoped, would suggest that while he thoroughly enjoyed being polite to strangers, especially those of Quandala’s quality, perhaps they could choose for their topic of conversation something other than “God’s Truth for the community of souls.”

Williams nodded once. “Of course.” With a fingertip he stroked the back of Quandala’s hand. He smiled. “So what brings you and Sam to Rehma, McGill? Tourism?”

“No, I’m on temporary duty here, filling in for some of the local Flingers who came down with this bug that’s been going around. I guess I start tomorrow, although it’s a little confused, what with so many administrative types out sick.”

“How long will you be here?” asked Quandala.

“That’s sort of up in the air.” He made a face. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to pun.”

Williams narrowed his eyes in puzzlement, gazed into the distance for a second, and then winced. “You’re forgiven. This time.”

“Thanks. Anyway, they told me back in New York it’d probably be two or three weeks.” He held out his hand, palm down and fingers spread, and waggled it from side to side. “More or less.”

“So you’ll be here for Festival!” said Quandala.

“I will?” He found it hard not to stare at her. Thank God she’s married, he thought. Otherwise I could be thinking that what Gina doesn’t know

“Oh, yes, definitely.”

A redheaded Terran in greasy coveralls approached their table. A short, muscular man, he said, “’Scuse. Found the problem with your heli. Carburetor. Have it fixed in an hour.”

Williams said, “You will bill it to the Mission?”

“’Course.” The mechanic nodded, turned about, and left.

“What a relief,” said Quandala. “We can get back tonight. Anyway, McGill, as I was saying, today’s—” She bent her head and pressed a button on the casing of her wristwatch. “Today’s Saturday, September 26 back home. Isn’t it?”

Feighan nodded.

“Here it’s late Freeze; Thaw is probably going to start in two weeks, give or take a couple of days. And of course Festival starts the first day of Thaw. So figure it could start, um  . . . ” Tilting her face to the sun, she half-closed her eyes while she worked out the dates, in the process giving Feighan a good opportunity to study her marvelous profile. “As early as October 8, I think, and as late as the 12th or the 13th. You will be here then, won’t you?” She seemed very anxious that his answer be “yes.”

“As far as I know, yes.”

“Oh, good.” She actually clapped her hands and beamed. “We’ll be taking the helijet for the trip; if you are around, please join us.”

“Thank you,” he said, “but I suspect I’ll be working then.”

Williams laughed out loud. “Nobody works during Festival. The whole planet shuts down.”

“In that case, thank you, I’d like that.” Quandala and Williams seemed very knowledgeable about local customs, and that delighted Feighan. For him, the hardest part of interstellar travel was always finding someone who could explain what was going on, and why, in terms he could understand. “What about you, Sam, want to go see Festival from a helijet?”

The Rhanghan looked up from his dessert. He had whipped cream all over his snout—and a great big grin.

As soon as he got out of bed the next morning, Feighan phoned the desk for the latest message from the Rehmal Minder. The previous night the note had been brief: “Maccari fine; operation successful,” and he was hoping for more detail. “Hello, this is McGill Feighan in room—”

“Of course, Mr. Feighan, of course. ’E just called wiv the progress report, so to speak. The lady’s doing fine, resting comfortably. It’s night over there now, innit?”

“Yes. Or very early in the morning, at any rate.”

“Ah. Well, ’e said as soon as she wakes up they’ll swap her old blood for new blood, and you are not to worry. ’E’ll call again tonight.”

“Thank you.” His voice trembled with relief. “Thank you very much.”

“Just doing my job as best I can, Mr. Feighan. Which is something as you might keep in mind when it comes time to check out.”

He chuckled. “Right. Bye.” To Sam, he said, “Gina’s doing fine.”

The Rhanghan looked up from his coloring book. “Good!”

Feighan made himself comfortable in the armchair and poured himself a cup of room service coffee. A minute later someone knocked on the door. Ensconced in soft cushions, cradling warm wakefulness, he did not want to move. “Can you get that, Sam?”

“Sure.” He scampered across the room, his swishing tail carving an S-shaped wake in the pile of the carpet. He opened the door and said, “Good morning.”

A high, thin voice said, “You are Mr. McGill Feighan?”

“No,” he said scornfully, “I’m Sam.”

“The clerk at the desk informed us that Mr. McGill Feighan was staying in this room.”

“Yeah, he is. You wanna talk to him?”

“If we might.”

“Okay.” Without closing the door, Sam turned his head. “McGill! Two people here wanna talk to you.”

Feighan sighed. Another fifteen minutes and the coffee would have driven the early morning fuzzies from his mind, but he was clearly not going to get those fifteen minutes. At least he had gotten the good word about Maccari. He put his cup on the table and stood up. God, he hated having to make intelligent conversation before coming fully awake. It was like trying to row without oars. “Invite them in, Sam.”

“Okay.” Sam turned back to the strangers in the hall. “Come on in.”

Two Rehmal came through the door. The short blue one struggled with an oversized briefcase. The taller marched briskly across the room. Unlike every other Rehmal Feighan had encountered, it wore clothes. Sort of: a sleeveless white lab coat hung over its violet feathers.

Trying not to react to the sight, Feighan braced himself for a beakswipe across his cheeks.

Instead, the native reached for his hand. “You’re Mr. McGill Feighan.”

“Yes.” He tried hard to keep the surprise—and the feeling of reprieve—off his face. “And you must be Dr. Th’hweet.”

Th’hweet released Feighan’s hand. “Precisely.” Around his neck looped a loosely knotted tie of a crimson nearly the hue of his crest. “My unparalleled assistant—” He made a sound, sharp and rising, and repeated it twice more. “I suggest you pronounce it ‘Sree?sree?sree?.’ We have a number of things to do today, and we should commence immediately.”

“Ah  . . . ” He shrugged. “You’re the boss.”

Th’hweet bobbed his head in a way that was more than a nod and less than a bow. “Precisely.” He reached into a pocket of the lab coat and drew forth a sheet of stiff paper. Striding to the table, he unfolded the paper and smoothed it out. “These are the settlements we will visit today, listed in the order in which we will visit them. Any questions?”

“Well  . . .  yes, frankly. How familiar are you with the way a Flinger works?”

Th’hweet fastened his unblinking gaze on Feighan. “You have the ability to transport up to 918 kilograms of mass from any spot in the known universe to any other spot in the known universe. You are able to do this as often as ninety-six times a day, nine days out of ten.”

“A hundred and ten, actually,” murmured Feighan. “There is, however, a limitation you didn’t mention: I can only teleport to places I’ve visited.”

“Or seen.” Th’hweet made it a statement, not a question.

“Well, yes,” said Feighan. “I can Fling to places I’ve only seen.”

“Then the limitation is not a limitation.” Turning his head slightly, he trilled four notes in Rehmal. Sree?sree?sree? laid the briefcase on the table and unlocked it. It opened into a flat-screen display with attached keyboard. “A direct link to our weather satellites, Mr. Feighan.”

“Oh.” He studied it with interest. “I didn’t know Rehma had weather satellites.”

“In fact, you rather assumed we didn’t, yes?” said Th’hweet sharply.

Caught off-guard, Feighan floundered. “Well, I, um  . . .  I hadn’t really thought of it before, I mean—”

“I wish I understood why a race of mediocre technological sophistication instinctively believes other races to be even less sophisticated. Your own aphorism would have it that ‘Experience is the best teacher.’ One would think that having been discovered by the FNC, rather than discovering it, would have taught you not to underestimate aliens.”

Feighan took a deep breath. This would sure go a lot easier if I were awake . . . . “Are you always this grouchy, or only in the mornings?”

Th’hweet’s beak opened wide and shut slowly. After a moment, he made the raspy cawing sound Feighan had decided was local laughter. “My apologies, Mr. Feighan. My personality is normally abrasive, a tendency accentuated by my recent lack of sleep. I shall try to control myself.”

“No problem.” He waved a hand dismissively. “If I don’t get enough sleep, I’m not exactly Mr. Nice Guy myself.”

“You can say that again,” said Sam.

Feighan pointed a finger at him. “Enough out of you, kiddo.”

“Yes, McGill.”

He turned back to Th’hweet. “About the weather satellites.”

“We have twelve. In addition to the normal observational gear, each is equipped with a reconnaissance camera directly controllable from this portable, battery-powered console. Given clear air, the reconnaissance cameras provide resolution fine enough to permit reading a newspaper from space.”

“Now that is impressive.” Feighan meant it.

“And I must confess that we did not build them, but rather bought them from a world of nation-states that suddenly found itself in need of massive amounts of capital for reconstruction.”

Feighan blinked. “Did you buy them from the winners or the losers?”

“The appropriate term, I believe, is ‘survivors.’”

“Uh-huh  . . . ” He stared at the console for a few seconds. “So what you’re planning is, you’ll type in the name of the place you want to visit, the satellite will flash back a close-up of the place, I focus on the picture, and then Fling us there, right?”


He could do it. It would be hard to judge the differences in angular momentum accurately enough to guarantee that they did not sway when they materialized, but nobody would go skidding across the pavement. “All right,” he said at last, “when do you want to start?”

“In a moment.” Th’hweet went to the window and looked out. “An epidemic is loose on my home world, Mr. Feighan.”

“So I understand.”

Th’hweet looked back over the top of his right wing. “What you might not understand is that I am the only board-certified epidemiologist on the entire planet.”

Feighan said, “I’m not quite sure what you’re leading up to, Dr. Th’hweet.”

“Our leaders are not particularly alarmed by the present state of affairs because we Rehmal are a hardy people, and because our leaders lack expertise in this area. I, on the other hand, have expertise.”


“I received my MD from Harvard Medical School, and performed post-doctoral research in epidemiology at Massachusetts General.”

“That’s impressive, but—”

“Mr. Feighan, I am terrified by the situation, and I have no one to turn to for assistance except the admirable Sree?sree?sree?. I am confronted with an epidemic of unknown origins, with unknown degree of contagion, transmitted by an unknown vector. I must identify every aspect of this disease, and then must eradicate it.”

“But isn’t that what epidemiologists do?”

“Of course!” Th’hweet clacked his beak once. “But there is this which you must understand about my people: they have little, if any, concept of public health measures, and they cling to tradition like vines to a tree. My investigations are going to offend them—upset them—even outrage them—”

“Why?” he asked in honest bewilderment.

“Because, to find the truth, we shall have to violate some rather strong taboos. And in all probability, the public health measures we are going to have to propose will fly in the face of ten thousand years of traditional teaching. Which leads directly to my next question: how long does it take you to recover from a Fling?”

“Anywhere from thirty seconds to five minutes, depending on how tired I am.”

“Can you tell in advance how long it will take?”

“Not to the second.”

“I see.” Th’hweet bobbed his head up and down. “In that case, are you able to determine—without actually attempting to Fling—whether or not you are capable of Flinging?”

“Oh, sure. Except,” he said thoughtfully, “toward the end of a very long day, I sometimes have trouble Flinging a max mass a long distance. Not that I can’t do it, or that I screw up the momentum, just that it sometimes takes two tries.”

“I see, I see. Very well. After we arrive in a village, please inform me the instant you feel confident that you can teleport us away. I shall avoid controversial subjects until you so notify me.”

“Dr. Th’hweet—” Feighan cocked his head. “Am I correct in feeling that you just might say the sorts of things that would make it necessary for us to Fling out on a moment’s notice—or less?”

“Precisely, Mr. Feighan.” The Rehmal blinked his bright eyes slowly. “I confidently expect that at least a few of my people will try to kill us today.”

Feighan sighed. “If nothing else, that should keep me awake  . . . ”

Feighan yawned as they arrived at their eighteenth stop of the day, a rocky, desolate island off the west coast of Rehma’s super-continent. While Sam scrambled to the top of a sun-drenched boulder, and the haggard Th’hweet flew toward a group of reed-roofed nests, the Flinger turned to Sree?sree?sree?. “What did he call this place?”

Th’hweet’s assistant tilted back his head and trilled nine bars of an intricate melody.

“Uh  . . .  yeah. I guess I don’t need to know how to pronounce it, anyway  . . .  Where did you learn to speak English?”

“I work for American post-doc seven years ago.” From the leather pouch at his waist, Sree?sree?sree? took first a small knife, and then a dark blue object that looked like a peach pit. “Now she is Ornitholoju—logical Consultant to Philadelphia Zoo. Nice lady. She find penpals for my children.”

“You’re married?”

“Oh, many years now. Four broods, nine children. Maybe brood five come this Fruit, I think.” Scratching at the rocky soil, he spread his wings and twitched them in a way that fluffed the feathers out. He settled down with a companionable chirp. “Take sun, Mr. Feighan.” He began to carve a face into the big blue seed.

“It does feel good, doesn’t it?” He sat on a basalt outcropping and yawned again. “Is Dr. Th’hweet married?”

Sree?sree?sree? cawed in delight. “Him? Who going nest with bad-mouthed genius like him?”

Feighan suppressed a smile. “Right  . . .  Tell me, what exactly is he doing today? We’re not spending much time in any one place, but he doesn’t seem to be stirring up any mobs, either.”

“He draws a map of sickness, Mr. Feighan. Much of today he just wants to find how many folks sick here, how many folks sick there. He looks for a pattern, he says. And what he looks for, he finds. Is very, very good researcher.”

Lab coat flapping in the breeze, Th’hweet swooped over the rise and landed before them. “Are you ready, Mr. Feighan?” He sounded testy.

Half-closing his eyes, he turned his attention inward. Yes, his Talent pulsed strong and bright, eager for exercise. “Any time you are, Doctor.”

Sree?sree?sree? had already returned knife and sculpture to his pouch and opened up the console. He waited attentively for Th’hweet’s command.

The epidemiologist stood on one leg while he consulted his list. After a moment, he sang out a place name. Sree?sree?sree? tapped a string of keys, then spread his wing over the console to keep the sun off the screen. Feighan squatted down and peered at the overhead view of a snowbound forest. “Where’s the village?”

Sree?sree?sree? pointed to bulges on tree branches that, on closer inspection, proved to be nests. “All through area.”

Feighan shook his head. “The branches and twigs and all are obscuring my view. Can you find me a clearing or something?”

Sree?sree?sree? toyed with the controls; the camera panned to the northeast slowly until an opening in the forest canopy appeared. “Is two klicks from village.”

“It’s fine by me. Dr. Th’hweet?”

“If you can’t do better, Mr. Feighan, I’ll have to live with it, won’t I?”

He did not comment. “Hey, Sam!”


“Yeah, come on.” Pebbles clinked as the young Rhanghan slid down from his perch. Feighan thought, visualized, concentrated, felt, knew—


“Here we are.” The late winter wind bore a hint of thawing rot.

“McGill, it’s cold!”

“Sorry, kid. We won’t be here long.”

Th’hweet let out a high-pitched cackle that drew a responding screech from the treetops surrounding the clearing. A moment later four villagers glided down from nests thirty meters up. Feighan stepped back out of the way; Sam moved with him. Sree?sree?sree? twisted his neck around and began to scratch the middle of his back with his beak.

Th’hweet greeted each of the strangers, starting with the largest and ending with the smallest. He opened his mouth to speak.

A corpse hit the ground twenty meters away.

The four villagers covered their crests with their wings for a moment, then broke into a conflicting gabble of song.

Feighan bent his head to Sree?sree?sree?’s and whispered, “What’s going on?”

Sree?sree?sree? unwound his astonishingly limber neck. “They say sorry for bad omen. Many folks here sick.”

Th’hweet flared his wings and cried out.

With a soft noise of distress, Sree?sree?sree? sidled closer to Feighan. “Doctor losing temper. Says sickness folks’ own fault. Says folks here very stupid.”

The villagers flared their own wings; the largest, with emerald head feathers and orange body plumage, sang a quick, sharp response.

“They tell doctor to close beak.” He paused while Th’hweet replied. “Now doctor says even nestlings know not to foul own nest. He says sickness comes from droppings, flock must learn to do right.”

All four locals cawed hugely, in unison.

Bouncing on his talons, Th’hweet screeched at his audience.

“Now doctor says same thing. Big orange one says she is Greenlife Teacher to flock, and knows Nest Forest needs, um, um, food, you know? Droppings make nest trees tall and branches thick. Doctor says droppings make nestlings thick and folks sick. Teacher says folks who hide feathers in groundstumper clothes are thick ones. She says many years of history prove her right.”

Th’hweet ignored them. Stretching his wings, he lifted off. The villagers followed. The five disappeared into the leafless forest.

“What’s up?” said Feighan.

Sree?sree?sree?, listening, seemed to tense. “You ready to Fling?”

“Yes, but where?”

“Hotel, I think. Sam, you stay close with us, okay?” He touched the pouch at his waist absently, as if to make sure he still had it.

“I’m too cold to go anywhere.”

A moment later the teacher’s high, skittering screech whipped across the clearing. A moment later a hundred voices joined it, like hounds baying as they find the scent. Sree?sree?sree? said, “Ho boy. Greenlife Teacher told ’em get doctor. Get ready, Mr. Feighan.”

Th’hweet appeared in the distance, zigzagging through the thicket of immense tree trunks like a slalom racer. Twenty or thirty members of the flock followed in hot pursuit.

“They’re gaining on him!” said Sam.

“Is coat,” said Sree?sree?sree?. “Extra weight; slows him down.”

“Why does he wear it?”

“Says he needs pockets.”

Feighan squinted into the murk. None of the pursuers seemed to brandish a weapon of any sort. They would have to catch Th’hweet physically, then—and if they came too close, perhaps a small Fling could save the doctor.

Sree?sree?sree? checked the console latches, fidgeted, and let loose a low impatient whistle. “Th’hweet is old, but healthy. I think should win.”

“He better,” said Feighan. “Say ‘Go!’ the second he touches down.” Closing his eyes, he concentrated on visualizing their hotel room. He grabbed Sam’s hand.

Wings beat at the air; feathers slapped his face.



With a snort of disgust, Sam pulled loose from Feighan’s grip and bounded onto his bed. Sree?sree?sree? said something to Th’hweet that the doctor answered with a beak snap and a toss of the head.

“What was all that about?” demanded Feighan.

Spreading twigs and feathers on the table, the exhausted Th’hweet began to poke them into plastic bags that Sree?sree?sree? held open. His hands trembled; his voice rasped harshly. “If it’s any of your business, Mr. Feighan, I was gathering samples.”

“With the whole-hearted cooperation of the local flock, huh?”

“Did you fail to understand me when I said we would be violating some taboos?”

Feighan sat in the armchair. “Doctor, I’m not too familiar with your local customs, but I have discovered that no matter where you go in the Network, diplomacy helps.”

Th’hweet whirled around to glare at the Flinger. “And just what the devil is that supposed to mean, you young pup?”

He laced his fingers behind his neck. “Look, Sree?sree?sree? translated what you were saying, and frankly, when you insulted the teacher—”

“Fools deserve to be insulted!”

“Maybe so, but they’ll be more helpful if you flatter them.”

“Feighan, you know nothing of the culture or the discipline, so mind your own business!”

Tired and exasperated, he tried to keep his voice calm. “Now, listen, Doctor—”

“I do not listen to idiots!” Th’hweet flared his wings. “One more word and I’ll drive my beak through your heart!”

Feighan leveled a finger at the epidemiologist.

He tweaked his Talent.

Th’hweet vanished.

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