by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
Squithen was gone from the forest clearing, which was good. The stench of the recent carnage was starting to reach him now and had it reached her she'd been here still, covering her nose as well as her eyes, counting or vocabing, one or the other.
Klay'd had to yell at her, which he never did, since she was so often cowed into incoherence by even a stern word, but then she'd heard him, flawlessly pilot-signed assent, and dashed like a smart-one into the bush, back the trail they'd followed here from the Dulcimer. Likely she'd really do everything he'd told her.
"Squithy, go to the cousins and tell them to bring big guns and hurry, because there are so monsters here like Choodoy said, and I killed one and maybe another. You run and be safe and stay there! Tell them we didn't find the uncles, but I'm trapped. Go!"
The dead things lay there across the small clearing, two or three of the tiny forms sundered into iron-blooded mess, another half-dozen more just lying there still, with shapes that looked broken and wrong even though he'd never seen any of them before, and the wicket monster mostly between him and the dead, holes in its hide leaking dull copper. He could see heat or gas evaporating out of the husk, and dark splinters of structural bone where his third shot had struck home, right at eye edge of the thing.
It must have been that head shot, trying to hit something important, that had worked, stopping it long enough for them to flee and, in the end, dropping it in a heap. Good thing he'd had his training.
He'd been at the armorer's on Flason not too long ago, taking certification so he could carry on station, his pocket piece rousing extra interest from the staff there because of size of the pellet – it limited the carrying capacity yes, but it had stopping power. It had been his great aunt's and come to him as the first of his mother's children to go off ship for a crew exchange. He was a decent shot on the targets and for three days he could see "Klay Patel Smith" at the top of the week's hottest shooter list at the shop. They'd called him Kid Klay, and that was fine – both the Patels and the Smiths were skinny as a rule anyhow and if they thought him young it made him feel better than being called undergrown.
So he was alive, at least, since they'd walked into the star-lit clearing and then that thing had charged straight on, discovered in the middle of crushing the small creatures – and he'd fired before turning and running, properly getting between Squithy and the trouble.
What he should have done was charge directly back the path they'd come in on, like Squithy did. Instead, he'd been doing an intercept course, like the compcourses showed...
The damnedest thing is that he was trapped, just like a couple of the small ones had been on the other side of the clearing. He'd run through a small bush and next thing he'd known was the scrape of branches and the rattle of leaves. The sound had confused him, and made him pause long enough that the web came down directly on him.
He was good and trapped and he might also be injured, his foot tangled in a knotted cord of fiber changing hue from green to blue and back again as he tried to search out a weak point. He was young – maybe the pain he felt was the twisted restraint and not a sign of actual damage. . .
He fretted, pinned under the heavy webbing, his good cutting and hacking tools all "safe and under eye" as the cousins wanted it, back at the ship, and Squithy not allowed to carry something with a sharp point or a good edge, on account of her being her, so she'd be best at the ship even if he was stuck. Didn't need an uncle to tell him to send the silly kid home and hope she survived and so could they.
The web was sticky around the edges, and multi-layered. Unlike the dead thing, the web was near odorless. One gloppy strand was slowly moving down the side of his face – not moving alive, but moving as the sticky stuff stretched away from his skin as he twisted slow. He tried that with his foot, and found some give there. Maybe now... he gave a great kick, like he was kicking open a recalcitrant locker door. . .
The pain was exquisite, wrapping his foot and leg with pressure and twisting it more.
His vision phased to full sight – he hadn't realized that he'd lost clear sight for a moment until it came back.
He thought back over what he'd seen, felt the stickiness on his face going softer again. . .
There it was – even his foot didn't feel as bad. So rapid twisting and pushing made the trap tighter. Slow effort – very slow – might work.
No way to be sure how long this had all taken, no way to be sure he'd ever see a of help, given the cousins sitting there with the uncles out of the ship.
Squithy was the key. She was real sharp with a lot of stuff, but couldn't always reach it. She remembered patterns and numbers something fierce but she was scared of words. With Tranh and Rusko overdue, she was his hope.
He felt the breeze stir now, thought he heard one of those flying things in the distance. Maybe he heard something closer, but maybe it was the stuff on his face, drying in the breeze. Whatever made the noises, the wind brought with it more of the stink.
He felt his hand, the one still holding the gun. He could move it, and so he could shoot if he needed to, within much of his field of vision. Otherwise. . .if something came up behind him, say, he'd be in trouble.
Figuring that getting the stuff off from top down was the key, he moved as fast as he could, slowly.
It was hard to solve a puzzle from the inside, with both hands and both legs tied by gooey rope, and one hand needing to keep hold of the gun, just in case. It was harder with the breeze rising to colder and the star's illumination falling as it moved behind several of the overhanging trees. It did seem that as time went on the web-stuff was greener than blue, and that he could move faster. Maybe it was drying, or aging, or –
For a rare moment he wished that he was Squithy. Well, not that he was Squithy, but that he could have her absolute pattern recognition. He was sure that things had changed slightly in front of him, that the number of creatures appearing severely broken had fallen and that there were changes in the –
Yes, there were changes. Surely there's been six of the creatures hanging, apparently lifeless, in the web well across the way, and now there were three. Of the others – one of the remaining was no longer foot-caught, and there, had something in it's paw – in it's hand! – that was moving slowly.
"Murble la. Vemarmurble."
He'd been hearing little noises, like leaves moving quiet, to his right, where branches of the skinny trees tangled in high bushes. He couldn't turn his head quite that far to see what was happening, and he afraid to twist his whole body. Now, the sound grew to unknowable murmurs, like someone was talking real soft and long way away, talking in a language he didn't know. He listened, wondering if it was just those birds coming back. Birds made noises, flying things did, and some of them ate berries.
Still, with caution, he got his elbow a little looser from the gunky rope and raised it, to bring the aim of the gun lower. He'd had to shoot up at the creature who'd charged, but these sounds were lower to the ground, stealthy....
He heard now a distinct droning hum, and it came from across the clearing and from behind, it came from both sides and maybe even from the trees themselves. The sound rose, making it hard to keep track of the noises to his right, and then rose again as across the way brown, gray, and black furred creatures stretched, rolled over, sat up, stood up, turned to look at him, all at once, all unblinking.
Not all of the furry creatures were moving – but far more than he'd expected. Had they been stunned with fear? Paralyzed by the webbing? Yet the synchronicity of their movement was unnerving. And then the live creatures all blinked and stared at him at once and a kind of over-vision hit, as if he were watching a viewscreen through another viewscreen. More than that, he knew the drone was more than mere noise now.
He felt the questions more than heard them – not as if he was asked out loud in a proper language but buried in the drone – the idea, bouncing in his head until he knew that these weren’t questions so much as demands: Who do you know, one was, accompanied by out-of-true images of a dozen or two humans, and the other was an image of Squithy – clear as a viewscreen straight on – with overtones of where is and will she return?
Klay had no answers and a lot of questions himself.
Klay was sure his voice was lost in the vast clearing; the trees had leaves that absorbed sound, the grass and bushes must surely do the same, the breeze itself – and the sound the creatures made.
"My name is Klay, and I'm stuck. Can you help me? Can you hear me?"
The ambient sounds quieted – he hadn't realized the creatures were making so many sounds as they moved, as stealthy as they'd been. Eyes were on him again, and this time when he heard the murbles he was sure there was variation in them. Across the clearing a small group of the furries gathered, motioning and mumbling together so there was not doubt that they were communicating something to each other – the question was, what? Surely they'd seen him shoot the creature – were they more afraid of him than they were of him?
"My name is Klay Patel Smith and I need help. I've killed the monster. Can you get me out?"
Across the way now there were two of the creatures still hung up in the webwork, and only one of them active – and that one ignored now by the others, who were again staring in his direction, and as he managed to pull his left elbow free they gathered energy, moving in his direction.
Klay took a deep breath, carefully glancing to his elbow and using steady pressure peeled another inch or two of uniform away from the stringy mess, away from –
He froze, hearing now not only another threatening sibilance but the giveaway sounds of movement close behind him. A tall green frond tipped with red fuzz swayed maddeningly on the edge of his sight, each movement accompanied by the sound of plant rubbing against plant.
The movement slowed, and then more of them bending and waving, until one frond end, much thicker than the rest, began to slowly lever downward into his sight, the swish of moving leaves accompanied by low hum he was starting to recognize as the willful mumbles of the creatures he shared the battlefield with. Another sound got louder, but it was more than that, it was a vibration of the netting he was swaddled in. A moment of dislocation as he felt a fleeting touch of that mind-vision and now, perhaps the out-of-sight sound and vibration started to make sense as chewing or clawing.
They were there, and they weren't attacking him. Instead, they were trying to help.
"Thank you," he called out, but the mumbles got loud.
He shivered, and only part of it was the result of major web-thread shaking and then going limp. Now the mumbles were murbles again, and that mind-vision was trying to get him to do—what? He was getting a strange array of images, half of him and half like some fuzzy wraith in motion, like they wanted him to roll up into a ball!
Below him now, he saw heads and fists full of cord-wrapped stones. If he could pull his feet up some, tight, yes into a ball, the creatures could worry the rooted web easier.
The ball idea bounced around his head, and he risked trying to raise his feet, actually holding onto rather than denying the strands that held him. The web deformed around him, and another, much lighter twungging noise was greeted with acclamation from a multi-hued crowd that had grown from two or three to perhaps a dozen. The vibrations had grown to a constant, and he was bouncing as the creatures added their weight to his, stretching the overhead web at the same time they were tearing at the base.
His left boot and leg came away from the sticky base and he dared to grab a spot behind his knee with his hand. The bouncing increased and then his other leg was free.
That leg wasn't easy to pull up – Klay looked down and saw a face staring into his, a nonhuman face, somehow full of worry and concern and intent. The fur had silver-tips around the eyes and into the skull-top, with a dark almost black stripe swirling into brown around it.
The creature was testing his boot, he saw, gingerly touching his pants where they overlapped his boot, and . . .
He felt the concern enter his mind in the picture of something he didn't know – maybe a fruit. The picture of a fruit, sloughing its skin, and overlaying it the image of a foot – not his – falling away from a furred body.
Ah – he saw it, they were afraid they'd hurt him.
He looked at his left leg where he'd grabbed it, pulled on it to show that there was slack in the pants, thought at the creature of his leg inside the pants . . .
And the creature climbed then, grabbing his boots and then his pants, a free hand or paw wrapping a string of greenish vine around the webbing, stretching it to insulate or isolate the webbing from him, using a rock on a stick as a lever to pull the web away . . .
A loud murmur then, and a vision of Squithy running with others. At the same time an insistent vision of a fruit being pulled in many directions at once and the creatures around, including the one on his leg, all grabbing at web-strands and huffing and dashing straight away form him with their particular strands of the net . . .
Unexpectedly all the strands holding him parted, and he fell with bone-jarring impact on his hip, the added weight of the silver-furred one twisting again that foot that had been sorely stressed to begin with.
"Dammit!" he yelled, and fought for breath. A flash of light tore through half-closed eyes, and a horrendous explosive thunder shattered the near-evening glade's urgent murbles into silence, leaving Klay's ear's ringing in the aftermath.
A high human voice screamed "No, no, no!" as he scrambled to get up and instead fell heavily, face down into a crowd of furry shapes.
The unfamiliar smell of dirt and vegetation assaulted his nostrils but he spent only a moment righting himself and lunging to his feet from an awkward crouch. Across the way were crew members, and around him, thigh high and shorter, a dozen of the creatures who'd freed him. He stood on uncertain legs, startled to find he still held the gun in near nerveless fingers.
The noise was all over there, where a chemical cloud drifted away onto the looming dusk.
On the edge of the clearing Squithy stood, red-faced and yelling, purposefully standing between Cousins Susrim and Falmer waving her arms, not just standing there but actively disrupting any chance any of the three had to aim.
"You can't! You can't. They're good!"
Klay yelled too, instinctively moving between his silver-fringed helper and the weapons being leveled in his direction, too.
"Stop. I'm fine, don't shoot! They helped me!"
Instinctively Klay moved his hands repeatedly palm down, miming the slow slow slow one might use on moving stuff dockside, "Stand down, damn it, just stand down!" he said, trying to insist across the distance and not willing to trust his foot to move.
A sigh went through the glade, as if a wind of hums and murbles had worshiped itself into a breathy quiet, and all around, the creatures seated themselves where they were, silent and expectant, watching him, watching Squithy. Waiting.
Klay sat quiet in his berth, staring at familiar walls, waiting for a decision. The decision. What decision he wasn't sure of.
He'd studied some star charts. He'd thought of how it would be if he was in charge, what he'd change, what he'd keep the same.
Wasn't really wasn't up to him, but he thought hard about it, writing a file in his head but not recording it anywhere. Rusko and Trahn Smith – his uncles, officially – were Senior Pilot and Captain, and they were Trader and Senior Trader, one by one. For that matter they were Senior and standard everything else on the ship, from 'ponocists and medicos to tech and cooks and the cousins—Cousins Susrim and Cousin Falmer and Cousin Squithy – they were all general crew, 'cept they should have been more, but maybe not Squithy.
Anyhow, usually not Squithy.
And since he was a pilot and a tech, and mobile, too, at the moment he was back-up everywhere, a hardly known outside cousin to the general crew who'd lived the ship since birth. All awkward, and needing a cure.
Their ages, that was the problem, their ages and their experience. Everyone but Trahn was almost too young to be what they Was, the ship having come to them after a really stupid firefight on Trask-Romo took out Trahn's Da and Ma, who were Squithy and Susrim and Falmer's parents too.
Susrim was studied to be cook and arms, and was up to a local back-up pilot rating any day now, but he didn't have the credits from a recognized school or committee yet. Falmer, she was one cycle behind Susrim in age but ought to have been head cook awhile back, but Susrim was studied there and she wasn't. Falmer had some medico stuff and was in charge of Squithy when Trahn wasn't, which it turned out was most of the time. At the moment Trahn was Falmer's ward, hard as that was on both of them.
Captain Trahn was where he was because he took the warguilt payoff the bar came up with on account of the bloodshed and boom, brought in pretty Uncle Rusko, who'd not been much of a fit on his home ship despite his top grade piloting, on account of that ship, Proud Plenty, was looking for blood-heirs, and then that meant Groton needed a Patel or a Smith, and when it all filtered down through a standard of people-trades from ship to ship – Klay'd ended up here, on a ship where neither the Captain nor the Senior Pilot had ever run a crew meeting, and where the crew, aside from him and Rusko, had never even been in a real crew meeting on account of the Dulcimer's departed owners hadn't run a crew-share ship.
Now – well things had changed when he'd come out of hydropnics, where he was back-up to the injured Trahn. Trahn's legs... not good. One was broke just below the knee, and the other was ankle sprained. Falmer had seen one of those problems for real in life, meaning everything gettting done doing was by the file and devices, not from experience.
Rusko had cornered Klay yesterday, he being the mobile one of the high command at the moment, a finger-to-lip followed by beckoning motion bringing them both outside to the rough camp still in place beside the ship. They stood well within the clearing, the usual camp followers lounging watchfully around the fringes of the three new paths they'd made for themselves, and sometimes watching the path to the fight-scene.
"I see seven of them," Klay'd offered, not trusting that there weren't two dozen more sitting behind the weeds laughing at them. It wasn't that they were malevolent – but that they were so quiet and sneaky when they weren't talking to themselves or each other.
"Quick eyes, Pilot," Rusko said then, "really quick eyes. Squithy tells me that there's seven of them here most times but not the same seven – that three of them hang out all the time together and – she says they are living here – but the others change off. She's being a regular field biologist!"
"But she's not here with them right now . . ."
Rusko smiled a wan smile – "No, I had to come get her and ask her to talk to the Captain. She hasn't had a word to say to him, seems like. We need to get some stuff cleared up real soon . . ."
He'd let that sentence go reluctantly, and took up again, with a sudden urgency.
"Normally, on most ships, this is something command ought to know but not official. But since this is all so odd, we need to get things clear. Can you tell me what you've done – I mean, are you and Squithy playing pair?"
Klay shook his head as the recalled, remembering that he'd burst out laughing and then shook his head at the time.
"Muddy tracks, have you lost your mind?" Rusko'd sighed, and held his hands up.
"It doesn't matter to us, really – you're split cousins far enough away that's not a matter. But here, understand where we're coming from. And I mean we in this since it has been bothering Trahn so fierce."
Klay'd waited, maybe not patient, and Senior Pilot had made hand-talk of something like clear glide path before speaking again.
"Something happened. We know something happened. It wasn't just that you shot that thing, hard as that must have been, but did something happen between the pair of you before then? Because we all know that Squithy now isn't the Squithy she was before. And if she got that way because you paired in the bush that'll do for us. We just need to know . . ."
Klay knew it, he'd known it for sure the moment she'd stepped in front of the guns between her cousins and the clearing. She was changed – and he was afraid he knew why. He'd played it over a bunch of time in his head, wondering if the shock of the attack had done it, or if the air had done it.
"All we did was what I told the crew we'd do. Hadn't heard from you, so we walked out the trail you'd marked to the clearing, partly for some exercise, partly looking for you. Comms were coming up empty – not even time signal – and we figured, that is I figured three hours overdue was pushing things. It was on my head since you'd told Susrim and Falmer to stand tower watch.
"Got out the trail, and there you weren't. Hiked on to the clearing with three paths out, like you said, but the clearing wasn't empty – there were all the creatures there, trying to get some of them out of the webs, the rest quiet and waiting and watching, and then Choodoy's monster came in and –"
"The fight stuff, we have that recorded Klay, what you told us, and what you told Susrim right then. There's a couple things we'll need to talk about there, but some of it I'll have to clear with Trahn anyhow before I can say a word on it."
Klay hand signaled acknowledge.
"I mean, it all happened so fast. The thing broke out of the woods of a sudden, and it was like it looked at the littles and was just going to eat them all – I mean, we knew that's what was going to happen, we could feel it! – and then it looked at us, and Squithy yelled, 'No, you can't, Tobor! Klay, stop it!' and it looked at us and made that charge..."
He'd done the rehash twice more, from different directions, the while they walked the perimeter of the clearing. By the end of their walk one of the creatures, the one Klay called Oki, the one who'd done the most to free him, had come to them and walked as if part of the conversation for a turn, and then natural as could be grabbed Klay's hand and pulled himself on Klay's shoulder, the usual low murble of greeting suffused with the gentle mental touch he thought was a hello, or maybe a request for news or – something.
The expression on Rusko's face went from horrified to resigned with a shake of his head.
"Susrim told me that you and Squithy have both been too friendly with these things. I didn't believe you'd let them up in your face, though!"
Klay shrugged, the paw on his shoulder support enough for his rider.
Rusko stepped back with a sigh.
"I can't believe I need to ask you this, now. But I do. First, please put the creature down."
There followed a modest contest of will, and in fact the creature came down, leaning for a moment against Klay's leg until a strong glance and hand motion chased Oki away. The creature retreated a dozen or so steps and Klay looked meaningfully toward the nearest of the three paths, and waited until Oki started in that direction.
Rusko saluted the obvious and went on alert pilot status, pulling away his quiet and putting on the command aspect he seemed to shun when it came to people.
"Tell me this. This is professional evaluation, this is a command evaluation. Could you feel confident as a Pilot in Charge, assuming neither Trahn nor I was available? Could you take Dulcimer to the next port with current crew? Could you finish a cargo route with current crew sans Pilots One and Two?"
Klay'd blinked, thought to the boards, thought to the ship, thought to the crew.
"You're asking if I'd have taken – could have taken the ship on if we hadn't walked out from the clearing and found you? Or if you'd been killed instead of just have bruises and breaks?"
Rusko nodded, said, "Yes, exactly. If the cave in had killed us both, would you have been able to survive – either call in Choody or just get to the next port, which might have been better."
Klay harrumphed, sighed, nodded.
"Yes. The first – just to the next port – It wouldn't have been pretty, but it wouldn't have been hard, really, other than bodies or lack of 'em. The second thing – moving on – would be harder and we'd need some signature cards we don't have so I could sign for cargo and expenses – I hadn't got that far. But crew from number three down, yeah, we can run the ship. Shall I make a report for you?"
Rusko's turn to blink. Then: "You're positive?"
Klay's nod brought a quiet whistle from the pilot, who'd surveyed the ship and the landing zone solemnly, and echoed a nod.
"I'm going to be asking everybody the same question and so will Trahn. The ship's got to be sure of itself. Don't discuss this with anyone until were decide what we're going to do."
The stuff about Squithy … he thought on that some more. Hadn't much thought of her as a partner possible. Hadn't much thought about anyone being with Squithy. Wasn't impossible, but you like to feel the person you were talking to was on the same wavelength, and that didn't happen all that much with Squithy, in his experience. Or hadn't. But once they'd secured the clearing she'd been right there in helping find their way, and keeping the furries out of their way. More, she'd even told him she asked the creatures if they'd seen Tranh and Rusko, and they'd pointed the way. Then they'd walked them all the way back to the ship and circled 'round the clearing like they owned the place, trying to take Squithy to the three paths. She'd been patient with them, like she was paying attention and knew things that weren't just if her blood pressure was good or if she'd seen 77 red things on the day.
So really, if he ran the ship he'd just put her on breakfast once a week, just to test her….
The rarely used PA system burped a scratchy high volume tone, bringing the startled Klay to his feet. Following the noise came the pfffft of some quick huffing test of the microphone link, and then Rusko's quiet matter-of-fact voice.
"Dulcimer crew meeting for all hands begins in five minutes. Bring with you any local plants or wildlife in your possession, please. All crew members includes you, Squithy, no matter what you're doing. Five minutes, be prompt."
On the third day of Jump, Rusko on Board One and Klay on Two, Falmer was still sitting with Tranh. The break swelling wasn't going down so well for Tranh and he had some infection, so he'd been hit with heavy duty antibiotics and general relaxants to make him be quiet. He'd been able to hold the basic meeting before the lift, using the logbooks that Klay'd pointed out to him and some agenda templates Squithy'd dug out of ship-files. Basic meeting was a promise to make longterm changes – and a Captain's apology for having screwed up a run.
"Choody got me to go where he wouldn't go, and now that I'm injured won't come through on the pay for us having been there. So this is a ship-rule: Dulcimer don't deal on bar-deals without crew input. That a rule. Also, Dulcimer's not dealing with Choody, nor coming back to Thakaran, as long as I'm on the deciding side. That's a rule.”
He paused then, having shifted slightly and then gone white trying to move his leg a little with his hand. “I'll put you two”– that was said to Susrim and Falmer– "to finding long-range replacement runs for us to think on. Given Choody and his connections we're going to be dropping as many of the old runs as we can – Da never did make it big, and he kept rubbin' against the underside figuring he'd get a deal. But we're out of that side now – another ship's rule, no dark trading. I got some stuff Da and Jenfer left us, and … some other things … that we ought to be able to move quick as can and be good. Then straight cargoes, all."
At that he'd said, "That's after Port Chavvy," leaned back in his seat with half closed eyes, and said "Rusko's got the rest of it. It'll be a boring run out cause we're not for Choody's station, but we're set foodwise. Rusko's on after me."
At that he'd stared at Falmer and smiled. "Now I'll take that painloss you gave me, right?"
With that he pressed a patch against his wrist with a sigh, and waved his command hand one more time, wiping a little sweat off his forehead, and said, "We're going to Port Chavvy because we still have a Founding Member share there, so we can port as long as we need to while we spook up more business. You guys got work to do!"
Rusko'd done well, all things considered, and they'd planned their shifts as best they could, including Squithy in some, including the business of trying to shoo away the norbears, which Susrim had named by accident.
"I tried looking those things up," she said, "and all I got is images and notes – and they never was mentioned to be here on Thakaran. Couple of entries that they've been seen with scouts. Warnings from a couple sectors that they're contraband. Standing offer from Crystal Biogenics, and a competing one from University. Biogenics is paying a haul of cash for a Standard's visit, and University's looking for a breeding pair but don't talk money –
"And more, couple smuggler's myths that they showed up around old tech sites on a couple planets, no sense why, but that's it. A dozen different names, calling them shore dogs and green apes and some Liaden stuff that translates into sleepy bear Terrans. But they're not. They're mammals, but they are not dogs nor green apes nor bears!"
She'd scrunched up her face when she'd said it, and Squithy had laughed out loud without it sounding like hysterics for once, and repeated the words, pushed together.
"Norbear. If they aren't dogs or cats or dragons they're norbears!"
Which had put a cap on the all together part of the discussion since Tranh had fallen asleep.
Klay was still sore from some bruises, but that was minor compared to Rusko's –he tended to complain about the stiffness in his arms, and Falmer's suggestion that pulling Tranh out of the fallen cave roof had strained him apparently annoyed the pilot to the point of snippiness.
Still, ship stuff was going on and it being just before shift change he wasn't surprised entirely to see lights showing movement....
"Where's Falmer?" he asked, watching the lights.
"You need analgesic? Falmer's sticking with Tranh."
"Isn't Squithy on breakfast?"
"She is – you can go first if you need..."
"So that means Tranh's in with Falmer, Squithy's doing breakfast, you're here, I'm here, and Susrim's on sleep."
He'd gotten Rusko's attention, saw raised eyebrow and quick glances to housekeeping boards.
" 'ponics door has opened a couple times here …"
Rusko made a noise that might have been a complaint, and reached to touch a tab.
Klay thought he'd heard motion over the connection, but the sound ceased.
"Pilot Rusko here, is that you Squithy?"
A light noise then, and another, and –
"Murble . . ."
Klay was out out of his seat instantly –
"We've a 'norbear" stowaway!"
"This isn't good! Take it," Rusko ordered. "And get Squithy to help you."
Klay ran, half-bouncing off the slide-door on his way out.
"I thought so!" was what Squithy said, her step light behind his as they squeezed into the right angle passage. There were marks in the passage, in fact all up and down the passage, some scuffed over, some clear, near handlike foot prints in white.
Klay looked toward the lower corner where the door would open first – but Squithy was moving in that direction.
His palm hit the waist-high release, wondering of the faint hand-shaped mark there was dangerous far too late, and the door slid open, Squithy on one knee, ready to catch …
Ready to catch the norbear, who, rather than rushing to escape was sitting quietly in a comfortable pose on top of Growcase C, staring at the greens, sipping from a wide-mouthed sampling bowl, a trail of splashes and white spots leading back to the push-spigot. Both arms were white, and there was a vague halo whitish about the chest.
"Oh, good!" said Squithy. "Holdhand herself!"
"Holdhand? You know this one?"
"'Ponics? What's happening?"
"Murble lamurbla," said the norbear, using bright care to sit the cup down without spilling, it, and glancing at the speaker. Then, she reached toward Squithy, offering her hand to hold.
"Norbear is in here in 'ponics, Pilot. Admiring the carrots, I'd say."
"Capture it. We'll have to put it out an airlock I guess."
By then Squithy had the norbear in her arms, and stared up at the speaker, the murbles almost drowning out out her denial.
"You can't, Rusko. They saved Klay." Her voice quavered then and rose in volume to a whine dangerously like Squithy of old.
"Squithy, don't start now. We figure out a way to make it quick but …"
That sounded even more like Squithy of old....
Klay ventured "Rusko, let's …"
Squithy held onto the creature, cuddling her …
"It's my fault she's here! She believed me when I told her we'd be leaving and never coming back to that planet. And now she's here. She's a widow and she came here because Klay's here to keep us safe and … Oh no!"
Klay saw her stare behind him and turned as a chorus of murbles broke out behind him. He heard Squithy, but it didn't sink in immediately, she was going on and on about something –
"Rusko, Pilot! Don't you see, they think slow and it helps me thinks slow. And they saved Klay and they make me real crew! And it isn't all of them, just …"
Klay saw two more of the norbears at the door, these even more covered in white, the flour falling off of them and falling on to the floor and on the tiny creatures they held to breast and who clung to their feet, the trail of flour down the passage toward dry stores….
"The widows, Rusko, only the widows came."
Squithy looked hard at him, but he'd already noticed the shy touch of a hand at his knee, heard the murbles.
"We'll have to talk, Rusko," Klay said steadily. "We'll have to be convincing for Trahn!"
"What's Trahn got to do with it? This is on my—”
"That Crystal Biogenics, Rusko. I'm guessing they're about as dark as you can get and still be seen. But they'll probably take Trahn's old tech, and whatever you're hiding from that cave, too."
"What?" The last speaker was Rusko, the former was the norbear climbing to be held, and the reaching for the beaker of water Holdhands had left on the greens case.
"I'm thinking we've got a little clean-up to do... might need some help. The widows and kits, they're a little dusty. Guess the place is a little out of true."
Port Chavvy was being a challenge for Dulcimer, both internally and externally. They'd been on port four days, and the problems …
Rusko'd been threatening calling sabotage and spacing the lot of the norbears, and Squithy and Klay with them. While he wasn't quite serious only the slowly improving health of Tranh cheered him at all – while he swore they'd not lift ship until the stupidity of several generations of Smiths and Patels was cured.
They'd rented a tool rack, which sat here externally – it had taken cash up front to get it delivered, and promise of a full-time responsible guard to let it stay. That stricture had Squithy get all antsy because she thought, it being "all her fault for thinking too fast and thinking too hard" she ought to be guarding it – which no one wanted beside her, since the norbears were all over her wherever she went. She could be gone a few minutes at a time, but after that, they got restless.
Internally, the rack meant Klay got elected for most guard time while Falmer, Susrim, and Rusko did clean up and Tranh fumed and took his meds, Falmer having convinced the port hospital that med-officer meant med-officer without having to transport Tranh the whole way down there.
Klay peered at the rack, as he was supposed to from time to time, counting the tools and checking the inventory sheet. Squithy'd been out just once, Falmer four times, and Rusko once. Rusko was currently making sure the free-stacked stuff from the cleaned hold was still under watch, and grabbing a couple of breaths of flourless air as well.
The flour – shouldn't have happened. The norbears had found the unsecure dry-food storage door and wandered in, Squithy's vague information about lying down for lift-off giving them an urgency which brought them to push things around so the kits could snuggle against their moms. Then some of the kits had discovered pulltabs, and gone on a binge of bag openings, and others of the kits … had found the secret door.
For like all indie spacers, the Smiths and the Patels fancied themselves could-be smugglers – just like Tranh and Rusko had with their secret deal to gather Old Tech for Choody! – and they'd their hidden compartments and secret latches and … and then the elders gunfought and lost without telling their ship kin the wheres and whens of things.
Klay'd yet to see all of it. He'd heard enough to see what had happened – the discovered cubby holes had led to a secret compartment with some secret stuff in it, and that fed to another place, and the kits having figured out latches had ended up in closet of the ship's full toolroom, and thus – once the air ways was open – the ship's automatics and stinks systems had started up with vengeance. The tools, the stores, several passageways, all covered in flour.
Rusko, a neat man at all times, only had a little flour on him.
"Everything's coming along," he said before signing out another hand-pull airspray, "and we got Trahn doing inventory inside. There's a lot of cleaning going on...."
Klay nodded, and asked, "How's she holding up?"
She, of course, was Squithy. She'd run herself ragged the day before, finally getting the norbears to understand how they could help – and what "stay out of the way" meant.
"I'm watching her, and I swear it feels like she's finally figured out how to pace herself. She's doing good."
"Do you believe her?"
Now that was a loaded question, since it brought in norbears, which they all agreed they wouldn't mention, not even to each other, outside the ship – and it also put Rusko on the spot. If he believed the whole thing – that Squithy hadn't let them into the ship on purpose, but had simply explained they were going away, and told them about the ship …. and they'd got the details of how things worked by listening to her and watching her mental tour of the ship …. and that they'd got the idea that having their families somewhere where there were no Tobors to trap and eat them was a good thing all on their own.
Rusko looked away, following the progress of an odd group of crewmen, all of an almost golden skin tone, all small – smaller than Klay, for sure, and a couple of them dressed like – like – rich folk.
"What are they, Liadens?"
"What else? They've been stomping up and down the dock every few hours – guess it must be exercise class. Got themselves a tradeship like hardly stops here. They asked me ‘what ship’ the first three times I saw 'em, but they've stopped. We're boring."
"Liadens! Space sure is getting strange, isn't it?" Rusko fiddled with his airspray, making pfffufff a couple times.
"It is, isn't it?" Klay agreed. "And Squithy?"
"Well, asked that way, she's not as strange as she was. I'm thinking she's not out of true anymore, all told."
Klay fixed Rusko's eyes with a straight look, asked "And so that means …"
"That means we're not looking to offload her anytime soon, or you, or the … excess cargo. I'll send her out with a handwich. You'll be wanting to get used to having her around."
Copyright © 2013 by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller
Sharon Lee and Steve Miller are the creators of the best-selling Liaden Universe® series of science fiction novels, including latest entry Trade Secret. They maintain an active and entertaining presence on the web at Korval.com.