Authors: Anne McCaffrey
A Del Rey
BALLANTINE BOOKS • NEW YORK
Affectionately dedicated to
in memory of my first Pernese Dinner
Suddenly the vines were shoved aside as three large golden fliers glided in, close enough for Varian to smell the aroma of fish and spice they exuded. Their long, pointed beaks had raised slightly, and she was being regarded by very keen and hostile eyes.
Very slowly, she extended her hand for the wing claw, its three digits lying loose. She took one between her thumb and forefinger and pressed very gently. Then, tentatively, the claw lightly closed about her fingers.
“Ordinarily, one says ‘Hello, how are you today?’ ” Varian inclined her body in a slight bow.
AI managed to part his eyelids to a narrow slit and saw the rock. He closed his eyes. There shouldn’t
a rock. Especially a rock which could talk. For a sound, like his name, emanated from it. He seemed to be in physical control of only the area around his eyes. Otherwise he could not so much as twitch a finger. He tried to analyze his lack of sensation, reassured finally that he wouldn’t have been able to think if he weren’t in his body. And managed to open his eyes slightly wider.
“Kkkkk . . . aaaaah . . . eeee!”
The sounds corresponded to those in his name, but he hadn’t heard them uttered in such a fashion in a long time. He struggled to think when and became aware that he possessed neck, shoulders, and chest. The paralysis was ebbing. Yes, he was aware that his chest was moving up and down normally, but the air that his lungs drew in seemed stale and left a curious taste in the back of his throat.
With the return of his olfactory sense, Kai knew that he hadn’t been paralyzed. He’d been asleep.
“Kkkk . . . aaaa . . . eeee! Wuuuh . . . aaaakkhhhuh!”
He forced his eyelids wider apart. The damned rock dominated his vision; it was now canted dangerously over him. As he watched in unbelieving silence, the rock slowly extruded a rod which split into three tentacles. With these, the rock grasped his shoulder gently but firmly and administered a shaking.
“Tor?” Kai’s tone was startlingly similar to the quality of sound the rock had issued. He cleared his throat of a thick phlegm before he repeated the name.
“Tor? You’ve come?”
Tor made a grinding noise which Kai took as affirmative though he sensed a reprimand that he would comment on the obvious. Kai groaned as memory returned. He hadn’t been just asleep: he’d been in cold sleep. Tor had arrived in response to Kai’s emergency call.
“Reeee . . . pppoooorrrtt.”
Kai watched as Tor’s rod placed on his chest a small gray oblong, its grill toward his mouth. He took a deep breath because his mind was not yet clear enough to find the words he’d need to account for disturbing the Thek at its own investigation of the system’s outermost planet. His message had not been ambiguous: “Mutiny! Urgent! Assistance Imperative!” But it was possible that the entire sequence had not been transmitted before the heavyworlders smashed the communications panel.
“Dee . . . taaa . . . illlll.”
Kai felt the permaplas floor of the space shuttle sway as the rock that was named Tor settled beside him.
“Ffffuuuulllll.” Tor added just as Kai opened his mouth.
Closing his mouth abruptly, Kai wished that Tor would give him a little more time to collect his thoughts. After all, time was on the Thek’s side. But a full report in Thek terms still meant that his remarks must be succinct and limited but not the terse phrases which, in Kai’s state of mental funk, would have been hard to edit. He could also speak at a normal speed. Tor would later adjust the replay to Thek convenience.
“Rumor permeated Exploratory Unit that plantation of group intended. Heavyworld personnel reverted to barbaric omnivory. Forcefully restricted all other members in one building. Drove large terrified herbivores toward building to effect our sudden deaths. Four Disciples effected timely release and sheltered in space shuttle which was buried under large corpses. Made nocturnal escape. Settled in natural cave unknown to the heavyworlders, pending assistance. After seven days, cold sleep logical recourse. End report.”
Kai felt a feather-light touch on his shoulder, heard a hiss, then felt the coolness of one sprayshot, an inch from a second. A curious warmth spread from his upper arm through his body with remarkable speed. Breathing became easier and, experimentally, he began to rotate his head and shoulders. His fingers tingled. He moved them with increasing ease.
“Reeee . . . essstt.”
Kai complied, but the order was irksome. Granted, he had to assume that Tor knew more about the cold-sleep routine, but he felt clearheaded. Too clearheaded because he could remember in embarrassing detail everything that had led up to the necessity of cold sleep.
How long had that sleep been? He opened his mouth to ask, but he hadn’t quite the brashness to inquire of a Thek how much time had elapsed between the sending of the emergency signal and Tor’s response. One rarely asked Theks a question involving time since the long-lived silicon life-form counted in sidereal years of their planet of origin, which generally amounted to the centuries of more ephemeral species—such as Kai’s.
His wrist! Tardma had taken such delight in breaking it when she and Paskutti burst into the pilot’s compartment. Once they’d escaped from the mutineers, Lunzie had set the bones. Kai wriggled the fingers of his left hand experimentally. Wrist bones could take about six weeks to heal. He rotated his wrist. It was stiff but no more so than his right. Six weeks? Or more?
However long, it gave him some satisfaction to realize that the mutineers had not found the space shuttle. He smiled as he thought of the frustration that the loss would have caused Paskutti! The mutineers would have searched as long as they had one operative lift belt. The mutineers—Paskutti, Tardma, Tanegli, Divisti . . . Kai paused before adding Berru and Bakkun to that infamous roster. He couldn’t understand their reason for participating in a mutiny; particularly one generated on the flimsiest of pretexts.
He rolled his head cautiously to the left, toward the row of sleeping figures: the remnants of his team of geologists and of Varian’s xenobiologists. Varian had a lovely profile. Beyond his coleader was Lunzie, the medic, and Kai could just make out in the gloom the long sturdy figure of Triv. The four Disciples had been the last to go into cold sleep.
A series of curious deep mumbles made Kai turn his head to the right, toward the small pilot compartment of the space shuttle. Kai had seen one or two Thek extremities in evidence before, but Tor seemed to have lengths of itself draped in, under, behind, over, and through places in the shuttle’s structure that Kai could not himself see. He blinked to relax his eyes. When he looked again, most of Tor was again within the creature.
That show of quick motion from a member of a species notorious for its imponderable silences, decades-long contemplations, and brevity of speech stunned Kai.
In that one word the Thek managed to convey to Kai that not only was the damage extensive but also Tor could not effect repairs, a condition which annoyed the creature. Kai marveled then that Portegin’s contrived beacon had managed to lead Tor to the shuttle.
“Exploration Vessel returned?” Kai asked after long consideration. It was a rather vain hope that the Exploration Vessel, which had deposited the three separate units in-system, was on its way to collect them.
“Nnnnoooo.” Tor’s response was neutral. Certainly the nonreappearance caused it no concern.
Kai sighed with resignation and found himself wondering if, out of all impossibilities, Gaber had been right: their little group had been planted. Gaber certainly was, since he’d been killed at the outset of mutiny. But the third group, the avian Ryxi who planned to colonize their planet, surely they must have wondered at the silence from the Iretan group? Immediately Kai was reminded that in his last contact with the Ryxi’s temperamental leader, the creature had flown into a rage at Kai’s innocent disclosure that Ireta had an intelligent winged species. But the Ryxi colony ship would have been piloted by another species, probably humanoid. Surely . . .
“Ryxi?” asked Kai hopefully.
A long silence ensued while Tor sent a single tentacle into the control console. Such a long silence that Kai was nerving himself to repeat the question, thinking Tor had not heard him.
The inference was plain to Kai: the Thek did not care to keep in touch with the highly excitable, and by Thek standards, irresponsible winged sentients.
Kai was relieved. It was embarrassing enough to call the Thek for aid, but to have to apply to the Ryxi would result in considerably more humiliation. The Ryxi would thoroughly enjoy spreading such a grand joke throughout the universe at the expense of all wingless species.
Kai could move his head and neck easily now, and he checked the line of his sleeping companions. Varian’s hand lay where it had fallen from his in the relaxation of sleep. Tor had placed a dim light somewhere in the shuttle, probably for Kai’s reassurance since the Thek did not require light to see. Kai touched Varian’s hand, still cold and rigid in the thrall of cryogenic sleep. He watched, holding his own breath, until he saw the slight rise and fall of her diaphragm in its much reduced life-rhythm. Then he relaxed, exhaling.
He turned back to Tor but sensed its complete withdrawal: it had become a large smooth rock, flattened on the bottom to conform to the deck, extruding not so much as a lump, bump, or pseudopod. This was the Thek contemplative state, and Kai knew better than to interrupt it.
He lay there until his nose began to itch. He stifled a sneeze with a finger under his nose, and then felt foolish. A sneeze couldn’t rouse a Thek. Much less the sleepers. That desire to sneeze was the prelude to a growing twitchy restlessness in Kai which he recognized as the result of the stimulants Tor had injected. The Thek had not said that he couldn’t move: it had only said to rest. Surely he had done enough of that.
Kai began the muscle-toning Discipline and, although he worked up a fine sweat, he soon realized that cold sleep had done him no discernible harm. Even the healed wrist responded perfectly. The plaskin Lunzie had used to set the break had long since flaked away. That meant they’d been asleep at least four or five months.
He looked at his wrist chronometer, but the device was blank. Even long-life battery tabs wear out. How long ago?
Exercise produced another effect and Kai, rising carefully, found his way through the cold-sleep mist that shrouded the shuttle to the toilet. Returning, he checked each of the sleepers, observing the curious transformation sleep worked on faces. Bonnard, for instance, in the middle of his second decade, looked more adult than Dimenon, twice the boy’s age. Portegin looked as if he still worried about the effectiveness of the beacon he had contrived. Lunzie, the pragmatic medic, was smiling, a rare sight while she was awake, and her face had assumed a gentleness at odds with her ascerbic temperament. She’d admitted to having undergone sleep suspension before: her records had listed her chronological age but there had always been that detachment about Lunzie that struck Kai as bemused tolerance: as if she’d already seen most of what the universe had to offer and wouldn’t spare the energy to be excited by anything anymore.
Triv, the other team member trained in Discipline, had a forbidding expression in sleep, a surprising strength in mouth, jawline and brow that had not been so apparent as the man went quietly about his normal duties.
Since Tor was still motionless, Kai sat down by Varian, feeling companionship even with her sleeping self. She was beautiful. Then he noticed that one side of her face slanted down, the other more or less up, leaving one eyebrow higher than the other, as if the cold sleep had surprised her. Suddenly he wanted very much to have the cheerfulness of her conscious company. Who knew how long Tor would remain an uncommunicative lump? He needed someone he could talk to, before his perspective was warped by self-accusative reflection in the gloomy silence. Varian was coleader: she should have been revived as a matter of course. Kai then realized that he ought to be relieved that Tor had been able to single him out. If the Thek had revived, say, Aulia, she would have gone into hysterics just being close to a Thek—and then she’d have convulsions when she realized that she’d been put in cryogenic suspension without being consulted! As a geologist, Aulia was very good, but she failed in areas of personal adjustments.
Kai looked about the dimly lit area for the revival kit and saw it in the dust just beyond the clean outline where he had slept. Dust? The shuttle had not, of course, been sealed completely—cold sleepers still need air—but for dust of any depth to have settled . . .
The sprays in the box were clearly marked for precedence, color-coded as well. Calibrations on the cylinders listed dosages according to body weight. Instructions on the first cylinder advised Kai to wait until the sleeper had shown definite signs of revival before stimulants were injected.
Kai carefully released the appropriate dose into Varian’s arm and waited, trying to remember his own progress from cold sleep to consciousness. Her sleeping face exhibited no reassuring change. Maybe he hadn’t administered enough. He checked the dose and wondered if he’d been mistaken about her body weight. He was hesitating over a second small spray when he saw her eyelids flutter. Only then did he realize that she was respiring at a normal rate.
“Varian?” He leaned over, touching her shoulder and smiling at the effort she made to unglue her eyes. An old tale popped into his head and, so prompted, he kissed her cool lips gently.
“Kkkkaaaaaiiiiii?” Her eyes opened fully and then the lids drooped back but the left corner of her mouth lifted in appreciation.
“Just relax, Varian. You’ll be in working order shortly.”
“Hhhhooooowww?” The word trembled out as an aspirated whisper.
“Tor came. Don’t ask more questions, dear heart. Give the reviver a chance to penetrate. I’m right here. Everything is unchanged!”
“Nnughhh!” The groan came from her belly and made Kai laugh at the disgust vibrant in her protest.
“Well, a Thek bestirred itself on our behalf. It’s got a full report. I taped it,” he explained quickly as he saw Varian’s astonishment. “It is apparently thinking my words over.” Kai gestured to the silent rock. “Don’t move yet,” he cautioned Varian as he saw her neck tendons strain against the long immobility. “I guess I can give you the stimulants now, but don’t bounce. Oh, and your shoulder’s healed,” he added as he gave her the second set of shots. Paskutti had shattered Varian’s left shoulder just before Tardma had snapped his wrist.