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Authors: Anne Mccaffrey

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BOOK: Third Watch
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“And this cat of yours—why did you bring him?”
one of the friends asked with a little sly sideways look through a veil of forelock hair.

“I told you, didn’t I? Ariin doesn’t like him, and she somehow seems to blame him for something—which is just silly. How could a little cat have anything to do with an interplanetary plague? I mean, he’s a very clever cat, don’t get me wrong, but really!”

The friends nickered and chuckled among themselves, and Khorii got the distinct impression that everyone here knew something she didn’t.

Chapter 3

T
here he is!”
Grimalkin in unicorn guise cried, galloping away from his new friend.
“Some large beast has frightened the poor little kitty!”

“Truly? Your senses must be very acute. I don’t feel anything.”

“There! There! Stop, you bully!”
he cried to the woods in general.
“Leave that little cat alone! I will trample a mudhole in you and stomp it dry!”

He tore through the trees until he felt that he had lost his lovely companion for the moment. Then he made a noisy show of rearing, neighing, trampling, and issuing threatening curses at the nonexistent attacker of the currently nonexistent, or at least temporarily de-felinated, feline.
“Take that! And that!”

By the time the female arrived, he was breathing heavily, lathered with foam and scratched bloody from his exertions. He poked at shrubbery with his horn as he called sweetly,
“Here, kitty, kitty, come out now, little one. You are safe. I have saved you from the evil beast. Come out and purr for this nice female and assure her that you are unhurt.”
Although he actually could be in two places at once with the help of his crono, without the crono it was impossible, so the cat in question did not appear.

“Look at you!”
the female cried solicitously, rubbing her horn across a bloody scratch on his flank.
“You’ve been hurt. Did it bite you?”

“What?”
he asked, luxuriating in her horn touch so that he forgot the imaginary attacker he had just created.
“Oh, that! No, no, it did not bite me. It couldn’t touch me actually. I’m very fast, very agile, you know. But it may be some time before we see your little friend again. Whom shall I say is inquiring if I meet him?”

“I am Halili,”
she told him.
“What are you called?”

“Alkhiin,”
he replied, having given some thought to this while he was trouncing the grass. He had, of course, had many names on many worlds, but he gave her one that sounded a bit like the end of his real name and a bit like his cat name, Khiindi.
“We’d best get back. Your mate will be missing you, Halili.”

“Mate? I don’t have a mate! But if you think yours—”

“Tragically, my mate was killed when hunters tricked her into attempting to rescue a youngling. It was very sad. She was a noble female. She was carrying our young when she died.”
A large crystal tear, still quite easy to manufacture in other than cat form, trickled down the side of his nose. As he had hoped, Halili comforted him with a prolonged nuzzle. All those years of being an adorable little pussycat had certainly paid off. He had learned that females liked to feel sympathy for those who were hurt or in need. At least, most females did. He had always considered himself a godlike being in cat form. He had once taken it for granted that ladies would respond in a suitably impressed and cooperative fashion when the pitiful furry friend turned into a proud handsome humanoid with, if he did say so himself, quite startling powers in many areas. Those who were not impressed, he frankly had had no opportunity to notice as they were trampled, at least figuratively, by those who considered him the—ha ha—cat’s meow. It was a bit like the Terran fable of the frog prince. It was only since he had been Khiindi that it had occurred to him that some females, among them perhaps those who would make superior mates and mothers, preferred the frog. They found princes overbearing and insufficiently cuddly.

With his amazing empathic powers, he had divined that Halili would be one of that sort of female and intuitively set about making himself as cuddly a unicorn as he had been a cat while in Khiindi form. Perhaps more so. Halili was the most appealing of her race he ever recalled meeting. Even as a cat, he had felt an instant connection. He must remember, once the girls came back for him and they were again shipping out together to save the universe, to delay his revenge—peeing in Ariin’s shipsuit—for three or four days, since she had done him a good turn, however unintentionally.

If he decided to go back with them, of course. As Halili and he touched horns, the probability of his wishing to do that decreased greatly.

O
nce her sister had gone out to search for the wretched cat, Ariin sought the technicians’ quarters on the far side of the city. Many of the technicians lived in spaces similar to her own laboratory cell, near their work areas so they could be easily called upon when their superiors required their services, even if they were sleeping, eating, or otherwise engaged in their own frivolous pursuits.

But only the higher-level technicians, who maintained the time device, the space fleet and flitters, and other critical equipment, lived in the cells. Those who specialized in domestic devices, the sort that every one of the Friends had in numbers, and which did not require daily maintenance, had their own area of the city.

Ariin had never been there before, but toward the end of her previous time in Kubiilikaan after her telepathic powers had developed, she had learned of the area from their conversations. Disguised by a plain black, hooded cloak she’d discovered at the back of Akasa’s wardrobe, she walked briskly through the constantly changing city. She knew at once when she had reached her goal. The technicians’ quarters were, as she expected, less grand and pretentious, being essentially a large flat hive of rooms connected by corridors, much like the time device building or the interior of a spacecraft. Unlike a spacecraft, the complex had no engine, and unlike the time device building and all of the other areas of the city she had seen to date, its appearance, size, color, and the placement of the windows and doors remained constant and unchanging.

On Vhiliinyar and MOO, even on Rushima, being still was the normal thing for dwellings and buildings. When Ariin saw the shifting alien sea undulating through the docking bay of the
Blanca
, she was reminded of the houses of the Friends and had wondered if there might be some connection. Other than the shapeshifting, the houses appeared to be made of the sorts of things human houses were made of—wood, stone, metal and plas, both crete and glas and other inert building materials. But after seeing the alien thing created when ghost-processed inorganic material mingled with the stuff that animated the ghosts themselves, she was not so sure. She reached out and touched the shifting facade of a food store, wondering if it would be soft, spongy, or squishy, but it was none of the above.

Of course, it could hardly be exactly the same, or the aliens would have destroyed things the way they had elsewhere in the universe.

Maybe the Friends had domesticated the aliens here? Probably not. Probably the moving houses of the Friends and the big, lumpy, galumphing alien forms had nothing to do with each other, but she thought they did. She thought the cat had thought so, too. She’d felt it inside his furry little devious mind.

If anyone would know whether or not the houses were organisms or merely dwelling places for other organisms, the technicians who worked on them would. Only, how should she get them to talk about it? The Friends did not have children and did not die, as far as she could tell. She had seen no signs of new houses or buildings under construction and no signs that the old ones were in need of replacing. But that might be due to nothing more exotic than good maintenance.

Maintenance didn’t explain the constant and seemingly random changes the buildings made. Random. Hmm. What about when the Friends wanted a building to change in a particular way? Did the technicians do certain specific things to get an office to become a ballroom? Was that possible?

She stopped in her tracks and looked ahead into the still, motionless dwellings of the technicians. They were mostly empty. She felt that now. That would have something to do with the ball, of course. If she hadn’t been so busy arguing with her spoiled sister about the accursed cat, she would have figured that out to begin with. Like it or not, she was going to have to return to the central complex the overlords occupied if she was to learn anything.

Back she sailed, her cloak billowing behind her, across the rolling waves of windows morphing from small diamond-shaped panes to large single ones, roofs flattening and peaking, trim sprouting around the edges of things, then receding. Surely this organized and even artistic domiciliary activity could not be caused by the same thing as the ugly alien ambulation?

The Friends were already arriving at the front of the ballroom when Ariin slipped in through the back and found herself a handy shadow to melt into. The ballroom ceiling was faceted crystal tonight, but a delicately hued gossamer tent ballooned from a central, starlike chandelier, the draperies trailing down the sides of the room, where they gained opacity from other more substantial fabric behind the veiled panels.

Behind these, the technicians busied themselves with lights and holos, music and the sound of an invisible crowd cheering the arrival of each guest. When all attendees had been ushered in, the lighting changed.

Ariin pulled the curtain aside to peek into the ballroom. Before her, the cosmos yawned in the sort of vast grandeur she had not witnessed even in space.

The central star was not one star but a galaxy of them, blooming and fading like flowers in bursts of multicolored lights. The gauzy curtain was no longer visible. Instead, planets, suns, and moons revolved slowly around one another in an intricate weave echoed by the dancers themselves as the females whirled, skirts flaring, around the males, and the males pranced around other couples.

They seemed to be doing all of this in midair, up among the stars, or far below Ariin’s position. She was afraid to step forward for fear she would fall into nothingness.

It looked so much like space that she was amazed people weren’t dressed in shipsuits, but no, their clothing was as elaborate as the setting. So were their bodies. Many of them had assumed at least portions of their nonhumanoid aspects—Odus half flew on giant wings studded with gems in honor of the occasion. Akasa’s dress bore a long, spined train like the tail of a great lizard. The tall, fanned comb at the crown of her head did not look detachable to Ariin.

She did not even have to look very hard to find them among the other fantastic figures, because those two always had to be the center of attention, a remarkable accomplishment among their flashy and pompous kind.

However, perhaps the ball is not the best place to find out about the shapeshifting properties of the buildings, she thought. Many of the effects were achieved by bringing in things like the holos enhanced by the draperies, crystals, and special lighting. But she thought the space within the ballroom appeared far larger than usual. It couldn’t have achieved that depth without some structural changes, could it?

The music stopped and another, louder strain, rose dramatically as another couple flew into the room. One soared on the beating wings of a great roc. The other streamed a spray of brilliant pink/ orange/red/gold plumes ending in flames. Because of the flames, Ariin could see them clear across the expanse, up to the entrance and down, down, until they were swooping together far beneath where she stood. How did they do that? Was it an illusion? Cautiously, she extended her foot and brought it down where the floor should be. Fortunately, she was hanging on to the drapery, or she might have lost her balance and plummeted beyond the fantastic flying couple without the benefit of wings.

Behind her one of the techs said, “Very well, their Excellencies have made their entrance. Reextend the staircase.”

The exotic airborne dancers had distracted her from seeing that the staircase had disappeared, replaced by a steep drop from the entrance. Now, extending from the curtained and crystal-lit portal, a red expanse rolled itself forward like an uncurling tongue. No sooner had it unfurled, than it crimped itself into the long, sweeping stairs, pinched in to form a comparatively narrow waist at the top before belling out at the bottom.

“Good. Cue the floor up again,” another one said into a mouthpiece. Ariin realized she could only hear them because she was listening with her mind more than with her ears. They all wore headsets such as the humans wore around noisy equipment. “Gently,” the tech cautioned, as the couples beneath her seemed to soar upward.

This was all very interesting, but Ariin wondered once more if the floor raised because of machinery or because it moved of its own accord. Why would technicians be needed to maintain and repair an organism that could change its shape at will?

“Beauty!” the head tech said as the floor rose, the heavenly bodies shrinking as they swirled, appearing to recede. When Ariin extended her toe again, it touched what seemed to be solid marble.

“This place has really come along, I tell you,” the tech whispered to his companion. “A few years ago we’d never have got it to do all this. I remember when it was nothing but a starter blob. Most unpromising thing you’d ever hope to see.”

“Except another starter blob,” mumbled a lower-echelon tech who was less impressed than his superior with the fluctuating environment under their—care? Tutelage? What was their role here? Obliging Ariin’s mental nudge, the fellow said, “It’s about time we started some more. It’s getting quite boring, isn’t it, coddling these as they go through their paces, correcting their corners, getting them to resculpt their windows. There’s no challenge with a structure as skillful as this one.”

BOOK: Third Watch
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