"I don’t know!" She squeaked. "The atmospheric alarms started going off, the emergency oxygen is nearly gone! The recyclers don’t seem to be working!"
The translator rendered her speech in exclamations, which seemed right, from what Cat was picking up from her other ear. Not that she was that good at understanding Dusek, but the exclamations were definitely there.
More Dusek-Divers appeared behind the Princess. Cat quickly identified various low caste male and female servants, and then a larger female with metallic inlays. "Mother! We’re rescued!" called the Princess. More Duseks peered around corners, beyond. More with inlays.
Cat thought she could see where the problem lay. "How many of you are aboard?" she asked, keeping her voice carefully polite and not at all accusatory. She paused in surprise, as she realized that she was speaking English and the Duseks’ translators were handling it easily.
"Twenty-four" The first Princess answered. "Mother took us all with her on tour."
"That’s nearly double the rating for the Buffo’s air system." Gyrm’s spoke from behind Cat. "You probably drained the power packs in your air recyclers."
"Oh, don’t be silly, there is plenty of room, and we don’t use as much air as an Olver." The older High Caste Female strode forward imperiously, the other Dusek-Divers stepping out of her way, some of which pushed them up against Cat, as if she didn’t matter. Which was true from the perspective of a low caste Dusek.
"Good Grief." Gyrm growled under her breath, then raised her voice. "Why don’t some of you come aboard so we have more room to maneuver these oxygen tanks through?"
The Queen nodded graciously, and advanced.
Cat backed into the lander and grabbed a handful of standard power packs, tucking them into a carry belt. The Queen Dusek seemed to find the lander adequate, and settled in with two daughters and four other attendants fussing over her. Galactic experts were divided on how much the Diver’s hive mentality affected the parasitic electromagnetic phenomenon called Duseks. The social organization seemed natural to them. But the few Duseks that chose to infect species other than their co-evolved Divers tended to eventually display social behavior more in line with the current host body.
Whatever the cause, the result of this was that all the Dusek-Divers on board wanted to join the Queen on the little transport.
Cat and Gyrm wadded through the knee-high insectoids onto the Buffo.
"Whew!" Cat gasped. The air was indeed foul. "Didn’t they see this coming?"
"They cut it a bit close, didn’t they?" Gyrm pulled an oxygen tank toward the stern where the emergency equipment would be kept. Cat spotted an air recycler and popped the cover. The status lights that should have come up didn’t. She pulled the power pack and inserted a new one. Brilliant blue alarm lights flashed and a faint breeze sprung up, blowing fresh smelling air in her face.
Cat hunted down eight more of the recyclers, only two showing any power at all. The air improved rapidly, and the Duseks were sent on their way quickly.
Slumping down in the transport seat with relief, Cat watched them until they translated out.
"Why didn’t that Queen bring along at least one mechanic?" she asked. "That was ridiculous. Only one of them was actually a licensed pilot."
"Because there wasn’t one in her little hive." Gyrm grinned. "Mixed hive groups are…very strange. An out-hiver might be just as likely to sabotage the air as keep it running. The Duseks might infect the Divers, but at some level the animal instincts remain, including a willingness to die for one’s own hive if that’s the best way to kill the out-hivers."
"Well, I know, but, but." She threw her hands up in defeat. "Please tell me Humans are more logical than that!"
Gyrm grinned. "I don’t know about logical, but they seem to be fairly practical. Give it ten or twenty years and we’ll see how many we’re rescuing."
"We can’t rescue any at all, now, can we?" Cat asked. She focused the sensors on Earth, bright lights showing the locations of the multitude of satellites, dim trails indicating each one’s orbit. Most were the blue of unmanned facilities, two showed yellow—unoccupied habitats, and two red—manned. "There are only eight humans in space, at the moment. That seems so very strange."
"It’s just starting," Gyrm said. "They’re doing a lot of superconduction research, at this point they’re one breakthrough and some engineering away from interstellar travel. It’s got the Galactic Council spooked."
"The Council seems to be planning ahead, though. I noticed the Dusek’s translators were programmed for English."
"Yeah, the most common human languages got added about ten years ago, after the first wave of research had finished analyzing them." She glanced over at Cat, "Wasn’t your mother one of those researchers?"
"Yep. Poor Ter picked me up by accident and has been stuck with me ever since."
Cat happily rehashed her life story, or as much of it as she’d heard from her mother, ending with, "and now it seems I’m being returned to the wild."
Gyrm looked thoughtful, but shook her head. "I suspect it’s more a case of giving you a choice. Ter must feel guilty about taking you like that."
Fossil High School had been echoingly empty and alien, when she’d ventured in to take the placement tests. She nearly bolted in panic at the sight of those same echoing alien spaces stuffed wall to wall with excited noisy aliens.
The hideously ugly yellow bus had picked her up at the side door of the embassy and wound through a maze of small streets picking up alien strangers. The gradually packed transport had eventually vibrated and roared its way to disgorge them in the parking lot. She felt alone and vulnerable in the crowd. Everyone seemed to have friends and be clumping together, as they resorted themselves after getting off of their various buses.
"Hey, Cat." She turned to find Richie Springer winding through the crowd toward her. "Have you got your schedule yet?"
"Err…no?" Schedule? What did they schedule? Didn’t they have enough teaching machines for all the students?
"Go over there, to the C-D table. Mrs, umm," He stood on his toes to look, "Mrs. Jelly will have your class schedule. Do you know how to find the rooms?"
"No." Cat had a sinking feeling that this human school was not going to be much like a Hisloxi school.
"Get your schedule and I’ll point you in the right direction." He looked around the room again, "Meet me over by those stairs." Pointing off to the left he turned and dodged back into the press of bodies.
Mrs. Jelly’s C-D table had a ragged line of humans trailing unevenly out from it. Cat attached herself to the end of it, trying to study her fellow students without staring.
They came all shapes and sizes. A few were darker than the picture of her biological mother, rather a lot were the pasty, spotty types like Richie and Fern. Most of the rest were in between in skin tones, so she fit in that way. Hair now, hair was a problem. The pasty skinned people had a wide variety of hair colors, apparently naturally. Almost every one else had black or dark brown hair, and the females all did something fancy with theirs. There were bright colors splashed on, ribbons, clips, curls, and braids that started out close to their skin then swung free to swirl around with their movements. She stared enviously at one girl with hundreds of tiny braids nearly down to her knees. She forcibly restrained herself from running a hand over her nearly bare scalp. She didn’t shave it very often, which left her with the sinking conviction that it was going to be a long time before she could even think about braids. Maybe, maybe a sculpted elegant arrangement like a few of the adult females sported? But not today.
Something else about the students…most of them had backpacks or bags full of stuff. She had only a bound packet of fiber sheets, a mind bogglingly primitive writing implement and a few barter sheets to pay for lunch. Money. Bills. Dollars. Start using the right words, she told herself sternly. She wondered if perhaps she should have brought a carrying case or backpack of some sort. Other kids were as lightly burdened as she was, though, so it probably wasn’t a problem.
The line she was in moved fairly rapidly, as each student told Mrs. Jelly its, or rather, his or her name and received a small stiff card with writing on it. "Catherine." She told her in turn, only to receive a scowl.
"Last name, please." The lady asked. She was one of the pasty ones, with fluffy light brown hair.
"Dunagan." Cat could feel her face flushing. If these people could do something sensible like ID numbers or handprint ID, they wouldn’t need three names each. And she was sure the girl ahead of her had just said Cary, and that was a typical first name wasn’t it? Mrs. Jelly handed her a card and she wandered off toward the staircase, wondering what situation required her to use her center name.
"So, what’d they shove you into?" Richie snatched the card from her and looked it over. Fern looked over his shoulder at it as well.
"You’re in my English class." She said, waving up the stairs. "Second corridor to the right. Then math. Ugg. They’ve put you in Mister Findley’s pre-algebra class, everyone says he is so boring. Drill, drill, drill."
"Third period, ooo, P.E. Poor fool, you should have tried out for band, It’s a lot less work."
"I don’t know anything about the music here, and I do like sports…although they’ll be different too."
"Then you’ve got A lunch, me too, I’ll save you a seat." Fern said. "You want to be careful who you sit with until you find out who’s who."
Cat nodded. Standard social pecking order. Group identity and so forth.
"I’ve got B lunch." Richie said, "Then computer tech. Hey! Finally, I’ve got a class with you." He pointed back toward the open commons area and up. "The computer labs just up there, off the main hall."
"The Girls Gym is down there." Fern pointed behind her. "Fifth period, Texas History, me too, and Mister Hard is really hard, but also really interesting."
"Eww," Richie said, making a face at his sister, "I was hoping I wouldn’t have any classes with you, but there it is."
"Well, we can all gang up on our homework." Fern said.
"How do you know about all these teachers?" Cat asked.
"Dad’s been the Principal here for eight years, we meet all these people whether we want to or not." Richie told her. "Then you’ve got Biology, and Art."
"How’d you avoid getting stuck in Spanish?" Fern asked.
"This school doesn’t teach any languages that I do not know."
"Oh," Fern sniffed, "Excuse me, Miss Next to Lowest Math Class."
"Don’t be so stuck up." Her brother retorted. "She’s lived over there."
Any further words were interrupted by a loud tone.
"C’mon, Miss Know it all." Fern trotted up the stairs.
Cat followed her, puzzled and angry. She did speak a bunch of languages, including the seven most commonly spoken Earth languages. What was wrong with saying so?
English, reading list, heap of forms to fill out, materials list
Pre-algebra. Materials list.
Physical education. Lockers assigned. What shorts and tee shirt to buy. What sports they would do during the year. What they were doing in the mean time.
Lunch was an adventure into the weird. She’d followed Fern into the Snack Line: "Eww, you don’t want to get a lunch lunch." Had been her cryptic comment.
Now she was staring at the non-lunch lunch and wondering if she was brave enough to eat it. There wasn’t much meat, just a round of cooked…something. She ate it first, it was actually pretty good, different, but good. Then she looked dubiously at the rest.
"Cat, for heavens sake, you act like you’ve never seen French fries before!" Fern had squeezed a red sauce out of a small rectangular pouch, and was dipping the French fries into it, nibbling the fried vegetable sticks one at a time.
"I mostly eat meat." Cat said. Like a Hisloxi, of course. Ter had always just made her take a supplement pill, although she liked Kersa restaurants, and ate some of their plant food.
Cat grabbed a sauce pouch and squeezed. Nothing came out.
Fern was eyeing her nervously. "Don’t pop it, you get in trouble. They don’t allow food fights, you know."
"Hey, Fern! You’re finally a student here!" It was a girl, another of the pasty ones, in company with four other of miscellaneous colors. They were all immaculately dressed, their hair was elaborately styled and they appeared to be wearing subtle face paint. Cat studied the effect, it was just a slight improvement on complexion and coloring, and radiated sophistication and expertise.
Fern waved loosely toward the group and back to Cat. "Sally, Mary, Anne, Becky and Angelica, this is Cat." By the time they’d settled themselves around the table, Cat wasn’t sure which one was which.
They’d all preferred the non-lunch lunch as well, with nearly identical burgers and fries on each plate. One of them, Angelica? Picked up a pouch of sauce and ripped off a corner, then squeezed out a tidy pile of ‘catsup’.
Cat attempted the same, except her pouch ripped down the middle and dripped all over the rest of the food. Well, that didn’t matter, it wasn’t like she was going to eat the plant leaves, and whatever the red slices were. She picked up a fry and dipped one end into the red sauce. She hesitated then took a tiny bite. The sauce was sort of sweet, the rest just starchy and fatty. Tasteless was a big relief. And the sauce wasn’t bad at all. She munched the rest down in short order. Now, the bread. She tore off a speck. It was pretty airy thin stuff. She put it in her mouth. Tasteless. OK, maybe she’d survive lunch after all.
"You’re a real picky eater, aren’t you?" Possibly Mary asked.
"She’s been living in Africa." Fern told her, "She doesn’t know anything about anything."
Cat bristled indignantly, but Maybe Anne was nodding. "Girl, you’ve got good bone structure, but the hair just isn’t you, if you know what I mean."
Cat didn’t know, but as all the girls started talking, she couldn’t get a word in to find out. She listened, bewildered to a conversation that crisscrossed the table and changed subject with lightening rapidity. As best she could tell, Surely-that’s-Sally had captured the attention or some male person named Brad, apparently for no other reason than some other girl wanted him, Maybe=Anne had purchased some new music, Angelica? had spent an impressive amount of money on clothes, Must-be-Becky was on a diet, except for today, Possibly-Mary wanted them to all go to the mall? Mail? Something like that, after school, and several other masculine names were brought up and looks ruthlessly dissected. When the tone to end the period sounded, Cat was happy to smile, wave and flee to the computer lab.
Apart from the sheer bulk of the native computers, the room looked just like a Hisloxi school. Cat sighed nostalgically, and waved to Richie, sitting across the room surrounded by friends. She chose an empty seat and studied the machine in front of her. She’d used the Ambassador’s a bit to get a feel for them. As he had said, they were not actually too bad. A bit slow, but designed to be easy to use.
Cat stopped dead inside the door to the History class, and was bumped from behind. "Get out of the way!" an irritated voice commander her. She walked on in, gaping at the walls. Were all the animal parts real? There were two heads, three furry hides and numerous primate weapons hung up around the room. Apparently teachers could bring knives to school. She noted that they were all up out of the students' reach.
She spotted Richie and slid into the desk behind him. The rude boy that had shoved her took a seat in the next row. Fern walked in nodding to several people and took the seat behind Cat.
Richie skewed around in his seat, "Neat stuff, huh?"
"Yeah." Cat eyed a stick and string apparatus on the wall. An interesting example of parallel weapons development, it looked just like a Kersa shooter.
"Bow and arrow," Richie told her. "The bow’s the curved one, the arrow is what it shoots. Used for hunting and war."
"They have them in Africa, you twit." Fern said from behind her.
The last students scrambled into seats as the tone sounded.
Biology. Materials list, schedules of labs, lab report due dates, test dates, and an example of what a lab report should look like.
Art. A list of materials. Then a slide show. "The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is a major local and regional event, as most of you know. As part of the youth livestock show there is a competition in Western theme art. Our first project of the year will be a picture for the show. There is a local show that the Houston judges come out for. The best pictures, or other art," she added, "will go on to the Livestock Show. The winners—the top fifty pictures in the region—will be auctioned off in a Charity Event. The winning artists get a percentage of the winning bid, usually at least $1500."
Thirty breathes were sucked in at that. Mrs. ???? smiled, "Five years ago. The Grand Champion Picture went for $85,000. My student, name here, walked away with twenty five thousand dollars." Stunned silence. She reached up and tapped the frame of one of the pictures on the front wall. "This is a print of the winning picture," she waved at the other pictures, "these others were also sent to auction."
"We’ll start with a few techniques in color pencil drawing, in framing and laying out an attractive picture, and then get into the nitty-gritty of producing a masterpiece."
Western Art? Cat poked around the name a bit, but decided to not ask. Everybody else seemed to know what that was. Studying the pictures, she decided there were a lot of animal pictures, but the winner was of a young woman wearing a broad brimmed hat and low backed shirt. She was facing away, sitting by some flowering bushes, with the shadow of the bushes twinning branches and leaves falling across the woman’s back and arms. The bushes and shadow, the curves of the woman’s body gave the picture a depth that couldn’t possibly be completely hand drawn, could it? After a moment, Cat raised her hand in the approved manner.
"Dunagan. That was drawn with colored pencils? Not, not," Oh drat, what kind of electronic recordings did they have here?
"Yes. Right here in this room."
"Wow." Could I possibly do something like that?
Ch6 /// Extra Curricular projects. Fair Day announcement, talk in various classes about the Parade and making Floats. The Band will be marching in the parade.
"Cat, do you want to help with the parade float project?"
Cat turned and looked at Fern. "What is a parade float?"
Ch7 Space emergency, lifeboat entering system, with poor control. They land short of the Depot, 95% buried in a small lake at Brazos Bend State Park.
"…multiple system failures, navigation aids are coming and going at irregular intervals."
Cat hovered outside the door, listening to Gyrm and the Ambassador talking to the stricken ship. Doctor Domi and Ter were both hovering, but hadn’t said anything once they knew there were no injuries or illness aboard. The holo was replicating the ships status lights, and multiple systems failures seemed like an understatement. Translucent holofigures in front of the instrument holo showed the crew was mixed species, Kersa and Dusek-Divers, very unusual.
One of Pompelm was listening with a frown. Cat gave him a rippling finger gesture. "You think there’s a problem?"
"They’re smugglers." He stated flatly. "Six Gods knows what they have on board. Like as not they were damaged by customs fire somewhere."
Cat thought it over. "Did they mean to come here, or is their navigation computer that damaged?"
Pompelm didn’t answer, as the indicator lights started changing rapidly. The atmospheric pressure light started blinking blue, the sign of a dangerous loss of air. "They’ve just lost hull integrity. How did that happen?"
Other lights were changing to blue, and the ghostly holos of the crew scrambled out of scanner range.
"Do not abandon ship." The Ambassador ordered them, "We will send…" He broke off as the Embassy sensors picked up the separation of the ship’s life boat. He whistled a bit, a Regan indication of anger. "They’d better not bring any biological contaminants down here."
"I’ll put the life boat and them in the strictest isolation possible." Gyrm busied herself on the navcomp for a moment. "They have the course, should be here in an hour, unless they brought their problems into the lifeboat with them."
Gyrm bustled off to prepare the isolation force screens, and Cat hung around feeling useless. Being a dependant instead of an employee was a "bummer", to use the local patois. She stifled a yawn. Getting up early on a weekend was also a bummer.
The Ambassador attempted, without success, to communicate with the lifeboat. More hissing. He had obviously gotten up early too, this was the first time she’d seen the Regan without his disguise. Ter disappeared briefly, returning with a platter of chemically decomposed meat for the Ambassador’s daily meal. The hissing decreased, to everyone’s relief. Regans tended to deal with hunger instinctively rather than rationally. The smell, however, was not a relief. As the Ambassador started shredding the meat with his forepalps, Cat headed downstairs, quickly.
Gyrm instantly put her to work shifting the other vehicles. She wanted a wide and clear force screened path to the far corner, so she could then adjust the screens to allow the other vehicles to come and go.
"Popelm says they’re smugglers."
Gyrm ignored the opening gambit.
"What sorts of things would someone bring here?" Cat tried again, but Gyrm just shook her head.
Cat prowled around restlessly, finally settling in the Winnebago Lander and bringing up the sensors. The lifeboat was still right on course, a sweep around and away from the native’s regular flight paths and the landing fields used by the small planes. They were already sinking into the atmosphere. The lifeboat twitched and jumped, then settled back onto the path.
Cat popped out of the Winney and waved Gyrm down. "They’re having trouble."
Gyrm joined her at the screen. The boat was on course, nice and steady again. "They seem to have it under control, whatever the problem was."
The life boat was south of them now, and low. As it swept around and headed back toward them it twitched again. And jumped, then sank. It jiggered all around the programmed course, but the swings were getting wilder. Gyrm fairly jumped up and down in frustration as the lifeboat made a steep dive, pulled up for a second, plunged and…stopped.
"They’re down…somewhere." Gyrm voiced the obvious. "Start this thing up."
As Cat busied herself with the preflight and Gyrm checked the preps, the Ambassador, Doctor Domi and all of Pompelm hustled onboard.
"Stay on the ground." The Ambassador ordered, "They’re not very far away." He buckled his voice synthesizer onto the base of his headstalk and pulled the artificial covering over it.
Cat drove the Winny up the side ramp and into the parking lot. Even though she was too young to drive, by local standards, she’d read up on the traffic laws and studied the vehicle behavior while riding on the school bus. Driving scrupulously by the rules, she turned left onto the main street of town, then south on a street that took them out of town and into the country.
The sensor screen showed the downed lifeboat ten clicks further south. When they intersected a road with signs directing travelers to a nature preserve, Cat turned again. Another sign gave the distance to the nature preserve. "They’re going to be close to this Brazos Park." She mentioned. The Ambassador hissed again behind her.
"If they’re on public display I will personally…" hiss. It was a bit unnerving.
The winding country road took them further south. The Sun was well up, now, and it was a bright beautiful day. The land was nearly flat, mostly with ‘cow pastures’, but some field crops Cat couldn’t identify. There were majestic spreading trees of some sort scattered about, quite strikingly beautiful. Earth’s trees were definitely one of its better points, in Cat’s opinion.
The further south they traveled, they further east the directional located indicated. As they passed the entrance to the nature park, the Ambassador hissed and tapped the sensors. "They are in the park." Hiss.
Cat turned in the entrance and stopped to read a sign listing the amenities. "They have camping, shall we say we’re camping and go in?"
"Yes, but you’d better let me drive." The Ambassador’s false face grinned, "You’ve had your clandestine fun a awhile."
Cat gave up the controls and they rolled forward. The woman at the entrance booth certainly didn’t seem alarmed. Had the life boat gotten down unseen? The friendly woman was chatting away, pointing things out on a pamphlet she was displaying for the Ambassador. Peeking over his shoulder, Cat saw that it was a map, showing the facilities. She quickly oriented it to the sensor readings. "Can we camp over here, somewhere?" she pointed to some sort of facility on the edge of a lake.
"Certainly. Now that school has started, there are very few people camping. There’s plenty of space available. I can put you in slot H-15, well away from everyone else, with lots of privacy." At the Ambassador’s nod the uniformed woman fetched more documentation, "These are the rules, and this needs to stay on your dashboard. This is the number of your specific slot." Barter sheets changed hands, and the Winny moved off. The park road wound through heavily wooded areas, with the occasional well maintained walking trail crossing it. Looking through the papers, Cat found bird identification sheets and warnings about alligators. The alligator pictures gave her mental whiplash. With an extra set of legs they’d look just like tordas. Funny that Earth would have something that looked like a Hislox animal.
They closed in on both the camping spot and the sensor-mapped lifeboat. Her quick guess on the map was going to be very close.
The park was nearly empty, and on this stretch of the lake they were they only vehicle driving along the lakefront. The lake was serene and empty, not even any of the floating birds marred its surface. Probably because something else recently had.
Gyrm had seen it too. "Look at the water standing on the ground, and the debris washed up. I think they hit the lake."
Cat squinted against the bright Sun. "Look to the right, there’s something just sticking out of the water."
The Ambassador parked the Winny and they got out and stood on the shore. Thirty spans out the smooth viewscreen of the lifeboat barely broke the surface.
Gyrm and Pompelm quickly donned skinsuits and swam out to the boat. Cat waited with the Ambassador, knowing she wasn’t trained in rescue, but wishing she were doing anything but standing here swatting mosquitoes. Domi hovered in the open door of the Winny.
A sputtering, unsuited Kersa surfaced and was helped to shore by one of the Six. As soon as he’d stopped choking he started complaining "…bad directions, lousy pilot, I don’t care which. I’m not accustomed to being treated like this…" He broke off to swat at the hovering mosquitoes. Apparently Kersa were tasty. Domi ventured out to run his scanner over the new arrival. The Kersa bristled at him in instant territorial display. Domi ignored him and kept scanning. "You’re fine, but for a few bruises, and bug bites."
"No thanks to that incompetent pilot. He missed the embassy and then wouldn’t turn over the controls to me, so I could get us back."
Cat tuned him out as another Kersa, then two Dusek-divers splashed out of the lake. The Duseks had pressure bands on their joints, and spherical helmets. The Kersa was dressed for town. Had been dressed for town. At the moment he was dripping, muddy and pitching a fit. The last of the six followed him out of the lake, but there was no sign of Gyrm.
Pompelm was talking to the Ambassador while watching the refugees. "…checking the boat’s power and other systems, to see if it can move on its own."
The crew was hustled into the Winny ostensively for a quick checkup by Domi, but actually to get the nonhumans out of sight of any chance observers.
Gyrm swam out of the boat and waded onshore. "It’s really messed up. There’s enough power to get it ashore, but not enough to make it to the embassy. I might be able to find a large enough truck to carry it, but what excuse would we have to get it in here?"
"Can you get it totally below water and secure it?" Rix asked.
"Sure. I’ve got a complete scan, so maybe later I can figure out how to fix it up enough to get it home."
She returned to the ship and it slowly slipped out of sight. Cat scanned the area, making note of the numbered slot the Winny was parked in. Then she slipped into the drivers seat and headed home. Crew and passengers rescued.
But how were they going to get the ship home?