The drop was behind her. Shona tried to
sidle away. Bock came after her, panting, his face set and sweating. "What's the matter with you?
Bock! Don't hurt me! I've done nothing to you. Please! If you kill me, Laren will die!" The heavy
pack threw her off balance and she stumbled. Pebbles shifted under her feet, dropping away into
infinity. Her heel slipped, protruding out over the edge. In panic, she jerked it back from the
abyss, but overbalanced on the other foot. It skidded. Her arms windmilled, desperately seeking
balance. She found herself slipping over the cliff, stepping out into nothing. The sun blinded her.
Her heart pounded, choking her. She was going to
Then a hard band surrounded her wrist. She
squinted up into the sun. A dark shadow blocked her sight of the mountain. Bock had grabbed her
hand. She mewed with pain as he hauled her up then backed away from the edge, his arms wrapped
around her, enfolding her small frame against his big chest. He staggered backwards until a rock
turned under his ankle, and he sat down heavily with Shona in his lap. Dust flew up in a cloud
where they landed.
"I can't do it," he said,
tightly, then threw his head back and shouted, "I can't do it, damn you!" His voice echoed in the
silence. He put a big hand on her head, and Shona cringed under its weight. His words came out in a
rush. "I'm so sorry. They say kill you and make it look like an accident, but I can't. I'm a
programmer, not a murderer. You aren't a cipher. It's all very easy for them to say go do it, but
they're not here."
"What does that mean?" Shona
asked, still numb. "Who wants me dead?"
don't even know what you're doing here, do you?" Bock said. He was covered with dust. "You don't
know. It is not fair. You saved his life. I love him."
Shona flung herself away from him. She crawled
into the low overhang and sat huddled up, with her knees underneath her chin. Intellectually she
knew she should run, but her legs wouldn't hold her. Her hands flattened against the sides of her
shallow cave. He might still haul her out, but she'd fight him. Though he didn't seem ready to
repeat his attack. He sat where he had dropped down, his back to her, his head
"Why are you doing this?" she cried.
Slowly, he turned around. Shona shrank into as small a bundle as she could, cursing the pack that
prevented her from withdrawing totally out of reach. But she couldn't stay here. In a few hours it
would be night. She couldn't find her way in the dark, even if she could get away from a man much
larger and in better physical condition than she. He sensed her fear and stopped
"I'm scaring you," he said, in a flat
voice. She realized he was as much in shock as she was. "I don't mean to scare you, Dr. Shona." He
stretched out a hand for her. It trembled. He let it drop. "I'm so sorry. I like you. I didn't know
I would like you. We're not really used to thinking of outsiders as fellow human beings." He barked
out a bitter laugh. "You don't even know why you came
"I came to practice medicine," Shona
barked at him. "That's what you hired me for. I'm just a substitute until Setve gets back. Not to
do you any harm."
Bock rolled his hands into
fists. "But he didn't see
what was wrong with Laren. Why didn't he? Akeera has been sick for
ages, and Setve didn't do anything. Akeera was making Laren sick. It wasn't his fault. We love that
damned eagle. Setve was going to let them both die. You saved both of them. Except for Mona,
they're the people I love more than anyone in the
"Then why?" Shona pleaded, the
pounding of her heart making her voice rough. "Why are you trying to kill
Tears ran down Bock's dusty face. "Because
you will tell people. You keep breaking rules. You tried to tell your husband, on open
transmission. You think the encryption's unbreakable, but it isn't. Anyone who really wanted to
could do it. No, that's not true. I could do it. That's what I do. I program so-called
indecipherable keys, but there is always a way
Shona gawked at him. "Everyone is upset
because I tried to tell Gershom about the animals?" Bock shook his
"That's part of it. No, that's not the
whole truth at all. Do you even know what Finoa
"Yes. She's a brilliant geneticist. After
Laren reminded me she'd invented the Nentnor process, I found some of her abstracts on line. She's
cutting edge. Her biotechnology saves millions of lives a
"More than that," Bock said. The way he
spoke made Shona curious. In spite of her fear, she peered at him
"Is the Nentnor process connected
with the research she's doing now?"
grave. "Of course. I'm surprised a smart girl like you didn't put it
"Isn't she working on a new wrinkle
to improve tissue growth in burn victims? I thought she was investigating embryology."
Bock dropped his eyes. "She is. Didn't it ever
occur to you that Lady Elaine has been here years, yet she's been carrying only a matter of
"Of course! There's no male elephant
here." Shona's eyes went wide. The scientist in her made the connection, and a whole continentful
of lights went on. Though human cloning had been banned for decades the process of creating new
organs is over a century old, though the original means, by budding them onto or growing them
inside donor animals was brutal and wasteful. Shona retained a nightmare image from medical school
archives of a pink-skinned mouse with a huge human ear grafted to its back. Finoa had
revolutionized the process and taken the cruelty out of it. Animal cloning is nothing new, either,
though the in-vitro process required eggs and host mothers to implant them into. Those clones often
suffered from genetic abnormalities, most of them didn't take, and the originals had aged as though
they were born at the age of their cell donor, meaning a kitten cloned from a twelve-year-old
original had a very short life span. Tweaking a single stem cell into an entire embryo, where one
could plan every last gene, and could make certain of the viability long before implantation, was
brilliant. Organs produced by the Nentnor system enjoyed full, healthy existence. So if Finoa had
made the jump into creating whole embryos they would almost certainly be perfect and healthy. She
got excited at the notion. "So that's why Laren called her the high priestess of animal
preservation? That's what you're all doing here. How marvelous! You're reestablishing dying species
using her stem-cell process."
"That sounds so
unselfish," Bock said, uneasily. "No, some of us are here to collect our own private zoos. Finoa's
the fanatic. Watch out for her. Fanatics are dangerous." Shona's apprehension must have showed on
her face. "No," he said. "Not us. But you are stepping on a lot of toes, and they want you to stop
"But my contract is for six months. I was
bound to find all this out. Why wasn't I simply told there would be secrets and offered a
confidentiality agreement in advance?"
grimaced and glanced away. "You know how the people here think. They probably thought that you'd
"Not notice an elephant?" Shona
shrugged. "Well, I almost didn't. But Jamir's been sniffing around my garden. Saffie scented him on
the first day. But why hire me if the eventual outcome was to murder
Bock studied her face. "You know what
Finoa's doing, and even now you don't understand. You have a shipful of rare species. That's why we
wouldn't hire just any doctor. It's your menagerie. It's the ottle. And all your other little
treasures: a purebred cat - a real Abyssinian. A vaccine dog. Genetically hybrid mice. Lop-eared
rabbits. We brought you here because of them. You didn't even realize that might be an attraction.
You're the custodian of a gene pool that is the envy of anyone on this planet, wealth or no wealth.
And Finoa has evolved the means to take advantage of
Shona was mortified. "She wants Chirwl
"No!" Bock exclaimed. When
Shona cringed he lowered his voice. "She wants to breed from him. Everyone was wild for the idea.
Their own ottle. An alien of our own. We'd be the envy of every other collector in the galaxy - if
they knew. It would be satisfying that itch each of us has. That's why they asked you to come
here." He reached out and put a hand on her knee. She was in such a state of shock she didn't
recoil. "You're so naïve. You've got a treasure trove of rare animals, and we knew they'd all
come with you. We each have one or two rare beasts, but we have room to each have a zoo of our own,
and we will have, over time, if Finoa's research is successful." He gave a sad little shrug. "One
day, they'd be able to run free, in jungles and forests where no one would ever molest them.""That
won't be for at least a hundred years," Shona said. "Bock, my specialty is environmental medicine.
Based on the sheer volume of toxins and naturally occuring compounds on the unreconstructed part of
this planet I can foresee pathologies that could affect all of you in time, but those animals have
less immunity to foreign pathogens than you have, and they don't understand what is happening to
them. Some of you are already showing symptoms. I've treated a number of cases caused by the
environment - that over there," she stabbed a hand down toward the barrier where the terraformers
chugged patiently along. "It's not fair to any of these precious creatures to be trapped here,
multiplied into an infinity of miserable existence. It's wrong to keep them drugged all the time.
That, too, will eventually do them cumulative harm, no matter how benign the sedative is. And
trapping them in little yards and inside aviaries is cruel. You know that. They should be returned
to their native habitats."
"I know, I know,"
Bock said, mournfully. "We love Akeera. I don't want to lose him. I know it would be better for
him. I know it. But he's part of the family. - How do I know he'd be all right if he went back to
Earth? You know how bad the pollution has been. He might get captured and put in a cage again, by
someone who won't love him like we do."
about that huge protected wilderness in the Rocky Mountains?" Shona asked. "It's almost a third of
North America now."
"Yes, with agricultural and
industrial areas crowding it on both sides."
could soar the skies, fish in the lakes." Shona stared into Bock's eyes, which were beginning to
well up. "He would be free."
Tears spilled over
and ran down Bock's cheeks. He was the quiet one of the couple. Shona knew from weeks of watching
him and Laren closely that though Bock was not openly demonstrative, his feelings ran very deep.
Where Laren chattered and gossiped and vented, Bock sat and watched, only acting after thoughtful
consideration. She knew he had been thinking about this very subject for some time. He knew he
ought to set the eagle free, but was reluctant because Laren didn't want it to happen. She went and
knelt with her arm thrown as far as it could go around his massive shoulders. Bock picked up her
free hand and cupped it in his big palms. His dark, chocolate-brown eyes met
"You need to leave Jardindor," he said,
sincerely, urgently. "You have to go as soon as you can. When you do, will you take Akeera with
you? Get him back to Earth?"
"I will," Shona
promised. She looked away, out over the wilderness, almost dreamily, as the afternoon painted every
peak bright gold. It seemed to be unspoiled, but until the terraforming was finished it would
always be tainted by the poisons on the other side of the barrier. The exotic captive pets would
never live to roam free. "I'd like to take all of them with
"Oh, no," Bock rumbled in alarm. "They will
He did not mean the animals. Shona
realized she'd spoken without thinking. "Don't tell anyone I said that," she pleaded. "Don't tell
" The words 'that you made an attempt on my life' died before she could even get
them out of her mouth. She gestured at the cliff with a feeble hand. "Otherwise, how can I go on
living here? I can't just leave. I have no transport. I need to wait for Gershom. And what about
the children? I have more than three months left on my contract. I don't want them terrified the
entire time that something is going to happen to them. Please,
"I won't say a word," Bock promised.
"I'll tell Finoa no opportunity ever came up to
do what she asked. Remember I owe you, for
Laren's life. We owe you. But she may ask someone else. You have to watch yourself. You're in
danger. Don't make yourself vulnerable. Don't tell people you're going mountain-climbing. Don't go
swimming without several witnesses."
a bitter laugh. "I'll have to stay in for the next hundred days, just like the rest of you. Do you
know what a treat it's been to be able to roam around in atmosphere? To look at it through a window
will almost be a punishment. But I'll do it," she added resolutely. "The children won't like it,
but their safety is more important than their
Bock shook his head. "Hiding in that
house is not as safe as you think. Remember, your computer can be programmed from outside. Finoa
and Setve were close. They had the codes to one another's houses. You may have changed the locking
mechanism, but you have the same source
Shona's hand flew to her mouth as a
memory struck her. "The night of my party Robret came in the back door. I know I had left it
locked. So that's how he did it! You know how the house computers work. Will you help
Bock looked relieved. "Yes, of course. But
don't tell anyone what you know. You have to act normally. You don't know what I was supposed to
do. You just had a nice day out mountain-climbing. I'll take the pressure for not doing it, but it
won't be the last try, if you don't act more cooperative. Shona." He looked deeply into her eyes.
"Don't trust anyone. You shouldn't even trust me. Just
stop saying the things you do. No one
around here is used to hearing the word no. They like to give things, but only when it's their own
idea. They'll never accept the idea of 'give back.' Except for Akeera, the other animals are here
to stay. Face that, and concentrate on getting yourself away from here
Shona privately vowed to try and urge
more conversions to reasonableness, though she agreed with Bock that it would be difficult. "I'll
be more cooperative. I'll pretend I'm going along with everything, if only to get my family safely
off this planet."
"That's good enough," Bock
said. "I'm on your side. Laren, too. Just remember that if things get
"I'll remember," Shona said. "Thank
The journey down the mountain took half
the time as going up had, but it felt twice as long.
"Where is he?" The doctor's voice issued a
Finoa turned in horror.
Standing in the doorway, with her hands on her hips, dusty and sunburned, was the last person she
had expected to see on this planet, or on any other. Alive! Shona Taylor was alive! Hastily she
dropped the sample dish into her smock pocket, hoping that Shona had not seen it. The big black dog
lying down in the corner of the laboratory let out a pleased whine and trotted over to the
newcomer, running her big nose over the woman's hands. It was her. Alive! "Dr. Shona! What
Shona knew what kind
of a surprise it was to see her, and it wasn't pleasant. Poor Dwan trailed behind her like an
unhappy shadow. She seemed to bear the brunt of Finoa's schemes more often than anyone. Shona owed
her another apology for the strips she'd torn out of the poor young woman's hide when she'd arrived
at the Sandses' home after the gruelling downhill trek and found two of her charges missing, but
that would have to wait. She was storming the temple, trying to rescue the unwitting sacrifice.
Finoa did indeed look like some kind of arcane high priestess, garbed from neck to heels in white
samite in the midst of her gleamingly chaste white-and-silver laboratory. By contrast, Shona must
resemble an angry dust-bunny who'd clawed her way out from underneath a primeval sofa to haunt
"Where," Shona repeated, slowly and
dangerously, ready to tear the place apart if she didn't get an answer, "is
Finoa stepped hastily aside to show a
sprawled mass of brown-black, a blot on the whiteness. "He's here," she said.
With an exclamation, Shona rushed to the ottle.
He was lying on his back on a waist-high mobile surgical table, all his limbs splayed helplessly
around his flat, round body. His slack jaw, faintly open to show his tongue and teeth, was tilted
toward the ceiling. Shona lifted his head. It rolled in her hands. Just the faintest fluttering of
eyelids reassured her he was alive. She peeled one back to have a look at the eye. His translucent
nictating membrane was tightly shut. Behind it, the iris was wide open. It responded sluggishly to
light. She bent to listen to his breathing. Ottles, a species that spent a lot of time in the
water, had a very efficient respiration system, which meant they used oxygen more efficiently than
Terran-born creatures. In the noise of the lab it was hard to hear the light breath sounds. She
marched over to Finoa and grabbed the sphygmanomometer off her neck. With that she could monitor
respiration and heart rate. They sounded normal. She glared at the high priestess, who was weaving
her aristocratic fingers together.
happened to him?"
"We were having tea," Finoa
said, defensively. "He was eating rather a lot of sweets. Suddenly, he
"What? What did you give him to eat?"
Shona demanded. "I want to see it."
There was nothing unusual. Salmon sandwiches, caviar on toast, crème fraiche on cucumber
rounds. Cream puffs. Passionfruit tarts. And Crunchynut bars." Here Finoa wrung her hands. "He ate
so many of them. I wondered whether he might make himself
"Could they have become contaminated?"
Shona asked, applying the tympanum of the device to Chirwl's chest again. "In storage or
Finoa looked horrified at the
accusation. "Certainly not!"
"Well, he's eaten
Crunchynut bars every month since he came to live with me. And he's been eating the food on
this planet for months, now, and has never had a reaction before. Certainly not like this. I want
to know what was different this time!"