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Groundties

By
J. S. Fancher

Meet the Spacer Cast:
 

The preliminaries were over, the remnants of the appetizers removed. Good friends, good food and a pleasant buzz well underway from the best wine to touch her palate in over two years.

The waiter arrived with the recommended shalimba filets, and Loren Cantrell closed her eyes to savor the aroma. As host of the small party, she received hers last, which gave her nose ample time to prepare her tastebuds.

The waiter's presence passed behind her and she controlled her reflexes with less effort than it had required two glasses of wine ago. He positioned the plate in front of her--filet at lower left, the seven-vegetable crescent an artistic curve above. She smiled. The waiter smiled back. A cool Thank you, met a warmer You're very welcome, admiral, and she laughed.

It was an old game, one the young man played to perfection. He'd get his tip; he was an excellent waiter. But style and a good--personality--wouldn't lower it.

With an impish grin and a wink, he gathered up his tray and stand and glided back to the kitchen, nonchalantly avoiding collision with an outbound dessert. He disappeared behind intricately carved panels, and Cantrell turned back to her companions to find the two females in the party gazing at the panels with equal appreciation. Don looked--resigned.

Smothering amusement behind her glass, she sipped her wine, set it down, and was reaching for her fork when her personal pager buzzed in her ear.

"Damn." If she didn't have the implant, she could ignore it. As it was . . . She held up her hand, forestalling questions as she tapped a query, listened for the encoded response.

--Station Security Com: Albion consul/Stat: Kurt--

"I don't believe this! Kyla, Don, Sharon, excuse me a moment. I've got to find a Secure Line. Please don't wait for me. I've no idea how long this will take. No sense in all our dinners going cold." And with a final, longing glance at the filet: "So help me, if this is anything short of intergalactic war, Kurt Eckersley may not survive the night."

***

A roar went up in the Security Club bar as the ball shot through the pocket. Dead center: a three-pointer, no question.

The revised score flashed on the screen. TJ Briggs leaned back in his chair, licked foam from his upper lip, and smirked at the security officers crowding up behind him.

"One more, gentle-folk, and it's mine--all mine. Thought the old man would be out of touch, didn't you? That's why God invented the 'Net. I've seen all the games. No way those academy kids can beat Joharan's lot. And it's their serve now."

The red-head sharing his chair leaned her elbows on the table, rested her chin glumly in her hand. "Yeah, Teej, but who would have thought a bunch of belt-miners' brats could beat Vandereaux's Best? Let alone by thirty points."

Briggs twisted to grab a handful of popcorn and grinned at her. "You ever watch miners' rug-rats in ZeroG? You've got to--"

A buzz in his ear. No! They wouldn't. Couldn't!

A second roar from the crowd unfortunately failed to drown out a second signal, this one persistent enough to wake the dead.

If the corpse happened to be one TJ Briggs.

Desperately hoping for a replay, he queried the System with discreet taps at the implant. On the bar's vid screen, a foul being reviewed--and in his ear a god damned Priority call from Old Man Morley in Central Security.

"Shit!" he growled, then yelled above the din, "Look out, troops, I'm coming through!--Terry, I need a 'Line. Now!"

Another uproar in the bar: whether from colleagues outraged at him or at something on the screen, Briggs didn't know and didn't dare take time to inquire. He stepped from his chair to the tabletop, then over the crowd, fellow officers lending shoulders and hands as stepping-stones.

By the time he reached the floor, the barkeep had the back room cleared and a Security Line standing-by.

***

Alexis Fonteccio carefully lifted the top layer of pasta. Steam rose: at least it was hot.

She sniffed hopefully--

--and let the pasta fall.

She'd hoped--she'd truly hoped she would find something somewhere in the much-vaunted Vandereaux Station which wouldn't make her gag. This--purported lasagne--was not it. She suspected that their 'imported chef' had indeed been imported--from the seagoing salt processors of Venezia. No wonder stationers got such strange notions about Recons: no Venezian--not even cousin Michaelino--would eat this garbage.

A managerial inquiry tapped into the electro-menu roused a form display:

Regret unavailable at this time.

Please log complaint for queued review.

For complaint list, enter L.

With a sigh and a sip of mediocre red, Lexi leaned her chin on her hand and replaced the inquiry with the Bracketball game. Tiny players bounced in random (to her eyes) chaos across the screen. Another button displayed the score:

TJ should be happy. One more goal and she reckoned the pot was his.

She chewed half-heartedly on a bread-stick that tasted of stale plastic and wondered how to forego the rest of her leave. Three months stuck on Vandereaux Station while Cetacean and her crew were off doing outer-system maneuvers was not her idea of a good time. But Adm. Cantrell had insisted her personal staff get the same time off as herself, and she personally had not had the heart to tell her commanding officer she'd rather scrub pots in Cetacean's galley than spend a week in this hive of NeoDarwinists.

Lexi stuck the plastic breadstick into the plastic lasagne, pushed the plastic plate across the plastic table, signed the plastic register chit and tossed it in the plastic cashier-slot on her way out the plastic door.

"Hold it right there!"

Unmistakable, that Tone. She curbed hostility before turning back. A real-live HB: 'Cashier,' according to his name tag. "Yes?"

"What's the problem?" Low and brisk inquiry from a third party. 'Manager,' his name tag read. Funny thing--not so 'unavailable' as advertised.

The cashier held up the chit. "She's Recon. sir."

The manager eyed the signature, eyed Lexi up and down. She turned so her Cetacean patch and the security badge were clearly visible.

The Look didn't change.

Maybe it was the way she walked.

Not a word spoken. None necessary. She handed them a ten-credit piece Cash. They handed her the change--less a tip for nonexistent service: The Green Olive 'employed' electronic menus and robotic servos.

Lexi turned her back on the Olive's plastic people and headed aimlessly down the row of so-called ethnic restaurants, working her way through the crowd, side-stepping noisy children and pulling a drunk from the path of a speeding VipCab.

Lexi turned her back on the Olive's plastic people and headed aimlessly down the row of so-called ethnic restaurants, working her way slowly through the crowd, side-stepping noisy children and pulling a drunk from the path of a speeding VipCab. Garish colors and raucous music assaulted her senses from all sides. Men and women in ill-fitting replicas of ancient clothing styles accosted passers-by, enthusiastically urging them to try a 'new taste sensation.'

Busy place. Ironic: Vandereaux, undisputed center of the Separatist movement, boasted the largest, most elaborate EthnoStrip of any station in the Nexus ComNet Alliance. But then. what better way to reinforce your own sense of superiority than by sporting a parody of a parody of a Reconstruction of the Real Thing?

And she had three months of this to look forward to.

She could, she supposed, get a downworld passage, but somehow she doubted it would be any different there. The entire Vandereaux system was too old--and too completely in Councillor Shapoorian's pocket--to give a visiting Ethnic Reconstructionist anything but an ulcer, and while the admiral kept including her in Councillor Eckersley's plans for downworld excursions, tours of CentralSec and Capitol Station, Lexi foresaw nothing but an endless repetition of tonight.

At times, Adm. Cantrell had the most incredibly naive notions how far she could bend the system.

The change from the ten covered a hot dog and chips from a stand. Mustard was extra. She splurged, smothered the Mystery Meat into edibility and headed down-rim in quest of a phone.

With luck, the admiral would understand.

Meet the Recons

HuteEtu drifted through the trees to lie, mottled and golden, in the arms of his lover, Yoluta, who . . .

"Oh dear," Anevai Tyeewapi sighed as a toski-bug lighted on the flower in front of her nose. "I'm afraid what we have here is a lover's triangle."

A second sigh. She rose to her knees, tucking her notebook away in a back pocket. "I'll never get it right, now."

Ruthlessly plucking the perfect flower from its patch of sunlight, she added it to the pile already in the basket, then watched the blue-spotted insect flit away on the spring breeze. "Mmmm. Fickle, fickle lover, Lady Yoluta. You must settle for old Etu after all."

A screaming boom shattered the morning quiet. Atmospheric entry.

Oh, shee-it. Anevai glanced skyward, then at her watch. It was later than she'd thought. Dad would have her hide if she missed the landing.

Because this time Adm. Cantrell herself was coming down. Adm. Cantrell was personally shepherding a new researcher. A new researcher who was so fragile he had to have a personal escort to keep the big bad Recoils away from him.

Shee-it. Such an honor. Such a delight!

--Such a hassle.

She grabbed the basket, flipped the lid and headed toward home at the ground-eating pace she could hold for hours, trusting moccasined feet to instinctively adjust to the irregularities of rocks and winding roots in the path.

She had at least an hour before she had to be at the spaceport. She could leave the flowers for Benah--she'd know what to do with them. That would leave her time for a shower and a quick--

The basket went tumbling as a flying body tackled her from the side. The next instant, she found herself flat on her hack with a very sharp knife at her throat and a very large, very heavy shadow between her and the sun.

"Better work on those reflexes, olathe. Your next attacker might not be quite so friendly." At which the shadow began getting friendly indeed.

Never one to ignore sensible instructions, she brought her knees up in a move not as unfriendly as might have been and rolled the shadow over her shoulder, coming to her feet and taking possession of his knife in one swift movement--a movement he'd taught her.

"You've got a lot of nerve, friend. If just one flower's bruised, you're going to replace it! Cantrell's shuttle's coming in and I've got exactly forty-five minutes to get to the airport."

Nayati Hatawa, still sprawled in the dirt, grinned up at her, raised a finger and sneered, "Who cares? Let the spacers fend for themselves for once."

" Pro-to-col."

The grin changed to a scowl as Nayati gathered himself up off the ground. "Protocol be hanged," he growled, brushing at his backside. "Tell them to go--"

"Drop it, Nayati. We've more than enough trouble without adding your brand of insult to the fire. Besides . . ." She flipped him the knife; he caught and sheathed it without taking his eyes from her. "I'm liaison for the new researcher."

Nayati snorted. "If he's a researcher, I'm from Alpha--"

"Yeah, right. He's a spy. Nayati, why don't you give it up? Why should they bother? We're new, we're quiet. Let's keep it that way."

"I still don't like it. What did Smith say about him? Checked his stats, didn't he?"

"I don't know exactly. Hono was there when Wes looked up the records, but he was arrested before I could talk with him. I haven't talked with Wes--haven't seen hide nor hair of him for the last couple of days, actually."

"Maybe you should have found out before you volunteered to be the spy's escort."

"I didn't volunteer! And quit calling him a spy when you don't know anything about him."

"I know SecOne cruisers don't shuttle researchers to and fro for the hell of it."

"And how would you know? Besides, it's not just delivering this Ridenour. They're doing some records checks and I--"

"What sort of records?"

"I don't know! Something's screwed up on the 'Net, and this Adm. Cantrell asked to look over some originals. It happens. Nayati."

Nayati looked decidedly ill at ease. She hadn't paid much attention to her father last night.

Maybe she should have.

"I've got to get a move on. Calling a Warrior meeting?"

"Yes."

"When?"

"Tonight. In the barn."

"Fine. See you." Rescuing the basket, she turned to go.

"Annie!"

She froze and glared back at him. "Don't call me that. You know I hate it."

He shrugged. "I heard from Hononomii this morning."

"You heard from him? Why didn't you say something sooner? Is he all right? Why did he call you? How?"

"Via the WinTap." Nayati's voice was grim. Justifiably so: the 'Tap was for emergency only use. Especially with the Alliance ship insystem. "Tell your father he's . . . gone. You'll hear the rest tonight along with the others."

"Gone? Gone how? Nayati, what's happened?'"

"I said I'd tell you the rest tonight. Just tell your father not to trust this Adm. Cantrell any farther than he can throw her."

The wicker handle bent in her fist. "You can't expect me to leave it at that. He's my brother. What's happened?"

"Settle down, woman. He'll be all right. We've ,just got to get him back."

"Gone how?" But Nayati remained stubbornly silent. She pressed her lips together and turned to go. Sounded more like another of Nayati's numbers. Just like him to drop an implication like that and not explain it. And lately he'd say anything to get the Warriors' Society fired up against the Alliance. How bad could Hononomii be if he'd managed to get at--and use--a base to contact Nayati? And of course he'd use the 'Tap if he didn't want everyone aboard ship to know he was calling.

"And, Ah-nehv-ai."

She stopped and scowled at him over her shoulder.

"Make sure the new guy sees you leave tonight."

"Whatever for?"

"Just do it!"

She opened her mouth to protest, then flung her hands up in disgust. "I've got to go."

***

"Scuze me." The admiral reached past Stephen to flip the cover up on the window, and light flooded into the cabin. He winced away, squinting. "First time down, you don't want to miss."

"Don't 1?"

She grinned broadly at him. "Trust me."

He shuddered (not entirely in jest) glanced back at the window only to wince again at the brightness. He fumbled in his carry-on kit for the dark glasses the admiral had handed him before they left Cetacean . . .What are these for--? Trust me, Stationer-lad, you'll need them! . . . and with a deep breath, he took his first look.

A single glance, at which his stomach heaved in protest. He closed his eyes, fought nausea while his brain registered what he'd seen. It was no different from vids. He could think of it that way, framed as the view was by the port.

Cautiously, he opened his eyes again. . .

. . . on a lush, green and blue surface white-stippled with clouds, on textures and colors no holo could reproduce.

But those textures and colors weren't right. They weren't right!

Stephen gasped as reds and golds overlaid greens and blues in a dizzying, fractured mosaic. He removed the glasses and rubbed at his eyes, startled when his hand came away damp.

Adm. Cantrell said something to him, but he couldn't hear through the roaring in his ears. Her hand on his arm shocked him back to the present and he said quickly: "I was dizzy for a moment. It was the height . . ."

She smiled, said something about 'getting used to it' and 'over soon.'

He muttered a noncommittal answer, and tured back to the window, forcing the disturbing image into an out-of-focus blur . . . .

#

Final approach, a few hundred meters above the highest snowcovered peaks and dropping rapidly. Their flight-path headed them over rugged foothills to the lush, green valley where the landing field was located.

Stephen grasped the armrests until his fingers ached. What had been harmless-looking wrinkles and folds of velvety green and brown were growing with each passing moment into larger and sharper rocks and crevices.

Studying and believing the theory of flight was one thing. Trusting that theory to keep you from falling into very solid-looking mountains, which until now had also been highly theoretical planetary geology, was quite another matter.

A hand patted his. He glanced arund, ecountered an understanding look on a face which, for a moment, he couldn't, for the life of him, recognize. . . .

(His notebook and bag cutting into trembling hands. Himself pressing into the corner of seat and wall, terrified he would get in someone's way the instant he moved. The crew rushing about the cabin, checking systems, stowing unidentified packets in the overheads, pulling equally strange things out.

(Tears gathering in his eyes, blurring the images but not allowed to fall. Mama had left him at the Spaceport and told him to do as he was told. To be good and use the brain the good Lord gave him, because she and Papa were going somewhere he couldn't. And now he was in Space--he knew that because he'd watched his home shrink outside his window and turn into a strange round thing--where Mama and Papa couldn't come.

(I'm trying, Mama. I'm trying to be good, but they haven't told me anything. Maybe no one remembers I'm here. Maybe no one can see me anymore. Mama, am I an invisible and you didn't want me to know?

(Is that why you sent me away?)

***

White against blue against white. Iridescent gleam of heatshielding.

The shuttle drifted elegantly through broken clouds, sleek, sweeping lines very different from ordinary jets or their own station's clunky cargo shuttles. Moments before touchdown, the stabilizers glided forward into landing config, making her outline less alien but no less beautiful.

If it weren't for the presence of the Alliance Security designation on the shuttle's side, Anevai would have welcomed this opportunity to stand by her distinguished father and greet the visitors. As it was, all she felt was bitterness and resentment.

The craft eased to a precise, on the marks--military--stop. The Alliance Security force might claim to be a 'police agency' rather than military, but she'd sure like to know where they made the distinction. Their own Tribal police would never bring a ship in like that. No Tunican police officer would stand at attention while waiting for the hatch to open and the gangway to extend.

Police officers were loose. Relaxed. Friendly. People you could go to when it was late and the tubes were down, to get a lift home so the parents wouldn't skin you alive. They didn't arrest VOSsy dreamers like Hononomii and drag them into space and leave them there.

These men of Cantrell's made her nervous. They were fighters--like Nayati was a fighter. Quiet movers. Friendly. And always on. Just because formally declared war in space hadn't existed for centuries didn't mean there was no army. And while the ship floatiing somewhere above them might not be called a 'warship,' it carried more firepower than any planet could boast. Not an army--?

It made her teeth ache.

And because of this non-military peace-loving admiral's arrival, the whole place felt like a mausoleum. To 'avoid further incidents,' her father had ordered the east terminal closed for the duration of Cetacean's presence insystem. For the admiral's convenience he'd shunted all regular traffic to the other side of the city--never mind the convenience of a quarter of a million Dineh.

"Nituna, have you the schedules and the lists of equipment and personnel the admiral requested?" Sakiimagan Tyeewapi's voice resonated through her thoughts, shattering them into a thousand brittle pieces and pulling her back to the business at hand. Nituna: 'eldest daughter'. (Never mind she was his only daughter.) So, formal--mode had begun.

"Yes, father, it's all here," she said, patting the briefcase in her hand and echoing his formal Voice as best she could. Not an easy skill, but a valuable one to learn.

"Is Dr. Ridenour's suite ready?"

"Yes, father."

He said, without taking his eyes off the parked shuttle, "It would be best if his check-in happened to be delayed. His specialty--if the 'Net is to be believed, is the ComNet itself--"

She glanced at her father in surprise. "A 'NetTech?" Why, if she was supposed to watchdog him, hadn't anybody bothered to tell her that? Or was that why her father had flung this task her way? "Did you want me to--"

He frowned, the slightest tension between his straight black brows. "Your job is to guide him, Anevai, to keep him out of trouble, not to question his veracity."

So much for parental confidence. "So you want Wes to check him out before he turns him loose on the system?"

The frown line eased. "Precisely. And since Dr. Smith is discussing the current situation with the department heads this morning, he won't be available until later."

And they all knew what current situation he was talking about. She asked, formality slipping, "Dad, can't we do something to get Hono back? He didn't do anything. And he's your son. Doesn't that count for anything?"

"He did indeed 'do something,' Anevai. He did a very stupid something." Sakiimagan's tone, his impassive face, belied the criticism. In some ways, she suspected, he was proud of his son's actions. If, on the other hand, it had been his daughter who had willfully attacked a security officer, she'd have been on bread and water for a week. "But he didn't hurt anyone, and I have every confidence we'll get him back--if we do nothing to antagonize this Cantrell, and if we raise no further suspicions."

"But Nayati says--"

"I fail to see how Nayati can know anything for certain, but he said himself that Hononomii will--and I quote what you told me--'be all right.' If that's the case, we would do best to work within this Cantrell's realm and not encourage her to investigate ours more deeply. The best way for us to get Hononomii back is to be cooperative and get the admiral's authority working with us, not against us. According to Paul, she could be a powerful ally if we don't alienate her. Do I make myself clear, nituna?"

Dr. Paul's been here twenty years, she thought. How well can he really know her after all that time? But she closed her mouth firmly on another protest. "Perfectly, father. --Will you come to the meeting tonight?"

"I'm certain my presence will be required with our guests." He smiled down at her. "You will be my surrogate in your brother's absence. Nayati may be over-reactive to Hononomii's incarceration, but he's nothing you can't handle." His near eye narrowed: a half-wink. "I doubt I shall be disappointed."

"I'll do my best, father," she said, Dutiful Daughter. Blast it, she was nineteen 'NetStan--twenty planetary--and any way you looked at it, legally, physically, or emotionally, an adult. Her father had a hard time seeing that, especially with mum gone . . . . but as soon as the Cetacean people left, mum'd be back and things could get back to normal. She shifted her weight to ease an itch in one foot. As soon as Cetacean left: that couldn't happen too soon for her.

 

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