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Groundties: The First Scene

copyright 1991 Jane S. Fancher

At the push of it button, 1810 appeared in the lefthand corner of her office viewscreen, bright amber against the blue-black shadow of HuteNamid's night side.

Any second now . . .

As though on cue, a red security alert blinked above the time. Cantrell chuckled and touched another button on the console.

"Yes, Lexi."

"He just passed us, sir."

"Thank you."

The alert disappeared and with a final glance at HuteNamid, she flipped the viewscreen off. No sense aggravating the situation further.

A blinking entrance request and (she was amused) a pounding on the office door announced the Arrival.

Another button released the door, and before the entryway cleared, Stephen was through it and across the room, and a printout was on her desk, obscuring half her monitor. Holding the sheet flat with the palm of his hand, he leaned across the wide surface and demanded, "Are you going to explain this?"

She lifted his hand, set it down again. "Looks like a transfer order to me."

"You have no right . . ."

"Haven't I? Check again, lad. Civilian you may be, but when you signed on for this trip, you put yourself under my command right along with everyone else aboard."

"Blast it, no! This wasn't part of the deal!" Stephen slammed her desktop, then jerked around so that all she could see was his slender, tensely rigid back. Not an unpleasant view--hell, the boy hadn't a bad one--but not the one she cared to look at just now, either.

"What 'deal'? There's no deal involved here, Stephen, just a job: an important job which at the moment you're the only one qualified to do."

The hand hanging at his side clenched spasmodically before he half-turned to gaze at her out of the corner of one eye, his face little more than a deeply, shadowed profile.

"And once down there? People don't come back from Planetary 'Tank assignments, admiral, and I didn't spend the better part of my life studying my tail off with the toughest bastards in the galaxy to waste it on some back-system world trying to get some half-rate fool to explain a computer system he probably just happened to fall into in the first place! You're not putting me down there!"

He broke off, shoulders heaving, and even the profile disappeared.

She leaned back in her chair and tried to catch a glimpse of his reflection in the darkened viewscreen. "I'm not stranding you. This transfer's not permanent, though it may read that way. It's cover, lad, that's all. To get you close to Smith."

The stiff shoulders relaxed a degree.

"Smith's balking. What else am I going to do to get you to him? Arrest him and haul him up here? Fine atmosphere for academic discussion that would be."

No answer.

"What's really eating you, Stephen?"

A further yielding of the silent back.

"ThinkTank this may be, boy." She heard his breath hiss: that boy was guaranteed to raise any twenty-year-old's blood pressure. "But remember what that means--what sort of person gets assigned to such institutions. Wesley Smith's no fool, and neither is anyone else in the HuteNamid 'Tank. If you approach them with that at-ti-tude of yours, they'll bounce you out on your ass, no questions asked. --And that . . ." she added thoughtfully eyeing the portion of his anatomy in jeopardy, ". . . would be such a waste."

Stephen turned full about. "Dammit, admiral, don't . . ."

But his anger collapsed in the face of her indifference. He sighed and dropped into a chair, thrusting his legs out and leaning his head on one hand.

"I just can't do it, admiral," he said tonelessly. "I've--never been planetside before."

Who do you think you're lying to, boy--me? or yourself? Aloud, she said, "High time, then, isn't it?"

"No!" Another slip of the self-restraint. "I mean, I never expected to. People just don't--" She raised an eyebrow, and he at least had the sensitivity to blush. "Well, not unless they're GravityWell SciCorps or planet-busters or--"

"Watch that term. Most indigenes don't take kindly to it, and many of those we're dealing with here are second, even third generation. Tunica's a capital city of a thriving nation now. Call them indigenes, even colonials, but not--"

"Don't you understand? It doesn't matter! I'm not going down there! I'm not going near those people! I'm not here to--"

"Also . . ." She tapped the thick report on her desk next to his transfer order. ". . . this indigene group's different from any other IndiCorps I've worked with. I assure you--"

"You don't understand--"

"--I assure you--" She knew what he was trying to pull, and she'd have none of it. "--I intend to explore those differences. Ethnic Recon groups can be touchy, particularly where it regards their customs, but these Amerinds . . ."

"Dammit, I don't care! I don't care." He leaned forward and gripped the edge of her desk. "Amerind, Reconstructionist, planet-buster---it's all the same. And it's not my field!" His voice broke. He struggled to continue, tongue-tied, then slapped the desktop in frustration and threw himself back into the chair to stare sullenly at the floor. "The less I know about them, the happier I'll be."

It appeared Danislav had done his job well. It would appear that Ridenour was nothing more than a Recon academy-clone with a special problem with Recons. She couldn't conceive of a more useless combination. But she still had a job to do. He did.

"Never mind. I'll give you the brief on them and you can read it or not. Let's say their unusual reactions to our presence disturb me enough that I'm going down with you and check out the situation personally. You may stay down there a few days and you may not."

He shrugged, scowling. "And I may not go at all."

"I'm pretending I didn't hear that, boy."

His fist slammed down on the chair arm. "Dammit, I'm not a boy! For years, I've aimed at a 'Tech position--in space. I'm not a--a sociologist, not a diplomat. I'm not good at misleading people. That--" he waved his hand toward the transfer, "--isn't my job, and they told me--promised, dammit--that Smith would be brought up here. That I wouldn't have to go planetside."

In the damn-fool department . . . Who promised him that? But she didn't ask. It didn't matter. What mattered was the fist spasmodically clenching and relaxing on the chair arm.

Finally, he asked, in an undertone, "Tell me, admiral, are you doing this because of what happened in SecCom?" His silver eyes rose to meet hers, steady, but intensely anxious. "Is this my punishment for Accessing? Exile? Without a trial?"

Of a sudden, she remembered that look as he'd left SecCom. He'd been awaiting the repercussions ever since. Maybe his resistance had its basis in sheer terror.

"No, Stephen. Not at all. This--" She held up the transfer order. "--was always a contingency. Whoever promised otherwise, lied. I'd hoped not to have to use it, but--"

"You don't understand . . ." The ancient cry of youth coming from a no-longer-sullen boy. She pressed her advantage.

"It's you who doesn't understand. Smith categorically refuses to deal with us. According to this response he transmitted up--" Finally, damn him! "--we've no business here. His job is to, quote: . . . publish ideas, not recruit new researchers. Let him--meaning you, son,--come down and check the place out for himself. If he can't manage that, he certainly can't manage to live here, and he can go to hell or back to Vandereaux, whichever he prefers."

Stephen winced, and again she found herself doubting the academy clone image. Damn Smith for a stubborn fool anyway.

"Smith says, personally, he'd prefer hell," she said, softening her voice, trying for a smile. He just winced again. "Stephen, short of my placing him under arrest and hauling him up, the only way you're going to do your job is for you to go to him. --And that means going planetside."

"But . . ." A small sound, a bit plaintive, but it was a response.

"Look, Stephen, I've a bit more of a problem here than originally anticipated. Besides the data dropout I've got an IndiCorps diplomatic crisis brewing, I've had to order a local 'Net shutdown . . . I don't have time for school-boy histrionics."

"But . . ." Louder this time, stronger: her barb finding its target.

"I must be able to trust you to handle Smith. His research is still your primary purpose here, but the whole business with the indigenes is out of hand. And of the two, diplomatic stability has far more call on my time and energy. The 'Net is your problem. It's broken and you're going to fix it."

He tried again. "But I've never had the immune-shots or even been tested for--"

"Dr. McKenna's waiting for my call right now." He stared sullenly at her from under his brows. She proffered the transfer order. "So shut up, go see the doc, and be ready to leave with me at 0900 hrs."

The sullen glare was far easier to handle than what he'd been radiating moments ago. She quirked the eyebrow and he relented. His lips twitched into a lifeless smile as he leaned forward to accept the paper. "All right, admiral. I suppose I can avoid the 'busters and do the social thing at the 'Tank for a few days. Only don't expect any--"

She grasped his wrist before he could lean back. forcing him to look at her. "What's that supposed to mean?"

A puzzled frown. "What does what mean?"

" 'Avoid the 'busters.'"

"Just what I said. I'll go down with you, talk with Smith, check out the system, his notes . . . admiral, please let go of me .. . everything you and Councillor Eckersley want. And I'll stay out of the way of your ignorant indigenes. There's no need . . ."

"Ignorant indigenes?" She challenged him scathingly. "Smith's assistant happens to be indigene. So is Lexi."

His voice rising: "Lexi's civilized."

She clenched her teeth, biting back sarcasm, remembering what he was. "I certainly didn't expect to hear--that--from you, of all people," she said, challenging that facade openly. A challenge he refused--or didn't hear.

He pulled against her hold. "Please let go, admiral."

"When I'm ready. I don't want you to run off without the other part of your assignment."

"What 'other part'? --Dammit, let go of me!" His hand jerked this time--hard.

She tightened her grip. "Certainly . . . when you're ready to listen to reason. I need someone on the inside. Someone with a legitimate reason to be there. Someone to get to know these people--SciCorps and IndiCorps alike--to listen to them. To find out why some of them are agitating for independence. To find out who--"

"No." Flat and final. "I'm no spy."

"We all do what we must. For God's sake, Ridenour, don't make me pull rank on you. I'd prefer your willing participation, but that isn't necessary--not in the least."

"Let--me--go!" His fist clenched, tendons creating iron hard ridges beneath her fingers.

"You'll be given a guest liaison for the first few days, Anevai Tyeewapi, the governor's own daughter--"

"I don't wan-need any liaison. Just get me to Smith!" His hand jerked again--strong little bastard--but she wouldn't allow him to turn away again. She didn't know what his problem was,

but he'd damn well better solve it now. "Stephen, just talk to her. Get to know her. Get her to talk about her people. We're not playing games here. They suspect my staff. They suspect me. You'll be in a unique position down there. If you hear anything I ought to know--make sure I do

know."

He was no longer listening to her. His belligerence had disappeared, the pulling ended, though the wrist beneath her fingers remained rock hard. His already pale skin had turned deathly

white.

The boy was terrified. Downright panicked. Of what? Her--?

"--Admiral, please don't ask me to-to . . ." His whispered plea faded on a shaking breath. "P-please . . . let . . . g-go . . ."

What the hell's the matter, boy? she thought. Rising slowly to her feet, she leaned across her desk, easing him back into the chair before releasing his wrist. He buried his face in shaking hands, then raked long fingers back through his hair, struggling to regain obviously shattered composure.

She studied him a moment in silence, then crossed to the wall bar under the viewscreen and poured him a Scotch. With water: he had blood tests coming up.

One large gulp. A second.

She asked quietly, "Well?"

Give him credit, he didn't ask Well, what? He said, "I-I have a-problem--with 'busters."

"Obviously."

A fingertip pushed an ice cube through amber liquid. He licked the finger, then sipped the drink. She didn't rush him. Sometimes, a body just had to think.

Eventually, he murmured, without moving, "There's really no other way?"

"None."

Steady, expressionless eyes met hers. "What clothes should I pack?"

A Character Moment

Stephen one-handed the RotaRing as he shot by, timing his twist so that momentum carried him in a smooth arc around the virtually frictionless universal joint. He closed his eyes and let his body swing in perfectly rhythmic rotations.

God, it was wonderful!

Some uncounted rotations later, he released his hold, still without opening his eyes, and flew across the room, knowing his vector to the millimeter. He counted to the rhythm of the room and on the fourth beat opened his eyes and reached with both hands to catch the curved side of the five-bar. He laughed aloud as his toes hit the cushioned wall, absorbing momentum, changing his vector.

Take that, Dr. Phillips!

He bounced back and forth between the vector walls surrounding the five-bar, challenging himself, making each pass more complicated than the last, choosing rec-pads totally at random.

He'd forgotten how much sheer fun the ZeroG gym could be. Every gym contained a beat all its own, 'NetStan gravity levels notwithstanding, and Cetacean's, was the liveliest he'd ever been in, strong and predictable, like the heartbeat of the massive vehicle surrounding it. The equipment was in ideal condition, the spring in the walls exquisitely calibrated: you could pick your colorblock and know the exact recoil to expect . . .

In the middle of a triple-twist Rolani with a half turn on the rip, applause echoed through the supposedly empty cavity. He missed his catch; a toe hooked on the ripple bar sending him in an uncontrolled tumble out into the middle of the gym. The accolade ended as abruptly its it had started, and someone shouted his name.

He ignored it. Heard instead Coach Devon's calm voice. Don't panic! Panic wastes energy. Blows thinking. He concentrated on his vector, spotted the RotaRing--just out of reach. A twist put his foot to the wall in place of his head--one of the high recoil pads. He used that rebound, plus a kick-off, to aim a controlled attitude dive toward a catch-ring beyond the main entrance.

As he passed that opening, a half-seen arm reached out and snagged him. He shouted No! but the arm kept its hold and somehow cushioned his bounce off the wall. He grabbed for his would-be rescuer and together they spun to a halt at the end of a magne-tether.

Breathing hard, his heart racing, he blinked his eyes clear of sweat and discovered his deliverer was none other than the admiral's own bodyguard, Sgt. Fonteccio. He blushed violently and did his best to avoid her gaze--not easy, floating nose to nose.

She caught her own breath, grinned at him, said, "Sorry 'bout that."

He said on a--damn he was out of shape--breath, "Hardly your fault, was it, Sgt Fonteccio? It was my foot caught the bar, not yours."

"After I was stupid enough to startle you. But that was quite a demonstration."

He blushed again, not knowing what to say. "I was the stupid one, sergeant. No way I should have let so minor a sound disrupt my focus." He met her smiling eyes then. "My old coach would have had my hide."

"Call it even on stupidity, eh?" She winked. "And it's Lexi to my friends, Stephen. You ready to go in?"

He nodded. She turned off the mags and tugged the line, starting them in a gentle drift toward the entrance as the 'tether reeled them in.

An over the speakers announcement called her to the admiral's office and she tugged again, harder this time. A moment later they were in the corridor, the 'tether coiled into its chamber.

Lexi released him with a See you later, then dived down the corridor for the lift, whipping neatly around and through the opening with a one-hand to the door 'ring. The hand waved at him, then disappeared, narrowly escaping the closing panel.

He stared after her, bewildered. This wasn't the first time she'd appeared to save him from his own stupidity, although in general the rescues were rather less dramatic. How did she know? More importantly, why did she bother?

She was the admiral's bodyguard: he understood that. And Recon, which he didn't understand.

He didn't know why she bothered--

The light above the elevator shaft flashed green; the door slid open.

--but he was increasingly thankful for her quiet interventions.

He shook his brain clear of progwuzzles and tapped easily off the ledge and toward the lift. He hesitated at fifth-level, then got out, forcing the twist in his gut to leave.

He reached under his sweats and tightened the shoulder brace with a touch: the greater G here would put an altogether different strain on it, and he'd best take precautions. That shortness of breath in ZG was a warning: he was out of shape--

--and this was no time to get careless.

 

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