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Worlds of Honor

The Stray

Linda Evans

Dr. Scott MacDallan was, by dint of much sweating and swearing, trying to turn a wriggling, ungrateful little demon of a breech-birth infant for head-down delivery, when the stray arrived on the doorstep.

Mrs. Zivonik had a history of easy births without complications or he'd have done a simple Caesarian. But turning an infant wasn't complicated and the monitors in place showed him neither baby nor mother were in distress, so rather than create an incision and put the woman out of work for several days, he simply took the time-honored step of reaching in for the baby, grabbing it in one hand, and rotating it right-end around instead of wrong-side down. Mrs. Zivonik was doing fine, too, was even cracking terrible jokes despite the sheen of sweat soaking her and the occasional sharp grunts, gasps, and deeper groans when the contractions hit. Scott had just touched the baby's toes and was wondering why he'd ever thought this would be easy—while trying to ignore Evelina Zivonik's sounds of acute discomfort—when a wave of emotional anguish strong enough to knock him cock- eyed rolled over Scott like a naval battle cruiser.

His involuntary grunt and sharp movement drew a startled sound from his patient. 'Doc?' Scott blinked, fighting the urge to panic, and managed, 'Uh, sorry. No problems, you're fine and the baby's fine.' For God's sake, Scott, pull it together! Before your patient thinks you're as loony as your misbegotten ancestors. Some of them had been burned at the stake . . .

Scott blinked as Evelina Zivonik leaned up far enough to peer over the top of her distended belly. 'That's good. But you don't look fine.'

Just beyond the bedroom door of the Zivonik home, Fisher—who had the run of Scott's home and office, but not of his patients' homes—began bleeking in acute distress. He'd never heard the treecat make a sound quite like it, in fact, and the emotional wallop he was getting from his companion was enough to shake him into blurting out the truth.

'I'm not fine. Or rather, my treecat isn't.'

'Your treecat?' she echoed. A thread of fear colored those two words. Treecats were viewed with awe and no small measure of worry by their human neighbors, who were almost universally uncertain how to respond to their presence.

'Yes. He's upset, very upset, I'm not sure why.' Careful, Scott . . . you're treading thin ice here. 'I've never heard him make a noise like that,' he added, glancing worriedly toward the closed bedroom door.

'Well, I'm not actually in serious labor yet,' Evelina said uncertainly, the worry stronger this time. 'If there's a problem with the treecat, you need to go find out what it is. If he's hurt or sick . . . well, I'm not exactly going anywhere, so you should find out what it is.'

His professional ethics would permit no such conduct, of course. Abandoning a patient in the middle of a procedure just to comfort his friend was out of the question. But Fisher's deep distress was not to be denied. Fisher knew how to open doors, of course, and the bedroom door was closed, but wasn't locked. Scott hesitated, torn between the need to reassure himself that a treasured friend wasn't in peril and the need to bring this baby into the world.

'Why don't you call him in here?' Evelina suggested. 'Irina has told us all about Fisher and showed us pictures, but I've never actually seen a live treecat.' The hint of wistfulness in her voice decided Scott in an instant.

He flashed her a grateful response. 'Thanks. Fisher! Come on inside, Fisher, it's not locked!'

The door swung open and a cream-and-grey furred streak shot across the floor on collision course with Scott's shoulder. He grunted softly at the impact, one hand still trapped in Evelina Zivonik's womb, the baby kicking and moving under his fingers.

'Bleek!' The treecat touched his cheek with both front hands, then pointed urgently at the window.

'What? Is there some danger outside?'

That wasn't the feeling he was getting from his companion of nearly twelve Terran months, now. He was getting better at reading Fisher's emotional 'messages' all the time, thanks to an empathic ability of some sort that he carried in his extremely Celtic Scots Highland genes. That 'ability' still scared him silly on a rational, scientific level. The first time it'd happened with Fisher, he'd literally thought he was hallucinating. Only later did the truth sink in—and that was almost worse than a hallucination. On Sphinx, the kind of legacy he'd inherited from a long line of charlatans, parlor tricksters, and other assorted loons was met with mere skepticism and ridicule. But there were human worlds where professing to ownership of anything remotely similar to what his more . . . flamboyant . . . relatives had (all on his mother's side of the family, thank God, so the name MacDallan hadn't been connected with them) was punishable by incarceration for fraud—or outright insanity.

What he was getting from Fisher now was not so much a sense that there was some kind of danger outside as more a sense that something outside was in danger. Or distress, maybe. It was also abundantly clear that Fisher wanted him to go outside, urgently. 'Fisher, I can't go outside right now. I'm trying to deliver a baby.'

Grass-green eyes shone brilliant with distress. The treecat made a pitiful sound. Just then, a chorus of childish voices erupted out in the main part of the house.

'Daddy! Come quick!'

'It's a treecat, Daddy!'

'Aunt Irina! Hurry! There's a treecat outside!'

'He's hurt or sick or something! Hurry, Daddy! Hurry, Aunt Irina!'

Scott and Evelina Zivonik exchanged startled glances.

'Go,' Evelina said firmly. 'I've had six babies. This one's going to get himself born just fine, whether you sit here and sweat to death with worrying or take five minutes to go out there and maybe save a life. You're the only doctor for a hundred kilometers. If there's an injured treecat out there, then it needs you more than I do right now. Besides,' and she gave him a wry, sweaty grin, 'I could use a breather from all that mauling.'

Scott flushed; he'd continued working to turn the baby even while trying to determine what was wrong with Fisher, and 'mauling' was probably what it felt like to poor Evelina Zivonik.

Fisher touched his cheek again. 'Bleek?' The sound tugged at his heart.

'Thanks. I've never seen Fisher this upset. I'll be right back.' He eased his hand out of Mrs. Zivonik's womb, reaching for a towel. That bit about Fisher being more upset than Scott had ever seen him wasn't exactly true; but Scott didn't like talking about the injuries he'd suffered the day he and Fisher had first made one another's memorable acquaintance. The treecat had saved Scott MacDallan's life. The very least he could do was repay the favor to a treecat in trouble.

So he hurriedly scrubbed off and jogged outside, where the Zivonik brood danced around their father and Aleksandr Zivonik's younger sister, Irina Kisaevna. Aleksandr and Irina stood a good twenty yards to the side of the house, peering up into a picket wood tree's lower branches. Scott had no more than cleared the doorjamb than the most anguished sound he had ever heard uttered by a living creature smote him straight through the skull bones. The sound keened up and down like a banshee driven insane, voice torn by more pain than can be endured. Fisher, who huddled on his shoulder, wrapped his tail around Scott's throat and shuddered non-stop. 'Bleek!'

Scott broke into a run, even while reaching up to soothe his companion with one hand. 'Where is it?'

Aleksandr pointed. Scott peered up into the tall picket wood closest to the Zivonik house, toward one of the long, perfectly horizontal branches that made the picket wood so unusual among trees. 'Up there.'

Scott had to look closely, but he spotted the treecat near the trunk, sitting up on its haunches like an old Terran ferret, longer and leaner than one of those ancient weasels, yet with a head and certain other characteristics far more feline. Except, of course, for the six limbs, a trait it shared with the massive and deadly Sphinxian hexapuma it so closely resembled in all but size. The treecat keening in the Zivoniks' backyard was larger

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