Suzanne Palmer


<1 itch.>

The translated words were a low growl in Bari's ear. Crouched in the cramped airlock waiting for it to finish cycling, she barely had the elbow room to get her hand up to her headset and tap her suit mic over to her private channel. “Omi, tell Turquoise I'm working. There's nothing I can do for him right now.” In another few seconds she would be back inside and not able to talk to him at all anymore.

[I've reminded him,] came Omi's response in its comfortable, artificial cadence. [He tells me he's going to be quiet now.]

“Thanks,” she said. The lock light turned from orange to a sickly green, and she had to go down on one knee to pull herself through the inner hatch into the cabin. Climbing wearily back up to her feet on the far side, she disengaged her suit's environment controls and lifted her faceplate to take in lungfuls of stale warm air that smelled of people too long crammed together in a confined place.

“Oh great, she's back.” Vikka looked up from her seat where, as near as Bari could tell, she hadn't even moved in the hour?plus she'd been gone.

Cardin spun around in his chair. “You took your time,” he said. “You're lucky you didn't spook the herd, the way you were zipping around out there.” If he noticed the contradiction in those statements — you were too slow, you were too fast — he didn't care. Beside him at the helm, Ceen didn't even bother to turn around. Bari lifted the cumbersome maneuvering rig up over her head and settled it back in its alcove. Its oxygen tanks had only depleted by twenty percent, but she connected it back up to the recharger anyway Good habits die hard, bad ones kill you.

Cardin put his hands together and flexed them outward, knuckles cracking, before he returned to peck at the patchwork system board he'd set on the console deck in front of him. “I saw activity out there a few moments ago, but I'm not up yet,” he said. “Did anyone get it?”

She still has the hand?held,” Vikka said.

“Ms. Park?” Cardin asked.

“Oh,” she said, fumbling for the device her research advisor had spent half a lifetime designing, and checking the tiny display. “There was an eighty?two percent match with the pattern we associate with unhappiness.”

“Excellent!” Cardin shook a fist in the air in a gesture of triumph. “No one has ever come this close to understanding Rooan communication before. With my system, and the extended, close?up sampling we'll be taking today, we are making history!” A royalwe,” Bari thought. His ambitions were transparent: King of his little corner of Haudernellian Academia. By his expression she could tell he was imagining the future speaking engagements, celebrity symposiums, and awards ceremonies that would be his natural due.

She knew she was only here because he needed someone expendable to do the spaceside work while he and his precious postdocs huddled around their tiny, blurred monitors congratulating themselves for their own manifest cleverness and superiority, safe and snug within the run?down, decommissioned Corallan shuttle that Cardin had dubbed Project One, but which, after his attempt to camouflage the exterior, would forever be the Space Turd in her mind.

The Sfazili independent who'd hauled them out here into the barrens had taken one look at their craft and declared as much himself; alas, neither Cardin nor anyone else on his team understood the tradesman's argot, so her amusement had been a private one.

“Okay, people,” Cardin said. “We need to run calibration tests. Ms. Park, you arrayed our external sensors according to my exact specifications?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You double?checked?”

“Twice,” she said. Vikka rolled her eyes.

“So far we've been lucky and they haven't noticed we're here despite Ms. Park's thrashing about out there. Ceen has gotten us into position along the outer edge of the herd, and we'll maneuver our way a little further in as opportunity presents. As you know, the Rooan travel with their bioluminescent shell?walls all turned toward the center axis of the herd, so the further in we get, the more inter?animal communication we should capture. The herd is currently moving about point?oh?oh?oh?two Cee, so we've got about six and a half hours before they brush the edge of Auroran territory. We want to be well away by then with as much data as we can collect.

“Ms. Park, give Vikka the handheld unit,” he ordered. “Then go find yourself a place to sit in the back and stay out of our way.”

Vikka got up from her seat and sauntered over. As Bari extended the unit to her, Vikka leaned in closer. “Right before we launched I told Cardin that you were sleeping with Morus and giving away information about the project,” she confided in a low voice. “He was so furious at you that I thought he was going to bust something. Oh, I know! A lie, but what can I say? I just don't like you Northies.” Smiling, she yanked the handheld out of Bari's grasp and returned to her seat without a further look back.

Bari finished stowing her gear, her face burning. Morus was not only the top xenobiologist at rival Guratahan Sfazil Equatorial University, he was also studying the Rooan. The rival scientists hated each other with a white?hot passion that neared homicidal rage. It explained why Cardin had become more actively hostile in the last few days. She was lucky he hadn't had time to replace her — if Vikka had gotten her kicked off the project out of sheer spite…

Don't think about it, she told herself. I'm here. Gear properly stowed, she folded down the jumpseat near the airlock and buckled down her safety tether. And she waited.

From where she sat in the back, her view out the front was mostly obscured, but the light from Beserai's sun shining on the black, rough backs of the Rooan made faint arcs of silhouette among the stars ahead. She counted a half dozen, though the herd strength was closer to thirty

times that number; the very few, vulnerable young were tucked in the center, away from prying eyes. Not even Cardin, in all his arrogance, would risk trying to penetrate into the core of the herd.

As if reading her thoughts, Cardin spoke up. “We need to stay far enough on the periphery so that they don't take too close a look at us. The Rooan are normally placid animals, but with the toll those pirates and thugs have been taking on the herd's numbers, they'll get more skittish the closer we get to Auroran space.”

[Doesn't everyone already know this? Why speak if not to say something useful, unless it's just to hear his own voice?]

Bari allowed herself a small tic of a smile at Omi's comment. Not that Cardin was wrong; the remote station and surrounding outposts that made up Aurora Enclave had earned their reputation for vicious and capricious violence. The Barrens had many such lawless enclaves, but Aurora was the biggest and meanest of all. Even Earth Alliance, if need drew them into the territories at all, skirted well around it. The Rooan could not. The herd's migration loop between Beserai and Beenjai was dictated by gravity wells and the shortest of few, long paths between scarce resources. Along the way, the massive dwellers of the void inevitably attracted scientists, a handful of sightseers, and bored Auroran fighters looking for cheap and easy target practice.

Bari looked up as flashes of light caught her eye; one of the Rooan directly ahead was displaying a shifting pattern of bioluminescent greens and yellows, coruscating up and down the creature's underside. An answering flash of red came from further ahead.

“Shush!” Cardin yelled, though no one was speaking, and even if they were, they could not drown out light with sound. He leaned in close, his whole frame tense. “Why isn't the translator working?”

“It's processing,” Vikka said, squinting at the handheld. “Ura… the first one, it's giving me 'food near' at forty percent, and the response, um, 'happiness' at seventy?five percent correlation.”

“We're nowhere near a nutrient source. Give me that,” Cardin said, and yanked the unit out of her hand. He stared at it, shook it, stared at it some more. “Food near,” he repeated, scowling.

Вы читаете Surf
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату