Zref Ortenau felt a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity slipping from his grasp. He hadn't felt such a bleak panic since he'd been rejected by the Mautri school at the age of five.
For the thousandth time, he took the tantalizing letter out of his pocket. Mist from the fountain behind him dampened the heavy document, a formal scholarship to Founders University on Rhobank V, with all fees and expenses paid. For one person.
As he folded the thing away, his bhirhir said, "It's not just that you want to go; it's that you have to go, isn't it?"
"You're human." It was a flat statement, but it opened an issue that had never really come up between them before. A human could survive the loss of a bhirhir; a kren usually didn't, unless he was a Mautri priest. "If we can't raise the money," said the kren, not looking at Zref, "you go ahead, and I'll go back to Mautri."
He's lying. He'd rather die than go back to Mautri. Zref knew the shuddering panic that overcame his bhirhir at the mere thought of the Mautri school. Sudeen had the psychic talent to be welcomed there, but at his first adult molt, he had fled the school, almost dying in molt before Zref had found him and renewed their old pledge of friendship on a deeper level by pledging bhirhir. Zref shook his head. "No matter what, I won't leave you behind, Sudeen."
His venom sack quivering, Sudeen said, "I shouldn't have said that. I know better." His words were swallowed by the roar of a space shuttle taking off.
Zref and Sudeen were sitting on the edge of the fountain in the center of the plaza at the Firestrip shuttleport, waiting for a customer. In addition to the intraworld traffic, today the field was receiving all the passengers from the vast sunhopper Mormorant III.
At intervals, the travelers would emerge from the port building's broad array of wide doors and swarm down the shallow steps into the plaza. The stream would divide around the fountain, giving the two freelance tourist guides a good look at potential customers.
There was a Jernal businessman whizzing along on its six spindly legs as if weightless, a Theaten tourist standing head and shoulders above the crowd and seeming like a stretched-out human with a sunburn and one of the blue-skinned humanoids from Sirwin trying politely to keep a hat on his head to hide his horns. But the majority of the crowd was kren, with a heavy sprinkling of humans: Firestrip natives returning from their holidays, not customers.
It was already midsummer, and they hadn't made enough money to put a down payment on passage to Rhobank for Sudeen.
As the noise abated, Sudeen leaned his elbows on his knees, letting his webbed hands dangle between them. "Zref, if I have to, I'll go beg the money from my surfather. He wouldn't approve, but in the end he'd do it."
"Not unless you said I was leaving without you." He looked his bhirhir in the eyes. "Could you lie like that?"
"Besides, your father said we had to earn the money. If we go beg it from your surfather, that would be setting bhirhir against bhirhir. I couldn't live with that on my conscience. Could you?"
"Are you trying to shame me by being more kren than I am after I called you human?"
"No. Sudeen, family is family, kren or human." Zref looked around the nearly deserted plaza. "We've seen the last of Mormorant's passengers. We ought to quit for the day."
"It's too early to go home."
"You wouldn't have said that last week when Sdilia was living with you," said Zref.
For the last two seasons he had been living at Sudeen's family home while his bhirhir experienced the most intense mating Zref had yet seen him through; the mating had been childless and painful for the whole family. Now that it was over, Zref faced the prospect of having to confront his parents with their money-making project. Unlicensed tour guiding wasn't illegal, but it wouldn't bring much credit to his family. It was even worse, Zref felt, now that they'd failed.
Sudeen said, "Zref, what you need is a customer to take your mind off things."
"I don't feel like doing the patter for the tour right now," Zref answered.
When Sudeen failed to protest, Zref followed his gaze to the doors of the arrivals building. A kren and a human had paused on the steps to survey the huge Mautri kyralizth, one of the stretched-pyramid structures that were found all over Camiat. The human male stood close to the kren female, one arm casually encircling her shoulders as only a bhirhir would dare. The kren female tilted her head listening to the human. Her skin glinted with the dark tones of the saltwater-spawned kren of the distant islands, and she wore only a casual twist of light cloth about her body.
As his eyes lit on her, Zref was overcome with a shuddering constriction that sent cold dread knifing through his heart, as if something of great meaning to him were about to be ripped away, leaving life not worth living. An image froze his heart: Bloody kren arm outflung against his mother's carpet. Sudeen's arm--
"What's the matter, Zref?" Sudeen touched his fingertips to the side of Zref's face. "A flash?"
Zref jerked away. "I don't have flashes. That's your department," he said more gruffly than he'd intended.
Sudeen let his hand fall away; his eyes traveled back to the couple on the steps. "What a saltwater beauty she is! I'll bet she's just molted."
"Quench it, Sudeen. She wouldn't have anything to do with you, freshwater spawn!"
On the steps, the human male steered his bhirhir off toward the underground train entrance, moving easily through the new flood of arrivals while the island girl gazed from side to side. At one point, she seemed to single Sudeen out, and Zref felt his bhirhir responding as any healthy male kren would.
"Come on, Zref. Maybe they could use a guide." He half rose. but Zref restrained him with one hand.
"He looks like he knows where he's going."
Then Zref's eye lit on a lone figure coming from the port clearance doors, perhaps the last of the Mormorant's passengers. The clenched dread he had felt subsided to a mild tingle as he watched the cloaked figure descend the shallow steps toward the fountain where they sat.
"Here's our customer, Sudeen!" said Zref, tugging Sudeen after him to meet the figure. As they neared, he could see that the man wasn't human or kren. He wore a full-cut traveler's cloak and hood with environmental controls. Only his eight-digited hands, covered with what seemed a natural horny substance, were exposed. At closer range, they could make out a snouted face covered with a fine, red-brown fur.
"A Brenilak," Sudeen said quietly. "His cloak would be set on cool today, but he'd like the normal climate here. I think it's a he. The females have a lighter coloring."
Zref made what he thought of as his comical native bow for all purposes and started his spiel: A guide to the city was necessary, surprisingly inexpensive, remarkably entertaining, and incredibly knowledgeable. An irresistible bargain all around.
The customer listened, head cocked to one side in amusement or maybe interest. Sudeen finally caught fire and took up the patter, interspersing Zref's sentences with comments. They were so busy, neither of them saw the security uniform until the guard spoke.
"I thought I told you kids to clear out of here!" It was the human security guard they had had a running battle with.
"We're sorry, sir," said Zref while Sudeen kept up the patter. "We're moving, now, see." He demonstrated by skipping sideways after the retreating customer.
"Sir," said the guard to the Brenilak, "are these youngsters bothering you?"
The Brenilak glanced at them and then at the guard. "I was considering their proposition."
"You won't be wanting this pair as city guides!"
"Are they dishonest?"
"Oh, they'll show you everything and return you safe to your hotel. But don't believe a word they tell you or you'll end up thinking Firestrip is the City of a Million Legends!"
The Brenilak looked searchingly at Zref and Sudeen. The guard's comments seemed to have kindled real interest in their customer. He said, "I thank you very much for your information, but I believe I will take a chance on these two."
The guard began to protest but stopped as the Brenilak produced a gleaming gold clip and set it on the outside of his cloak. When he removed his hand, they could all see that he was now wearing the medallion of the Interface Guild.
"I doubt I'll be in danger of becoming misinformed."
Frozen-faced, the guard let the crowd swallow him. Zref stared rudely at the Brenilak until Sudeen nudged him.
"My name is Zref MorZdersh'n. This is Sudeen MorZdersh'n."
"So you have the same last name? Isn't that unusual?"
Again the Brenilak's interest was kindled in a way that made Zref uncomfortable. Sudeen answered, "Zref is bhirhir to me, so he's entitled to my family name. If you like, Zref will explain the bhirhir relationship while I get the car."
Beyond the colonnade that rimmed the plaza, Zref halted the visitor while Sudeen dashed off to the parking stack. But the Brenilak said, "I'm acquainted with the sociodynamic of the kren." He gazed at the distant Mautri kyralizth. "What can you tell me about that landmark?"
Zref hastily shifted focus. "The tour starts here with this view of the Mautri temple and school buildings. Behind them, on the peak rising highest in these mountains, you can see the Mautri kyralizth and its traditional free-standing archway that straddles the path to it. This temple was founded long after that kyralizth was built by . . . uh, I suppose you know about the Mautri priests, fugitive from their lowland order, founding the temple when not a soul lived in these mountains?"
"I did look up the facts about the city and its five hills." He brought his eyes to the south, where two of the city's peaks shielded the view of the lake. "Rayah Lake would be off in that direction."
"It's a volcanic lake, surrounded by a ridge that used to be its cone."
"I'd like to go down to the lake."
"They don't permit tours down there. It's all privately owned. Spawning grounds and nurseries and hospitals take up most of the lakefront. The healthful fresh waters here are one of the reasons Firestrip has boomed into a major city."
"So I understand."
Zref remembered again that he was talking to an Interface, a man who had access to all the information ever stored anywhere. It was said that they paid a dire price for that power, but the man before him seemed perfectly normal. "Sir Brenilak," said Zref respectfully, "I simply can't imagine what you want a guide for."
"As an Interface, you mean?" He paused, and there was something indefinably sad in the almost expressionless, muzzled countenance. "You may call me Zaviv." He glanced again at the Mautri temple and added almost wistfully, "What does being a guide mean to you? Merely the recitation of information?"
"No. Sudeen and I like to make our history come alive."
"Are you then archeovisualizers?"
"No, but the First Lifewave sometimes seems more real to us than the present. We want to finish our schooling and join the search for the real City of a Million Legends." Zref didn't like the measuring look that the Brenilak gave him, but he didn't retract his statement.
Zaviv held his gaze steadily. "Let us say then I'm curious to see this city through your eyes, not the eyes of comnet statistics."
Zref had never heard an Interface use the word "curious" before. He'd heard that for them curiosity replaced all other emotions and motivations, including sex. Before he could phrase a question, Sudeen drove up to the curb and presented the car with a flourish. And so they were off on their well-rehearsed afternoon tour of the city.
They climbed the eastern end of one of the five hills nearest the shuttleport. At the lookout point called Hermit's Cave, Sudeen told the legend of the founder of the Mautri temple, disenchanted with his followers, coming to live alone here, out of sight of the kyralizth, which might have been built during the First Lifewave. "The kyralizth is a structure found only on Camiat. The older ones are always found near the remains of a stone circle such as the Wassly Crown here in Firestrip."
Zref told the wild story about the kren who disappeared into the caves and reappeared in the middle of the Mautri temple fountain to live out his years as a white priest. "They say he met the ghost of the Mautri founder down there, and it changed him."
Sudeen shot him a dark look, but the Brenilak encouraged them, and soon they were both telling fanciful tales that held for them an odd ring of truth. At Firestrip Park, Zref told the story of how the first human colony ship, the Stellar Dust, had crashed, leaving a long furrow scarring the valley floor and giving the city its current name. At that time, the only inhabitants of the area had been the Mautri priests and their students. The humans, stranded, knew that they shouldn't establish a colony on an inhabited world, but the priests welcomed them. By the time the colony regained contact with the Hundred Planets, a small city had grown around the lake, with a thriving university, tourist trade, and health resort. As Camiat joined the Hundred Planets, Firestrip became the official port of entry, and offworld corporations began building offices. Embassies and Hundred Planets offices followed, and now Firestrip was Camiat's largest city.
Next they climbed the second of the five hills. It was nearly sunset, and the temperature was dropping. Zref said, "Perhaps you'd like to walk up to the peak."
"To see the Wassly Crown? Certainly."
The alien set off up the well-marked trail. Zref followed, discarding his usual patter about how the concentric circles of giant standing stones were of some material not found anywhere on Camiat and how they were precisely placed for observing the stars as they were positioned one whole revolution of the galaxy ago, during the First Lifewave. They arrived at the sheared-off top of the mountain just as the sun reached the right slant to set the translucent green stones glowing.
The Interface stopped, spellbound. The five concentric circles of megaliths loomed higher than a house and leaped at one with a reality that made the rest of the mountain seem cut from pasteboard. Many of the capstones still bridged the upright stones, lending an enclosed feeling to the place.
After a time, Zaviv uttered something, and at Sudeen's interrogative, he translated: "These were the first computers, and the men who used them were the forerunners of what I have chosen to become."
Zref had never thought of that before; while he was considering it, the Interface walked up to and over the chain marker that kept people away. At that moment, they were alone on the mountaintop, but there was a tour bus just turning onto the road.
Zref shrugged, and Sudeen said, "Well, we have no guide's license to lose. Let him go."
The Brenilak approached the oblong slab of translucent green stone set in the center of the circle. He laid both his hands on it, and Zref gained an impression of an overwhelming sadness, followed, as the Brenilak turned to come back, by a growing resignation. Zref knew that he shouldn't be seeing any of this in an Interface. He remembered reading that sensitives couldn't become Interfaces because the surgery destroyed the psychic brain functions. Had Zaviv been a sensitive who became an Interface? Zref was as curious now about the Interface as Zaviv seemed to be about them.
As they walked back down the path, watching the tour bus disgorge its passengers onto the overlook, the Interface asked, "Well, young gentlebeings, what is your theory of the origin of the Wassly Crown?"
"Our theory," said Sudeen, "assumes that this crown dates from the First Lifewave, and it takes into account that all the crowns found around the galaxy are reported to be psychically active."
The Brenilak said distantly, "Sensitives are notoriously suggestible."
Now Zref could not be sure that he'd seen that flash of sadness in the man before. "Yes, we know how the sensitives all predicted the arrival of beings from another galaxy within the year, but only a popular vidrama on the subject appeared. The sensitives had read the mass consciousness accurately but mistook a mass fantasy for reality."
"Have you read the new Lantern novel, Skanqwin and the Emperor of Crowns?" asked Sudeen, and continued without waiting for the Interface's assent: "What if the archeovisualizers who write those novels have it right? What if the crowns are the First Lifewave's interstellar communications network, letting telepaths transmit error-free messages instantaneously?"
"To prove it," said Zref, "we'd have to find two perfectly intact crowns, calculate their proper alignment, and then station a pair of perfectly compatible sensitives in them! Meanwhile, it's just a fascinating hypothesis!"
Sudeen pulled their ear onto the downward road. This was the older section of town, where rents were cheap, and many Camiat University students lived on the hillside.
Two such students caught Zref's eye, and he was about to point them out to their client when he realized that it must be the pair from the shuttleport. The kren female now wore a coat, while her bhirhir had rolled up his shirt-sleeves. As Zref watched, they approached one of the apartment buildings. He glanced at Sudeen, who was busy coaxing the car down the narrow street while the Interface gazed at the view of downtown.
Then they were down on the level main road that tunneled through the hills and shot right up to the Mautri temple/school complex.
They parked on the overlook among the tour buses and hurried up the footpath toward the kyralizth. Just as the sun was setting, they paused in the freestanding archway.
"The door," explained Sudeen, "to the room without walls." He passed through to join the crowd of tourists.
As the shadows gathered, lines of robed priests climbed the stairs set into the edges of the kyralizth. When the leaders reached the summit, each stair down each edge of the kite-shaped pyramid was occupied by a colorfully garbed priest, forming a perfect spectrum.
They were so far away, their chanting could barely be heard; but when it stopped, a hush fell. Above, as if flung out by the hand of a giant, stars winked into being, and full night was upon them.
Abruptly, there was a blaze atop the kyralizth--the crowning firebasin erupting in its nightly flame. The uppermost priests lit torches from the basin, illuminating their white robes like immaculate silver columns. They turned and lit the torches held by the second rank of priests, all dressed in purple. One could barely make out the bulk of the kyralizth except where the tiny points of light crept down the edges.
The preternatural stillness of the crowd stretched until the bottom priest stepped down and extinguished his torch. Then the line of priests filed down, extinguishing their torches as they reached the bottom so that the lines of fire retreated evenly down all sides of the kyralizth, leaving the firebasin at the top to burn until dawn.
As the priests reentered the gate to their private school where none came without invitation, floodlights came on so that the crowd could move to the parking area.
Zref turned away, teeth clenched over the memory of his childhood hopes. I have no talent worth training. They had told him so. He had to believe it.
Sudeen took over, leading their client back to the car, covering for Zref as if he knew the pain that lurked beneath Zref's stiff façade. And he does.
When he'd been just a young child, Zref had come to the Mautri outer court with hundreds of others to sit for admission. Day after day he had sat, under the discipline of silence and stillness, the youngest in the courtyard. Day after day, others had been chosen or had left while he remained. But he could not give up while the glowing certainty in his heart told him that his real life lay there.
His parents, frantic, had searched until they found him. Eight days and nights he had kept his vigil, never showing disappointment. He was sure on the ninth day that he'd be admitted--not the first human so admitted, but one of the few.
His parents had picked him up bodily and removed him before he could be chosen. He had struggled against them, and a white priest had come out.
He could never forget the words of his doom: "You are not to climb the kyralizth here, young Zref. Your path lies elsewhere." He knew better than to attempt that courtyard again. But the yearning never ceased to eat at him, especially at sundown when, watching, he could feel the rough handle of the torch in his hand, and its real meaning seemed to bump at the edges of his mind.
"And that completes the tour," Sudeen concluded as he opened the car door for the Interface and completed the credit transaction. "I hope you found the experience worth your time."
Zref got in, and Sudeen moved the car into the line heading down the hill. They were sandwiched between two red and green striped tour buses.
Zref turned to the man in the back seat. "I hope we've satisfied your curiosity, Sir Brenilak," he said, "because you have satisfied mine, showing that an Interface can be curious about something other than his work."
The Brenilak gazed out the window, wistfully it seemed to Zref, though he didn't trust his perceptions of the nonhuman's moods. "My curiosity is about the human/kren bhirhir because my employers here have a family involvement with it."
Driving through the downtown night traffic, Sudeen asked, "Which hotel are you staying at?"
"I'll be staying with my employers, in the human colony." He gave them an address. "Would you happen to know where that is?"
They knew. It was the residence of Hetta and Barinn Ortenau, Zref's parents. Sudeen recovered first. He punched a new route into the controls and flipped on the traffic monitor. When he couldn't busy himself with that any more, he asked Zref, "You want to tell him, or shall I?"
"I'll do it," Zref answered, still half turned in his seat to talk to the passenger. "Not that you need to be told. You already know who we are, don't you?"
"I have a probability estimate."
Zref felt the tension drain out of him. "My parents would have found out what we've been doing afternoons sooner or later. Besides, I'm curious about what they've hired an Interface for." There was no point asking Zaviv to divulge a professional confidence.
The house was well lit when they came up the drive. It was one of the low, sprawling kren-style houses with two sides: one for the family and one containing apartments for visiting mates. His parents rented the apartments to students, who paid by doing chores. He saw one of the students looking out as the car halted, and he could imagine an excited "He's here!" echoing through the building.
As they came up the front steps, the door opened and light flared. Suddenly, Zref felt out of place with his bare, dirty knees and rumpled shirt. His parents, dressed formally for dinner, greeted their Interface and then turned to their sons.
"Zref, Sudeen, we didn't expect you. Well, come inside. We'll set two more places for dinner."
They went into the library, while one of the students went toward the kitchen. The library was a huge, tidy room with an untidy work table along one wall where three comnet terminals chittered softly.
Going toward the one with the lit screen, his mother said, "The Vrashin tapes the other Interface enhanced for us are very clear now."
The Brenilak appeared to study the screen; following his gaze Zref saw three columns of repetitive, disciplined script in no language he could recognize. The pattern blurred before his eyes, and he had a few seconds of bizarre déjà vu during which he seemed to remember writing those words, although their meaning remained tantalizingly beyond recall. He came out of it, his heart pounding in his throat. Echoes of the cold dread he had felt that afternoon upon first seeing the saltwater kren female filled his skull.
Sudeen slid one scaled hand over Zref's elbow as cautiously as if Zref were about to strike someone. "Zref, you're shaking. What's the matter?" he asked, urging Zref away from his parents, who were deep in consultation with the Brenilak.
Dropping onto a reading lounge, Zref gulped air and replied, "Nothing. I just--I suddenly felt that fragment is going to be very important."
"A reasonable intuition," said Sudeen, but he was gazing fixedly at the distant display screen, and he sounded shaken.
Finally, his father broke away and came toward them. Zref felt Sudeen gathering himself as if to meet an attack on his bhirhir. Rising, Zref motioned Sudeen to stay seated. "Let me handle this one."
He intercepted his father a few steps beyond Sudeen, aware for the first time in years that his parents weren't fully immune to Sudeen. "Dad, I've got something to show you," he said, producing the scholarship from Rhobank.
Barinn Ortenau scanned the worn document with a light growing in his eyes. "This is wonderful! Your mother will be so proud of you! But, Zref, all the way to Rhobank? Break up the family. . . ."
"Dad, they're only offering funding for a single person."
Barinn's eyes flicked to Sudeen, who was perched tensely on the edge of his chair. "I see."
"It's even worse. Sudeen was second in the competition. If I decline, they'll offer it to him, and we'll still have the same problem!"
His father's eyes focused again on the form. "Tell me truthfully, Zref, do you want to go?"
"I'll tell you how badly I--we both want to go. All season we've been working as tour guides to raise the money."
Barinn glanced at the Brenilak as if he now understood how they had all arrived together.
"The license costs almost as much as a starhopper ticket," added Zref, "so we decided to freelance. We put on a good show for the tourists, and we never used the Ortenau name."
Very seriously, his father asked, "Were you good guides?"
"How much have you earned?"
"About half the passage money."
"Then you've done well by the Ortenau name. Now, why don't you two go and wash up for dinner. Meanwhile, I'll talk to your mother, and we'll see what can be done."
His parents' room was just as he remembered it, though smaller somehow. Beyond the beds, the door was ajar to the bathing pool. It looked so inviting after the long sweaty day, he expected to have to race Sudeen to the water.
But the kren had halted in the middle of the floor, staring through the patio doors into the garden's lush summer growth. Zref slipped by, stripping as he went, and dove into the pool. He surfaced and grabbed a cleansing mat, rubbing himself all over as he watched Sudeen thoughtfully.
"Sudeen?" It was as if the kren hadn't heard. Zref hoisted himself out of the pool and wrapped a bath cape around his shoulders, throwing its cowl over his streaming hair. "Sudeen, come on, I'll scrub your scaly hide for you." It was an offer the kren could never refuse.
But instead of diving, clothes and all, into the pool, Sudeen turned and looked at him. "Your parents are going to offer us money."
"Dad's heard your father hold forth on the subject of kids leaving home before they can earn their own way in a trade. He wouldn't want to cause trouble in MorZdersh'n any more than I would. But if he does offer money, we just won't accept it."
"Even if it means staying here?" Sudeen's venom sack stirred as he responded to Zref's desperation and his own.
Abruptly, Zref was face to face with the choice he had been ducking for weeks. Founders University on Rhobank V was the only school both he and Sudeen were qualified for that offered the degree of Communications Generalist. As Zref saw it, the greatest problems of the Hundred Planets stemmed from communications failures. If the HP was to occupy the entire galaxy, as the First Lifewave had, they'd have to learn the secrets of the First Lifewave. Who'd be more likely to succeed than a human/kren bhirhirn?
Zref replied in a steady voice. "Yes, Sudeen, even if it means staying here. We're a team." Immense relief flooded through him, but Sudeen was riveted by some new vision. A flash? The kren turned slowly toward Zref, stark horror fading from his eyes, though in the presence of his bhirhir he barely raised venom.
"What was it?" asked Zref. "A premonition?"
"I hope not," Sudeen answered. "I was never trained at Mautri to know a true premonition from ordinary fears, but I'm sure this was just fear."
Because of his occasional flashes of vision, Sudeen had been trained at Mautri from his earliest years to his first adult molt, when he had fled the school and Zref had found him, late one night, beaten and robbed in a dirty alleyway, delirious with blue-voiding, babbling out his most personal fears between the bouts of involuntary writhing. Out of lifelong friendship, Zref had not hesitated to offer bhirhir.
"Sudeen, if you can't tell me, who can you tell?"
"I had a vision of you, wearing the insignia of the Interface Guild, with that peculiar blank look on your face. And I knew you'd gone offworld without me." He shook himself and went to the bathing pool, stripping off his street costume.
"Sudeen, when we pledged bhirhir, I knew what I was doing. You've never given me cause to regret it."
"Not even when I was too frightened to go back to Mautri and try again, leaving you free to live as a human, the way we planned?"
"You know what I was frightened of this afternoon at the shuttleport? I was afraid of losing you--and you know why? Because since we pledged bhirhir, I haven't had any of those insane yearnings to get Mautri to take me in."
"They're not completely gone. I can see that every time we go up to the kyralizth."
"But I can control it because there's something else important I can do with my life."
There was a sound at the door as somebody stepped onto the entry mat outside. Zref opened it to find a stack of clothing behind which stood a girl. Long honey-blond hair, dark eyebrows and sharp cheekbones, two slender hands cradling the pile--she looked gorgeous yet vaguely familiar. As Zref stood transfixed, she smiled.
"Zref, you and Sudeen should be able to find something to fit among these--"
"Tessore!! Tess Kobre!" Her voice triggered a thousand memories of a lumpy, awkward girl who could outdare any boy in their class and outdream even Zref. "Tess, I thought you'd gone to Pallacin to study music. She's lost weight or something.
"I was on Pallacin for a year, then Sirwin for three. I couldn't wait to get back to Firestrip!"
"I'm glad you're back."
"Well, aren't you going to take these?"
"Uh, sure." He took the load from her arms and found her standing before him in a blue floor-length gown that left her shoulders bare and clung magnificently.
"We can talk later," she said. "I'm living here now."
He pulled his eyes from her gown and smiled. She turned and walked down the hallway. Closing the door, he set the pile on the bed and began sorting it. Some was his own that he'd left here. Other items belonged to some other human. But there was also a kren jacket and trousers.
"Come on, Sudeen, get washed. They're waiting with dinner."
The kren was sitting in a chair. "I'm not hungry."
"Well, neither am I, suddenly, but I'm not going to miss this dinner!"
Sudeen got up and came to where Zref was sorting clothing. "Tess? You are attracted?"
"You saw. She's grown up!"
Sudeen looked Zref up and down. "It is your turn to mate. Come, scrub my filthy hide for me, and we'll go see how she responds to you."
The dining room was decked out in silverware from Theate, bluish plants from Sirwin in hanging baskets over the table, and as a centerpiece providing all the light in the room, a glowing Ciitheen water globe. In ornate decanters set about the long table, emerald green liqueur sparkled invitingly, an import from Horth.
The Brenilak Interface was seated in the place of honor next to Zref's father at one end of the table. Zref was placed across from the Brenilak, and next to him sat Sudeen. Across from Sudeen was Tessore, next to her was the sandy-haired male student Ley, whose clothes Zref was wearing, and across from him was an older man Zref didn't recognize, in the place of honor next to his mother.
Tess and Ley served the soup as his father introduced Zref and Sudeen, saying, "You know everyone here except Mr. Ovid who is from the University's Office of Grants and Allotments."
Zref tore his eyes from Tessore long enough to make a polite reply.
"Zaviv," said Ovid, seeming to take no notice of Zref and Sudeen, "I just want to. . . ." The Interface put down his utensils and brought his full attention to Ovid's face. Zref could feel the older man squirm, and his offworld accent became suddenly thicker as he finished, "to welcome you to Camiat and say how very much glad we are to have an Interface on the Vrashin Island project;"
The Interface blinked once and then turned back to the yellowish gruel he had been served in place of the vegetable soup the humans were eating.
Ovid's words riveted Zref's attention. "You mean that inscription was found at the Vrashin dig?"
"That much," said Ovid, "could never be kept secret."
Zref's father added. "We're not sure of the dating, Zref, so don't get excited about it yet."
Zref looked to Sudeen, who was staring speculatively at Barinn Ortenau. "I d give anything," said Zref, suddenly knowing that it was true, "to meet the person who made that find! I'll bet it's going to be the key to the whole First Lifewave civilization!" Maybe to their communications tricks, too!
"Actually," said his father, "you've already met him. You remember the Lakely boy, Dennis? You met him at the mountaineering clubs' competition the year you climbed Sunivsz."
That had been almost seven years ago. All Zref remembered was the image of a short, dumpy boy who always had to be lead climber on the rope. They had never become friends, but they were the only two human boys from university families in the club and thus had often been classed together. And he's already made a real contribution to history.
"That's enough, Professor Ortenau," said Ovid. "As representative of the University, I'm here to acquaint you with the security precautions surrounding this project. The box the Lakely boy found is so potentially valuable that it won't be opened until the Professors Ortenau have completed their translation. Both the Vrashin dig and this translation project are funded by Lantern Enterprises. All the information belongs to them. They have specified--and funded--the tightest security to protect their property."
Lantern Enterprises had started in the tourist industry; to generate mass interest in interplanetary travel, they had published novels highlighting the unique historical sites on certain worlds. Public interest mushroomed, and with its sudden wealth, Lantern had funded research and development of archeological sites, which generated more interest, until they currently were the major source of funds for research into the First Lifewave occupation of the galaxy. Serious scholars such as Zref's parents disapproved of the highly romanticized novels of life in the extinct civilizations of a turn of the galaxy ago, but Zref and Sudeen had virtually grown up on them, believing the disclaimer Lantern put in each novel saying that whereas much was sheer invention, never did the text contradict known facts. Part of the appeal of the novels was the air of realism created by the use of the very latest discoveries by prestigious scholars and archeovisualizers.
Zref said, "Mr. Ovid, I can understand how Lantern would consider this information worth billions if they could be the first to use it in a novel. But no one here would consider talking to the press prematurely."
"We understand that," Ovid replied. "However, the contract with the University specifies the tightest possible security. So far as the University is concerned, you've moved with no forwarding address. All your computer work will be done through the Interface under complete lock."
"There's no one here," said Hetta Ortenau, "who can't be keyed to that lock. Tess is an expert in tonal languages and is one of our graduate students, as is Ley, whose bhirhir is a relative of Sudeen's, which makes him family. Zref and Sudeen are our sons--"
"I don't think you understand, Professor Ortenau," Ovid interrupted. "The Cranston Corporation has been put in charge of security here, at considerable expense, because the Law Enforcement Agency of the Hundred Planets has picked up rumors of a new organized industrial espionage ring." He turned to the Interface. "Tell them."
"There has been a 30 percent increase in the number of successful computer taps during the last two standard years. Evidence indicates that it is nearly all due to one organization, which has never been identified. The Guild is researching newer security measures."
"They'd better do more than research on this project," said Ovid. "Lantern expects to recoup losses from a dozen other digs with this one. They have not cut corners on security, either. They've provided for two Cranston security guards to be posted right here in your home, day and night."
"Oh, no!" said his mother, rising and dropping her napkin on the table. She turned to leave the room, saying, "I won't have strangers in my home! I quit. You can send the money back and tell them what to do with it!"
Before she got to the door, Zref's father caught up to her. "Wait, Hetta, wait."
Ovid said, "Security is one thing successful people must learn to live with."
"Lantern," said his father, "and all its books, tours, and billions of credits doesn't matter to us as much as our family does. Our idea of family may be a little too kren for you to understand, but you've been on Camiat long enough to realize that you can't force strangers into our home."
Ovid seemed surprised. Barinn pressed his advantage. "I have a counterproposal. I haven't had a chance to talk this over with my sons yet, but if Cranston hired them as our live-in security guards, my wife and I wouldn't object."
Cranston security guards?! Zref met Sudeen's eyes in shock. He glanced again at his mother. She was watching Ovid with one of her narrowed gazes that Zref had learned to respect. She's acting to convince Ovid!
"No," she said thoughtfully. "I wouldn't object."
"But they're too young," Ovid protested.
For the first time, Tess spoke up. "Men their age are allowed to enlist in the LEAHP armed field officers school."
"They have no training," Ovid insisted.
"Cranston has a six-week training program for security personnel," Ley explained. "Chances are, any men they assigned to us would have little more experience. But you can bet Zref and Sudeen will have their hearts in this job because we're family."
"They haven't said they'd do it," added Tess as Ovid began another objection. Her eyes met Zref's. "Will you? It would mean having to live here in the house, at least all winter or until the project is done."
Zref wanted to say yes, naturally he'd stay, but he tore his eyes from her and said to Sudeen, "It's up to you. This house has been converted for human use." The boarded-over hatching pond and removed walls made the house useless for mating, and the only full-sized immersion pool was the one in his parents' room.
Sudeen said, "If we go to Rhobank, I'll get used to roughing it. And if you turn down the scholarship offer now, by the time they offer it to me and I have the grace period to consider it--we could get there, Zref!"
And, thought Zref, we'll have a trade we could earn our living with, as your father wanted. "All right, Dad, we'll do it." Zref thought that he should feel jubilant. They were going to Rhobank with all the money they could use, and in the meantime he'd have all winter with Tess. But he had to force a grin, unable to dismiss his premonitions and Sudeen's.End Chapter Two
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First Lifewave novels copyright © 1980, 1982, 1985, 2000 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg. All rights reserved.