Monday, July 31, 2006

Episode 5, Arrival © C. J. Hoare 2006.

All rights reserved.

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The wood smelled neat; musty, brown leaves on the ground and fresh green ones higher up. The tree trunks stretched to the branches about twenty metres above her, like a whole forest of pillars, an unobstructed view because the few lower bushes were small and widely scattered. Some trees had clumps of what must be blossoms or seed pods that gave gusts of sweetish aroma on the breeze. Gisel found it cooler under the shade of the trees and leaned her back against the trunk of one that must have been a couple of metres around. The only sounds were the leaves rustling above.

She could just see Mort and Alan inspecting a fallen tree between the rows of grey-green trunks. In the other direction she'd lost all sight of her father and the biologists – she'd given him a call to tell him so. "Keep calling in by radio," he'd snapped.

A bug landed on her cheek. She raised a hand to swat it, but gently brushed it away instead. Maybe M'Tov had a point – she'd better get used to bugs. It looked as if she'd spend the rest of her life here. What the hell would she do with herself? One thing was certain – she wasn't going to partner up with one of these self-opinionated guys and keep springing his babies. She was going to find some job that would let her make her own life.

She glanced toward the fallen tree – Mort and Alan nowhere in sight. They must have moved on. "Hey you guys," she called. "I can't see you."

No answer.

"Hey! Where are you," she shouted this time.

Mort's face appeared in the distance, framed between two tree trunks. "Over here, Gisel. You'd better follow."

She thought about reminding him they were supposed to stay in sight but didn't want to sound like a baby. She picked up the sampling tool and shouldered it – couldn't see anything to worry about in this wood. Should she call Father? No, wait for him to call first.

She ploughed through the rustling leaves to the fallen tree and then cast about for signs of their further progress. Easy to see, the turned over leaves showed their darker, damp sides. They hadn't walked in a straight line but from tree to tree as if they had to touch each one. Maybe they had – must have been months since they last did whatever arborists were supposed to do.

"Hurry up Gisel. We need our sampling tool."

She heard the voice but didn't see the men until one moved out from a nearby bush. She stopped and placed a hand on her hip. "If you'd carried it . . ."

"Quit complaining. Worse than an old woman."

Mort came around the bush. "Yeah. I don't believe you're sixteen. More like sixty, sometimes."

She swung the tool off her shoulder fast enough that he had to step back. "Careful with that thing. You could hurt somebody."

"What did you find so far?"

"You'd never believe it. Most of these trees are cultivated, a whole plantation of oak trees – all the same age."

She squinted at him. Yeah, so? "Why wouldn't I believe it?"

Mort frowned at her. "Don't you get it?"

"Get what?"

"These people aren't so dumb. They're cultivating trees for construction material. That shows forethought and planning, these take two hundred years to mature."

"Constructing what?" Gisel looked up into the tree beside her.

"My guess would be ships. Somebody around here builds wooden ships."

Gisel smiled faintly. Whatever turns your crank, Mort. But she didn't say anything – these guys were as excited as if they'd found a goldmine. She followed him back to where Alan stared up at an unusually low branch. They took the tool between them and extended it to snip off some small twigs and bring them down.

Mort looked up at her from examining them. "See these furry things. They're the male flowers. These are the female."

"Uhuh." That's what she'd been able to smell. "Is that it?"

They put their specimen in a container and handed her the sampling tool. "Fold that back up, Gisel. We're going to head further that way. Looks like some have been cut."

Wow, would that ever be exciting. She sqeezed the handle to contract the sampling head and took her time to catch up to them.

When she reached them they were bent over a tree stump, like it was a screen or something. Alan traced a finger across it. "At least two hundred years. More if each of these indistinct rings is two years and not exceptionally wet ones."

Gisel looked down on the pattern on the stump. "Kinda pretty. What makes it like that?"

Alan stared at her before turning his back. Mort grinned. "Each one of these rings is a year's growth. We can count how old the trees are."

"And you think they're all the same?"

"That's what we're going to check."

She glanced around the small clearing, must be twenty stumps in sight. They were going to be here a while. "I'll head back to where we came in and call the others."

Alan and Mort were on their way to the next stump. Alan glanced back. "Don't get lost."

Get lost – what did they think she was? She set out confidently, following the trail of mussed up leaves. She stepped over the fallen tree they'd already inspected. As she walked, the idea niggled at her that she hadn't needed to go to the edge of the wood – she could radio her father from anywhere. But she enjoyed the exercise – never been in anything like this before. Only trouble was – she should have been back at the edge of the trees by now, and she couldn't see any brightening to indicate she was getting close.

She stopped to look about. Had she been here before? No telling, all these trees looked the same. She stared at the ground behind her – at least the marks of her passage were clear in the disturbed leaves. Maybe she'd better follow them back.

No. That was stupid – she needed to go further in the direction she was heading.

She shifted the sampling tool from one shoulder to the other. It was beginning to feel heavy. Probably would get a bruise where it bumped up and down with her motion. She walked for ten more minutes, more or less. The woods looked exactly the same. No trace of the brightening at the edge of the trees.

She went on some more. Still nothing. Maybe she'd better follow her trail back. Like hell! That would mean she was lost. She set the sampling tool against a tree trunk and sat down. Getting mad, and she could feel the anger growing – damned trees – stupid wood – wasn't going to help. The first thing to do was calm down. Meditation – she needed to calm herself and get in the moment.

She sat quietly for some time before her breathing really steadied. She was only dimly aware of the woods about her through her almost closed eyes. Then she heard thumping sounds coming through the trees. Her eyes snapped open.

She held her breath to listen. How far away? All depended on how big the . . . thing . . . was, that made the sounds. Like heavy footfalls. Was it coming closer?

It definitely sounded to be getting louder. An intermittent jingling merged with it. She stood up slowly and grabbed for the sampling tool. Not a weapon but it'd pack a mean swing.

She listened carefully. The thumps gave an irregular rhythm, like it was several footfalls, and moving quite fast. An animal, or animals, running. She stared in the direction the sounds came from.

Nothing caught her eye for the longest time, while she breathed as softly as she could. Then a quick movement as something moved through the trees – going across her line of vision. Colours, red and blue. Surely not an animal, but her glimpse hadn't been clear enough to tell for sure.

She held the sampling tool in both hands, out in front of her, and slipped from one tree to the next. She peered around the trunk and then ran to the next tree. The strange sounds still came from quite close. She'd be able to see clearly if there weren't so many trees in the way.

The sounds grew louder. She ran across a wider space between the trees. A movement out of the corner of her eye. She darted behind the nearest tree. What had she seen? She fixed the image in her memory but it was vague. Nothing she'd seen before. A man's face – above an animal's head. Jeeze! Not a centaur!

She peered around the tree. This time she got a better look. Two men, riding horses – something she'd only seen in videos. They were just level, about thirty metres off, and now heading away from her.

She slid around the tree to keep them in view. What if they looked back? Better stay out of sight. What to do?

She set down the sampling tool and remembered the radio on her belt. She should call, but didn't want to tell her father she was lost. She should call anyway, maybe he wouldn't realize that.

"Colonel M'Tov, Father. I see two horesmen coming through the wood."

"What, Gisel? Where?" her Father's voice.

Colonel M'Tov answered. "Do you have their location and direction of travel?"

Oh shit. That's screwed her idea.

M'Tov repeated his question. "Answer, Gisel. We need to know quickly."

"No I don't. I'm not sure where I am."

"Are you lost, Gisel?" Father's voice. "How could you be so stupid?"

M'Tov answered him. "Don't worry about that, Matah. We need the girl's information."

"Yes, I see that. Answer as best you can, Gisel. How far have you gone from the edge of the woods?"

Shit. How do I know? " I think I may have walked the wrong way. I could be as much as a kilometre inside the woods. The horsemen are riding across the direction I was going – if that means anything."

M'Tov's voice came on, sounding jerky, as if he was running. "Are Mort and Alan with you?'

"No. I'm afraid I've lost them."

Her father answered, impatience positively dripping out of the receiver. "Well stay where you are, and keep out of sight. We'll take care of this."

Monday, July 17, 2006

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Episode 4, Arrival © C. J. Hoare 2006.
All rights reserved.

Gisel set down her pack and the portable analyzer on some long grass while the biologists waded out into the swamp. Helen Svambini, one of the field techs, wielded a measuring rod and a sample tool, measuring water depth and turbidity. Looked like a messy job, Gisel grinned at her sympathetically as she lifted a leg covered with black mud and bits of plants. Helen shrugged. The two tree specialists, both young field techs, paced about impatiently and stared at the woodlands in the distance. "All deciduous," Mort said, shielding his eyes.

"How many species? Can't tell from here," Alan, who Gisel didn't like, answered with a nod. "I hope to hell we get over there soon."

"Soon enough," Henrik Matah said, turning to them abruptly. "When these people are nearly finished we'll walk on."

Gisel stayed out of it. But it'd be good to get into the trees; the air around this place stank and small insects kept trying to fly into her eyes. She'd forgotten how much she hated bugs after six months in space.

The radios crackled. "M'Tov to Matah. Routine check."

"Good here, Elias. We're at our first ground truthing site."

Gisel keyed her transmit. "Did we bring any bug spray, Colonel? I'm being eaten alive here."

A minute passed before M'Tov answered. "I don't think Iskander carries any. Either you get used to them or you stay aboard, young lady."

She hated that tone of his. "What if they're carrying something?"

His answer snapped back a lot quicker. "I'll check with medical and chemical engineering when we get back."

Alan came up behind her and swatted around her head. "Look out, Gisel. This one is big enough to carry you off."

She pushed him away, with more force than he expected by the way he screwed up his face. "Better you stick to your trees – they're more your speed."

"Wicked one!" Mort said with a grin. "I don't think she wants to make friends, Alan."

Being the youngest woman on the Iskander made her the object of all the young men's attentions – and they were all ages too old for her.

She walked part way around the swamp while the team worked, she could have done the video recording for her father while she was waiting. Maybe she should take that chore from him, she could see he was already regretting bringing her. A movement under a grove of trees in the middle distance caught her eye. Greyish white animals started out into the meadow, lowering their heads to munch grass as they walked. What the heck were they? She'd seen pictures of them somewhere.

It wasn't until a boy and a dog followed them into the open that she remembered. The pole he carried – it was called a crook. That made him a . . . shepherd. Yes, that was it. He ambled on into the meadow, obviously without noticing them.

The dog looked up and barked.

The shepherd boy stopped and she could see his mouth fall open. The Iskander team probably looked outlandish to him, dressed in shiny, repellant coveralls, while he wore a dull brown smock over knee length breeches and hose. Gisel waved; maybe he wouldn't feel threatened by her.

He started to back away, the dog running forward growling. The animals . . . sheep . . . took alarm from the reactions. They began to scatter.

Gisel waved again. "Hey. Come on over. We mean no harm."

The boy turned and ran. The sheep ran off in several directions while the dog ran to and fro, barking.

"Gisel! Come away. Get back over here." Her father's voice.

She turned to them, all pausing in their tasks to watch the commotion. "He's only a boy. Can't do any harm."

"Dammit! Come back over here. You don't know that – he could be contagious."

She shook her head, but turned to trudge back around the swamp. She managed one look over her shoulder as the shepherd boy vanished into the trees. Most of the sheep had ceased running and grazed this way and that. Contagious? How the hell were they going to meet anyone then?

She was just about to rejoin the team when she heard her father call M'Tov to report the sighting. The radio on her belt blipped in and out as M'Tov answered so she unclipped it and held it up in the air.

"We could have a problem here, Henrik," she heard M'Tov say. "Heard a sound like a trumpet coming from the direction of that castle."

"What do you think it meant?"

"If that castle is the local authority, it likely means they're aware of our landing and are calling their men together. You may need to carry out your tasks much faster than we'd planned. Until we know what these folks are capable of, we had best err on the side of caution."

"Do you want me to return to the Intruder?"

Gisel couldn't stay silent any longer. "Gee, Father. One shepherd boy and we're gonna run and hide? He's already done that."

"Be quiet, Gisel."

"I don't think we want to abort the mission," M'Tov said, "but I'm going to cut ours short. We've found one fellow in the village, and we're taking him with us."

"Very well," Henrik said. "I'll send my arborists on ahead. Send me your guards when you get back to Intruder."

"I'll come myself. I'll leave my team working near the Intruder."

Gisel itched to tell him to go up to the castle and knock on the door, but she knew it wasn't worth pissing him off. What had M'Tov expected? The Intruder landing had alarmed everyone within miles.

Her father spoke with her two tree buddies when she rejoined the group. "You carry on ahead and start your work. Don't get out of sight. Gisel, I want you to go with them as far as the trees and stay where you can see us as well as Mort and Alan."

Good, the alarm had speeded things nicely. "Right."

"When the biologists have finished here we will come and join you. Leave the portable analyzer here for them."

Alan hoisted a long tool from his shoulder. "You can carry this instead."

She grabbed it before it hit her in the face; it had a large snipper end and its weight momentarily pulled her off balance. "What is it?"

"Extending clippers and grab, for collecting samples off high branches."

"Geez. Leave it with me. I'll go shear some sheep while I wait for you."

Her father stared at her a moment before shaking his head and turning away.

The two men set out at once, so by the time Gisel had reclaimed her pack from where she'd left it she had to run to catch up to them. Only then did she remember about offering to do the video recording. Too late now, she wasn't going to run back.

The next trees were some distance from those the shepherd boy had vanished into, although as she walked it seemed as if all the clumps of trees she'd seen from further off were part of a single large wood. The terrain was more rolling than she'd first thought. She might have to climb a tree if she was going to be able to see her father from the edge. Bet that would be wrong, too.

"What is this tree identification going to tell us?" she asked as she caught up to them.

"Culture identity will give us usage," Mort said. "Cutting areas will indicate how much, from which we can estimate the size of the population that uses them."

"Oh. Why not find somebody to ask?"

"How can we do that?" Alan snapped, "if they all run away."

"I bet they haven't all run away. I bet the trumpet call means they're getting ready to come and investigate us."

The two men exchanged glances and shook their heads. "Children can make everything sound so simple."

"They should have put you in charge, Gisel," Mort said with a grin.

Gisel stopped. "M'Tov as much as said that – it's not my idea."

"Whatever." Alan took longer strides "Hurry up. We'll get nothing done if we don't step out. M'Tov is already spooked."

"Hey," Mort wheezed. "Not so fast. I haven't lived in one G for a year."

"Told you to come to the gym," Gisel said, running to catch up again. "I could have got you into shape."

Alan glanced back over his shoulder. "Gisel. Just carry your goddamned load and shut up. If we need your advice, I'll ask for it."

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Scroll down to Previous Posts to select Episode 1 and start from the beginning.

Episode 3 – Arrival © C. J. Hoare June 2006.

All rights reserved.

Gisel craned forward for a glimpse out the small passenger door beside the cargo ramp as the Iskander crewman opened it. Her father reached out a hand to pull her against the seat back. "Be careful Gisel. We don't know what might be out there."

It had taken her a great deal of fast talking to secure a place in this first ground investigation mission. Her father relented and included her in his team – in large part because she'd made him worry for her mental state. Had she really intended suicide a week ago? All she knew was that she'd frightened herself as well as him. It felt as if some alien Gisel had taken over her emotions. She'd keep tighter control from now on.

She leaned forward again as M'Tov and his crewman stepped out onto the head of the unfolded flight ramp, assault rifles at the ready. She could probably see as well as anyone inside while they scanned the area around the landing zone. She glimpsed a grassy meadow and a small creek, with woods beyond. No sign of human inhabitants, but then they'd picked a landing site over a mile from the nearest village – and Intruder was loud enough to scare them away.

M'Tov turned to them. "It looks clear. Team leaders, prepare your people to disembark."

Henrik Matah unfastened his seat belt and stood, staggering slightly after a month of weightlessness. "Ground truthing team collect your packs and join me at the cargo ramp." He looked down at her. "How do you feel?"

She tossed the ends of her seat belt aside and sprang to her feet. She strove to ignore a surge of dizziness. "Fine, Father. You know I'm the fittest one here. I can carry twice the load you've given me."

She stepped confidently across the floor of the cargo hold toward Marc Chronon, the youngest member of Iskander's flight crew, as he pressed the buttons to lower the Intruder's cargo ramp. Only five years older than her, he was an electronics and communications specialist. She'd charmed an extra radio receiver out of him for the mission, but only because he wanted it tested after some repairs.

He put out a hand to keep her back when she stepped onto the descending ramp. "Let M'Tov go first, Gisel. This is his show."

She stuck out her tongue before dodging around his arm and running down the moving ramp. She jumped off into the grass, still bent over from the blast of the Intruder's landing. Like most of their larger systems, the aircraft was powered by a fusion reactor, and its turbine engines used electric arcs to turn air and recycled water into a superheated steam reaction mass. At less than combustion temperature, the vegetation below the aircraft had not been charred. She kneeled to lift up handfuls of bowed stalks to hold against her face. "Come on down, it smells just like home."

Colonel M'Tov glared down at her. "Please come back at once, Miss Matah. I want to place my guards before any of you civilians disembark."

She grinned up at him and winked as he said ‘civilians'. M'Tov was one of her fencing class, and she was sure she knew how to get around him. But she stood and hurried back up the ramp. "Sorry, Colonel, but remember we're not civilians any more. We're all in this together."

He frowned and turned away.

"Gisel." Her father's voice. "Come back here and pick up your load."

She waited just long enough to stand at salute while M'Tov and his six men picked as guards filed past her, and then scampered across the cargo bay to her father and his team.

"Hurry up, Gisel. We're the second team off. Remember this is a speed mission. We don't want to be on the ground long enough for the local authorities to react."

"Yessir!" She threw another salute. She could have pointed out that ‘local authorities' was just a supposition. Everyone's comments, as they'd flown over the countryside, suggested they'd meet no modern organization here. From a thousand feet up, the buildings in the villages looked a lot like thatched sheds – the people living there could even be serfs. They'd marveled at the castle beside the river, over three miles away – was there a knight in armor living there? Wow, wouldn't that be neat?

She'd never expected to see a real castle, with battlements and even a banner flying from its highest tower. She wished her father's team was going that way instead of up the valley to ground truth various types of trees and crops that Iskander had recorded in remote sensing imagery from space. Everyone had agreed that they must eventually establish themselves on the surface, but needed to evaluate the whole world before deciding where. This ground investigation would verify their remote sensing data, so they could use it to pick the best location. Why waste time? Already, she loved this place and wanted it to be here.

M'Tov led the first investigation team, heading to the village beside the river estuary, much closer to the castle. She could see him standing under Intruder's tail, detailing three men to guard the aircraft and placing the last three among the file of specialists in his investigation team. She picked up her pack to swing onto her back and looped the carry strap of the portable analyzer over her left shoulder. Her cut arm twinged a bit, but she pushed the discomfort away. The katana's warning cut was scabbed over and no longer inflamed.

Father led them to the ramp, a video camera in one hand. They had no escort with their team but he carried an automatic pistol in a belt holster. She doubted he could hit a barn from the inside. Pity they hadn't given it to her. Back on Earth, she'd sweet talked herself into a few shots at the pistol range adjoining her fencing gym.

"We're to keep together," Henrik said. "Are you listening Gisel? I don't want any straggling. Now check our communications." He unclipped the receiver from his belt. "Intruder, this is team north, do you read?"

"Loud and clear, Mr Matah."

Gisel pulled out the spare receiver. "North team second radio. Gisel Matah, over."

Commander Johansen at the Intruder's controls answered. "Seems to be working right now, Gisel. Drop it a few times and call us from a distance."

"Ha ha, smartass. We may need this extra one. The Colonel's guards have most of the rest."

"You may need it," Johansen's voice came back. "Keep sassing me and I'm going to leave you down here."

She turned toward the cockpit door where she could see both pilots silhouetted against the windshield, and gave him the finger. The rest of the team descended the ramp, and she had to sprint to catch them up.

Henrik glanced down at a compass in his hand. "This way, everyone. About half a mile to the swamp where we do our first checks."

Gisel held her speed down almost to a stroll to keep from overtaking the rest of the team. Some were already wheezing – but on the journey they'd never listened when she tried to tell them to exercise more. She had ample time to look about her as they walked. The Intruder had landed in a small valley where a creek, if you could call it that – it was only a metre wide – meandered slowly to the wider river estuary almost a mile in the opposite direction. They left the area where the grass was long and uncut and crossed several areas where it had been clipped down to ground level. Animal droppings suggested that livestock had been staked out to graze. She looked at the droppings – wonder what the hell made those piles. Animals – domestic or wild – were a rarity on the Earth they'd come from.

The meadow on the hill to her right extended to a tree covered ridge. The name forest came to her but this seemed too small. Perhaps it was proper to call this a wood. She'd have liked to leave the team and run up to experience the trees – she hadn't seen real trees since she was a kid – but knew it wasn't worth getting into trouble. They were to check out trees further up the valley.

Only a few isolated trees graced the hill on her other side, and the ground between was cut in strips of bare red-brown earth. Cultivated fields, she guessed. A faint hint of green showed where plants were beginning to sprout – just like the seeds in that biology project back at the school she'd attended while the Iskander was prepared for this mission. Before the divorce, before Father went to Titan. Forget that – look at the scenery. This place was . . . what was the word? Primitive. Yes, that was it. Like hundreds of years in the past.

She looked back at the Intruder from the crest of a rise in the valley. Two guards stood under the wingtips in the shade, and the flight crew was talking to the third at the base of the ramp. M'Tov had said the aircraft was to take off if any threat to its safety appeared. It was their only link between Iskander and the surface, and they couldn't risk any damage. He'd briefed everyone on alternative pickup points if that happened. What he didn't say was how they were expected to get there if some . . . army, or something big enough to damage the aircraft showed up. Amateurs at this kind of thing – shit – didn't M'Tov ever read SciFi thrillers?

Sure, Intruder made enough noise to scare the dead, but she didn't believe all the locals had run away. Someone could be watching them from those trees.

Episode 2 – Arrival © C. J. Hoare 2006.
All rights reserved.

Gisel left the observation room, glancing around before launching herself out of the door. She cruised down the centre of the corridor and reached out with her left hand to stop herself by the handrail at the intersection leading to the gym. The headband she'd wrapped around her cut arm slipped but no globules of blood came spurting out. Not even a major vein – the blood must be coagulating already. Just as goddamn well, the headband was soaked scarlet.

She checked the cross corridor in both directions. Still no one about. That seemed strange for a work afternoon. As long as she didn't bump into anyone inquisitive – what she did to her own arm was her business. She clamped her right elbow tighter to hold the katana against her side. The corridor to the gym was empty and dark. The overhead lights came on as she kicked off gently down it.

She stretched out a foot to stop herself at the door. Clear so far. She could wash up and put an invisible tape on the cut. Just wear long sleeves for a few days. She reached for the door control. It started to slide open even before she touched it.

Someone inside. A man. Goddammit! Her father.

"Oh, at last, Gisel. Where have you been? There's a general meeting. Hurry, you're late–"

His black hair and hypnotically dark eyes – that she'd inherited – made him a stooping bird of prey in the doorway. The image was enhanced by his dark skin and large hooked nose – thankfully a gene she'd escaped. He moved awkwardly under weightlessness – a sign of too much time spent at a terminal. She squeezed past him, keeping her left arm behind her. "I'll clean up. Where is it being held?"

"I've looked everywhere for you." He frowned at her. "What's that on your arm?"

"Nothing." She kicked off from the wall. "I'll be there ASAP, Dad. Where?"

"That's blood."

"Just a graze. I'll disinfect it."

He turned to follow. "That rag is soaked. Let me look."

Goddamn. Of all the luck. "It's nothing I tell you. I can look after it."

"You've got that damned katana. I told you to let me keep it under lock and key."

She changed direction and scooted faster toward the female changing room. He followed.

"You can't come in here."

"I'm in. What did you do?"

"You gotta leave . . . I need . . .. You know –" She took hold of a cubicle door with her left hand, pressing herself tight to conceal her arm.

He stopped, beside her and somewhat higher off the floor. A hawk hovering. "Gisel, quit trying to put me off. I know when you're trying to evade."

She placed a hand over the makeshift bandage. "Leave me alone! I'm not a little kid any more. Go and sniff around Badry. She seems to like your fussing."

His eyes widened. "You saw . . . you were . . .?"

"Damn right I did. You two couldn't wait to get into the sleeping niche? Just animals out in public view. You were too hot – "

His face suffused with red. "That'll do. Just keep a respectful tongue in your head."

"Respectful, shit! Like naked savages on the floor! You and that slut –"

His hand darted like a diving hawk, catching her on the side of the head. "I said, enough!"

She shook her head to clear it. This was the Indian half of his Anglo-Indian again. Goddamn ancestry – his genes didn't know they weren't fighting for the Raj any more. She let go of the bloodstained headband and released the sword from under her elbow. "One of these days, I swear –"

"Don't you threaten me. Give me that katana."


He grabbed her arm. "Give it here!"

She shifted her fist to take it by the handgrip. "You just try to take it."

"By God, I will." His own fist closed over hers.

She tried to anchor herself as he jerked at the sword. No such luck, his effort pulled her away from the cubicle door.

"You little –" He tried to wrench the sword free. "I've spoiled you too much. That's going to change, young lady –. Jesus H Christ! Where did all that blood come from?"

She followed his glance to the door; a great scarlet smear where she'd pressed the headband against it. "Studialo!" A pity her grandmother hadn't taught her more Greek swear words – she felt like ripping off a long streak.

Her father let go of the sword and reached for her left arm. "Let me look."

"No. I'm fine. I can look after it – just get to your meeting. You're late too."

He didn't take any notice. Just wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her over to the washbubbles. "How did it happen? I knew I shouldn't have let you keep that sword." He stared into her eyes and then unwrapped the bloodstained bandage.

"I was doing an exercise and it slipped."

"Bullshit, Gisel. You never slip when you're exercising – too good for that."

She felt a grin pull at her lips. "I'm not as perfect as you."

He bent over her arm. "It's not too deep."

"I know. It's just about quit bleeding."

He left her with her arm inside the washbubble to sail to the far wall and collect the first aid kit. "How did it really happen?" he said as he glided back.

"I told you – an exercise."

He stared into her eyes, as if a lie was written on her pupils. "One more evasion and I ground you."

She grinned widely this time. "Up here?"

He glared a moment, before his eyes met hers and he smiled. "That's what the meeting is about. The whole crew are considering our options. We'd better hurry. I give you until it's over to prepare an honest answer."

He worked quickly, cleaning the long cut and pressing the edges together while she sprayed the disinfectant and wound sealant on it. "Give it a good coat. Make sure it doesn't work open or you'll have a scar."

"I was doing the meditation exercise," she said. "In the Observation Room. I guess I should clean up any blood still floating there."

"God Dammit. You were told never to do that alone – and in weightlessness! What the hell were you –"

"It won't happen again. I just needed to . . . that's all."

He stared at her without speaking.

"I was angry . . ."

He reached out and laced his fingers into her hair. Either about to shake the shit out of her or hold her head while he slapped her with his other hand. She tensed.

He shook his head. "Do you have a jacket here? Don't want anyone else seeing that cut."


They hurried to the Intruder hangar, where the meeting was taking place. The aircraft was outside in space, ready to drop out of orbit to check the surface. Voices echoed in the empty metal hangar and Gisel's nose twitched from the reek of lubricants and that universal aircraft smell of sour sweat.

Every one of the Iskander's one hundred passengers and crew were ranged about the vacated space – the only one large enough to hold everybody. All eyes turned to them as Gisel and her father entered. The Iskander's captain, who liked to be addressed by his military rank, Colonel M'Tov, paused in his address as they found places. Henrik swooped across the hangar to settle beside Dr Badry while Gisel tucked herself in beside her brother Robert.

He grinned at her momentarily and then faced forward again.

M'Tov, thumbs hooked under the ample belt of his Space Service uniform, his greying hair freshly clipped short, watched them a moment before continuing to speak. "So, to recap for the late arrivals –. We do not know how Iskander arrived at this world – it's obviously not Colony N-3 we were bound for. It's also plain that we may never learn enough to find our way back. If we wanted to refuel Iskander for any further voyage, we must set our deuterium separator working at a safe seashore location down there for ten years to refill the tanks." He paused to survey the glum faces. "We have learned everything possible about the planet from space. The next step is to take an investigation team down to question people on the surface."

"Is that wise? What if they take us for enemies?" Gisel looked toward the speaker, Dr Maria Hather, a heavy, round faced woman who was their senior medical practitioner.

"Better than sitting up here, waiting for them to shoot us out of the sky!" said a younger voice from the centre of the group.

"What makes you think they can?" Commander Johansen, the Intruder's chief pilot, said. "They don't even have radio. No microwave radiation at all. Whoever's down there doesn't even know we're here."

"I think that's an unlikely assumption," Hannan Badry said, her dark Levantine coloring matching Henrik's as she leaned toward him. "With a satellite as large as the Iskander arriving in their sky – they could be pretty tense down there."

M'Tov nodded. "If they're primitive. Yes. We need to go armed. The problem is – we have no idea what we might find."

"Do we have any armaments?"

M'Tov stared toward the speaker as if reluctant to answer. "We have some automatic rifles in the security locker," he said eventually. "There was a plan to form a police team when we arrived on N-3."

Dr Hather's chin jutted forward. "Policing who, M'Tov?"

He shook his head. "Just a precaution – in the planning."

"How many rifles." Commander Johansen demanded.

M'Tov shrugged. "Six."

Richard Norris, an active leader of Oceanographic expeditions, looked around at the group. "Not many to start a war against a whole planet."

"Good God! Who says we need to start a war?" came a loud voice.

M'Tov pinpointed the speaker with his cold grey eyes. "We don't, but without going down to interview someone, we'll never know."

"If someone wants to be interviewed," Johansen said.

Norris gave him a twisted smile. "Who says we're going to ask permission?"

"Damned cowboys," Maria Hather snapped. "We need to behave like civilised people."

M'Tov nodded. "I agree, but our very existence could be at stake."

Loud murmurs and low voiced comments rang against the metal walls.

"It's plainly necessary for us to send down a team," Henrik Matah said after the hum of concern died. "What this meeting needs to settle is how we go about it, what it's objectives are, and who comprises it. I'm ready to go, for one."