Sunday Snippet

The ferocious, er, always calm and controlled Mrs. deStella-Bernardi has one slight weakness. And her daughter has to cope with it.

Chapter 1: Home coming

“Auriga Maris Regina, the planet is not going anywhere. Now come, we need to clear the cabin again before boarding the landing shuttle.”

Rigi, who had gone through the cabin with the finest-tooth comb known to twelve star systems, allowed herself a sigh before leaving the viewing window and walking across the large room to where her mother waited. The few lingering passengers gave her sympathetic looks, and a tall, dark young man seemed to be studying her more intently that was perhaps polite. Rigi did not return the regard. At the moment she had little time for young men, strangers or otherwise. Rigi moved carefully, mindful of the lower gravity on the long-distance transport. Mrs. Acherna deStella-Bernardi pointedly did not pat her foot. Instead she turned and walked down the color-coded passageway leading to the passenger cabins, her daughter following dutifully behind.

Rigi swallowed a number of comments and complaints that she would have once made. Her mother’s dreadful fear of ship-to-ground shuttles made her snappish and brusque, but only to family members. Outside the family she remained the model of comportment and hospitality that Rigi had always assumed was her mother’s true self. Then they had left Shikhari for almost four years, in order for Rigi’s sister to find a husband, for Rigi to go to school, and to see the brother that Rigi had barely remembered, who had remained on Home to go to military school in hopes of obtaining a job within the Company that administered most of Shikhari. Her mother keyed open the cabin door and Rigi went in. Their bags had already been removed for loading into the cargo pod, making the task somewhat easier. With a smothered sigh Rigi bunched her skirts, got down on hands and knees, and started at the bottom, looking for anything small that might have gone astray.

She’d almost finished the last cubby when a chime sounded from everywhere and nowhere. “Shuttle one is now boarding. All passengers on shuttle one please report to the boarding area. Shuttle one is now boarding.” Her mother rushed forward, grabbed Rigi’s arm, and almost dragged the young woman off her feet.

“Mother, please. I’m coming.” Rigi kept her voice low and soothing, trying to calm her mother without obviously doing so. She wished her father were there, but Timothy Bernardi had gone ahead, recalled to Shikhari by the company to take up a supervisor’s position after something her parents still refused to discuss in front of Rigi. She had wanted to point out that she was sixteen, almost seventeen, and not ignorant of the ways of the world. Her mother’s near collapse at the thought of having to take shuttles to and from ground-side to the transport had changed Rigi’s mind, and she’d held her peace.

The two ladies joined the flow of passengers walking to the boarding bay. Her mother stumbled a little and Rigi caught her. She had her eyes closed and her lips moved as if she were reciting a litany of some kind. Rigi placed her hand under her mother’s elbow and guided her without seeming to, lightly steering through the gathering passengers until they reached the boarding line. Rigi wanted to close her own eyes, but someone had to look around, wary and watchful. This wasn’t the central worlds, she hadn’t heard any comments or caught any hard looks from fellow passengers since they’d left Eta Tolima, but it only took one, and—

“Oh, who is this?” Rigi’s back stiffened and she inhaled, counted to four and exhaled. Creator and Creatrix, surely not. But that half-condescending tone, the too-eager steps could only belong to, “It is! Little Auriga, my how you’ve grown. You look so much older than your age.” Rigi half-turned, hand still on her mother’s elbow, to see Mrs. Elaine Debenadetto pushing through the waiting people toward them. She still moved like a person fresh from Home, arms held close to her body, steps short but fast, dark, close-cut clothing that took up no extra space around her. Here she stood out from the Shikhari and other out-world residents, drawing attention Rigi preferred not to share. Mrs. Debenadetto stopped too close to Rigi, smiled, and looked over her clothes. “My, you do look old for your age. You can’t be more than what, twelve?”

“Sixteen, ma’am. It is good to see you well,” Rigi inclined her head, as was proper for a distant older acquaintance outside her social circle.

“And your sister, Lyria I believe? How is she?” Mrs. D scooted closer. Rigi wished her mother would open her eyes and take over, but wishing never brought fishing.

“She is well, ma’am. She married last year and she and her husband are expecting their first child, Creator and Creatrix be praised.”

“Married? But, how? She’s only a child!” She backed up far enough to put her hand over her mouth, and to attract more attention. “How could she? What about her education and her career?”

What about boarding the shuttle, Rigi wondered, desperate to disengage and get her mother to the front of the now-moving line. “I apologize ma’am, but I fear this is not a good time to discuss family. Please pardon my rude behavior, but I fear we are on the shuttle currently boarding and I don’t want to inconvenience anyone by being late.” She nudged her mother ahead.

A hard veil seemed to settle over Mrs. D’s face. “Of course. There will be more than sufficient time dirt-side.” She turned on her toes and hurried off. Rigi, feeling twelve years old again, wanted to crawl away or to follow and apologize profusely for her abrupt behavior. Instead she wove through the watching passengers, leading her mother to the blue stripe on the floor where the crew waited. Rigi presented her pass, and after discreet fumbling found her mother’s pass in her mother’s belt-pocket and presented it as well. The man scanned them. A small light turned green and he nodded, returning the passes.

“Miss Rigi, Mrs. deStella-Bernardi, can I be of assistance?” A sturdy young man in the uniform of a lieutenant of the Royal Planetary Forces asked. He smiled and Rigi recognized him even before she saw his name chip. As he spoke he gave the boarding director his own pass and was green-lighted to board.

“Lt. Prananda, it is truly delightful to see you here, and yes, if you could be so kind?” Her mother had begun shaking as if ill with fever, and Tomás took her other elbow. With their coloring they might well be related, and no one gave them a second glance as they eased Mrs. deStella-Bernardi into the interlock to the shuttle. Tomás eased ahead, and guided as Rigi supported and pushed, walking her mother into the cabin. Two stewards rushed up and assisted the woman to her seat, then watched as Rigi strapped her mother in and confirmed her security. “Thank you so much sir, gentlemen,” Rigi said, smiling and hand-bowing out of habit. The stewards went to help another passenger and Tomás smiled back, then thumped her on the shoulder with his fist and winked before finding his own seat. Seeing him made Rigi feel much better, and she strapped in beside her mother.

Aside from the usual gravity drop quease, and her mother almost crushing her hand, squeezing until it brought tears to Rigi’s eyes, the drop and glide into the port at Sogdia was uneventful. Certainly less exciting than worm-jumps, but then anything was less exciting, almost. One in a thousand people could not tolerate the buffer drugs given to passengers during worm jumps, and one in ten-thousand of those suffered jump wobbles. To Rigi’s chagrin, she was one in ten-thousand, and had decided that the bizarre swirling art of the Stellar Visionary Period was actually lingering worm-jump hallucinations, executed in acrylics or hard light projections and sold for millions of credits. At least it had given her some additional sketching time, since she and the crew were usually the only ones awake and moving about during the main jumps themselves. Once the wobbles faded, she’d had several hours to work in absolute peace and quiet.

The shuttle rocked a little and grew warm inside as reentry heated the vessel. Mrs. deStella-Bernardi moaned quietly, then resumed praying. Rigi wished she could see out, but no one wasted mass on passenger windows. She felt the push of the retro-boosters kicking in, and the roar of passing atmosphere changed to the roar of atmospheric engines. The shuttle bumped a little more, and Rigi tried to recall which season it was in Sogdia. The beginning of the cool and wet, yes, and storms probably lurked near the city. More bumping, and an abrupt drop, accompanied by yelps and a few quiet squeals from discomfited passengers. The ride smoothed out again, and the now familiar sounds and sensations of the heat shield retracting and landing wheels extending sent adrenaline flowing through Rigi. They were almost home!

The world called Home might be the origin of humanity, but for Auriga Bernardi, the colony called Shikhari was the place that claimed her heart. The shuttle landed with a bump and a thump and a whoosh as the drag extended, slowing them. No one moved until the stewards gave the all clear. After the accident on WemWorld, unbuckling before the doors opened had ceased abruptly. Rigi let herself out, and then reached for her mother’s harness. But her mother seemed awake and capable of undoing the latches, trembling hands notwithstanding. The steward assisted her mother to stand, and Rigi braced a little before getting up. The normal gravity felt strange after almost a month at eight-tenths G. Tomás offered her his hand, and she accepted with a nod and a smile. “Can’t have Shikhari’s most famous artist breaking her fingers from a G-flop, now, can we?” he teased.

“And trip the colony’s most famous explorer after Capt. DeHaan? Perish the thought.”

“No, that would be Uncle Eb’s m-mule,” he said under his breath, letting go so she could hold onto the rail beside the three steps. “Speak of the devil and he appears.” He pointed past her shoulder, to the stooping older man standing beside her father.

“I don’t see any m-mules,” she joked back.

“Lieutenant Prananda,” a stentorian voice bellowed, and Tomás thumped her on the shoulder once more before striding over to man who resembled a tree trunk in uniform. He moved one arm and Rigi saw stripes and Vs that met at the elbow and almost overlapped. That would be the planetary Master Sergeant, senior NCO of the Royal soldiers assigned to liase with the Company security people on Shikhari, and “second only to the Hunter in authority and dignity,” or so Rigi recalled hearing from Major, now Colonel, Prananda, Tomás’s father and a Royal Marine. Rigi caught up with her mother, then averted her eyes as her parents embraced. Ick. Parents kissing.

“Uncle Eb,” she hand-bowed, as was the custom among the Staré. He smiled and bowed in return. Ebenezer Solomon Trent, academic linguist, eccentric explorer, and several other things as well studied her. “I grew a little, sir.”

“Just a little. Welcome back, Miss Rigi. Did you get the article draft? De Groet,” he shook his head. “His enthusiasm may have outstripped his common sense. May.”

“Yes, sir, and I’d like to see just what he’s talking about, if possible, sir. I may have missed something, but the description doesn’t fit, quite.”

“No, and that’s what makes me wonder if—” A complicated mix of expressions flitted across his face, and he backed up, cold formality settling on him as he did. Rigi turned around to see a fair-haired man with a rolling gait and enormously broad shoulders walking toward them. No, not walking, she decided, storming. He moved like one of the rolling dust clouds of the central desert on the Crimson Plains. Without thinking Rigi shifted her weight and moved sideways, freeing her hand and clearing her uncle’s line of fire as well as hers. Then she remembered that she’d had to pack her shooter.

The man smiled with his mouth and nodded, more of a fast head jerk, to Uncle Eb. “Ah, Mr. Trent. So the rumors of your presence are true.” He looked at Rigi, then back at Uncle Eb, and raised carefully shaped eyebrows. “A daughter? Or have you converted?”

“My niece, Mr. Smargad.”

The man began to speak, then backed up as Rigi heard a welcome “wooeef! Wooeef!” from behind her. She turned and knelt as Martinus, her m-dog walked up. She hugged the metal neck and patted the synth-fur pad on top of his head. “Wooeef.”

“Wooeef yourself. Good boy, good dog.”

“You never did get him re-trained, did you?” Uncle Eb chuckled.

“I gave up, sir.” Although that wasn’t exactly true. Martinus did have a true bark. She’d heard it twice, once when he’d destroyed the carnifex leaper that tried to eat her, and once when she’d almost been attacked some years before. But that remained her secret, like the little extra sting he carried inside.

“You gave her a dangerous bot?”

Rigi rolled her eyes, even though it was not what proper young ladies did. “Is someone calling my m-dog dangerous?” her father asked as she stood. He continued, “A common error, sir. Civilian m-dogs are rare in the central worlds.”

The stranger studied Rigi and her father, and mouth-smiled again. “Neo-Trads. That explains a great deal.” He walked away, rolling toward the baggage and cargo claim area.

“He was badly injured in a transport accident and full joint replacement was not an option for reasons I do not know,” Uncle Eb said, still watching him. “The years have not mellowed his mind, or so it appears.” He seemed to shake all over and the old Uncle Eb returned with a smile. “However, you and your honored mother need to see the new house before the social whirl begins and the rains start as well. Word will spread quickly that you are back.”

Rigi’s mother nodded. “It would be best to be at the house so that we can officially be at home. And to meet the staff.” She spoke and frowned just a touch, inclining her head toward something behind Rigi. “Auriga, who is the young man watching us so intently?”

Rigi turned around. She did not recognize the person in question, although she thought that she had seen him before. A former schoolmate? One of the boys from the Temple? “I do not know, Ma’am.”

“Very well.” They walked to the large, echoing building that housed luggage and cargo receiving. Ideally, their bags and shipping containers would be waiting for them. Rigi had yet to encounter this ideal.

As they waited for the inspectors and agents to confirm and verify everything, Rigi asked her uncle, “Sir, in your travels, have you ever gotten your luggage in the proper sequence?”

He appeared to be watching someone or something, concern creasing his forehead under his white and grey hair. “Not yet. But I’m still young, so it might happen. Twice Kay has. She seems to inspire a greater activation of survival instincts in luggage bot programming than I do.”

Rigi covered her mouth to hide the giggle that threatened to bubble out. Proper young ladies did not giggle, or do anything that might attract attention to themselves. Although the looks she and her family were getting from some of the off-world visitors warned that they’d already drawn notice. She patted Martinus’s head again. It was too bad that the military grade invisibility technology remained unobtainable, or she’d ask for a visual shield for her and her m-dog for her coming-of-age gift. Her father did not stand out in a crowd, but she and her mother did, at least in the presence of people from the First Diaspora worlds and Home. Long hair worn above the collar, long sleeves and comparatively long skirts, practical shoes and dark boots, or shorter skirts over full, loose trousers, all in rich, cool colors that might as well be holo-signs, Rigi knew, telling onlookers that she and her mother belonged to the neo-Traditionalists. That Rigi did not mind so much, but what other people thought they knew about neo-Traditionalists . . . Rigi wondered yet again how seemingly rational individuals created such fascinating and false stories.

“Idea, Miss Rigi,” her uncle said. “Command your half-furry friend to rise on his hind-legs and dance. I’ll use the distraction to stage a raid and rescue your mother’s baggage before she collapses.”

“Would that I could, sir. He was notably lacking in grace when last I watched him dance. I’ll see to Mother, thank you.” She stepped back two paces, passing behind her father and Uncle Eb to stand behind her mother, Martinus following. “Mother, if you would like, there’s a seat on the bench free. We can watch without being in the way.” And her mother could sit before she fell. The higher gravity and the landing jitters seemed to have taken a serious toll on her.

“An excellent thought, Auriga.” The ladies and m-dog retreated to the bench, and Mrs. deStella-Bernardi sat. Mr. Bernardi brought two of their cases to them, then disappeared into the milling crowd. A second shuttle had landed, sending a fresh wave of people into the sea of heads and backs lapping the cargo and baggage lines. Rigi’s fingers began to itch, wanting to sketch the scene. Instead she contented herself with trying to memorize it, how the people moved and how they flowed, some already leaving the group. As she studied the building, Rigi noticed a hole. No Staré worked in the sorting area. How odd. She also saw a sign that puzzled her greatly. “Independent Shikhari: Staré Rights, Staré Land, Staré Freedom” and the profile of a Staré took up a large section of the wall above the door. She could not read the smaller lettering below the simple sketch-outline of the native, carefully done to indicate no Stamm.

Before she could follow that thought any farther, a medium grey Staré, third Stamm, approached, placed the tips of his forefeet together and hand bowed, puffing a combination of scents. Rigi’s memory struggled, then told her that he’d sent a greeting/question. She hand bowed in return. “Greetings.”

“Greetings and welcome,” he enunciated with precision, tall ears held straight up, tail still. “Pardon the aggression of my presence. I am Lonka, assisting of the household. Transport waits should you desire.” Rigi sorted out his words, automatically slotting him into the Stamm and household hierarchy and noting that he learned Standard relatively late, like the cook/guard Shona had. He controlled his scent well.

“I,” her mother caught herself. “That is most welcome, Lonka, thank you. We will take your gracious offer.” Rigi helped her stand, and took one bag, the heaviest, as Lonka slid his long, flat forefeet under the handles on the two lighter cases. The three made their way out a smaller door that led through some trees and other landscaping to a very nice ground-transport. Lonka opened two of the doors, lifting them fully to allow air to move through the passenger compartment. Rigi handed her mother into a seat, then gave Lonka her case after he’d put the others into the baggage area. She hesitated, not wanting to sit just yet, but a little concerned about her mother. Lonka took up what Rigi recognized as a guard position by the door, and Rigi sat. Even new visitors to Shikhari understood what a male meant when he stood like that, forefeet at his sides, looking left and right, ears moving, weight shifted forward so the heels of his long hindfeet stayed a few centimeters off the ground, tail lifted just a bit. He could explode in any direction if needed, and the claws on his feet could gut a human just as easily as they did other Staré or grazing leapers and small wombeasts.

Uncle Eb arrived with a baggage trolley guided by a pale fifth Stamm male, who unloaded the bags under Eb’s careful direction. They returned to the building and Rigi fanned her mother. The air felt cool but very moist, a sure sign of rain lurking close by. The transports tended to be dry, and perhaps dehydration explained her mother’s exhaustion and pallor as much as her terror of shuttle travel did. A few minutes more passed, and Rigi caught a puff of relief/puzzlement. She leaned forward and beheld yet another trolley, guided by two Staré and followed by her father and Uncle Eb, both of whom looked annoyed. “Right there, on the chit. Saw it with my own eyes,” her father said. “You’d think at least the name might have set off a sensor alert.”

Uncle Eb laughed. “Timothy, you of all people should know that there’s no fossil like a bureaucratic fossil. But that does explain where those cases went.”

“Yes, and I’m going to have a quiet word with someone when I officially return to work in two days.”

The males managed to load everything, but they had to give the ladies cases to hold, as well as putting some into the passenger compartment around and on top of Martinus. Her father drove, Lonka rode in the Staré seat beside him, and Uncle Eb took the seat not filled with boxes in the passenger section. The hover-lift engaged with reluctance, or so it felt to Rigi. “I didn’t think we brought quite this much with us, Mother,” she ventured.

“We didn’t. I recognize those as belonging to your father. Apparently something was delayed?” She looked around the box to Uncle Eb.

“I will credit an overly cautious inspections official with the semi-disappearance of Timothy’s belongings and some small household items,” he replied, sounding less than charitable. Rigi opted to look out the window, trying to see where they were. The area around the main spaceport and export depot had grown over four years, and she didn’t recognize much until they passed the main roadway intersection and a large robo-transport bulk hauler trundled by. Four years before, off-course bulk-haulers had led to a horrific accident in one of the main Staré market areas, and she and Tomás and Uncle Eb had inadvertently discovered the true cause while trying to publish get an academic article about the ruins they’d found. She remained wary of the enormous vehicles, as wide as a residential road.

“Did you ever hear the outcome of the investigation, Miss Rigi?” Uncle Eb asked, nodding toward the passing hauler.

“No, sir. I remember that one had begun, but we left before the crown lifted the seals.”

“Ah, that’s right. Mr. Petrason had indeed ordered the changes in the programming that led to the problem, and then threatened the coders and some of his superiors to cover it up. He was sentenced to ten years’ labor, despite arguing that the deaths ‘should not count’ because they included no humans.”

Rigi shook her head. “Like son, like father, I’m sorry to say.”

“Quite so.”

Her mother’s compressed lips suggested that a change of topic was in order. “Did anything come of the idea to use racer vine sap as jewelry?”

“Not just jewelry. Kay can provide the details, but it seems it remains pliable if left thin, and strips of it, ribbons, have become a fashion item, or so I am told.”

“In small amounts, I trust,” her mother stated.

Rigi looked up at the roof of the vehicle. Probably not, based on some of the things she’d observed on Home and the First Diaspora worlds. Excess did not begin to describe the use of color and pattern.

The vehicle slowed and turned into an unfamiliar area with subdued but very nice houses and lush gardens. Every house on Shikhari that could had at least a small garden, and the humans copied the Staré in that as in so many other ways. Unlike the Staré, humans did not encourage the plants to cover their buildings, but as close as some people planted tall grasses and small trees, one wondered. The transport stopped in front of a nice house with a token fence, not quite waist-high, or so it appeared, but backed by crimson-claw and roses. Rigi approved. Lonka got out and opened the vehicle doors, then the gate, and disappeared, returning with two more males, including Shona, the cook who had worked for them before. The males began carrying cases and crates into the house, freeing the passengers and letting Martinus out. Rigi wanted to explore, but duty came before pleasure. She helped her mother climb out of the passenger section, then stepped to the side as her father took her mother’s arm and led her up the crushed-rock path to the door. Rigi followed, taking her time and pausing to study their new residence.

The house seemed lop-sided until Rigi realized that she was looking at it sideways, sort of. Instead of a full second floor, the upper space only covered the left-most third of the roofline. It reminded her a bit of a Staré head, with the first floor for the ears and the main house as the muzzle. She giggled at the prospect of sleeping in ears. As she came closer, she saw a verandah around the front that seemed to wrap the low end of the building. Three steps led up to the verandah. Once inside the door, the house seemed familiar—not because she’d ever visited it before, but because of the order of the rooms. All Staré and most human houses began on a short hallway with an office/workroom to the left and a visiting room to the right. Casual guests and strangers never went farther. Only family and close friends went down to the kitchen, second work room or family room, and upstairs if there was an upstairs sitting area. Sleeping rooms remained firmly private. The dining room had a door to the visiting room for entertaining, at least in human houses. Rigi had not been that far inside a Staré residence.

“Upstairs once more, Miss Rigi,” her father pointed. She waited until the young fifth Stamm male hopped back down the stairs, forefeet now empty, before going up herself. “Oh, thank you. Is Mother’s workroom here as well?”

“Yes, on the north side for light. She has a separate office downstairs, beside Lonka’s space.” Rigi went and peered out the window, looking down onto the back of the building. The Staré had quarters tucked between the kitchen area and her parents room, with doors allowing them to come and go without passing through the house if they needed to or chose to. “Shona and Lonka also have houses on the grounds,” her father said. “I suggest you unpack so I can begin filing the claims for damage as soon as possible, if they are necessary.”

“Yes, sir.”

Would she have an assistant again, a female like Mar? If Shona had come back, would Mar come as well? Maybe not, since Rigi was an adult now by Staré standards. She planted her hands on her hips and studied the cases, looking for one in particular. The white ribbon had been cut by the baggage loading bots, but she found it and opened it with care, keeping one hand ready to catch anything that spilled. Ah, good, the padding and special holders had worked. Rigi counted the assorted tubes of chemicals and nodded. Then she selected a smaller, pink-capped vial and opened it, touched her finger to the end of the cap, and then touched the finger to her neck pulse points. She’d learned how to make scents while in school, and could mimic several of the Staré’s communication puffs, including gratitude and harmless and friendly/polite. Friendly/polite was always safe and appropriate. Her older sister and brother had never learned to read the scent language as well as Rigi had. As she thought about it, she and Tomás both had better scent senses than the rest of their families. But they were the youngest and had grown up around Staré. Rigi closed the vial, put it into its space, closed the case, and moved it to the washroom. That was the only truly fragile thing she’d brought, aside from her art supplies, and they had their own armored cases with her name and degree on them. Those too seemed intact, and she began sorting clothing and other things.

She’d worked for several hours before she heard an unfamiliar tapping sound. Rigi looked around, checking to see if a bird was investigating a window, then glancing at the plumbing access. Nothing. She went to the head of the stairs and discovered a small speaker and a flashing light. Rigi guessed that the house had a message alert system, and went downstairs to find Lonka waiting beside a tap-panel shaped for a Staré forefoot. He hand-bowed. “A visitor for you, Miss Auriga. Or may I call you Miss Rigi?”

“Miss Rigi please, Lonka.” He inclined toward her and gestured with one forefoot to the visiting room. “Thank you.”

She went in and smiled as Tomás bowed to her, very formal and stiff-looking in a dark green uniform with black trim and gold insignia, hat in his left hand. Her father stood beside him. “Auriga, Lt. Prananda wishes to renew his acquaintance with you. Are you interested likewise?”

Rigi blinked. Why so formal? Oh, because Tomás had become an adult, and she wasn’t one quite yet, at least not among humans. Rigi went farther into the room. “Yes, sir, I am interested in renewing my acquaintance with Lt. Prananda.” One a whim she added, “As long as he’s not falling into water channels, that is,” and winked.

The men both smiled and Tomás relaxed. She presented her hand and he bowed before taking it and shaking. Her father snorted. “Right. Duty’s done. Tomás, if I come back and find that you and my daughter have disappeared into the forest with her m-dog and Ebenezer’s m-mule, I’ll tan your hide, or what is left after my lady finishes with you. Rigi, no exploring today. I don’t care to find leaper hides tacked to the kitchen wall before supper.” He turned to go, “And don’t forget that you need to deep-cycle Martinus tonight, and check his joints. He got rained on yesterday.”

“Yes, Father.” He departed and she tried to remember what you did next. “Please, be seated.” That seemed to work. “Would you like some tea?”

“No, thanks. I can’t stay long, Rigi. I just wanted to get official permission to be in touch. I’m going to be posted away from Sogdia, and I can’t comm or message anyone, especially ladies, without formal permission. Which makes checking articles and images a challenge.”

“Oh yes. Uncle Eb already told me I need to look into some things for him. He thinks Mr. De Groet’s a little imaginative, perhaps.”

Tomás rolled his eyes. “I’m scared to see what he came up with. The road between the Fountain Site and Grassland One would be enough for anyone else.”

She smiled, then put a hand over her mouth. “Oh dear, I wonder if it is something like that man on Eta Tollima, the one who swore he’d found a giant feathered turtle statue.”

He grinned, shaking his head a little. The military haircut and his uniform made him look far more adult than before, but the grin was pure Tomás. “A ten-times life-sized horned digger, or horn head.”

“No, worse, giant wombeast, but only the back half survives.”

Their laughter brought her mother into the room. Tomás sprang to his feet and bowed. “Tomás Prananda! This truly is a pleasant welcome.” Her mother hand bowed in return, smiling, eyes warm. “And how is your family?”

“They are all well and send their compliments and regards, Ma’am. And I fear you must excuse me Ma’am, miss. I wished to visit and present my welcome and compliments before reporting to my new posting.”

“You are always welcome under our roof, Lt. Prananda. Please give my compliments and regards to your parents and I am pleased to hear that they are well.”

“I will do so at the first opportunity. Ma’am,” he bowed again. “Miss Rigi.” He nodded and she nodded back, then winked. He gave her a little thump on the shoulder as he passed, and she followed him and her mother to the door. Lonka let him out.

“He is as family, Lonka,” her mother said. “That is Lt. Tomás Prananda.”

On impulse Rigi added, “He has the hunter’s eye, and can see the places of the first ones.”

Lonka’s eyes opened wide, then returned to the normal, almost sleepy, half-lidded position. “That explains much, Miss Rigi, Ma’am. He is remembered.”

Did that mean that Lonka would add him to the permitted person’s list he kept in his head, like other Staré did, or that the Staré of the upper Stamme remembered him? Rigi did not ask.

“Any missing or broken items, Auriga?”

“None yet, ma’am. Should I fully unpack my wet-season things, or leave them cased once I ensure that they are undamaged?”

“Hmm. I will ask your father.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”  Rigi waited until her mother left to go back upstairs. She found the box of Martinus’s equipment, along with Martinus. “Joints first, then deep-cycle.” She pawed through the jumble of things, thinking unkind thoughts about her father until she found the tools she needed, and the chargers and discharger. If only the law permitted m-animals to have full-body coverings, things would be easier, but no, half the metal or polymer had to be visible so that no one mistook them for bio-animals. And metal and water still did not mix. Some things never changed.

The sign in the airport was a change, however, and she wondered what it meant. Freedom for Staré? But they had their freedom, more than some humans did. Oh well. She found a bit of sticky, the warning of moisture in the joint, and sighed. No, things never changed, not the big things.

(C) 2017 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved

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