The next day started uneventfully; the storm had become more powerful, threatening to uproot some of the less well-established tents. Malthus wisely decided he was going to stay indoors today. Which was wise considering that he was over nine and half years old. The winds were nearing ninety KPH, and we advised everybody, especially Sheja, to stay inside as much as possible. P'nyssa, predictably, had to get out and make her way to the infirmary. I called a few minutes to make sure she had made it there safely, and as I expected she took umbrage at my checking on her like she was a helpless child, but I pointed out to her that she did it to me, too. She smiled and blew a kiss and then turned the phone off.
I sighed and sat back. With a reliable data link I could sit here and work all day on anything I felt comfortable with. I checked my email first, and found a message from Toccatta that she and three others would be in that area later that day with light skimmers and would be investigating the circle. I smiled and wished them luck. Pushing the news into background and getting a blank screen again, I requested a weathermap of the area where the dolphins would be. Well, at least they'll have a bright and sunny day.
Pulling the news up front again, I read the daily log of events, including who was offering what for lunch or dinner, how many days we had until the first ship from Terra was going to get here (forty two), the expected weather (rain, and lots of it), and what was planned for tonight (llerkindi movies with subtitles, in the Mission Control). Also a small notice that school was canceled for the day.
Other sections of the news report, aside from the camp local stuff, was a packet from Pendor, which also came bundled with datapacks from Terra and llerkindi and the colonies thereof, and I was surprised to see a new, colony entry from Hyzen. Someone was trying to live on that unholy alien artifact? I blinked and read it through. Sure enough, some of our dolphins were going to have a go at making Hyzen a Pendorian colony. I wished them luck. There was also an entry group for The Rat's Inquiry. Nothing of note there, they were in transit back here to be around when the UCLA/UMCR ship arrived.
As I was flipping through the daily science logs of the camp, Sheja woke up finally and came crawling, only figuratively, out of bed. "Good morning, sleepyhead."
She yawned at me, then yawned again, rubbing her eyes. "I wouldn't be so tired if you and Mom weren't so noisy making love last night."
I laughed and tried to kiss her on the cheek. "Uh-uh," she said, turning her muzzle and catching my lips. "G'morning, Daddy."
"G'morning breath, dear," I said, reaching down and touching her muzzle, turning her head to the side and kissing her cheek as I had intended. "Want some tea?"
"Yes," she said, sitting down at the bench we had in the central room of the tent. "No class today."
"I know, I saw."
"No surprise, either," she said. "Listen to that. It's going to tear up a few tents outside."
"I hope not," I said, getting up and stretching.
"You're not going outside, are you?"
"Nope," I said, walking back into the bedroom and coming out with a brush for Mephit fur. "You want?"
"Okay, fold your arms and rest your head on the table. Good girl." Starting at the top her head, I dug the brush deep against her fell, sometimes using both hands to run the bristles through her thick, dense fur. She sighed softly as I made my way down her back, pausing occasionally to pull the excess loose fur out of the brush and drop it into a small cloth bag. "Okay, turn around."
She stood up from the table and turned around to face me. With a small steel comb I slowly worked my way around her face and under her chin, shifting to the bigger, more imprecise brush once I had reached her shoulders. As I slowly worked my way over her chest, especially her young and budding breasts, I found myself smiling privately. It had taken me a long time to come to grips with whatever attraction I had to children, especially my own. They were my children, to love and protect and teach, but sex was one thing I wouldn't even being to suggest until they asked me, and asked directly.
"Daddy?" she asked, looking up at me. Hearing that made me smile even wider; listening to it come from her voice was completely different from hearing it from Trianna's mouth when she spoke to Kathy.
"Do you think I'm pretty? I think for a girl I'm too black."
I looked her over thoughtfully. "That's not a fair thing to ask me, sweetheart. You have your Daddy's fur, and I love your Daddy so much I'm prejudiced. I love your black fur, and I think you're very beautiful."
"You really think so?"
"We all think so, me and P'nyssa and Aaden."
"Okay," she said, smiling as I made my way along her thigh and down her calf. The brush made a soft scratching sound as I made her dense fur straighten out and behave. I wrapped my hand around her ankle finished her foot.
Smiling as I worked, I took the brush to the underside of her foot and, when she wasn't paying attention, ran the bristles along the sole of her foot. She squealed loudly. "Daddy!"
Dropping the brush, I tickled her foot mercilessly. Her other foot kicked at my shoulder, and I absorbed her blows easily. "Daddy, stoppit!" she screamed.
"Okay, okay," I said, standing up and kissing her nose.
"You don't love me. You tickle me too much."
"But I like tickling you."
"Just 'cause Mom and Dad aren't ticklish!" she said, giggling. "Gotta take it out on me."
I gave her a quick hug. "What else are we going to do while the rains fall?"
"I dunno. I was gonna read."
"Then go read. Whatcha reading, anyway?"
"I was going to read some of the entomology reports," she said.
"Bugs," I said. I should never have let Olivia get her alone.
"Uh-huh!" she smiled, sitting down at the table with two PADDs of her own. She turned one over and dropped the two wire supports that were installed in the back, propping it up as a display. The second one she held in her lap and used it to control her display. I shook my head, wondering where twelve year old girls get such traditional ideas.
The sky darkened and the winds increased. That didn't make much sense, since storms are usually fed by sunlight, but the nighttime roar of weather was louder then the day's had been. The hanging lights overhead waved back and forth, making the shadows projected along the floor flicker crazily. A crash came from Sheja's bedroom, and she came out smiling sheepishly. "I left a glass of juice on my table. It spilled."
"Well, go clean it up."
"I am," she said. "Where are the towels?"
I pointed out the pile to her of used towels that I had to get over to the laundry someday soon. "Use those." She nodded. As she was dumping the new resoaked towels my PADD breeped with an emergency signal. "Ken, I need a pilot!" Garenna's face peered out at me from the PADD; he looked flustered.
"Gary, nothing is taking off in this weather!" I objected.
"Well, something better be, because we need an ambulance flight!"
"I'm on my way." I ran into the bedroom and grabbed my jacket. "Gotta run, sweetheart."
"Be careful, Daddy!" She shouted as I dove out into the storm, fighting winds every last step of the way. I was lucky; our tent was close to Mission Control, and when I found the rainguard ropes I grabbed hold of them. Sheets of rain obscured my vision; my pants were soaking through, and I worried for the life of my boots. Once I made it inside, someone had a towel on me before I could even see.
"What have we got?" I growled as I took the towel away from the melMeph who was trying to dry my hair for me.
Garenna was standing in the center of the room. "Four dolphins, led by a femRynch'Fin named Toccata. Over..."
"I know where they are," I said, looking at the map on the mural.
"I sent them there," I said flatly. "What happened?"
"Not sure; we suddenly lost contact with three of them. The fourth transmitted for a few seconds after the other three went flatline. Here's the track." He pushed a button on the PADD he was holding.
A dolphin's voice, talking slowly and slurredly. "... Explosion caught us... the light, everywhere... and the insects, they wouldn't let us near... the light is still, still... like lasers... like a flower..." And then there was silence.
"We have a location on them," Garenna said. "Ken, use all power to get to them. Laven will be copilot. There are two medicos also waiting in the big gravitics shuttle."
I nodded, and seconds later I was running for the shuttle with the towel wrapped around my head. Inside, I ditched it. "Lave', are we set?"
"Set as can be," he replied calmly. I fell into the command chair and had the four-point harness locked on a second later. My biocybe flared to life inside my head as I took command of the shuttle, an image of the two medico's in the back strapped in tightly. "Everything locked down?"
"Yes!" one said.
"Good." In one brief moment the shuttle went from being a stationary target on the ground to being headed thousands of meters into the sky; we passed through the storm layer in less than nine seconds. I pulled seven standard Gees. Laven grunted.
We broke through the atmosphere and sixteen minutes later we were coming down on the other side of the continent, four thousand kilometers in under twenty-five minutes. The weather here was much more beautiful then back at home, but we weren't here to sight-see. "There's the location!" Laven shouted. "I see one, two dolphins, in flitters."
"I see them," I replied. "Okay, putting down. We've got two, still canned," I told the two in the back. The shuttle was down on beach in two minutes, and three of us ran from the hatches as if we had death at our heels. Which, in a way, I guess we did.
"This one's alive. Identity Sarasoat, male," the Uncia medico shouted from where he stood.
"This one is too," I shouted back. "There's no power to the flitter, though. We'll have to break them out. Laven, get me a 'fin stretcher."
"Ten seconds," he said. He didn't lie; ten seconds later he was at my side with the manual key and the dozen or so floating spheres that make up a series of stretchers hovered around him. I unlocked the test-tube shaped flitter and said "Get her out of here." As we eased her into the stretcher, Laven sent half the gravitic zone-controllers he had brought with him over to the other 'flitter. We got the dolphins back into the shuttle shortly thereafter.
"We have concussions in both of them, significant evidence of hydrostatic shock, and probably some internal bleeding. We need to find the other two dolphins fast, because this one needs surgery," the Uncia reported as I took off.
"Okay, we're doing a scan. Laven, we're looking for metal."
"Gotcha. And I have two positives on the 'scope. They're twenty-three hundred meters, here, bearing plus 43 degrees off north."
"Moving," I replied. In my head, nevermind the map in front of my face, I could 'see' the ship, and the destination, and the two closed on each other with a painful slowness. "I have visual," Laven reported.
"I see them."
"Ho my..." I nodded.
I set the shuttle down again, this time without any subtlety; we were thrown about raggedly within our chairs, and the sounds of sand and rock crunching under our field-reinforced landing gear was nothing short of apocalyptic. The shuttle skidded to a stop.
The two flitters we were looking at didn't need to be unlocked; they'd been blown open. Both canopies were shattered, the occupants inside bleeding profusely from ears, eyes, blowhole and mouth. Probably from other orifices as well. "Toccata's alive!" the llerkindi reported.
"Battia... can't get a reading!" the Uncia reported. "We may be looking at nanostatic condition!"
We sprang to attention at that, grabbing both of these dolphins with even more urgency then before; one hundred sixty seconds passed before we were again skyward. Landing took two minutes longer the other way; the rain got in the way.
P'nyssa came out of the infirmary seventeen hours later. She sighed and leaned against me, tiredly, her eyes full of pain and exhaustion. "I did everything I could think of, Ken."
I nodded. "I know."
She sat down in a chair and looked up at me. "What could I have done? What could have saved him? It's just not... "
I knelt down before her and took her bloody mitten in mine. "P'nyssa, he knew the risks of being an explorer."
"Nobody expects to die on a planet with no hostile life on it!"
"Sure they do," I replied, looking into her eyes. "Fire, flood, avalanche, rocks and storms. The universe doesn't love us, P'nyssa, it just puts up with us when we make it."
She nodded, closing her eyes and bowing her head down. "First time I've seen a nanostatic condition fail."
"How much hydrostatic damage was done to the brain before the nanochine could react?"
"A lot. Toccata's going to be a long time put back together; she's going to lose a few days of her life, too."
I nodded and sighed. "At least she's still intact. How about the other two?"
"Oh, a few bruises, mild concussion. They were near-proximity to one hell of an explosion, Ken."
I nodded. "We know. The 'insect mound' they were investigating turns out to be some sort of organic launch vehicle."
"WHAT?" she asked.
"It was in all the satellite pics. A long-burn explosion, followed by a complex of laser firings. That's why the areas are so dead when we find them; they're fifty years of storing solar energy the hard way for the one day when it all has to be released. We don't know the mechanism yet. Apparently the explosion kicks the capsule high into the sky, and then the lasers push it out by causing explosions on ablative material that coats the capsule. Without the Inquiry, we don't have a shuttle that can reach the capsule, but according to the trackers it's now heading sunward."
"To burn up?" she said, looking at me confusedly.
"No, to slingshot out into interstellar space."
She shook her head. "I think I understand that. Lasers... made of what? Plants?"
"Yep. Chemical lasers. Chemical launch vehicles. Crude as hell, and all that's available to Mother Nature."
She sighed. "Ken... we don't... I don't know what to do with the body."
I looked up into her face. "Can you find a Pendorian flag large enough to wrap the body in?" She nodded. "A layer of canvas, and then that. Just seal the canvas tight."
She nodded. "Then what?"
"Then we'll honor his memory."
"He had no family; He came on this mission alone according to my records. There's no mention of any romantic entanglements, and Lance isn't here. He would know."
"We are here today to say goodbye to Delphin Battia Tantarro, who died in the line of duty." David adjusted the glasses that rested across his nose, reading from a prepared statement. "His friends have requested that no long eulogies, no speeches, and no sermons be given, as everything important that was said about Battia in his life was said while he lived, and nothing will change the dreams of what might have been.
"He passes from life before his time and without his choosing. The circumstances are the hardest for us, who think of ourselves as immortal, to accept. But we are also alive, and he, like we, run the risk of losing that tenacious grip every day. Battia accepted that risk more than many of his brethren when he chose to lead the life of a spacer and explorer.
"We consign Battia Tantarro's body to the same course as the seed he gave his life exploring. If for nothing else but our own sense of completion, we hope the seed lands on a world of warmth, a fitting final rest for our, and now the seed's, companion, Battia."
With no fanfare, David's finger brushed along one button and a loud k-thang rang through the ship. A white streak of light, the tail view of a receding THOR torpedo, appeared in the great window before which many of us stood.
With a soft sigh, David closed the book in his hands and hung his head down low. In a voice that was almost crying, he said "Company dismissed."