More than twenty-five years ago, the first Humans had set foot on Doona and had found a beautiful, unspoiled planet ... but they had also found that they were not alone there.
Their early survey had completely ignored or missed the fact that the planet was already settled by the alien feline-like Hrrubans. The ensuing conflict led to the historic Decision at Doona—a social experiment in coexistence between two races, one that had succeeded for a quarter of a century.
Now, that contract between the Humans and the Hrrubans has run out and is up for renewal. Everything that the partners have worked for—the peaceful future of their dreams, the delicate cross-species alliance itself—is at peril and at stake, and could ultimately be lost forever.
Anne McCaffrey was one of the sweetest, most influential writers in science fiction, always gracious, friendly, and as considerate to the shyest fan as to a big important publisher. She mentored and helped numerous other authors who have since become major voices of their own. Case in point, Jody Lynn Nye, who worked with Anne on several novels and also has been my friend and fellow workshop instructor for many years. – Kevin J. Anderson
"MAYDAY, MAYDAY," a voice repeated over and over again in Middle Hrruban through thick static on the audio pickup, "Anyone who is within the sound of my voice, Mayday! We require assistance. Our ship is down and damaged. Mayday!"
Todd Reeve and his friend Hrriss, at the controls of the Alien Relations Department scout ship Albatross, stared at one another in surprise. It was impossible to tell if the speaker was male or female, a Human like Todd, or a catlike Hrruban like Hrriss. The message repeated, sounding more panic-stricken.
"Where's that coming from?" Todd demanded, scanning the readouts on his control panel. They had just emerged from the second warp jump on their journey back to their homeworld of Doona from a diplomatic mission on the nascent colony world of Hrretha, and had not yet taken bearings on their position to initiate the third.
Hrriss's retractable claws extended as he reached for the controls. There was a low humming as the ship's benchmark program triangulated the distress signal and readings began to register. The readouts indicated they were positioned beyond the envelope of a star system whose blue-white primary glittered coldly on their screen. "Not too very frrr away. It comes from the vicinity of this sssystem's fourth planet," he said in a low, cautious voice that resembled a cat's purr.
"We've got to respond," Todd insisted at once.
Hrriss shook his head, his pupils widening over green irises. "Todd, we cannot. We bear the markings of a Trran ship, your Alrrreldep, and this system is interdicted by the Hrruban exploration arm. It would be a violation of the Zreaty of Doona to enter this sssystem."
"But it's a Mayday! You have to answer Maydays," Todd insisted, staring at his friend in disbelief. "The oldest naval laws on Earth required it. Space laws can't be so rigid as to deny assistance in an emergency. Someone's in trouble! They need our help. Why is this one interdicted?" Todd demanded. "What's so dangerous about it?"
"Explorers from my people have claimed this system, called Hrrilnorr, for mineral exploitation, but also perhaps for colonization," the Hrruban explained.
In the Archives established on the Treaty Island back on Doona/Rrala, extensive records were kept of the status of various systems in each species' chosen sector of exploration. Though Doona was cohabited by Humans and Hrrubans, each race had committed to a Treaty specifying separate territorial rights to all other claimed systems.
"There are trace radioactive elements on the inner, solid worlds," Hrriss went on. "The Byzanian Glow Stones of the fourth planet have a curious, milky glow, most beautiful to look upon. They had a strange, mesmerizing effect upon my people, but even more odd upon the analysis equipment they carried. The glow affects short-term memory of both people and things. Until the effects have been proved hrrrrmless, no one may enter here."
Hrriss regarded Todd, his closest friend of either species anywhere in the galaxy. They both knew how Treaty Law read. Violation of a system claimed by the other species was an overt act of hostility, which could end in war. The penalties for infractions started with grounding of the ship, and could end with them in prison on a hardship mining colony, or worse yet, remanded to Earth and Hrruba, separated forever.
Todd set his jaw. "If we start ignoring fellow beings' cries for help, we're no better than Rralan snakes. Someone's in trouble. We heard it. The voice said ‘our' ship. ‘We' require assistance. So there's more than one of them! We have to help."
Hrriss shook his head slowly, clearly uneasy. Todd took charge.
"Look, it's my responsibility. The ethics of my culture require me to act." He prodded his chest. "I'd never forgive myself for ignoring that call and letting people die. Besides, we're in this sector of space and we could be in bigger trouble for ignoring a Mayday—if someone else comes by."
Hrriss regarded his friend somberly. "This is not a very well travelled area and the system is interdicted." Hrriss then saw how Todd's jaw was set and the implacable expression on his face and knew that his friend would not yield. So the Hrruban gave a slow nod of acceptance. "We have both heard the Mayday. I will say that I insisted on answering though you argued that the system was interdicted!" The Hrruban dropped his jaw in his distinctive grin. "It is better thus. The initial blame is mine, for this is a Hrruban system. I convinced you we must respond."
Todd's expression cleared immediately and he gripped his friend's shoulder in relief and approval. "I'd rather acknowledge my own errors, Hrriss, but your idea makes too much sense in this instance. So, just this once, I'll let you carry the can for one of my bright ideas. Anyway, the ship's recorders are ... Wait a minim ..." He tapped the small illuminated dial on the panel between them. "Log's not recording, Hrriss. No movement whatever on the VU meter. Those flaming Hrrethans ... I told them the Albatross had been serviced before we went out on this jaunt ..." As he grumbled, he lifted himself out of his chair. "I'll go see."
"That recording is important, Zodd." Hrriss called after him.
"Don't I just know it?" Todd hurried down the narrow companionway to the engineering compartment, growling Hrruban curses under his breath.
Duplicate meters to those on the pilot's consoles were attached to the front of each panel in the rear section. Todd dashed past the standing cases that operated space drives, life support, landing gear, food service to a blue and pipeclay cabinet. The feed switcher in the center of the panel was on the correct output. The dials were jumping, following the audio of the Mayday call still blaring over the speakers. Obviously the power was running. Only one set of dials wasn't working, the one attached to the holographic log recorder at the foot of the panel.
"Wouldn't you just know? Those Hrrethans aren't worth the leather they belt with!" Todd groaned. Every system had been in perfect working condition before the Hrrethans insisted on the mechanical-overhaul courtesy.
Frustrated, Todd kicked the front panel of the device and turned to look for the toolbox. With a wowing sound like a bear waking up from hibernation, the recorder started to move again, its disk turning and needles moving. Surprised, Todd glared at it and stalked disgustedly back to the pilot's chair.
"The good ol' reliable correcting kick. Try it again, Hrriss."
"Them and their ‘courtesy,' " Todd muttered, watching the VU activity as the Mayday was now obviously being recorded. That "courtesy" had been yet another delay when he was fretting to get back aboard the Albatross and out of the tight uniform he had to wear on such occasions. Sometimes the courtesy appearances that he and Hrriss had to undertake as representatives of their respective cultures were unredeemed boredom as well as too much spit, polish, and restricting clothing: this latest jaunt to open a new transportation facility at Hrretha being an excellent example. "Wonder how long that Mayday's been bleating?" From his training in space flight, he knew the fate of spacers whose life support ran out. Recorders on passenger liners kept on until power was exhausted. Others ended when no more activity was recorded by the life support systems. "I'd hate to think we'd jeopardized everything for a cargo of corpses."
"We will assume rescue is required," Hrriss said. He transmitted a reply. "Stranded ship, this is the Albatross. We rrreceive your message and are coming to help. I will make the course correction," Hrriss added, working without looking up.
As they passed through the heliopause, a wild wailing made the cabin speakers vibrate unpleasantly. Hrriss's ears flattened against his head, and his eyes narrowed.
"Perimeter buoy," he said, wincing. "I knew we ought to be close to one. Can never dodge them. Good engineering. Records even the most fleeting pass," he said, reading the control panel, "and our entry. It will also broadcast a rrrecord of the intrusion to the Zreaty Island beacon," he reminded Todd, his tone gloomy.
"So? It's not as if we didn't expect one," Todd said, his eyes on the screen. "We're committed now." His remark was more statement than a request for agreement.
The blue-white sun was a dwarf, much the size of Sol in the Earth home system. The Albatross had come out of its jump directly above it, so that the computer-plotted ellipses of its seven planets spread out below the ship like ripples in a pond. The Mayday originated from the fourth planet from the sun, a small, solid sphere with a ring of eight small and irregular satellites. The triangulation crosshatches appeared on the viewscreen and closed down on a point near the planetary equator, and just passing into the night meridian. Anxiously they watched the blip disappear around the planet's curve. Todd adjusted the Albatross's course to meet its orbit at the earliest possible moment.
Though it took a long time for the scout to cross the distance to the fourth planet, neither Todd nor Hrriss moved. Todd leaned forward, elbows on knees, watching the planet and its moons grow on the viewscreen. Unconsciously he rubbed at his neck where the tight formal tunic had rubbed the skin. Even though he was now in the comfortable one-piece shipsuit, he still felt the constriction. Another reason he loathed these formal occasions. Why they never made the collars or sleeves with sufficient material to encompass one's neck or biceps Todd could not figure out.
Hrriss sat, apparently at his ease in his impact couch, but his tail tip switched back and forth, revealing tension.
"That buoy was alive and kicking, so no smart marauder has tried to blank it and get in for a quick decco. Of course, if any of those stones turn up on the market, the vendor's in real deep kimchee," Todd said, shooting Hrriss a mischievous grin. "Or maybe they'll try to tell us that their equipment's malfunctioning and they didn't ‘hear' the buoy." His grimace was mocking as he shoved a finger in his ear, pretending to clear it of a deafening obstacle.
"I am still uneasy myself about entering here," Hrriss admitted. "Zomezing makes my hackles rise." He shook his maned head and then extended both long arms in a gesture of futility. "But we have no choice if lives are at stake."
"This shouldn't take that long," Todd said reassuringly, making sure the Albatross was on course. "Not more than a few hours. In any case, a rescue is surely a defensible reason for breaking prohibition." He sighed, once again easing the soft collar off the back of his rubbed neck. "I'll be glad when we can slough this sort of duty off on someone else. I hated leaving home while all the Treaty Renewal debates are going on. I was needed there," and he jabbed a finger in the spatial direction of Rrala, "not there!" A second jab, contemptuous this time, was for the system they had just left. Todd's eyes locked on the viewscreen showing the fourth planet, and he began to tap his fingers impatiently on the console.
"Will only your two hands hold back the flood tides of disaster?" Hrriss asked him teasingly, to relieve the tension.
Todd turned red and laughed sheepishly. "Hope there's no flooding at all. But you gotta admit, Hrriss, I speak the best formal High Hrruban of anyone on the Treaty Island."
"That I do admit," and Hrriss's eyes glowed warmly. "Did I not help teach you myself?"
What Hrriss did not add was that, in many eyes, Todd was the first real Doonan. The experts said you couldn't true-teach another language to an adult, but a very young child could assimilate one as if it was his mother tongue. Todd, with his booming voice, far-ranging ways, and quick mind, was the first Terran totally at home on Rrala, the Hrruban and official name for Doona. Life on Earth was too confining, too rigid for the six-year-old he was when he arrived on Doona. He was thirty-one now. His swift adoption of Hrruban ways and language, and his innate courtesy, made him, when he came of age, a natural choice for Alreldep's diplomatic service. Over the years, Todd had been careful to be most punctilious about courtesies and laws, schooling himself to ignore slights and insults that often roused his hot temper and begged for retaliation.
"I feel as you do about the Zreaty negotiations," Hrriss said firmly. "The arrangement must continue. I cannot conceive of going back to Hrruba. My life is on Rrala. My career, my family, my hrrss ... and my best friend." His grin exposed awesome teeth.
Todd grinned back. "Mine, too. Well, you'd think that twenty-five years of peaceful coexistence between Human and Hrruban on Rrala would convince them," Todd offered. "The trouble is, we're the ones living with it. I'm worried about the politicians, too far removed from the situation, who have power over it. They're liable to dissolve the Treaty without considering the effect on the people already involved."
"Zat is undoubtedly trrue," Hrriss acknowledged. "We have been on enough diplomatic missions to see where the distant governments have made purely political decisions that are irrrrelevant to the true needs of the colony. Theirr continued meddling without sufficient investigation borrrderrrs the rrridiculous."
"In the words of an unknown but often quoted Terran philosophist, ‘ain't that the truth!' "
As the first successful attempt at colonization of a nonmining, pastoral world, Doona was the natural focus of much curiosity and speculation on Earth. The Space Department and the Colonial Department of the Amalgamated Worlds were beside themselves with pride and worry lest the experiment prove to be a failure, after all, leaving them without sufficient funding or approval to send more missions and colonists into space.
Spacedep, as represented by then-Commander Al Landreau, had suffered humiliation in the Amalgamated Worlds government when the first Terran colonists found a Hrruban village on Doona across the river from their own landing site. No habitation had shown up in any of Landreau's scans, but the village was discovered to be very much an inhabited site. Because it was Ken Reeve—and his six-year-old son, Todd—who had managed to prove that aliens were, in fact, resident on Doona. Landreau resented the Reeve family more than any of the other eleven original colonists. Not only did the mysterious appearance of an alien species on Doona seriously compromise the Phase I operation under Spacedep, and Commander Al Landreau; but also the repercussions reverberated through the Colonial Department (Codep) for permitting Phase II to be initiated and colonists placed on the planet. The most stringent rule of the Terran Colonization Plan was to avoid planets which harbored another sentient species.
Landreau was not actually at fault. The Hrrubans had not been "in residence" at the time of his extensive survey. By matter transmitter, the Hrrubans had moved their entire village back to their home planet of Hrruba, since the winter months on Doona/Rrala were long and harsh. But Landreau neither forgot nor forgave the humiliation of being wrong.
However, the visionary leaders of both species had decided to make the best of this coincidental colonization: to prove that two alien species could interact without exploitation or contamination. Doona/Rrala became the vital test for Human and Hrruban.
The original colonists of both species were allowed to stay, and more of each species joined the project, under the loosest of control by their respective governments. Both races were determined to make this project work and prosper. And they were scrupulous in keeping to the rules laid down by the momentous Decision at Doona, where a six-year-old boy translated the relevant clauses.
The original twenty-five years of that Decision were nearly over and renegotiation soon to be discussed. Both Todd and Hrriss knew of the recent incidents which they were certain had been arranged with the express aim of creating dissension between Hrruban and Human, rupturing the Treaty, and, more important, preventing a renewal of the unique settlement on Doona/Rrala.
Over 100,000 settlers, Doonan and Rralan, now lived on the beautiful planet, year in and out, benefiting from their complementary skills and strengths, and surviving the intense and bitter winters by mutual support. If the Treaty was not renewed, the settlers would be forced to return to homeworlds with which they were no longer in charity. More heart-rending, staunch friends would be forever separated: like Todd and Hrriss.
All the while that Hrrubans and Hayumans lived in harmony on their planet, space exploration had exploded in all directions—always aware that each species was forbidden to explore sectors clearly marked with space buoys of the other.
Although Landreau never forgave either species, he had gone on to discover so many other systems and planets useful to his own kind that he quickly achieved the rank of Admiral. In a way he owed that to the Decision at Doona, which had brought him to the notice of his superiors. His own efforts had kept him in a highly visible situation. Judicious manipulations on his part, the tacit assistance of powerful companies interested in acquiring rich planets, moons, and asteroids, and diplomatic overtures to high-ranking government officials had resulted in his promotion to the head of Spacedep, twenty-two years after the Doona affair.
Landreau had looked for, and found, others who shared his dislike of the Doona Decision. Some purists had always argued that a treaty promulgated through the linguistic precocity of a kid had to be defective. Certainly that most honest and unambiguous of treaties proved troublesome to some ambitious and aggressive Humans.
Landreau carefully cultivated such officials, always seeking a way to burst the Doonan idyll—and avenge himself on the Reeves. Subtly, of course, for he would not risk his current high status: especially one which allowed him the facilities of Spacedep's far-flung resources and highly skilled and trained personnel. If some of the immense budget available to Spacedep's Commander in Chief was siphoned off to explore a way to achieve personal vengeance, it was admirably hidden in the morass of official reports, payments, and analyses.
There was, however, another covert reason for subverting the Doona Experiment: Hrrubans and Humans, dissimilar in form, needed similar worlds to colonize, and for the same pressures. If Doona failed, all terms of the Treaty were null and void. The forbidden sections of space would be open once again to Admiral Landreau's mighty vessels and well-armed fleets, and if the rich world was already inhabited by a Hrruban colony, tough on them! A few well-placed germbombs and the Cohabitation Principle was invalid. Unless, of course, other factions of Earth's government could be persuaded how archaic the principle was and rescind it. How much easier would life be on Earth if one could ship out the unwashed masses to fend for themselves on new worlds with viceroys to skim the riches off the top.
The Doonan settlers were certainly aware of Admiral Landreau's hatred, and his machinations, and there were many adherents on both home worlds that did their best to neutralize some of the worst of Landreau's subtle campaign in various government offices. Though Ken and Todd had never vocalized it, they knew that they were Landreau's particular target. Landreau regarded Todd as an incorrigibly wild brat who went native with distressing speed after landing on Doona. Todd's assimilation of the formalities of High Hrruban diplomacy at the age of six, Landreau dismissed as a fluke.
Hrriss, now nearly thirty-five, always had a cooler way of interpreting a situation than his tall friend. Hrrubans were unassailable by any power from Earth. By Treaty agreement, the arm of the galaxy which the Hrrubans chose to explore was off limits to Terrans. Hrruba's home system was protected by the same Treaty. Any incursion into either sphere would be an act of war. Even Landreau in his obsessive hatred for the Reeves would hardly start a war between the species to get at a single family. Though Hrruba was run by a bureaucracy of great antiquity fully as cumbersome as that of Earth, it was directed gently by one mind whose interests allowed expansion and alliance to proceed. Hrriss and his family were unlikely to be removed from their home for any reason less serious than war. It brought Hrriss's need to defend to two foci: Zodd and the Rrev family.
"I know Landreau's working every angle to spoil our chances if he can," Todd said. "But the Doona Experiment is doing incredibly well, and everyone on Earth knows it. There would have to be an awful stink raised to bring the Experiment to an end at this point."
"A diplomatic insult, perhaps?" Hrriss suggested delicately. "A wedge need not be a large one to drive two elements apart. On Rrala, Terra, or Hrruba, it makes little difference."
"Well, if Landreau thought he could start one on this latest diplomatic mission of ours, he failed." Todd grinned. "Rogitel of Spacedep sounded like he wanted to start an argument with me at the banquet on Hrretha, but I pretended to be bogged down in protocol—fardles, I know all the moves better than he does," Todd said with a snort, his eyes on the screen. Their quarry had reappeared on their side of the planet, and its orbit remained unchanged. "So I got him talking about exploration in the Eighth Sector—safe enough topic."
"I told you it would be useful to know those details," and Hrriss dropped his lower jaw in the Hrruban grin. "He tried me later. I refused to be insulted when he called me a would-be Hayuman. If he wishes to create an incident, he will have to try harder." Hrriss's wide pink tongue now licked his upper lip, a further sign of amusement. "Varnorian of Codep asked me if it was true that you were applying to join a Hrruban colony to escape penalties from Earth. As if that would not be a Zreaty violation."
"Glad you batted that rumor out of court. I heard a smitch of it, too, and disavowed it with all the innocence at my command." Then Todd snorted. "Anyone who knows me knows better than to try something that simple on me."
The Albatross had closed to within thousands of kilometers of its goal. It was easy to swing into orbit from planetary north. The scout had been designed to pass through atmosphere as easily as it did through the frozen void of space. It swept low, across the top of the envelope of atmosphere, above the mass of clouds enveloping the small planet, angling toward the signal.
"If you keep a sharp watch portside, Hrriss," Todd said, his own eyes on the starboard, "maybe we can catch it first time round and not waste too much time in-system."
It was Hrriss who first set eyes on the source of the distress signal.
"Zzhere!" he hissed, pointing with one of his extended claws. Todd marked the trajectory of the floating craft, perched just on the edge of orbit. It was too far away for the cameras to discern much detail about the ship itself, but one thing was clear: any passengers would soon become cinders. The orbit had decayed so much that in only a short time. their ship would be inexorably caught by the planet's gravitation and fall, burning, into the atmosphere.
"Hey, what if we dip below them and drop a tractor cable?" Todd suggested. "You know, that's awfully small for a ship, even a scout."
"And bigger than the average escape pod," Hrriss said, his tone thoughtful.
The size didn't seem unnatural. Hrruban and Hayuman exploration teams flew variously sized scout vessels. The difference was that the Human teams were larger, or doubled up in specialties. Hrrubans sent out the minimum crew needed to make a primary judgment on a planet. When they found one that warranted a full-team investigation, they dropped a one-way transportation grid to the surface and then 'ported in the appropriate personnel. "It must be Hayumans, then, or they would not still be here calling for help. Standard procedure for Hrrubans is to drop a temporary grid and 'port home safely."
The Albatross used the gravity well of the Hrrilnorr IV to brake its speed. The next time it passed within visual range, Todd was able to plot a course to follow their quarry.
"I have initial telemetry readings. No atmosphere leak from the surface of the craft," Hrriss said with relief, reading from his scopes for traces of gas.
Though the craft had been able to retain its structural integrity, it was in grave difficulties. Rather than describing a smooth orbit, the speeding vessel jerked and stuttered its way around the fourth planet, as if pulled this way and that by divergent gravity fields. It passed over the day side again. Hrriss and Todd were blinded by the glare of planetary sunrise.
"Attention, the ship," Hrriss spoke urgently into the comunit, using Terran, broadcasting on all frequencies. "We are the scoutcraft Albatross. We are here in answer to your Mayday. Can you read us?" He repeated the hail several times, and then in Hrruban. There was no answer.
He pushed up the gain on the receiver. Nothing came from the speaker but atmospheric noise and the repeated Mayday message.
"They could have lost all communications but the beacon," he said, plainly worried. "If their life support is already gone ..." Hrriss trailed off and pointedly did not look at Todd.
Todd blanched at that possibility and bent over his controls, trying to keep his face expressionless. "We can spring the tractor line on the craft and haul it in. Passengers could use life suits to access the Albatross's lock." Hrriss nodded approval of the strategy. "Hope it's not too late."
As if taking the pilot's words as a challenge, the small dot on the horizon appeared to fall out of orbit, heading like a meteor for the brilliant white layer of clouds below.
"Oh, no, you don't," said Todd, seizing the manual controls.
Todd drove the scout hard after it, hoping the damaged vessel would not pick up too much speed from the gravitational pull until the Albatross could swoop in on it. He toggled the magnetic tractor net into alert status. They were dragging through the top of the atmosphere now as the Albatross pursued its quarry, still kilometers ahead. His hands were a blur on the keyboard. Hrriss kept calling out to the ship in both languages, hoping for a reply from the craft ahead. With the sun reflecting off its surface, it was impossible to see more than a vague shape. Hrriss kept requesting on all frequencies for details of the damage the lone ship had suffered.
In the midst of the dense clouds thousands of meters below, Todd at last urged the Albatross ahead of the speeding hulk. There was a powerful jerk that bucked them around in their seats when the net of magnetic lines engaged the metal hull of the other.
"Gotcha," Hrriss said, his teeth snapping in triumph.
"Great. Now let's just tell those guys to drag ass over here."
Once Todd headed the Albatross back into space, the two men turned the external camera onto their prize, and irised down the lens to counteract the glare. There was a silence and an air of angry disbelief as they stared at the object the tractors had brought in. It was cylindrical in shape, the length of their own scout, and not unlike the escape shuttle they had mistaken it for. What their efforts had acquired was a full-sized orbital beacon, an unmanned buoy similar to the ones hanging above and below the proscribed system, still screaming out its Mayday message on the Albatross's receiver as they stood staring at it. The needles on the VU meters leaped back and forth in their glass settings.
"So we've been suckered into an interdicted system by a recorded Mayday," Todd said, unbelievingly. "I'll report this illicit use all the way to ..." He paused, since the top of Spacedep was Al Landreau and he knew what short shrift that report would get. "We have fallen into deep kimchee, my friend. I should have listened to you."
"No, friend Zodd, you listened to a distress call and acted conscientiously," Hrriss said with a heavy sigh. Neither needed to discuss the ramifications of this.
"Let's get this sucker hauled in and see if we can salvage that Mayday beacon. That'll add credibility to this incident."
"Good thinking, Zodd," and Hrriss programmed the winch for a slow wind while Todd monitored the progress from the external camera.
"Hold it!" Todd held up one hand. "There's something attached to it. Oh-ho! Double trouble. Did we record the capture? Good. Unless I'm vastly mistaken there's a device riding along a very suspicious-looking thickening of the longitudinal spar. That thing is rigged to blow on contact!"
"Rrrreelease," Hrriss said, almost spitting in disgust at the stratagem. "Can you get a close recording of that section?"
"I have so done." Todd was immensely satisfied by that much of this episode, but as Hrriss plotted their course out of the area, his elation drained from him. "Someone's been getting awful clever, Hrriss. Our course was known from the time we left Doona, so there was plenty of time to set this up where we'd stumble into the trap on our way back from Hrretha."
"All too trrrue." Hrriss nodded, his expression as bleak as his friend's. Even the markings on his intelligent felinoid face seemed to have faded in his concern.
"I could wish boils on the hide of whoever perpetrated this. We could have been killed!"
"Waz that the object? To kill us? Or to lure us into interdicted space?"
The eyes of the two friends met—the yellow-green and the clear blue.
"I know someone who wouldn't shed a tear at my demise," Todd said grimly.
"I have similar well-wishers," Hrriss replied, tapping the console with the tips of his claws in a rhythmic fashion.
"Our deaths wouldn't mean as much as our broaching interdicted space," Todd began, rubbing his chin. Stubble was developing, and there were moments, like this, when he wondered what he'd look like with a full beard, or at least sufficient face hair to make him more Hrruban.
"But not only is there prrroof of our samarrritanism, but also I, Hrriss, made all the vocal contacts."
Todd dismissed that notion. "Everyone knows we're together, so I've certainly been wherever you were, legal or not. What I don't understand is exactly why the tactic was planned in this fashion. Was killing the real end? Or discrediting us?"
The two exchanged few words on the rest of the journey back to Doona. Both of them were deep in thought as how best to mitigate their situation. Violating one of the main stipulations of the very agreement they were hoping to see renewed this year was not good, however inadvertent.
"Have you convinced yourself that the recording is enough, Hrriss?" Todd asked after they had identified themselves to the Doona/Rrala buoy.
"Our people will believe us."
"Let's devoutly hope that's enough. Too bad that false beacon didn't blow up. We could at least have brought a section of it home as additional proof."
"We do warn everyone that there are bogus Maydays out there!"
"That is obligatory. Bogus or not, we were in the right to investigate," Hrriss said one more time. "A cry for help from other space travelers is not ignored with impunity."
As soon as they landed the Albatross back on Doona, they contacted the tower. Linc Newry was on duty.
"Can you rustle your stumps, Linc?" Todd asked. "We got an official report to deliver."
"Official? Huh? Nothing to do with the Hunt, is it?"
"Not really, but it'd be great if we could get through landing procedures and decontam and get the Hunt properly organized," Todd said with an encouraging grin.
"I'm coming," Linc said, and obviously switched to a handset for he continued talking. "As you're just back from that Hrrethan shindig, I think it'll be okay if I just seal the lock on the Albie and we can do the decontam and stuff when the Hunt's over."
So Todd and Hrriss gratefully disembarked, watched the seal be affixed to prevent entry, and, thanking Linc for his courtesy, hurried off to find Ken Reeve and detail the Mayday incident.
"Genuine or not, you have to answer a Mayday signal," Ken agreed, though the affair obviously troubled him. He smoothed his hair back with a resigned hand. His thick, dark hair had receded above his temples, and lines were beginning to etch the fair, sun-weathered skin near his eyes. He and Todd were of a height now, but often, when he was confused and worried, as he was now, Todd felt himself still the small boy and Ken the adult. Maybe he relied too much on his father's wisdom where experience and the study of law didn't provide the answers. Hrriss sat beside him, his yellow-green eyes unwinking as he stared at the floor between his feet. Ken could tell the Hrruban was worried, but he was not as prone to outbursts as his son.
Todd's eyes were fixed hopefully on his father's face. Ken shook his head and sighed. "Wise of you, Hrriss, to handle all the oral transmissions. Let's hope that the pictures of that device and the possibly explosive ribbing show up." He gave his head another little shake. "Such contingencies will have to be written into the new Treaty, allowing for legitimate rescue efforts and specifying penalties for abuses. I shall suggest the modification myself to Sumitral at Alreldep. But I cannot be easy that the incident was there, waiting to trap the unwary." He paused again, holding up his hand when Todd opened his mouth. "Were there any other representatives at the Hrrethan ceremonies likely to have taken the same warp jumps you did?"
Todd looked abashed. "Dad, I just wanted to leave. My neck was rubbed raw and it was bad enough those Hrrethans insisted on giving the Albatross a clearance ..."
"They insisted?" Ken asked, his expression alert.
"Yes, and we told them that Spacedep had already cleared the Albatross ... Oh, I see what you mean. The recorder could have been tampered with there. You think we were to be the victims?"
"We were not the only ship likely to pass that system," Hrriss said in a slow thoughtful tone. "I will inquirrre. It is worrth that much. And discreetly." He dropped his jaw at Ken. "When one is hunted, one generally senses pursuit."
"Then I can leave you to mention this to Hrrestan?" Ken asked. Hrriss nodded. "I shall inform Hu Shih. That will satisfy the necessary protocol. Investigations can be initiated ..."
"Just don't let that sort of time-wasting stuff interfere with the Snake Hunt, will you, Dad?" Todd was clearly apprehensive. "It's only two weeks away and we've a lot to do."
Ken smiled. "The Snake Hunt is too important to the Doona/Rrala economy to have its leaders absent. I'll handle all the necessary reportings. And inform Sumitral. He warned me to expect trouble from unlikely areas. Cunning of our detractors, isn't it, to start a controversy over a samaritan issue! And it has the flavor of something the segregationalists would try."
"The group that thinks Hrruba is only being friendly to get their claws into the best star systems?" Todd asked with patent distaste.
"Or perrrhaps," and Hrriss let his fangs show, "it is those who sense we are arming ourselves for the conquest of your home planet."
"No one takes that foolishness seriously," Ken said quickly. "You don't even know where Terra is."
"Nor you Hrruba," and Hrriss winked.
Ken and Todd both laughed with their friend, whose full-throated chuckle would have sounded to many like an ominous growl. Laughter eased the tension lines from Ken Reeve's face.
"Go on, the pair of you. We'll deal with the matter after the Snake Hunt. Which is going to be brilliant this year, isn't it?" He pinned the two friends with a mock-stern glare.
"Absolutely!" The friends chorused that assurance and left Ken's office.
In only a fortnight's time, Doona would be inundated by foreign dignitaries and guests eager to witness, and participate in, the famed Doonan Snake Hunt. Hundreds of people would converge on the First Villages for the semiannual migration of the giant reptiles, and Todd and Hrriss were in charge of coordinating the Hunt. Which was not so much of a hunt as a controlled traffic along the snakes' traditional path.
While there had been intense arguments both for and against annihilation of this dangerous species, the conservationists—many of them colonists—had won. The immense snakes were unique to the planet, but their depredations, which affected only one area of the main continent, could be controlled. The reptiles ranged in size from two- and three-year-old tiddlers of three to five meters in length to immense females, nicknamed Great Big Mommas, growing to twelve to fifteen meters. They had incredible speed and strength and, although they ate infrequently, they had been known to ingest an adult horse or cow in one mouthful. Their vision was so poor that they could not see a man standing motionless a few feet from their blunt snouts, but they would strike at any movement: particularly one that gave off an enticing odor.
Their traditional route from the sea to the plains just happened to lie by the river farms of the settlers where quantities of livestock grazed, too numerous to be shut up during the migration. So the settlers had devised a method of herding the snakes, making certain by a variety of means that few escaped to wreak havoc among the herds and flocks.
At first the settlers resorted to crude methods of keeping the snakes in line, destroying far too many for the conservationists' peace of mind. Then hunters from other planets learned about the drives, as they were originally called, and begged to join in for the thrill and excitement of adding such a deadly specimen to their trophies. These men also had some excellent suggestions to give the Doona/Rralans, gained from similar drives of dangerous species to which Ken Reeve, Ben Adjei, the colonists' veterinarian, and Hrrestan listened with interest.
"Make it into a real Hunt," they were advised. "Attract the thrillseekers and you'll not only make some money out of it, but you'll have enough help to keep the snakes on the right track."
So the Hunt became an organized sporting feature; one which put considerable credit into the colony's treasury and one which became safe enough to advertise as a spectator sport for those who wanted titillation without danger.
At first, Ken and Hrrestan, with Ben's advice, organized the Hunt, but gradually, as Todd and Hrriss showed genuine aptitudes as Hunters and leaders, the management had been turned over to them. Much had to be arranged to ensure that injuries were reduced to a minimum; that visitors were always teamed up with experienced Hunters or in safely prepared blinds; that the horses hired out were steady, well-blooded animals, accustomed to snake-stench and less likely to plunge out of control and drop their riders into the maw of waiting Big Mommas. There were hundreds of minor details to be overseen by Todd and Hrriss before Hunt Day.
When Todd and Hrriss got to their office, they found that much had already been put in hand by their assistants, based on assignments and duties from the last Hunt. Scouts had been given their posts in the salt marshes from which the migration began. Every homestead within ten klicks of the long-established route had had fences, walls, and buildings reinforced. "Sighters" who would fly above the swarm and monitor its progress had been chosen and their aerial vehicles serviced. "Lures" had volunteered. Mounted on two-wheeled motorized rough country bikes, they were specially trained to lead maverick snakes back to the main swarm and to kill snakes that could not be turned. Lures usually performed what had become a rite of passage for young Doona/Rralans: capturing or killing two snakes on a Hunt, or succeeding in stealing a dozen eggs from the marsh nests. In fact, this rite had become an honor sought after by hunters of every system. Many now came just to win accolades as proof of courage and to have their names added to this new legend.
Those who did not wish to expose themselves to physical danger were accommodated in snake blinds, built along, but back from, the river trail. From these, spectators could enjoy this unique sight and excitement. The blinds were sturdily constructed of sealed rla wood, strong enough, though in truth any Great Big Momma Snake could have knocked one into splinters with its powerful snout. However, experiments with various odors had proved that a heavy citrus smell liberally poured on the outside of the blind covered the scent of the juicy morsels within and was a powerful deterrent to the snakes.
Twelve Teams of from twenty to forty horsemen and women rode in escort of the snake swarm. Clever riders on the quick, well-trained horses could head off renegades or stragglers, for some of the tiddlers were always breaking off the main group, looking for something to eat. These were considered fair game for Hunters wishing to kill, or capture, in proof of their prowess.
Approved weaponry—for the Treaty did not permit heavy weapons in the colony—were projectile rifles, metal-headed spears, compound bows and arrows, and any sort of club (though bludgeoning a snake to death, even a tiddler, was extremely dangerous.) Crossbows were the most popular for a quarrel and could penetrate right through a snake's eye to its brain. The only problem was to then keep out of the way of the thrashing body in its death throes.
The worst headache for Todd and Hrriss was still the composition of the Teams, for they had to intersperse novice and experienced Hunters without jeopardizing team effectiveness. There were also some "solo" or small Teams of off-world hunters but they had to produce qualifications to hunt on their own: proof that they were experienced riders and projectile weapon marksmen; preferably letters from other authorized Hunts or Safari Groups.
As Todd scanned the list of those on his Team One, he noted with satisfaction that Kelly Solinari was on it. So, she'd be back from Earth! She'd be a good team second, even if she had been away from Doona for four years learning how to be a good diplomat at Alreldep. Another name, scrawled so badly that he couldn't quite decipher it, was new to him but documentation showed that this J. Ladruo had participated in several well-known Safaris. Well, Team One had to take its share of novices.
He put that minor detail from his mind and went on to designate the places where they'd have to place charges that could be detonated to startle the snakes back into line. Usually the Beaters managed that, with drums, cymbals, flails and small arms fire, but he pored over the accounts of the last Hunt, to see where breakthroughs had occurred and how he could prevent them. He almost suspected the snakes of rudimentary intelligence the way some evaded Teams and Beaters. He'd begun looking at meteorology reports, too, for a wind from the wrong direction would make a shambles of the most careful plans. Drafting contingency plans for windy conditions was his next task.
"The first Hunters have arrived," Hrriss told him, coming in with their documents.
Todd looked up, startled. "So soon?"
"Zooon?" Hrriss dropped his jaw in a grin. "You've been working too hard, my Zodd. Only two more days before the deluge!"
Todd groaned as he took the papers from Hrriss and checked the names off against the Hunt application list. Then he brightened. "Two more days and Kelly'll be home."
Hrriss's grin deepened. "You'll be happy to see her?"
"Sure, she's the best second I ever had." He didn't notice the odd look his friend gave him.