The drop was behind her. Shona tried to sidle away. Bock came after her, panting, his face set and sweating. “What’s the matter with you? Bock! Don’t hurt me! I’ve done nothing to you. Please! If you kill me, Laren will die!” The heavy pack threw her off balance and she stumbled. Pebbles shifted under her feet, dropping away into infinity. Her heel slipped, protruding out over the edge. In panic, she jerked it back from the abyss, but overbalanced on the other foot. It skidded. Her arms windmilled, desperately seeking balance. She found herself slipping over the cliff, stepping out into nothing. The sun blinded her. Her heart pounded, choking her. She was going to die.
Then a hard band surrounded her wrist. She squinted up into the sun. A dark shadow blocked her sight of the mountain. Bock had grabbed her hand. She mewed with pain as he hauled her up then backed away from the edge, his arms wrapped around her, enfolding her small frame against his big chest. He staggered backwards until a rock turned under his ankle, and he sat down heavily with Shona in his lap. Dust flew up in a cloud where they landed.
“I can’t do it,” he said, tightly, then threw his head back and shouted, “I can’t do it, damn you!” His voice echoed in the silence. He put a big hand on her head, and Shona cringed under its weight. His words came out in a rush. “I’m so sorry. They say kill you and make it look like an accident, but I can’t. I’m a programmer, not a murderer. You aren’t a cipher. It’s all very easy for them to say go do it, but they’re not here.”
“What does that mean?” Shona asked, still numb. “Who wants me dead?”
“You don’t even know what you’re doing here, do you?” Bock said. He was covered with dust. “You don’t know. It is not fair. You saved his life. I love him.”
Shona flung herself away from him. She crawled into the low overhang and sat huddled up, with her knees underneath her chin. Intellectually she knew she should run, but her legs wouldn’t hold her. Her hands flattened against the sides of her shallow cave. He might still haul her out, but she’d fight him. Though he didn’t seem ready to repeat his attack. He sat where he had dropped down, his back to her, his head hanging.
“Why are you doing this?” she cried. Slowly, he turned around. Shona shrank into as small a bundle as she could, cursing the pack that prevented her from withdrawing totally out of reach. But she couldn’t stay here. In a few hours it would be night. She couldn’t find her way in the dark, even if she could get away from a man much larger and in better physical condition than she. He sensed her fear and stopped moving.
“I’m scaring you,” he said, in a flat voice. She realized he was as much in shock as she was. “I don’t mean to scare you, Dr. Shona.” He stretched out a hand for her. It trembled. He let it drop. “I’m so sorry. I like you. I didn’t know I would like you. We’re not really used to thinking of outsiders as fellow human beings.” He barked out a bitter laugh. “You don’t even know why you came here.”
“I came to practice medicine,” Shona barked at him. “That’s what you hired me for. I’m just a substitute until Setve gets back. Not to do you any harm.”
Bock rolled his hands into fists. “But he didn’t see…what was wrong with Laren. Why didn’t he? Akeera has been sick for ages, and Setve didn’t do anything. Akeera was making Laren sick. It wasn’t his fault. We love that damned eagle. Setve was going to let them both die. You saved both of them. Except for Mona, they’re the people I love more than anyone in the universe.”
“Then why?” Shona pleaded, the pounding of her heart making her voice rough. “Why are you trying to kill me?”
Tears ran down Bock’s dusty face. “Because you will tell people. You keep breaking rules. You tried to tell your husband, on open transmission. You think the encryption’s unbreakable, but it isn’t. Anyone who really wanted to could do it. No, that’s not true. I could do it. That’s what I do. I program so-called indecipherable keys, but there is always a way in.”
Shona gawked at him. “Everyone is upset because I tried to tell Gershom about the animals?” Bock shook his head.
“That’s part of it. No, that’s not the whole truth at all. Do you even know what Finoa does?”
“Yes. She’s a brilliant geneticist. After Laren reminded me she’d invented the Nentnor process, I found some of her abstracts on line. She’s cutting edge. Her biotechnology saves millions of lives a year.”
“More than that,” Bock said. The way he spoke made Shona curious. In spite of her fear, she peered at him curiously.
“Is the Nentnor process connected with the research she’s doing now?”
Bock looked grave. “Of course. I’m surprised a smart girl like you didn’t put it together.”
“Isn’t she working on a new wrinkle to improve tissue growth in burn victims? I thought she was investigating embryology.”
Bock dropped his eyes. “She is. Didn’t it ever occur to you that Lady Elaine has been here years, yet she’s been carrying only a matter of weeks?”
“Of course! There’s no male elephant here.” Shona’s eyes went wide. The scientist in her made the connection, and a whole continentful of lights went on. Though human cloning had been banned for decades the process of creating new organs is over a century old, though the original means, by budding them onto or growing them inside donor animals was brutal and wasteful. Shona retained a nightmare image from medical school archives of a pink-skinned mouse with a huge human ear grafted to its back. Finoa had revolutionized the process and taken the cruelty out of it. Animal cloning is nothing new, either, though the in-vitro process required eggs and host mothers to implant them into. Those clones often suffered from genetic abnormalities, most of them didn’t take, and the originals had aged as though they were born at the age of their cell donor, meaning a kitten cloned from a twelve-year-old original had a very short life span. Tweaking a single stem cell into an entire embryo, where one could plan every last gene, and could make certain of the viability long before implantation, was brilliant. Organs produced by the Nentnor system enjoyed full, healthy existence. So if Finoa had made the jump into creating whole embryos they would almost certainly be perfect and healthy. She got excited at the notion. “So that’s why Laren called her the high priestess of animal preservation? That’s what you’re all doing here. How marvelous! You’re reestablishing dying species using her stem-cell process.”
“That sounds so unselfish,” Bock said, uneasily. “No, some of us are here to collect our own private zoos. Finoa’s the fanatic. Watch out for her. Fanatics are dangerous.” Shona’s apprehension must have showed on her face. “No,” he said. “Not us. But you are stepping on a lot of toes, and they want you to stop it.”
“But my contract is for six months. I was bound to find all this out. Why wasn’t I simply told there would be secrets and offered a confidentiality agreement in advance?”
Bock grimaced and glanced away. “You know how the people here think. They probably thought that you’d never notice.”
“Not notice an elephant?” Shona shrugged. “Well, I almost didn’t. But Jamir’s been sniffing around my garden. Saffie scented him on the first day. But why hire me if the eventual outcome was to murder me?”
Bock studied her face. “You know what Finoa’s doing, and even now you don’t understand. You have a shipful of rare species. That’s why we wouldn’t hire just any doctor. It’s your menagerie. It’s the ottle. And all your other little treasures: a purebred cat – a real Abyssinian. A vaccine dog. Genetically hybrid mice. Lop-eared rabbits. We brought you here because of them. You didn’t even realize that might be an attraction. You’re the custodian of a gene pool that is the envy of anyone on this planet, wealth or no wealth. And Finoa has evolved the means to take advantage of that.”
Shona was mortified. “She wants Chirwl for experiments?”
“No!” Bock exclaimed. When Shona cringed he lowered his voice. “She wants to breed from him. Everyone was wild for the idea. Their own ottle. An alien of our own. We’d be the envy of every other collector in the galaxy – if they knew. It would be satisfying that itch each of us has. That’s why they asked you to come here.” He reached out and put a hand on her knee. She was in such a state of shock she didn’t recoil. “You’re so naïve. You’ve got a treasure trove of rare animals, and we knew they’d all come with you. We each have one or two rare beasts, but we have room to each have a zoo of our own, and we will have, over time, if Finoa’s research is successful.” He gave a sad little shrug. “One day, they’d be able to run free, in jungles and forests where no one would ever molest them.””That won’t be for at least a hundred years,” Shona said. “Bock, my specialty is environmental medicine. Based on the sheer volume of toxins and naturally occuring compounds on the unreconstructed part of this planet I can foresee pathologies that could affect all of you in time, but those animals have less immunity to foreign pathogens than you have, and they don’t understand what is happening to them. Some of you are already showing symptoms. I’ve treated a number of cases caused by the environment – that over there,” she stabbed a hand down toward the barrier where the terraformers chugged patiently along. “It’s not fair to any of these precious creatures to be trapped here, multiplied into an infinity of miserable existence. It’s wrong to keep them drugged all the time. That, too, will eventually do them cumulative harm, no matter how benign the sedative is. And trapping them in little yards and inside aviaries is cruel. You know that. They should be returned to their native habitats.”
“I know, I know,” Bock said, mournfully. “We love Akeera. I don’t want to lose him. I know it would be better for him. I know it. But he’s part of the family. – How do I know he’d be all right if he went back to Earth? You know how bad the pollution has been. He might get captured and put in a cage again, by someone who won’t love him like we do.”
“What about that huge protected wilderness in the Rocky Mountains?” Shona asked. “It’s almost a third of North America now.”
“Yes, with agricultural and industrial areas crowding it on both sides.”
“He could soar the skies, fish in the lakes.” Shona stared into Bock’s eyes, which were beginning to well up. “He would be free.”
Tears spilled over and ran down Bock’s cheeks. He was the quiet one of the couple. Shona knew from weeks of watching him and Laren closely that though Bock was not openly demonstrative, his feelings ran very deep. Where Laren chattered and gossiped and vented, Bock sat and watched, only acting after thoughtful consideration. She knew he had been thinking about this very subject for some time. He knew he ought to set the eagle free, but was reluctant because Laren didn’t want it to happen. She went and knelt with her arm thrown as far as it could go around his massive shoulders. Bock picked up her free hand and cupped it in his big palms. His dark, chocolate-brown eyes met hers.
“You need to leave Jardindor,” he said, sincerely, urgently. “You have to go as soon as you can. When you do, will you take Akeera with you? Get him back to Earth?”
“I will,” Shona promised. She looked away, out over the wilderness, almost dreamily, as the afternoon painted every peak bright gold. It seemed to be unspoiled, but until the terraforming was finished it would always be tainted by the poisons on the other side of the barrier. The exotic captive pets would never live to roam free. “I’d like to take all of them with me.”
“Oh, no,” Bock rumbled in alarm. “They will kill you.”
He did not mean the animals. Shona realized she’d spoken without thinking. “Don’t tell anyone I said that,” she pleaded. “Don’t tell anyone that…” The words ‘that you made an attempt on my life’ died before she could even get them out of her mouth. She gestured at the cliff with a feeble hand. “Otherwise, how can I go on living here? I can’t just leave. I have no transport. I need to wait for Gershom. And what about the children? I have more than three months left on my contract. I don’t want them terrified the entire time that something is going to happen to them. Please, Bock!”
“I won’t say a word,” Bock promised. “I’ll tell Finoa no opportunity ever came up to…do what she asked. Remember I owe you, for Laren’s life. We owe you. But she may ask someone else. You have to watch yourself. You’re in danger. Don’t make yourself vulnerable. Don’t tell people you’re going mountain-climbing. Don’t go swimming without several witnesses.”
Shona gave a bitter laugh. “I’ll have to stay in for the next hundred days, just like the rest of you. Do you know what a treat it’s been to be able to roam around in atmosphere? To look at it through a window will almost be a punishment. But I’ll do it,” she added resolutely. “The children won’t like it, but their safety is more important than their happiness.”
Bock shook his head. “Hiding in that house is not as safe as you think. Remember, your computer can be programmed from outside. Finoa and Setve were close. They had the codes to one another’s houses. You may have changed the locking mechanism, but you have the same source code.”
Shona’s hand flew to her mouth as a memory struck her. “The night of my party Robret came in the back door. I know I had left it locked. So that’s how he did it! You know how the house computers work. Will you help me?”
Bock looked relieved. “Yes, of course. But don’t tell anyone what you know. You have to act normally. You don’t know what I was supposed to do. You just had a nice day out mountain-climbing. I’ll take the pressure for not doing it, but it won’t be the last try, if you don’t act more cooperative. Shona.” He looked deeply into her eyes. “Don’t trust anyone. You shouldn’t even trust me. Just…stop saying the things you do. No one around here is used to hearing the word no. They like to give things, but only when it’s their own idea. They’ll never accept the idea of ‘give back.’ Except for Akeera, the other animals are here to stay. Face that, and concentrate on getting yourself away from here alive.”
Shona privately vowed to try and urge more conversions to reasonableness, though she agreed with Bock that it would be difficult. “I’ll be more cooperative. I’ll pretend I’m going along with everything, if only to get my family safely off this planet.”
“That’s good enough,” Bock said. “I’m on your side. Laren, too. Just remember that if things get sticky.”
“I’ll remember,” Shona said. “Thank you.”
The journey down the mountain took half the time as going up had, but it felt twice as long.
“Where is he?” The doctor’s voice issued a strident demand.
Finoa turned in horror. Standing in the doorway, with her hands on her hips, dusty and sunburned, was the last person she had expected to see on this planet, or on any other. Alive! Shona Taylor was alive! Hastily she dropped the sample dish into her smock pocket, hoping that Shona had not seen it. The big black dog lying down in the corner of the laboratory let out a pleased whine and trotted over to the newcomer, running her big nose over the woman’s hands. It was her. Alive! “Dr. Shona! What a…pleasant surprise.”
Shona knew what kind of a surprise it was to see her, and it wasn’t pleasant. Poor Dwan trailed behind her like an unhappy shadow. She seemed to bear the brunt of Finoa’s schemes more often than anyone. Shona owed her another apology for the strips she’d torn out of the poor young woman’s hide when she’d arrived at the Sandses’ home after the gruelling downhill trek and found two of her charges missing, but that would have to wait. She was storming the temple, trying to rescue the unwitting sacrifice. Finoa did indeed look like some kind of arcane high priestess, garbed from neck to heels in white samite in the midst of her gleamingly chaste white-and-silver laboratory. By contrast, Shona must resemble an angry dust-bunny who’d clawed her way out from underneath a primeval sofa to haunt her.
“Where,” Shona repeated, slowly and dangerously, ready to tear the place apart if she didn’t get an answer, “is Chirwl?”
Finoa stepped hastily aside to show a sprawled mass of brown-black, a blot on the whiteness. “He’s here,” she said.
With an exclamation, Shona rushed to the ottle. He was lying on his back on a waist-high mobile surgical table, all his limbs splayed helplessly around his flat, round body. His slack jaw, faintly open to show his tongue and teeth, was tilted toward the ceiling. Shona lifted his head. It rolled in her hands. Just the faintest fluttering of eyelids reassured her he was alive. She peeled one back to have a look at the eye. His translucent nictating membrane was tightly shut. Behind it, the iris was wide open. It responded sluggishly to light. She bent to listen to his breathing. Ottles, a species that spent a lot of time in the water, had a very efficient respiration system, which meant they used oxygen more efficiently than Terran-born creatures. In the noise of the lab it was hard to hear the light breath sounds. She marched over to Finoa and grabbed the sphygmanomometer off her neck. With that she could monitor respiration and heart rate. They sounded normal. She glared at the high priestess, who was weaving her aristocratic fingers together.
“What happened to him?”
“We were having tea,” Finoa said, defensively. “He was eating rather a lot of sweets. Suddenly, he…toppled over.”
“What? What did you give him to eat?” Shona demanded. “I want to see it.”
“You shall. There was nothing unusual. Salmon sandwiches, caviar on toast, crème fraiche on cucumber rounds. Cream puffs. Passionfruit tarts. And Crunchynut bars.” Here Finoa wrung her hands. “He ate so many of them. I wondered whether he might make himself sick.”
“Could they have become contaminated?” Shona asked, applying the tympanum of the device to Chirwl’s chest again. “In storage or transit?”
Finoa looked horrified at the accusation. “Certainly not!”
“Well, he’s eaten Crunchynut bars every month since he came to live with me. And he’s been eating the food on this planet for months, now, and has never had a reaction before. Certainly not like this. I want to know what was different this time!”