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the survey was getting on.
Crimson twilight. The sun a series of rubies laced between black peaks.
"Skeeennn." It was a whispered wail outside the perimeter.
"About time you got back." Skeen opened a gate between two spikes, pointed
them out to the blackness under the trees. "Between here and here," she said.
"Come straight to me."
It was the pale body of the Pallah that strolled into the ring. Timka looked
exhausted and more than a little hung over. "Did you bring my clothes?"
"In the shelter. You hungry?"
Timka winced, shook her head.
"I overdid the hunting. A lot." Timka rested a hand on' her stomach; its
shallow curve had acquired more definition and there was a drumtaut look to
the skin that underlined what she'd said.
"Could be some of the life here is toxic. You want to watch what you eat."
"That's no problem. If something starts making me sick, I just shift and leave
it behind."
"Min." Skeen started for the tent. "You're shivering. There's plenty of water,
some of it hot, you can wash off that damn dust and get comfortable. Lander
has finished sorting the survey and done the printouts. I've skimmed over them
and I think I know where to look, I want to see what you think."
They sat cross-legged on the shelter floor leaning over a low extruded table
examining a relief map of the northern continent.
"Mines are black," Skeen said, "farms, green. Administrative centers, flitter
fields, that kind of thing, gray. What's interesting to us are these red
blotches. Those are life-readings the Lander got not connected to any of these
other centers."
There was a flurry of loud noises outside the shelter, the flare of cutter
beams visible through the round windows of the shelter's largest living space.
Timka shivered. "Aren't we being, well, rather noisy?"
"The satellites? Dormant volcano, that takes care of the heat. Heavy deposits
of iron ore, that masks our metals, enough anyway for the crude sensors the
Kliu have up there. Wouldn't make it with Petro's stuff, but we don't have to
worry about that, she's on our side. The light show out there? Most of it's
round the edges of the clearing where the canopy is thickest. Not a lot of
light is going to leak out. Even if it does, we've still got our best defense,
the Kliu mindset. Whatever they happen to see, they'll explain away because
it's not possible to have intruders on the ground." Skeen frowned. "You didn't
come across anything that big and mean?"
Timka shook her head. "Just small stuff like that skitter you rousted this
morning." More shrieks and flaring. "Are they going to keep that up all
night?" She hugged her arms across her breasts. "What happens if some of those
things whatever they are get through?"
"We run like hell for the Lander."
There were three clusters of life readings that might be escapee camps. The
nearest was in what appeared to be a cavern high up in the wall of a monstrous
canyon which lay at the boundary between mountains and plain about fifty
kilometers west of them. The river running along the bottom of that chasm had
its source in the lake they were camped beside. The second cluster was in the
same mountain range but about five hundred kilometers farther north beside a
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long skinny lake. One of the mining settlements was a short distance off,
several small farms with lush crops near harvest were laid out in a deep
valley a few kilometers beyond the mines. The third cluster was far to the
north out in the middle of the Plain, no settlements or mines within many
days' travel. Skeen tapped the canyon. "Not this one. Look." She fished among
the fax sheets beside the map, pulled out a halfsheet with what looked like
several views of a stunted root system. "The caves. No back door. None." She
looked up as another wave of whatever hit the defense web. "Stupid gits, they
should know by now they can't get at us. Hmm. I suppose those things are why
the fugitives wanted the safety they'd get in that rat trap. It gives me
itches to think of living in a hole like that with only one way out." She
moved her finger up the mountains, touched the lake. "Let me come back to this
one." She rubbed her thumb over the Plains settlement. It was much the largest
of the three. "This is a possibility. There are fots somewhere in this mess."
She riffled through the stack of papers but didn't pull any of them out. "They
show an organized settlement, sod houses, farms, livestock penned in fields.
Been there a long time. Probably have their pick out of the fugitives from the
mines and farms. From what I've heard of him, Rostico Burn would be welcome.
If he is there, it means he's given up. That's why I say this is the second
choice. Two years is too short a time to lose hope and rage and settle down to
vegetate. Me, I'd be here." She tapped the lake camp. "It's pretty well
camouflaged by trees like the ones we're under right now. It's close to a
clutch of mines, offers possibility for raids, close to farms to supplement
what they can scrounge out of the wilds. Might be the easiest group for a
newcomer to find; it'd also be the best guarded and most dangerous. No
vegetating there. What do you think?"
"If it were me, I'd choose the Plains settlement. That's why I think you're
"Well, now that's settled, let's get something to eat. This is going to be a
busy night. You hungry yet?"
Timka shook her head. "But I wouldn't mind a bowl or two of tea. And I
wouldn't mind your telling me how we're going to get through that." Another
wave of attackers had hit the shield web.
Skeen grimaced. "I was so busy being efficient and getting everything packed
onto the miniskip& " She got up from the table, all angular, impatient moves,
filled with nervous energy, crossed the to kitchen nook. "There's not one
fuckin' weapon in this place, Ti, except this," she slapped the darter
holstered on her hip, "and it's worth a load of spit against what's out there.
This isn't my sort of thing, great hunter of the wilderness blowing beasts to
shreds. If the fuckin' stupid gits would get the message and go away, let 'em
live to arthritic old age, I don't care."
"So we sit in here until they decide they've had enough. You think they'll
quit when the sun comes up?"
"Don't know and don't care." She shook some tea leaves into the strainer,
tapped the water heater into high, then sent a stream of boiling water through
the leaves into the pot. "I'm not going to wait them out, um, if you don't
mind scrambling for the Lander." She punched up a meal for herself. "You sure
you don't want something hot? Up to you." She shook the strainer, lifted it
out. "Tea's ready, take it to the table, will you? I'll be over in a minute."
"You interest me strangely, Skeen my friend. Just what is it you want me to
stick a claw in?" Timka came back for the bowls and the honey she liked in her
tea (though Skeen made faces each time she spooned it in). "If you think I'm
going to jump without knowing where my feet land, forget it."
Skeen pushed the fax sheets aside and set her tray down. Outside, the beasts
renewed their attack. When the light faded again, Skeen frowned, swung round [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]


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