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"Nepotism working for you," I said.
"Not that there will be a problem," Gretchen said.
"No," I agreed. "We're excellent printer monkeys."
"All right," Bennett said, and reached across his worktable to grab his PDA. "You can use my PDA. You know how to use this?"
I gave him a look.
"Sorry. Okay." He punched up a queue of files on the display. "These are files that need to go through today. The printer is there"-he motioned to the far end of the worktable-"and the paper is in that bin. Feed it into the printer, stack the finished doc.u.ments next to the printer. If it jams, and it will, several times, just yank out the paper and let it autofeed a new one. It'll automatically reprint the last page it was working on. While you're doing that you can sync up to the Entertainment archive. I downloaded all those files into one place."
"You downloaded everyone's files?" I asked, and felt ever so slightly violated.
"Relax," Bennett said. "Only public files are accessible. As long as you encrypted your private files before you turned in your PDA, like you were told to, your secrets are safe. Now, once you access a music file the speakers will kick on. Don't turn them up too high or you won't be able to hear the printer jam."
"You have speakers already set up?" Gretchen asked.
"Yes, Miss Trujillo," Bennett said. "Believe it or not, even chunky middle-aged men like to listen to music."
"I know that," Gretchen said. "My dad loves his."
"And on that ego-deflating note, I'll be off," Bennett said. "I'll be back in a couple of hours. Please don't destroy the place. And if anyone comes in asking if they can borrow a PDA, tell them the answer is no, and no exceptions." He set off.
"I hope he was being ironic there," I said.
"Don't care," Gretchen said, and grabbed for the PDA. "Give me that."
"Hey," I said, holding it away from her. "First things first." I set up the printer, queued the files, and then accessed "Delhi Morning." The opening strains flowed out of the speakers and I soaked them in. I swear I almost cried.
"It's amazing how badly you remembered this song," Gretchen said, about halfway though.
"Shhhhh," I said. "Here's that part."
She saw the expression on my face and kept quiet until the song was done.
Two hours is not not enough time with a PDA if you haven't had access to one in months. And that's all I'm going to say about that. But it was enough time that both Gretchen and I came out of the information center feeling just like we'd spent hours soaking in a nice hot bath-which, come to think of it, was something that we hadn't done for months either. enough time with a PDA if you haven't had access to one in months. And that's all I'm going to say about that. But it was enough time that both Gretchen and I came out of the information center feeling just like we'd spent hours soaking in a nice hot bath-which, come to think of it, was something that we hadn't done for months either.
"We should keep this to ourselves," Gretchen said.
"Yes," I said. "Don't want people to bug Mr. Bennett."
"No, I just like having something over everyone else," Gretchen said.
"There aren't a lot of people who can carry off petty," I said. "Yet somehow you do."
Gretchen nodded. "Thank you, madam. And now I need to get back home. I promised Dad I'd weed the vegetable garden before it got dark."
"Have fun rooting in the dirt," I said.
"Thanks," Gretchen said. "If you were feeling nice, you could always offer to help me."
"I'm working on my evil," I said.
"Be that way," Gretchen said.
"But let's get together after dinner tonight to practice," I said. "Now that we know how to sing that part."
"Sounds good," Gretchen said. "Or will, hopefully." She waved and headed off toward home. I looked around and decided today would be a good day for a walk.
And it was. The sun was up, the day was bright, particularly after a couple of hours in the light-swallowing information center, and Roanoke was deep into spring-which was really pretty, even if it turned out that all the native blooms smelled like rotten meat dipped in sewer sauce (that description courtesy of Magdy, who could string together a phrase now and then). But after a couple of months, you stop noticing the smell, or at least accept there's nothing you can do about it. When the whole planet smells, you just have to deal with it.
But what really made it a good day for a walk was how much our world has changed in just a couple of months. John and Jane let us all out of Croatoan not too long after Enzo, Gretchen, Magdy and I had our midnight jog, and the colonists had begun to move into the countryside, building homes and farms, helping and learning from the Mennonites who were in charge of our first crops, which were already now growing in the fields. They were genetically engineered to be fast-growing; we'd be having our first harvest in the not too far future. It looked like we were going to survive after all. I walked past these new houses and fields, waving to folks as I went.
Eventually I walked past the last homestead and over a small rise. On the other side of it, nothing but gra.s.s and scrub and the forest in a line to the side. This rise was destined to be part of another farm, and more farms and pastures would cut up this little valley even further. It's funny how even just a couple thousand humans could start to change a landscape. But at the moment there was no other person in it but me; it was my private spot, for as long as it lasted. Mine and mine alone. Well, and on a couple of occasions, mine and Enzo's.
I laid back, looked up at the clouds in the sky, and smiled to myself. Maybe we were in hiding at the farthest reaches of the galaxy, but right now, at this moment, things were pretty good. You can be happy anywhere, if you have the right point of view. And the ability to ignore the smell of an entire planet.
"Zoe," said a voice behind me.
I jerked up and then saw Hickory and d.i.c.kory. They had just come over the rise.
"Don't do do that," I said, and got up. that," I said, and got up.
"We wish to speak to you," Hickory said.
"You could do that at home," I said.
"Here is better," Hickory said. "We have concerns."
"Concerns about what?" I said, and rose to look at them. Something wasn't quite right about either of them, and it took me a minute to figure out what it was. "Why aren't you wearing your consciousness modules?" I asked.
"We are concerned about the increasing risks you are taking with your safety," Hickory said, answering the first but not the second of my questions. "And with your safety in a general sense."
"You mean, being here?" I said. "Relax, Hickory. It's broad daylight, and the Hentosz farm is just over the hill. Nothing bad is going to happen to me."
"There are predators here," Hickory said.
"There are yotes, yotes," I said, naming the dog-sized carnivores that we'd found lurking around Croatoan. "I can handle a yote."
"They move in packs," Hickory said.
"Not during the day," I said.
"You do not only come here in the day," Hickory said. "Nor do you always come alone."
I reddened a bit at that, and thought about getting angry with Hickory. But it wasn't wearing its consciousness. Getting angry with it wouldn't do anything. "I thought I told the two of you not to follow me when I want to have some private time," I said, as evenly as I could.
"We do not follow you," Hickory said. "But neither are we stupid. We know where you go and with whom. Your lack of care is putting you at risk, and you do not always allow us to accompany you anymore. We cannot protect you as we would prefer to, and are expected to."
"We have been here for months, guys." I said. "There hasn't been a single attack on anyone by anything."
"You would have been attacked that night in the woods had d.i.c.kory and I not come to find you," Hickory said. "Those were not yotes in the trees that night. Yotes cannot climb or move through trees."
"And you'll notice I'm nowhere near the forest," I said, and waved in the direction of the tree line. "And whatever was in there doesn't seem to come out here, because we'd have seen them by now if they did. We've been over this before, Hickory."
"It is not only the predators here that concern us," Hickory said.
"I'm not following you," I said.
"This colony is being searched for," Hickory said.
"If you saw the video, you'll remember that this Conclave group blasted that colony from the sky," I said. "If the Conclave finds us, I don't think even you are going to be able to do much to protect me."
"It is not the Conclave we are concerned about," Hickory said.
"You're the only ones, then," I said.
"The Conclave is not the only one who will seek this colony," Hickory said. "Others will search for it, to win favor from the Conclave, or to thwart it, or to take the colony for its own. They will not blast this colony from the sky. They will take it in the standard fashion. Invasion and slaughter."
"What is with the two of you today?" I said. I was trying to lighten the mood.
I failed. "And then there is the matter of who you are," Hickory said.
"What does that mean?" I said.
"You should know well," Hickory said. "You are not merely the daughter of the colony leaders. You are also important to us. us. To the Obin. That fact is not unknown, Zoe. You have been used as a bargaining chip your entire life. We Obin used you to bargain with your father to build us consciousness. You are a treaty condition between the Obin and the Colonial Union. We have no doubt that any who would attack this colony would try to take you in order to bargain with the Obin. Even the Conclave could be tempted to do this. Or they would kill you to wound us. To kill a symbol of ourselves." To the Obin. That fact is not unknown, Zoe. You have been used as a bargaining chip your entire life. We Obin used you to bargain with your father to build us consciousness. You are a treaty condition between the Obin and the Colonial Union. We have no doubt that any who would attack this colony would try to take you in order to bargain with the Obin. Even the Conclave could be tempted to do this. Or they would kill you to wound us. To kill a symbol of ourselves."
"That's crazy," I said.
"It has happened before," Hickory said.
"What?" I said.
"When you lived on Huckleberry, there were no fewer than six attempts to capture or kill you," Hickory said. "The last just a few days before you left Huckleberry."
"And you never told told me this?" I asked. me this?" I asked.
"It was decided by both your government and ours that neither you nor your parents needed to know," Hickory said. "You were a child, and your parents wished to give you as unremarkable a life as possible. The Obin wished to be able to provide them that. None of these attempts came close to success. We stopped each long before you would have been in danger. And in each case the Obin government expressed its displeasure with the races who made such attempts on your well-being."
I shuddered at that. The Obin were not people to make enemies of.
"We would not have told you at all-and we have violated our standing orders not to do so-were we not in our current situation," Hickory said. "We are cut off from the systems we had in place to keep you safe. And you are becoming increasingly independent in your actions and resentful of our presence in your life."
Those last words. .h.i.t me like a slap. "I'm not resentful," I said. "I just want my own time. I'm sorry if that hurts you."
"We are not hurt," Hickory said. "We have responsibilities. How we fulfill those responsibilities must adapt to circ.u.mstance. We are making an adaptation now."
"I don't know what you mean," I said.
"It is time for you to learn how to defend yourself," Hickory said. "You want to be more independent from us, and we do not have all the resources we once had to keep you safe. We have always intended to teach you to fight. Now, for both of those reasons, it is necessary to begin that training."
"What do you mean, teach me to fight?" I asked.
"We will teach you to defend yourself physically," Hickory said. "To disarm an opponent. To use weapons. To immobilize your enemy. To kill your enemy if necessary."
"You want to teach me how to kill other people," I said.
"It is necessary," Hickory said.
"I'm not sure John and Jane would approve of that," I said.
"Major Perry and Lieutenant Sagan both know how to kill," Hickory said. "Both, in their military service, have killed others when it was necessary for their survival."
"But it doesn't mean that they want me me to know," I said. "And also, I don't know that to know," I said. "And also, I don't know that I I want to know. You say you need to adapt how you fulfill your responsibilities. Fine. Figure out how to adapt them. But I'm not going to learn how to want to know. You say you need to adapt how you fulfill your responsibilities. Fine. Figure out how to adapt them. But I'm not going to learn how to kill kill something else so you can feel like you're doing a better job doing something I'm not even sure I something else so you can feel like you're doing a better job doing something I'm not even sure I want want you to do anymore." you to do anymore."
"You do not wish us to defend you," Hickory said. "Or learn to defend yourself."
"I don't know know!" I said. I yelled it in exasperation. "Okay? I hate having my face pushed into all of this. That I'm some special thing thing that needs to be defended. Well, you know what? that needs to be defended. Well, you know what? Everyone Everyone here needs to be defended, Hickory. We're here needs to be defended, Hickory. We're all all in danger. Any minute hundreds of ships could show up over our heads and kill us all. I'm sick of it. I try to forget about it a little every now and then. That's what I was doing out here before the two of you showed up to c.r.a.p over it all. So thank you very much for in danger. Any minute hundreds of ships could show up over our heads and kill us all. I'm sick of it. I try to forget about it a little every now and then. That's what I was doing out here before the two of you showed up to c.r.a.p over it all. So thank you very much for that. that."
Hickory and d.i.c.kory said nothing to that. If they had been wearing their consciousness, they'd probably be all twitchy and overloaded at that last outburst. But they were just standing there, impa.s.sive.
I counted to five and tried to get myself back under control. "Look," I said, in what I hoped was a more reasonable tone of voice. "Give me a couple of days to think about this, all right? You've dropped a lot on me all at once. Let me work it through in my head."
They still said nothing.
"Fine," I said. "I'm heading back." I brushed past Hickory.
And found myself on the ground.
I rolled and looked up at Hickory, confused. "What the h.e.l.l?" I said, and made to stand up.
d.i.c.kory, who had moved behind me, roughly pushed me back into the gra.s.s and dirt.
I scrambled backward from the two of them. "Stop it," I said.
They drew their combat knives, and came toward me.
I grunted out a scream and bolted upright, running at full speed toward the top of the hill, toward the Hentosz farm. But Obin can run faster than humans. d.i.c.kory flanked me, got in front of me, and drew back its knife. I backpedaled, falling backward as I did. d.i.c.kory lunged. I screamed and rolled again and sprinted back down the side of the hill I came up.
Hickory was waiting for me and moving to intercept me. I tried to fake going left but it was having none of it, and grabbed for me, getting a grip on my left forearm. I hit at it with my right fist. Hickory deflected it easily, and then in a quick reversal slapped me sharply on the temple, releasing me as it did so. I staggered back, stunned. Hickory looped a leg around one of mine and jerked upward, lifting me completely off the ground. I fell backward and landed on my head. A white blast of pain flooded my skull, and all I could do was lie there, dazed.
There was heavy pressure on my chest. Hickory was kneeling on me, immobilizing me. I clawed desperately at it, but it held its head away from me on its long neck and ignored everything else. I shouted for help as loudly as I could, knowing no one could hear me, and yelling anyway.
I looked over and saw d.i.c.kory, standing to the side. "Please," I said. d.i.c.kory said nothing. And could feel nothing. Now I knew why the two of them came to see me without their consciousness.
I grabbed at Hickory's leg, on my chest, and tried to push it off. It pushed it in harder, offered another disorienting slap with one hand, and with the other raised it and then plunged it toward my head in one terrible and fluid move. I screamed.