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by Nina M. Osier
Category: Science Fiction EPIC eBook Award Winner
Description: Left behind while searching for her team mate, Survey Leader Nora Falcone could be stranded on brutal Planet 8055 for the rest of her life. "The rest of her life" could be brief. On misogynystic Planet 8055, a woman past her childbearing years is disposable indeed. The quest of Nora Falcone to find her missing team mate is filled with physical danger and political intrigue, expertly written by an accomplished storyteller
eBook Publisher: ebooksonthe.net, 2000
eBookwise Release Date: February 2005
25 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [342 KB]
Reading time: 234-328 min.
"You can get out of here now, Rudy. No need to hang around, and have both of us in trouble if this goes bad."
When I said that to Technical Specialist Tasker, I wasn't a bit sure whether he would take me up on the offer or not. But I owed it to him, to give him an out; bringing me, his team leader, down in one of the Ishtar's shuttles didn't guarantee he'd get charged with breaking regulations. He could claim I'd given him a direct order, after all.
I wouldn't be able to make such a claim. I knew what I was doing from the second I began planning this little expedition, and I couldn't even bother to pretend otherwise.
It didn't matter. Either I would come back with my missing team member, my stray lamb as it were; or I wouldn't come back at all, and in either case the consequences of my actions would be mine to suffer.
But Tasker deserved an out, and I was going to give it to him if he wanted it. He stood there staring at me, both of us with our boots crushing the clearing's grass and sending up sharp aromas in the predawn mists, and I could just barely see his face as this world's sun tried to break through and reach us.
He looked so young. Just a kid, with dusky brown skin that hadn't a line on it yet--with big eyes, and full lips that trembled a bit even though he was trying to hide his feelings as young males always think they must.
Why hasn't that changed, in all the hundreds of years since humankind moved outward from Sol?
But maybe it's got nothing to do with gender, after all. Because now that I think about it, I used to try to appear totally calm, too, when I was Tasker's age.
That was a long time ago.
"How were you going to get back to the ship, ma'am?" Tasker asked me, with just a hint of a much older man's wry humor glinting in his dark brown eyes. "If I was gonna leave you here, I mean."
He was staying, and although I'd felt duty-bound to offer him an honorable escape I was only going to do that once. Because the truth was, I was going to need him in order to complete my self-assigned mission.
Even with him, I probably didn't stand much of a chance; but I was doing what I had to do. A team leader doesn't abandon one of her own, not for any power in the whole universe. * * * *
"If I didn't know already that this planet has people of human descent on it, I'd realize a colony ship had landed cargo here." Tasker said that because he was nervous, and he needed to say something. But he was right. As the sun finally cut through the mists, the clearing where he'd set us down was revealed; and it was a meadow filled with Terran wildflowers.
Black-eyed Susans. Painted daisies, or pyrethrum as they're more properly called. Queen Anne's lace, a pest plant in so many people's minds; but I've always thought its white filigree quite beautiful, even though I realize it never yet found its way onto a colony world by design.
It always finds a way to hitchhike. Like blue chicory, like European yellow flag.
Come to think of it, I've always been partial to those flowers, too.
Down by the stream at the meadow's edge, I could see clumps of something scarlet. Cardinal flower, or bee balm? The forest in this temperate latitude was part conifer, part deciduous; and the rhododendrons setting buds for the next spring's far-off blooms made me slightly homesick for my native Rigel 5.
"The people are why Cranshaw's in trouble," I said to Tasker, as we started the short hike from this concealed landing site to a traveled road and--hopefully, soon after that--civilization as the locals knew it. "Damn all anthropologists for idiots, anyway! What did he think he was going to learn, that was worth risking getting caught on the wrong side of a shifting border?"
I was blandly ignoring, of course, the obvious reality that Tasker and I were taking the same risk. And that when Marcus Cranshaw obtained clearance for his ill-advised one-man recon, he at least got that approval properly (something he must have damned well known wouldn't have happened if I'd been on board the Ishtar, but that's another story!).
I was on my own now, and Tasker with me. Of which reality my tech spec didn't know better than to remind me out loud. "Ms. Falconi, it's been twice that long since Dr. Cranshaw disappeared. And we'll be in Ast territory if we're still here in twelve more hours," the kid said, looking at me again with those innocent eyes of his. "The border shifts at 1700, Standard Shipboard Time."
I knew that, and he knew I knew it, and telling him so was only going to make it hard for me not to yell at him. Which he didn't deserve, not when he was risking a life he'd only just started to live by staying here with me--on top of risking the career he was also just beginning, even if we did get out of here alive. Even if we did succeed in finding our team mate; and if, when we'd found Marc Cranshaw, we were able to rescue him.
That was assuming a hell of a lot, and I couldn't afford to get excited during my first hour on the ground. Not when a single tech spec, one almost as green as the moss of the forest through which we were now padding, was all the backup I either had or could hope to have until this mission was over.
Mission? Well, I couldn't think of anything better to call it, even though certainly no one had assigned it to me.
Instead of shouting at Tasker I said in my mildest tone, "Rudy, I told you when you first got assigned to me that I don't mind 'Falconi' and I don't mind 'Nora.' But anyone who calls me 'ma'am' or 'Ms.' or 'team leader' on the ground like this, is apt to get my ass shot off for me. Don't do it again. Okay?"
I guess he hadn't thought I was serious, back when I told him that originally; and on board ship, I don't mind a bit of formality. He looked at me just before we had to step out of the sheltering trees, onto the shoulder of the macadam road that was our immediate destination, and he nodded as if he'd only just grasped that I meant what I'd been saying to him. "Okay," he responded, in a light baritone that no longer seemed like too much voice for someone his age. "Nora."
We soon left the forest behind us, and before we'd been squinting against the day's now brilliant early sunlight for more than a few seconds' time one of Class M Planet 8055's internal-combustion--powered vehicles (stinking appallingly of the fossil fuel that it burned) pulled to a stop just after passing us. An elderly man leaned out of an open window and shouted, in words that thanks to proper preparation of my brain's language center actually made good sense to me, "Where are you two tryin' to go? Ya want a lift?"
We did. We crawled into the cramped cockpit (no, it was properly called a cab!) of his vehicle with him, and the old man opened the throttle again and we were on our way. * * * *
"Nothin' much open yet, but I suppose you know that," our driver said as we bounced along. "What's your name, son?"
This was one reason for me to be glad Tasker had decided to come along. What I knew of this world (gleaned from a very fast read-through of Marc Cranshaw's database) told me that a woman traveling alone was going to spend much of her time explaining herself, or perhaps even defending her right to retain her freedom of movement.
Tasker's presence solved that problem for me. He'd done his own read-through of Marc's data on this culture, and I'd given him a role to play; a cover identity to use. He said easily now, "Rudolf Tasker, sir. This is my sister, Nora Cranshaw. We're looking for her husband."
We could use our own names here, which was going to simplify things immeasurably. Once, centuries ago, our ancestors and these people's forebears had spoken the same tongue. There had been enough drift so that without preparation we would have had great difficulty communicating, but proper names were still similar enough so that ours just needed to be given the correct local pronunciation.
And if I wanted to have guaranteed access to Marc when we located him (when, not if!), I needed to use his surname. That would let me identify myself as his spouse ... which I wasn't, of course. Just his boss, his team leader. But on this world, I would have to play a role in order to function effectively.
In order to survive, actually.
"Banks," the old man said, and it was his name. "Pleased to know you, Tasker."
Me, he ignored. Tasker wasn't violating any rules of courtesy by giving my name as well as his own, but he hadn't been required to acknowledge that I had one. In which case our driver would have assumed that I was Tasker's wife.
Good thinking, Rudy. It wouldn't hurt to mention our mission up front, because this friendly local might be able to help. To point us in the right direction, anyway. To get us started.
And besides, Rudy wasn't all that experienced at field work. If Cranshaw had to in order to keep our covers unbroken, he would do anything short of killing me to conform to local customs. Up to and including knock me flat, in perfect portrayal of a husband disciplining his wife in a misogynistic society. But Rudy Tasker, poor kid, was finding it hard even to treat me discourteously. I hoped he wasn't going to wind up getting me killed, before this was over.