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Authors: Anne McCaffrey

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BOOK: Acorna’s Search
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ou sure you can track them, Nadhari?” Becker’s voice boomed across the com links as the
on MOO, spoke to the surveillance vessel commanded remotely by Nadhari Kando.

“Becker, you are like a mother hen with one chick. Every possible sense and emanation has a sensor attached to it. The landing party members are lit up like Christmas trees.”

“Getting pretty folksy there, Nadhari. What, your new boyfriend used to be a farmboy on Rushima or something?”

“That is none of your business, Jonas. Neither is this mission, from here on out.”

“I’m sorry, Nadhari. You know I only noodge because I care.” Becker sounded truly contrite. Acorna could just imagine the sort of face he would be making to—well, there was no one for him to make a face to aboard the
now. Aari and Maati were gone, and she, Thariinye, Mac, and RK were in the flitter headed for the site of the great waterfall.

Thariinye disagreed with her chosen target area.

“I want to save Maati and Aari as much as you do, Khornya, but more people disappeared from the site of the laboratory, and other places. Shouldn’t we start there?”

“We are more familiar with the terrain in that sector,” Acorna reminded him. “Besides, there’s something else I want to check out.” She flew past the place where she had last seen Aari and the others. The plants swayed gently in the wind, green and inviting unless you knew their true nature. “The waterfall was near the sea, right?”

“Yes,” Thariinye said, with exaggerated patience.

“And Imaara said that somewhere between the fall and the sea was the old cave where the archives were kept. If it still exists, I’d like Mac to have a look at the walls.”

“Too bad that when Aari and Maati disappeared, they took that black coral thing with them,” Thariinye said. “Mac could have looked at that and probably reconstructed the whole language of the
Linyaari. If only we’d thought to take him to Vhiliinyar to see the Ancestors with us. Of course, the Ancestors probably wouldn’t have talked to us if he’d been with us. Still—”

Acorna, ignoring him, was tuned in to the mineral content of the areas beneath them. “That seems a likely spot,” she said. “I’m getting a sense of—hollowness, and of limestone there. A good place for a seashore cave.”

She set the flitter down and the four of them disembarked and walked cautiously forward, the two males following Acorna, while RK stalked ahead of them, his bushy black-streaked gray tail lashing. He was armed not only with sensors but also with plenty of repellent for the carnivorous plants. He seemed to think he was immune to attack.

Thariinye, much less cocky now that they were on the ground, furtively examined himself now and then, inspecting his feet or arms, to see if he was vanishing yet.

Mac simply took in the devastated landscape, impassively storing what he saw as data.

Acorna’s steps across Vhiliinyar’s surface were tentative at first, then as they moved closer to the place she had sensed from the flitter, grew more confident. Until she literally came up against a stone wall. At that point she stopped, staring at the rock as if willing it to go away, because she knew it shouldn’t be there. She turned to Thariinye and Mac. They shrugged. Thariinye scratched his head and Mac looked as if he was trying to calculate the rock’s density and how much thrust it would take him to burst through it.

RK came up with an immediate and much simpler solution. Without waiting for the rest of the party, he sprayed the wall. Then he walked over to one side of it, and rounded a corner that had been concealed by the shadow from an overhang. He stood just beyond their sight, except for the tip of his tail, which he kept flipping as if to signal them in case they were so dense they hadn’t figured out where he was.

The cat was right. There was an opening in the rock, one that seemed to lead downward almost immediately. But it was heavily choked with rocks, mud, broken bits of Khleevi scat, and other debris. It hardly looked passable.

“Of course, with mountains and cliffs leveled and waterfalls and seas buried in muck, we could hardly expect the cave entrance to be in any shape to use,” Thariinye said glumly. “Besides, the cave must be buried so deep that it’s impossible to get to—that is, if the whole thing hasn’t caved in.”

Acorna said, “The fact that there is still some sort of an opening at this level indicates to me there’s a good chance that the cave hasn’t filled in. I certainly didn’t get a sense of it being filled in when I read the elements in the substrate here. But that’s beside the point. Getting through to see what shape that cave is in is our problem right now.”

a problem, Khornya,” Mac said. He had strapped a pack to his back when they left the flitter, and now he shrugged out of the straps and plowed through the contents, extracting pick and shovel attachments that locked into his hands. “Stand back,” he advised, and attacked the blocked passage.

RK bolted and jumped to the top of Thariinye’s head, holding on with all his claws as rock and mud began flying from the hollow in the rock he had so proudly discovered. Acorna didn’t need to be telepathic to read the cat’s mind.

is the treatment I get for showing those stupid people the way?” he was clearly thinking indignantly.

Thariinye was clearly yelling, though he couldn’t be heard over all the noise Mac was making. Acorna extricated the cat from Thariinye’s scalp as gently as possible, which wasn’t very. A liberal application of horn-healing was necessary for all parties concerned except the cat, who retreated a considerable distance from the android-made avalanche and sat down to wash.

Thariinye was still in a bad mood, even after his scratches were healed. He nodded toward the storm of debris flying from beyond the rock. “What the Khleevi didn’t destroy, that android will if he keeps this up. What good will it do him to uncover the cave if he builds a mountain in front of it?”

But just then Mac reappeared, pulled something else out of his pack that turned out to be a collapsible wheeled carrier. He filled it with a load of debris.

“There,” Acorna said to Thariinye. “He’s thought of that. Mac, we can haul that away for you.”

Mac looked puzzled. “But what would I do while you were doing so? Until I am further in, Khornya, the immediate area surrounding my excavation will be dangerous for organic lifeforms. I will be quick. I promise.”

So he trundled off with a load of rocks and dirt and fragmented Khleevi scat, dumped it, then returned to reattach his pick and shovel, which he had removed to wield the wheelbarrow.

“Won’t you wear your batteries out or something?” Thariinye asked.

But Mac had already returned to his digging and Thariinye’s remark was lost in the thud, chink, crunch, hiss of the shoveling of dirt, the breaking of rock, and the tossing of both onto the growing pile beyond the cave. In a very short time Mac was so far in the tunnel he was creating that Acorna and Thariinye could remove piles of debris without being hit by the flurry of flying gunk generated by Mac’s current efforts.

As Thariinye loaded up his first cartful, Acorna said, “Stay close enough for me to see you, and I’ll do the same. I don’t want us to go too far when we’re spreading this stuff around, lest one of us disappear without the other noticing. I think if we just keep a path clear to the entrance it will do for now. The Khleevi left such a mess that our little contribution here does not matter. Uncle Hafiz can pretty things up when he terraforms.”

Thariinye was more than willing to go along with this plan, always being one to maximize results and minimize work, if possible. Even working so close to the cave entrance, soon enough he was tired, his white face and silver mane brown and black striped with dirt and sweat, and his breath in short supply. But, like Acorna, he kept at the job. He was not the most industrious of males, but he was not about to let a female outwork him, either.

RK supervised his human companions as they worked, and now and then entered the cave to check on Mac’s progress. He had apparently forgiven the android, deciding that the attack of the flying landscape was not personal nor was it aimed exclusively at Makahomian Temple Cats.

During the entire procedure, their communication and monitoring channels were kept open so that the surveillance ship could hear and observe everything that went on. The ship had long-range scanners and was able to watch them as they went about their tasks, so it was not necessary to speak to them directly all the time to keep them posted on what they were doing, though periodically Acorna or Thariinye would direct a comment or a question to the ship’s personnel.

When the sun set, they kept working, using miner’s lights attached to their helmets. Loading dirt and rock by hand into the wheelbarrow by the erratically bobbing glow of her lantern, Acorna imagined herself in the place of one of the child miners she had rescued from Kezdet. She thought how hard their lives must have been as they did this backbreaking work day after heart wrenchingly weary day, with no more light than she had, far underground, punished if they slackened their pace even for a moment. When she thought of Maganos Moonbase, which she had helped Delszaki Li, her old mentor, transform from a useless moon into an educational and vocational school for the former child slaves they had rescued, it made her feel less burdened by her present task.

Thinking of the Moonbase brought her friends and family to mind. She would find Aari, Maati, Neeva, and the others. She would. She
And they would be fine.
Just fine.
Nothing bad would have happened to them.
Nothing at all.
They only needed her to come and get them. Any other circumstance was unthinkable.

(Hold on. We’re coming. I’m coming. Can you hear me, Aari
Maati, Mother-sister Neeva?)

She was so busy hauling dirt and concentrating on not panicking over her missing loved ones that she didn’t notice that the incredible noise of excavation had stopped or hear Mac speak to her until he tapped her on the shoulder.

“I believe,” he said, “that I have reached the entrance of the cave you spoke of. The entrance was not so badly blocked as we had feared it might be, nor the cave so damaged. There is writing on the walls that you will wish to see. I’ve used my laser attachment to solidify strips of the walls for support and stabilization—and yes, Khornya, mindful of your instructions regarding the petroglyphs and the artifacts, I ascertained that none were contained in the material I fused before I did so. But as we lack any other sort of material with which to shore up the walls, the fusing was necessary to prevent further cave-ins. I have no ambition to be flattened in this adventure, nor to see you so afflicted.”

“We understand, Mac. Thank you,” Acorna said. She was already inside the cave as she said this, picking her way forward on the rubble-strewn floor. The passage led steadily, even steeply at times, downward, for an amazing length considering that Mac had been doing all of the clearing by “hand.”

“This job was one in which one of those picturesque little railroad devices would have improved my efficiency, and our journey,” Mac remarked, practically in her ear, startling Acorna into stopping, which stopped Mac, cramming Thariinye, who was behind him, between the android and the steeply descending path.

Acorna wondered if RK had come with them and looked around for him. Becker would never forgive her if the
’s first mate was the first of their party to disappear.

Her lamp caught two gold coins hovering above Thariinye’s head, further back and higher up on the path, and then there was a streak of fur, a graze of claws, and the cat landed on the path in front of her. With an impatient glance backward, RK began stalking his way down the tunnel.

Acorna smiled. “The cat is playing the canary,” she told the other two.

“He doesn’t look as if he is,” Thariinye observed. “He is not making chirping noises or trying to flap his paws.”

Mac said, “I believe Khornya is referring to a barbaric mining custom from antiquity, in which the miners took a small caged bird with them down into the mines. If there was a leak of toxic gas, the bird would die first, and its death would warn the miners that the shaft was unsafe and they must leave immediately.”

As if he understood every word Mac had said, RK suddenly stopped, turned to Acorna and gave a kittenish mew, then put his paws on her knees, clearly asking to be lifted. She picked him up and he settled around her shoulders. A natural born leader he might be, he seemed to say as he licked his fur into place, but while he was willing to assume equal risks with his team, he was not about to risk one hair of his precious pelt just so they could run off and leave him. He would ride for this portion of the journey, and hang on tight to his transport. Acorna winced a little as the cat’s claws sank into her neck.

The light beams from their helmet lamps cast shadows on the jagged walls, moving crazily as they picked their way through the passage to the cave. The shadows cast by that light made the rescue team look like a party of rubberized marionettes jerking along on invisible strings as they descended. It was an eerie journey.

All but Mac jumped when the com link came to life, and the surveillance ship’s captain, one Yaniriin, spoke into their ears.

“Khornya, Thariinye, and Maak,” he said. “We just had a sighting of something interesting near the laboratory camp. The source looks like a single person. We’re sending down another flitter to check it out.”

“That sounds like good news, Yaniriin,” Acorna said a bit shakily, torn by hope. “Maybe one of our lost ones has returned. Please keep us posted as you check it out. We are now inside the passage to the cave we were seeking. Do you need us to return to the surface and meet the new flitter at the lab site?”

“I see no reason for that, Khornya. But keep listening to us as you work. Depending on what we discover, we may need you later. And keep us informed of what you discover, as well.”

BOOK: Acorna’s Search
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