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Authors: Alan Dean Foster

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BOOK: Flinx in Flux
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“They’ll see your crawler’s tracks, too. They’ll consider that I might’ve been picked up.”

“They have to find the place first. You clean and relaxed?”

“More or less.”

“Then how about some answers to my questions? Let’s start with who you are and why these people find you so intriguing.”

She started toward the window. Halfway there she thought better of exposing herself to the outside, privacy shield notwithstanding, and pivoted to head toward the dresser as she spoke.

“My name you know. I’m a division chief for an expanding enterprise. These fanatics picked me because I’m uniquely talented.”

For an instant Flinx went cold, then realized she had to be speaking of some other kind of unique talent.

“It’s a fantastic deal for somebody my age, just starting out. I supervise a dozen specialists, most of them older than me, and I own a piece of the profits. I mean, I knew I was better than anybody in my field when I was doing my dissertation, and I’ve proved it subsequently, but it was still an impressive offer. So naturally I jumped at it.”

“You have a high opinion of yourself.” He tried not to make it sound like a criticism.

It bothered her not at all. “Justified in the lab.” She was talking easily now that they were on a subject she was comfortable with. “It’s exciting stuff. I wanted to be out front. I could be making even more money elsewhere. Doing cosmetic work on New Riviera or Earth. You know, I had a chance to go to Amropolous and work with the thranx. They’re still better at micromanipulation than any human. Some of their work’s more art than science. But I don’t like heat and humidity.

“This bunch that grabbed me, they’re extremists of the worst sort. I’d heard about them before—everybody reads the fax—but I didn’t think they were any different from half a hundred groups with similar aims. Shows how little anybody knows. There was this young guy—” She looked away from Flinx. “—he was plated. I mean iridescent, like a tridee star.”

“Good-looking.” Flinx spoke emotionlessly. “Go on.”

“We went out a few times together. Said he was with port authority, which is why I hadn’t seen him around. Couldn’t get through company security, so we met outside. I thought I was falling in love with him. He had that ability, you know, to make you fall in love with him. He asked me to take a stroll topside with him one night. It was pretty calm upstairs, so I said sure.” She paused.

“You’ve got to understand that it was real exciting intellectually where I was working, but socially it was plasmodium. Just about everyone was a lot older than I, and frankly, none of them were much to look at. Physicality still plays an important role in interpersonal relationships, you know.”

Tell me about it, he thought. He was not happy with the turn the conversation had taken, but he had nothing to add.

She gave a little shrug. “Anyway, I think he drugged me. He was one of
them,
you see. The next time I saw him, he didn’t look so handsome anymore. Physically yes, but his expression was different. It matched his companions’.”

“Species?” He was thinking of the AAnn’s relentless assaults on advanced human technology.

“All human as near as I could tell. If they were alien, they had terrific disguises. They hauled me offworld. When I woke up, it was hot and sticky and somewhere out there, I guess.” She waved absently in the direction of the Ingre. “That’s when the questions started. About my work, how advanced it was, what the company’s plans were for future expansion and development, and a lot of basics like our lab layout and security setup and so on.

“I told them I couldn’t answer because everything they were asking me was covered by the Interworld Commerce Secrets Act. They didn’t say anything. They just turned me over to this one tall woman who started beating the crap out of me. I’m not a real brave person. So I started telling them what they wanted to know, as little as possible about each subject.

“I knew I’d keep telling them until I’d told them everything, and I had a pretty good idea what would happen to me when I’d finally answered their last question. So I made it clear one night and ran like hell. It was pitch-black, and things kept biting me and stabbing at me, so I went into the river and found my log and started downstream. I didn’t know where I was or where I was going. I just wanted to get away.”

“You’re lucky you made it as far as the river,” Flinx said somberly. “Alaspin has its share of nocturnal carnivores. The insects you know about.”

She scratched reflexively at one leg. “I woke up here, jumped to conclusions, and thought about killing you. Now I’ve had a bath, I feel two thousand percent better than I did the last time I was conscious, and you’re going to help me get off this world and back to my people. I’m sure they’re searching for me, too, but not around here. In addition to being well liked personally, I’m irreplaceable. I’m sure there’ll be a reward for my return. I imagine there always is in a situation like this.”

“I’m not interested in any reward.”

“No? You’re that prosperous, at your age?” He chose to ignore her slip.

“I have an inheritance. Enough for my needs. What about you? What makes you so popular?”

She grinned ruefully. “I’m a gengineer. In fact, I’m the best gengineer.”

His expression didn’t change. It didn’t have to for Pip to react to his emotional surge. The flying snake leapt from its position on the bedpost, flew once around the startled Clarity, and then settled abruptly back on the bed.

He turned away, unsure how well he had concealed his reaction. Not perfectly, it seemed.

“What’s wrong with your pet? What’s the matter? Did I say something to upset you?”

“No, nothing.” Even as he spoke he sensed the transparency of the lie. “It’s just that someone very near to me had trouble with some gengineers a long time ago.” Hastily he donned the innocent-child smile that had served him so well in his childhood days of thieving. “It’s nothing now. Just old history.”

She was either more perceptive or more mature than he thought, because there was genuine concern on her face as she came toward him.

“You’re sure it’s okay? I can’t change what I am.”

“It had nothing to do with you. What occurred all took place before you were born.” Now he smiled again, a crooked smile, confident she would not know the reason behind it. “Before I was born, in fact.”

No, neither of us was born when the Society began their experiments. You were already several years old when the experiment coded “Philip Lynx” came into the world with his DNA tossed like salad in a bowl. I can’t tell you that, of course. I can’t tell anyone. But I do wonder what you’d make of me if you knew what I was. Would you have any idea if I’m a good result or a bad one?

It would have helped had he grown up a scientist. Instead he had spent his childhood as a thief. It was difficult to tell which would have revealed his origin to him sooner.

Her fingers touched his shoulder. He stiffened, then relaxed, and she dug in gently, massaging. The hurt is deeper than you can reach, he thought, eyeing her.

“Flinx, you aren’t afraid of me, are you?”

“Afraid of you? That’s funny. I’m the one who dragged you out of the jungle half-dead, remember?”

“Yes, and I’m as grateful as anyone who owes her life to someone else can be for what you did for me. You will help me leave Alaspin before they find me again, won’t you? They’re mad but resourceful. Crazy smart. I’m not so sure they’re smarter than you. There’s something about you—I’m usually pretty good at slotting people, but you’re a total blank to me. You look like a gangly, overgrown kid, but you seem to know your way around.”

Around? He smiled inwardly. Yes, you might say that I’ve been around, little gengineer. I’ve traveled to the Blight and the fringes of the Commonwealth. I’ve done such things as most men only dream of, and others that cannot be imagined. Oh, I’ve been around, all right.

He had turned away from her again. Now he felt her pressing up against him, her front tight against his back, her arms sliding around his waist in a graceful serpentine flanking movement as she nonverbally began to make it clear exactly how grateful she was to him and how grateful she might be.

Without really knowing why, he found himself slipping free of her grasp and turning to face her. There was hurt on her face and real concern in her voice. That made it harder.

“Now what’s wrong?”

“I haven’t known you long enough to like you that way. Not consciously, anyhow.”

“You liked me better unconscious?”

“That’s not what I mean, and you know it.” Time for a subject change. “If you still feel threatened, you ought, to report what happened to you to the authorities.”

“I told you, they have spies everywhere. That’s how they got to me in the first place. We’d only have to talk to one wrong person, and then they’d have me again. You they’d probably kill, just to keep from talking.”

“That would upset you?”

“You’re damn right it would.” She was looking straight at him. “You’re a curious savior, Flinx.” She cocked her head to give him a coquettish sideways stare. “I’d like to find out just how curious. Don’t you find me attractive?”

He swallowed. As usual he intended to be in complete control of the situation, and as usual he was not.

“Extraordinarily attractive,” he finally managed to mumble.

“That clears that up, anyway Oh!” Scrap startled her as the adolescent minidrag landed on her shoulder. Unable to coil around her shoulder, he settled for wrapping his tail tightly around her thick, short blond sidetail.

“His name’s Scrap. I think he likes you.”

“How do you do?” She bent her head to eye the tiny instrument of death snuggling cozily against her neck. “How do you know he likes me?”

“Because you’re still alive.”

“I see.” She pursed her lips. “You said his name was Scrap?” At the mention of his name, the young flying snake’s head rose slightly.

“They tend to bond, you know? Form close emotional attachments with human beings they’re attracted to. Do snakes bother you?”

“I’m a gengineer. Nothing living bothers me except a few creatures I can’t see with the naked eye.”

I wonder what you’d think of me if you knew my history, he mused. “They’re telepathic on the emotional level. Scrap knows what you’re feeling. If he chooses to bond with you, you’ll never have a more devoted companion or effective bodyguard. Pip and I have been together my whole life. I’ve never had more than a moment or two to regret the relationship.”

“How long do they live?” She was stroking the back of the flying snake’s head the way she had seen Flinx caress Pip.

“Nobody knows. They’re uncommon on Alaspin, practically unknown offworld. This is a tough place to do studies in the wild, much less on anything as dangerous as a minidrag.” He thought a moment. “Pip was mature when I found her, so she must be around seventeen. That’d be old for a reptile, but the minidrags aren’t reptiles.”

“No. I can feel the warmth.” She smiled at her new friend. “Well, you’re welcome to stay there if that’s what you want.”

It was. Flinx could feel it. After considering taking her in his arms and kissing her firmly, he sighed and sat down on his bed. He was an expert at such scenarios but utterly inept at putting them into practice. His fingers worked nervously against each other.

“I said I’d help you. How do you want to proceed?”

“I have to get back to my people. I’m sure they’re worried sick by now. As far as I know, not a soul knows what’s happened to me. They’ll be frantic.”

“Because they miss you personally or because you’re such an important part of their research machinery?”

“Both,” she assured him without batting an eye. “But it’s bigger than just me now. From their questions, I gather that these fanatics want to shut down our whole project. Kidnapping me was one way to slow everything down as well as acquire the information they wanted for the rest.”

“Pardon me, but you don’t look old enough to be that important to any company.”

Her expression started to twist. Then she saw he was teasing her. “Your point. I won’t make any more comments about your age if you’ll do the same for me.”

“Much better.”

“I have to get back quickly. My absence slows everything up. I’m kind of the insightful hub of the project. They come to me for breakthroughs, for new ways of looking at things. Not for everyday design work. I’m intuitive where practically everyone else is deductive.” She spoke so matter-of-factly that he knew she was not boasting, just stating the facts.

“It’s all going to come to a grinding halt without me there, if it hasn’t already. Just get me to Alaspinport. Then we’ll decide what to do next. I guess I’ll have to disguise myself somehow. Besides looking for me out here, you can be sure they’ll be swarming all over the one shuttle area like lice, or whatever it was you called those things that scarred my legs.”

“Millimite bugs, mostly.” He stared at her thighs.

When he looked back up, he saw her grinning at him. “Like what you see?”

He struggled to appear blasé. “Nice legs, bad bites.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t try to get out on the first ship. I’ll bet not too many call at Alaspin.” She was arguing with herself, he saw. “But if I don’t try for the next one, I might be stuck here for weeks until another liner orbits, and that’ll give them that much more time to close in on me. So I suppose I’ll have to try slipping onto the first one no matter how many people they have watching the port.” As if suddenly remembering she was not alone, she glanced back at him. “I don’t suppose you have any friends in the planetary government?”

“There is no planetary government. This is an H Class Eight frontier world. There’s a Commonwealth-appointed administrator and peaceforcers on call. That’s about it. Pretty wide-open place.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter,” she said firmly. “I have to try to make it clear on the first available ship not only to save myself but to warn my people.”

“Alaspin has a deepspace beam. Paid for by the protectors, I understand. You could try contacting them that way.”

She shook her head. “No receiver station where I come from.”

BOOK: Flinx in Flux
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