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Authors: Anne McCaffrey

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BOOK: Freedom's Ransom
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“Did you boys have it rough with the Masai?”

“Not rough, Kris, but different. Masai have a much different culture than we do. Sure am glad you got Floss out of there when you did. You shoulda seen the old man they were going to tie her up to.”

“I heard.” Then she gave Clune a stern look. “You get Dane to give you some condoms, you hear me?”

“I hear you good, Emassi Kris.” His face tightened
suddenly. “But you don't mind it's me, do you?”

“Why should I? You have long-term loyalties I wouldn't think of challenging. And I appoint you Floss's undercover bodyguard.”

“I've been that for six years, even before the Catteni landed. My father was a chief of his tribe.” He tossed his head in a defensive if proud fashion. “Of all his sons, I was sent to the States to be educated.”

“I should've guessed something like that,” Kris said at her most approving. “You've an air about you, you know. You'll need that to deal with Barevian merchants. Floss said you've already done a lot of negotiating with Catteni?”

“Had to, Kris, though some thought we were trucking with the invaders, but we weren't. We were staying alive and out of the roundups.” His expression changed to one of intense concern. “Where did all those thousands of people get dropped, Kris?”

“We'll find out, Clune, we'll find out. Another thing to investigate on Barevi.”

“They'll be sorry they ever invaded our system.”

“The Eosi already are,” Kris responded with an ironic laugh. “Barevi will be sorrier soon.”

“I hope.”

“Me too. Indeed I do,” she said in a brightly positive tone, squelching once again that tiny fear of failure she refused to entertain. When she recalled all they had managed to do, she didn't think she was being too optimistic. Well, maybe a little. This expedition was going to be difficult even if all the breaks were on their side. What she really looked forward to was less adventure, dull as that might be after all that had happened to her in the last six years. But there was more, as Zainal had said so emphatically, that somehow had become her responsibility as well as his and Botany's. Well, that was Life, wasn't it? She hadn't even graduated from college yet and she had a lifetime career already!

The newcomers were mingling with the residents now,
with questions of their own to be answered. Chuck's cousins were also in the room, looking bewildered. She was about to approach them when she saw Dorothy and Chuck gather them up. She also saw that Zainal's two boys seemed to be talking comfortably to a group of people, so she didn't have to worry about them. Even Ditsy was involved in a conversation, so she didn't see where exactly she might be needed. Then Chuck, Dorothy, and his cousins made a beeline for her.

“Do you have a minute, Kris?” Chuck asked, his face flushed. “I'd like to be introduced to my daughter.”

“Oh, Lord, in all the fuss I forgot you haven't seen her. Let's go right away, before someone catches me for something absolutely essential right now.”

Flustered, Kris started for the door, wondering how to explain her maternity when she had been introduced to the cousins as Zainal's mate.

She felt someone touch her elbow and realized that Chuck was striding right beside her. “Don't worry. Dorothy explained about the colony's decision to widen the gene pool.”

Yes, thought Kris wildly to herself, but she didn't have to get drunk while stuck on that ship on Catten and all but seduce Chuck when he had been almost legless from drinking the local hooch with the airfield commandant.

Kris wasn't sure that explanation would sit well with two older-generation women who obviously adored their cousin.

“Don't fret, Kris. They're just so happy that I have a baby at all.” He kept them a little distance ahead of Dorothy, Cherry, and Rose on their way to the crèche and continued his low-voiced explanations. “Leon says they'll improve here on Botany. Texas had a hard winter with more snow than usual and they hadn't any transport to get into the town when the community started. They didn't lack for much, but when they ran out of flour for bread, they put up a bonfire and attracted a rider who took Rose to town and then they were fine. Even had
canned stuff to barter for flour.” He looked extremely proud of his relatives. Then he swung his chin in Dorothy's direction. “They've always wanted me to marry, and they seem to like Dorothy.”

“She's easy to like, Chuck. We don't know whom Amy looks like. Neither you nor me.”

“She's pretty young to look like anyone but herself, ain't she?”

Kris was laughing then as she led them into the crèche. Amy was in a playpen, lying on her back and whirling her arms in response to the babble of sound around her.

“Great Lord above, she's the spit of your mother, our cousin Mary,” Rose said, clasping her hands to her mouth in feminine shock. “Why, just look at her hair, and the darling shape of her face. I remember one of the photos in the family album . . . and that child is Mary Mitford to the life! Oh, may I cuddle her, Kris?”

“Certainly,” Kris replied, delighted. Rose knew how, and Amy settled into her arms as if she'd always known them. Growing up as she had with many people attending her, she had never been shy. Few of the crèche kids were. Even Daisy, whom the medics had once thought might be muted by the traumas she had lived through, now babbled away without inhibitions.

Cherry began to sniffle and gulp back tears. “Oh, she's adorable, Chuck. How did you two ever manage to produce such a lovely girl child?” Then she, too, put hand to lips, widening her eyes in consternation at what she had blurted out.

“A happy match of compatible genes, I'd say,” Dorothy replied quickly. “We've actually seen a lot of that since we started increasing Botany's indigenous population.”

Zane, who seemed to have a special antenna for his mother's presence, came bouncing into the infant section of the crèche and pounced on her. So she introduced him to the Mitford cousins.

“This one looks so much like his dad,” she said,
ruffling Zane's hair, “that I'm relieved we've found how Amy got so pretty.”

“You're pretty, Mom,” Zane said loyally, daring anyone to defy him. “Who does Amy look like?”

“Very much like Chuck's mother, God rest her soul,” said Rose, startled at the boy's question. “Oh, we do have a very old picture of Mary. One of the things you must rescue for us, Charles, the next time you're back on Earth.”

“In the parlor?” Chuck asked, watching her cuddling his daughter.

“Of course. In the breakfront. Lower cabinet, first on the left. Where else?”

“I should have looked there first, without having to be reminded,” Chuck said defensively. “Look, I gotta get crackin' on the mission. You two are in safe hands here, in case I don't get to see you before I go off.”

“You be careful, Charles,” his oldest cousin said, shaking her finger at him.

“Don't worry about Chuck,” Kris replied, unable to restrain the urge. “I'll protect him.”

“Yeah, you and who else?” Chuck demanded, halfway to the door, shooting her a droll look.

“You don't need more than my mom,” Zane responded defiantly.

“That's all too true, lad, all too true,” Chuck said with a final wave of his hand as he left.

“Would he be going into danger, Kris?” Rose asked timorously.

“No more than any of us,” Kris replied. “Now, don't you fret, ladies. You are safe here and we're so glad that Chuck found you.”

After listening to the two cousins cataloging his half-sister's graces, Zane returned to whatever game he had left when he'd heard his mother's voice.

“What a sturdy child he is,” Rose said. “Oh, how can you leave such dear children?”

“Only because I have to,” Kris said. “But knowing that
you might look in on Amy will relieve me a great deal.”

“Of course we will. You may be sure of that.”

“Then, if you'll excuse me, I have some details to organize,” Kris said and, with a little bow, left them. She had to organize some notes for the evening's meeting, but first she had to find out some details and so she made her way to the library.

“Yo, Betty? What stack are you hiding under?” she called as she came through the front door.

“Betty's not here,” said Dr. Hessian. “What can I help you find?”

Since the doctor's recovery from being brain-scanned by the Eosi, he had taken on extra hours at the library, helping to catalog and shelve the rather bizarre collection of books they had liberated from Barevi.

“I need to know which countries on Terra produced coffee.”

“Now, that is an odd one. As it happens, I once did a survey of the coffee-producing countries. Brazil, of course, was the major producer. Coffee beans take a tropical climate, you know.”

Snatches of old television advertisements flashed through her mind.

“Which type? Arabica or robusta?”

“Coffee beans by any name.”

“There are, or should I say
were
, twenty-eight coffee-producing countries. Asia, Africa, Indonesia, South America, the various islands in the Caribbean—”

“Twenty-eight?” Kris breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank goodness.

“Why?” asked the doctor, mildly curious by her relief.

“Because there will be coffee beans somewhere that haven't been seized by the Catteni. They're addicted to coffee, you see.”

“Not quite, but I'm glad to know my errant memory could supply you with information. If you'll wait a moment, I'll just look it up in the encyclopedia.”

“Not necessary right now, Doctor, but if you could
bring the reference with you to the meeting tonight?”

“Yes, yes, of course.”

“It's the roasting that does it, you know,” he added in a helpful tone of voice. When she gave him a startled look, he expatiated. “Raw coffee beans have to be stripped of the exterior fruit pulp, which makes a good animal feed, the beans dried and roasted before grinding, you know. The coffee bean is a drupe.”

She did remember about grinding, and the thought of freshly roasted and ground coffee made her inhale a deep breath, recalling just how good roasting beans smelled. Unforgettable as well as indescribable.

“Yes, yes, that isn't as important as knowing where to get more is.”

“Get more?”

“Ransom, Doctor, ransom!” she said and left on the echo of that cryptic remark.

She fortified herself by chanting “twenty-eight” all the way back to the hangar, which was now as crammed full of busy folk as it had been empty earlier. She let herself into the office she usually shared with Zainal and plunked herself down at the first available station, flipping on the computer. She only needed to type a few lists. Like all twenty-eight countries and the major producers of finished coffee products.

What measure should they use in figuring worth? Would coffee beans be as valuable to the Catteni as gold? Hmmm. Imagine a scoop of freshly roasted beans being as valuable as a similar weight of gold? She chuckled to herself and began to type. “There are twenty-eight coffee-producing countries on Earth—in South America, Africa, Indonesia, Asia, and various Caribbean countries and they can't all have been ransacked by the Catteni.”

The noise of happy laughter made her look up and peer out of the open hangar door just as an air sled, crammed with young people, every one of them festooned with the limp bodies of rock squats, lurched by.

And how much were rock squats worth by the pound?
The ounce? The individual critter? Had anyone ever opened a shop with such diverse commodities?

“A carton a carcass?” The slogan slipped into her mind. Well, that would do until another crossed her mind.

•   •   •

EVERYONE TURNED OUT FOR THE COUNCIL meeting. She had expected that much but she was delighted to see that even Mike Miller's miners and farmers from the northern reaches of the Retreat continent as well as Chief Materu from the south were present. As she hovered by the steps to the raised dais, she saw that Clune and Peran were escorting Chief Materu and introducing him to others. She couldn't see Floss but she did spot Bazil, Ditsy, and Ferris.

Chuck came in with Dorothy on his arm, his two cousins right behind him, looking excessively proud of him. They had more color in their faces this evening so she hoped they hadn't got too much sun, then reminded herself that they were from Texas and would know to be careful of too much sunning. Zainal arrived with Peter, Iri Bempechat, Yuri Palit, and Walter Duxie, the mining engineer. Sev Balenquah followed them, and uncharitably Kris hoped no one would include him on this mission since he had so nearly jeopardized them all the last time. But he was a qualified pilot and had flown the KDLs. Some people just brought bad luck with them and he was one of those. Like Pig Pen, you could almost see the aura of dirt and dust surrounding him.

Zainal escorted Judge Iri Bempechat up the steps and held out the middle chair for him. The ever-courteous judge waited until Chuck had seated Dorothy and Chuck returned to his place by his cousins.

Immediately the chatter in the mess hall diminished. The new Botany Space Force additions filed in with Peter Easley, who gestured them to seats on the left before he came up to the dais. Kris took her usual end seat, nodding to the judge, who smiled sweetly back at her and took the gavel that he used for such meetings out of his pocket
and put it conspicuously in front of him. Conversations went down yet another decibel and there was much scraping of chairs as people settled themselves. The last of the council members, Leon Dane, rushed in late as usual, as did Worrell, Beth Isbell, and Sarah McDouall.

The judge gave his gavel an authoritative smack on the wooden block and silence prevailed.

“Since all council members are clearly present, I shall ask Chuck Mitford to report on his recent trip to Earth. And a special welcome to the Misses Mitford. Glad to have you here.”

BOOK: Freedom's Ransom
13.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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