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Authors: Anne McCaffrey

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BOOK: Freedom's Ransom
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“Or perhaps a little later,” Kris said. They'd particularly need Chuck Mitford's assistance and possibly that of some of the others who had returned to help rebuild Earth. “There's a lot to organize, especially as some of our more fluent Catteni-speakers are currently on Earth and will need to be recalled.”

“That is all too true, Paxel.”

Paxel nodded. “It is up to Zainal, and you, to set the time of return, Excellent Lady Emassi,” he said, giving her a polite but stiff nod of his head. Plainly he was surprised that a woman would enter into a conversation with a male, especially one of Zainal's status. But, even
on Catteni, certain mates did have special privileges, and doubtless he knew her reputation since he had addressed her with her honorary Catteni title.

“Then we shall collect the members of our delegation,” Zainal said, straightening up and looking Paxel in the eye, “and inform Kamiton that we shall presently arrive on Barevi and settle this onerous problem once and for all. I need the security codes presently in effect at Barevi.”

If Paxel's eyes widened at Zainal's demand, he placed one hand on his chest and bowed again.

“I return with all speed, Emassi.”

Retrieving the message he had delivered, Paxel jotted down a few words and figures and passed the notation to Zainal. “That code will continue for the next five weeks.”

Kris thought that Zainal had impressed his young nephew and hoped there would be no repercussions when Paxel delivered the response. Zainal shot her an amused glance as if he suspected her thoughts before he turned back to the other Botany colonists.

“We must first recall those Catteni-speakers who have gone to Terra. Does someone have the list?”

As there was no such list and Zainal must have known it, Kris made a move to the file cabinet and started flipping through documents. Peter urgently tapped a command on the nearest keyboard, and Dorothy was industriously writing notes.

“A safe journey, Paxel, and again, my regards to your mother and your father,” Zainal said as Paxel made his way out of the hangar. A backward wave from Paxel acknowledged the civility even as Zainal turned to ask Kris, “Who is most drastically needed to return from Terra?”

“Without prejudice, I'd say Chuck would be invaluable,” and Dorothy nodded from where she sat, grinning broadly.

“Maybe he even thought to make a list of the most urgently needed items. Won't we need to know which
cartons to ransom?” Peter asked. “Wouldn't want to buy a pig's ear for a purse.”

“Would it be quicker to take Baby and go to Terra and collect the people we need?” Kris asked.

“Might be in the long run,” Zainal agreed. “We do have destinations for most of them. Like the Doyle brothers. I'll need Ninety, Gino, and Mack Dargle, and you, please, Kris. Can you leave your daughter?” He knew how she doted on six-month-old Amy but she nodded a quick reassurance. This mission had a priority she couldn't ignore to play Mommy. Besides, in her absence both Amy and Zane would be well taken care of at the crèche.

“What about our military?” Peter asked, referring to various admirals and generals who had been dropped on Botany and were now busy with the reconstruction of Earth's facilities.

“Hmmm.” Zainal considered this. “I'd certainly like their thinking on this ransom business. Especially Ray Scott and John Beverly.”

“Yes, Scott has a reputation as a strategist but he has no Catteni.”

“No, but I'd value his opinion. I'll take any help I can get on this one.”

“Good idea,” Dorothy and Peter said simultaneously. Peter was plucking at his lower lip, a trait that most recognized as “Peter thinking.”

“It's also a problem in public relations,” Peter said. “We can get there with ransomables, but how do we know the merchants will then be willing to trade?”

“Kamiton said they would.”

“Ha!” Peter sat forward with his hands clasped in front of him. “He didn't read the signs right when he thought he could get them to make restitution. I think we need a little more to make sure they'll exchange.”

“How would you suggest we do that, Peter?” Kris asked.

“I'm thinking about it,” he said with a grin.

“No better man.”

“Wish your people had advertising or a public-service radio channel. Get word about.”

Zainal grinned. “Actually, a few rumors wouldn't be hard to start.”

“That's what we need. How?”

“By the very people we want to trade with us.”

“The merchants?”

“They tend to trade gossip, too,” Zainal said with a cunning smile. “And spread news.”

“And?” Peter prompted him.

“And we can prime them, as it were.”

“So they'll be lusting after our goods,” Peter said, rubbing his hands in anticipation.

“We can hope,” Zainal remarked, slightly skeptical.

“If we put out the right lures, they'll come. Especially if they are becoming consumer-oriented.”

“We could also bring Botanical specialties,” Kris said. “Like rock squats. Remember how our refugees liked them?”

“No, but I'll take your word for it,” Zainal said with a grin, as he had been absent from Botany during the period when the colony had been a sanctuary for the families of Emassi who wanted them safe prior to the attack on the dread Eosi leaders.

“Even managed to get the boys to hunt with us,” Peter said, amused by the recollection.

“Well, we should arrange a hunting party, then.”

“And perhaps gather some of the tubers. I suspect that food is in short supply on Earth. Invasions do wreak havoc on crops.”

“So, what needs to be done first?” Dorothy asked just as Peter reached the printer that had several sheets in its tray.

“Got a list here of Catteni-speakers who are away,” he said and handed it to Zainal.

“And I have the list of possible barter goods,” Kris
said, pointing to her scribbled note listing what Mike Miller had told her.

“We do have a dentist,” Jerry Short said, stopping in the doorway. “Name of Eric Sachs. Used to practice in New York. He's been on call at the hospital but doesn't have much equipment here. I've asked him to join us as soon as he can.”

“Thanks, Jerry.” Zainal made a check on his own notes and then paused. “How do you spell ‘dentist'?” he asked.

Everyone told him at once but he got the word down on his pad, grinning as he wrote. “Thanks. I think these ‘dentists' will be very useful. And we can get the equipment. What is generally needed?”

“I've never needed much dentistry except to have my wisdom teeth pulled,” Kris said, looking around.

“Well, I have—you know the Colgate-bright smile,” Peter said and exposed his white, even teeth. “A good smile is essential in public relations. However, to preserve the image I wanted to present, I did get my front teeth”—he tapped them—“capped as a business expense. Good teeth are a lifelong investment.”

“What about gold ones?” Kris asked.

“That's not part of my culture,” he said. “But a sign of importance or affluence in others. In present context, if it works, it'd be wonderful.” He paused, raising his hand for silence. “To be Johnny-on-the-spot, we can also possibly provide the essential professional.”

“Essential professional?” Zainal was totally confused.

“We bring our resident dentist with us—and he makes crowns on the spot?” Kris asked. Peter's wide smile answered her. “But a dentist needs a lot of equipment and supplies we don't have.”

“Aren't we planning a trip to Earth anyway? We can pick up what we need, and sell the Catteni those gold teeth they're so fond of.”

Kris snapped her fingers. “Just like that!”

“Why not? Who'd be stealing dental equipment?”

“Point,” Kris conceded. As if on cue, there was a tap at the door and it swung open.

“I'm Eric Sachs,” the man said, peering around the door. “Back on old Earth, I used to be a dentist. I was informed that I was wanted in here.”

“Ah, good of you to come so quickly,” Peter said, jumping to his feet and gesturing for the man to enter.

Aware of the scrutiny of everyone in the room, Eric Sachs moved with athletic ease toward the chair that Peter waved him to. He was of medium height, stocky build, dark hair cut close to his skull, as was the current trend on Botany, pleasant features, and brown eyes that sparkled with amused intelligence. He took the seat, facing Zainal, stretched out his legs, and folded his hands across his waist. Kris could see that the nail on his right thumb was distorted. He caught her glance and smiled at her.

“It wasn't my patients biting me,” he said, “though some of them have. But my silly habit of holding dental X-rays in exactly the position I want. Bad case of health and safety in the workplace but useful in obtaining clearer films. I'll probably lose more than the nail but . . .” He shrugged, philosophical over the price he would have to pay for that lack of attention to proper X-ray procedure.

“Thank you, Dr. Sachs,” Zainal said. “Let me ask you a few questions about some procedures which may have more than ordinary significance for us right now.”

“Such as?”

“Do dentists use pure gold for gold caps or tooth replacement?”

“We use seventy-five percent or eighteen-carat gold, which expands and contracts almost identically with tooth enamel, so gold is the best material. In some of the newer procedures the range is thirty percent gold supplemented by platinum and mostly silver—nine to forty percent.”

Zainal looked askance at Kris and she nodded, after
checking that platinum was one of the metals that Mike had on hand.

“What sort of equipment would you need to practice?” Peter asked. “Is it portable enough for you to set up your office where needed?”

“Well, as I have currently no equipment whatever, beyond a toothpick and specula, any office will suffice. There are portable dental units. Armies travel with them,” Eric said with another easy smile. He obviously intended to enjoy this unusual interview.

“Would you know where to find the equipment you would need for a working ‘office'?”

“Back on Earth, you mean?” Eric leaned forward eagerly.

“Yes, and no. Yes, to obtain the equipment you would need, and no, not to practice back on Earth.”

“Where did you have in mind? Though we could use a facility here on Botany, with all these youngsters and oldsters needing effective dental care,” Eric replied. “I used to specialize in orthodontics.”

Zainal looked inquiringly at Kris.

“Orthodontics usually means repair work to crooked teeth and/or false ones.”

“Dentures, please,” Eric said with a friendly grin.

“False ones? Dentures?” Zainal didn't comprehend the distinction.

“For when people are required to entirely replace the ones they've lost to either age or caries.”

“Caries?”

“Dental decay,” Eric replied quickly, nodding an apology at Kris. She gave him a quick flip of her fingers to accept his reply.

“Dental decay?” Zainal looked surprised.

“Don't you Catteni ever have tooth problems? Apart from losing the front ones in your brawls?”

“The only ones we lose are in combat,” Zainal replied. “What other way is there?”

“Bad bite, poor nutrition, lack of calcium, pregnancy,
too much refined sugar . . .” Eric shrugged as he listed the main causes.

“If we could obtain equipment for you, would you be willing to dentify . . . Catteni teeth?”

“I have nothing against your species,” Eric said. Then his expression turned eager and his eyes glinted. “Mind you, I would never use my professional expertise to cause unnecessary pain. Though, until I got here to Botany, I might have entertained a few vengeful ideas from time to time.”

“At mercy in your chair?” Kris asked, grinning at the thought of a Catteni bully in helpless jeopardy in a dental chair. Sometimes, ethics went the way of other civilized behavior.

“I admit to some rather fanciful daydreams at a particular time; however, that's not only immature but also against all dental ethics. From what I've seen of your people, they aren't much in need of my skills.”

“What about cosmetic work?” Kris suggested, pointing to the tooth in her head that was in the same place as Zainal's broken one.

“Ah, cosmetic work! That's something else again, and I fancy myself quite skilful in both orthodontia and cosmetic repair.”

“What would you also need besides the basic dental drill?” Kris asked.

“It would be quite a list,” Eric said tentatively, but with a dawning eagerness in his expression.

“But you'd know where such supplies could be found on Earth?” Kris asked.

“I'd know where there used to be suppliers in the Manhattan area, certainly. Whether they're still there or not, I couldn't, of course, be certain.”

“Of course.”

There was a pause that Eric broke. “Does this have anything to do with the rumor I heard that Catteni were investing in gold caps?”

Kris laughed, easing the tension that had been growing
in her, partly because of the whole notion of having to ransom what was rightfully Earth's and partly because she was beginning to understand this bizarre element: providing a skill and treatment the Catteni certainly didn't have on their home world. Whatever worked!

“It does,” Peter said.

Eric rubbed his hands on his thighs. “I am indeed your man, then, Easley, Zainal. And I'd be happy to repair that incisor of yours, Zainal, for all you've done for us.” He jerked his damaged thumb at his chest. “Then you could see firsthand how skilled I am.”

“We don't doubt your abilities,” Dorothy said, “especially since you made those marvelous repairs to Brenda Samuelson's dentures.”

BOOK: Freedom's Ransom
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