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Authors: Anne McCaffrey

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BOOK: Freedom's Ransom
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“The boys don't drink it yet,” he said when he saw her expression of doubt. “You might as well enjoy a cup of their ration.”

“We must get more coffee, even if instant is all we can scrounge,” she said, turning the cup around to get the handle to the left for her to lift. “I see everyone is spruced up.” She nodded to the boys as they took seats.

“Boy, this grub looks good,” Ferris said, picking up
his fork and digging it into a mound of mashed tubers. “Oh, it's not potatoes,” he added, both surprised and outraged by the unexpected flavor.

“It's indigenous but not a bad substitute,” Kris replied, grinning as he swallowed the big mouthful.

“Hey, it is pretty close! Will we be able to grow potatoes here?”

“I believe so, but we'd have to import seed potatoes, if we can find them. I believe it's high on the list of ‘wish' items.”

“You got rock squats up north here, too?” Clune asked, slathering a portion on his fork with his knife in the English manner.

“Principal source of protein,” she said. “They were the main course in the first hot meal we had on Botany.”

“Who named it Botany?” Ditsy asked, disgusted.

“We all did. After another colony of transported folk on Earth,” she said.

“You mean, Australia?” Ferris asked, wrinkling his nose. “Not very inventive.”

“What would you have named it?”

“I dunno,” Ferris admitted, and then attended to the task of eating. “I'm not good at naming things.”

“We put it up for a vote and everyone had a chance to put forward their names,” Kris said, remembering the occasion very well. “Botany won, hands down. A good choice, I think, since it reminds us of a similar experiment that was successful.”

“Yes, but that was ex-cons.”

“What do you think we were considered?”

“Well, you weren't criminals.”

“Most of the English and Irish who were transported to Australia weren't really criminals. There was great poverty at that point in history, and a person could be transported for stealing food to feed his family.”

Kris wondered just how many of the present colonists had not finished secondary school or knew even highlights of world history. Maybe evening lectures could be
instigated, just to disseminate vital information. Daytimes, there was so much work to be done only the crèche kids were being given lessons. She jotted down a little note to herself. Something else to be remembered and inaugurated!

She gave a little sigh. There was never enough time for everything, was there? When Zainal gave her a curious stare, she smiled back at him and took a sip of her extra cup of coffee. She wondered if she could make a habit of it . . . bring the boys with her for breakfast. But that was not the Botanic way: one didn't take advantage of a flaw in a system. If she did, she lost her right to criticize others. Conscience was burdened enough as it was. If Council members didn't toe the line, why should others have to? Transgressions could mount to a woeful state, just as they had elsewhere. One had to show responsibility. Just as Zainal was. Though really, he could carry the burden a little too far! However, she could see that someone had to do it, as far as reclaiming needful things was concerned.

Jerry Short paused in the main entrance to the hall, scanned the diners until his eyes rested on her. He waved at her and, excusing herself, she went to see why he had singled her out.

“Just had a message from Chuck. He's on his way back and he's very pleased with himself,” Jerry said, grinning because he had good news to tell.

“Chuck? Oh, that's great!” He'd gone to find out if his elderly cousins, Rose and Cherry Mitford, were still alive. He'd also dropped other Botanists where they could hunt out kith and kin as well as start work repairing damaged infrastructures.

“Knew you'd want to know soon as possible,” Jerry went on. “And oh, he said to mention that he'd stopped on Barevi on his way home to pick up a few things.”

“Oh, goodness. What's his ETA?”

“Next hour.”

“Do tell Dorothy Dwardie, Jerry. She'll want to know, too.”

“I thought of her first, actually, and told her on my way here,” Jerry said, grinning broadly.

“Thanks. Oh, Zainal will be so pleased. I wonder what Chuck thought to bring back from Barevi,” she muttered to herself as she made her way back to the table where the boys had finished eating.

“That will save us a lot of time,” Zainal said, very pleased with her news. “Especially as he'll be able to give us a report on conditions on both planets. Wonder what he stopped off at Barevi for that would have been important enough for him to detour so far off the direct line to Botany. And how and with what did he pay for it?”

“We should know soon enough. Shall we go meet him?”

“Yes, and show him our newest translators. C'mon, lads.” He signaled for the five boys to follow him.

Chapter Three

CHUCK EMERGED FROM THE SPACESHIP ACCOMPANIED by two women, and beside Kris, Dorothy inhaled sharply.

“Don't worry, Dorothy,” Kris said quickly. “Look at their faces. They're Mitfords or I'll eat a night crawler!”

The family resemblance extended not only to the facial features but to the physical proportions of the two women: the same sturdy bodies and lanky stride, and a way of looking directly at people with an assessing look in the eye. The two women were equally weather-beaten, their eyes squinting from years of filtering out sun and wind.

“His cousins, I presume,” Kris said, for Chuck was urging the pair to where Kris and Dorothy were standing.

“Dorothy, these are my cousins, Rose and Cherry, and I'd be much obliged if you'd welcome them. They've had a rough time lately, and I won't let them out of my sight until I know they've recovered completely.” He gestured to the ground cart. “Dorothy, would you mind taking them to Dane for a physical? It was a bitter winter back in Texas.”

“Of course. Rose, Cherry,” and Dorothy gestured for them to take seats in the cart. “I'd be happy to. And we'll have a lot to talk about, I'm sure.”

“Dorothy Dwardie will see you're comfortable, Rose, Cherry,” and he kissed each on the cheek. “But me and Zainal here have to have a conference. This is the guy I was telling you about. Who freed Earth and his own planet.”

Rose extended her hand. “Charlie here bent our ears out of shape telling us all you did to save both the worlds.” Cherry was a little more reserved but she shook Zainal's hand in as hearty a fashion as Rose had and murmured something about unforgettable heroism.

“We know you're busy, Chuck, and we're mighty glad to be here, Dorothy. We've heard so much about you, Kris. Will we see you later?”

“You will indeed, Rose, Cherry, and welcome to Botany.”

“And who are these young men?” Rose asked, opening her hand in the direction of Peran and Bazil.

“They are my sons, Rose Mitford.”

“I am pleased to meet you, too,” she said, extending her hand.

Peran took it, giving her a rather stiff bow, which caused her to blink at the unexpected courtesy. Doubtless, Kris decided, the women hadn't ever encountered Catteni with good manners. Still, it proved that the Masai had trained the boys to respect age and females.

“May I introduce Clune, Ferris, and Ditsy, Misses Mitford?” Kris said to complete the introductions.

“Rose is a pharmacist,” Chuck said, helping the older of the two up the first step. “And Cherry's a physiotherapist.”

“You could have brought them if all they could do was knit,” Kris said, dismissing Chuck's comment and smiling warmly at them.

“If you're of a mind to put your skills to use,” Dorothy said, climbing into the driver's seat, “you'll be thrice
welcome once Leon has cleared you. He's our chief medical officer.” And she nodded goodbye to the reception committee.

•   •   •

AS SOON AS THE CART WAS OFF THE FIELD, Chuck turned purposefully to Zainal.

“I lucked out. Traded four tins of Nescafé instant coffee for some of those satellite parts we were trying to find on Earth. What we need is on Barevi, you know.”

“We suspected that.”

Chuck pulled a hand recorder out of his jacket. “Got a Jet Propulsion Lab director to give me a list of what we need. He said that there were some built most recently with switchable units. That would make it so easy to maintain those already in orbit. The ones the Catteni used for target practice. I did a quick survey of the loot on Barevi and they've got the replacements we need.”

“We're organizing a ransom party,” Zainal said.

“A ransom?” Chuck stared at him. “Yeah,” and his shoulders slumped, “and I hope you got stuff they want.”

“No coffee, but gold—”

“For their teeth?” Chuck's surprise was obvious. “How'd you hear about that?”

“Doesn't matter how but we did.” Zainal gave an indolent shrug. “Though vanity has never been a Catteni problem. Still, no one ever thought lost teeth could be replaced. We also have a dentist.”

Chuck's laugh was hearty as he gave Zainal's massive shoulder an appreciative buffet.

“I was wondering how I was going to break the news to you,” he said, “about ransoming our own equipment back from those Barevi looters. And we gotta make tracks there, fast. Too much is being ground into the mud in the marketplace by those bozos working off steam.” He shook his head. “When I think of all the hard work and the material we can't reproduce . . .” He stopped, took a breath, and then went on. “You wouldn't believe what they've achieved on Earth.”

“Reconstructing?” Kris asked.

“More than just infrastructures. You'll be proud. Look, Zainal, can we call a meeting of the colonists?”

“One is set for this evening. We have to get permission to use the colony's assets as ransom, you know.”

“Good. I'll grab a shower and change. Oh, and I got some crew with me.” He looked over his shoulder at the open ramp of the KDL. “In-service training but boy, do they know their stuff. Of course, they should. Many of 'em are ex-NASA.” Chuck's grin was broader. “Brought more than I needed for the KDs but we do have other ships.” He gestured to the ones parked on the field. “They learn real quick and I had space available.” He turned and called, “Olly-olly in free. Welcome to Botany, guys and gals.”

Out filed a line of men and women looking very smart in flight gear. They made a double row in front of Chuck, who was still grinning from ear to ear.

“Sir, Excellent Emassi Zainal, Botany airforce recruits reporting for duty,” said the man who took two steps forward toward Zainal and saluted smartly. “Sam Maddocks, with eight volunteers, all with flight and space hours. Not many of the latter but we stood shifts with Sergeant Mitford on the way here!”

“Delighted to have you on board, Colonel Maddocks.” The colonel stiffened his spine still further as Zainal used his appropriate rank, having noticed the silver maple leaf on his collar.

How Zainal had learned to differentiate rank insignia and the service forms Kris didn't know, but it stood him in good stead now.

“What a beautiful planet you got dumped on, sir.”

“Luck, Colonel, sheer luck! This is Kris Bjornsen, my mate, and these are my sons, Peran and Bazil. Clune, Ferris, and Ditsy, who will be accompanying us to Barevi on a shopping mission. We may need your services to accomplish the mission.”

“Anything we can do, we will, sir.”

“I am known as Zainal, Colonel, not sir. Now, if you will introduce me to the rest of your group, we'll take you back to the main settlement and find you quarters.”

“We don't mind staying on board, Zainal, if there is any shortage of space. The sergeant said that things are pretty basic here.”

“There are people you should meet, Colonel, and we will have a lot to discuss and plans to make.”

“Yes, Zainal.” With a perfect about-face, he marched to the first person in the line behind him, a woman.

“Captain Jacqueline Kiznet, sir, with twenty-five hours of flight time on F-122s. She was to be mission pilot on the Mars 10 Supply Rocket. Captain Kiznet has had training in the KDL series and stood five watches as duty officer on our inbound flight.”

“Captain Kiznet, my pleasure,” Zainal said, shaking her hand and returning her salute. She was medium tall, dark-haired, with a pleasant face and a twinkling eye.

“Captain Katherine Harvey also made herself familiar with the KDL and the KDM specs, did simulations on both in flight and was duty engineer.” The captain was a tall redhead, with freckles on her nose and cheeks and a decidedly reserved manner about her.

“Lieutenant Gail Sullivan is a communications expert and has fluent Catteni.” Sullivan had short blond hair, a stunned expression on her face, and was small beside the tall captain.

Zainal clasped the lieutenant's hand with vigor. “Welcome to Botany, Emassi, and are you familiar with docking and parking protocols?” he asked in Catteni.

“I listened to all the tapes on board the KDL, Zainal, and feel confident that I can park or dock the vessel at any space facility,” Gail responded in Catteni, her alto voice managing to growl in a respectable accent.

“In fact,” Maddocks interposed, “she has already done so at Barevi.”

“Very good, very good indeed.”

Perhaps it was only Kris who noticed the tension
easing in Zainal's face and shoulders as he moved on to the next man, one who had the squint of someone accustomed to peering at small print or monitor screens. “Lieutenant Ed Douglas here can even read Catteni.”

“You are able to read Catteni?” Zainal asked in the language.

“Slowly, sir, but I am also working on a Catteni-English glossary of technical terms, which I feel will be extremely useful.”

BOOK: Freedom's Ransom
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