by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler
Kithri opened her eyes and gasped. Natural sensation flooded through her--the air whistling through her lungs, her heart pounding, the pressure of the floor under her thighs. Eril=s fingers gripping her, digging into her shoulders. She lay in his arms just outside 'Wacker=s open cockpit door. High above them arched a dome of sparkling crystal.
The sensation of incredible relief vanished instantly, replaced with the memory of who she was, where she was, what she=d tried to do.
"Raerquel..." her voice came out in a croak. "Raerquel?"
"It seems to be stunned, but you--"
"Never mind about me!" Kithri jerked free and hauled herself to her feet. "I=m fine, see? No aftereffects or anything."
Her knees suddenly turned to jelly and lost all semblance of structural integrity. Breathing heavily, she caught herself against 'Wacker=s pitted side.
"You=re about as fine as a space-sick rookie," said Eril. "What happened to you in there?"
"Forget what happened to me! What have we done to Raerquel?" Kithri reached into the cockpit and laid one hand on the gastropoid=s silvery skin. There was no response, no change in its cool skin.
"Eril, what if it=s..." she couldn=t bring herself to say the word dead. "It=s different from us, how can we tell? Wouldn=t the tentacles go slack or something?"
Eril grabbed her shoulders and told her to sit down until she could think straight. With a sense of grudging relief, she slid to the floor beside the scrubjet=s landing gear, as limp as an exhausted child. Eril called the gastropoid=s name, shouting it so loud she whimpered and covered her ears with trembling hands. He stopped only when Kithri reminded him it wouldn=t do any good. He tried shaking it, at first gently, then slapping it and pulling on its sturdier lower tentacles, all without the slightest response.
"What are you doing?" Kithri asked when he climbed into the pilot=s seat and slipped on the autoprobes. As his efforts had gotten more desperate, her own presence of mind returned, although she still felt uncertain, brittle.
"Trying to make contact with it myself," he said in a ragged-edged voice. "Or, failing that, getting shipbrain to give me some physiological readouts and praying I can make sense out of them."
Eril=s face went blank for a split second and then settled into an expression of intense concentration. Kithri watched him with reluctant admiration. In all her years of flying with her father and then Hank, she=d never seen anyone slip into duo so quickly. He was good, very good. But good enough?
After what seemed centuries of waiting, fingers clutched around her knees, scarcely daring to breathe, she saw his eyelids flicker open.
"Damn!" He scowled as he pulled the headset off.
"Not a ratshit thing, that=s what! The whole system=s gone neutral, as if it had never been activated. That moronic shipbrain of yours not only couldn=t contact Raerquel, it didn=t even know it had been in duo!"
"If there was a mistake, it was your morphoplex rerouting," Kithri snarled. ">Wacker would never--"
"Stuff it!" He jumped out of the cockpit. "The reroute was good. You checked it yourself."
Kithri bit her lip. It wouldn=t help to argue whose fault it was. "So what=s next?"
"Let=s get Raerquel out of there. Lay it flat. Maybe we=ll see something we can=t from here. Or maybe just getting it out will help."
Kithri wrenched off the gastropoid=s autoprobes. The sensor pads came free with tiny, sickening pops. Raerquel didn=t respond. Its head and neck sections had completely retracted into its body so that neither the coppery eye discs nor the neck slits were visible.
Eril climbed back into the pilot=s seat, facing backwards, and managed to get a good enough traction on the far side of Raerquel=s body so that he could push while Kithri pulled. It was a long, exhausting business, very much like trying to shift several hundred pounds of muscle-bounded, boneless protoplasm.
Once they got enough of Raerquel=s amorphous bulk out of the door, gravity took over and the extending curve of its body hit the glassy floor with a plomp! From that point it was relatively simple to ease the rest of the body out of the scrubjet. There was no visible change in the gastropoid=s condition, nor could they see any sign of a wound or other damage. It lay on the floor, an inert lump. Kithri and Eril sat down beside it, sweating and breathing freely, wondering what their next move would be.
As if on cue, Brianna chose that moment to make an entrance. She burst into the laboratory dome, accompanied by one of Raerquel=s assistants. Kithri thought it was Bhevon, but in her dazed state she couldn=t be sure. She got to her feet, aware that Eril did the same.
Brianna rushed to the massive silvery lump that was Raerquel. "What=s happened?" She glared at Kithri, her face contorted with emotion. "What have you done to it?"
Kithri=s voice came in a stunned whisper. "I don=t know..."
"Leave her alone!" Eril grabbed Brianna=s shoulder and spun her around. "She=s been through enough!"
Without waiting for her response, he turned to the gastropoid behind her. "Bhevon--it is Bhevon, isn=t it? We need your help. There=s been a terrible accident. We don=t know what=s wrong with Raerquel. It seems to be unconscious, won=t respond to anything we do and I can=t find its pulse. I don=t even know if it has one."
Bhevon extended a quartet of antenna-like appendages towards its clan-superior. The humans drew back to let it work. "We are possessing heartbeats like other large invertebrates," it commented without pausing in its scanning activities. "Bodies exceeding a certain minimum bulk are requiring the forceful pumping of nutrient and waste transport media. Human science is ignorant of this basic principle?"
"Is--is Raerquel still alive?" Kithri stammered.
"Indeed, my esteemed clan-superior is still living, having entered the protective state of estivation." It paused, its fragile-looking upper appendages writhing. "What can be causing such a drastic action? I demand an explanation! I am thinking that an unauthorized, unattended experiment has taken place here!"
"Just the first stage," Kithri said miserably. "Me and Raerquel hooked up to shipbrain. There shouldn=t have been any problem. It wasn=t a full linkage--it should have been perfectly safe--"
"Irresponsible mammalians are risking the cerebral synapses of Scientist Raerquel in untranslatable scheme!" Bhevon boomed at her. If it were possible for the gastropoid=s voice to carry any recognizable emotion, the ground would have trembled under its righteous indignation.
"Stop right there," Eril commanded. "If you=re going to blame anyone, blame me. The procedure was my decision and my responsibility. Raerquel knew the risks, and it freely agreed to them. It chose to go ahead. But all this talk is besides the point. If Raerquel needs treatment, let=s get it done and debate the issue later!"
"I should have been present for such-called test," Bhevon said, its voice once more rising to a thunderous boom. "But you are correct that recriminations are accomplishing nothing. You will now be removing yourselves to sleeping chambers. "I myself will summon healers to be reviving clan-superior Raerquel."
"Will--will it be all right, left alone like that?" Kithri said uncertainly. "Shouldn=t one of us stay with it?"
"For what purpose? Obstruction of therapeutic procedures?"
"We only want to help--"
"Mammalians are having helped sufficiently!" Bhevon cut her off with such force she flinched visibly. "We are now seeing the consequences of such so-called help!"
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