by Deborah J. Ross, writing as Deborah Wheeler
Eril stormed out of the laboratory with Kithri at his side and Brianna trailing behind. Kithri, her mouth set in an ominously tight line, kept pace with him as if she were his shadow. Every few steps, Brianna leapt into a trot to catch up to him.
"I can=t believe you=d let Kithri proceed with her crazy idea!" she exclaimed. "I hope you realize she may well have jeopardized my entire research program-- Will you slow down and listen to me?"
Chattering on like a goddamned sand-hen, Eril thought. He clamped his teeth together and kept on going, not trusting what was left of his nerves to risk answering Brianna.He=d never felt less sympathetic toward her--pompous, insensitive, judgmental bitch! It wasn=t fair to vent his own feelings on her, but he was too upset to make allowances. He wished there were some merciful way he could shut her up before she said something unforgivable--or he did.
Kithri kept her eyes straight ahead and gave no visible sign she heard anything Brianna said. Eril remembered that taut carriage to her shoulders from just before she took Brushwacker and left them to be nabbed by the space pirates. Skies only knew what she=d do here, especially when Brianna said things like, "I know Kithri hasn=t a shred of training in making evaluations like this, but I assumed you knew better. You at least seem to have some sort of education!"
They made their way past a plaza filled with free-standing, shoulder-high walls. Gastropoids wandered through the maze, either singly or in small groups, hooting softly to each other and sending ripples of brightness across the walls. What function the structures served, Eril could not guess, unless they were traditional designs, modelled after the tidal baffling systems of the aquatic city. This was his favorite part of the city, but he didn=t stop to admire it now.
"Need I point out," Brianna rattled on in between gasps for breath, "there is a significant difference between helping these people develop better means of communication and engaging in irresponsible neuropsionic tinkering with our host scientist!"
Finally Eril snapped at Brianna to restrain herself from making public fools of them all. It was the mildest response he could think of.
"I=m only trying to make my opinion known. If you=d bothered to consult me, I might have advised you on a more prudent course of action. Aren=t you interested in what an expert has to say?"
"Thank you," he replied, striding on, "I didn=t know we=d made a mistake until you told me so."
The living quarters were quiet and empty, cool after the energetic pace Eril set. The broadcast unit that Raerquel had installed on one wall, its controls >fixed= for human operation, was silent and dark. Brianna=s film notes and therine specimens lay scattered around the rim of the central dining table.
Brianna pushed her way into the common room, skirting the shallow pool. She whirled around in a dancer=s graceful pirouette, and placed both fists on her hips.
Eril groaned inwardly. Here it comes. She=s been building up to it the whole way back.
"I can see you simply don=t understand the enormity of what you=ve done, either of you. Here I am, about to make a breakthrough in analyzing the gastropoidal architecture system and the role of hierarchically determined therine secretion patterns in clan dominance--oh, don=t look at me as if that=s so much nonsense! You understand my meaning. You know it=s the first step in understanding this culture so that we could be sure we weren=t introducing a fatal innovation--and you endanger everything we=re working for with this criminally irresponsible escapade! You should have prepared suitable safeguards, in a scientifically acceptable fashion, not to mention waiting until we had a better idea of the implication of the impact of our technology upon the current situation! Why in untranslatable didn=t you ask my advice first?"
Eril=s first impulse was to laugh in Brianna=s face. No one but his sister Avery could rant in such an operatic mode, and he thought Brianna would fare well in the comparison. But one look at Kithri=s face convinced him that she, for one, was taking Brianna seriously.
"Calm down, Bri," he said as diplomatically as he could. "There=s nothing to be gained by blaming one another. If there was a mistake, it was my mistake, not Kithri=s."
"I don=t blame her and I am quite calm already." Brianna began gathering the sheets of seaweed-film into meticulous piles, as if to underscore her rationality. "After all, she=s had no more education than a herd-beast. Not a shred of decent methodological training. It isn=t her fault--"
Kithri had started toward her own cubicle, but now she froze and turned slowly back. Her face flooded with color and her old nose break stood out as a chalky brand. She strode to the table and swept the entire contents--all of Brianna=s notes, styluses, and specimens--to the floor. Still without a word, she shoved one fist a hairsbreadth from Brianna=s nose and made an emphatic gesture. Then she spun around and marched out the door.
Brianna looked at Eril, her eyes innocently wide. "What--what did she--"
"Never mind." Eril bent to pick up a pile of films. "You don=t want to know what that meant."
"It=s just as well the translator doesn=t function for gestures," Brianna said as she knelt to gather up the rest of her materials. "Then we=d all have more to regret."
There=s nothing to do now but wait and hope that reviving Raerquel is as simple as Bhevon made it sound, Eril thought as he dumped his armful of films on the nearest bench. "You=ll be hours sorting all this out."
"That=s not a problem. If it=s one thing I=ve learned as a scientist, it=s to label everything properly."
"I see that. You=re very good at it." He paused. "Brianna, there are a few things we need to talk about."
"I agree. You=ve been so busy, we haven=t had time to discuss our progress...or anything else." She smiled and took a few steps toward her cubicle. "Come on, see what I=ve done."
Somehow she=d found a curtain for privacy, now pulled back along a slender crystal rod. A comforter and overstuffed pillows covered her cot. The once-smooth walls had been replaced by an elaborate abstract frieze.
He stopped and stared. "Where did you get this stuff?"
"Not all of us have been cooped up in the laboratory for days at a time. I=ve been working this culture, and also learning how to extract a few favors in the process." She sat on the bed. "What are you waiting out there for? I thought you wanted to talk."
The bed surface yielded just the right amount under Eril=s weight. The conversation was definitely going in the wrong direction. He searched his memory for the tactics that had worked with his sister, something outrageous enough to keep her off balance and never sure if he was really joking. But Brianna was not Avery and he had to work with her, depend on her. He cleared his throat.
"Look," he said, "you didn=t sign up to be part of a team and neither did I. But we are one. We have to be. Maybe everything we=re trying to do is hopeless. Maybe the duolinkage was impossible to begin with. Or maybe the war will start before we can get anywhere with it--space knows the situation hasn=t gotten any better these last few days. But I=ll tell you one thing for sure--Kithri=s laying her life, not to mention her sanity, on the line for us. And you--you=re treating her like shit."
While he spoke, Brianna sat very straight, hardly moving except for curling her fingers in the silky covering of a pillow and pulling it on her lap. The color drained from her cheeks, her lips, even her eyes.
"You=re on her side--"
"There are no sides here," he said grimly. "And if Kithri had saved my skin with those pirates the way she did yours, I=d be a damned sight less judgmental about her."
In the shocked moment that followed, Brianna hung her head and began crying, at first soundlessly, then with throttled, almost hiccoughing sobs. Tears rolled down her face and splotched the pillow.
Eril watched her, still too angry to feel much sympathy for her. Whatever she was up to with her emotional outburst, he wasn=t going to play into it. Then he remembered that this was the woman who dug herself out of a rock slide with her bare hands, who dealt calmly and effectively with the three of them when they=d appeared so mysteriously. Who went running into the pirates= arms to save his skin.
"It=s the stress," he said awkwardly. "It=s affecting all of us."
"No, you=re right, I have acted judgmental toward Kithri," Brianna said, visibly struggling to control herself. "Judgmental and unfair. It=s always been so easy for me, I=ve never had much sympathy for other people=s shortcomings. I had everything I ever wanted--money, academic advancement, work I loved. I thought I deserved it, and if anyone else had difficulties, they must be his own fault. I must have been insufferabe."
She hugged the pillow to her chest. "And then when things did go wrong--the slide, the pirates--and Kithri refusing to go along with anything I proposed. She made me so angry--I felt certain her impulsiveness would result in catastrophe. I never stopped to think the problem might be my own expectations. Attitudes, expressions of speech--they get ingrained, like reflexes, even when you don=t mean them. When things happen so fast, you keep on behaving the way you always have. Without thinking. I guess I=m trying to apologize. I=m not very good at it."
"It=s Kithri you should apologize to."
"I know, but I=m not sure I can. This way--not matter what happens--I=ll have said it to somebody."
She sounded so bleak, so desolate that Eril had to look away. Finally he said, in a voice that he wished wasn=t his, "The rest of the day=s worthless. I=m going to find Lennart and fill him in, maybe catch up with Kithri and re-civilize her. Hopefully, we=ll have news about Raerquel=s condition soon."
Brianna watched him as he left her cubicle and then slowly drew her door curtain closed.
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