Take a look at Zenn Scarlett by Christian Schoon, out on May 7 from Strange Chemistry:
Zenn Scarlett is a bright, determined, occasionally a-little-too-smart-for-her-own-good 17-year-old girl training hard to become an exoveterinarian. That means she’s specializing in the treatment of exotic alien life forms, mostly large and generally dangerous. Her novice year of training at the Ciscan Cloister Exovet Clinic on Mars will find her working with alien patients from whalehounds the size of a hay barn to a baby Kiran Sunkiller, a colossal floating creature that will grow up to carry a whole sky-city on its back.
But after a series of inexplicable animal escapes from the school and other near-disasters, the Cloister is in real danger of being shut down by a group of alien-hating officials. If that happens, Zenn knows only too well the grim fate awaiting the creatures she loves.
Now, she must unravel the baffling events plaguing her school, before someone is hurt or killed, before everything she cares about is ripped away from her and her family forever. To solve this mystery – and live to tell about it – Zenn will have to put her new exovet skills to work in ways she never imagined, and in the process learn just how powerful compassion and empathy can be.
Wind clawed at the canvas tarp covering Zenn in the cargo bed of the ancient pickup truck. The truck picked up speed, rattling and bucking down the rutted dirt road, and it took all her strength to keep the coarse cloth from being ripped out of her hands. But more speed was good. It meant her father and Otha hadn’t noticed her hiding beneath the tarp… yet. The truck hit a bump; she lifted several inches into the air, then came down painfully against the rusty surface.
Never leave the cloister.
That was the first rule, the important rule. Bad things happened outside the cloister walls. Frightening things. Lurching and bouncing in the back of the speeding truck, Zenn was fairly certain she was already as frightened as it was possible to be. But breaking the first rule was only part of what made her heart leap inside her like a cornered animal. The other fearful thing floated somewhere far beyond the Martian sky above – a starship. Inside it was an Indra, one of the biggest, most astonishing creatures in the known universe. And trapped inside the Indra’s body, was Zenn’s mother.
Zenn knew something was wrong the moment her uncle rushed into the cloister yard earlier that morning. He was breathless from running. Otha was a big man, and he seldom ran.
“Warra, it’s Mai,” Otha said to her father. “It’s serious. You’d better come.”
Predictably, her father said she would have to wait with Sister Hild at the cloister compound while he and Otha drove to Arsia City and took an orbital ferry up to the starship. Zenn had protested, had even cried a little. It didn’t help. She was to be left behind. But when Hild was busy filling bowls, tubs and other containers with food for the morning feeding of the animals currently among the clinic’s menagerie of patients, Zenn had quietly slipped out the side door of the refectory kitchen.
Now, breathing dust and bio-diesel fumes beneath the tarp, her uncle’s words circled in her mind. How serious was “serious”? Zenn was well aware her mother dealt with many kinds of large, dangerous alien animals, including the enormous Indra. Her mother was an exoveterinarian; that was her job. This Indra was sick. And her mother had gone into its body to cure it. Then something had gone wrong. Very, very wrong.
The truck hit an especially deep hole in the road, tossing Zenn so high she was almost thrown out the back. She forced herself not to think about what would happen to her if she fell out, even if she survived the impact. People caught alone, out beyond the cloister walls or the safety of villages, were being robbed of anything they carried: money, food, supplies, even their shoes. Some were beaten when they resisted, a few had been killed, if the stories could be believed. And with every story, it seemed to be getting worse.
Never leave the cloister.
Another vicious bump and her head banged down hard. The rough fabric of the wind-whipped canvas bit painfully into the skin of her fingers, and the acrid exhaust smell was making her feel sick. Then, thankfully, the truck slowed, the wind died. They must be close to the ferry port outside Arsia.
A minute later, the truck turned sharply and skidded to a stop. Two doors creaked open and slammed shut. Zenn threw off the tarp and stood, releasing a cloud of fine, red dust. Her father and Otha were striding toward the ramshackle hut that passed for the launch pad’s control tower.
“Dad!” she yelled, her voice cracking.
It’s serious. You’d better come.
He couldn’t go without her. That’s all there was to it.
Her father was angry, of course. She’d expected that. But there was no time to drive her back to the safety of the cloister, so they had to take her with them.
Just nine years old at the time, Zenn wasn’t really surprised that now, thinking back on it, she recalled little about the ferry ride into orbit or their arrival at the starship. She did remember the ship was vast, bigger than anything she’d ever seen. Her next clear memory was of the piercing, almost shocking cold inside the ship’s pilot room. She recalled clearly the air there was cold enough to turn her breath into spheres of ice-crystal mist that formed and disappeared like tiny, glittering ghosts.
The pilot room was a long, low, dimly lit space. The walls flickered with lighted dials and screens, and there was a strangely sweet, smoky scent in the air that seemed somehow out of place in the frigid room. Zenn saw that the scent arose from a bundle of smoldering twigs on a tiny stone alter set into an alcove on one wall. She realized this was the incense her mother had told her about; it was burned in the pilot room as part of the secretive rituals conducted by those who attended the Indra.
A large chair sprouting odd machinery and wires was mounted on some sort of swiveling base in the center of the floor, and a viewing window filled most of one wall. The window looked out into the Indra chamber. From her mother’s stories of treating other Indra, Zenn understood that this was the place the animal would come when it was called to by the starship pilot, the Indra groom. Then the Indra would take the starship to its destination. Young as she was, Zenn had no inkling how this was accomplished; but she did know that since Indra ships were the only means of travel between the stars, Indra were very important creatures.
Zenn’s father and Otha were talking to a tall woman dressed in a close-fitting bodysuit of a cloth that shone like metal. The patches on the shoulders of her uniform, and the shifting pattern of animated tattoos visible on her neck and face, identified the woman as the starship’s Indra groom.
For a moment, Zenn stood staring at the many metal rings, tiny chains and jeweled studs the groom wore on her face and in her ears. Then movement caught her eye. She went to stand on tiptoes at the viewing window – and gasped at her first glimpse of a real, live Indra. The animal’s head, big as a hay barn, was all she could see. The rest of its colossal body coiled off into the shadowy recesses of the chamber.
Of the many facts Zenn’s mother imparted to her about the Indra, two stood out: the Indra’s size, and how the creature got its nickname, Stonehorse.
“Indra are among the largest animals in explored space,” her mother had said during one of these talks. She showed Zenn a v-film drawing of an Indra. To indicate its size, the creature’s legless, slightly flattened serpentine body was drawn next to a starliner. “Indra grow to be over seven hundred feet,” her mother continued “See? It’s almost a quarter the length of the starship.”
Zenn was puzzled by this. It didn’t seem possible such a big animal could be contained in the ship and still leave room for any passengers.
“How does it fit?” she’d asked.
“Good question.” Her mother pointed to one end of the starship. “See how the ship bulges out at the back? That’s the Indra warren. It curves around inside, like a giant sea shell. The Indra lives in the curving tunnels of the warren.”
“Why does it live there, in a ship?”
“In the wild, Indra live inside the caverns of asteroids. When the Indra wants to travel somewhere, it does something called tunneling. Well, Alcubierre null-spin quantum tunneling, but that’s kind of hard to explain. What’s important is that the Indra have evolved the ability to move very long distances through space in a very short time. When the Indra does this, when it tunnels, it carries its asteroid home in front of it. The nickel and iron metals in the asteroid act like a shield, to protect the Indra from dangerous particles in space. Long, long ago, a race of beings that no longer exists figured out a way to harness the Indra to propel starships. To make the Indra feel at home in the ships, they built the warrens to be like caves in an asteroid. In fact, in an old language called Latin, the Indra are called Lithohippus indrae. Litho means stone. And hippus means horse. That’s why some people call the Indra Stonehorses.”
Zenn liked that the Indra had this nickname. On the one hand, it was comical, since an Indra’s body looked nothing at all like Earther horses. But on the other hand, the fact that the Indra took starships to other places was just like a horse taking a wagon somewhere.
At the moment, the Stonehorse Zenn was looking at floated in the zero gravity and airless vacuum of its chamber. The scales of its armored skin gleamed gold and red, its face covered in tendrils that waved slowly to and fro. The creature’s head, she had to admit, did look vaguely like an Earther sea horse, or possibly like a sleepy, fairytale dragon. Impossible as it seemed, her mother was inside this animal. And she couldn’t get out.
Behind Zenn, Warra Scarlett’s voice rose. He was almost yelling at the tall woman now, and this was enough to pull Zenn’s attention from the Indra. Her father never yelled. He was asking how the groom had lost contact with her mother, something about backup systems and how they were not supposed to fail.
Also in the pilot room was a short, stout, gray-haired man in an all-white uniform. Otha addressed him as captain. The captain tried to calm her father, but it didn’t seem to have much effect. Her father said that her mother’s assistant, Vremya, should be able to help get her mother out of the Indra. Zenn looked into the chamber again and saw that the assistant was floating high up at the back of the huge room, wearing a helmeted vac-suit as she bent over a small console tethered to the wall next to her.
The groom explained to her father that Vremya had tried to help, but for some reason she was unable to make contact with the pod carrying her mother. Then the groom waved one hand and a virtual read-out screen shimmered to life in the center of the room. Zenn moved in closer to see the virt-screen better – and to be nearer to her father as the voices in the room grew more urgent and upset.
On the virt-screen, the outline of the Indra’s upper body glowed as a sort of three-dimensional x-ray. Just below the point where the Indra’s long body joined the sea-horse head, Zenn could see a small, oval-shaped blinking light – the in-soma pod that held her mother. With every blink, the pod moved a little closer to the Indra’s head.
Otha pointed to the blinking dot, and said the in-soma pod wasn’t working correctly; that it was carrying her mother toward the Indra’s skull. He said the pod was only designed to travel in certain parts of the animal’s body. Just hearing Otha’s steady voice and calm, matter-of-fact explanation of the situation made Zenn feel a little better. Otha had assisted her mother during other in-soma pod insertions into Indra. He knew the animals almost as well as Mai. If anyone could help her mother now, it was her uncle.
“If the pod reaches the Indra’s skull,” Otha said then, “It will trigger a lethal spike in Dahlberg radiation.” Zenn’s father shook his head, not understanding. “It’s surge of quantum particles. A by-product of the Indra’s tunneling ability. It’s a protective mechanism – something like an immune response.” Otha gave her father a look. Zenn could tell from this look, and Otha’s tone of voice, that this was a bad thing.
Her father became even more excited and angry then, and was speaking very fast to the groom when a loud alarm blared through the room. Everyone turned to the viewing window. They saw the animal seemed to be in distress, or some sort of pain. It shook its massive head up and down, back and forth, as if to rid itself of something. Flashing emergency beacons came on, bathing the Indra in stark, intermittent bursts of illumination.
Then a blinding, blue-white surge of light exploded out from the Indra. Zenn clapped her hands over her eyes. Another flash, even brighter, was visible through her fingers. And, at that moment, a feeling unlike anything she’d ever felt flowed through her. It was a sort of dizziness; a sudden warmth, a feeling she might faint. But more than that, it was a feeling that her body was no longer her own, familiar body. The odd sensation ran through her like an electric charge, and then vanished as quickly as it had come. It was, she thought later, probably just a reaction to the fear and confusion that gripped her. It was as if some part of her knew what was happening to her mother; knew but didn’t want to know.
Everyone was shouting then, and a very bright, blue-white glow streamed steadily from the Indra chamber into the pilot room. It appeared to Zenn that no one there knew what to do, and this scared her more than anything. A deep, grinding sound came from the ceiling, and a thick slab of dull gray metal began to slide down to cover the viewing window. The groom yelled for them all to move back and a second later the slab hit the floor with an impact that shook the room.
“No!” her father cried, turning to the woman. “We can’t see into the chamber. We need to see.”
Zenn ran at the metal slab that now stood between her and the place where she knew her mother was in unspeakable danger. Zenn pounded on the cold, hard surface of the metal, but it didn’t move. She screamed – she couldn’t remember if she screamed words or if she just produced some meaningless sound.
“The blast shield deployed automatically,” the groom said, not looking away from the multiple virt-screens now dancing in the air around her. “It will remain in place until levels are safe again.”
“Levels?” her father shouted. “What levels?” She didn’t answer him.
The alarm continued to blare for a few seconds more, then cut off. The groom stood very still, staring at the virt-screens.
“No…” she said quietly to herself, as if she didn’t believe what the screens showed her. “It cannot be…”
The blast shield rumbled to life and lifted back up into the ceiling. They all waited. No one moved or spoke. When the shield was halfway up, Zenn ran and ducked under it. She rushed to the viewing window, strained to see into the room beyond. The walls smoked as if swept by some terrible fire. Except for the smoky haze and flashing emergency lights, there was nothing to be seen. It was empty. Completely, horrifyingly empty.
“She is gone,” the groom said, her voice low and strange. “My Stonehorse… gone.”
Her father stared through the viewing window. He covered his eyes with one hand, and then looked again. Otha reached out and put a hand on her father’s arm.
“Otha…” he said. “What happened?”
“I don’t know, Warra,” her uncle said. He looked out to where, moments ago, the Indra had been. “This shouldn’t… I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve never heard of this sort of reaction. I don’t know what to say. Warra… I’m sorry.”
Zenn stood at the viewing window, her breath visible, rising and dying before her, fogging the glass. Her father came to stand next to her. He lifted both hands to lay them flat against the window’s surface. After a moment, he turned, reached out and brought her body in close to his. She pulled back just a little, so she could see his face, so she could see what this all meant, see what she should say, or do, or think. In the biting cold of the room, tears cut hot trails down her cheeks.
The one thing she did remember quite clearly from that day was what her father said next.
“It’s alright, Zenn,” he told her, looking at her but not seeing her, as if seeing something only visible to him, “…we’ll be alright.”
She knew her father meant what he said. He didn’t mean to lie. He was just wrong. But in the years to come, it wouldn’t be Warra Scarlett’s fault that their life did not even approach being “alright.” When things finally went from merely sad to utterly catastrophic, Zenn was quite certain of one thing. The fault… was hers.
Zenn could see herself reflected in the gigantic eyeball, as if she stood before a gently curved, full-length mirror. She didn’t like what she saw. It had nothing to do with being inches away from a two-foot-wide eye – she’d seen bigger eyes. It was the odd angle of the tank-pack strapped to her back. She hadn’t noticed before – she was too preoccupied with getting into position on the bridge of the whalehound’s nose. But her reflection revealed the pack was sagging badly to one side. It could pull her off-balance if the animal made any sudden moves.
This I can fix, she told herself. Just don’t let anything else happen. Please, don’t let that… other thing happen.
She tugged at a harness strap to center the pack between her shoulders, but the motion startled the hound. He blinked and flinched, and she wobbled violently, arms flailing. Her foot slid on the slick fur – she was going to fall off. Her hand closed around something – an eyelash thick as a broomstick. A quick pull brought her upright again. She let go of the lash as though it were a red-hot poker and froze.
Had she spooked the animal? Tense seconds passed. But the hound just regarded her calmly with his one good eye, huffed out a low groan and was still; waiting to see what the spindly little creature on his snout would do next.
She glanced at Otha on the pen floor thirty feet below. Apparently, he hadn’t noticed her misstep. That was a first. He was intent on monitoring the whalehound’s vitals and the sedation field, his attention on the virt-screens hovering before his face like oversized, translucent butterflies.
Congratulating herself on a disaster averted, Zenn risked a few extra seconds to savor the view from this novel vantage point. Stretching away below her, the hound’s sleek, streamlined body reached almost to the far side of the hundred-foot holding pen. Still damp from his morning swim, the animal’s thick, chocolate-brown fur released wisps of steam into the cool Martian air. Beyond the holding pen, the view encompassed most of the cloister grounds – over the clay-tiled rooftop of the infirmary building to the refectory dining hall. Looking past the open ground in the center of the cloister walk, Zenn could see all the way to the crumbling hulk of the chapel ruins. The chapel, like most of the cloister’s earliest buildings, was a massive, handsome structure constructed of large sandstone blocks quarried from the canyon walls. The more recent buildings, on the other hand, reflected the changing situation on Mars. Harvesting and transporting huge chunks of stone was energy intensive. Accordingly, most of the buildings put up in the past few years were made from any materials that could be scrounged, salvaged or recycled.
Visible over the rooftops of the nearby buildings, the sheer, two-thousand-foot red rock canyon walls shouldered in on both sides of the compound. Squinting against the sunlight, Zenn could just make out the metallic glint of the bary-gens. About the size and shape of a fifty-five-gallon drum, each barometric ionic generator was mounted some three hundred feet up, anchored to the cliffs on either side of the canyon at regular intervals. The pressure-seal created by the generators shimmered like a heat mirage where the oxygen-and-water rich air of the valley pressed up against the thin, lifeless atmosphere above it. Terraforming the entire surface of the planet had never been an option; too expensive, too lengthy and complex. Modifying only the land they needed, piece by piece, down in valleys was the obvious solution. Now, sections of the Valles Marinaris and the other half-dozen enclosed valleys strung out across the planet’s mid-section were the sole refuges of the remaining human colonists on Mars. Beyond these protected canyons, up amid the ultra-violet-blasted plains, towering volcanoes and ancient dried-up ocean beds of Mars, nothing grew, nothing breathed, and nothing moved but dancing dust-devils.
Here, in her home valley, the lush scent of freshly mowed switchgrass rode on the breeze that blew from the depths of the four-mile-deep canyon systems to the east. Above, a scattering of mare’s-tail clouds drifted high in the ruddy-pink sky.
The hound yawned beneath her, and Zenn bent at the knees to absorb the motion, bracing herself as the jaws clapped together again with a click of massive canines. Adapted for pursuing their equally huge prey through the planet-wide oceans of Mu Arae, whalehounds reminded Zenn of immense, eight-legged otters, but with more elongated heads and jaws bristling with double rows of teeth long and sharp as sabers. It was only during Otha’s rounds earlier this morning that he’d noticed the animal’s reddened, weeping eye. Zenn’s sleep-dazed state of mind had instantly cleared when, between bites of toasted muffin at breakfast, her uncle said she’d be allowed to handle the treatment. He said he was getting too old to go hound-climbing.
Otha’s confidence in her came as a pleasant surprise. The whalehound had been purchased recently by the royal family of the Leukkan Kire – and they were paying royally to have him housed at the cloister until they came to pick him up. If anything went wrong, they could lose that money. And the cloister, Zenn knew, couldn’t afford to lose any money right now. Just last week Ren Jakstra had come around again to badger Otha about the overdue mortgage payment. He wasn’t nice about it.
“Are you set up there?” The buzz of her uncle’s voice in her earpiece brought her back to the task at hand. “I’m boosting the seda-field to fifty percent… now,” he said. The effect of the general sedation field was immediate: the hound’s body drooped, and the lid of his open left eye lowered to half- mast. The right eyelid slowly crept up, allowing Zenn to see more of the infected tear duct canal. “Alright. He’s under,” Otha said.
With the seda-field at half power, the hound should be just relaxed enough to let her gently rinse his eye with the solution in the tank-pack. Taking extra care to keep her movements slow and deliberate, Zenn eased the spray nozzle from the holster on her belt and took aim at the inflamed tissue in the corner of the hound’s right eye.
Then, without warning, it was there. Inside her mind. Waking, stirring to life under the surface of her thoughts, making her vision dim and knees watery beneath her.
The sensation rose up like a fire flaring from hidden embers, writhing, probing… searching… releasing a wave of unnatural warmth, dizziness and nausea deep inside her.
The hound craned his huge head to one side. She saw his left eye focus, the huge, inky pupil dilating, his attention fixing on her, keen, unsettling.
But this time, there was something new, something she hadn’t noticed the other times she’d felt this, with the other animals. This time there was pain. Sharp, burning her eyes. No, not eyes. Just her right eye, as if scoured by sandpaper.
This can’t be happening…
“Remember,” Otha’s voice sounded far away. “Gentle on the trigger.”
Only half-aware of what she was doing, Zenn’s finger closed around the nozzle trigger. But then, at the merest touch of her finger, the nozzle activated. Instantly, there was a seething whoosh of rapidly released pressure. Solution sprayed wildly in all directions. Her safety goggles were immediately coated with a thick froth, and the salt-sweetness of antibiotic-laced saline solution filled her mouth. She spit and gagged and tore the foam-covered goggles off. A second later, the whalehound reacted.
The first, violent shake of his head sent Zenn sailing into the air. With a spine-wrenching jolt, the safety line attached to her pack harness snapped tight, pushing the breath from her lungs. The world spun around her, a multi-colored blur. She swung back toward the hound, slamming hard into his neck. Her headset and goggles were sheared off by the impact, one leg wedged awkwardly between her and the animal. Pain shot through her, so sharp she thought the leg must be broken. Then she was swinging away again, whipped out and up, past one huge, whiskered cheek, then jerking around to fly past the other. She gasped for air, and glimpsed Otha far below, scrambling to get out of the way.
The half-blinded hound lumbered backwards. Zenn bounced viciously in the harness, the straps cutting into her flesh. With a screech of bending metal, the animal plowed into the side of the infirmary at the rear of the pen, sending wall panels flying to the ground. Still shaking his head, and Zenn with it, he lurched forward again, heading directly for one of the transmit posts of the pen’s energy fencing. She fought to get a grip on the safety line, the slick rope slipping through her fingers. Surely, the line couldn’t take the strain. Surely, any second it would break, sending her flying like a tetherball cut free.
And then, in an instant, it was over. The hound halted his headlong rush, and stood, breathing hard. The strange sensation gripping Zenn vanished, along with the pain in her eye, as if whatever connection she and the animal had briefly shared was now severed. Beneath his dripping jaws, she swung back and forth, each arc smaller than the next. She saw Otha, working the virt-screens again. He must have dialed the seda-field up to full power.
The hound’s eyelids lowered to slits, his massive frame curled in on itself and he crouched low, folding eight pillar-thick legs beneath him. The muscular tail swept side-to-side once before coming to rest on the pen floor. With a gust of exhaled breath the animal closed his eyes and was still.
Zenn hung limp, suspended from the safety line beneath the hound’s jaw. Beneath her coveralls, an ice-cold trickle of liquid snaked down her back. Otha was directly underneath her, his upturned face lined with concern. Bits of debris littered the ground around him.
“Zenn! Are you hurt? Speak up, girl.”
“I’m… I’m fine,” she sputtered through clenched teeth, struggling for breath, her body twisting on the line, her shoulders and thighs burning where the straps dug into her. “I’m alright.”
“Are you?” Otha said, hands on his hips, watching her dangling in mid-air. “That would be a matter of opinion.”
Zenn’s face flushed hot.
A simple eyewash. And I messed it up. Well done, Zenn, you just blew test number one…
Finally, she gathered herself sufficiently to grasp the safety line and regain her footing on the soggy fur of the hound’s chest. Releasing the line’s hand brakes, she rappelled to the ground.
Otha reached up to steady her as she touched down, his face stern. They moved away from the hound toward the transmit post that held the fence’s control panel. Her left leg felt as if it might buckle under her, but at least it wasn’t broken. She made an effort to keep Otha from seeing her limp. They stopped, and it took her a moment to realize Otha was waiting for her to shut down the fence so they could exit – a reminder that this was her patient, her responsibility.
She toggled the switch and the invisible energy barrier crackled off. Still trying to clear her head after what just happened, she was about to switch the fence back on as Otha came to help her out of the tank-pack. Strands of her hair lay like damp red cobwebs across her face. Her sodden coveralls, pant legs and sleeves rolled up to fit, clung to her like a clammy second skin. She didn’t want to imagine what sort of scrawny, drowned animal she must look like – a Tanduan skinkstork, according to Otha. And that’s when she wasn’t soaking wet.
She was tall for her age, but not tall enough in her own opinion, her body thin and wiry, her straight-as-string waist-length hair the color of Brother Hamish’s homemade strawberry wine. Years of clinic chores and fieldwork had left her lean, muscled and tan, with constellations of freckles spangled across arms and face. She didn’t mind the freckles especially, but she alternated between liking the look of her strong arms, and then wondering if they made her look boyish, and then wondering why she was wasting time thinking about this at all.
As she stood dripping before him, Otha gave her a hard look.
Zenn winced at the sound of the word. Halfway through her novice year – and this is how she showed him what she could do. Wonderful. Nice job.
“I… lost my balance. I must have hit the nozzle keypad when I slipped,” she said, being careful to avoid his gaze so he couldn’t read the lie she was telling. “I should have locked in the setting.”
“That you should,” Otha said, inspecting the tank-pack nozzle to confirm her error. “And what should you have done when you slipped? That is, after you hoisted yourself back aboard the animal using his eyelid for a hand-hold?”
He’d seen. Of course he’d seen. He never misses my mistakes. And now he’s going to turn it into a “teaching moment”. Perfect.
“I should have checked the setting again,” she said, trying not to sound irritated with him, still not meeting his gaze.
“Right. But I’ll tell you what you did instead. You patted yourself on the back and took a little extra time for some daydreaming, eh? Enjoy the view?” Zenn inspected the ground at her feet. Otha was mad. With good reason. But his temper was shorter than usual lately. She assumed it was the cloister’s finances, or what was left of them. That and the towners. But to have Otha talk to her like this inflicted an almost physical pain on her.
“I slipped, Otha,” she repeated. “If I could try one more time…”
“You know how this works, Zenn,” Otha said, cutting her off. “Results for end of term proficiency tests are final. Period. I’m required to report scores to the Level Progress certification board. And even if I was allowed to show you any favoritism, I wouldn’t. That would do you no good at all in the long run. Now, you just had some bad luck on the first test. But no need to panic. Two tests left. And I’m sure you’ll make up the difference on those. Won’t you?”
She nodded, and briefly considered bringing up the fact that the tank pack spray nozzle seemed to have developed a sudden case of hair-trigger. But Otha, she could tell, was in no mood for excuses, valid or not.
“Check lists, novice,” he said. Apparently, the lecture wasn’t over yet. “We have them for a reason. What’s the first item on the list when treating mega-fauna?”
“Big animals are dangerous. Small mistakes are deadly,” she intoned, her face going even redder as she recited this, the most basic principle of all.
I know what went wrong, Otha.
Actually, that wasn’t entirely true either. She knew she should’ve verified the nozzle setting, of course. And checked the trigger sensitivity. But she had no idea what had just happened with… the other thing. She certainly couldn’t tell her uncle that, though. With his fiercely bearded face, graying braids and barrel-chest, facing Otha’s displeasure was more like confronting a medieval Earther warlord than the director-abbot of a Ciscan cloister training clinic. She kept quiet and wrung solution out of her hair.
“You’ve been a little… distracted lately, eh?” Otha’s sharp tone said this was the teacher speaking, not the uncle. “Maybe more than a little. Studies? End of term jitters? Or something else?”
Studies? Well, yes, for starters! she wanted to say. The heavy course load, the late-night cramming sessions, the merciless exam schedule, all on top of her usual chores and tending the clinic’s animals. Prepping for her all-important end of term tests was just more of the same, only with the added stress that the results would determine if she progressed to the next level of training or… well, the alternative was too horrific to consider. She had to accumulate a passing score on the tests. The first was the whalehound eye wash, and she was fairly sure she’d failed that about as miserably as was humanly possible. But Otha was right. Two more chances. And no reason to think she wouldn’t ace the next one: an in-soma pod insertion into a Tanduan swamp sloo. And while the mere thought of being confined in the body-hugging interior of the pod instantly provoked feelings of claustrophobia, Zenn felt quite confident about that particular test. She knew the in-soma procedures backward and forward. Despite her mother’s fatal in-soma run on the Indra, or maybe because of it, Zenn had always been drawn to the device and its remarkable capabilities. She was actually looking forward to finally going beyond the textbook diagrams and v-film animations, and taking a pod into a living animal for the first time. So, test number two was in the bag.
Test number three, however, was much more worrisome. Legendary among exovet novice trainees, the end of term Third Test was always a mystery – at least until the day it was sprung on the unsuspecting novice. The only requirement was that it had to be roughly within the parameters of something the novice should already know at that point in the program. As director-abbot of the Ciscan cloister school, Otha was allowed to pick the procedure and the animal for the Third Test, but was not allowed to so much as hint at what the challenge entailed. This, as any exovet novice in history would freely admit, was crazy-making.
And, of course, beyond her schoolwork, there was her father. But Warra Scarlett was a different kind of problem altogether. Worst of all of this was the hard fact she couldn’t bring any of it up with Otha. Being overworked and stressed was simple reality for any would-be exoveterinarian in their first year of training. And besides, none of this was the real issue. The real issue was what just took place between her and the whalehound, whatever that was.
Why now? Why is this happening to me now, of all times?
Maybe it was nothing, she told herself. Maybe it was her imagination. Maybe it would just go away. The problem was that she simply didn’t have enough information to form a working hypothesis. And without the building blocks of a basic premise about what was happening between her and the animals recently, she had no hope of getting to the truth. She had to wait, gather data… or in this case, let the data happen to her, and attempt to sort it out afterwards. The facts so far simply made no kind of sense, gave her nothing to work with. This was deeply frustrating. But Zenn had been raised in a house of science. And the clean, unambiguous answers science yielded had demonstrated the superiority of this approach time and time again.
Let the world speak for itself.
She heard this from Otha on a regular basis. This was the simple key, the scalpel-sharp tool of the scientific mind. Of her mind. She would wait for the data.
“…and if the course load is too much for you, if you need a break,” Otha was saying, his voice a little softer now, one large hand coming to rest on her shoulder, “you need to speak up. These animals don’t just deserve your full concentration. They demand it. You know that.”
“I’m fine, really,” she said quickly, a sharp flutter of fear passing through her. Zenn knew she would be – knew she had to be an exoveterinarian from the moment she learned there was such a thing. She also knew novices had been dismissed from the cloister exovet school for less serious mistakes than the one she’d just made. She couldn’t tell Otha what she’d been feeling lately. She couldn’t risk being washed out of the program. And after what just happened, that unthinkable disaster suddenly edged a little closer to the realm of the possible.
“I’m just tired, that’s all,” she lied again. “I’ll do better.” To avoid Otha’s eyes she turned toward the sedated hound. He could have been hurt. So could she and Otha.
“Right,” her uncle said. “That would be wise. When we send the royal family’s hound back to them, we want to hand over a healthy animal, don’t we?”
“Good. Lesson learned.” Otha waved his hand at the virt-screens still drifting around his head. But instead of turning off, the screens flickered fitfully and gave off a harsh whine. The main CPU needed new optic relays. That, however, would take spare parts, and spare parts of any kind had been in short supply on Mars for as long as Zenn could remember. The Rift with Earth made sure of that. Now stretching into its second decade, the Rift’s imposition by the ruling Authority on Earth had totally shut down Earther trade with Mars, or with any of the dozen alien-inhabited planets of the Local Systems Accord. The effect on the Martian colonies had been minimal at first. The true scope of the Rift only gradually revealed itself. Now, as old machinery and technology began to wear out, break down or become obsolete, there was no chance of replacement parts or software upgrades from the original Earther suppliers.
And the increasingly troublesome “Indra problem” was only making it even harder to get supplies from the other planets of the Accord – not to mention bring new clients to the clinic. Another starship had been reported missing just last week. During the past five years alone, almost two dozen Indra-powered ships and everyone on board them had vanished without so much as a neutrino trail. So far, the losses were limited to ships plying the far frontier areas – military scouts, survey missions. Some sort of on-board mechanical failure was suspected, but at this point, the sporadic reports that filtered through to Mars made it sound as if investigators had turned up nothing conclusive.
The fact was that the only place on Mars that would have anything as exotic as optic relays for their virt-screen was New Zubrin. And the only mag-lev train still running regularly from Arsia to Zubrin was being stopped and robbed by outlaw bands of scab-landers on a weekly basis. Pushed out into the most inhospitable and barren canyons known as scab-lands, these lawless, roving gangs were made up of the men and women who’d entirely given up on adhering to the rules governing what remained of civilized life in the towns. Scab-landers took what they wanted, whenever they wanted it.
Otha frowned at the malfunctioning screens circling him and waved his hand again, more emphatically. This time the screens obeyed, winking off with a series of quiet popping sounds.
“I want to try again,” Zenn said, attempting to sound more confident than she felt. She bent to rub at her aching leg, but then stopped when she thought Otha might see. She saw Otha frowning at her. “I know it won’t count in the test scoring. But he needs his eye taken care of.”
“We’ll take a break. Get you some dry clothes and pour a mug of hot cider down you. It’s best we let the animal settle a bit.” Otha gave her a steady look. “And you too.” The chill of fear raced through her again. She managed to give her uncle a half-hearted smile, but kept silent as they left the hound and headed for the refectory dining hall on the other side of the cloister grounds.
Zenn Scarlett © Christian Schoon 2013