Catch the Knife A novel fragment

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Section 1

G. Howell

My office door slammed open hard enough to rattle the opaque glass in its frame as Serithis burst in. It was the final straw for the teetering stack of documents and books over on the filing cabinet which collapsed and spread across the floor in an avalanche of paper and bureaucracy. I looked up from the old text I was reviewing and practising on, still in that alien mindframe as I snarled, "What the hell do you want?"

"We got one," he panted violently, utterly ignoring my outburst as he squatted at my desk. "Tohi, we actually got one."

I opened my mouth, about to utter the stupid question, then shook my head, trying to force my thinking back into normal speech mode as what he said registered. I felt my fur prickle as every hair tried to stand on end. "You're serious. Confirmed?"

"Confirmed. Multiple witnesses. Constabulary on scene and military enroute. On Highway Five down south. Get your kit ready. We're moving out in five minutes. The Highlander is in dock over at the skyport and will be waiting for us. I've got to round up the others."

His toe claws tore the crap out of my threadbare rug as he bolted out of the office. I could hear him shouting down the hall and the crash of another door. I just sat back on my cushion, the old book forgotten.

Shit. We got one. Finally. After all this time and training and practice and doubt, it had actually happened. I looked around the tiny, stuffy office, at the peeling plaster with the pale squares denoting where previous tenants had hung pictures; at the overcrowded shelves and stacks of documents piled on rickety furniture; the new bakelite fan trying vainly to get some of the hot air circulating in that cramped space. After the cutbacks and the loss of funding and staff, it'd happened.

I'd spent years doing this. People had said it was crazy and I suppose it was; studying a tongue that had never really existed. But I was one of those few who was able to mimic the weird sounds, on whom that simple little operation had had a good chance of success. I'd undergone that procedure and it'd worked and forever marked me as different. I'd studied under the few tutors who'd existed and I'd been accepted by the Department as linguist and specialist.

There'd been more of us back then. That was before studies were showing how astronomical the possibilities were and the government and Palace decided that perhaps we didn't need such a dedicated presence. Then there'd been the funding cuts and layoffs. When I joined, five years ago, there'd been thirty odd people working in here. Now there were only the six of us rattling around in these offices. If not a skeleton crew, then terminally undernourished.

Now there was a call. A verified sighting. I could hear shouting from outside, the clattering of feet on the wooden floors as people rushed about and realised I was wasting time.

"Tohi!" someone yelled as they raced past my office.

"Coming!" I yowled back as I launched myself across my desk. My ready pack was where I left it, buried behind a stack of boxes of hoaxes and false sightings. I just clawed them out of the way, sneezing at the clouds of dust that raised as I rooted through the debris for the canvass pack and did a quick check of contents. I threw in a few updated notebooks and slung it over my shoulder then bolted out of there, letting my toe claws dig into anything and damn the woodwork.

The Department's working van was waiting downstairs, the engine whining as K'Reschi pumped the gas impatiently. I threw my pack into the back and scrambled in after it. Serithis and Mai were already unrolling maps and scrawling marks and notations on them. Rasarch already had the radio up and was barking comtalk into the headset and while I got myself settled an equipment-laden Chrit hopped out of the building, swearing wildly as he tried to get his other leg into his breeches. We hauled him in, heedless of claws, and K'Reschi peeled out before the door was closed. The whole van reeked of stress, anxiety and anticipation.

"Right," Serithis lifted his voice, folding a map over so we could see what he'd marked out. "This is what we've got."

"Hold on," K'Reschi called back. "This is confirmed. You're sure? Not another Broken Sun?"

"We're sure," Serithis snapped back. "Early this morning a motorist reported he'd narrowly avoided a collision with another vehicle which ran off the road and overturned. He and some passer-byes, including a constable, went to check on the occupant and found it wasn't a Rris. Of course there was some shock on both sides. The other fled the scene and they were smart enough not to pursue. The constable called it in and now half the government resources in the area are moving in."

I couldn't help noticing something. "Highway Five? Right down there near the border?"

"Thank you, Tohi," he growled. "She's right. This is damn near the Bluebetter border. Our friend, whoever he is, could easily blunder over it and you can guarantee they've already got wind of this and are moving their people into place. Doesn't matter how friendly they are, they'd mate their own llamas to get hold of this. So would we."

"Shit," I said.

Ears twitched my way. "Succinctly put," Chrit said.

"So," Serithis hissed, annoyed at the interruption, "we're to get there as soon as possible, track our friend down and get him back here. We've got access to anything we need; unlimited resources," there were a few amused chitters at that. "One problem's going to be with the local Guard. They'll be hunting as well and we don't want them hurting him. They'll only have heard about this through stories, and their mothers only knew what those were. Last thing we need is someone after a hide."

"Won't make him very friendly," I said. "If he thinks he's being hunted. For them it's a fear like drowning is to us."

"We'll try to keep it low-key," he said. "We just have to find him. And that's going to be the fun part."

'We don't know it's a 'him'," Mai pointed out. "We don't even know if it is the same species."

"The witnesses said it fitted the pictures. We've no clue on language, but hopefully that won't be drastically different. And behaviour should follow the same patterns. That's going to give our expert something to do."

Eyes turned to me and I bared teeth back.

It took us the best part of an hour to reach the skyport out on the edge of the city. The Highlander was visible from a couple of kilometres away as we approached. Sunlight glared from massive silver envelope that dwarfed the fixed-wings and autogyros parked at station along the runways. As dirigibles went, it was one of the larger. Usually a luxury passenger liner on the Lakes route, we'd commandeered it for our own needs. A fixed wing would have been faster, but it wouldn't have the cargo capacity and couldn't land where we needed to go. And dirigibles did make excellent mobile bases of operation.

Skyport staff and the dirigible crew had been called and alerted. As we pulled up they were already rushing about preparing for an unscheduled departure. The Highlander was docked to a low station, the gondola nestled into buffers at ground level and the bag anchored by massive cables as fuel, ballast, and helium feeds were being disconnected, unnecessary cargo being offloaded. Guards at the gate stopped us, but K'Reshci flashed papers at them and they raced to pass us through. We skipped the terminal and drove straight out onto the apron, past the warning signs and barriers. A minute after we piled out and raced up the companionway into the Highlander lines were being cast off and the pumps were starting up.

It was designed as a luxury liner and it looked the part. Not the white plastic and chrome that are considered chic in some areas, but the old satin and carved wood panelling and brass fixtures. It's heavy. It means fewer passengers. But that means the ones they have simply pay more. And with the private cabins, catered service and cuisine it'd have to be... what's that phrase? A pretty penny?

The initial lurch was accompanied by the sensation that a fast elevator provides: that weight in your guts and tail. After that it was smooth, so smooth that if you didn't look out the windows and see the world falling away it was difficult to believe you were moving. The four big engines up on the envelope started up with a low drone that was barely perceptible. By the time we reached cruising altitude the lounge had been turned into an impromptu headquarters with papers and equipment scattered everywhere. Chrit and Rasarch had unpacked the camera and were spooling film and checking the battery packs. Mai was going through her medical kits. I frowned when I saw her scrutinising the levels in the tranquilliser darts, but we had to be prepared. I settled myself down on one of the couches and pulled a dogeared old volume out of my bag and tried to start thinking like an alien again.

It's not easy. It's like trying to not only turn off your personality, but to warp it to something else. No thought can be taken for granted: is it something he would do, or is it something that is built into the way my own mind works. If something is running, I don't just feel the urge to pursue. I can't instinctively avoid the deep water or rely on sheer speed. Sharp objects scratch painfully at thin hide. Dark places are fearful and hidden and the daylight is more colorful than I can imagine.

"Tohi!"

"What?" I responded in the alien tongue.

"Speak normally, rot it," Serithis sighed and jabbed a claw at the map spread out on the table. "We need your opinion. This is the area; where's the son likely to have gone?"

"Or daughter," K'Reschi rumbled.

"Oh, you'd like that, ah?" Rasarch grinned.

"It's why I joined," he retorted.

I ignored them and ambled over to look at the map. My head felt the way it usually did when I was in those segues: like my brain was singing a single high note. "Where'd he go," I asked and then had to repeat the question in a language they could understand.

"Last seen heading that way."

Huhn. Shocked, bewildered. On foot. "Probably looped back to the road. Bound to have seen other vehicles and retreated again. He'd be in the area, hiding and trying to figure out what's going on. Likely places would be these hills and ridges here and here. Get too many searchers in the area and he'll spook and run. I can't tell where. Does he have supplies? Food, water?"

"Unknown."

"I'd assume not. Water he might find but he's going to be getting very hungry. He won't stay around long but is going to strike out cross country. Probably following the road."

"South," someone muttered.

I looked at angles and the lay of the land and tried to see through alien eyes. "Most likely."

"Rot. So we've got a time problem here," Serithis mused. "Very well, we can set the local muscle as a line across here, blocking the border. That should also calm our outsider a bit if he sees that army retreating."

Whatever else you want to say about Serithis, he knows his job. We spent a couple of hours pouring over plans and strategies and contingencies until we were all sure of our roles. We are professionals, and this is something we've trained and practised for a long time. We knew what we were supposed to do, so once the briefing was done it was just a matter of waiting.

I curled up on the couch and went back to my studies while the dirigible plied its way southwards.

Section 2

The trip was uneventful. Night fell and the lights were brought up while the stewards provided a meal. They'd been loaded for a cruise so the fare was better than anything I'd had in a long while. Doubtless there were more than a few displaced hightip passengers raising a fury back in Shattered Water.

Well, there were things that took priority over even their comfort.

I caught a few hours sleep, but there were too many things preying on my thoughts. The hours I did catch were shallow and filled with disturbing dreams from other types of minds. I finally spent the small hours sitting at the window watching the moon and stars wax and wane and pale and give way to the growing salmon glow of sunrise through low mist.

It is really quite beautiful when seen from ten thousand metres.

The others had slept better and there was some excited chatter over the morning meal. It was understandable: their jobs didn't get inside their heads and copulate with their minds. I never really understood what a price my choice of career would require and it was at moments like that when everyone else seemed like outsiders that I almost resented it.

Other times... it has had its moments.

The sun was high in the sky when the pilot's voice came over the comm and we started our descent. We'd made good time considering that dirigible isn't the fastest means of transportation. As we dropped further I could see the north-south highway stretching out below us, the new tarmac a solid black line through the trees. I could also see the two military dirigibles hanging above the clusters of ground vehicles spread out along the road. Military, emergency, police and guard and even civilian vehicles. Mostly military trucks and transports.

As the pilot nudged us into position over the road spotters took their positions around the gondola, watching the surrounding trees for indications of wind gusts. There was no way the blimp was going to land, but it could hold position while passengers and cargo were winched down. The passenger cage was simply a strong steel mesh cage that could take four people at a time. It was a dizzying way to disembark: dangling from a cable fifty metres above the ground might be fun for some people, not for me.

The scene on the ground was organised chaos. There were vehicles cordoning the area off while troops, officers and specialists bustled around. Apparently the teams of experts from the Westwater Institute hadn't arrived yet, but other techs were milling around taking electric, magnetic and even what looked like seismic readings. A knot of officers were waiting as the cage scraped tarmac and settled with a jolt that had us flexing our knees. The crewman hustled Serithis, K'Reschi, myself and our equipment out quickly: being tethered to something that could be blown off station at any time wasn't the best way to hang around.

Serithis homed in on the ranking officer and had documents and papers out before the Garrison Commander could speak. She looked annoyed, but the Palace clearance gave us formidable authority. Way over her ears. While they talked, or shouted at times, I dropped my gear and looked around.

About a hundred metres of highway had been cleared. There were flags set in a row that led down the centreline and then veered eastwards, off the verge and into the trees. I caught a glimpse of something bright red there, surrounded by armed guards.

Shouts sounded and I looked around, confused at why they seemed to be shouting at me. Then K'Reschi caught my arm in his big hand and hauled me aside as the passenger cage descended again, clattering against the tarmac. Chirt grinned at me from behind the camera viewfinder while Rasarch was laden down with the battery pack and radio equipment.

"Watch your head," K'reschi chided me. "We're going to need it."

"Uh, thanks," I said and caught my pack, feeling my ear going back in embarrassment.

"Try and keep your mind on the job," Serithis sighed as he rejoined us. "WE've got authority here. Whatever we need, they'll provide. Here," he handed out laminated badges with rather unflattering photos of us. I clipped mine to the strap of my bag slung over my shoulders. "Passes and ID. Keep those on yourselves.

'Now, what they've got are several rather excited and annoyed motorists being detained for debriefing. They've also got something else."

That 'something else' turned out to be the red thing in the trees. As we approached I could see the marks on the road and in the gravel and the gouges in the earth and grass of the berm. There were small cardboard arrows and markers placed showing direction and estimated speed, but it was obvious it'd have to had been going pretty fast. It was a car, but it made the best sportscar produced by Smither Engineering look like a child's cart.

"Nice," K'reschi said.

It was. Very. Despite the fact it was rolled on its side. The outer shell seemed to be one fluid piece with the dark windows moulded into it. The underside was equally smooth, with just a few seams showing where access panels might lie. What caught my attention were the licence plates.

They were written in English. They were New York plates.

"It's his world," I said, "Or something very close to it. Anything inside?"

The lieutenant in charge of the squad guarding the car flagged negative. "Sir, we haven't been inside. We thought it best to... leave it to the experts."

And I became aware that the others were looking at me. "Oh, yeah, NOW I'm an expert."

Touching the thing was odd. The surface looked like enamelled metal but when I touched it I experienced an almost rubbery texture that gave slightly. I had to climb on top to open the door and that gave easily enough, swinging up as if it weighed nothing at all. The windows, matt black on the outside were crystal clear inside and were completely intact, even the ones that'd gouged through the earth. It wasn't glass then. The inside was upholstered with something that felt a great deal like the outside of the car. Black, rounded and smoothed with thread-thin neon-red trim. Literally neon- red: it glowed ever so slightly. The dashboard was dark and featureless. Some kind of electronic display?

But there were signs of individuality. There were personal effects that'd been scattered when the car rolled and now lay on the lower side: a couple of bags, bits of paper, a couple of books and bottles. I carefully lowered myself inside, avoiding the small steering wheel and standing on the lower windows. There was a scent that was instantly familiar, one that had my lips curls up in a flehmen as I tried to source it. My foot scuffed something: a small folio, about hand size. I opened it and tilted it to get the contents in a better light.

"Tohi," someone called and I realised I'd been staring for a while. "Clear?"

"Yah," I replied and closed the wallet. "Yah. There're artefacts in here, quite a few. And our visitor is human and wounded. There's blood in here."

Section 3

Army engineers righted the car. As carefully as possible. The bodywork was scratched, but the dents slowly filled out until there was no sign it'd been rolled.

There'd be time for a closer inspection later, but then our greatest concern was finding the alien. I could make an educated guess where he might run, but when it came down to the final line, it was still that: a guess. We'd have to go out there and actually find the guy.

We had authority there and we used it. The army and guard scouts were broken into squads and given their search orders. I was sure he'd be out there somewhere. A Rris would've headed for the deep forest, but a human... but he'd head somewhere high, offering a good view of the surroundings. The rocky outcroppings to the east and the hills to the northeast felt like places he might go.

If he ran south we would hit problems. There were already Bluebetter forces mobilising along that front. We could see several of their airships from our positions and there were doubtless ground forces gathering. Infiltrators might be a problem as well. We were on good terms with them, but for a prize such as the one that was being dangled in front of their noses, they might well be tempted to send small parties across.

We had to move first.

Blocking forces were sent south. They would form lines at the border and make a detailed sweep north in staggered lines. Meantime, we were moving our searchers out into the forest. Orders were explicit: he was not to be harmed. But what disturbed me was the fact the troops were armed. The Out-team had a good idea of what to expect, but these other forces would only have seen our quarry on films and pictures. The actual item in the flesh might come as quite a shock and they'd been trained to react in certain ways to threats. Searchers strung out across a three kilometre front moved off into the forest while the dirigibles moved into position overhead. Very quickly the road was left behind and there was nothing but the wilderness. It was mostly great pines and firs, with isolated stands of oak and birch. In some places the trees were spread out with low scrub, brush and grass filling the spaces in between; other groves were dense clusters of trees with branches twined and tangled enough to turn the ground beneath them to shadow dappled with light. There were a lot of places to hide.

The sky was clear and the afternoon sun was hot. I ruffled my fur out, but the outer layers still felt almost hot enough to burn. I was panting, we all were. Off to my right I could see Chrit with the camera and Rasarch - tethered by the power cable and weighted by batteries - toiling along behind him. Fifty or so metres so my left a young soldier was visible through the trees, clutching his rifle and trying to look in every direction at once. I saw how his ears were plastered flat and wondered which of the films he'd seen: one of the shock one doubtless.

Only forty years and already history was being rewritten into horror stories.

My own ears were bolt upright and those downwind could probably scent the excitement reeking from me. After years of dry academia and people telling me it was a crazy field to pursue. Specialising in a creature that has never existed naturally in this world was nothing but a waste of a life. But there are a few of us around the world. Most countries have them, if not in official positions then readily on hand for accessing old archives and texts for tidbits that may have been overlooked. It's... I don't know why I was drawn to it, all I know is that I was fascinated by the idea of non-Rris intelligence ever since I first saw those old pictures of Mikah.

Walks like a Rris; thinks as well as a Rris but not like a Rris.

Now, over a decade later and I was chasing one. Shave everything, if only he hadn't run. If only those first few seconds had been handled with a little more care, we could be talking with him now, instead of hunting him through the bush.

Without much success. There was a few voices calling, but none of the yowls that would signal a sighting.

I glanced over at Chrit and Rasarch again. They were visible through the trees, panting and obviously wishing we were capable of manufacturing cameras as small as the human ones. The trooper on the other side...

I couldn't see him. There were bushes and huge forest pines between us. They provided welcome shade but did reduce visibility, on the ground as well as in the air: I could only just make out the silver hide of the Highlander through the branches. Of course he was probably just out of sight behind a tree.

But the seconds passed and I still didn't see him. "Hai!" I called to get the camera team's attention and waved to them to hold up. The call went off down the line and I cut off through the woods to find the lagger. He was probably urinating, but he should have signalled he was dropping out of line.

He was face down in the pine-needles, blood matting the fur on the side of his head. His weapon was missing.

I stared in shock, then a cry howled and I could see frantic movement through the trees. A gunshot rang out and that got me moving, racing through bracken and undergrowth toward the sounds of struggle. The soldier on the other side of the downed trooper had seen that he was missing and had come to investigate and ran into...

I broke into a small clearing and saw the struggle on the far side. The terrified soldier locked in a struggle over the rifle clutched in the hands of a figure that was outlandishly grotesque and yet I'd known it all my life.

A hand came around in a blow I knew would connect; not a slash, but a strike like a hammer that sent the soldier reeling back and the other had the gun and was frantically fiddling with the mechanism.

There was a coughing sound and a bright orange speck flowered on the outsider's back. I heard the cry of pain and he dropped the rifle, whirled and I saw desperate eyes in a dirty face and he bolted, into the trees and down the bank.

"Come on," K'Reschi growled at me as he loped past in pursuit, thumbing another dart into the gun.

It'd been so fast... I shook my head and took off after him.

The bank dropped into a broad gully. K'Reschi was sliding down mulch and fallen leaves into the bracken at the bottom. I threw myself after him, feeling dirt and leaves sliding under my paws while my claws scrabbled for traction. Bobbing ferns showed the way the others had gone, racing down the gully floor, and I set off after them.

We had speed. He had endurance. He also had a tranquilliser dart stuck into him. How long would it take to take effect?

I could see K'Reschi's russet-furred back ahead of me as he charged through the bracken, dodging the deadwood and rotting trunks that littered the gully. His claws tore splinters from a larger fallen tree as he scrambled over it and went to all fours, my own claws punching through rotting wood to follow him over the top and down the other side. My lungs were burning, by body howling with a tension I'd never experienced before and my vision had narrowed to just a dark tunnel that I hunted my quarry down. I could feel my face locked back to bare teeth, my tow claws out and gouging at rotting leaves and vegetation.

And K'Reschi stopped. Slowed and stopped and stood there, looking around as he heaved breath and scent.

The gully had opened out. The walls dropped as the floor widened into a broad glade of green and rust ferns and bracken overhung by mighty trees. The undergrowth was still with not a sign of movement.

"Where the..." K'Reschi hissed, turning left and right in frustration. "Shave it!"

I was still thinking like a hunter. It wouldn't work. I hissed a deep breath and tried to think like the hunted, like someone running for their life. I turned and slowly walked back into the overgrown gully.

"Tohi!" K'reschi started to say behind me and I ignored him.

I caught my breath and twisted my tongue around alien sounds. "You can come out," I said. "We won't hurt you."

No reply. Just the wind in trees. The distant sounds of shouting. How far had we gotten from the search?

"Please," I said. The fallen tree we'd scrambled over was in front of me, the trunk higher than my head. "We won't hurt you." I brushed ferns aside to reveal the hollow under the deadwood. There was furtive movement there.

"My name is Tohi," I said. "What's yours?"

A pale, scratched and bloodstreaked face looked up at me, then the steel-grey eyes rolled back.