* * * * * * * * * *

Several hours later, neither Judson nor Genghis felt particularly cheerful.

It wasn’t as if the arriving shuttles were steeped solely in gloom, despair, and bloodthirsty hatred. In fact, there was an incredible joyousness to most of the arrivals, a sense of having finally set foot on the soil of a planet which was actually theirs.

Of being home at last.

But there were scars, and all too often still-bleeding psychic wounds, on even the most joyous, and they beat on Genghis’ focused sensitivity like hammers. The fact that the ‘cat was deliberately looking for dangerous fault lines, pockets of particularly brooding darkness, forced him to open himself to all the rest of the pain, as well. Judson hated to ask it of his companion, but he knew Genghis too well not to ask. Treecats were direct souls, with only limited patience for some of humanity’s sillier social notions. And, to be honest, Genghis had a lot less trouble accepting and supporting the Ballroom’s mentality than Judson himself did. Yet Genghis also understood how important Torch was not simply to his own person, but to all of the other two-legs around him, and that much of its hope for the future rested on the need to identify people whose choice of actions might jeopardize what the Torches were striving so mightily to build. Not only that, Torch was his home, too, now, and treecats understood responsibility to clan and nesting place.

Which didn’t make either of them feel especially cheerful.

< that one. > Genghis’ fingers flickered suddenly.


Judson twitched. So far, despite the inevitable emotional fatigue, today’s transport load of new immigrants had contained few “problem children,” and he’d settled into a sort of cruise control as he watched them filtering through the arrival interview process.

< that one, > Genghis’ fingers repeated. < the tall one in the brown shipsuit, by the right lift bank. With dark hair. >

“Got him,” Judson said a moment later, although there was nothing particularly outwardly impressive about the newcomer. He was obviously from one of the general utility genetic lines. “What about him?”

< not sure, > Genghis replied, his fingers moving with unusual slowness. < he 's . . . nervous. Worried about something. >

“Worried,” Judson repeated. He reached up and ran his fingers caressingly down Genghis’ spine. “A lot of two-legs worry about a lot of things, O Bane of Chipmunks,” he said. “What’s so special about this one?”

< he just . . . tastes wrong. > Genghis was obviously trying to find a way to describe something he didn’t fully understand himself, Judson realized. < he was nervous when he got off the lift, but he got a lot more nervous after he got off the lift. >

Judson frowned, wondering what to make of that. Then the newcomer looked up, and Judson’s own mental antennae quivered.

The man in the brown shipsuit was trying hard not to let it show, but he wasn’t looking up at the crowded arrival concourse in general. No, he was looking directly at Judson Van Hale and Genghis . . . and trying to make it look as if he weren’t.

“Do you think he got more worried when he saw you, Genghis?” he asked quietly. Genghis cocked his head, obviously thinking hard, and then his right truehand flipped up in the sign for “Y” and nodded in affirmation.

Now, that’s interesting, Judson thought, staying exactly where he was and trying to avoid any betraying sign of his own interest in Mr. Brown Shipsuit. Of course, it’s probably nothing. Anybody’s got the right to be nervous on their first day on a new planet—especially the kind of people who’re arriving here on Torch every day! And if he’s heard the reports about the ‘cats — or, even worse, the rumors — he may think Genghis can peek inside his head and tell me everything he’s thinking or feeling. God knows we’ve run into enough people who ought to know better who think that, and I can’t really blame anyone who does for not liking the thought very much. But still . . . .

His own right hand twitched very slightly on the virtual keyboard only he could see, activating the security camera that snapped a picture as the brown shipsuit sank into the chair in front of one of the Immigration processors. However nervous the newcomer might be, he was obviously at least managing to maintain his aplomb as he answered the interviewer’s questions and provided his background information. He wasn’t even glancing in Judson and Genghis’ direction any longer, either, and he actually managed a smile when he opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue for the Immigration clerk to scan its barcode.

Some of the ex-slaves resented that. More than one had flatly refused when asked to do the same thing, and Judson found it easy enough to understand that reaction. But given the incredible number of places Torch’s new immigrants came from, and bearing in mind that the mere fact of ex-slavery didn’t necessarily mean all of them were paragons of virtue, the assembly of an identification database was a practical necessity. Besides, the Beowulf medical establishment had identified several genetic combinations which had potentially serious negative consequences. Manpower had never worried about that sort of thing, as long as they got whatever feature they’d been after, and that lack of concern was a major factor in the fact that even if they were ever fortunate enough to receive prolong, genetic slaves’ average lifespans remained significantly shorter than “normals'” did. Beowulf had devoted a lot of effort to finding ways to ameliorate the consequences of those genetic sequences if they could be identified, and the barcode was the quickest, most efficient way for the doctors to scan for them. There wasn’t much that could be done for some of them, even by Beowulf, but prompt remedial action could enormously mitigate the consequences of others, and one of the things every citizen of Torch was guaranteed was the very best medical care available.

Given that no slaveowner had ever bothered to waste prolong on something as unimportant as his animate property, much less worry about things like preventative medicine, that guarantee was one of the kingdom’s most ringing proclamations of the individual value it placed upon its people.

“Is he still nervous?” Judson murmured, and Genghis’ hand nodded again.

“Interesting,” Judson said softly. “You may just make him that way because he’s one of those people who doesn’t want anyone poking around inside his head.”

This time, Genghis nodded his head and not just his hand. Treecats were constitutionally incapable of really understanding why anyone might feel that way, since they couldn’t imagine not being able to “poke around” inside each other’s minds. But they didn’t have to be able to understand why two-legs might feel that way to grasp that some of them did feel that way, and if that were the case here, it would scarcely be the first-time Genghis had seen it.

“Still,” Judson continued, “I think we might want to keep an eye on this one for at least a couple of days. Remind me to mention that to Harper.”