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Sullivan gave Holloway a lopsided grin. "Yes, on a planet with no oversight, and a resident population of surveyors and workers whose livelihoods would disappear if the floaters were recognized as sentient," he said. "You tell me how well the words 'protected status' would work in a situation like that."
"Point," Holloway said.
"No one was ever caught killing the floaters, of course," Sullivan said. "But a population doesn't just decline that quickly for no reason. There was no climate event, no bug the resident animals caught from humans, nothing like that. The only explanation that fits the data was intentional human predation."
"I'm sure you weren't the only one who noticed this," Holloway said.
"No," Sullivan said. "In the wake of Cheng, Cheng, the Colonial Authority changed procedures to keep it from happening again. Now when there's suspicion of predation the CA is supposed to appoint a Special Master to bring it to a halt. But Special Masters can be appointed only after an SSR is filed or ordered. That hasn't happened here. Right now, the fuzzys have no sort of legal protection at all." the Colonial Authority changed procedures to keep it from happening again. Now when there's suspicion of predation the CA is supposed to appoint a Special Master to bring it to a halt. But Special Masters can be appointed only after an SSR is filed or ordered. That hasn't happened here. Right now, the fuzzys have no sort of legal protection at all."
"So you think people will hunt them," Holloway said.
"I think it's inevitable," Sullivan said. "And I think you and I will be responsible for it. I'm indirectly responsible by suggesting to you and Isabel the 'needs study' option. You, Jack, are directly responsible by forcing the judge to implement it. As soon as the word gets out, every surveyor and worker on the planet is going hunting for the fuzzys. They're going to try to kill them before their sentience can be proved one way or another. If they kill them now, there won't be any left to prove their sentience one way or another."
"If they're wiped out, no one could be charged with murder," Holloway said. "Because as far as anyone could prove, they were just killing animals."
Sullivan nodded. "We've marked them for extinction. Pure and simple," he said. "That's why I needed to know how you felt about them. Because right now, you, me, and Isabel are the only friends they have."
From Holloway's jacket pocket a tone rang out. It was his pocket infopanel. Holloway fished it out, read it, and stood up.
"What is it?" Sullivan said.
"It's the emergency alert system at my cabin," Holloway said. "My house is on fire."
Holloway saw the tendrils of smoke rising while he was still twenty kilometers out. They were thin pencil lines against the sky.
"c.r.a.p," Holloway said, to himself. The good news is a thin line of smoke meant the worst of the fire was over and that the damage was contained to his own house and tree compound; the spikewoods had not gone up and the rest of the forest was not burning to the ground. The fire-suppression system he'd installed had done its job well enough.
The bad news was, his cabin was still almost certainly a smoking ruin. He was glad he left Carl with Isabel for this trip. Carl wasn't mentally equipped for figuring out fire damage.
He was also mildly worried about the Fuzzys, but only mildly. They might be sentient or they might not be, but either way he figured they knew how to run from a fire.
Several minutes later Holloway was circling his compound, a.s.sessing the damage. As he expected, the cabin was a mess, made as it was of relatively cheap plastics and woods. The storage sheds and landing area, made of less flammable metals and composites, showed smoke and outward fire damage but no charring or apparent structural damage. Holloway decided to go in, setting his skimmer to hover a meter over the landing pad rather than put its full weight on it. There might not be any apparent structural damage to the pad, but for the moment he'd rather not test the a.s.sumption. He felt confident the structure would bear his weight; less so that of a large flying machine.
He got out of the skimmer and put his weight on the landing pad. It held just fine. He took a step and nearly landed on his a.s.s-not because of fire damage but because of the residue of the fire-suppressing foam that had shot out of several outlets to coat the compound as soon as the emergency system had registered a burn. Holloway's compound was in the trees, and on thundery days it was not all that unusual for lightning to find its way down for a visit. Holloway had his weathervanes and lightning harvesters, but despite all that, this wouldn't be the first time some part of the compound caught fire. After the first fire, Holloway had prepared for the next.
Holloway's first stop was not the wreck of his cabin. Instead he made an immediate beeline to the larger of the storage sheds. He gingerly touched the door. It was a couple hours after the initial burn, but the door might still be hot.
It wasn't. Even better, the electronic lock was undamaged. Holloway keyed the entry combination, stood to the side to avoid any escaping blast of superheated air, and slid open the door.
There was a gaping hole in the floor where his surveying explosives were supposed to be.
Holloway grinned. There was supposed supposed to be a gaping hole in the floor where his explosives used to be. If there wasn't, there likely wouldn't have been a platform for him to land on, and possibly not a forest for him to fly to. Holloway did not keep an excessive amount of surveying explosives, but what he had on hand was more than enough to flatten the neighborhood. to be a gaping hole in the floor where his explosives used to be. If there wasn't, there likely wouldn't have been a platform for him to land on, and possibly not a forest for him to fly to. Holloway did not keep an excessive amount of surveying explosives, but what he had on hand was more than enough to flatten the neighborhood.
He walked over to the hole. The hole was a trapdoor laid into the floor of the storage shed, over which Holloway placed his explosives, in st.u.r.dy cases. In case of a fire emergency or a direct lightning strike on the storage shed, the trapdoor would open and cases would tumble the many meters to jungle floor. The cases were designed to be tossed out of aircraft and survive a fall of up to three hundred meters; it was considerably less than that to the jungle floor. The explosives inside were susceptible to being triggered by heat but not by jostling.
Holloway looked down. The cases were visible on the ground, a couple directly underneath him but others knocked haphazardly by the branches of the spikewoods below. Holloway would have to reset the trapdoor and then retrieve the cases. That would be a pain in the a.s.s as well as slightly dangerous-there was always the chance of predators-but it was better than having the explosives go off in a fire and turning the entire jungle into a conflagration.
In the branches below him, Holloway caught a flash of white. It looked like Pinto Fuzzy, lounging about. "You couldn't have tried to put out the fire?" Holloway yelled down to the fuzzy. The creature didn't answer, but then Holloway really didn't expect it to.
Back out of the shed and toward the cabin, then.
The cabin, complete with caved roof and gaping wall, was a total loss. The fire appeared to have started here; Holloway suspected the surge from a lightning strike might have caused a spark, probably to the cooler's or the air conditioner's heat pump. The cabin had fire suppression equipment too; ironically much of its use was predicated on Holloway being in or near the cabin at the time to operate it. Basically, having paid out substantially for suppressing fire everywhere else at the compound, Holloway skimped on his own living quarters. He a.s.sumed it was a reasonable personal risk; outside of his law school hat, there wasn't much of personal or financial value there. It could all be replaced with an extended shopping trip in Aubreytown.
Holloway looked through the ruins for his hat. He found it on his collapsed desk, charred and melted against his security camera.
That's one more thing from law school I don't get to use anymore, he thought. There was nothing for it now. Everything else was likewise black, melted, and crumbled. He sighed and headed back to the skimmer. he thought. There was nothing for it now. Everything else was likewise black, melted, and crumbled. He sighed and headed back to the skimmer.
First, a test to see if the landing pad could hold the skimmer. It could. Holloway lifted off and landed three more times to be sure. It held. It seemed outside the cabin, the rest of the compound really was structurally all right. That was a small relief. The Aubreytown store had the prefab cabins in stock, but the rest of the compound would have been harder to replace.
That taken care of, Holloway returned to his storage shed and winched his trapdoor back into place. He would then additionally have to fly his skimmer under the platform and redo the supporting bolts and beams before he could set his explosives on top of it again. Holloway did that next, but not before using his infopad to order additional canisters of fire suppressant to replace the ones that were used. They weren't cheap, but Holloway figured he was coming into some money anyway.
The trip to the jungle floor was next. Holloway wasn't looking forward to dragging the explosives cases onto the skimmer; individually the cases were no larger than a large travel chest, but their indestructibility made them heavy and the explosives inside weren't exactly featherweight, either. The one good thing about it all was that now that Holloway knew the trick about blasting the high frequency noise, he could land the skimmer and get all the cases in one go, rather than landing, setting up the emergency perimeter, dragging the one or two cases inside the perimeter into the s.h.i.+p, disa.s.sembling the perimeter and doing it again a few yards over. Out of consideration for Pinto, however, who Holloway a.s.sumed was still loitering in the branches, he waited until he landed before setting off the high-frequency loop in his sound system.
Fifteen minutes later, Holloway had a blinding headache and was drenched in sweat from dragging cases across the ground in the heat. It was probably the most he'd exercised in years, and he was reasonably sure that between the last time he'd moved this much material and right now, his heart had been replaced by two flabby slices of ham slapping futilely back and forth against each other. He hauled the last of the cases into the skimmer and then slid up against the side of vehicle, panting. As he looked up he saw Pinto, several meters up in his branch, looking down at him almost directly from above.
"Thanks for your help," Holloway shouted up to the fuzzy. "It was really appreciated." Again, not that Holloway had actually expected help from the thing. It just made him feel better to say it. Holloway bent over, hands on his knees, and practiced breathing slowly and deeply to help get himself over his light-headedness.
A couple of seconds later a small splash of something landed on the back of his head, followed by a slightly larger splash of something on his neck. He looked up and saw Pinto still staring at him from above.
Holloway grinned. The little b.a.s.t.a.r.d was spitting on him. Well, it was better than what a monkey would do, he supposed. He wiped off the back of his neck and was about to wipe the spittle on his pants when his peripheral vision picked up on something. Holloway stopped his hand and brought it directly in front of his face.
Pinto hadn't been spitting on him.
Holloway looked up again just in time to catch a spatter of blood across the cheek.
"Oh, no," he said. "Oh, s.h.i.+t." He wiped his face, got into the skimmer, slapped off the sound system, fired the skimmer's rotors, and launched the thing straight up.
Holloway landed the skimmer hard, popped it open, and as gently as he could lifted Pinto out of the skimmer and onto the landing pad. The fuzzy lay there, limp and unresponsive. Holloway went back inside the skimmer and grabbed his first aid kit, nearly slipping again as he came out of the craft in a hurry.
Pinto's abdomen was red and matted with blood. Its back and extremities were not, save for a single rivulet that streamed from its abdomen to its front left limb, which had dangled from the branch above Holloway. Holloway recognized that the fuzzy had been in the same position from the first time he had seen him until he felt the blood on his neck. It was possible the fuzzy had been dead that whole time. Or that it had been alive and Holloway had been jovially yelling at it when he could have been helping it, if he had just paid attention.
Pay attention. Holloway shook away irrelevant thoughts and focused on the creature in front of him. Holloway looked at Pinto's abdomen and realized there was too much blood; he couldn't see where it was coming from. He went back into the skimmer and found the water bottle he carried with him in the vehicle. It was about two thirds full. He brought it back to the fuzzy and as gently as he could poured it over the creature, was.h.i.+ng away the clotted mess.
The wound made itself evident almost immediately; a hole the width of a finger in the fuzzy's lower left abdomen. Holloway briefly wondered if it could have been caused by one of the tree spikes, but as he washed the wound he saw something gray and dull inside it. He washed the wound again, clearing away as much of the blood as possible, and saw it again.
It was a bullet.
We've marked them for extinction, Sullivan said. Sullivan said. Pure and simple Pure and simple.
Holloway seized up, but fought it back and reached into the first aid kit for a gauze pad. He ripped open the packaging and placed it on the bullet wound, pressing firmly but gently to stop the flow of any more blood out of the small creature.
There was no more blood flowing out of the fuzzy. It was dead.
Holloway leaned his cheek to the fuzzy's mouth, to feel for breath, and stroked the creature's fur as if to will it back to life with a touch. There was no breath or life. If there had been a time to save Pinto, it had pa.s.sed, a minute, an hour, or several hours ago. There was nothing Holloway could do but to remain hunched over the creature, silent, hoping to be wrong.
He was not wrong. It took him several minutes to admit it to himself.
When he looked up, he was not alone. Papa, Mama, and Grandpa Fuzzy stood in front of him, watching him grieve over the body of Pinto.
Holloway looked at the three of them blankly, the gears in his brain spinning fast and free before they jammed together with a jolt Holloway felt clear down his spine.
"Where's Baby?" Holloway asked, to no one of them in particular.
Holloway didn't know whether they understood him or not. What he did know is that when he asked the question, they all turned to the ruin of the cabin.
"Oh, G.o.d," Holloway said. He leapt up and ran toward the cabin, stopping outside it because of the heat and smoke it was still giving off. He looked through the caved-in wall, searching for Baby and hoping not to find the creature.
He found what was left of Baby by the door.
In spite of everything, Holloway was momentarily confused. Baby hadn't been in the cabin when he'd left, and he'd closed all the windows to keep out the lizards as well as the Fuzzys. It didn't make sense for Baby to have died in the cabin.
Then he remembered the bullet in Pinto. Baby didn't go into the cabin. The fuzzy had been put put there. there.
Holloway glanced down and saw the remains of his hat, melted against the security camera.
The gears in his head jammed down hard again. Holloway stalked away from what was left of his cabin and went directly to his skimmer, s.n.a.t.c.hing his infopanel almost violently from its cradle before forcing himself down into his chair. He played his fingers across its surface and opened up the feed for his security camera. The last few hours of recording would be cached there. And the last time Holloway had touched the security camera, he'd tilted the hat so the security camera could see outside.
The security feed popped up, the interior view of the camera obscured by the hat but the view out the window clear and open. Holloway impatiently fast-forwarded through an hour of nothing going on and had to backtrack when a skimmer landed on the pad, and a man got out.
Holloway froze the frame and zoomed into the man's face. Nothing; it was obscured by a ski mask. Holloway wondered who the h.e.l.l would have a ski mask on a planet dominated by jungles, but then remembered that ZaraCorp did have alpine-level mining operations far south. You could get ski masks at the store, as this man must have. Holloway unfroze the video.
The man strode across the landing pad toward the cabin and stopped at the door, going partially out of frame as he did so, the wall of the cabin blocking the view. The man moved back and forth slightly, clearly trying the door, which was locked. He then moved over to the desk window, which was also locked. The man's bulk obscured most of the camera's view, but behind him Holloway saw movement, and then in the extreme right of the frame, Holloway saw Baby walking across the compound toward the man.
Holloway ached at the sight. Of all the fuzzys, Baby was the one who was the most trusting of humans. The other fuzzys seemed to grasp the idea that humans, like any other animals, could be dangerous. But Baby, for whatever reason, lacked that intuition. Baby liked people. Holloway, his heart falling, knew what it was about to lead to.
The man turned for whatever reason and saw Baby walking toward him. He broke off from his attempted breaking and entering and instead walked toward the fuzzy, eventually stopping and kneeling down in front of the smaller creature, reaching out eventually to touch and pet the fuzzy, who cuddled right into his hand. Holloway couldn't hear what he was saying-he had never gotten around to unmuting the security camera's microphone-but he could guess well enough. The man was a predator luring his prey into a sense of trust.
The man suddenly stood up and raised his boot.
Holloway had to turn away.
But he turned his face back in time to see what happened next: something flinging itself out of the trees and onto the man's face, tearing and biting into him through the eyeholes and mouth hole of the mask. The man howled, soundlessly on the video but no doubt loudly in real life, trying to fling off whatever it was attacking him.
It was Pinto.
Holloway let out a small cheer in spite of himself. Pinto, the reckless fuzzy, hadn't hesitated a single moment to defend Baby-its sibling? Its friend? Its mate?-and was now wreaking holy h.e.l.l on the man, taking vengeance on the human for its inhuman act.
The man flailed and hit at the fuzzy, but Pinto danced and held fast, constantly tearing at the man's head and face. There wasn't any doubt that the little fuzzy was making the man pay for his actions.
The man finally got a grip on Pinto and lifted the fuzzy off his face. Pinto scratched and bit at the man's hands. The man raised his hands and with full force hurled the fuzzy to the floor. Holloway felt the fuzzy's impact in his gut.
Pinto scrambled up from the ground and prepared to attack the man again.
The man pulled a handgun out of his waistband and shot the fuzzy.
The little creature spun around from the impact and was flung across the compound floor. Alarmed and running on whatever was the fuzzy equivalent of adrenaline, Pinto sprinted away, running past the cabin to the spikewood behind, the man shooting after the fuzzy. One of the bullets punched through the window; it was possible it further ricocheted inside the cabin, setting up the conditions for the fire. Holloway found he was utterly unconcerned about any of that now.
The man dropped his handgun and then clutched his face, dancing in pain. He stopped when he saw Baby lying there, unmoving from his earlier attack. He stormed up to the fuzzy, brought his boot down on it twice more, then grabbed the handgun off the ground and shot it. Then he yelled at it, silent and furious.
Holloway realized he knew exactly who this man was.
By this time smoke from the cabin was beginning to obscure the camera feed. Nevertheless, Holloway saw the man reach down, grab the body of Baby, and stomp over toward the cabin door, once again going partially out of frame. The man's body jerked spasmodically, and Holloway had a couple seconds of confusion before he realized what was happening: The man was kicking in the dog door. It must have given way, because the man's body moved in a different way. He was flinging Baby's body through the door, to burn up in the fire.
That accomplished, the man moved away from the door, holding his face, heading toward his skimmer. He got halfway there before the fire suppression foam kicked on, blasting out of its canisters to coat the landing pad and whatever was on it, including the man and his skimmer. The man jumped away from the foam, tripping over himself as he did so and falling to the floor, coating himself with more foam. It would have been comical, had the man not just killed two people. Eventually the man made it to his skimmer and launched off, going out of frame nearly simultaneous to the charred remains of Holloway's law school hat draping themselves over the camera, obscuring its view just before it was destroyed in the heat.
Holloway set down the infopanel and burst out of the skimmer, seeing nothing but Pinto's body. He knelt down next to the body and reached out to the fuzzy's hands, looking at their very ends, to the nails there, sharper and more conical than human nails, probably the better to catch insects and pry open fruit.
There was blood on them, and tiny shreds of skin.
"Yes," Holloway said, holding Pinto's hand. "I've Holloway said, holding Pinto's hand. "I've got got you, you son of a b.i.t.c.h. I've got you and you don't even know it." you, you son of a b.i.t.c.h. I've got you and you don't even know it."
Holloway looked up at Papa, Mama, and Grandpa Fuzzy, who were looking at him strangely, or at least in a way that Holloway thought was strange.
"I know you can't understand me," Holloway said to the three fuzzys. "But I know who did this. I know who did it and I am going to punish him for it. You have my word on it. I am going to get this son of a b.i.t.c.h. I promise you that."
And then Jack Holloway let go of Pinto's hand, collapsed on the floor on the skimmer pad, closed his eyes, and cried.
He cried because he knew, beyond certainty, that his maneuvering and plots had killed Pinto and Baby, two creatures who no matter what else they might or might not have been, were innocents. Sentient or not, it didn't matter to Holloway. No one deserved the deaths they were given, by his actions. Jack lay there and cried, racking his body in his guilt and shame.
He knew the other fuzzys were watching him. He didn't care. He lay there for a good long time.
Eventually, there was a touch on Holloway's cheek. Holloway opened his eyes and saw Papa Fuzzy staring down at him. Holloway looked at him, curious.
Papa Fuzzy pointed up.
Holloway looked up.
Above him, the spikewoods were filled with fuzzys. Dozens of them.
"Holy G.o.d," Holloway said, and sat up.
The fuzzys started climbing down from the trees, dropping down into the landing pad until it was packed with the creatures. Holloway looked at them all, partly amused at the convention of creatures, and partly apprehensive. A human had just killed two of their number. It was entirely possible the fuzzys were planning to take it out on him. He couldn't say that he would blame them.
On the periphery of the landing pad, one of the smaller fuzzys caught his eye. Holloway stared at it for a few seconds, wondering why this particular fuzzy was so interesting, when it occurred to him that it wasn't a fuzzy at all.
Holloway peered at it intently.