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Acorna:  The Unicorn Girl
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Acorna: The Unicorn Girl

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Author: Anne McCaffrey
Margaret Ball
Publisher: Corgi Books, 1998
HarperPrism, 1997
Series: Acorna: Book 1
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Synopsis

"Something's Alive In There!"

She was just a little girl, with a tiny horn in the center of her forehead, funny-looking feet, beautiful silver hair, and several curious powers: the ability to purify air and water, make plants grow, and heal scars and broken bones. A trio of grizzled prospectors found her drifting in an escape pod amid the asteroids, adopted her, and took her to the bandit planet Kezdet, a place where no questions are asked and the girl might grow up free.

But Kezdet has its own dark secret. The prosperity of the planet is based on a hideous trade in child slave labor, administered by "The Piper" -- a mystery man with special plans for Acorna and her powers. But free little girls have a way of growing into freedom-loving young women, and Acorna has special plans all her own...


Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

At first Gill assumed it was just another bit of space debris, winking as it turned around its own axis and sending bright flashes of reflected light down where they were placing the cable around AS-64-B1.3. But something about it seemed wrong to him, and he raised the question when they were back inside the Khedive.

"It is too bright to have been in space very long," Rafik pointed out. His slender brown fingers danced over the console before him; he read half a dozen screens at once and translated their glowing multi-colored lines into voice commands to the external sensor system.

"What d'you mean, too bright?" Gill demanded. "Stars are bright, and most of them have been around a good while."

Rafik's black brows lifted and he nodded at Calum.

"But the sensors tell us this is metal, and too smooth," Calum said. "As usual, you're thinking with the Viking-ancestor part of what we laughingly refer to as your brain, Declan Giloglie the Third. Would it not be pitted from minor collisions if it had been in this asteroid belt more than a matter of hours? And if it has not been in this part of space for more than a few hours, where did it come from?"

"Conundrums, is it? I'll leave the solving of them to you," Gill said with good humor. "I am but a simple metallurgic engineer, a horny-handed son of the soil."

"More like a son of the asteroidal regolith, " Rafik suggested. "Not that this particular asteroid offers much; we're going to have to break up the surface with the auger before there's any point in lowering the magnetic rake... Ah! Got a fix on it." An oval shape, regularly indented along one edge, appeared on the central screen. "Now what can the sensors tell us about this little mystery?"

"It looks like a pea pod," Gill said.

"It does that," Calum agreed, "The question is, what sort of peas, and do we want to harvest them or send them gently on their way? There've not been any recent diplomatic disagreements in this sector, have there?"

"None that would inspire the placing of mines," Gill said, "and that's not like any space mine I ever saw. Besides, only an idiot would send a space mine floating into an asteroid belt where there's no telling what might set it off and whose side might be worst injured."

"High intelligence," Rafik murmured, "is not inevitably an attribute of those who pursue diplomacy by other means... Close reading," he commanded the console. "All bandwidths... Well, well. Interesting."

"What?"

"Unless I'm mistaken..." Rafik paused. "Names of the Three Prophets! I must be mistaken. It's not large enough... and there's no scheduled traffic through this sector... Calum, what do you make of these sensor readings?"

Calum leaned over the panel. His sandy lashes blinked several times, rapidly, as he absorbed and interpreted the changing colors of the display. "You're not mistaken," he said.

"Would you two kindly share the great insight?" Gill demanded.

Calum straightened and looked up at Gill. "Your peas," he said, "are alive. And given the size of the pod-too small for any recycling life-support system-that signal it's broadcasting can only be a distress call, though it's like no code I've ever heard before."

"Can we capture it?"

"We'll have to, shan't we? Let's hope-ah, good. I don't recognize the alloy, but it's definitely ferrous. The magnetic attractors should be able to latch on--- Easy, now," Rafik admonished the machinery he was setting in action, "we don't want to jostle it, do we? Contents Fragile. Handle With Care, and all that....Very nice," he murmured as the pod came to rest in an empty cargo bay.

"Complimenting your own delicate hands?" Calum asked caustically.

"The ship, my friend, the Khedive. She's done a fine gentle job of harvesting our pea pod; now to bring it in and open it."

There were no identification markings that any of them could read on the "pea pod", but a series of long scrolling lines might, Calum surmised, have been some sort of alien script.

"Alien, of course," Rafik murmured. "All the generations of the Expansion, all these stars mapped and planets settled, and we're to be the first to discover a sapient alien race... I don't think. It's decoration, or it's a script none of us happens to know, which is just barely possible, I think you'll agree?"

"Barely," Calum agreed with no echo of Rafik's irony in his voice. "But it's not Cyrillic or Neo-Grek or Romaic or TriLat or anything else I can name... so what is it?"

"Perhaps," Rafik suggested, "the peas will tell us." He ran delicate fingers over the incised carvings and the scalloped edges of the pod. Hermetically sealed, of a size to hold one adult human body, it might have been a coffin rather than a life-support module... but the ship's sensors had picked up that distress signal, and the signs of life within the pod. And the means of opening, when he found it, was as simple and elegant as the rest of the design; simply a matter of matching the first three fingers of each hand with the pair of triple oval depressions in the center of the pod.

"Hold it," Calum said. "Better suit up and open it in the air lock. We've no idea what sort of atmosphere this thing breathes."

Gill frowned. "We could kill it by opening it. Isn't there some way to test what's in there?"

"Not without opening it," Calum said brightly. "Look, Gill, whatever is in there may not be alive anyway-and if it is, surely it won't last forever in a hermetically sealed environment. It'll have to take its chances."

The men looked at each other, shrugged, and donned their working gear before moving themselves and the pod into the airlock.

"Well, Calum," Rafik said in an oddly strangled voice, seconds after the lid swung open, "you were half right, it seems. Not an adult human, at any rate."

Calum and Gill bent over the pod to inspect the sleeping youngling revealed when it opened.

"What species is it?" Gill asked

"Sweet little thing, isn't she?" Gill said in such a soppy tone that both Rafik and Calum gave him an odd look.

"How'd you arrive at the sex of it?" Rafik wanted to you.

"She looks feminine!"

They all admitted to that impression of the little creature which lay on her side, one hand curled into a fist and thrust against her mouth in a fairly common gesture of solace. A fluff of silvery hair curled down onto her forehead and coiled down to the shoulder blades, half obscuring the pale, delicate face.

Even as they watched, she stirred, opened her eyes and groggily tried to sit up. "Avvvi," she wailed. "Avvvi!"

"We're scaring the poor little thing," Gill said. "Okay, obviously she's an oxygen breather like us, let's get out of the suits and take her into the ship so she can see we're not metal monsters."

Transferring the pod and its contents back into the ship was an awkward business. The "poor little thing" wailed piteously each time she was tilted in the pod.

"Poor bairn!" Gill exclaimed when they set her down again. The movement of the pod had dislodged the silvery curls over her forehead, showing a lump over an inch in diameter in the center of her forehead, halfway between the hairline and the silver brows. "How did that happen? This thing's cushioned well enough, and Rafik drew it into the bay as gently as a basket of eggs and not one of them cracked."

"I think it's congenital," Rafik said. "It's not the only deformity. And get a good look at her hands and feet."

Now that he called their attention to them, the other two saw that the fingers of the hands were stiff, lacking one of the joints that gave their own hands such flexibility. And the little bare feet ended in double toes, larger and thicker than normal toes, and pointed at an odd angle.

"Avvvi, avvvi!" the youngling demanded, louder. Her eyes looked strange-almost changing shape-but she didn't cry.

"Maybe it's not a deformity at all," Calum suggested.

"Still looking for your intelligent aliens?" Rafik teased.

"Why not? She's physically different from us, we don't recognize the writing on the pod, and can either of you tell me what an 'avvvi' is?"

Gill stooped and lifted the youngling out of the life-support pod. She looked like a fragile doll between his big hands, and she shrieked in terror as he swung her up to shoulder height; then grabbed at his curly red beard and clung for dear life.

"Perfectly obvious," he said, rubbing the child's back with one large hand. "There, there, acushla, you're safe here, I'll not let you go.... Whatever the language," he said, "'avvi' has to be her word for 'Mama.'" His blue eyes traveled from the pod to Rafik and Calum. "And in the absence of 'avvi,' gentlemen," he said, "it seems that we're elected."

Once she had found that Gill's beard was soft and tickled her face and that his big hands were gentle, she calmed down in his arms. Figuring she might be at least thirsty from being in the pod for who knew how long, they experimented by offering her water. She had teeth. The cup would forever bear the mark of them on its rim. She made a grimace, at least that's what Gill said it was, at the first taste of the water but she was too dehydrated not to accept it. Meat she spat out instantly and she was unenthusiastic about crackers and bread. Alarmed that what was basic to their diet was not acceptable, Calum rushed down into the 'ponics section of the life-support module and gathered up a variety of leafy greens. She grabbed the lettuce and crammed it into her mouth, reaching for the chard which she nibbled more delicately before going on the carrot and the radish. When she had had enough to eat, she wiggled out of Gill's arms and toddled off - right to the nearest interesting instrument panel and set a danger sensor blaring before Gill swooped her out of harm's way and Calum corrected her alteration.

She looked frightened, the pupils in her silvery eyes slitted to nothing and her little body was rigid. She babbled something incomprehensible to them.

"No, sweetie pie, no," Gill said, holding up a warning finger to her. "Understand me? Don't touch." And he reached out, almost touching the panel and pulling his hand back, miming hurt and putting his fingers into his mouth, then blowing on them.

The slits in her eyes widened and she said something with a questioning inflection.

"No!" Gill repeated and she nodded, putting both hands behind her back.

"Ah, it's a grand intelligent little bairn, so she is," Calum said approvingly, smiling as he stroked her feathery-soft hair.

"Should we show her the head, d'you suppose?" Rafik asked, regarding her nether regions which were covered with a light fur.

"She doesn't have the equipment to use our head," Gill said, "unless she's a he and he's hiding what he uses."

Gill began fingering his beard, which meant he was thinking. "She eats greens like a grazing animal..."

"She's not an animal!" Calum was outraged by the suggestion.

"But she does eat greens. Maybe we should show her the 'ponics section. We've got that bed we use for the radishes..."

"And you just gave her the last of the radishes..." Rafik's tone was semi-accusatory.

"She's not feline or canine," Gill went on. "In fact, sweet-looking kid as she is there's something almost....equine about her."

Rafik and Calum hotly contested that category while she became quite restless and looking all around her.

"Looks to me that she's as close to crossing her legs as a young thing can get," Gill went on. "We gotta try dirt."

They did and she bent forward slightly and relieved herself, neatly shifting loose dirt over the spot with her odd feet. Then she looked around at all the green and growing things.

"Maybe we should have brought the dirt to her," Gill said.

"Let's get her out of here then," Rafik said. "We've fed and drained her and maybe she'll go to sleep so we can all get back to the work we should be doing."

Indeed, she was quite content to be led back to the open pod and crawled up into it, curling herself up and closing her eyes. Her breathing slowed to a sleeping rhythm. And they tiptoed back to their work stations. #

The debate about her future disposition, however, went on through an afternoon of sporadic work, intermittently adjusting the great tethering cable around the body of the asteroid and placing the augering tool in a new location. AS-64-B1.3 might be rich in platinum-group metals, but it was making them pay for its riches with a higher crushing coefficient than they'd anticipated. The afternoon was punctuated by one or another miner taking his turn to suit up for EVA in order to search out a slightly better location for the auger, to replace a drill bit, or to clear the dust that clogged even the best-sealed tool from time to time.

"Let's call this asteroid Ass," Calum suggested after one such trip.

"Please, Calum," Gill reproved him. "Not in front of the infant!"

"Very well then, you name it."

They were in the habit of giving temporary names to each asteroid they mined, something a little more personal and memorable than the numbers assigned by Survey-if any such numbers were assigned. Many of their targets were tiny chondrites only a few meters across, too insignificant to have been located and named in any flyby mission, but easy enough for the Khedive to ingest, crush and process. But AS-64-B1.3 was a large asteroid, almost too large for their longest tether to hold, and in such cases they liked to pick a name that used the initial letters of the Survey designation.

"Hazelnut," Gill threw out. Their unexpected guest was awake again and he was feeding her another leaf of chard with carrots for afters.

"Wrong initial letters."

"We'll be Cockney about it. 'Azelnut. And you can allow me a zed for an ess, can't you?"

"If there were any point to it. Why are you so set on Hazelnut?"

"Because she's a hard nut to crack!" Gill cackled and Calum smiled rather sourly. The smallest of the three men, he was the only one who could get inside the workings of the drill while wearing full EVA gear, and the dust of AS-64-B1.3 had sent him outside on this shift rather too often for him to find much amusement in it.

"I like that," Rafik said. "'Azelnut she is. And while you're enjoying your way with words, Gill, what shall we name this little one? We can't just keep calling her 'the child.'"

"Not our problem," Calum said. "We'll be turning her over to Base soon enough, won't we?" He looked at the suddenly stony faces of his colleagues. "Well, we can hardly keep her here. What will we do with a kid on a mining ship?"

"Have you considered," Rafik said gently, "the probable cost of abandoning operations on 'Azelnut and returning to Base at high delta-V?"

"At the moment," Calum snapped, "I should be only too happy to leave 'Azelnut for some other fool to crack."

"And to bring back the Khedive with less than half a payload?" Calum's pale lashes flickered as he calculated what they would make-or lose-on the trip in that event. Then he shrugged in resignation. "All right. We're stuck with her until we make our payload. Just don't assume that because I'm smaller than you, you Viking giant, that I'm naturally suited to play nanny."

"Ah, now," said Gill with great good humor, "the creature's walking and toilet trained already, and she'll soon pick up our language, children learn easily. How much trouble can one toddler be?"

"Add that to your list of 'famous last words, will ya?" Calum remarked at his most caustic when they found the youngling had uprooted a good half of the 'ponics vegetation, including the all important squashes and rhubarb whose large leaves provided much of the air purification.

Rafik ran tests to see how much damage had actually been done to air quality. She'd gone to sleep again and had awakened so quietly that none of them had been aware of her movement until she wandered back in, flourishing cabbage leaves. Calum and Gill replanted, watered and tied up the pulled plants in an effort to save as many as possible. The infant had evidently sampled everything, pulling up those she particularly liked instead of leaving her mouth-sized bite in leaf or stalk: she had eaten all the half-ripe legume pods, staples of Rafik's preferred diet. These subsequently caused a diarrhea which upset her almost more than it upset them. They spent a good hour, arguing over a dose sufficient to bind her back to normal. Body weight was the critical factor and Rafik used the mineral scales to weigh her and then the powder. She spat out the first dose. And the second, all over Gill. The third dose they got down her by covering her rather prominent nostrils so that she had to open her mouth to breathe - and thus swallow the medication. Once again, she didn't cry but her silverish eyes reproached them far more effectively than tears could.

"We can't have her doing this again," Calum told Gill when they had finished replanting the garden. Then Rafik came over, showing them the read-out on the atmosphere gauge.

"It should be down but it's up," he said, scratching his head and then tapping the gauge to see if the needle moved. "Not so much as a stink of excess CO2 in our air and we were about due for a good back wash."

"I remember me mum putting a cage around me," Gill said, "when I would get into her garden." They made one out of netting in a corner of the Khedive's dayroom but she was out of that as soon as they turned their backs on her. So they netted the 'ponics instead.

They tried to find toys to amuse her with but pots and pot lids to bang together and an array of boxes to nest and bright colored cups and bowls did not divert her long. She had to be attached to someone, somehow, which generally made doing their separate tasks difficult, if not impossible.

"Dependence transference," Rafik suggested pompously.

"This is not in my job description," Gill said in a soft voice when she had finally fallen asleep, small arms limp around his neck. Rafik and Calum helped to remove her as gently as possible. They all held their breaths as they managed to lay her in the open pod which remained her nocturnal cradle.

"And that's another thing," Gill said, still whispering, "she's growing by the hour. She's not going to fit in that much longer. What the hell species is she?"

"Born more mature than human babies are," Rafik said. "But I can't find out a damned thing in the Concordance nor the Encyclo not even in the alien or the vet entries."

"Look, guys, I know we'll waste time, fuel and we haven't got enough of a payload to resupply if we go back to Base, but do we have the right to keep her out here with us when someone might be looking for her? And Base might be able to take care of her better?"

Rafik sighed and Calum looked away from Gill, and everywhere else but at the sleeping youngling.

"First," Rafik said, since he usually did this sort of logical setting out of facts, "if anybody's looking for her, they'd be looking in this sector of space, not at Base. Second, since we've agreed she is of an unknown alien species, what possible expertise can Base supply? There aren't any books on how to look after her, and we're the only ones with hands-on experience. And finally, we don't have enough of a payload to refuel. We do have what looks like a real find here and I'm not about to let any hijackers take it away from us. We did catch that ion trail last week, and it could very well be Amalgamated spies, just checking up on us." Gill growled and Calum sniffed his poor opinion of the competition. "Well, we'll just have to include her in the duty roster. An hour on, two hours off. That gives us two crew working..."

"And one going off his nut..." Gill said and then volunteered to take the first duty.

"Ahahaha," Rafik waggled a slim finger at his crewmate, "we all work while she sleeps."

#

Somehow or other the scheme worked a lot better than any of them had any reason to expect. In the first place, she learned to talk which kept her, and her current minder, occupied. She learned also to respect 'no' and brighten at 'yes' and, when she was bored with sitting still, would 'yes' and 'no' every object in the day room. She never again touched a 'no'. The third day, it was Rafik who brought out the markers and 'dead' computer print-outs. He showed her how to hold the implement and, while she could not manage her digits as he did, she was very shortly drawing lines and squiggles and looking for approval at each new design.

"You know," said Calum, when called upon to admire her handiwork, "looks a lot like the stuff on her egg. How mature was she born, d'you think?

That sent all three comparing her efforts with the egg inscription but they finally decided that it was pure chance and how would a youngling know script at such an early age. So they taught her to print in Basic, using the now-standard figures. She outdid them shortly by repeating the computer print-out programming language.

"Well, she prints what she sees a lot of."

The big discovery, and the treat could take up to an hour, was bathing her.

"You gotta bathe all kids regularly. Hygiene," Rafik said, pausing to grin at her as she splashed the water in the big galley sink. She still fit in it at that point. "I know that much."

"Yeah? With water on board for three and she makes four and drinks a lot, we'll be in deep kimchee on water quality soon," Gill said sourly

"All sink water's recycled ," Calum reminded them just as the youngling dipped her face in the bath water and blew bubbles. And then drank the bubbles. "No, sweetie, don't drink the bath water. Dirty."

"Actually it isn't," Rafik remarked, looking at the clear liquid in which their charge sat.

"Has to be. I soaped her good." Calum peered in and the monel bottom was clearly visible. "That's impossible. There should be lather and she'd got her kneecaps dirty crawling on the floor and she got her fingers messed up drawing before that. They're all clean now, too."

"Just a jiff," Rafik said and went off for one of his many diagnostic tools. He inserted it in the bath water and gawked at the reading. "This stuff is one hundred per cent pure unadulterated H20. In fact it's a lot purer than what I used to make coffee this morning."

"But you saw me soap her," Calum said in a defensive tone. "I washed her because she was dirty."

"Which neither she nor the water is now." Rafik immersed the diagnostic again. "I dunno."

Calum got a crafty expression on his face. "Done a reading on our air lately?"

Rafik grimaced. "In fact I did, like I'm supposed to this time of day."

"Well?" Gill's voice rose in a prompt when Rafik delayed an answer while scratching his head. "Not a sign of excess carbon dioxide and with four of us breathing air, there should be some traces of it by now. Especially as we don't have quite as many broad-leafed plants in 'ponics because she," and he pointed at 'her,' "likes them better than anything else."

The three men regarded their small charge who was bubbling her crystal clear bath water greatly enjoying this innocent occupation.

"Then there's that sort of horn thing in the middle of her forehead," Gill remarked. "Unicorns were supposed to purify water."

"Water maybe," Calum agreed as he had been brought up with some of the same fairy tales as Gill, "but air?"

"Wa-ter?" the youngling said, dropping her jaw in what they now recognized as her smiled. "Air?" she added, though it came out in two syllables, 'a-yir'.

"That's right, baby, water and air. The two things both our species can't live without," Rafik said, sighing at the puzzle of her.

"Let's call her Una," Gill suggested suddenly into the silence.

"I don't like it," Rafik said, shaking his head. "We're in the A's, you know, not the U's."

"Acorna?" Calum. "Sure beats 'baby' and 'youngling' and 'sweetums'." He glanced sideways at Gill whom he had overheard addressing his charge with what Calum thought a nauseating euphemism.

"Acorna?" Rafik considered. "Better than Una." He picked up a cup, dipped it in the clear bath water and, as he made to pour it over her head, Gill grabbed it out of his hand.

"You ain't even Christian," he said. And pouring the water over her head, "I dub thee Acorna."

"No, no, you twit," Calum said, taking the cup from his hand and dipping it. "I baptize thee Acorna. I'll stand as godfather."

"You will not. I will."

"Where does that leave me?" Rafik demanded. Acorna stood up in the sink and only his quick movement kept her from falling out of the improvised bath.

"Holding the baby," Gill and Calum said in unison. Calum handed him the towel.

They had learned to dry off as much moisture as possible because, once set on her feet again, Acorna tended to shake herself and there was too much equipment about that did not need daily sprinklings. #

The Khedive had cracked and digested 'Azelnut and was on her way to DF-4-H3.1, a small LL-chondrite that should have a high enough concentration of valuable metals to make up the payload for this trip, when the first announcements from Base reached them.

"Summary of proposed adjustments to shareholder status..." Gill scowled at the reader. "Why are they sending us this garbage? We're miners, not pixel-pushers or bean-counters!"

"Let me see that." Rafik snapped his fingers at the console. "Hard copy, triple!"

"Wasting paper," Calum commented.

"Acorna needs more scratch paper to mark on," Gill said.

"And if this is what I think it is," Rafik added, "you two will be wanting to read it for yourselves, not to wait for me."

"Whatever it is," Gill said in disgust after peering at his printout, "it's wrapped up in enough bureaucratic double-talk that we'll have to wait for you to interpret anyway, Rafik."

"Not all of it," Calum said slowly. "This paragraph-" he tapped his own hardcopy-"says that our shares in Mercantile Mining and Exploration are now worth approximately three times what they were when we left Base."

Gill whistled. "For news like that, they can wrap it up any way they please!"

"And this paragraph," Calum went on, "says that they have become non-voting shares." "Is that legal? Oh, well, for three times the money, who cares? We didn't have enough shares between us to make a difference anyway."

Calum was blinking furiously as he translated the announcement into numbers without bothering to consult the voice calculator. "The net worth of our shares has increased by a factor of 3.25, actually. But if we had ever voted our shares in a block, our interest in MME would have been sufficient to influence a close-run policy decision."

"I believe," Rafik said in an oddly strangled voice, "that if you two will stop jingling your pocket change and look at the last page, you will observe the important part of this announcement. It seems MME has been acquired. By Amalgamated."

Gill flipped through his hardcopy. "Says here it's a merger, not an acquisition."

Rafik shrugged. "When the tiger executes a merger with the goat, which one walks away?"

"Ah, it's nothing for us to be concerned about," Gill said. "We hadn't enough shares to be worth the voting anyway, Calum, and besides we were never around for their AGM's when we could vote. And it says right here that nothing is going to change in the way the company is run."

Rafik shrugged again. "They always say that. It's a sure sign that heads are about to roll."

"Back on Base? Sure. But that won't affect us."

"Not immediately, no."

"Oh, quit spouting doom and gloom, Rafik. Since when do you know so much more about the ways of big business than the rest of us? Like I said, we're miners, not pixel-pushers."

"My uncle Hafiz," Rafik said demurely, "is a merchant. He has explained some of these matters to me. The next announcement should follow within twenty-four to thirty-six hours Standard. That will be the company's change of name. The restructuring and the first revised organization chart will occur somewhat later, but still well before we reach Base-especially if you still intend mining Daffodil before our return."

"I'm beginning to think we should rename DF-4-H3.1 Daffy, in your honor, Rafik," Gill said. "You can't possibly predict all that."

"Wait and see," Rafik suggested. "Or to make it more amusing, how about a small wager? I'll give you odds of-umm-three to two that you'll not recognise the old MME by the time we bring the Khedive in again."

Calum grinned. "Not very good odds, Rafik, for someone who claims to be as certain as you are of the outcome!"

Rafik's brown lashes swept down across his face, demurely as any dancing girl in his ancestors' harems could have looked. "My uncle Hafiz," he murmured, "also kept racing horses. He instructed me never to bet on longer odds than I had to."

"And even if they do reorganize," Gill went on, "we're independent contractors, not staff employees. It won't affect us."

"Remembering some of your other famous last words, Gill," Calum said unhappily, "I rather wish you hadn't said that."

#

The Khedive stayed out much longer than their original prospecting plan filed with MME. A case of finding Daffodil nearly as lucrative as 'Azelnut and covering a wider area. Since their water remained pure and their air remarkably clear of CO2, they really were not at all pushed. Acorna also supplied diversion enough to keep all three men from feeling any need to seek fresher companions.

Though their arguments about her upbringing slowly verged on the 'what'll we teach her today' rather than physical concerns, the debates usually occurred while she was sleeping. She did require a good deal of sleep, growing out of nap-times to at least ten hours in the hammock they devised as her sleeping accommodation. Once asleep, she was impervious to noise - except for the one time a thruster misfired and set off the hooter and she was wide-awake in an instant and standing by her assigned escape pod. (Rafik had put her original pod in it, "just in case" he'd said and the others had concurred.) As there were only three pods on the Khedive, and Calum was the smallest of the miners, he would share hers. So they would discuss her lessons quite freely and sometimes at the top of their lungs. Such EVA work as was needed was generally accomplished when she was asleep or so involved with her 'studying' she didn't notice that one of them was gone.

"We're going to have to train her out of such dependence, you know," Rafik said one night. "I mean, when we get back to Base, we'll each have duties that will separate us and she's got to learn that having just one of us around is okay, too."

"How do we do that?" Calum wanted to know.

"Start doing short EVA's while she's awake, so she sees us going and coming back. I think once she realizes that we DO come back, she'll settle more," Rafik said, shaking his head and casting a sorrowful glance to where she swayed slightly in her hammock. "Poor tyke. Losing her family to who knows what. Small wonder she needs to see all of us all the time."

Now, all along, they'd given her lessons in Basic, naming everything in the Khedive for her. At first she had reciprocated-at least they thought that was what she was doing-with sounds in her own language. But since her words sounded like nothing they'd ever heard before and their efforts to repeat them were dead failures, she soon began accepting and using their vocabulary.

"Just as well," said Gill.

"A pity for her to lose her original language," Calum said, "but she's so young, I doubt she had that much command of it anyway."

"Well, she sure knew how to say ..."and he spelled the word out rather than upset Acorna by hearing it spoken.

"Avvi?" And the look of expectancy in Acorna's eyes as she looked toward the airlock of the Khedive nearly had the tenderer hearted Gill in tears.

"She can spell?" Rafik exclaimed, grasping the important facet of that incident. "Hey, there, Acorna baby, what does R A F I K spell?"

Diverted, she pointed her whole hand, the digits closed as was her habit, at Rafik and said his name.

"And G I L L?"

"Gill," and she made the odd noise through her nostrils which the men had identified as her laugh.

"C A L U M?" demanded the last of her parent figures.

"Calum!" Now she drummed her closed hands on the table and her feet on the floor, her expression of high happiness.

A good bit of that day's segment went into a spelling lesson. That evening produced the knowledge that she had assimilated the alphabet and, with only a little help from her friends, she began to print what she spelled.

"In a ten point type face, gentlemen, if you will examine the evidence," Calum said, holding up one of the sheets she had covered with her delicately wrought script.

"What's so amazing about that?" Rafik asked, turning the sheet to the other side where the print-out words were also in ten point type.

"How much has she absorbed?"

"Damn," Acorna said very clearly as the writing implement she was using ran dry.

"I'd say more than enough, mates," Gill said, "and he who uses foul language will pay one half credit for every foul-mouthed syllable uttered from this point onward." He picked up an empty disk box, started to write 'Foul Mouth' when Acorna, reading it, repeated the legend. He erased it hastily and put "FINE" instead.

"What is fine?" Acorna asked.

That's when they showed her how to access the Khedive's reference programs. She had a bit of trouble getting her oddly shaped fingers to hit just the keys she wanted until Rafik made up a keyboard with spacings appropriate to her manual dexterity. If improving this new skill kept her occupied so that they could get on with their professional work and more beneficiated ore was sacked and stored in the drone carrier pods that festooned the exterior of the Khedive, she totally confounded them three days later.

"Cargo pods are nearly two-thirds full. What ...when they are three-thirds full?"

"Say what?" Rafik asked, blinking at her.

"I think she's trying to ask what we'll do then. We take the three-thirds full pods back to Base, get paid for them, resupply the ship and come back for more," Calum replied, trying to speak in a nonchalant tone.

"But Daffodil is more than three thirds cargo pods."

"Well, you know, we send the iron and nickel back by the mag drive. The ship's own payload is merely the metals too valuable to send that way," Calum explained as if he really expected Acorna to understand him.

"Platinum is val-uble."

"That's right."

"Then palladium and rhodium and ruthenium is val-uble."

"Are," Calum corrected absently.

Rafik had straightened. "Did you hear that? She knows the platinum-group metals!"

"And why not?" Gill retorted. "Doesn't she hear us talking about them all the time?" Acorna stamped her foot to get back their attention. "Osmium is val-uble. Iridium is val-uble. Rhenium is not val-uble."

"Rhenium isn't one of the platinum group," Calum corrected her, "but at the moment, thanks to the boom in proton accelerometers, it is very valuable indeed."

Acorna frowned. "Not mining rhenium."

"We would if there was any on Daff, I assure you, honey."

"Rhenium is. Deep."

"No, love, Daffodil's regolith is rich in platinum-group metals but low in iron and the minor metals, including rhenium. We could tell that from spectroscopic analysis and...um, other instruments," said Gill, who left the technical task of deciding which asteroids were likely candidates to Calum whenever he could. "That's why we're miners, hon. This is our job. And we are very lucky to have found Daffodil. 'Azelnut was good, but the Daff's been better for us."

"Deep!" Acorna insisted. "Use auger. Drill. Find rhenium, go back soon. Then go somewhere new?"

"To find your folks?"

Acorna's eyes did their narrowing and she looked down an elegant but definitely equine nose at her closed hands.

"Honey, one of the reasons we've stayed out so long is to make enough money to do a real good galactic search for your folks. Your avvi. Was Avvi the only one in your ship?"

"No. Lalli there, too."

"Your mother and father?" Gill asked, hoping that now her comprehension of Basic was so good, she might be able to make the leap to translating her mother-tongue.

"No, Avvi and Lalli."

"Nice try, Gill," Rafik said, laying a sympathetic hand on his arm.

"By the way, hon, three-thirds full is all full. Three thirds make one," Calum said, seeking to distract her from her sad contemplation of her hands. "Thirds are fractions."

"Fractions?" Her head came up.

"Parts of a whole. There're all kinds of fractions, halves and quarters and fifths and sixths and lots and lots and when you have two halves, you have a whole. When you have four quarters, you have a whole."

"And five fives is a whole, too?" Her eyes were wide again as she grasped the concept. "What is the smallest? One and one?"

"We also got us a mathematical genius," Rafik said, throwing up his slim fingers in humorous awe.

One mathematical concept led to another and it wasn't long before Acorna was accessing algebraic equations. And Calum, muttering something about leaving no regolithic grain unturned, bullied the others into using the tether and auger to go beneath the fine, friable rubble of Daffodil's outer layers.

"Why not teach her something useful? Like how to watch the catalytic converter gauges and switch over at the right temps?" Rafik asked. "Then I'd get to go out with you guys on EVA's and she'd have less of this dependency thing."

"I think," Calum said in awed tones, "she was born knowing more useful things than we can imagine." He was inspecting the latest drilling samples by remote control. "Look at this analysis, will you?"

"Rhenium and hafnium," Rafik said slowly, bending over the screens. "High concentrations, too. If the drill keeps bringing up this quality of ore, we can make our payload and be back at Base sooner than if we keep working the surface regolith for platinum. And the load will be richer by..."

"Forty-two point six five percent," Calum said, blinking absently. "She said there was rhenium down deep, you know."

"Daffodil shows as an undifferentiated asteroid. There've been no atmospheric processes to move deposits. Logically, the deep rock should be the same metals, in the same concentration, as the surface regolith... just harder to get at."

"Logically," Gill retorted, "looking at this analysis, it isn't. There just may be a few things the cosmologists don't know yet. But I'd give a pretty penny to know how you knew, Acorna acushla. I think we'd better teach her the rest of the metals, gentlemen, so she knows what to tell us about from now on. And as for dependency..." Gill snorted. "Once you made her her own keyboard, she undepended herself, or hadn't you two noticed?"

"Some are born to be hackers, and some ain't," Rafik said.

"Well, it won't hurt to try, now will it?" was Gill's retort but he was as proud of Acorna as they all were. "We're not doing so bad as parents, are we?"

"How mature was she born?" Calum asked, almost plaintively. "She's only been aboard for...." He had to access the log for the date she'd been recovered. "Hey, twelve months and fifteen days!"

"A year?" Rafik repeated astonished.

"A year!" Gill cried. "Hell, we forgot her birthday!"

The other two, tight-lipped with anger, pointed to the FINE jar which hadn't actually been fed for some time.

Copyright © 1997 by Anne McCaffrey

Copyright © 1997 by Margaret Ball


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