The Complete Federation of the Hub
James H. Schmitz
NOT WITHOUT MY HUMAN!
Wisps of thought which were not her own flicked through Telzey’s mind as the silent line of shadows moved deeper into the park with her.
They were curious; this was the first human mind which hadn’t seemed deaf and silent to their form of communication. They’d been assured Telzey would have something of genuine importance to tell them; and there was some derision about that. But they were willing to wait a little, and find out.
“Tick-Tock?” she whispered, suddenly a little short of breath. A single up-and-down purring note replied from the bushes on her right. TT was still around, for whatever good that might do.
Then in the mental sensations washing about her, a special excitement rose suddenly, a surge of almost gleeful wildness that choked away her breath. Awareness followed of a pair of unseen malignant crimson eyes fastened on her, moving steadily closer—they’d turned her over to that red-eyed horror! She sat still, feeling mouse-sized.
Something came out with a crash from a thicket behind her. Her muscles went tight. But it was TT who rubbed a hard head against her shoulder, then stopped between Telzey and the bushes on their right, back rigid, neck fur erect, tail twisting. In the greenery something made a slow, heavy stir.
TT’s lips peeled back from her teeth. Her head swung towards the motion, ears flattening, transformed to a split, snarling demon-mask. A long shriek ripped from her lungs, raw with fury, blood lust and challenge. . . .
There was, Telzey Amberdon thought, someone besides TT and herself in the garden. Not, of course, Aunt Halet, who was in the house waiting for an early visitor to arrive, and not one of the servants. Someone or something else must be concealed among the thickets of magnificently flowering native Jontarou shrubs about Telzey.
She could think of no other way to account for Tick-Tock’s spooked behavior—nor, to be honest about it, for the manner her own nerves were acting up without visible cause this morning.
Telzey plucked a blade of grass, slipped the end between her lips and chewed it gently, her face puzzled and concerned. She wasn’t ordinarily afflicted with nervousness. Fifteen years old, genius level, brown as a berry and not at all bad looking in her sunbriefs, she was the youngest member of one of Orado’s most prominent families and a second-year law student at one of the most exclusive schools in the Federation of the Hub. Her physical, mental, and emotional health, she’d always been informed, were excellent. Aunt Halet’s frequent cracks about the inherent instability of the genius level could be ignored; Halet’s own stability seemed questionable at best.
But none of that made the present odd situation any less disagreeable . . .
The trouble might have begun, Telzey decided, during the night, within an hour after they arrived from the spaceport at the guesthouse Halet had rented in Port Nichay for their vacation on Jontarou. Telzey had retired at once to her second-story bedroom with Tick-Tock; but she barely got to sleep before something awakened her again. Turning over, she discovered TT reared up before the window, her forepaws on the sill, big cat-head outlined against the star-hazed night sky, staring fixedly down into the garden.
Telzey, only curious at that point, climbed out of bed and joined TT at the window. There was nothing in particular to be seen, and if the scents and minor night-sounds which came from the garden weren’t exactly what they were used to, Jontarou was after all an unfamiliar planet. What else would one expect here?
But Tick-Tock’s muscular back felt tense and rigid when Telzey laid her arm across it, and except for an absent-minded dig with her forehead against Telzey’s shoulder, TT refused to let her attention be distracted from whatever had absorbed it. Now and then, a low, ominous rumble came from her furry throat, a half-angry, half-questioning sound. Telzey began to feel a little uncomfortable. She managed finally to coax Tick-Tock away from the window, but neither of them slept well the rest of the night. At breakfast, Aunt Halet made one of her typical nasty-sweet remarks.
“You look so fatigued, dear—as if you were under some severe mental strain . . . which, of course, you might be,” Halet added musingly. With her gold-blond hair piled high on her head and her peaches and cream complexion, Halet looked fresh as a daisy herself . . . a malicious daisy. “Now wasn’t I right in insisting to Jessamine that you needed a vacation away from that terribly intellectual school?” She smiled gently.
“Absolutely,” Telzey agreed, restraining the impulse to fling a spoonful of egg yolk at her father’s younger sister. Aunt Halet often inspired such impulses, but Telzey had promised her mother to avoid actual battles on the Jontarou trip, if possible. After breakfast, she went out into the back garden with Tick-Tock, who immediately walked into a thicket, camouflaged herself and vanished from sight. It seemed to add up to something. But what?
Telzey strolled about the garden a while, maintaining a pretense of nonchalant interest in Jontarou’s flowers and colorful bug life. She experienced the most curious little chills of alarm from time to time, but discovered no signs of a lurking intruder, or of TT either. Then, for half an hour or more, she’d just sat cross-legged in the grass, waiting quietly for Tick-Tock to show up of her own accord. And the big lunkhead hadn’t obliged.
Telzey scratched a tanned kneecap, scowling at Port Nichay’s park trees beyond the garden wall. It seemed idiotic to feel scared when she couldn’t even tell whether there was anything to be scared about! And, aside from that, another unreasonable feeling kept growing stronger by the minute now. This was to the effect that she should be doing some unstated but specific thing . . .
In fact, that Tick-Tock wanted her to do some specific thing!
Abruptly, Telzey closed her eyes, thought sharply, “Tick-Tock?” and waited—suddenly very angry at herself for having given in to her fancies to this extent—for whatever might happen.
* * *
She had never really established that she was able to tell, by a kind of symbolic mind-picture method, like a short waking dream, approximately what TT was thinking and feeling. Five years before, when she’d discovered Tick-Tock—an odd-looking and odder-behaved stray kitten then—in the woods near the Amberdons’ summer home on Orado, Telzey had thought so. But it might never have been more than a colorful play of her imagination; and after she got into law school and grew increasingly absorbed in her studies, she almost forgot the matter again.
Today, perhaps because she was disturbed about Tick-Tock’s behavior, the customary response was extraordinarily prompt. The warm glow of sunlight shining through her closed eyelids faded out quickly and was replaced by some inner darkness. In the darkness there appeared then an image of Tick-Tock sitting a little way off beside an open door in an old stone wall, green eyes fixed on Telzey. Telzey got the impression that TT was inviting her to go through the door, and, for some reason, the thought frightened her.
Again, there was an immediate reaction. The scene with Tick-Tock and the door vanished; and Telzey felt she was standing in a pitch-black room, knowing that if she moved even one step forwards, something that was waiting there silently would reach out and grab her.
Naturally, she recoiled . . . and at once found herself sitting, eyes still closed and the sunlight bathing her lids, in the grass of the guesthouse garden.
She opened her eyes, looked around. Her heart was thumping rapidly. The experience couldn’t have lasted more than four or five seconds, but it had been extremely vivid, a whole, compact little nightmare. None of her earlier experiments at getting into mental communication with TT had been like that.
It served her right, Telzey thought, for trying such a childish stunt at the moment! What she should have done at once was to make a methodical search for the foolish beast—TT was bound to be somewhere nearby—locate her behind her camouflage, and hang on to her then until this nonsense in the garden was explained! Talented as Tick-Tock was at blotting herself out, it usually was possible to spot her if one directed one’s attention to shadow patterns. Telzey began a surreptitious study of the flowering bushes about her.
Three minutes later, off to her right, where the ground was banked beneath a six-foot step in the garden’s terraces, Tick-Tock’s outline suddenly caught her eye. Flat on her belly, head lifted above her paws, quite motionless, TT seemed like a transparent wraith stretched out along the terrace, barely discernible even when stared at directly. It was a convincing illusion; but what seemed to be rocks, plant leaves, and sun-splotched earth seen through the wraith-outline was simply the camouflage pattern TT had printed for the moment on her hide. She could have changed it completely in an instant to conform to a different background.