Dan Foreman had been watching the boy for about twenty minutes. It was pretty obvious he was a thief. He'd been with three other children, one a little younger than his apparent ten years, a couple a little older. They had picked their marks and had scored easily, disappearing down the corridor.
Yet many easy marks had passed and he had ignored them. Dan saw the boy finally pick his mark and looking, he groaned but he didn't interfere. His Captain could take care of himself, he just wondered why the boy had chosen him.
The boy was a couple of yards from the Captain, when he suddenly spun around his eyes going wide with fear. Dan recognized that look and he moved out from his resting place, laser snapping into his hand and as he shot one of the two men with lasers out, aiming at his Captain. With his peripheral vision he saw the boy lunge, towards his Captain, not away as he would have expected. Taking a laser bolt squarely in the chest, the boy's eyes went wide with pain and then dull as he lost consciousness and began crumpling toward the deck.
The first one had been easy, to get the second Dan had to bring his laser up to his eye, his six four height allowing him to target the shooter's head over the top of the crowd, who hadn't already hit the deck. The man didn't have a chance to take a second shot, the bolt caught him in the side of the head, killing him instantly.
His Captain was kneeling beside the boy laser in hand. Dan scolded, “Cap you're getting careless in your old age. If it hadn't been for the kid, you'd be dead right now.”
Mason looked at his friend who was four years older than he was. He hostered his gun and said worriedly, “You know more about these stations than I do, what do we do.”
Dan stated firmly, “We leave, taking the kid with us, if he's still alive. He's a thief and what they call the law in this place will just let him die.”
“Figured that's what you'd say,” and Mason picked up the boy gently. “He's alive, but I don't know for how long. That shot in the chest just missed his heart. The only good thing about lasers is that they cauterize the wound, so he's not bleeding to death. But we better get him to Kim, if we want to keep him alive. I damn well want to know why he saved my life.”
Ben woke up with a sore chest. When he began to move, a small hand touched him on the shoulder a woman's light voice telling him, “Don't move, you need a couple more days before you start doing anything active, I just let you wake up so I could check on you.”
He croaked, “I have to pee.”
She told him, “Go, you're hooked up to a catheter, so you're not going to wet the bed if that's what you're worried about.” He let go and felt his bladder emptying, falling asleep again as soon as it was empty.
The next time Ben woke up he was more aware. But he was pretty puzzled about where he was. It reminded him of the Sick Bay on the station, but it was much smaller and much cleaner. He turned his head to the side. He saw a woman sitting in a chair and staring at him. It was impossible to tell how old she was, she could have been any age from her late teens up. She had dark hair and eyes, which was the most common human genotype, in this area of space.
Lying down on a second bunk was a man of about thirty to thirty-five years old. She said in a singsong voice, “Do you have, a name, young boy who saved my Captain's life.”
“Ben, no last name that I know of.” he said, “Where I am I?”
“You're aboard a High Free Trader, called the Harvard.” she answered.
Curious, he asked, “What's a High Free Trader. I've heard of Free Traders, but that's a new name to me.”
She said seriously, “Most Free Traders consist of one ship, sometimes two if they're lucky. High Free Traders consist of a dozen clans and they make up close to two hundred ships. Believe me you don't want to piss off a High Free Trader. Even the big shipping companies leave us alone,”
She told him, “It's time for you to get up. Your chest is going to be sore for a while, but it'll be sore whether you're moving or being still, so up with you.”
Ben felt some pain in his chest as he sat up and swung his feet to the deck. He hesitated as he realized he was naked under the blanket. She threw him a pair of green shorts and T shirt. She told him, with amusement, “Don't worry. I'm a Med-Tech and I've got four younger brothers, so I've seen plenty of naked boys. In fact on a family ship, instead of a bachelor ship like this is, most of the kids don't wear any clothes until they're about twelve, so be grateful that I'm giving you any.”
Ben said, with a smile, “Well I'd be safe then, I'm actually somewhere around fifteen.” She looked at Ben with a bit of disbelief and checked the med scans that she had done on him. While she was keying in her query, he discarded the blanket and pulled on the shorts first and then the T shirt. Feeling something in the pocket of the shorts, he pulled it part way out. Realizing that it was just a handkerchief, he pushed it back.
Kim said, annoyance in her voice, “The medical instruments show that you're closer to sixteen than fifteen, but across the board it says that you would be considered a ten year old on any Federation planet. I've included that fact in the med download I've prepared for the captain and I've updated your ID bracelet to indicate that fact.” She took his ID bracelet out of the machine and handed to him and he fastened it around his wrist.
Ben nodded his head at the terminal, saying, “That particular medical instrumentation had far more capabilities, when it was released than the software could keep up with. Next time you get to a civilized place, look into the Rotino software upgrade. It's not very expensive and the new software will increase the capability by about three hundred percent. There's something else it didn't tell you about me, that should have been brought to your attention. I'll mention it to the Captain, in case you need to justify buying the upgrade.
She handed him a pair of sandals. Telling him, “These are the only part of what you're now wearing, that are permanent, aside from your ID bracelet. The clothes are discarded in the recycle bin,and you get a new set, in the morning or any other time that you need them, so don't leave anything you want to keep, in the pockets. While it'll kick out most things that aren't recyclable, it's not one hundred percent guaranteed and all of our paper recycles. Your pajamas will also be green, there's no knowing when an emergency might crop up and we need to know who's who, when it comes to newcomers, so at least wear the bottoms.”
She explained, “When you get your new set in the morning, if you want underpants, pick that option and you'll get a pair. You can even choose the color of those if you want. But the shirt will stay green for at least six months and after that until you get upgraded. Green means newcomer and there's a pretty wide choice of greens so you don't always look exactly the same. And green shorts and shirt mean a real newcomer.”
Kin told him, touching herself on the chest, “White means, Med-Tech, which at the moment means me, though Fred Wilson has been cross trained as a med, blue is command and everybody else wears pretty well what they want on board ship. With you there's only fifteen, it's not like we can't find who we want, if we need to.”
“By the way do you want to keep your hair dyed brown?” Kim asked casually, wondering if she would startle him.
Ben considered it, then shrugged, telling her, “Doesn't matter. It's just that red stuck out when 99.9% of the people have brown or black hair.”
Kim said, “Mabel, the Captain wants to see Ben. Could you make sure he gets there.”
“Certainly, Kim,” said a voice coming out of the wall.
Kim explained to Ben, “Mabel's our AI, she'll make sure you don't get lost, but to start off when you leave here turn left.”
Ben started toward the door and hit the green release. The door opened and a ginger colored cat was sitting waiting for that to happen. Ben bent down and Kim was about to give him a warning and she was somewhat surprised when the cat allowed herself to be picked up.
Ben began stroking her and Kim heard him say, “Ethel, that's an awful name for a cat.” Kim could hear Ethel begin to purr and she wondered how the boy had known her name. She didn't have a collar, with a nametag. “Well I've got to go Ethel, I'll tell her. I'll see you later,” Ben looked at Kim, “Ethel says that she's hungry and she doesn't want any of that crap that you've been feeding her lately.”
He turned and serenely walked out the door, unaware of Kim sitting down on her chair with a plop of astonishment.
Ben stood in front of the desk, hands clasped behind him, the Captain sitting behind it. Dan Foreman, the first officer stood behind him, leaning against the wall. Ben wasn't worried any longer, even if the Captain decided to kick him off of the ship, they were too far from their starting point for it to be the same off. The Captain had taken his ID bracelet and had it in a Reader.
“Well let's start at the beginning. You picked me as a mark. Why me?” asked the Captain.
“Mr. Foreman,” Ben started to say.
Dan interrupted, “Let's start things off the right way here. My name's Dan.”
Ben turned halfway and nodded, then turned back to the Captain, saying, with a grin, “From the way he appeared, Dan had to have been there for a while, he would have seen my companions pick their marks. He probably noticed that they were middle of the road type people, nobody too important. I had to choose somebody important and it couldn't be local. You steal from an important local, they don't go to the law, they take care of it themselves and you wind up dead, which is what I was trying to avoid in the first place.”
Ben explained, “It had to be somebody important, from off station, so that the cops would have to turn me over to the Federation police, for Rehabilitation, since I'm too young for a prison planet.”
“So you intended to get caught,” Dan said from behind him. “I wondered why you passed up all of those easy marks.”
“I got stupid,” admitted Ben, “I've been hearing things in my mind for the last few months. I figured I must have been a weak esper, maybe a two or a three, so I decided to check it out. It doesn't cost very much. I should have put blocks on the machine before I used it, but I didn't expect what I got. I almost fainted when I saw the results and I knew I had to get off the station by the end of the month, or I was dead. By that time it was in the stations main computer and I didn't have access to a terminal that would have allowed me to remove the information.”
“What exactly was the result that got you into such a panic?” asked the Captain.
Ben said intently, “Six, full potential unknown. Do you think anybody would have let me off the station if they had realized that? Well maybe in little pieces,” Ben conceded. “I doubt if they would have believed me if I told them that only xeno-telepathy is working at that level at the moment. Being a thief I was pretty well confined to the human part of the station, because I had to be able to blend in. Going into any of the alien sectors is automatically logged and they would have known that the last time I had been in one of them was over a year ago.”
Ben explained, “Since that was the case I really only had to worry about the human population. I figure that right now, I am only a two or three with humans. I know that the results end up each month in two hands, the Federation representative and the station manager. And the station manager gets the results first. So I would have been dead by the time the Federation got them.”
The Captain asked, “Okay, that explains why you picked me but why did you save my life by jumping in front of a laser bolt instead of away?”
Ben told him solemnly, “Station months vary from station to station. There was only a few hours left on our month. I'd been looking for over a week. You were my last chance. When I realized that those aliens intended to kill you, I just preferred a quick, almost painless death, to what could have been a very prolonged painful death.” He said dryly. “The fact that it happened to save your life was just an accident.”
“Aliens!” exclaimed Dan, “Are you positive, they sure looked human to me.”
“I'm positive,” said Ben nodding vigorously, “As I said I can only read a little from humans, but the surfaces of the two shooters minds were as clear as if I was watching a Vid. Though nothing very exciting. Just four words repeating over and over in both minds, “Kill, Captain Mason Cooper.”
He was distracted and turned toward the door, saying, “Ethel would like to come in, if you don't mind.”
Dan reached over and hit the door release and Ethel stalked in majestically and jumped into Ben's waiting arms. She began purring and Ben laughed, saying, “She said thank you, that what Kim gave her today was much better, than what she's been getting.”
Dan and Mason looked at each other, nodding their heads. The Captain said, “Well we don't know if the attack is because of something that I did in the past, I've made a few enemies in my time. Or whether it's something we're presently involved in, but either way we'll have to stay alert, just in case it was aimed at the ship rather than me individually.”
He pointed at Ben, saying, “But as for you, we're heading for a planet where we'll be finalizing a trade agreement. That could take several weeks, so we'll put you down as crew, until we get back to civilization and can turn you over to the Federation, if that's what you want, that'll give you one-eighth of a share. What's your education level.”
Ben who was busy petting Ethel, answered absently, “College four for the most part, but I have a Doctorate in Advanced Cybernetics.”
“At your age!” exclaimed Dan Foreman.
“Sorry, Dan,” the Captain shook his head, saying, “but Kim's scans say his real age is close to sixteen, the education is pretty routine for that age level, but a degree in Advanced Cybernetics isn't.” and after, hitting a couple of keys, he said with exasperation, “I can't access your education records.”
Ben put Ethel down and walked around the desk. He said, “May I?” and the captain swung the computer with its built in ID Reader to give him access. Ben looked over the layout of the keyboard for a moment, memorizing it and then began to type, his fingers moving so fast that it was impossible to see what he was typing.
Ben hit the ENTER key, “You'll be able to access everything now, Captain, I put up a lot of blocks. I didn't want those on the station to have access to a lot of things. Your computer system is much more modern and sophisticated than anything they had. They wouldn't even have noticed any of the blocks. and a routine education for my supposed age level would have shown up instead.”
The Captain looked at Dan again, smiling wryly and as he accessed the boy's education records, Mabel spoke. “If he has a degree in Advanced Cybernetics maybe he could have a look at that glitch that's been affecting me for the last few days. With Rick off after getting his appendix out its’ been bugging me.”
The Captain said absently, “Not only does he have a degree in Advanced Cybernetics, Mabel, it happens to be a Level 1 Doctorate. I have no objection to him having a look at your glitch, as long as Ben doesn't do anything without checking with me first.”
He looked at the boy who had gathered up Ethel in his arms again. Ben looked back at him calmly, saying, “One other thing, Captain. The medical instruments that Kim has are capable, but the software is lousy. They would have found out one other thing, that should have been flagged for her attention.”
“I hate to ask, you've already given me enough surprises for the day.” said Mason
Ben explained, “There's close to a 33% drift between my genetic makeup and the human standard.”
Mason touched a switch on his intercom and they all heard Kim ask, “Yes, Captain, what can I do for you?”
He asked, “Kim, does your medical instrument do a standard DNA scan.”
She said, “It does, Captain, but that's to make sure that the medicines are compatible with the patient's makeup.”
Mase told her, “Ben says, that his genetic makeup is almost 33% different from the standard. Could you do a check.”
After about thirty seconds later, she came back on the lone and they could all hear the indignation in her voice. “Apparently it's 32.894%. That should have been brought to my attention. He said that it had lousy software, but I didn't realize how bad. He said he had something that it should have told me, that would convince you to get something he called the Rotino software upgrade. I guess that's it, huh?”
The Captain looked at Ben, who nodded. Mase grinned, saying, “That was it, Kim. But we might not need it, I suspect that our little friend can do the job without much problem. He has a high degree in Advanced Cybernetics. Talk to you later, Kim.”
He looked at Ben, “Any more surprises, kid?” he asked.
Ben looked at him and Mason could see the laughter beneath the apparently calm surface. Ben said, “Not right now, Captain, but if you really want more, I'll try to think of some. I'm sure it won't be that difficult.”
“Just kidding, Ben, just kidding. I've had enough for a while.” said Mason hastily, “I'll upgrade the share that I planned to give you to a half, from the looks of things you've got the qualifications to earn it.”
He handed Ben's ID bracelet to him and Ben set down Ethel and put it on. He was just leaving when Dan snapped his fingers. He said, “How about your box of goldbricks, Mase. He just woke up so it's not likely he'll be sleepy for a while and it's right up his alley.”
“You're never going to let me forget it are you, Dan?” asked Mason sourly. “Take it.”
Dan had shown Ben to his quarters and said if he needed any help Mabel could give him instructions, then he had taken him to the mess hall with the large box and had opened it. Aside from what looked like a keyboard, with about one third more keys than a Terran keyboard would have, it didn't look anything like a computer.
Ben had taken out all of the parts and put them on the table and then he sat chin on hands and just looked at them, for close to an hour, only his eyes moving. Most of the crew were in and out during that time and they all had tried at one time or another to put it together, so they all knew what it was.
There were two crewmembers in the mess hall when Ben finally began to move. Not making one wrong move, the computer began to go together and in less than a half hour it was complete.
Ben turned it on and a holographic screen appeared. The first thing that came into view was the keyboard characters and their equivalent human alphabetic characters. Some of the characters had no human equivalents and were blank. He pulled up a directory and found that the files were all in Standard English. Obviously this computer had been put together for human eyes. The files were numbered in sequential order and Ben brought up the first one. He watched it as a Vid was shown. After watching the first thirty seconds he hit ESC.
Ben said urgently, “Mabel, would you tell the Captain that I've put the computer together and have access to the files. I think he had better get down here as soon as he can, no matter what he's doing!!”
“Acknowledged.” Mabel answered, catching the urgency in his voice.
Within five minutes the Captain was there, accompanied by Dan. Ben said gravely, “This is why you were targeted on the station, Captain, Someone found out you had it.”
He started the file again and the Vid began to play. A picture of an alien appeared, full face and then rotated. The alien said, “As you can see I look very human like, aside from the fact that I have no hair.” A second picture appeared, “After surgery and false hair implants, on sight we cannot be distinguished from humans. Modern scanners would show the obvious internal differences but where we will be operating, up to date scanners are seldom available and the antiquated versions are very easy to fool.”
He explained, “The organization that I belong to is a splinter group that disagrees with our government’s stance on relations between our people and humanity. They have determined to cause trouble on human worlds. The remaining files are Vids of attacks that took place on human worlds. There are a dozen incidents logged and this is a small fraction of the attacks that have been carried out.”
He said, “At first I agreed with their goal, but as the attacks started I began to feel revulsion towards what we are doing. Therefore I have constructed this computer which is a very radical design for both our people and humans and will leave it on one of the worlds that we attack. Hopefully someone will be able to put it together and inform the authorities, of these incidents.”
He explained, “The files also include the locations of all of our bases that I have been able to locate. If anyone finds out about my disaffection, I will try to end my life, but if I am unable to do so they will use drugs to find out everything I know. They will find out about this computer and look for it. Anyone in possession of it is in grave danger, until they can get it to the authorities.”
Ben asked intently, “Mabel, that glitch that has been affecting you, could it be disguised transmissions, so that the Harvard can be tracked.”
“Yes,” stated Mabel, “they could easily be transmissions.”
Ben looked at Captain Cooper, saying emphatically, “I think we had better find that glitch!!”
It took forty-eight hours of continuous searching to find the glitch and indeed Mabel was transmitting periodic signals. Kim reluctantly put Ben on stims, since they had no way of knowing if an attack was planned, or when. While all of them knew something about computers, Rick Tane their computer expert was in bed after a very dicey appendix operation and Ben was their only remaining expert.
After another ten hours of work he had duplicated the glitch in one of the lifeboats and Mabel's glitch was turned off just as the lifeboat's was turned on.
They launched the lifeboat, its course programmed to parallel Harvard's original course and then to veer away. It would have to match Harvard’s present speed and it wouldn’t be long before its limited hyper-drive engines would burn out. The Harvard made an immediate 25% course change, intending to drop out of hyper space at the same time the lifeboats hyper-drive was scheduled to fail. They would recalculate their course and head for the nearest substantial Federation base and turn the computer over to them. It would take them about a month longer to reach their intended destination, but they would be sure of getting there.
Ben was fast asleep and would be for several days, to repair the ravages the stims had caused on his body. Much worse because he had just recovered from a major wound.
Captain Cooper was meeting with the crew. He told them, “I've upped Ben's share to full, does anybody object.” he looked around and he didn't see anything but agreement. “I also think we won't mention him to the Federation, if he agrees to stay. He's too valuable to lose. Any objection to that?” Again he got complete agreement.
He held up his glass, giving a toast, “Welcome aboard Crewmember Ben. We're really going to have to give you a last name.”
The children were collecting roots and berries and other fruit like plants that grew wild. There were six children, six to nine called youngers and six between ten and thirteen called olders. The olders were all armed with light crossbows and fighting knives. The youngers just had the knives but they weren't just for show. A younger didn't receive a fighting knife until he showed efficiency in its use.
The children were paired off when they were ten and six, each older with a younger under his wing, who he had to teach, basic woodsmanship to. They continued pairing until the older was seventeen and the younger was thirteen though it wasn't a permanent pairing. They changed pairings each year and if for some reason a pair couldn't get along then the pairing would be terminated and rearrangement would be made. Each of the olders had a pre-adult who he was also was paired with, pre-adults being aged fourteen to seventeen and depending on exactly what they were doing they paired off differently. This close to the village, it was generally the younger pairings. A little farther out where it was more dangerous it would be the older pairings.
It wasn't considered a disgrace, if a youngster couldn't pair off with anyone. Generally such a youngster would end up being a Rider. They were considered the protectors of the village and society in general. Or they might become a trapper or hunter, who were more at ease in the wilderness than with people.
Eighteen and older were considered adults and were paired, only on a volunteer basis. Since it was wise to have someone to watch your back, normally adults also paired.
The Harvard had been on planet for a week but there would be no talks today. It was a full Ceremonial Day, celebrating the original landing. Since like some American Indian tribes, it was considered a sign of distrust to go unarmed, all of the landing party wore weapons, though like Ben, with Class 3 Lasers. Essentially they were stunners though with a few adjustments they could be turned into low powered lasers, with an effective range of about two or three yards. They were more useful as a cutting tool than for anything else, though if dialed down to a needle beam it could sear flesh at a distance.
Ben was traveling with a group of olders and youngers. They were only about two miles from the village. They were about a quarter of a mile north of the trail and in a fairly large open field. There were some large trees about three hundred yards to the west and smaller trees about a mile to the east. Knee high bushes started about two hundred yards away and directly in front of them also about two hundred yards away larger bushes began.
The children were staying fairly close together and were gathering a flowering plant that like dandelions could be used for soup or wine, or in a salad. Unfortunately there were two different types and it took an experienced eye to tell the difference, so Ben was unable to help. He was looking around and then suddenly he stiffened as a feeling of rage came from the bushes.
“Tanner,” he called, to the oldest of the boys with the party, not too loudly and when the boy looked his way, “Trouble coming,” and he pointed at the bushes, Tanner spoke a short word and the olders took the crossbows slung on their back and armed them. When the bushes stirred they tensed and when an animal appeared, they all shook their heads. Ben could feel their sick fear as they resignedly disarmed their crossbows and slung them back over their backs. He looked at Tanner, whose lips were pressed together with fear.
Tanner saw his look and answered his unspoken question, “Our light bolts would just bounce off.”
“It's a diphonus isn't it?” Ben asked.
Tanner nodded and said, “Yes, very dangerous. It's been many years since one got so close to the village. Can your off-world weapon help.”
Ben shook his head, saying, “It's about like your medium crossbows without the poison and I've read they're not very effective against it.”
He thought for a moment, he took a communicator out of his pocket, opening it, telling Tanner, “See this red button, push it and you'll be in touch with every member of the crew. Some of them will be with your leaders. Warn the village. You know more about that beast than I do, so you can tell them more. I saw something about them when I read about them on the ship, that gives me an idea.”
Ben told him, “If I can get close enough before he charges, I can use my weapon to try to blind him. It'll only be temporary, between three to eight minutes at the most, but that should give you plenty of time to get the youngers to the trees.”
Ben explained, “I'll move his way and if he seems to be going to charge, give a quick wave and that'll take his attention off me for a moment. Since I'll still be moving his eyes will come right back to me. If I circle to the left, he should turn with me.” Drawing the laser he made a few adjustments to its setting.
Ben began to move, ignoring the others, attention completely focused on the task at hand. As he began to put separation between himself and the group of children the diphonus's attention focused on him. He had read in the computer that it's threat zone was fifty yards, he sure hoped the computer was right.
Moving slowly and carefully he made his way into position, a couple of times it looked like charging and he stopped and one of the other children gave a quick wave to attract its attention. Too stupid to keep its mind on two things at once, as soon as it saw the wave it forgot that it was going to charge and each time he began moving again it focused its attention back on him.
It was a slow and harrowing process. Outside its threat zone at sixty yards, it wouldn't charge immediately, but stay still too long and it might charge him or it might charge the other children. Ben brought the laser up slowly until he was sighting along the barrel. On the ship he could hit a circle one inch in diameter at twenty-five yards, ten times out of ten.
The diphonus who primarily used sight for hunting, had eyes four inches in diameter. They had a transparent primary eyelid which was closed almost all of the time, opening only occasionally. Taking careful aim he fired and hit the beast's right eyelid. Ben felt elation as he saw it drop its secondary eyelid. Moving his aim to the left eye, he fired again, a miss, but not by much, adjusting his sight by a fraction of an inch, he fired a third time.
He saw the diphonus's left eye close to join the right. It was temporarily blinded and as long as he didn't allow it to hear him or smell him it would stand still.
Moving slowly to his right for about twenty yards, he took aim and sighted again, targeting the ear. His hit was right on. The ear was much more vulnerable than the eyes and the diphonus gave a bellow of pain as its left ear was destroyed.
“What's he doing now, Tanner,” asked Larn, his eleven year old sister, as she saw Ben, continuing his circling towards the east.
Tanner explained, “The winds blowing toward him and the diphonus, so he destroyed the ear so it wouldn't hear it coming up on it on this side and it can't smell him. He wants to get close enough to use his off-world weapon. He knows that there are no Riders in the village and he wants to weaken it as much as he can, since he knows medium crossbrows don't have much affect on it.”
Ben was moving very carefully, even though he knew he didn't have a lot of time left. Make a careless move and it would be able to hear him with its still good right ear and swing around. But he had to be close enough to be sure. Finally at two yards, he brought up the laser and sighted just behind the right leg and about twelve inches above it, where the computer had told him the heart was located. He fired once, twice, three times and a fourth. The laser was dialed to a needle beam and the beast bellowed at the pain of the first shot but didn't even feel the next three.
Ben knew that the creature was dead, but the way its circulatory system was set up, it would take between ten and fifteen minutes before its brain would know it as well. He holstered his laser, moving slowly away.
Ben was about thirty yards away when he saw the diphonus start to move, swinging in his direction. 'Not quick enough,' he thought, with fear flowing through his mind. He pushed it down, it wasn't the time for it. He kept moving. It didn't matter, he was within the creatures threat zone, it would charge the moment it saw him. He didn't take his attention off of the beast, even when Riders burst out of the brush behind it.
They were closer, but its attention was on him and the noise just set it off and with a bellow of rage it charged, ignoring the two crossbow bolts that suddenly appeared in its back. Ben timed his lunge just right. Landing on his shoulder, he somersaulted into a standing position and spun around just as a Rider placed himself and his steed in front of the boy.
Ben heard a bellow of pain and rage from the diphonus and he began backing away, so that the Rider would have more room to maneuver. The Rider moved out of his way and he saw that the diphonus was down, hit by a dozen crossbow bolts. Even with so many hits it was only paralyzed, but it wouldn't recover now, before the heart wound finished it off.
One of the Riders was down on the ground and carrying a heavy arbalest, it approached the diphonus. He examined the side, then looked up, saying, “It's already taken its heart wound.” he gave a wave and the children came out of the trees and headed for them. He looked at Ben, “You?” he asked and when Ben nodded, “How close did you have to get with your offworld weapon?”
Ben answered a little absently, beginning to go pale and a little green, “Two yards. Now if you excuse me I'm going to find a bush to feel sick on.”
Kim told him, “Say ah.”
Ben obediently said, “Ah”
“Say, I'm stupid.”
“All right Kim, you're stupid. Remember it was your idea.” said Ben dryly.
“Damn, it works with almost all the other males on this crew, why not you.” muttered Kim.
“I'm not old enough yet. Give me a few years.” said Ben.
“Yeah, I bet that'll change you, I don't think.” said Kim.
“How is he, Kim?” asked Mason Cooper.
“Aside from a few bruises, as much of a smartass as usual.” she said with a grin. Ben stuck his tongue out at her.
Mason said with amusement, “We've been invited, to the Riders Ceremony. All of us, though I think they mainly want Ben. Is there anything that they eat or drink that could hurt him. I was assured that there won't be anything we didn't have at last years general ceremony.”
Kim told him, “I reran the scans, through the med instruments after Ben upgraded them. Most of us are fine. We can even take that ceremonial drink, that we were given last year at full strength. Ben can't. Even what we got last year, which is what they usually serve children would kill him. I already talked to the shaman about that and he smiled with understanding and winked at me, so I hope that problem is solved, but I'll take a med scanner with me just in case. Aside from that Ben can eat and drink everything else without any trouble. Well I shouldn't say everything, there's nothing else that will actually hurt him, but that stuff we had last year that tasted like ginger ale, would have him drunk as a skunk after half a glass.”
Ben went green at the very thought. Mason said, with humor in his voice, “That's an interesting shade of green, Ben. I gather you don't like the thought of getting drunk.”
“No, thanks!!” said Ben vehemently. “I got drunk one time on the station, I had a couple small glasses of gin and I was sick for a week.”
Kim nodded and said, “That's a good thing to know, Ben, an unusually low tolerance for alcohol.” she entered the fact into his records. “Now scoot! I'm finished with you. Ethel's probably waiting for you outside. It's a wonder she doesn't follow you outside the ship.”
Ben said, with a grin, as he left, “She says, 'Too big' whenever she gets near the hatch, so I don't think you'll have any problems about losing Ethel to a planet.”
“Well,” she raised her eyebrows at Mason.
He told her, seriously, “They're very impressed with Ben. I listened for an hour, after the children who were with them came back. They would make very good eyewitnesses to a crime. Their accounts were almost identical. Oh not in the words they chose, but in the way they said it. I must admit, after listening to their accounts, I'm very impressed with the way Ben handled things. He almost got caught at the end, but that wasn't his fault, he had no way of knowing how long the diphonus's eyes would be affected. In order to protect others, he was willing to gamble with his own life.”
“By the way, dear brother, with all the Riders out today how did they miss it?” Kim asked.
He explained, “They say it did something that a diphonus, has never done in more than four hundred years. It followed an arroyo, down from the north. Normally they hate enclosed spaces with a passion and they get out of them as soon as possible. This diphonus had to have passed dozens of ways out. and didn't take any of them. It came right out the end about half a mile above the clearing where the children were. If the Riders hadn't seen its tracks, we could have lost one young crewmember and no telling how many children, because they would have tried to decoy it away from the village, at the cost of their own lives. Just thank God, the Riders got there in time.” and she nodded in agreement.
The shaman was sitting next to Kim, giving her reassurance. “Our tenets do not say how much of the ceremonial drink one must take in order to fulfill the requirements. Both the chief and I and the two chief Riders agree that one drop is enough. We do not wish to kill one we are honoring.”
The chief struck a gong and silence came over the ceremonial tent. He said gravely, “We are here to honor the day that our ancestors landed on this world. At the same time we are honoring a boy, an offworlder who risked his life and almost lost it, for our people. We are aware that he is older than he looks, yet we know that he would be considered by most worlds of the Federation as a ten year old. So it is as a ten year old that we must regard him. We are aware that many of our own children, if placed in the same position would have risked their lives as well, but because of Ben they did not need to.
He took a crossbow, from under a cloth at his side, saying, “Many of our olders carry crossbows such as this, though this one is somewhat more powerful than they would normally carry, since Ben does not need to arm a crossbow while riding, which olders start doing once they receive their crossbow. However no older would receive a quiver of these.” and he produced a quiver of crossbow bolts, pulling one out to show that it was banded in white as only a full Rider's bolts would be. That indicated that it contained a full measure of the powerful poison that a Rider would use.
He said soberly, “Occasionally we have had children who have showed they have the courage to be known as Riders. Unfortunately we bury most of them. As we would do with any child who has shown he has the courage of a Rider, we proclaim Ben a full Rider, we are glad that unlike most of those children, he is still alive to receive that honor.”
Unlike many societies, they simply passed the bow and the quiver down to Ben. He took it and held it in his raised hands so all could see it in his hands. Knowing they were a society who respected honest emotion he let the tears fall down his small cheeks. He said slowly, gravely, honestly, “I thank you for this. I know that my companions Tanner Farlenson and Larn Farlenson,” nodding at the Chief Rider and then he named all ten of the others, only three of who had fathers who were Riders. “Would also if necessary have offered their lives, I too am glad it was not necessary. I have a request for you. Most of my people have two or more names. I only have one. I wish to honor you by taking Dandre as my second name. From this day forward with your permission I will call myself Ben Dandreson.”
The Riders began whistling, their way of showing approval. Ben, now Ben Dandreson, picked up the ceremonial mug and drank it down, to more whistles of approval.