ACORNA The Unicorn Girl

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, multicolored 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—the 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 know.

“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. 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 to 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 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 wee 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, 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 workstations.

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.

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