The legacy of lehr, p.1
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       The Legacy of Lehr, p.1

           Katherine Kurtz
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The Legacy of Lehr


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  The Legacy of Lehr

  Katherine Kurtz

  For the original Mather Seton

  and Wallis Hamilton

  and for Nancy Berman,

  who may never feel

  the same about vampires.

  CHAPTER 1

  The cargomaster was sullen, the freight handlers were surly, and the spaceport’s chief of security had been almost insulting earlier in the morning—though his insolence was carefully masked behind the veneer of officialese that seemed to be a requisite for backwater bureaucrats. Now a simple request for water for their precious cargo had been met with suspicion, endless forms to fill out, and a patronizing attitude that was the final affront after two days of waiting.

  Nor was Wallis Hamilton reassured by the growing crowd of local malcontents gathering outside the spaceport gates to protest the export of this particular cargo. Neither she nor her partner-husband was exactly popular after the three-week stint on B-Gem. As she left the cargo area to the care of the Imperial Rangers, wh had formed the backbone of the expedition—and who were taking home only the ashes of two of their comrades—she hoped Mather was having better luck than she was.

  As expected, she found him closeted with the spaceport director: a brittle, officious little man named Irvin Vintar, who had given them nothing but argument since their return to the facility two days before. Some comment of Mather’s had brought Vintar to his feet behind the cluttered desk, but for once, he was not even trying to interrupt as Mather continued to instruct him. Vintar’s face was mottled with suppressed rage, his thin hands clenched rigidly at his sides, and Wallis had no doubt that a medscan would confirm an elevated blood pressure, too.

  “Mister Vintar, we’ve been over this so many times, I should think that by now you’d know it all by heart,” Mather Seton was saying in his low, quiet voice. “You can’t still be questioning my authority. You verified it yourself before I had the Valkyrie diverted. Now, are you going to cooperate, or must I resort to more drastic measures that we both may regret later on?”

  He did not look in her direction as she entered the room, but Wallis knew that he was aware of her presence as she slipped behind him to stand at his back. Outwardly, at least, Mather was as calm as Vintar was agitated, solid and imposing in well-cut gray naval fatigues. The insignia of a fleet commodore glittered on his shoulders and open collar, the crescent and trident patch of personal service to the Imperial House showing red and gold above the cuff of his right sleeve. The image conveyed was one of quiet control and competence, of unmistakable authority—which was, in fact, almost unlimited. That Irvin Vintar had continued to resist that authority for two full days, hindering their mission, was an unnecessary distraction. Wallis could see Mather’s growing impatience in the slight tap-tapping of his right thumb against the desk top, even though he seemed to be at ease in his chair.

  “Well, Mister Vintar? I’m waiting for your answer.”

  Vintar swallowed, desperate eyes darting here and there, even at Wallis, searching anywhere for an escape.

  “I can’t do it, Commodore,” he finally said. “It’s too dangerous. Bringing the shuttle ship as close to the terminal as you want it is—no! I dare not risk the ship, the crew, and this facility in a maneuver that is beyond our capability.”

  “It isn’t beyond my capability,” Mather retorted. “If necessary, I’ll guide the ship in myself. But I do not intend to risk my cargo needlessly by dragging it across three kilometers of open landing apron. Not with the mood of the crowd outside. Do I make myself clear?”

  “But—”

  Vintar opened and closed his mouth several times as the full implications of Mather’s suggestion finally registered.

  “That’s out of the question,” he whispered. “I couldn’t possibly—”

  “Mister Vintar, I don’t think I’m really interested anymore in what you can or cannot do,” Mather interrupted impatiently.

  “But, you’re not qua—I mean—”

  “Mister Vintar, are you saying that a fleet commodore in the Imperial Navy is not qualified to land a civilian shuttle by remote?” Mather asked—omitting to mention, Wallis noted, that he was officially retired from that service, at least. “My Academy training certified me for ship classes up to and including heavy cruisers. As long as I have the cooperation of you and your staff”—he paused just long enough for the emphasis to be unmistakable—“I think I can manage to bring a civilian shuttle in where I want it.”

  Vintar swallowed again, his eyes flicking involuntarily down Mather’s ample frame to the commodore’s shoulder boards, to the Imperial Staff emblem, then to the slight bulge of a needler beneath his fatigue jacket, and back to his face. The man’s jaw tightened with the effort of biting back further argument, but it was fairly obvious that Irvin Vintar had reached the end of his resources. Wallis could almost feel the man’s loathing.

  “Very well, Commodore.” He made a stiff little bow that ill concealed his anger. “But if anything goes wrong, you’ll assume full liability for any injuries or damage—and I want that in writing.”

  “That was understood from the beginning.”

  As Vintar stalked out of the office, Mather heaved a heavy sigh, then glanced up and behind him at Wallis, giving her a grin of rare maliciousness—lost, fortunately, on the back of the retreating Vintar.

  “Well, the bureaucratic bear has been wrestled and apparently bested, at least for the present,” he said lightly, getting to his feet. “Now all we have to do is see whether I can deliver what I threatened. It’s been a while. Is our cargo ready to load?”

  Wallis, standing more than a head shorter than her husband, looked up at him with a slow grin to match his own. “Well, my problems were only bear cubs compared to yours—nasty ones, I’ll concede—but, yes, I got things straightened out—I think. Do you know what it just cost His Imperial Majesty’s government for water that should have been made available gratis?”

  “His Imperial Majesty will be suitably appalled, I’m sure,” Mather said, “though I suppose it’s all reckoned as a part of the price of peace, in the end.” He glanced out the plasteel viewing port that overlooked the B-Gem spaceport. The chromcrete of the landing apron stretched on for heat-shimmered miles.

  “Well, Vintar said that the Valkyrie was due to make orbit about twenty minutes ago, so I suppose the shuttle ought to be here in another ten. Care to come and watch me bring her in?”

  Wallis grimaced and shook her head. “No, I think I’ll watch it directly. If you should put that thing down on our cargo instead of on the pad, I think I’d just as soon go up with the wreckage.”

  “Why, Doctor Hamilton, do you doubt my abilities?”

  “Why, Commodore Seton, how could you even think such a thing?”

  The holding zone outside the cargo area was crowded when Wallis returned. Starliners the size and reputation of Valkyrie rarely made unscheduled stops, especially at planets as far removed from the normal shipping lanes as Beta-Geminorum III, and the event had prompted a number of travelers to alter their plans and book immediate passage. The fax board at the entrance to the passenger lounge read: “The Gruening Line are pleased to announce the stopover of their Nova-class luxury liner Valkyrie …,” and went on to detail pertinent factors of cost, availability of accommodations, and further flight schedules.

  Wallis suppressed a chuckle as she worked her way through the throng, wondering whether any of the two dozen waiting passengers suspected just how “pleased” the Gruening folk were, in fact. George Lutobo, the Valkyrie’s captain, had not been pleased. The Valkyrie
had been engaged in a precision sprint from Tejat to Aludra, attempting—and about to establish—a new record for passenger service between those two systems. No, even if Mather Seton did have the force of the Imperial government behind him, Lutobo was not at all pleased at having to abort that record-breaking run and change course for Beta-Geminorum III.

  The inhabitants did not call it that, of course. They called it B-Gem, if they did not call it Pollox III; and an earlier race, already dying out when the first Earther colonists arrived with disease organisms that finished the job, had called the planet Il Nuadi—a name that recently had begun to come into vogue again. Following the deadly Cruaxi Sweep, which had decimated human civilization throughout the known galaxy some three hundred years ago, B-Gem had been isolated for generations. The first recontact by an expedition of the Orion Cartel a quarter century ago had found a rich, verdant planet peopled by hardy folk of exceptional agricultural ability, well ready to resume a place in an intragalactic Empire.

  And because B-Gem had started out as a company planet this second time around, carefully managed to make optimum use of its resources then and for the future, it remained relatively unspoiled. A young planet, far less developed than the world that had spawned humankind, B-Gem quickly became a magnet to zoologists and botanists from all over the Empire: an untouched wilderness of flora and fauna never catalogued before. And because an alien civilization had overlapped briefly with the arrival of the first humans, it also afforded an unprecedented opportunity for anthropologists and archaeologists.

  But it was B-Gem’s wilderness that remained one of the single, most attractive features for laymen. Here were vast areas of uncharted wilderness, jungles, and wilding canyons where man had never been before. And animal life: so wild, so bounteous, that in some areas, hunting expeditions were still permitted under almost unregulated conditions. Here was the opportunity to bag the trophy of a lifetime.

  Interests of this sort had brought Mather Seton and Wallis Hamilton to B-Gem, though Mather’s intelligence background and Wallis’s medical training also qualified them for more esoteric pursuits than hunting exotic game. Except that they had come not just for a hunting expedition, but a specific hunting expedition, for game that must be brought back alive. Their quarry had been the fierce and elusive blue creatures called Lehr cats, of which hitherto only two had been in captivity, and those in the emperor’s own menagerie.

  Now four more of the creatures prowled the confines of separate plasteel cages in the cargo area adjoining passengers reception, their eerie cries setting chills on the hearts of those who heard them, whenever the connecting door opened between the two holding areas. Rather than mere zoological curiosities, these particular cats had become unwitting pawns in a game of intergalactic treaty talks: sweeteners for the proposal that an alien ambassador would take back to his planet-hungry masters. They had cost several lives already.

  “Doctor Hamilton?”

  Wallis raised a hand in acknowledgment of the young Ranger lieutenant who called to her as she entered the holding area. His dark green coverall was impeccable, as usual, but his thin face mirrored the fatigue and tension under which all of them had been laboring in the weeks since coming to B-Gem. From the other side of a glassite wall behind him, the four Lehr cats glowered in their cages, their jaws parting periodically in what would be ear-splitting screams without the insulation of the wall.

  “What is it, Wing?”

  The young man glanced beyond her at the passengers in the lounge outside, some of whom stared back in sullen sympathy with the demonstrators massed outside the spaceport gates, then beckoned her closer as he backed toward the door leading to the cats. Slight and wiry in the manner of his Asian forbears, still he had to look down at the diminutive Wallis.

  “The cats are getting awfully restless, Doctor. I think you ought to have a look.”

  He slapped the door activator, and the increased volume of the cats’ screaming assailed them as soon as the door began sliding back. As Wallis and Wing entered, two Imperial Rangers snapped to attention, needler carbines slung over their shoulders in readiness for any possible trouble, and four more roamed among the piles of equipment surrounding the cages.

  “You see what I mean?” Wing had to raise his voice to be heard above the racket of the cats’ howling. “They started up right after you left to find Commodore Seton.”

  “Hmmm, maybe they missed me,” Wallis said with a wry smile, as she unsnapped a medscan pickup from her belt and held it closer to the nearest cage. “No one strange has been in there, have they?”

  “Are you kidding, Doctor?” Our own people don’t even want to be in here, with that caterwauling going on. My head feels like it’s going to split right open.”

  She swung the medscan briefly in his direction, trying not to grin, then returned her attention to the cats.

  “Take a headache tablet, Lieutenant.”

  “Thank you, Doctor, for that helpful advice.”

  The cats were more upset than usual, though. Wallis had no doubt about that. The male they called Sebastian bristled and spat when she leaned too close, his enormous ruff rippling like an electric-blue dandelion around huge golden eyes. Slender whiskers jutted from his cheeks like sapphire soda straws, quivering each time he roared. Wallis jumped back in reflex as the smaller female in the next cage suddenly leaped against the plasteel mesh and tried to bat at her with a melon-sized paw.

  “Hey, easy, Emmaline! Have you forgotten Mama?”

  She got only a snarl for an answer.

  Unfortunately, Wallis suspected she already knew what the problem was—and there was nothing she could do about it for now. Ordinarily, the four cages were interconnected, end-to-end, allowing the cats access to the full length of the combined run and to one another. But just an hour ago, because of the imminent arrival of the Valkyrie’s shuttle, Wallis had ordered the Rangers to break down the cage system into four separate compartments again, for ease of handling. The cages were still sitting next to one another, in their usual configuration, but double plasteel divider panels now locked each cat into a separate compartment. It was necessary, of course, but the cats could hardly be expected to understand why.

  “Maybe they just don’t like being separated,” Wing said, as Wallis consulted her scanner again.

  “Oh, that’s certainly a part of it,” she replied. “And the’re frightened. Of course, they’re a little hungry, too, but there isn’t a lot we can do about that, either, until we’ve moved them aboard the Valkyrie. They ought to calm down, once they’re back together and fed.”

  “I sure hope you’re right, Doctor,” Wing murmured, making a notation on a tally board. “It’s too bad we can’t tranquilize them.”

  As one of the females shrieked again on an even higher frequency than before, Wallis could hardly disagree with Wing’s observation, but they had learned the hard way that the cats were very sensitive to most medications. They had killed two with inadvertent overdoses before discovering that the drug used in standard needler charges was several times stronger than it needed to be: Even using the low-dose needles that all of them now carried, they had almost lost Rudolph, the smaller of the two surviving males.

  And how the cats would react to unmedicated hyperspace jumps was anybody’s guess, though she and Mather made unmedicated jumps all the time without ill effect—or at least she did. The cats simply would have to take their chances, for the standard jump medication was particularly toxic to them.

  Not for the first time on this trip, however, Wallis almost wished she were a veterinarian rather than a physician. Not that anyone else from off-world knew much more about Lehr cats than she did. Presumably, the folk of Il Nuadi knew, since they had been living with the animals for several hundred years; but such zoologists as the planet had produced since its reentry into galactic civilization had left the cats strictly alone, relegating them to a complicated legend-taboo-myth cycle that forbade any interference with the creatures. That was what had dr
awn the crowd camped outside the spaceport gates and had nearly provoked a global incident when they brought the cats here after capture.

  A deep rumble vibrated through the entire chamber, more felt than heard, followed by a jarring shake and then total silence. The cats were quiet for all of five seconds before taking up their wailing with renewed vigor.

  “That has to be the shuttle ship,” Wing said, rushing toward a darkened viewport where another Ranger was already hitting the polarizing controls. “The pilot must have set it down right on the roof!”

  The wall went slightly transparent—clear enough to see the sleek, streamlined bulk of the shuttle ship now resting hardly twenty meters beyond, elegant and stylish in the murrey and silver livery colors of the Gruening Line.

  “Well, well, Susmen Limited’s latest model,” the older Ranger murmured. “Gruening doesn’t skimp, does it?”

  “Aye, she’s a beauty,” Wing agreed, after a low whistle between his teeth. “I didn’t know Gruening had such hotshot pilots, either.”

  Wallis had to try very hard not to laugh at the younger man’s exuberance. He was the youngest of all their surviving Rangers—almost young enough to be her son—and still very green.

  “They don’t,” she said with a grin, “though I suspect Mather would be flattered at the compliment. He might just have landed it on the roof, too, if he’d thought it would support the weight. That way, we wouldn’t have to take the cats outside at all.”

  “Commodore Seton landed it?” Wing gasped, though the older Ranger only nodded knowingly. “And he must have done it by remote, too,” Wing went on. “I’d heard he was a crack pilot before they made him retire, but you never really believe half the stories they tell you in the Academy.”

  “But you can believe some of them,” Wallis murmured, almost to herself, as she hid a smile behind her hand and watched the ground grew already undogging the hatches, preparing for passenger and cargo boarding.

 
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