Leonie Rogers’ Sci/Fi Fantasy Frontier Incursion is Featured in Today’s Free Excerpt – 5-Stars!

December 3, 2012
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Last week we announced that Leonie Rogers’ Frontier Incursion is our Kids Corner Book of the Week and the sponsor of our student reviews and of thousands of great bargains in the Kids Book category:

Now we’re back to offer a free Kids Corner excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded this one already, you’re in for a treat!

Frontier Incursion

by Leonie Rogers

5.0 stars – 4 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

The Scouts of Frontier were charged with expanding their societies’ knowledge of the hostile planet their ancestors had crashlanded on 300 years before. Dreaming of a time when they would be rediscovered by the Federation of Races.

For Shanna, joining the Scout Corps had been a dream come true. But as the youngest in her class, Shanna struggles to find acceptance and respect amongst her older peers – a task made more difficult by the fact that she has not just one, but two of the colonists’ huge feline companions, their starcats.

On a routine patrol, she and the other cadets are swept up in the greatest challenge yet to be faced by the settlers of Frontier. Now they find themselves on the very frontline of a war they knew nothing about, and possibly the Federation of Race’s last chance against the hostile Garsal. Suddenly their world has changed, and in ways never dreamed of by Shanna and her fellow scouts.

One Reviewer Notes
“It is great to find a book that you can actually share with the whole family from around 13 through to grand parents. This book has some great action areas, some really sad moments as well as making you feel like you are part of Frontier. It is a book that you just want to keep reading. Even if you are not a sci-fi fan I believe this is one book that might just interest you. I hope the next book is out soon.” – Amazon Reviewer, 5 Stars

And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:

 

Chapter 1

 

SHANNA tapped one foot as she waited outside the Records Precinct. Where on earth was Kaidan this time? she thought, standing on tiptoes to peer over the jostling crowd. She chewed the end of one of her braids impatiently. He knew that students of the same family always stood together during the ceremony – they’d talked about it on the road into Watchtower just that morning, when they’d arranged where they’d meet.

***

Kaidan accelerated again, sliding around the corners of the stone buildings of Scholars’ Precinct in his rush to arrive before the ceremony began. The imposing façade of the thick stone walls towered above him, the heavy blocks of light coloured stone gleaming in the late afternoon sun. The long, rectangular, two-storey structure that heralded the Records Precinct squatted sturdily at the end of Scholars’ Avenue, its lack of decoration and small windows hinting at its original purpose as a safe haven from the wild weather and marauding native fauna of Frontier. Dust puffed up from his boots as he saw the last few students ahead of him disappear around the corner. He knew he shouldn’t have stayed in the classroom, but that last maths problem had just been so fascinating …

***

Shanna stood to one side, looking in vain for her brother’s arrival. She scanned the groups of students hurrying past, one by one leaving their small groups to join with family members, before hurrying through the old Storm Shelter’s entrance. She could just see the stone archway; at this distance, the stonework simply looked decorative, but up close, the light coloured stone was worked with sequences of images that marked the three hundred years of human settlement on Frontier. On either side of the archway, the names of the heroes of the last three centuries were carved deeply into the polished stone walls. She bounced with impatience, beginning to feel irritated.

***

Kaidan glimpsed his sister’s trademark braids as a uniformed group of final year students cut in front of him, and dodged quickly around them, judging to a nicety the slide required to cut the corner. Knowing how late he was, he took off towards his sister with a spurt, and ran full tilt into Master Cerren – the mathematics and navigation teacher – his shoulder impacting the Master just below the sternum.

The short, greying man was knocked flying, grey robes flapping as he cannoned into a group of final year students, who just managed to catch him before he ended up on his back in the dust. Kaidan paused panting, completely aghast at the near disaster he had almost visited upon his favourite teacher. As the other students carefully stood him upright, one of the girls gently brushing his robes to straighten them, Master Cerren could be seen to be struggling to regain the breath that Kaidan’s shoulder had driven from his body.

“Master Cerren, I’m sorry,” gasped Kaidan, “Truly, I didn’t know you were there! I’m really, really sorry!” Embarrassed, he felt himself blush hotly. He hated that he seemed to blush at the slightest provocation, his face growing hot enough – he felt – to boil water. There was a silent pause, punctuated only by Master Cerren’s gasping inhalations, while the final year students looked carefully at the ground, and Kaidan felt like he might emit steam any second. Master Cerren finally drew enough breath to speak. He ran his hands through the grey fringes of hair over his ears, dusted the bald dome above and straightened his now very rumpled grey scholars’ robe, before looking Kaidan firmly in the eye. He paused again, clearing his throat and drawing his brows down, before beginning sternly.

“Young man, when I set you to study the forces of motion and angular momentum today, I was not expecting you to use me as a test subject!” He frowned at Kaidan for a few seconds, before his eyes suddenly twinkled, and the frown vanished into a grin. One of the final year students suppressed a giggle, pointing at Kaiden’s stupefied expression. It took him several moments of panicked emotion before he belatedly caught on, and grinned through yet another fiery blush, muttering “Sorry sir…”

“It’s all right lad, no real damage this time, just a little bit of bruised ego and a good lesson learnt – please don’t travel at that speed in this kind of crowd again.” He winked. “Now, I believe the young lady making faces from behind Master Andra over there is, like yourself, in a hurry to get to the ceremony. I suggest you join her.”

“Thank you Sir,” he whispered in a slightly strangled voice, hoping fervently that his face would stop imitating a sunset. And still trying to gather himself walked off at a much subdued pace towards his irritating sister.

Shanna punched his arm as he arrived. “Where have you been? You’re so late. I was just about to go in without you.” Without waiting for an answer she pulled her brother towards the Storm Shelter entrance, and they clattered down the two tiers of steps together. As they entered the dimness, lit only by tall candles evenly spaced down the sides, Shanna murmured to her brother in a slightly more friendly tone. “You know, that was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. You should have seen your face when you ran into Master Cerren! I could feel the glow from over here.” Shanna dropped her pace, slowing it to one that more suited the solemnity required by the occasion. The large hall was filled with the Masters and Students of Watchtower, grouped as families, all standing.

“Yes, well, you don’t have to turn up in his class next week, do you?” Kaidan whispered crossly, “How am I ever going to live that down?” He was still mortified, and felt another blush rise as he and Shanna took their places with only moments to spare.

“Sssshhhhhhh! It’s beginning,” Shanna whispered, as the candles were abruptly extinguished, shaking her head at her brother in warning.“When this is finished, you’re going to tell my why you were so late!”

In the darkness, the assembled Masters and students stood, as Master Florentine began the familiar words that signalled the beginning of the question and response litany for the Day of Remembrance Ceremony.

“Just over three hundred years ago, our forefathers began the task of learning to survive on Frontier.” He cleared his throat and continued.

“Where did they come from?”

“From the Federation of Races,” came the response from massed voices.

“Where were they going?”

“To a new home, of hope.”

“What happened to the dream?”

“It was changed by a trial of fire.”

Master Florentine lit the first candle, and its glow gently spread across the front of the hall, illuminating the darkness and the Master, standing solemnly by the ranked candles.

“This is the Candle of Remembrance for the dead.” The assembled crowd bowed their heads.

“We honour their lives and sacrifices.”

The assembly lifted their heads and quietly responded.

“We honour them.”

He lit the second candle.

“This is the Candle of Endurance. We remember their courage, on a world full of fear, standing together to survive.” Arms were linked throughout the assemblage, and Shanna linked hers with her brother and those on either side. She felt her annoyance with Kaidan’s lateness lessen, as she remembered the history of her people, and the trust that they’d needed to develop in each other, just to survive.

He lit the third candle.

“This is the Candle of Sanctuary.”

“We remember that our forefathers completed the first town wall.” Two of the youngest students each laid a piece of rough stone at the base of the candle, and then returned to the waiting ranks.

“This is the Candle of Promise.”

“We remember the pledge of our forefathers to the precepts and rules of life on Frontier.” Two of the most senior students laid two heavy books of law at the base of the candle.

He lit the fifth and final candle.

“This is the Candle of Hope.”

“We look towards the future,” the massed voices spoke in unison. “When we once again regain the stars.” Shanna heard Kaidan’s voice join hers, and as they spoke the litany, she wondered as she did every year, whether that hope might ever become reality.

Master Florentine looked solemnly at the students assembled before him. “One day, we hope to regain the stars. But today, we continue to honour the memory of our ancestors. We remember in thankfulness their resourcefulness and inventiveness, and pledge to continue their work, making a home here for humans, and exploring and caring for this world that we have been given.” He raised one hand and the students mirrored him. “We pledge that we will work towards this aim, dream that one day we will regain the stars, and agree never to forget those who came before. We will keep a moment’s prayerful silence.”

The student body stood quietly in silence, and then, as the Master lowered his hand, sat to conclude the yearly remembrance ceremony.

***

The shadows slowly lengthened as Shanna and Kaidan walked through the crowds of students recently released from the Day of Remembrance Ceremony. Shanna flicked her gold-streaked brown braids over her shoulders and settled her backpack straps more comfortably. “Race you!” she said, as she elbowed her brother in the ribs in order to be first through the gates of the precinct.

“Shove off Shanna!” Kaidan complained, making a grab for the braids flicking enticingly along in front of him. After his earlier collision, he was a little unsure about racing his sister, but her irritating behaviour was needling him, and he swung his own backpack over his shoulders, and jogged quickly to catch up to his sister, long legs in their heavy boots smoothly making up the few strides that separated them.

“Got you again!” she laughed as she ducked away, beginning a breathless chase around their fellow students, packs bouncing, legs flying and dust spurting at every sliding turn and twist. They both laughed as Shanna punched Kaidan’s shoulder when he finally caught up and continued laughing as they made their way steadily towards the merchant precinct of Watchtower.

They paused briefly at a baker’s shop and purchased the two loaves of fresh, grain-laden bread that their mother had requested, and a small fruit bun each for the walk home.

“Here, hold this.” Shanna tossed her bun at her brother while she carefully stowed the bread in her backpack, making sure her books were stacked at the bottom to avoid squashing the yeasty loaf. Kaiden contemplated the wisdom of taking a bite out of his sister’s bun, or possibly licking the sweet glaze on top. He decided on the bite. And dodged her retaliatory hand, dancing out of the way as she attempted to retrieve her bun.

“You are so annoying today!” She finally caught him, and landed another wallop on Kaidan’s shoulder. “And what made you so late?” Kaidan rubbed his stinging shoulder.

“Maths.”

“You were nearly late because of Maths?” Shanna shook her head. “You’re such an idiot sometimes, Kaidan.” Kaidan tossed her bun back to her. She frowned and shook her head, as she regarded the bite mark.

“Late because of Maths, and now you’ve bitten off the best bit!”

“Yeah well, you shouldn’t hit so hard,” Kaidan said. “Let’s get going. Dad’ll be waiting.”

Straps buckled up, the two wound their way through the merchant’s quarter, zigzagging the maze of streets and bypassing tempting stalls of fascinating goods, before descending the knoll upon which Watchtower perched. The odd wagon of goods lumbered past, hauled by large placid horgals, their feathered hooves contrasting oddly with the scale patterns on their four sturdy legs, while their long necks and lavishly lashed eyes peered curiously at passers-by.

Shanna laughed at the large chestnut that snuffled at her braids as it plodded past, hooting gently with surprise and twitching its pointed ears, as they flapped under the breeze from its nostrils. Its driver tapped its round rump gently with his cane to redirect the beast’s attention to the roadway, and waved at the two siblings.

“Adlan’s waiting at the gates for you two.”

“Thanks Hodan!” Both picked their pace up as the streets steepened, the merchant quarter gradually giving way to terraced dwellings interspersed with tall, yet sturdily constructed guard towers. Shanna and Kaidan walked down the last slope towards Watchtower’s imposing gate as the sun lowered towards the horizon. Just inside the gates, their father, Adlan, waited, accompanied by two of the home starcats, Moshi and Boots. The two starcats were enormous felines with darkly silky smooth coats, violet and blue eyes, and enormous paws. Their black coats exhibited the characteristic glowing tidal marks of their breeding lines. Moshi butted his huge black head against Kaidan’s hip, the indigo marks on his rump and shoulders glowing slightly with affection as he angled his head for a caress. Boots purred deeply in his throat as he raised one heavy paw to poke gently at Shanna’s hand in a bid to encourage her to pat him. Shanna obliged, the cat leaning his heavy head into the caress.

“Hi Dad.”

“A good Remembrance Day Ceremony?” Adlan asked as they walked through the gate. Shanna rolled her eyes at her father, and related the afternoon’s episode. As she described Kaidan’s impact with Master Cerren, Kaidan felt his face flush bright red again.

“You’re lucky it was Master Cerren, and not one of the other teachers,” Adlan said, raising his eyebrows.

“Hmmm, yes,” Kaidan placed his eyes firmly on the road as it wound down the hill and snaked its way through the greenery before rising again towards the ridge line that housed Hillview.

“Actually, he’ll be out visiting us tomorrow,” Adlan went on, “He’s looking for another starcat to replace Prince.” Prince had been the old Master’s constant companion until his recent death at the venerable age of twenty five.

“You can meet him and escort him in, Kaidan. Just make sure you do everything at a walk…” He quirked an amused eyebrow as Kaidan sighed.

As the sun set, they climbed the last steep rise to Hillview, the family home and starcat breeding lodge. The squat stone frontage was set directly into the low hill, flanked by the fenced and shuttered breeding cavern on one side, and the individual cat caves on the other.

Both Moshi and Boots flicked their large triangular ears forward, tidemarks glowing happily in the rapidly gathering dusk. A soft chorus of almost subliminal melodic greetings, rolled out from the family starcats. All three family members replied with soft greeting whistles, before entering the warmly lit interior of the house, hanging their backpacks on brass hooks set into the stone wall by the front door.

Janna looked up from the large pot of thick soup she was ladling into bowls on the heavily loaded kitchen bench. She pushed her long, dark hair back impatiently with one hand and looked up at her family as they came through the front door, deep blue eyes smiling a welcome. Starcat training aids mixed with collars and harnesses vied with stacks of paper and the family’s dinner for room, and Janna absentmindedly elbowed aside a jar of dried meat treats as she placed the pot onto the tiled top.

“Evening all,” her musical voice welcomed them. “A bit late tonight?” As the two starcats undulated over to mats in front of the fire, Shanna put the bread on the waiting board and the family settled around the bench automatically making room for the bowls and plates. A superlative starcat trainer and cook, Janna had long ago decided that she could live with a little chaos on the kitchen bench. Shanna pushed aside a pile of paperwork.

“Don’t move that too far, Shan, it’s the paperwork for tomorrow, and you know I can’t find the things I need if you tidy up. I have a system!”

“And if we move anything, you won’t be able to find the important stuff, I know, I know.” Shanna carefully made sure that the stack of paper was clear of her soup bowl, but close enough to where it had been for her mother to locate.

“Smells great Mum, I’m starving!”Kaidan took a deep sniff of the steam rising from his bowl.

“Bottomless pit,” she said fondly, “No seconds before the rest of us finish; and try and slow down, there’s no need to inhale it.” They paused to give thanks for their food, and then began to eat. Adlan sliced the bread and slid the board into the middle of the family.

“So, tell me, how did the day go?” Janna enquired again. Adlan grinned, and related the tale yet again, while Kaidan attempted to control his rising blush, again unsuccessfully, and then promptly changed the subject.

“Has Sabre had her kittens yet?”

His father frowned, sighing slightly, breaking off a piece of the bread and dipping it into the soup. “No – and this is the second litter she’s been overdue with – mind you, she’s getting on a bit now, so perhaps we should consider whether this should be the last one. Anyway, she’s never had any problems, so I think at the moment we’ll just sit tight and wait for her.”

“Can I go and see her later Dad?” Shanna queried, “I did promise her I’d drop in every day.”

“You and your starcat conversations!” Her mother laughed, gesturing with the filled soup ladle towards Shanna’s bowl. “More soup?”

Shanna grinned at her mother. “You know they understand every word I say.” She scraped around her bowl with her spoon and then held it for Janna to ladle more soup into it. Kaidan quickly slurped his last spoonful and held his out too.

“Don’t forget you’re on dishes young lady.” her father said, “And before you go to bed, your Mother and I have a few things to discuss with you. Kaidan, you’re on cat feeding.” After washing and drying the dishes, Shanna opened the side door into the breeding cavern and left the house. Grabbing a shielded lantern off the shelf, she lit it, the warm light illuminating the breeding cavern. Shanti, a large grey female with violet tidemarks, lay reclining on her cushions watching her six adolescent cubs gambolling around her, chasing tails, batting toys and mock wrestling with each other. She raised her head and greeted Shanna with a rumbling purr, as her offspring paused briefly in their play. “Hello Shanti, glad to see those little monsters aren’t wearing you out too much.”

She walked quietly towards the far side of the cavern, where a large, very pregnant, black starcat reclined in a woven basket filled with blankets, tucked into a recess in the cavern wall. Although normally one of the house cats, Sabre preferred to spend the few days before her cubs arrived in the peaceful privacy of her cavelike corner. The other cats in the cavern knew to respect the distance that Sabre required.

“Hello most beautiful of starcats,” Shanna pitched her voice low and quiet. Sabre stirred, her violet eyes glowing as she lifted her head to regard the visitor, revealing the first of her new cubs tucked neatly beneath her chin. As Shanna approached, she produced another, the nearly three kilo cub wriggling and mewing wetly in the dim light, “Clever girl, Sabre!” Shanna backed away and settled quietly on a cushion near the cavern wall on one side of the labouring cat.

An hour later, a soft-stepping Adlan appeared, just in time to see Sabre gently nose the final cub towards its first meal. Her great violet eyes regarded him quietly above the eight fat, feeding cubs. She gave a soft chirping purr, arranged her tail neatly around the cubs, and laid her chin on her forefeet with such an enormously self-satisfied expression that Adlan and Shanna chuckled softly.

“Well, I should have known she’d wait for you to be here – she hasn’t had a litter without you watching since you were born. “ He paused and smiled, “Your mother and I have decided that one of these will be yours. We want you to watch them carefully for the next three months, and then you can choose.”

“I can? I’m ready?” Shanna’s voice was almost breathless – there was a lot of responsibility in owning a starcat, and knowing her parents’ strict requirements for prospective starcat owners, she was feeling both excited and a little humbled that they felt she was ready for individual ownership. However, her own starcat was something she’d coveted for a long time, and she began running her eyes speculatively over the cubs feeding from their mother.

“That’s one of the things we need to discuss tonight. Have you finished out here? Your Mother’s waiting near the fire.”

After one last check of the cats, father and daughter walked together to the front entrance of the breeding cavern, looking out across the fenced runs at the spectacular vista. The cultivated front pastures of Hillview overlooked the verdant green forest of the plateau, and dimly in the distance, the northern mountains raised their craggy tops towards the sky. One of the reasons the family was able to live safely outside the walls of Watchtower was the presence of so many starcats. Even the largest of predators hesitated to enter a starcat pride’s territory.

The dark sky was speckled with a myriad of stars. Father and daughter paused, as always, to savour the spectacular view. Very faintly in the distance, a few of Watchtower’s lights were visible. As they turned to re-enter the house, Adlan regarded his daughter fondly.

“One day we’ll return to the stars,” he murmured.

“Maybe one day they’ll find us.” Shanna replied in their evening ritual.

They turned as one and headed inside into the warmth of the house.

Above, one of the stars detached itself from the others, heading on a southerly trajectory. Unnoticed by the pair, it maintained its steady course for a few moments, and then descended below the southern horizon.

Chapter 2

 

INSIDE amongst the warm firelight, Janna was putting the final touches to a starcat harness for one of the youngsters she would be working with the next morning. Over by the front entrance, Kaidan looked up from placing two large bowls of food on the floor and then whistled quietly in two tones. Two large black forms padded over towards him, sat, and looked steadily up at him.

“Who’s hungry then?” Kaidan queried. Both cats lifted their right paws, purring loudly. He immediately gestured towards the bowls and they each pounced on a bowl, tails flicking gently as they ate.

“I’m off for a wash and bed now, if I’ve got to be up early tomorrow to meet Master Cerren.” Kaidan hugged his mother and father, gave his sister a mostly friendly poke, and headed towards the tiled bathroom off the hallway. Adlan raised a hand.

“Night, mate – I’ll call you just after dawn for breakfast.” There was a sigh as Kaidan closed the bathroom door.

Over by the fire, Janna and Shanna had drawn up squashy chairs and foot stools and settled down with hot drinks, warming their toes in front of the embers. Boots wandered over, grunted comfortably, and lay down between the two of them, his heavy head leaning on Janna’s legs, while Moshi had already curled up in front of the fire, fastidiously washing his face and whiskers. Adlan sat opposite, absently toying with a tooled leather, harness strap.

Janna placed her cup on a low table next to her, and sat slightly more upright in her chair, provoking a slightly grumpy look from Boots, who had just managed to get properly comfortable.

“Shanna, have you put any thought towards your future?” Janna asked. “A few weeks ago, Dad and I were approached by a number of your teachers. They’ve suggested that you’re ready to move into your specialisation years, and after some discussion, your father and I think we agree. We’d like to know what you think.”

Shanna sat silently for a few moments, staring into the fire, startled thoughts chasing themselves through her head as she contemplated her mother’s words.

Her father smiled slightly. “We know this has come to you earlier than expected.”

Shanna nodded – specialisation usually occurred sometime between the ages of sixteen and seventeen, and was a gradual progression for a class of students, generally occurring over a full twelve months. She was just fifteen, and hadn’t expected to be thinking about her future for at least another year.

“I’m not sure what to say. Or think for that matter – it’s really not something I’ve given a lot of serious thought to – I thought I had at least another year to settle into specialisation.” She sipped slowly from the mug in her hand and was slightly startled when Moshi paused in his grooming to slurp her other hand with his rough tongue. He bumped her hand again to remind her to pat him, ducking his head to make it easier to reach his favourite spot on the left cheek, while his purring gave her enough space and composure to look up at her mother.

“Why now Mum?”

Janna grimaced slightly. “Your current teachers have decided that you’ve learnt as much as they can teach you in the pre-specialisation setting. You’ve always been in the extension classes, but again you’ve always worked ahead – as you well know. They’re beginning to worry that your fertile mind might start thinking up other things to do if you’re bored, things that are not necessarily strictly educational. Along the lines of your recent horgal dung prank, perhaps.” Shanna’s face attempted to rival her brother’s. She had believed that her parents, along with everyone else, were still mystified as to the originator of the delivery of horgal dung that had somehow ended up underneath a particularly stuffy teacher’s study window. She quickly changed the subject.

“But Mum, I’ve not really thought seriously about anything except following on here – with the starcats and you and Dad.” Shanna was a little concerned. “What else would I do?” She loved learning, but the family’s starcat breeding business had always seemed to be a logical extension of her life.

“Lovey, there’s many things you can do other than join us here at home! You don’t need to limit yourself, or ignore your talents and gifts, just to stay here because you think we expected you to.” Adlan was leaning forward earnestly, leather strap forgotten on the chair arm next to him.

“We’d love you to stay here if that’s what you want, but it’s not taken for granted at all. Not for you and not for Kaidan either, when the time comes for him to choose. The family business is all well and good, but it may not be where you want to be, either now, or even later. Your mother and I didn’t start our lives training starcats, you know, we both specialised in other things before settling to this.” He leaned back again. “Don’t be in a hurry to make up your mind right now. Take a few weeks to think things over, talk to your teachers – have a good look at your options, think about your skills and the things you love, and then we’ll see.”

Shanna looked up from Moshi, who had surreptitiously draped most of his huge black body across her and the chair during the conversation, effectively preventing her from getting up, as most of his considerable weight was relaxed comfortably – for him – across her lap. He was a past master at the sneaky lap snuggle, and his purr was rumbling comfortingly through her body while her thoughts raced.

“Do I really need to make this decision so soon? What about leaving all of my friends? What will they think? What –” Shanna broke off abruptly. It was hard enough being clever at the best of times, easily understanding in seconds what took some of her fellow students weeks, and friends had come slowly during her school years. She didn’t relish the idea of beginning again with a group of complete strangers, and she worried that she’d lose the few friends she felt comfortable with.

Janna smiled. “I know it’s hard, but it really is time, kitten – you need to do this – we know you’ve been bored at school lately, and you can’t just mark time for the next year. Some of your friends might not understand, but the real ones will. Take time tonight to enjoy the idea of that cub, and then have a good think about what you might like to do over the next few weeks. Remember that you can talk to us anytime, if you need to, but this, in the end, must be your own choice.” She looked over at her husband. “We’ll go to bed now – early start tomorrow. Don’t stay up too late, and give that cat a shove if he gets too heavy.”

After her parents departed, each dropping a kiss on the top of her head, Shanna remained in front of the fire, staring idly at the embers, as the lantern finally guttered and died. Moshi remained draped across her, while Boots slunk quietly off in the direction of Kaidan’s bedroom. A few moments later there was a grunt from Kaidan, and a sleepy murmur, which suggested that Boots had managed to claim enough room on Kaidan’s bed for him to be comfortable for the night.

Moshi simply sighed, violet eyes closing slowly, and settled more heavily across Shanna’s lap as thoughts chased themselves one by one through her head. Images of starcats interspersed with Frontier’s seething jungle life, lashing wind and rain, faces of friends, and the view of the Thunderfall cascade hurtling over the edge of the plateau to plummet towards the verdant forest below.

Thoughts of Sabre and her cubs brought a slow smile to her face, which was then extinguished by thoughts of various professions she’d never given much thought to. Healer? Militia? Advocate? Baker?

She didn’t know what to think, and after an hour of staring into the dying embers, she heaved a sigh, poked Moshi in the ribs to move him and headed off to bed, thoughts still cycling round and round inside her head.

***

Several hundred kilometres south of the plateau, the slowly moving star disappeared into the forest canopy in a flare of landing lights. Routine scanning sensors on board had noted the heat traces of congregating organisms on the plateau during the flyover, while the insectoid crew scanned the surrounding vegetation at their chosen landing site more thoroughly for potential threats. A brisk command, and the star ship settled heavily to the ground, wisps of smoke from crushed vegetation rising lazily towards the stars. The plateau could wait. There were no telltale traces of high technology. In the meantime, the surrounding area would be subdued, and made fit for Garsal habitation.

Chapter 3

 

KAIDAN grunted and wriggled out from under the heavy weight of the sleeping Boots. The starcat sighed and then stretched out more comfortably across the bed, tail draped over the edge and trailing onto the floor.

“Coming Dad,” Kaidan muttered sleepily, as he dragged on shorts, boots and shirt, and then ran a comb quickly through his hair. The smell of fruit porridge wafted through into his room, hastening his preparations, as his ever hungry stomach gurgled impatiently. Unfortunately in his haste, he stumbled over the long black tail twitching near his feet. A pained grumpy “Meh,” sounded from the bed, as Boots complained about the cruel abuse to his furry appendage.

“Sorry Bootsie, keep it out of the way next time.” He swiped a conciliatory hand down the cat’s flank, and was rewarded with a sighing purr.

The porridge was warm and filling, chunks of plump dried fruit adding flavour to the morning cereal, as the family slowly congregated around the bench. Kaidan noticed dark circles under his sister’s eyes and wondered what had caused them. He wisely decided, as she yawned and propped her head in her hand to eat her porridge, that he would wait until she was more awake before asking her what was going on. His father had told him about the cub Shanna would be choosing, but that would only have provoked excitement in his sister, so there must be something else bothering her. He was, however, too wary of early morning sisters to wish to pry when she was half asleep, and then wondered how grumpy she might become later when he decided it was time to prise the information from her.

“Kaidan, you’ll need to groom the weanlings and the trained cats first thing, and then prepare the display arena for Master Cerren’s visit.” His father said.

Kaidan nodded. He always felt a bit like a militia recruit at sixth day breakfast.

“Shanna, you’re on breeding cavern. See if you can get Sabre to allow you to handle her cubs. We all know that the earlier they’re handled the better they’ll be after weaning.”

Shanna removed her head from her hand, rocketed to her feet, clicked her heels and stood to attention.

“Yes sir! Dad sir!” Her father, as he had reminded her the previous night, had actually specialised in the Militia, before settling to starcat breeding when he married Janna.

The effect was slightly spoiled by Moshi sitting heavily on her left foot and wrapping his tail around both their feet, effectively providing her with a pair of furry boots ringed in glowing purple.

“And you and I Sergeant-Major, will feed and water everyone else before we all tidy up this mess.” Janna saluted her husband cheekily with her spoon, and then had to scrape a smear of porridge off her right eyebrow. Adlan smiled and raised his tea mug to her.

Kaidan gathered the grooming tools and the arena rake, and then headed for the young starcats in their individual dens. There were four ready to be sold on as basic trained, general purpose companions. He greeted them with soft whistles and experienced appreciative rumbles in return. Like all the Hillview starcats, they had soft, smooth, dark coats, with tidemarks in shades of blue or purple, glowing in response to the starcat’s emotions. Josen’s cats were usually ruby or scarlet toned, and he’d seen only one emerald toned cat, as none of the breeders in the Watchtower region had breeding pairs that threw greens. All of the Hillview cats had tones shading from electric blue through the spectrum to violet. An hour later, the shining coats were adorned in decorative leather harnesses, and the trained cats were sitting placidly at stay outside the display arena.

Kaidan then went into the breeding cavern, to Shanti’s cushioned abode, her six cubs still snoring around her in various attitudes of complete relaxation.

“Big day, little beauties,” he murmured. Some starcat owners preferred the challenge of training their own cub from scratch. This, however, was certainly not recommended for the faint hearted. A well trained starcat might appear placid, but a young starcat required very careful training, as misplaced leniency could result in an out of control, hundred kilo juggernaut, intent on self-gratification. Adlan and Janna only sold cubs to carefully selected customers, and Master Cerren was well known for his spectacularly trained feline companions. He might well choose a cub today.

Each cub was groomed while their mother carefully oversaw Kaidan’s every move, from the gentle brushing and trimming of over fluffy ear tips, to the fitting of comfortable colour coded collars and soft leather training harness.

Over the other side of the cavern, Shanna had managed to coax Sabre into allowing her to gently handle the new cubs. Kaidan strolled quietly over, leaving Shanti’s cubs with their mother for another few moments. He could see that the new cubs were spectacularly marked, vivid violet and blue tidemarks glowing in unique patterns across each cub’s back and flanks. Two of the cubs bore the highly sought after ear tip tidal marks, with one of the young males exhibiting a series of spiral tidal marks up each leg, and another young female had beautiful indigo tail tip markings.

“Nice litter.” He murmured appreciatively to his sister as she placed the little female back into the basket with her mother.

“They surely are.” She certainly wasn’t volunteering any information to her brother, as she rose to her feet and walked over to Shanti’s waiting cubs with Kaidan. Attaching leather leads to the cubs’ harnesses, they each walked three of the cubs over to the holding pens around the arena, trying to avoid tangles as the bouncing cubs frisked in the early morning air.

“Have you picked yours yet?” Shanna looked up, surprised, as Kaidan’s query reached her ears.

“Dad told me while you were out last night with Sabre, that you were getting a cub.” He was envious, but realistic as well. After having grown up in constant contact with starcats he understood that thirteen years of age was much too young for such a tricky task as handling a potential natural disaster.

“Not yet.” Shanna replied. “I’ve three months until they’re weaned. They were only born last night! You can help me, if you want.”

Kaidan grinned, surprised at her generosity.

“Thanks Shan, I shall give you the benefit of my amazing experience, and wonderful insights into starcat behaviour and breeding,” he said smiling. “Now I’d better go and wait for Master Cerren, and then later you can tell me what’s really bugging you.”

He smirked at her startled expression as he jogged out of the gate, down towards the roadway at the bottom of the hill, accompanied by Moshi and Boots who had finally decided to stagger out of bed. In the distance, a small dust cloud was visible, gradually resolving into a horgal wagon with Master Cerren perched upon the front seat next to Hodan. Kaidan attempted to get his rising blush under control as the balding, grey haired Master waved cheerily at him, but the image of himself striking Master Cerren full-tilt kept intruding on his self control. Moshi poked him with one outsized paw to gain his attention as the wagon came to a halt and he remembered his manners abruptly, welcoming the wagoneer and Master to Hillview.

“Come on up with me to the house for a few refreshments, Master, before we show you who’s available. “ Kaidan hoped fervently that his mother had remembered to remove the starcat debris from the bench for the visit of such a well-known scholar. He held his hand out to assist Master Cerren to alight from the wagon. The Master smiled his thanks, but leapt down lightly, attired today in utilitarian trousers and shirt above walking boots.

“Hodan, you can put your horgal in the front paddock with ours – there’s plenty of water and fodder in the troughs, and Shanna will bring you something to eat and drink if you’d like to meet us at the arena.”

“Thanks Kaidan, he’ll appreciate the break and a chance to feed – and I won’t be unhappy either.” Hodan grinned at Kaidan and turned the horgal towards the house paddock. It snorted softly as the gentle wind brought the sudden smell of starcat on the breeze, but didn’t balk at entering the paddock as the two Hillview horgals snuffled greetings.

Kaidan beckoned Master Cerren towards the front door, where his father waited to welcome them into the dwelling. With a subtle hand signal, Kaidan motioned to Moshi and Boots who promptly separated and lay down either side of the door. Master Cerren smiled appreciatively and entered the house with Adlan and Kaidan.

After the Master was served with refreshments, Adlan began the business at hand.

“We have a number of starcats at hand for your perusal, Sir, both weanling cubs and basic trained youngsters, along with a variety of demonstrations for you to view, and then you can take your time to meet them all. Both Janna and I are familiar with how well trained your Prince was, and we know that you’re well aware that choosing a starcat is a mutual decision – a decision made by both yourself and your new cat. So I think we can dispense with the usual introductory information session. We’re able to begin anytime you wish.” He smiled at the Master.

“Yes, the day my Prince and I chose each other is still one of my fondest memories!” The old scholar’s eyes misted slightly in remembrance, and then he rose after firmly placing his cup on the bench, and giving his greying head a small shake.

“Shall we start?”

“By all means, Janna has the cats down at the arena, and we have some comfortable seating ready for you. She’ll put the older starcats through their paces, and then the weanling cubs. Have you any preference at this point?”

“Not at all, I thought that I’d just watch and and then take things as they come.” As Master Cerren stood Adlan gestured courteously towards the door.

Down by the arena, Shanna and Kaidan perched themselves in vantage spots, ready to assist their mother as required. Demonstrations like this occurred on a fairly regular basis at Hillview, and they were well practiced assistants. Janna had decided to show the ready trained cats in a group, and then demonstrate their individual strengths. The younger cubs had only very basic training, and would be shown after their more experienced fellows. After that, Master Cerren would meet and greet any that had taken his eye.

“Jay, Socks, Bouncer and Flip, come!” Four handsomely harnessed starcats appeared by Janna’s side in a flash, each sitting neatly with its tail curled over its front feet. Janna demonstrated the basic commands taught to all starcats – sit, drop, come, stay, stand and wait. She then demonstrated the four cats’ response at a distance, to both whistle and hand signals, as the four starcats flowed gracefully around her in a complex weaving pattern, their brightly glowing tidemarks showing their enjoyment.

Shanna sat watching the display almost absently. She’d spent hours lying in bed the night before, unable to sleep. She loved living at Hillview, with her family and their cats, and the unexpected discussion with her parents had rocked her comfortable world to its foundations. Her parents and brother were such a solid, dependable part of her life, and until now specialisation had sat nebulously in the future, not yet close enough to disrupt the ordered pattern her life had revolved around. Apart from being completely unprepared for the conversation she’d had the previous night, Shanna had become anxious – she didn’t know if she was ready to move away from the predictably comfortable life with her family, the secure place she inhabited with her friends, and the ordered days of school life.

The promised cub was something she’d longed for for years. But its advent was now tarnished by the unknown. How could she care for a cub if, for example, she decided to become a baker? Not that that was likely, but how was she to raise a cub if she had to live in a house or student accommodation that didn’t allow starcat cubs? Master Cerren applauded vigorously at the end of the group display, and Shanna started from her reverie, checking that her equipment was properly organised. Master Cerren was very obviously appreciating not only the sheer beauty of the display, but the skill required to train the cats to such a superlative level.

Janna then put each young cat individually through its paces, each cat demonstrating its particular strengths. As the four youngsters waited at one end of the arena, Janna motioned to Shanna and Kaidan, who readied the extra aids.

“Jay, Hunt!” Shanna released a marmal into the arena. The small furry creature’s tufted ears twitched and its pointy nose wriggled as it caught the starcat scent. The violet toned black cat dropped, almost merging with the dust as he settled to absolute stillness. In an almost unseen blur of movement, he appeared face to face with the marmal, and froze to absolute stillness again, his gaze fixed intensely upon the small, furred creature’s eyes. The marmal stood stock still, pinioned by the big cat’s glare, and completely unable to move, yet seeming strangely unafraid.

“Release!” The cat blinked, and the marmal hurtled back into the safety of the carry box Shanna had waiting.

“Well done, big boy.”Janna said, scratching the cat’s cheekbone as he preened. He returned to the line of youngsters obediently, and Janna called the next cat forward.

“Socks, hide!” A dark grey female with blue points, slipped silently from Janna’s side, moving with such silence that her foot falls were completely unheard. She gradually faded herself from view, so completely that she appeared invisible, even the faint shimmer that normally marked a starcat’s presence had disappeared. Within thirty seconds, she appeared to have completely vanished from the arena. From the side of the arena, Kaidan and Shanna could see the Master’s head sweeping from side to side, trying to detect Socks, turning first one way and then the other, as he listened for the slightest noise and attempted to catch the shimmer.

“Socks, up!” To Master Cerren’s great startlement, a large purr sounded in his left ear, and a set of whiskers swam into view. Shanna and Kaidan chuckled at the starcat’s sense of humour as Socks returned obediently to Janna. Master Cerren laughed along with them, nodding his head at the big grey as she settled beside Janna.

“Bounce, climb!” Bounce blurred his way up a tall pole at one end of the arena and then at Janna’s command, leapt to an identical pole at the far end, finishing his acrobatics with a sliding flourish down the pole.

“Flip, guard!” Kaidan, dressed in a padded suit, attempted to attack his mother with a wooden stave. Flip dropped under the whirling stave, then leapt on Kaidan from behind in that startling burst of starcat speed, seemingly appearing out of nowhere. Slightly winded, Kaidan picked himself up off the ground as Flip positioned herself in a guard posture in front of Janna.

As the four starcats lined up neatly next to Janna, Master Cerren and Hodan applauded vigorously. Janna waved the four youngsters towards Shanna, who dropped them neatly in a line to watch the young cubs, giving each cat an appreciative rub in its favourite spot.

The cubs demonstrated their basic training, neatly sitting, dropping and coming to Janna’s commands before she released them to play in the arena. They gambolled happily together, playing with the various training toys the siblings dropped for them.

Janna beckoned Master Cerren into the arena to meet all of the starcats, and Shanna set the four older cats to wander as they wished, allowing them to meet the stranger on their own terms. Choosing a starcat was a mutual event – a human might show a preference, but the cat usually had the final word. Over the years, humankind had learnt that a starcat who wanted someone in particular could not be diverted. Master Cerren strolled amongst them, intermittently smoothing an appreciative hand down a silky coat, or tossing a toy for the weanlings to chase, while murmuring to Bounce and Jay who approached to look him over. He whistled gently and the cubs bounded over to him, attempting to chew his shoe laces, almost tripping him over in their enthusiasm. As he staggered slightly, there was a gentle growling noise, and the cubs paused in their play, stepping back slightly as a large body inserted itself firmly in front of them. Socks gently separated Master Cerren from the cubs, butting his hand with her head in order to draw his attention to her, and brightening her vivid blue tidemarks. She nudged him again, and purred loudly. Master Cerren laughed, running his hands over her head, automatically seeking out the itchy spots all starcats loved to have scratched, along their cheeks.

“And here I thought I might never find someone to replace Prince – but how could I resist the attentions of such a beautiful lady – her pick up lines are impeccable! I don’t think there’s going to be much more to sort out, except her price.” He looked down at Socks, as she purred yet again, violet eyes glowing. Master Cerren dropped his hand onto her head again, and they strolled up together to the house with Janna and Adlan to begin the bargaining.

Shanna and Kaidan returned the young cats and cubs to their living quarters, and returned to the arena to tidy up.

“So Shan, what’s up?” Kaidan queried his sister as she threw a training toy into the crate he was holding.

“Nothing,” she replied, avoiding his eyes.

“Don’t kid me Shan, you should be bouncing over the idea of having your own starcat, and you’ve barely even mentioned it. You obviously didn’t sleep well, so what’s bothering you?”

His sister sat with a thud on the ground, drawing her legs up and resting her chin on her knees. Kaidan joined her, idly sorting the training gear into neat heaps as she sighed, and finally decided to come clean. At the end of her explanation, he whistled softly.

“You’re worried about what everyone else will think, aren’t you? And you don’t know what to pick either, do you?”

She sighed heavily. “Yes, you’re dead right on both accounts.” Kaidan quite understood her dilemma, he’d had a few of the same issues himself – liking mathematics too much, being tall for his age and not always fitting in with his peers. Living out of town meant that contact with school friends was not as frequent as he would have liked either. Good friends were hard to come by, and alienating them by progressing faster through the standard levels at school was something he tried to avoid, but it was hard work making sure he wasn’t sticking out like a sore thumb. And he knew he hadn’t really succeeded in camouflaging himself that well either.

“I’ll still like you – mostly! Well, as much as any brother likes his sister!” He gave his sister a thump on her shoulder, “And the good friends will be OK.” He tried to sound more certain than he felt, and mentally reviewed a list of professions in his head, wondering what he’d choose when the time came.

“Thanks Kai,” she sighed again, heaved herself to her feet, and hefted the crate. “We’d better get this stuff put away, I can see Mum waving from the window.”

***

Several hundred kilometres away, the first of the slaves ventured off the Garsal ship, and began the slow job of clearing around it. Each wore a bright orange band locked around each ankle, bearing a tracking device. Deep in the vegetation, a loud rustle sounded and a deep grunting roar echoed through the forest. Fear shot through them.

Chapter 4

 

SHANNA heaved her aching body off the practice mat, and staggered to her feet yet again.

“Enough.” Master Peron clapped her on the shoulder. “Go and get clean, then you can come and see me before you go home.” Shanna staggered gratefully off down the corridor to the bathing room, shedding her sweaty practice clothing and settling slowly into the warmth of the large bath in the female change rooms. Eight weeks ago, she had finally decided on her chosen profession. She had applied for and been accepted into the Scout Corps.

The first six weeks had passed in a haze of physical and mental exhaustion. She had always excelled in school, but so had the other five recruits, and she was a full two years younger than the youngest of them. Her worst fears about her school friends’ reactions had mostly been realised, and she was feeling lonely, tired, and unsure of whether she had made the right choice. All of her current classmates had been in the same student year and had known each other prior to donning their Scout recruit uniforms. They were a tight-knit group, and she, the outsider. They were tolerant of her presence but that was as far as it went, and she was unsure of how she might change this. Assuming she made it through the probation period, the three years of Scout Training looked like a very lonely road.

She swished her hands through the warm water. To make things worse, she was still a bit on the short side in comparison to the others, and on the first day of training, to the unconcealed amusement of the other five, she’d had to walk around in the smallest sized uniform available, with the sleeves and legs rolled up. She knew she’d looked ridiculous. Fortunately, skills learned to create starcat harnesses proved transferable to clothing, although the finer points of tailoring had come from her father.

Being younger and shorter had made many of the physical challenges harder. The obstacle courses had taken her longer than any of the others, as she’d heaved and scraped her way up the taller obstacles. In strength conditioning, Shanna had simply struggled. Three days into the first week, she’d almost not made it out of bed due to muscle soreness. Luckily the walk into Watchtower from Hillview had loosened her up, so that she was walking nearly normally by the time she reported to Scout Compound for the day’s training. It seemed that she’d been aching for days. Fortunately size made no difference in the endurance tasks, and in that area at least, Shanna had held her own.

Accustomed to memorising facts easily, Shanna had found the sheer quantity of information she was expected to process daunting. Hours she had previously devoted to sleep in her comfortable bed had been spent sitting memorising the duties and obligations of the Scout Corps. She dreamt the regulations now, and every morning on the walk in to Watchtower feverishly revised the chapters she’d studied the night before.

Sighing softly, she undid her braids and then ducked under the warm, constantly circulating water of the bath, allowing the sweat that had been stinging her face and scalp to wash away. Reaching to the edge of the bath, she grabbed a handful of soapleaves and rubbing them in her wet hands, used the frothy result to shampoo her hair. She resisted the urge to simply soak there for an hour after rinsing, remembering Master Peron’s instructions, and climbed tiredly from the hot water. She dressed in a clean uniform, bundling the dirty one into the basket at the end of the row of lockers.

Shanna had felt reasonably well prepared, if a little young, for entry into the Scout Corps. Right up until her first lesson. Now, she felt constantly exhausted and as though she was furiously paddling in a wildly flowing body of water. She felt as though she might never master even the basic skills of a bottom rank scout. What had seemed an adventurous and exciting career that she was already partly equipped to begin, had proved much harder than anything she had ever contemplated. Leaving the change rooms, she went left down the corridor, up a flight of stairs to the second storey, and along to Master Peron’s office where she knocked politely on the door.

“Come in,” the Master said, and still feeling her aches, Shanna took a seat in the tall backed chair in front of the desk.

“Well, Shanna, six weeks you’ve been with us. How are you feeling about the Scouts now?”

Shanna paused, trying hard to sit tall and ignore the aching of her abused muscles, while gathering her scattered thoughts to make some form of coherent answer. She knew that the first six to eight weeks were probationary and that some Scout candidates were gently let go in that time. This was likely to be yet another test.

As a fully qualified Scout, she would be a member of one of the most highly trained and respected service groups on Frontier. Even a basic bottom rank scout, was expected to be able to navigate flawlessly through Frontier’s uncharted regions, journey for days living off the land, identify and cope with any kind of predator or lethal vegetation, and be able to examine, test and catalogue any unknown species. In addition to those skills, a Scout had to be able to survive Frontier’s violent cyclonic storms if away from settled areas, cope with any kind of terrain, and most importantly have a rapport with and be able to train starcats, the Scout’s constant companion and lifeline. The last requirement was the one that had set Shanna’s feet towards a career with the Scout Corps. Scouts were highly educated, well known to be innovative, intelligent and brave, and were highly respected in the wider community.

“It’s harder than I expected, sir.” She had learnt early on that the Scout Masters did not take well to anything other than truthful directness. A few early attempts to brush off queries about her physical state when she was totally exhausted had met with sceptical silence, followed by a dressing down. Used to succeeding easily, Shanna was feeling miserable at having to admit to what for the first time in her life, felt like failure. Master Peron drew his eyebrows together, and looked at Shanna across his wooden desktop, leaning back in his leather chair.

“You’re very young for this Shanna, however you’re not the only one to have been admitted to training at a young age since the establishment of the corps. You are aware that your time up until now has been probationary, and you know that you have been constantly assessed over this period.” He sat forward. “Know now, that a Scout’s training will challenge any candidate in every facet of their life. And know now that even a graduated Scout never stops learning.” Master Peron steepled his fingers, looking seriously at her, and Shanna nodded – was this his way of letting her know that she wasn’t going to make the grade? Her self doubts bubbled to the surface again and she tried to prepare herself for the gentle let down. After six weeks of association with Master Peron, she knew that he would be kind, but firm.

“During their training, every junior member of the corps works with a mentor until graduation. We use the first six weeks to assess each candidate, and decide who will mentor them, or to ease them out gradually into a more appropriate career choice.” He smiled.

“Resign yourself to the fact that for the next three years, you will be spending a lot of time with me, as the council has decided that I will be your mentor.” Shanna collapsed against the back of the chair, almost not believing what she was hearing. “One of the most important things you will learn as a Scout is the ability to go beyond the barriers of normal human endurance. Our early training is designed to weed out those who will never learn this.”

Shanna listened incredulously, realisation gradually dawning that she would be able to continue with her chosen training and then with some chagrin, that the sore muscles were probably only going to get worse and that she would somehow have to get to know her classmates, even if they didn’t want to know her.

“Thank you, sir!” Her voice was fervent, and she broke into a smile, determining privately to figure out some way of getting the older cadets to accept her. Peron grinned back at her, and pushed his chair backwards.

“Bring your starcat when you return tomorrow.” Shanna stared at the Master Scout incredulously.

“How did you know that I’m choosing a starcat today, Sir?”

“You already know that all Scout recruits need a starcat partner, and it’s something we discuss with each candidate’s family during the probation period. When probation ends, each recruit chooses their first starcat partner, and then training proceeds for the pair together. A Scout without a starcat is only half a Scout, and we like to train both of you together. There may be a few things that even your parents haven’t taught you that a starcat can do.” He smiled again, eyes twinkling. “As part of our routine arrangements, I contacted your parents a couple of weeks ago, and they’ll be bringing a group of weanlings in tomorrow, along with another breeder from east of Watchtower, for your candidate class to meet. They also told me that they had promised you a cub around this time and agreed to time your choice with the end of the probation period, to fit in with your training should you be selected to continue on.” Master Peron paused and regarded Shanna for a moment.

“There’s something I wanted to discuss this with you today, before the choosing process. Most of the candidates, will not have your level of experience in handling the weanlings, and will probably not really know what to do with them. They may also be a little miffed that their cats may come from your family holding.” She nodded and almost sighed again, stifling it before it escaped.

Master Peron gave Shanna a considering look.

“Another aspect of our program of which you may not be aware, is that a normal part of a Scout’s training is to be trained by their fellow candidates. All of you are talented and experienced in different areas, and that is part of what makes you all so valuable as recruits. Therefore each of you in turn will be instructing the others in some aspect of your training – the things you have learnt from your families, and your studies. Tomorrow you will begin instructing your fellow students in starcat handling and training.” Shanna’s heart gave an enormous thud, and appeared to turn over inside her chest – training her class when she was already the outsider! Training your own starcat was different to helping your very experienced parents with the family business, let alone instructing others at the same time.

Master Peron’s eyes were compassionate as he said, “You’ll be the first of your group to become a temporary trainer. Unfortunately you are also the youngest, and the others may make this a little more difficult for you than it normally would be.” Shanna realised that the Master was not unaware of her issues with the other students, and there was sympathy in his expressive green eyes. “In the normal scheme of things, there would have been no warning for you, simply a statement on the day; however, because of your youth I am allowing you one day to consider how you’ll go about tomorrow, and you will begin your period of instruction immediately after the choosing. All right, off with you now. I’ll see you bright and early tomorrow with the starcats, in the outdoor arena.” He dismissed her with a wave of one hand.

Shanna hastened out of the office, head spinning, and went down the stairs and out into the main corridor. One of her classmates was exiting Master Dano’s office just down the hallway, his face alight with joy.

“I take it you’ve passed your probation too, Verren?”

“Oh yes, and starcats tomorrow!” Verren was a tall, dark young man, who had demonstrated a most useful ability to treat the minor contusions and injuries that had plagued the new candidates. After her discussion with Peron, Shanna had a sneaking suspicion that Verren would shortly be instructing his fellow cadets on basic medicine and first aid. Both his parents were medics. She had always enjoyed his company, even if he did tend to treat her as if she was about twelve years old. He was at least friendly and had always been polite to her.

“Have you had a starcat at home, Verren?”

“No, but some of my extended family do, and I’ve always got along well with them.” He displayed a look of enormous longing. “The cubs are so cute! Anyway, got to meet Taya in five, see you!” He headed towards the exit, striding quickly. Shanna followed more slowly, contemplating how someone who thought starcat cubs were “cute” was going to cope with the very blunt reality. They were very cute to look at, and they did play very enthusiastically, so maybe that’s all Verren had meant – the whole wide eyed, big pawed, fluffy tail stage was very endearing. It just didn’t necessarily translate to biddable… It was going to take her some serious effort to get the essentials over tomorrow, if Verren was anything to go by. Her head buzzed with all kinds of strategies and potential problems, first amongst them how to get her fellow classmates to take her seriously.

She pushed through the double doors of the Scout Hall and then wended her way towards the front of the records precinct. On the way, she encountered Master Cerren who beckoned her over, Socks sitting comfortably at his feet. Theirs was a truly happy partnership although, and Shanna grinned in recollection, some of Master Cerren’s students had not enjoyed the advent of Socks quite as much as the Master had. He thoroughly enjoyed Socks’ ability to conceal herself so effectively and then pop up without warning, and he had begun to use her as a kind of special teachers’ aide. He would tell her to “Hide”, whispering a distracted student’s name into her ear, and then five or six minutes later he would get the mischievous starcat to pop up behind the misbehaving student’s back and breathe heavily on their neck. Some of the previously underachieving students’ grades had improved spectacularly since the advent of Socks. She seemed to enjoy the trick as much as the Master did.

“I hear you’ll be choosing your starcat today, Shanna.”

“Yes Master Cerren!” She grinned, almost bouncing at the thought, and firmly pushed the anxiety caused by her imminent teaching duties down. “Hello Socksy!” Shanna greeted the starcat at Master Cerren’s side. “I hear you’ve become quite the teaching assistant!” Master Cerren’s eyes crinkled with amusement.

“And what an assistant she is! Ah, here’s Kaidan. Off you go. I shan’t keep you from the moment any longer!”

Kaidan and Shanna walked off together, waving at Socks and the Master, Shanna trying to contain her news until they were outside the main gate of Watchtower, shoving down the sudden resurgence of anxiety that twisted her stomach into a knot as she contemplated her teaching role.

“I wonder how Master Cerren knew I’m going to choose tonight?” She puzzled to her brother. He tossed off the query impatiently.

“So, who are you going to choose tonight?”

Shanna frowned, her forehead furrowing. There was a slight dilemma she hadn’t mentioned to anyone at this point, but she had finally decided that she was just going to wait and see how things panned out that evening. Surely there was no point worrying at this time. “I’m not sure,” she admitted.

Kaidan frowned, then remembered his own news. “I’m starting archery next week! Hopefully I’ll be better at archery than I was at wrestling… Oh well, can’t be much worse!”

“Hah! Have fun,” Shanna said. “I’ve got to instruct my cadet class on starcat training after they choose tomorrow! And for the foreseeable future!”

“You are so sunk, Shan! You are so dead when the rest find out!” was her brother’s comforting response.

“Thanks so much, little brother!” He grinned and elbowed her in the ribs gently.

“You’ll be OK. You know heaps. Once they get over their first day or two they’ll figure that out.” Shanna wasn’t so sure. After six weeks with the other cadets, she was positive that they weren’t prepared to take her seriously. They continued their journey home after meeting their father with Boots and Moshi at the gate, with Kaidan intermittently having another dig at his sister about the next day’s repercussions.

“Don’t worry too much,” Adlan advised, “If you have any problems to start with, give them one day of ignoring your advice, followed by one night alone with a starcat cub, and I suspect things will sort themselves out. You should know – as you’re one of them – that these students are meant to be bright; hopefully the majority of them will actually use those brains.” The advice was practical, but it still didn’t stop Shanna from worrying. Her father dropped his arm around her shoulder gently.

“Just concentrate on enjoying tonight’s choice young lady – your mother has your favourite dinner all cooked to celebrate!”

Janna was waiting outside with Sabre by her side as they arrived home. The beautiful starcat had her tidemarks gently glowing in welcome. She nudged Shanna with a cold nose and then stalked regally off into the breeding cavern with the family following in her wake.

“You’d think she knows exactly what’s going on, wouldn’t you?” Kaidan murmured.

“I’m not so sure she doesn’t, to be honest.” Janna said. “You should have seen her making those cubs spruce themselves up this afternoon!”

“You’ll have me believing that they understand us too, if that kind of thing keeps happening!” her husband said.

“Perhaps not all of them, but Sabre has had a special bond with Shanna for as long as I can remember – they were born the same day, after all, and sometimes I used to find Shanna and Sabre curled up asleep together, tucked in with Sabre’s mother Ebony. Occasionally I felt that Ebony and I were raising twins – one with fur and one without…” Janna laughed and she and Adlan entered the cavern hand in hand.

Inside the breeding cavern sat Shanna’s dilemma. She’d observed and worked with all of the cubs on a daily basis since their births. She’d got to know the cubs well – and they were all spectacular examples of exactly what a starcat cub should be. Each of them showed personality and intelligence – there wasn’t a dud in the whole litter. And then she had to giggle slightly as she realised that Sabre had somehow lined them up as if showing them off, and was keeping them neatly arranged with the odd warning growl.

“Will you look at that,” Adlan whispered to his wife. “I’ll bet you two nights washing up she picks Storm.” His wife leaned into him smiling.

“You’ll lose,” she whispered back as Shanna approached the waiting cubs. “My bet’s on Twister.”

Unlike a prospective client, who usually met their starcat for the first time on choosing day, Shanna and the cubs knew each other well. There was no need for displays of obedience or agility or showy tricks, just the need to choose each other. Shanna walked up and down the line several times. Then she stood and simply looked at the cubs.

“What’s taking her so long? I thought she’d have figured it out ages ago.” Kaidan asked his father quietly.

To the surprise of all, Sabre rumbled gently and six of the cubs backed away from the line, and sat neatly behind their mother leaving the other two sitting alone. She then looked at Shanna with her violet eyes shining and ducked her head, tidemarks pulsing in complex patterns.

Shanna deliberated. Her problem was simple – she knew she wanted Storm, and she knew she wanted Twister. She was also certain that both of them wanted her, however, her parents had promised her one starcat, not two. No-one had two starcat cubs at once. Breeders like her parents would sometimes have two cats as companions, but they were not generally the same age. The two cubs were both staring brightly up at her, violet and blue ear tip tidal marks glowing, and violet eyes sparkling, both oddly intense.

Janna, Adlan and Kaidan couldn’t take their eyes off the bizarre behaviour of the starcats and Shanna. In all their years of watching humans and starcats bond, they’d never seen the mother cat involve herself at all. Normally, only the cats and the prospective partners interacted. Minutes passed and still Shanna had not chosen.

Finally, Shanna turned to her parents despairingly, turning her back on the waiting cats.

“I can’t choose! What on earth am I to do?” Tears ran down her cheeks with the intensity of her emotions.

Janna opened her mouth to speak, and left it hanging there as Sabre, with an almost human eyebrow raise, hummed briefly at the two cubs. As one, they headed for Shanna, each leaning heavily on a leg, and then sat firmly on her feet. Sabre gave a satisfied chirrup, rounded up the other cubs and returned to her cushions, blinking her great eyes at the tableau.

Shanna’s family regarded each other without words, and then Adlan laughed. “Well, that seems to be that, I don’t think Sabre takes returns.”

His wife nodded. “Well, she certainly knew what was going on, but I think I’m going to have to revise that chapter on choosing, in the new manual. It looks like you now have two cubs, Shan. I’m also thinking that you might be a wee bit tired by morning though….” Janna knew exactly what the night would bring, as young starcat cubs were generally quite active at night, and would certainly be testing Shanna’s ability to be the boss as they worked out their new relationship. “Let’s eat.”

“Kaidan, you can stop standing there with your mouth open, and give your sister a hand with the food bowls. Bring Storm and Twister in, Shan, and we’ll see how they go in the house. Hopefully after tomorrow, Sabre will be back inside again too. We’ll just wait and see how many cubs go, and any who don’t can move into the adolescent cavern. Besides, it’s not a bad idea for the cubs to have their first evening inside without their mother keeping them in line for you.” Adlan grinned. “You’re going to have your hands full, young lady.”

Shanna looked down at the cubs, and put a hand on either head, and then whispered, “Love you boys.” Realising she was dripping tears on the two upturned heads, she wiped her face, and then with a hand signal, put the cubs at heel and entered the house via the side door.

Inside, Boots and Moshi lounged indolently in front of the fire, bellies turned to soak in the maximum heat. Kaidan was banging food bowls around and Janna was serving up roast lamb. Shanna took Storm and Twister over to the fireplace, and bade them sit. Boots stirred himself, stood, and then deliberately peered into Storm’s face from about two millimetres away. Moshi got slowly to his feet and then did exactly the same thing to Twister. Both young starcats held their ground, and then slowly leaned away from the older cats, while attempting to stay sitting where Shanna had placed them. Unseen by Storm, Boots stealthily lifted a paw, and then gave the young cat a quick poke, just enough to unbalance him and tip him over. With an amused “Meh,” Boots then strolled over to where Kaidan had placed the four food bowls and sat. Moshi was a little less subtle; Twister got a quick smack across the face that knocked him over, followed by a heavy footprint in the tummy as Moshi meandered over to Boots.

Kaidan giggled, and then signalled to the older cats to eat. The two young cats struggled to regain their dignity, while the whole family attempted to straighten their faces, and then Shanna walked them over to their bowls. Kaidan, in typical younger brother fashion, had placed their bowls in between Moshi and Boots’ bowls. Shanna sat them, and then motioned to them to eat. Both gave her quizzical looks, and then looked at the bowls. Boots had finished his food and had decided to sit and wash while the young cats ate. He was too well trained to blatantly attempt to eat more than his fair share, however he was quite prepared to try and bluff the younger cats out of their dinner.

With a sigh, both Twister and Storm dropped to their bellies, and crawled to the bowls, eating lying down, ears twitching and eyes flicking towards the adult cats. Shanna laughed

“Well, you two are braver than some I’ve seen.”

“Come and eat”, Janna called, and the family sat down to the savoury roast lamb dinner to celebrate.

***

At the Garsal ship, forty slaves laboured to construct a strong fence, yet again. Over the past three months, several hundred had died, sacrificed to prevent Frontier’s predators from damaging the colony ship. Several Garsal patrols had set out to survey the immediate area: none had returned. The Overlord had ordered the current crew out earlier that day. Finally the laser fence was almost complete, and yet again the throbbing roars of the predators could be heard on the breeze, and the sweating slaves worked faster and faster. The commander would order them out to defend the gaps with their bare hands if they didn’t complete the last section before the scaled monsters arrived. Anjo ran to flick the switch and turn their safety on and the scarlet bars of light flicked into existence just as the first monster cleared the greenery. Garsal slave masters herded the exhausted slaves back inside the ship, to lock them in their pens as the first scaled monstrosity hurled itself into the threads of light and then staggered back with an ear splitting roar.

The Garsal Overlord transmitted an assembly call throughout the ship, and the crew gathered for review. When at last the muted roars of the monster outside the fence line ceased, the alien lifted its front appendage.

“Tomorrow we begin our survey again, and tomorrow we begin the hive.” He turned and motioned to his underlings. “Assemble a construction crew from amongst the slaves.” Striding towards the command level, he began composing the notification he would send to the Matriach, safely sequestered with the other female Garsal in their private quarters. His plans for the new residence had met with her approval. She would be pleased that the construction would finally begin.

Deep in the bowels of the ship, Anjo clutched his thin rug around him, huddling closer to his exhausted companions, holding desperately to the thin hope of survival.

Chapter 5

 

KAIDAN and Shanna hitched Spot the horgal to the wagon, and then loaded the unpartnered starcat cubs in their crates onto the wagon bed, ready for the journey into Watchtower. Shanna attempted to stifle a large yawn as she tightened a harness strap on the wagon shaft, and then followed it up by rubbing her eyes. It had been a busy night, attempting to settle the two young starcats and beginning to accustom them to inside living with their human partner. She had previously assisted her parents with housetraining young cubs, but that had been only one at a time. Two cubs certainly meant twice as much trouble as far as indoor training went. Despite taking Storm and Twister outside for a nature call prior to attempting to go to sleep, it seemed that one or the other had needed to go out again about once every two hours thereafter.

In between the outside trips, Shanna had attempted to encourage less playing and more sleep. First, Storm had felt he needed to pounce on Shanna’s toes every time she breathed heavily, and then Twister had decided to attempt to live up to his name and wrestle the bedclothes into a whirlwind. Persuading a starcat to sleep other than exactly where it wanted to had been the bane of every starcat owner for the last three hundred years. No-one Shanna knew had managed to ban them from the bed, however the trick was to teach them to respect the bed’s owner, and at least share the space reasonably equably. In many ways it was easier to teach complex hunting or hiding skills than appropriate night time behaviour. In short, it was the same problem experienced by any kind of cat owner over many millennia, just multiplied by more kilos of cat.

Her night had continued in that vein until the early hours of the morning when the tired cubs had finally given in to her (exhausted) patience and gone to sleep, one on either side of the bed, heads resting on her legs. She had woken a couple of hours later at dawn, to find them actually draped across her – fortunately weanling starcats were only a mere thirty kilograms or so – and still snoring dreamlessly. That constant patience and perseverance was what she would have to impart to her fellow students. She hoped she was able to keep it up herself.

“Are we a little bit weary, Shan?” Kaidan patted her shoulder, mock sympathy on his face and then dug her in the ribs with his elbow. “I heard a bit of the ruckus last night. Guess you didn’t get much sleep.”

“Sleep? What’s that?” said Shanna ruefully. “I’m sure it’ll get better, but two is definitely a challenge. When it’s your turn for a cat, make sure you only end up with one. Hope I don’t fall asleep today in training.” Kaidan laughed at his sister’s ongoing yawns.

Adlan and Janna appeared, starcat harnesses and collars draped over their arms. Janna beckoned Shanna over and handed her two handsome leather harnesses, Twister and Storm’s names carved into the leather.

“You’ll need this too.” Adlan handed over a full backpack to his daughter. “Master Peron has asked us to explain that as of today, you’ll be lodging in the Scout barracks for the next six months. Apparently it’s felt that the less time you have to think about the sudden change, the better. Your classmates’ parents will be explaining the same thing to their children right now.”

Shanna felt as though the world had just dropped out from underneath her. There just seemed to be too much change in her world right now. Her brother looked stricken.

“Don’t worry, you’ll still be able to see me intermittently at school.” Shanna felt a sudden need to reassure Kaidan. “When will I see you two?” She looked at the tears gathering in her mother’s eyes.

“The rules are quite strict Shanna – about once every three weeks until you finish the six months. Your father and I had no idea what Scout training actually entailed before you started. We’ll miss you, but be sure we’ll think about you constantly. And we will see you again in three weeks, and we’ll send notes in with Kaidan. That’s allowed.” Janna blinked furiously.

Adlan cleared his throat. “At least we’ll have this morning before we need to say goodbye properly, which is more than most of your classmates.”

He slung the last of the equipment into the wagon and then hopped onto the driver’s seat, reaching down to assist his family up one by one, and then prodded Spot down the road towards Watchtower. Now feeling extremely apprehensive about the next few weeks, Shanna decided to make the most of the few hours she had left with her family for the foreseeable future.

“Well, come on Kaidan, if this is the last time I get to hear your stupid jokes for the next few weeks, you’d better get a move on and bore me silly until we get in to town.” She swallowed past a suddenly large lump in her throat, and feeling her mother’s hand on her knee, dredged up a soggy smile.

After dropping Kaidan off at Scholar’s precinct (Kaidan even coped with being hugged by his sister in public), Shanna, Adlan and Janna proceded to the Scouts’ Compound. On arrival, Shanna hugged both her parents, trying to convey in hugs what words seemed inadequate to express, then resolutely hefted the heavy pack and called Storm and Twister to heel. “Love you both,” she said.

Her parents both smiled. “Love you too, Shan.”

Shanna waved as she turned toward the main building. She had a feeling that it would be better to explain the presence of not one but two starcats, as early as possible.

Fortunately it was still early, and the corridors were mostly deserted, and to her relief, none of her fellow cadets were in evidence. Only a couple of Masters and a few older scout recruits were about, all giving Shanna curious glances for the two cats trailing at her heels. For their part, the two weanlings paced quietly, only glancing around intermittently as unfamiliar noises caused the violet and blue tipped ears to twitch.

Outside Master Peron’s door, she deposited the heavy pack on the floor, leaning it up against the cool stone wall, and knocked briskly at the door, feeling somewhat apprehensive about her reception.

“Come in,” came the command.

She entered the room and went to stand before Peron’s desk, the two cats sitting neatly at her heels, one on either side.

“Excuse me sir, but I need to explain a couple of things.” Peron eyed the two starcats seated by Shanna and raised his eyebrows quizzically as he regarded the three of them.

“I believe you probably do – explain both of them,” he said, motioning to her to sit in the same chair as the day before. Somewhat encouraged, Shanna began to describe the events of the previous evening.

“And so you see, sir, that there’s not much I can do about having two – and I know how it looks right now, but I will take good care of them, and I know it’ll make things even more awkward with the others, but…..” Master Peron folded his hands and leaned forward, elbows on his desk, looking at Shanna consideringly.

“I can see that you will indeed simply have to have two. I’ve not met anyone who has been able to say no to a starcat’s choice, and having met Sabre myself I wouldn’t argue with her either.” He smiled. “It is an unusual situation, but not really a problem that cannot be overcome, and may one day be quite advantageous. I’ll explain the situation to the other Masters, and you can explain it to your fellow classmates today as you begin their instruction in starcat care. Use it as an object lesson if you wish. I suspect that after tonight, any envy on their behalf will be a thing of the past. And I must say you do look a little tired today.” His look of sympathy was heartfelt, if slightly tinged with humour. “I well remember my own first time with a starcat cub! Off you go now. You’ll find your room on the ground floor on the second corridor. Second one on the left. Leave your pack there and go directly to the arena.”

“Thank you, Sir.”

Somewhat relieved, Shanna rose to her feet and went to locate her room. It was an unexpectedly large space although sparsely furnished with a bed, shelving for clothes and books, a desk, and a number of large mats. There was a small wash and toilet facility in one curtained off alcove, and a fireplace with two old, but comfortable looking saggy chairs sitting in front of it. There was a small supply of cut wood to one side. She deposited her pack on the bed while she looked around the room. Storm and Twister took the opportunity to poke their noses into every nook and cranny, and to bounce happily on the bed. Fortunately it was a large one. There was also a door next to a large window, leading outside to the main compound area and training arena. Checking quickly in the mirror, Shanna made sure her uniform was spotless and that she was as neat and tidy as possible, stuffing a few necessities into her thigh pockets, before she called the two cubs to her, opened the outside door, and walked towards the arena.

She could see her parents chatting animatedly with Josen, another starcat breeder, at the far end and gave them a little wave, but she could see four of her five fellow classmates assembled at the near end with their mentor Masters in attendance. The other two Masters were waiting nearby. A door closed behind her, and Verren hurried out of the next door room, smoothing his dark hair. She turned around and smiled nervously at him; he smiled back, right up until he noticed the two starcats next to her. His smile faded, and he grunted in surprise, the expression on his face closing down quickly.

“Morning,” Shanna said. There was a pause. “Looks like we’re the last to arrive.” Still, Verren said nothing, then nodded curtly and motioned towards the arena.

Great, thought Shanna, Good start! And it’s only going to get better when they all find out who’s teaching them after the choosing. She had hoped that Verren’s friendliness would act as a buffer for her. It looked like she was wrong.

In the arena, the other four students were watching them approach. There was some fairly obvious nudging and whispering as Shanna and Verren approached the group.

“Fall in.” Master Lonish commanded, and the students hastened to obey, Storm and Twister padding obediently, but very obviously, behind Shanna. “As you know, this morning you will be choosing starcat cubs. Some of you have some experience with adult cats, and some of you have limited experience. We know that all of you will be acceptable to the starcats, or you wouldn’t be here. I will tell you right now, that starcat cubs are a completely different prospect to work with than the adults that most of you have previously encountered. You will have all the expert help you need, but you must be prepared to be flexible, patient, good humoured, and willing to lose a lot of sleep over the next few weeks. That is one of the reasons that you are now living here at Scout compound.” He strolled to the end of the line where Shanna stood – as the shortest, she was always the end of the line. “Today begins a new lesson. You will all take turns as instructors over the next few months, in the subjects that you have expert knowledge in. Today after your choosing, Shanna will be instructing you in starcat care and training. Her family breeds starcats, and today some of you may choose, or be chosen by, cats that they have bred. She will be available for expert advice and assistance and will formally instruct you and your cats for two hours per day for the next six months. I suggest you listen to her. As you can see, she has already chosen her own cats.”

Five pairs of eyes stared shocked at Shanna, who attempted to meet their gaze without flinching too much. She could feel hot colour rising in her cheeks, understanding belatedly exactly how Kaidan felt much of the time.

“She will also explain later today exactly why she has two starcats – I understand the tale is quite amusing.” Master Lonish flicked a reassuring grin at Shanna. Master Peron must have used the time she had spent sorting her room out to fill the other Masters in, as he seemed quite unperturbed about the whole thing. The other students were a completely different matter, however. Verren still wore his closed look. Taya, one of the other two female students, was looking like a thunder cloud; Amma simply looked shocked, while Ragar and Zandany looked as though they’d both eaten something that disagreed with them. Shanna attempted a conciliatory smile. It came off a little wobbly.

“While any other student is teaching, you will award them the respect you would give to any Master. Do I make myself clear?” Master Lonish was suddenly stern.

“Yes sir.” Most of the cadets at least tried to school their features into the appropriate expression, but Taya continued to glower as she mouthed the words.

“All right then, go up to the other end of the arena now, and we’ll get the choosing underway. Shanna, you and your cubs can join the Masters over there.” A number of the resident Masters were in attendance at one side of the arena, seated on benches.

At the other end of the arena, the three starcat breeders had their charges sitting neatly in front of them. Apart from the six that Janna and Adlan had brought with them, there were another four starcats in front of Josen, all handsome, well developed cubs. His cats showed reddish tones to their tidemarks, distinguishing them from the Hillview cats, which were always blue or purple toned.

Storm and Twister had behaved extraordinarily well all morning, however, on seeing their litter mates, their tidemarks had begun to flicker slightly in the well known warning tones of potential mischief. Shanna sat them, pulling a handful of treats out of one pocket and two feathers out of the other one. Knowing starcat cubs as she did, she was well aware that it was time for structured play right now, or there would be completely unstructured disaster instead. She blocked Storm’s first attempt to gambol over to his littermates with a feather trailed across his nose as a distraction and began tickling the two cubs.

In the centre of the arena, the handlers were demonstrating the basic commands all weanling starcats learnt, as the students watched the cubs covetously. Shanna could tell that each of the students was itching to call one of the cubs their own. Each cub was run up and down in front of the students, with the well schooled masters sitting on the sidelines making informed comments about each cub, and then, to Shanna’s slightly shocked ears, making bets about who would pair up with whom. Three of the Masters had adult starcats seated next to them and the others had well behaved youngsters. One was catless and watching the weanlings avidly. With a jolt, Shanna realised that all of the adult cats were well past the flush of youth, and into their old age. Two of them bore major scars, and the third walked with a limp marring his grace. It was not until then, that the danger that Scouts routinely operated in really struck her. She looked at Storm attempting to bat the feather she was teasing him with, and Twister who was trying to catch his in his mouth, and felt horrified that something might actually hurt them one day. Hard though the first six weeks of training had seemed, it was obviously nothing compared to what might be waiting in the real world of the qualified Scout.

With a start, Shanna brought her attention back to the centre of the arena, where the handlers had released the starcat cubs to play and were beckoning the five students in to interact with them. Already it was easy to see who had interacted with starcat cubs previously and who had little experience. Ragar was allowing two of the cubs to play fight with his hand, intermittently tickling their bellies and allowing them to mouth his fingers. On the other side of him, Amma was staggering as three of the little monsters tugged at her bootlaces. Verren was absolutely entranced, as one of Storm and Twister’s litter mates wormed her way towards him on her belly, batting her eyelashes captivatingly. She rolled on her back in front of him, then without any warning at all leapt straight into his arms. He lifted his head, spitting dust as he found himself lying on his back under thirty kilos of starcat cub perched on his chest. Cirrus settled herself purring, and Janna grinned at him.

“I think you’re chosen young man.”

Zandany had fallen for a common starcat trick, and had ended up with his bootlaces tying his ankles together, a small starcat on the end of each pair. He also ended in the dust, while further over, two of Josen’s cats were happily bouncing between Taya’s legs as she attempted to help Verren up off the ground.

It was happy chaos, with the Masters exchanging money as pairings were made. Shanna tried not to eavesdrop too much, but was amused as she realised that Master Lonish appeared to have come off rather well. Ragar paired with another of the Hillview cats, the young male with the spectacularly marked legs, whom Janna had dubbed Sparks for his engaging nature. Taya was happily paired with Spinner, one of Josen’s cubs, and Zandany was obviously completely besotted with Punch, his litter mate. Amma had spent the most time watching the cubs – when she wasn’t staggering from shoelace tugs – and finally ended up sitting surrounded on the ground, while the tail patterned female, Spider, yet another of the Hillview cubs, sprawled relaxed in her lap.

The breeders handed out harnesses to the new starcat owners, and demonstrated how to fit them, then rounded up the other cubs and went to the other end of the arena to pack up. The catless Master, whose name Shanna didn’t know, strolled down to chat with Josen, Janna and Adlan.

“Cadets, fall in!” Master Peron’s voice was loud and startling, and the student Scouts hastened to obey. Shanna bolted off the bench, calling Storm and Twister to heel and fell in with her cubs at the end of the line, or more correctly, where the end of the line would have been, had there been a line.

Utter chaos ruled. Students unaccustomed to starcat handling forgot to call their cubs to heel, and ended up in the line without their cats. Starcat cubs who although well trained to the basic commands by experts, recognised lack of expertise and ignored commands that sounded uncertain. Three of the cubs were wandering the arena exploring; Zandany was hotly pursuing Punch under the bench seats, and only Ragar and Shanna had managed to fall in properly at all. Verren, Amma and Taya had realised that their cats weren’t with them and had left the line, and were all calling their cubs at once. Verren was yet again knocked to the ground by Cirrus, who obviously felt that the proper place to be was in his arms. That was definitely going to have to change before she reached her fully grown weight of around 100 kilos or more.

Peron beckoned to Shanna.

“You’re on. Get control now, and then you have your class for the next two hours. We’ll see you all at lunch.” He nodded to the other Masters, and they all filed out of the arena, most trying to hide grins. The three older cats stayed behind, lazily observing the chaos.

Shanna looked round wildly, and decided that the chaos needed to be stopped immediately. She whistled piercingly in the ascending tones that her parents taught each cat to hear, as soon as they were handled, hoping fervently that Josen used the same system. The cubs immediately paused and sat, exactly where they were. Shanna gave thanks that Josen obviously did use the same system, and then changed the tone of her whistle, to the food call, which set all the cubs bounding towards her. Delving into her pocket she produced rewards for all the cubs, simultaneously beckoning their new owners towards her.

“Right, let’s start with the basics.” She cleared her throat and attempted to use the firm tone her parents always lectured in, rather than the slightly strangled squeak that had first popped out. She’d heard her parents’ introductory lectures to prospective starcat owners so many times over her fifteen years that it was second nature. She began. “No matter what happens, you are always in charge of your starcat – always.” Five sets of eyes looked at her with various expressions.

“Never forget that they are there, never take their company and obedience for granted, and never, ever, offer a starcat violence. Starcat partnership is earned, not a right, and they will only obey those they respect, even when they are perfectly trained. You will need to be firm and patient and consistent.” Shanna spent the next fifteen minutes attempting to impart things she took for granted, realising only as she spoke, the amazing amount of knowledge her parents had passed on to her that she had simply absorbed as a routine part of her upbringing.

After that, she began revising the basic commands and hand signals that all the cubs knew, explaining what tone of voice was appropriate, and how to convey approval and reassurance to the newly paired cubs. Towards the end of the lesson, she saw some of the expressions of her fellow students begin to change, as Storm and Twister bore out her comments when she used them to demonstrate. At the same time, she attempted to privately evaluate her classmates’ early responses to their cats.

She used the final fifteen minutes before lunch to explain why she had two cats. At the end, Amma queried her.

“And you managed a whole night with two of them? I’m exhausted already.” She gave a rueful grin, and looked around at the other four students who were regarding Shanna with much greater respect, although Taya was still obviously unhappy with a much younger teacher, no matter how much that teacher knew.

Shanna laughed, and said, “Now you know why I have bags under my eyes. Just wait until tonight! Take one of these treat bags to put in your pockets and let’s go to lunch. Now before we move off, remember to call your cats to heel, don’t forget to make them sit and then drop, in the dining room, and do not feed them table scraps – no matter how much they beg. And they will…”

***

At the Garsal ship, three of the large predators prowled outside the laser fence as the slaves commenced the preliminary excavations for the new hive. Inside the ship, Anjo huddled in his pen, shovelling down the slave slop and pulling the thin rags of his blanket around him. Each time the Garsal guard went past, he counted silently under his breath.

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