“See,” Jennifer said. “It’s purring.”
Sean remembered to breathe.
“Well?” Jennifer asked. “Where is Nanny?”
Sean turned and waved his arms at Emily standing by the corral. She vanished behind the feed block and reappeared a moment later, followed by the Nannybot astride a dwarf cow fitted with a bridle and reins. The cow seemed surrendered to her fate.
“Is that a net he’s carrying?” Sean wondered.
“Emily’s idea,” Jennifer said. “He has to catch the Beast.”
The bizarre group approached them. Sean stood aside. “Sir Pellinore! This is the Questing Beast. Beast – Sir Pellinore.”
Nanny’s ocular unit swiveled. The Questing Beast blinked.
Without a word, Nanny dug his limbs into the cow’s ribs. The startled bovine jerked forward, the Questing Beast moved in a silver shimmer, and just like that both were gone, galloping across the plain, the lean elegance of the Beast followed by the bouncing Nanny on top of the orange puff of fur.
In a couple of breaths they reached the forest and vanished from the view.
“Ummmm,” Sean said. “Did what I think happened just happen?”
“What now?” he demanded.
“Now we hope Nanny catches him in his net,” Emily said.
“Did you see how fast it was?” Verne scowled. “He’ll never catch that thing.”
Santos shook his head. Sean glanced at the forest. Verne was right. Nanny would never catch it…
“It was me,” Jennifer said.
He looked at her. She swallowed visibly.
“I initiated the transmission that the millipede rode. It was me. I logged on after Sean. So blame me.”
Verne turned on his heel and took off toward the forest, punctuating each step with grim determination.
“Where are you going?” Sean called out.
“I need a new stick,” the Chief Programmer answered.
The seven members of the Committee sat at the table like the keepers of keys to Hades, sitting in judgment of the sinners on the crossroads between Tartarus and Isles of the Blest. Sean didn’t even know their names, only the fields they represented. At least Jennifer sat next to him.
Somehow the fact that they would go to the Tartarus of Destroyed Careers together brought him no comfort.
The Education/Science Member regarded the stack of loose paper sheets in front of her. Some of the paper was frayed and dirty. A couple of pieces, probably from Val, had food stains on them. In his mind Sean saw himself shrinking until he disappeared into nothing with a faint pop.
“We have looked through the notes,” the Business/Industry Member said. “We found them unsatisfactory.”
“You are aware that in the history of the Survey no team has failed to turn in the Final Evaluation Report?” the Environmental/Health Member said.
“Except for Captain Chef,” Jennifer said. “Because he was eaten.”
“In our defense,” Sean said, “we would both prefer to have been eaten.”
The Education/Science Member gave him a stony stare.
“What I meant to say was, there are extenuating circumstances.”
“Indeed,” the Social/Cultural Member nodded. “However, they do not change the fact that we are here and the FER is not.”
Sean opened his mouth…
The door burst open and Santos dashed inside, flushed and winded, and for a moment Sean thought the stoic Chief of Security was having a heart attack.
“Nanny’s back,” Santos breathed.
In a blink Sean was off his seat and out the door. People crowded the small stretch of grass before the Block 7, and in the whirlwind of faces, he saw Nanny’s familiar gangly form. It was riding the Questing Beast.
“The Independent Biological Reasoning Unit is reporting operational status,” Verne said.
Sean spun about to see the Committee exiting the Block.
“Two hours!” he cried. “Give me two hours, and I’ll have the FER.”
The Education/Science Member was looking at the Beast.
“What is that?” she said softly.
“A recent find,” Jennifer improvised. “We call it the Questing Beast after Mallory’s Arthur myths. Would you like to pet it? It purrs.”
The Nemurian sunset was burning slowly. Against the deep emerald sky, the silvery ino trees seemed to glow.
Sean heard steps behind him, but the vista was too breathtaking and he was too tired, so he stayed where he was, leaning against a low fence. Someone took a spot next to him. He glanced over. Jennifer.
Two trogomets scuttled from the brush, jumping over each other.
“They recommended preservation,” she said.
He said nothing.
“I thought I’d be relieved,” she said. “I’m not. I’m still wound up so tight, it hurts.”
“Give it time to sink in,” he murmured. “Merlot.”
“Merlot. It’s a varietal of Terrestrial wine grape. That’s what the air smells like.”
She closed her eyes. “I was trying to cross-reference the migration data with the warming patterns. Pen was asleep, and I thought I’d take a shortcut and just pull the data from the orbital myself. I logged on after you did and didn’t run it through the Great Wall. I’m sorry. I was so tired … and then when everything started breaking down, I just couldn’t…” She bit her lip. “I should’ve said something. I feel like scum.”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “You said something in the end. That’s all that matters.”
She glanced at him, brown eyes warm.
“Do you think we’ve done the right thing?” he wondered.
“Too late to worry about it now,” she said. “I requested the extended tour, so if any complications arise I’ll be here to handle it.”
“I signed up for the extended tour too,” he said.
“I know. I’d checked.” She touched his hands with cool fingers. He reached out and put his arm around her and felt her snuggle against him.
Together they watched as the thousands of tiny white fireflies spilled from the puffy dandelions of the ino-ino fruits and danced on the night breeze.
The Questing Beast sniffed at a spot beneath the knotted roots of a tari tree. Around it the forest shivered, full of sounds and life. The Questing Beast scratched the ground with its hoof, squatted, and laid an egg.