Erianda Rensler's world, and apparently the fate of the Human race on the colony world of Rensler, changed just a few Lunars after her twenty-third birthday. The change started simply, innocently enough. Crises had arisen, drastic enough for the Council of the Central Allied Worlds to call a meeting that included the governors of the colony worlds. Her uncle, Governor Eryk Rensler, had been suffering from some illness that wouldn't go away, and changed symptoms on a semi-regular basis. He sent his younger brother Edrian, Randi's father, because his physician didn't recommend Wrinkleship travel, with strain on every major organ.
Her mother Aura, who usually acted as hostess for Government House, went with Edrian. That left Randi the task of looking after her uncle, double-checking his security, and running a few discrete tests to make sure the physician was still a friend and not in the pay of some new enemy. She accepted her assignment with minimal grumbling. She was needed at home; she just didn't care to be saddled with the onerous duties of acting as hostess.
"On the bright side," her uncle said, when she grumbled to him over an after-dinner game of Stratagems, "with the way I'm feeling, you won't have to suffer through any ridiculous parties for a while."
Randi knew she had been acting and feeling like a child. She let her uncle win two of their five games, to make up for her attitude. He felt bad enough by the end of the evening that he didn't seem to notice, and retired to bed before his usual midnight.
The reprieve from social obligations was short-lived. Less than two days after her parents' ship left orbit, a Council starship slid into orbit and the Honorable Inspector General Asmondias Kreeng shuttled down to the colony.
Randi loathed him on first sight, and found it harder than usual to blush, stammer and lisp during the formal welcoming ceremony, playing the part of a featherhead as she had done since she had been old enough to support the family secret. She was grateful to cut the ceremony short, because her uncle suffered another inexplicable fever.
Asmondias Kreeng was an imposing specimen of a man, with olive skin, thick, black curls ruthlessly tamed, wide shoulders and straight posture, a predator's gaze, and several intriguing scars--all jammed into a suit of full formal regalia that nearly chimed with decorations and insignias of office. Randi idly wondered how long it took him to get dressed in the morning. She was sure his gorgeous, coarse-looking hair was a wig, and he was bald, and the strong, stern character of his face was the result of cosmetic surgery and not actual living and experience. He walked with mincing steps and had a lace-edged, perfumed handkerchief tucked in each cuff and his big, strong, long-fingered hands were manicured. Randi decided not to look closely enough to see if he used polish.
His entourage were all just like him--men who looked like they had come up through the ranks spilling blood, breaking bones, and proving they had double-Y chromosomes, only to let the arbiters of fashion polish it away and wrap their impressive physiques in stiff uniforms, perfume, cosmetics and polish. There was no real challenge left in their lives, except perhaps to avoid choking on paperwork.
With Randi's uncle indisposed, if she didn't attend to these visitors and make sure they weren't here to cause trouble, who would do it? A Rensler had led the first settlers to land on the planet, and three generations of their family had ruled it, until the Central Allied Worlds decided to 'accept' them back into the fold of Civilization. The safety of Rensler was an inherited obligation, and Randi wasn't going to be the first generation to fail that duty.
* * ** *
Randi's father had trained her from childhood to appear fluffy, ruffly, and silly, while honing mind and body into a sleek, efficient weapon. When she was a child, she had hated the hours spent learning to dance and to walk, to discuss literature, politics, fashion and art, and to charm the many guests who came to Government House. She had feared she was being groomed to take over her mother's position as hostess, and seriously contemplated stowing away on one of the sporadic starships that came to drop off supplies, settlers and research scientists, and take away vast cargos of medicinal plants, rare furs and other items that paid for the supplies that kept the colony technologically up-to-date.
When she turned ten, Randi learned she had a far different destiny waiting for her. To her delight, she learned her beloved Papa wasn't the shy, bookish younger brother of the governor, who stayed in the shadows and took care of all his research and office work. Edrian was, under cover of darkness, the Talon, defender of the downtrodden--player of viciously nasty tricks against the racist bigots who kept trying to take over the Central Allied Worlds, and who had a nasty habit of wanting to set up an outpost on Rensler, simply because the central government ignored the colony.
The Talon was the hero of every child on the planet. Randi chafed for three days against the prohibition to tell anyone, at the risk of her family's lives, that her quiet, overlooked father was the Talon.
Then on the fourth day she realized, as the only representative of the next generation, it was up to her to continue the tradition of the Talon. At the age of ten, she set about training in earnest, learning tricks of stealth, espionage and guerilla warfare, how to fight without energy weapons, how to defend herself with her bare hands, rather than depending on personal defense screens and technology to warn of and ward off attack. She learned, to her great delight, how to ride the Nightskimmers, enormous winged, sentient creatures, part canine, with inborn radar, a piercing cry, and the long, poison-tipped talons from which her father took his name.
When she ached from her rigorous physical training, Randi welcomed the respite of the lessons that once made her want to scream and pull out someone else's hair by the roots. She looked upon the boring parties and social occasions as chances to hone her skills of observation, stealth, and reading between the lines of the most innocuous-seeming conversation.
Randi especially enjoyed pretending to be an empty-headed little wisp of useless fluff. She managed to stay on the best of terms with the best people, always welcome at every social event, and trusted with the deepest, darkest secrets of her peers because no one could imagine her having the brains or vindictive spirit to repeat anything she overheard.
It was exhausting, being popular and yet the sort of girl that no one thought worth pursuing. Randi enjoyed making the eyes of young men light up with interest, and then watching that interest fade into confusion and discomfort, when they realized there was nothing under the spun sugar prettiness and the faintly lisping, sweet voice.
By the time she reached her seventeenth birthday, the game wasn't quite so amusing. She had yet to meet a man who attracted her. Her choices had been limited to the upper crust and socially powerful. She wondered if she would have to go to the outlying settlements, the harvesting camps, where toughened individuals searched the forests and plains and wastelands of the planet for rare plants worth a fortune in the Central Allied Worlds. Such elemental, strong people who understood what really mattered--loyalty, survival, and friendship--were just the kind of men Randi wanted to meet and perhaps court with. Meeting them was the problem.
* * ** *
Soon after the arrival of Inspector Kreeng, Randi had bigger problems than distracting and keeping track of a bruiser-turned-dandy and his gang of powder-puff thugs. The Talon's network of informants usually sent information in regular pulses, and she worried when rumors trickled in separately, instead of in bundles. It meant the people sending the rumors, stories and fragments of confirmed details were worried enough to bypass the routine established when her father and uncle were younger than her. Randi sent out a request for more data to the older men who acted as clearinghouses for information sent to the Talon. The request went out less than twenty minutes before Inspector Kreeng's ship came into orbit around Rensler, so Randi didn't have time to let Uncle Eryk know about this newest development. The welcoming dinner and formal meeting of the governor's cabinet exhausted him. Organizing the schedule of tours for Kreeng and his assistants took up all the rest of Randi's time, so that it was two days later before she was able to slip away to the series of caves under Government House and check her messages.
Borderline folk vanishing. Twenty rumored. Eight confirmed. Six found dead. Eleven missing short while but gaps in memories. Suspect testing. Set'ri.
Randi cursed when she got to the last word, the worst word anyone could use or hear in these unsettled days. To call someone a Set'ri was an insult almost worthy of death.
The Set'ri were purists, dedicated to preserving the pure Human genome. The only problem was, they considered themselves intelligent and moral enough to determine what belonged in the Human genome and what didn't. They worked through the government whenever possible to have defective genetic traits stamped out, through forced sterilization. And when the government wouldn't cooperate, they resorted to midnight raids, killing children and sterilizing adults who had something 'valuable to contribute to humanity, despite their defective genetics'. Usually that meant a slave labor force.
The Set'ri would have wiped out Wrinkleship pilots when the genetic warping grew prevalent enough to be noticeable, but someone discovered a use for the victims of the mutation--the ability to slip through the 'wrinkles' in space-time and turn space journeys of years into just days. The government refused to let such a valuable talent be exterminated.
Now, it seemed, the Set'ri had come to Rensler. Randi gritted her teeth and fought down the nausea and fury that tried to cloud her thinking.
The Borderline folk were those with extra sensitivity. The people who seemed to know something was going to happen a few seconds before it happened, who seemed to get along better with the woodland creatures than with Humans. Randi liked the Borderline folk. She had many happy childhood memories of days spent with them, and training with them. Borderline folk made the best members of the forest patrol, and found the freshest, most potent medicinal plants for harvesting and off-world export.
The Set'ri didn't see those talents as worthy enough to let them live. Their genetics weren't 'pure' Human, and that made them worthy of death.
If she hadn't been dead tired and suffering a sick headache from dancing attendance on Inspector Kreeng, this news would have been painful enough to send her racing through the obstacle course cave, to run off excess energy and pent-up fury. As it was, her stomach twisted more, her head pounded more, and Randi stomped across the cave to retrieve her riding leathers. Time for the Talon to investigate.
Randi felt half her worries and burdens fall off her shoulders the moment she slid into the saddle on her Nightskimmer's back. Chirping softly in the code her grandfather had devised, she let her mount know the urgency of tonight's flight. No joy ride, this time. The Nightskimmer, Sree, chirped acknowledgement and reared back, pushing off her perch and straight up into the air with powerful hindquarters. In moments, they swooped down, through the lightless caverns and out into the chilly evening air. Randi barely held back her whoop of exhilaration.
Far below them, one or two people out on the riverside saw the flicker of Nightskimmer wings and the hourglass-shaped silver mark on one wing. The original Nightskimmer Edrian rode in his early years as the Talon had that mark, and that mount had passed it on to all her descendants. Randi and her mount had grown up together, and she was proud that her filly wore the mark.
She was even prouder when she heard a few voices rise up in greeting through the night air, as they passed beyond the light from the settlement and faded into the night shadows. Everyone below thought the Talon rode through the skies, protecting their people. Mount and rider were ageless, undying, and Randi intended to keep it that way. The problem of who would take up the mantle of the Talon after her would just have to wait to be handled in the far future.
Nightskimmers communicated in the sonic frequencies, and navigated using organic radar, according to the Central Allied Worlds' biologists. What those hurried and harried scientists didn't learn, and Randi's family would never tell, was that Nightskimmers tasted the air, with such accuracy they could tell how many people or animals were below them, their physical health, what sort of weapons they had, and even what mood the crowd was in. Randi hoped Sree could tell friend from foe tonight. The Set'ri were off-worlders, true, but how long would it take them, breathing the air, drinking the water and eating the food, before their body chemistry changed enough they could fool Nightskimmers into thinking them natives?
Three hours later, the pair had flown past four settlements that Randi considered the most likely targets of the Set'ri. No unusual activity. It was possible the genetic bigots were taking their time, moving with caution, letting the countryside calm down between attacks.
That didn't mean she could relax, now that she had been put on the alert. What would her father do?
Randi knew, but following in his footsteps required a slightly uncomfortable maneuver. Sighing, she dug in the saddlebags and pulled out the full-face mask, adapted from the breather mask Edrian wore when mercenary invaders tried to wipe out the Talon with nerve gas.
This mask smelled of things better left to the imagination. Unfortunately, Randi had a thoroughly active imagination, and it was all she could do not to gag on the stench or the jammed full feeling in her throat, until her nose grew numb and the tissues in her voice box finished adapting.
When she landed at the first settlement, the combined muffling of the mask and the thickening and relaxing of her vocal chords dropped her voice range between tenor and baritone. She didn't dismount, and let the height of the Nightskimmer's back, the thickness of her flying jacket and the folds of the heat-deflecting cape create the illusion of a tall, broad-shouldered man. In short, the Talon.
The magistrate of this particular settlement was an old friend, and it was all Randi could do not to ask personal questions about his wife, daughters and grandchildren. She couldn't remember if the Talon was a good enough friend to know these details. It was highly satisfying to see the man's eyes widen and the sternness wash over his features when she warned of Set'ri activity in the area. He assured the Talon his people would be triply alert and watch out for strangers as well as unusual activity in the area. She thanked him, nearly made a mistake of offering her hand to shake, and hurried on to her next stop.
When she climbed up the passageway to her bedroom only two hours before dawn, Randi had visited eleven settlements. She was exhausted when she climbed out of bed, four hours later, and would have slept until mid-afternoon, anticipating another night of patrols and visiting more settlements. However, she had that dratted Inspector Kreeng and his fashionably dressed minions to lead around by the nose.
"A hero's work is never done," she muttered, and wished she had someone to laugh with about the half-joking complaint, just as she had seen her parents laugh about it through the years.
It just wasn't fair. Kreeng and his assistants looked so tasty, and possibly still possessed the skills and experience to be of help to her. But it was the Talon's policy never to trust off-worlders, no matter their credentials, until they had been tested and had proven themselves to be devoted to justice and life, rather than the latest political movement.
"They just look so good," she complained under her breath, as she painted her face. "How can they stand to sit around and play with facts and figures and reports all day long? What's the use of bodybuilding, of all that training, if you don't use it?"