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New Game in Town

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After three months, they released Underhill from the hospital at Caledonia. Despite his protests, they'd kept him an extra month. There were extra post-flight interviews and tests, too.

Doctor Sandor explained it to him. "The flight analysis is back. You took a direct hit, and survived it, with your mind intact. We want to study you. Find out why this happened."

Lady May had saved him, the doctors said, by shielding his mind with her own. She had maintained a perfect mind-meld, and had slain the Dragon, too.

"You trusted her completely."

"Yes."

But she's only a cat. How do you trust a cat with your life? They'd never say it aloud, of course. But he could hear them thinking it all the same.

She's not "just a cat," he wanted to shout. But how do you explain what it's like to someone who's never experienced it? His time in the Fighting Room, linked in with the others was exhilarating, but doing it with Partner Lady May was different. It was better.

The dragon attack happened so quickly, a few milliseconds at most, too fast for the human mind to react and process. One wrong psychic move and he would have been lost, putting the rest of the ship and its crew at risk, too.

Lady May had saved them all, but she'd needed him to let her do it.

If he had drawn a different Partner, the leering Captain Wow for instance, would it have played out the same way? Or would he now be dead—or on the ward for the insane?

They gave him the same tests he'd taken before being accepted for the novitiate. The Moesian Multidimensional Personality Inventory, the Abecedarian Telepathy Trial, that silly Ancient Earth personality test, the Enneagram, plus some others he didn't recognize. If anything had changed for the worse, no one was telling him.

Besides, they were testing the wrong being. It wasn't him at all. It was Lady May who was special.

Right before letting him go, they called him into their conference room, showed him the pictures of his brain waves and hers during the flight. They were nearly in sync, which was as unlikely as surviving a Dragon hit.

He couldn't explain it. It wasn't a conscious choice. It just happened.

Before she'd departed, he'd visited Lady May in the wing where they quartered the Partners. She was lounging on an ottoman near a holo-window, grooming herself, the veterinary technician hovering protectively nearby. Telepathic felines were even rarer and more valued than telepathic humans.

"She's okay, isn't she?" he asked the tech anxiously. "I mean, they will let her back into the program, won't they?"

The tech walked over to him. "Hi. I'm Lucia."

The facility at Caledonia was small enough that Lucia probably already knew his name. "Underhill," he replied, peering around her at Lady May, who was diligently washing her paws.

"Physically, your Partner has tested out fine. Her behavior is normal for a cat her age. We don't have the equipment here to test her telepathic ability. For that, she'll have to go to Seres Prime where they have a pinlighting simulator."

Partner. Underhill listened in for signs of trouble but all he detected in Lucia was respectful admiration for Lady May. Finally, someone who understood.

"She saved your life and the lives of everyone on board your vessel, Underhill. I promise I'll take good care of her on the voyage to Seres."

"You'll be going with her." It was a relief to know Lady May wouldn't be on her own, or under the care of someone who didn't understand how special she was.

"Yes. We'll be on the next flight out, tomorrow or the next day, perhaps."

His face fell. "So soon. It's only been a few days." He hadn't been by to see her since they arrived at Caledonia, they'd kept him so busy with their damned tests and questions.

"I know, but she's ready." Lucia held her hand out to Underhill. "Anyway, you're here now. You can spend the rest of the day, if you don't have anything scheduled. I'll call your ward nurse and have your lunch tray sent down..."

Underhill was already walking past Lucia to Lady May. The regal Persian cat sat up, stretched and arched her back. He sat down next to her cushion, and began stroking her head. She climbed down off the ottoman onto his lap and began to purr.

He spent rest of the day with Lady May and Lucia. It was a restful change after the ambivalence, even outright hostility he sensed in so many of the staff toward Pinlighters and their Partners.

At the end of her shift, Lucia waited patiently while he said goodbye to Lady May and walked with him back up to his ward.

"I'll be back from Seres before you're discharged. Shall I call you?" Lucia asked. Her face looked calm and serious, but inside she was worried about what he'd think of her and a little embarrassed.

Underhill was embarrassed too. He resolved to work on his shielding technique. It wasn't right to read minds without permission. Sometimes he couldn't help it, it was like their brains were shouting at his, but Lucia, she wasn't like that. She was the kindest person he'd ever met. He could tell Lady May liked her, too.

"Yes, please." He tried to give her a reassuring smile.

Lucia called as soon she got back to Caledonia with the good news. Lady May had done well on her sims and was released for duty. She was already assigned to a new vessel and was on her way to the stars.

After a couple of more months, it was his turn to get back to work. Lucia went with him to the space station shuttle to say goodbye. The time had passed more quickly than he could have imagined. As it turned out, it was going to be worth the wait.

"Your bond with this Partner is so exceptional, Underhill. We would like you to work only with her for the rest of this year, so we can study you both. If we can, we'd like to try to replicate it across the system, for all of the Pinlighters and Partners."

It seemed like a good idea to Underhill, but there was one difficulty. There was only one Lady May, and she was waiting for him up on the ship. Best of all, when their time came for retirement, Lucia would be waiting for him—and Lady May—down below.