Read The Stars Down Under Online

Authors: Sandra McDonald

The Stars Down Under

 

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Contents

Title Page

Copyright Notice

Dedication

Acknowledgments

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Teaser

Chapter One

Tor Books by Sandra McDonald

Praise for Sandra McDonald

Copyright

 

To Sue Factor, Janine Shahinian, and Angela Gabriel

for a decade of friendship and encouragement

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Writing the continuing adventures of Jodenny Scott and Terry Myell would have been much more difficult if not for the gang on Kelleys Island, Ohio. Their kindness and goodwill will not be forgotten. Special thanks go to the very talented Sarah Prineas and Paul Melko, who read the entire manuscript in its raw form and offered invaluable advice.

Thank you also to Jeff Kellogg, James Macdonald, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Stephanie Wojtowicz, Terry Berube, and my family.

PROLOGUE

The boy fled for his life.

Across the sun-baked plain, his bare feet kicking up dust, he ran from his father and brothers and uncles. He was a good child, known throughout the tribe for his kindness and laughter. He was helpful to his aunties and respectful to the old men. But fear had stained and ruined him.

His brothers shouted, “Coward!”

His uncles shouted, “Become a man!”

The boy carried no water, and soon his parched throat was closing up. Sharp rocks and dried brush scratched at his legs and tried to trip him. The ocher painted on him for the initiation rites streamed off in the wind. He fell once, scrambled upright. Fell again, pulled himself up with a strangled moan. Managed several more steps and then felt the hot jarring thud of a spear as it pierced his right leg and shattered the bone.

He fell for the last time, sobbing. His father and brothers and uncles gathered around him.

“You shame us,” they said. His father spat on him.

The circle of men parted for the arrival of the aunties, his kind and loving aunties, who came at the boy with their sticks and landed a dozen blows.

No one spoke in the moments afterward. The boy's family stood back from their grisly work. The boy's eyes stared at them sightlessly. The descending sun had left red streaks across the sky and the bitter air smelled like blood. At last one of the aunties glanced up and saw the great Rainbow Serpent coiling down from the clouds with fire in its eyes.

The boy's family screamed and fled.

The next day, when they came for whatever parts of the corpse had been spared by the gods and wild animals, they found only a smooth black sphere. By noon the sphere was taller and wider than any man of the tribe. By nightfall it was larger than five men. The wind pushed dust against its side. The ground beneath it cracked, then heaved upward. For the next thousand years the sphere grew and grew until it was the largest rock in all the world. In the shifting light of day it turned pink and green, yellow and red, much like a rainbow.

The locals named the rock Burringurrah, in memory of the murdered boy.

The white men who came later called it Mount Augustus, in the land down under.

Terry Myell, when it was his turn to be murdered atop Burringurrah, was also visited by the Rainbow Serpent. They say the Serpent saved him and his wife and his wife's lover. They say the three of them rode the Serpent's back into the sky, where even now, on those rare clear nights, they can be seen riding the tails of comets and dancing on the face of the moon.

Those stories are wrong. This story is true.

CHAPTER
ONE

Terry Myell drizzled oil on the vegetables in the wok, reached past his comm-bee for seasoning, and jumped back in surprise as a crocodile scurried through his kitchen.

“Christ!” he yelled, bumping up against the hard countertop. It was just after seventeen-hundred hours, a sunny afternoon in the military suburb of Adeline Oaks on the planet Fortune. His wife, Jodenny, would be working until midnight and he was cooking dinner just for himself. The last thing he had expected to see was a three-meter-long reptile with sharp teeth, gray scales, and black, hook-shaped claws that screeched against the floor tile.

The creature whipped around the refrigerator and was gone so quickly that surely he had imagined it.

“Betsy!” he said to the house computer. “Report.”

A soothing woman's voice flowed out of the microspeakers in the ceiling. “Inside temperature is twenty degrees Celsius. A front stovetop element is operating at a setting of two point seven. There's a slight leak in the guest shower—”

Myell fumbled for the longest knife in the silverware drawer. “Any mammals, reptiles, supernatural creatures?”

“There's a spider in the living room closet, and several termites burrowing through the rear foundation. A gecko is hanging off lanai screen number four. That's all I have to report, sir.”

Myell crept forward. The floor showed no gouge marks or smeared dirt. The dark beige carpet in the living room was similarly unmarked, and the front door was closed. With cold sweat on his neck, he headed for the master bedroom. He edged past half-empty packing boxes in the hall to the ajar door. From outside came the sounds of a neighbor's kids kicking around a soccer ball and the hum of flits as parents returned from work. Everything else was quiet.

“Come out, come out,” Myell murmured. “Show yourself.”

The master bedroom was awash with afternoon sunlight. His dress white uniform hung neatly on a hook outside the closet doors, the ribbons and insignia carefully aligned. The bed was a messy rumple of blue linens and pillows. Beneath them, a hump moved back and forth slowly, obscenely.

He steeled himself and yanked the sheets away.

Karl the Koala blinked up at him with golden eyes and rolled over.

“Rub me, rub my tummy,” he sang.

Myell let the knife drop. “Go to sleep, Karl.”

The bot rolled to his haunches and scratched himself. Though he understood basic commands, the programming defaulted to mild disobedience. A real koala would never follow orders like a dog, anyway. Nor would it talk. Myell still wasn't convinced they needed any mechanical pets underfoot, but Karl made Jodenny happy.

“He's so cute,” she'd said when they saw him at the mall.

Myell could think of something much more adorable and cuddly, but Jodenny had said she wasn't ready for kids.

Betsy spoke up. “You have new imail in your account, sir. Four challengers have questioned your score in the latest Izim tournament. And I believe your dinner is burning.”

Cursing, Myell hurried back to the kitchen and pulled the wok off the stove. Betsy's vents began sucking up smoke that reeked of burnt oil and blackened string beans. He dumped the mess into the disposal and accidentally knocked the knife off the counter. When he tried to catch it, the blade cut into his finger.

“I detect blood, sir. Do you have a medical emergency?” Betsy asked.

“I'm fine,” he said through gritted teeth. The slice was long but shallow. “And I've told you, stop calling me
sir.
It's Chief Myell, or Terry. Got it?”

“Yes, sir.”

A little self-sealant took care of the cut. The stir-fry was ruined, so he threw together a salad instead. Afterward he checked the imails and saw three more media inquiries. Reporters, always damn reporters. He deleted them, as he had all the other requests that had come in during the last four weeks.

He took a beer to the sofa and kicked his feet up. “Betsy, are there references to crocodiles in Australian Aboriginal mythology?”

“I find several instances in which people are reputed to have been eaten or transformed into crocodiles. One tribe revered the crocodile as a totemic god. Would you like me to send the information to your bee?”

“No. Forget I asked.” On the
Aral Sea
he had experienced visions of an Aboriginal shaman, and on a long, strange top-secret trip across the galaxy he had seen a Rainbow Serpent. He'd hoped he was done with all of it.

Karl climbed up onto the cushions beside him.

“Koala, my ass,” Myell said. “You're probably a god in disguise.”

The robot rolled backward and repeated his plea for a tummy rub.

“Talk to Mommy,” Myell said.

*   *   *

Betsy was the oldest house in the neighborhood, and her nighttime temperature controls were erratic. Though he meant to stay up for Jodenny, Myell fell asleep on the sofa and woke every hour or so because he was too cold, or too hot, or too cold again. When he did sleep, he dreamed of crocodiles in a deep cave, hissing and snapping their razor-sharp teeth. At oh-four-hundred he woke shaking with dread, and stumbled to the bathroom to splash cold water on his flushed face.

He went to the bedroom and burrowed into the sheets. He was just dozing off again when the wallgib beeped and Jodenny's image rolled into view.

“Betsy told me you were up,” she said. “Everything okay?”

“Fine.” Myell turned his head into a pillow, then turned to eye her. “Why aren't you home?”

“There was an accident with some academy students, a big mess.” She was as beautiful as ever, but dark circles hung under her eyes. Her lieutenant commander bars glinted on the screen. “They borrowed a birdie for fun and crashed into the ocean. I've been fending off the media for hours. I don't think I'll be home before you leave.”

He shrugged one shoulder.

“I wanted to send you off to your new job in style,” she said. “I'm sorry.”

Myell was sorry, too. Their last ship, the
Aral Sea,
had barely entered orbit before new duty assignments arrived in their queues. Fledgling plans for a honeymoon had been abruptly discarded. Jodenny's new position at Fleet was prestigious but demanding. Lately he'd seen more of his reflection than he'd seen of her.

Jodenny touched the gib screen, as if trying to pat his cheek. “Be kind to your students, won't you? I remember how hard it was for me to memorize everything.”

“I don't think they're going to throw me in front of a classroom today.”

“They should. You'll be great.” A gib pinged, and Jodenny glanced offscreen. “Got to go. Call me later.”

“Love you,” he said, but the connection was already dead.

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