by Syd Logsdon
Copyright © 2017 by Syd Logsdon
A New Planet
Standard Year 600
Anno Domini 2092
Driving in from the eternal night of interstellar space, the Darwin stood on its tail, chasing the kilometers-long plasma fountain of the Lassiter drive. Stephan Andrax and Tasmeen Rao had been working for weeks, and lately for thirty-one unbroken hours, to plot the orbits of Procyon’s planets and choose a course that would let their residual inertia carry them rapidly toward a favorable orbit. Now the torch was stuttering as they slipped deeper into the stars’ gravity well. Softvoiced exchanges between Stephan and Tasmeen were echoed by equally quiet observations by the other eight explorers.
Keir and Gus were manning the spectroscope, trying already to determine if Procyon A III’s atmosphere contained the gasses which would indicate life. Tasmeen’s husband, Ramananda, and Petra Crowley were canvassing the asteroid cloud that twisted its Möbius strip around the two stars, searching for any that might be mined for ice — fuel for the journey back. Above them the main viewscreen flashed successive visual reconstructions, multidimensional projections of varying parameters, and flashing strings of calculations as one or another of the pairs briefly preempted its use. Viki, Debra, Uke, and Leia stayed out of the way, watching the screen.
With a final shudder, the Lassiter torch cut out and, for the first time in over a year, they were weightless. In that same moment the masking effect of the torch ended, and Keir yelled, "We’ve got life gasses." Overhead, unmistakable spectral lines showing hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon flooded the screen.
Spontaneous cheering broke out in the cramped control room.
Stephan switched to a display of the Procyon system. Much was still unknown, but the planets, moons, and major asteroids had already been mapped.
Procyon A, blazing with six and a half time the ferocity of Sol, was surrounded by three planets of her own. A torus of asteroids lay where a fourth planet would have been. Procyon B simmered, cold and shrunken by stellar standards, with half of Sol’s mass, three percent of its diameter, and less than one percent of its light. Snuggled in close were four tiny planets, all useless rock. A second torus of asteroids surrounded Procyon B.
The asteroid belts interpenetrated like two gears meshing, which excited Stephan no end. The prospect of seeing asteroids in collision was not merely likely, it was inevitable. Beyond the asteroids were five gas giants, none as big as Saturn, circling the paired suns in the frozen outer reaches of this complex solar system.
For a minute they looked at the system that would be their home for a year. Then Stephan switched to a real-time display of Procyon A III. It was only a faint disk, pulsing slightly as the computer worked to keep it in focus, but its pale blue color was unmistakable. Tasmeen, who had been too wrapped up in navigating to watch the unfolding story, said, "Keir, give us a quick update."
"It’s a little bigger than Earth; a little higher gravity. It stands straight up in its orbit — less than a degree of inclination. Day, 40 hours; year, 1242 days — if you want to call it a year. There won’t be any seasons, so the equator and the poles will be uninhabitable, but the area about 45 degrees latitude should have good climate."
Standing soldier-straight in its orbit, Procyon A III was a planet of small continents scattered across a huge, world-spanning ocean. The equator was chastely girdled with thick masses of steamy clouds, churning up continuous storms that would make a Terrestrial hurricane look like calm day. From ten to thirty degrees north and south, every island and continent was part of a world-spanning zone of desert, separated by hot, dead seas.
Uke asked, "What names did we draw?"
Ever since Neil Armstrong blew his lines, NASA had kept close tabs on what its explorers could bequeath to posterity. The computer contained several hundred "suitable" names for the planets they might find, but it would only give them ones matched to what they actually encountered. No one at NASA wanted a charred lump of rock to be named Eden, or for two planets to get the same name, and nobody wanted a planet named New Earth. Tasmeen keyed in a request, and fourteen names appeared on the viewscreen beneath the planet.
"What the…!" Debra began, then shut her mouth.
Gus chuckled. Petra said, "Someone certainly didn’t think much of our chances of finding an Earth-type planet."
They were all the names of colors.
"Madder, umber, vermillion…" Keir read out in disgust. Then he stopped short, glanced up at the winking blue disk on the viewscreen, and said, "Cyan."
"It’s the best of a bad lot." Uke said.
"No," Keir said, "it’s perfect."
— «» —
—— « o » ——
First week of exploration
— «» —
Tasmeen cut the jets. Silence came in to fill the landing craft, and she said, "All right, Keir. It’s yours."
"Acknowledged." His response was recorded, and at that moment he became commander of the expedition. Stephan had brought them here. It was up to Keir to keep them alive until Stephan could bring them home again.
Practically, he had been in command ever since Tasmeen put the landing craft into polar orbit ten days earlier. Now he slipped out of his couch, moved sideways toward the door, and cracked the seal. There was a faint hiss of incoming air as the pressures equalized, and for the first time they smelled Cyan. Keir shoved back the hatch and pale morning sunlight entered the cabin.
Big Bug, a combination automatic bacteriological laboratory and homing beacon, sat a hundred meters away where it had landed five days earlier. It had already determined that no Cyanian microorganism would harm them. The base DNA of the planet’s creatures was too dissimilar. Now Keir sat in the hatchway, getting used to the light, the smells, and the vegetation. He had spent hours studying the images sent up by Big Bug, but reality was always different. He scanned the flash perimeter where their landing jets had scorched the earth, then let his eyes move slowly outward to the still living vegetation. There were grasses — or what passed for grasses on Cyan — within thirty meters of the landing craft, and they were half a meter high. Crawling, crushing, fanged and poisoned death could be lying in wait. There was no way to know.
Keir’s gaze moved on over the grasses, noting the direction of the wind, seeing how they moved and looking for discontinuities in the pattern of its motion that might tell of unseen things waiting in hiding. They were in the center of a meadow that stretched away for nearly a kilometer in every direction. Keir had chosen this place for its clear field of view.
When he could no longer stand the discipline of searching just for danger, Keir looked about with a tourist’s eye. Points of light scintillated in the trees along the river. He had no idea what they were.
"Petra," he said, "rifle at the ready. Stay in the hatch and stay alert. Leia, you go out first."
There was a smell of tension in the cabin. Leia was the smallest of them all, the fastest, the meekest, and the most likely to run rather than fight. Those were the reasons Keir had chosen her. She squeezed past Keir and started down the chain ladder. Keir went down on his belly with his pistol out while Petra stood over him with a rifle. Leia worked her way down and dropped to the ground. No one made any historic pronouncements. Keir and Petra were too intent on watching for danger, and the others were holding their breaths.
"I’m down," Leia said, and her throat mic carried the words into the cabin.
"Walk ten meters straight away from the craft," Keir said.
"Do you see anything?" Keir asked.
"Nothing that looks dangerous."
"Ten more meters."
"Petra, watch Leia, not me. Gus, take my place. You watch me."
Keir swarmed down the ladder and dropped to the ground. Burned grasses crunched beneath his feet. He cradled his 12 mm automatic pistol at the ready and moved up beside Leia. Nothing moved in the grass but fleet and tiny insect-like creatures.
Leia took a deep breath and said, "My God, it’s beautiful."
Keir nodded. He smiled to himself as he noticed that her pistol was still in its holster. No matter. That was why he was here. "Be ready to run back to the ship," he said, "and if I give the word, don’t look back. Don’t wait for me."
"Are you sure?"
"If you hesitate, I’m going to make cleated tracks up your backside when I run over you."
Leia chuckled and said, "Sure you would."
"Move to the edge of the burned grass and stop."
"What am I, bait?" Leia moved forward as she said it. Keir brought his pistol down and pointed it past her at the edge of the grass.
Something moved swiftly, cutting a wave through the thick grass. Leia jumped in spite of herself. Keir willed his finger to relax tension on the trigger. He had almost fired.
"What was that?"
"I couldn’t tell."
"Don’t go any closer yet."
Neither of them moved for several minutes. Procyon was a pale blue orb just above the eastern horizon. The insect-like creatures were everywhere, flying above the grass in complex formations.
"Can you catch some of those little fliers?" came a voice in his earphone.
"Shut up, Gus," Keir snapped. "Right now your one and only thought should be to shoot anything that tries to eat me. You’ll have a year to collect specimens."
The strange, sweet, moist smell of the meadow was already beginning to feel familiar. Some of the tension was going out of Keir’s neck. "Leia," he said, "move back to the landing craft and go back aboard."
"I’m not scared."
He didn’t reply; he just gestured with his head. Leia moved out of his field of vision, and then he heard her climbing. "Gus and Petra," he said into his throat mic, "both of you concentrate on me. Petra, watch left; Gus, watch right. I’m going over to Big Bug."
From now on, he would be too far from the landing craft to run. It was no longer time to risk Leia. He started forward, moving lightly. His feet hardly left the ground and the pistol described small circles in front of him as he tried to see everything. The grass clung to his legs and tugged at his ankles. If the Cyanian equivalent of snakes or scorpions were hiding in the grass, he would never see them.
He reached the charred grass around Big Bug without incident and said, "Gus, you’re next. Parallel course, north of mine, ten meters from the path I took. Viki, rifle. You and Petra both watch Gus while he is in the grass. I’ll be all right for now."
"Already on it," came the husky voice of Viki Johanssen.
Gus joined him, trying his best to be careful; but he couldn’t help watching the "insects" lustfully, like a cat watching a goldfish bowl. He caught the disapproving look on Keir’s face and said, "Sorry."
"Viki, stay as you are. Tasmeen, to the base of the craft, pistol out. Petra, join Gus and me, and bring your rifle. Parallel route, ten meters south."
Petra arrived. Between them, Keir and Gus boosted her and her rifle to the top of Big Bug. Then they started down toward the river, walking five meters apart. In the distance, herds of animals were grazing. They seemed to be bipedal hoppers, but they didn’t look anything like kangaroos.
There was a sudden rush of motion, a flash of red brown fur, and Keir fired. The creature somersaulted, twitched, and lay still. In the aftermath of the shot, everyone froze. After a moment, Keir said, "Easy, folks. I was collecting for Gus."
The creature was the size of a small dog. Gus moved quickly toward it, pulled a plastic bag from his pocket and stuffed the body inside. He looked up with pleading eyes and said, "Some of the insects, too? Okay?"
Keir grinned and said, "Indulge yourself."
While Keir watched for danger, Gus scurried around the grass, capturing a dozen different specimens of the insect-like creatures. Then they retreated to the landing craft.
— «» —
—— « o » ——
"It had a digestive tract that goes in the mouth and comes out between the legs. No sign of a separate system to excrete water. Its stool must be pretty liquid, judging from what it’s carrying. I can’t call any of these parts stomach or liver or pancreas. They probably divide up their enzymatic roles differently."
Gus was talking to himself, and into the ship’s recorder, while he squatted at the base of the landing craft performing a quick and crude dissection with a simple field kit. Blue and yellow fluids were running across his hands and dripping to the charred ground, but he paid no attention and wore no gloves. The DNA on Cyan was too different to carry any danger of infection.
"The brain shows no special promise of intelligence. The optic region is powerfully developed and so is the olfactory. This creature can see well and smell better."
"I don’t think he smells all that good," Viki said, aside to Keir. He smiled and kept watching the grass while he listened to Gus.
"Keir, look at this." Gus leaned back and gestured toward the base of the creature’s spine. "No pelvis. Look at this complex of bones. Some are fused, some flex, and these four are cantilevered. And look up here; no scapulae, just three extra thick, specialized vertebrae. Tiny front legs, powerful back legs with twice as many joints as you would expect, and absolutely no hint of a tail. Not even anything like a coccyx. A truly tailless, truly hopping biped. I wouldn’t have believed such a thing was possible."
"Those grazers in the distance looked like bipedal hoppers," Viki said. "Is this typical or weird — for Cyan, that is?"
Gus wasn’t listening. His hands were flying through the creature’s organs, and he was humming happily to himself.
"More to the point," Viki continued, "can we eat it?"
—— «» ——
It was chilly when they landed, early in Cyan’s morning, but the heat built up during the forty-hour day. By Cyan’s noon, eight hours later, they were erecting a geodesic dome. It was steel-framed and wire-sided; not designed to keep out the weather, but as a fortress against predators. By early afternoon, their bodies knew it was time for sleep, even though Procyon was still high in the sky.
When their natural rhythms woke them again, it was deep night and the dome was surrounded by a herd of grazing herbivores. Cyan had no moon, but Procyon B was a blazing pinpoint in the sky, shedding far more light than a full moon would have given the Earth. They watched the creatures moving about in the dim light, sidling slowly from place to place, then exploding into bursts of ground-devouring leaps when fright or exuberance took them.
Gus was crouched right up against the steel lacework of the dome wall, keeping a running commentary of his observations for the recorder. Leia came to sit beside Keir, put her arm lightly across his shoulder, and said, "It’s a welcoming committee."
Keir did not answer. He did not have to point out that these might be dangerous creatures; Leia knew that. But it felt like a welcoming committee.
After an hour, the grazers moved off and they emerged from the dome, armed and wary, to begin the night’s work.
—— «» ——
By the end of the third Cyanian day (their sixth sleep-wake cycle), they had collected and dissected several hundred specimens. New words were entering their vocabulary by the hour. The "insects" were not so insect-like after all. They had anywhere from eight to eighty legs, in pairs, stiff stubs of chitinous material with only one crude joint where they met the body. They flew well on rainbow-colored wings, but when they moved across the ground it was like watching a caterpillar on crutches, with a lumpy, painfully rolling cadence. Gus called them chitropods collectively, and had begun to categorize by genus and species, and to project a crude table of relationships.
They had thoroughly explored the meadow, the fringe of trees along the river, and had sent a walker-swimmer drone into the distant forest on several forays.
Now Keir was down by the river with Viki, beginning a bridge. They had swum the drone across, towing a strong, light line, and Viki was trying to get it to climb a tree. The tree bole leaned over the water at a sharp angle, and the track treads of the little drone could just grip the bark. Viki was manipulating the controls with deft care, heading for a crotch five meters above the water. Keir was on guard. His pistol was in its holster, but he was on alert, scanning the treetops above them, the grass at the break of the bluff, and the dark swirling waters. Twice the thought he saw something large and swift move beneath the surface, but it was hard to look through the sparkling, shade-dappled surface.
Viki’s face was drawn with concentration as her blunt fingers struggled with the controls. The drone was only a meter short of the crotch, and wobbling. Viki grimaced with unconscious fierceness.
The drone wavered and slipped. Viki twisted the controls viciously, grunting encouragement and insults in an undertone. With a last effort, she coaxed it through the crotch so that it leaped forward and fell, splashed and bobbed to the surface, then began to churn through the water toward her like a playful dog, trailing the line out behind it.
As Viki moved toward the river, Keir put his hand on her shoulder and said, "Let it come to you." He hadn’t liked the look of those dark objects moving through the water.
"Petra has been complaining again," Viki said, as she coaxed the little vehicle toward her.
"That’s not unusual."
"She says you are too cautious. That we would get twice the work done if you weren’t in charge."
Keir squatted down and untied the line. Viki ran the drone up the bank and shut it off. Keir hanked a heavy line to the light one, and the two of them dragged it out, around the tree crotch on the opposite bank and back to their side of the river. It was stiff work, and neither of them wasted breath on conversation while they were at it.
Keir gestured and said, "Scoot up that tree with the line."
Viki did, and called back, "Is this high enough?"
Keir looked at the hang of the line above the water, judged how much drop his weight would add to the curve, and nodded. When she got back down, he had already snapped a carabiner around the line and had secured the flap over his holster.
"Maybe I should do that?" Viki suggested.
"Why? Do you think I’m afraid of the job?"
She looked shocked, then angry. "I was thinking of weight. I would cause less strain, that’s all. What got your back up?"
"Don’t you know I feel the resentment when I make everyone go slowly? And don’t tell me you don’t agree with Petra; your tone of voice said you do."
He flipped his feet up so that his heels caught the rope and bounced in place a couple of times. Everything held. He said, "Pistol at ready, Viki," and began to move hand over hand, hanging from the rope. It was easy at first, on the downslope of the catenary, but he had misjudged the stretch of the rope. As he approached midstream, his back was only a meter above the surface.
There was stark urgency in Viki’s voice. Keir felt his stomach tighten, but he couldn’t spare a glance. He gripped the rope and pulled ahead fiercely.
There was a swirl and a splash behind him, and the sound of Viki firing. Water cascaded over him; he saw something big and brown out of the corner of his eye as it brushed against his legs. He heard the crashing of teeth where he had been hanging only a moment before.
He made three more meters along the rope, looking frantically downward. The brown thing was circling back toward him again, building up speed for another leap. He hauled himself up the rising slope of the line for all his life was worth, and knew he was not going to make it. The creature left the water in a lunge, all teeth and red, gaping maw. Keir jerked upward, barely aware of the fusillade of bullets that Viki was sending through the lunging beast. He felt a tearing at his backside before the beast fell back into the water like a sounding whale.
Then he was on dry land, on the other side of the river, and he didn’t know how he had gotten there. Viki was standing on the river’s verge; he yelled for her to move back and reload. Then he took all his remaining nerve and looked behind him. There was a massive tear in his trousers and a ten-centimeter slash across his right buttock. It was dripping blood, but already beginning to coagulate.
He looked down at the river, but the beast had disappeared.
—— «» ——
Two hours later, they pulled what was left of the beast’s carcass out of the river. Whatever else lived in that water had made short work of it, but Gus was happy even to get the bones and a few scraps of meat and entrails for his collection. He hummed contentedly to himself as he dissected it there on the riverbank, with Keir and Viki standing armed guard over him.
Viki said, "The absent-minded professor. He wouldn’t know fear if it bit him in the butt."
It was a poor joke, but the best she could muster. Both of them were still shaken. Keir looked down at the other dark shapes moving in the water and said, "Yes, he would."
— «» —
—— « o » ——
First month of exploration
— «» —
First they built the dome for immediate safety, then a twenty-strand barbed wire fence around the compound, then the bridge, then a skimmer. Uke was kept busy for a week on these matters because he was a wizard with a torch, and he was anxious to get back to his own research.
Keir made the assignments with as even a hand as circumstances allowed. When they grumbled, he listened, sympathized, teased and cajoled, but he never backed down. After the attack on Keir, only Petra continued to openly complain about his caution.
Stephan, Debra, and Ramananda took the Darwin out into the asteroid belt and spent three weeks mining ice to fuel their return trip. When the Darwin came back, Debra and Ramananda came down to Cyan to continue their research.
—— «» ——
"Begin recording mode," Keir said, to make things official. "Please note, those of you who later hear this, that we aren’t in some formal conference room. We are assembled outdoors around an open fire, in the light of Procyon B, which it to say, moonlight. Debra and Ramananda have just joined us after helping Stephan refuel the Darwin. Stephan is present only by comlink. Full records of everything we have done are stored already; this is an informal get-together designed to summarize what we know about Cyan so far, for the sake of the three who have just rejoined us. Gus…"
"Regarding taxonomy," Gus said, "the vegetation is based on a molecule close enough to chlorophyll to be functionally identical. The grass is grass-like, but the trees are not tree-like. They consist primarily of multiple thin trunks bound together as fascia."
"Grass-like? Tree-like?" Debra interjected. "Gus, this doesn’t sound like you."
"Keir said if I got technical tonight, he would turn you loose on me."
General laughter greeted that. Leia snuggled against Keir. Tasmeen and Ramananda Rao were at the edge of the firelight, having a reunion after his absence. Although Keir couldn’t tell for sure, there seemed to be some loss of clothing involved.
"Concerning animals," Gus continued, "the various genera of Chitropods are Cyan’s equivalent of insects. They have radiated to fill innumerable ecological niches. There are no mammals, no birds, no reptiles, and nothing resembling Dinosauria. There is a class of vertebrate water dwellers I call Pseudopisces, but they have a double tail. That tail apparently developed into hind limbs that, because they come from a split vertebral column, are fundamentally different from the legs derived from fins, such as we have on Earth."
Leia whispered, "I’m glad he’s not getting technical."
"From Pseudopisces developed a class of Amphibians like the river dweller that took a bite out of Keir, and a class with partial control over their body temperatures which I call Inturbia. Most of the large land animals are Inturbs or Amphibs."
"Gus," Keir interrupted, "what we need here are the basics. What can we eat and what wants to eat us?"
"Oh." Gus sounded hurt, but he switched on a video. "These are the Inturb herbivores we call dropels, collectively. They are hopping bipeds, as are almost all vertebrates on Cyan. I have seven different genera and twenty-three species identified, if you want…"
"All right. As to predatory species, Cyan has them in abundance. Since Cyan has no seasons, the control mechanisms linked to a yearly cycle, such as winter starvation, don’t apply. Cyanian creatures breed when they want to, and they seem to always want to…"
Viki whispered, "Yes!" sotto voce to Uke, and a chuckle went around the fire.
Gus went on undisturbed, "… so predation is just about the only thing that keeps numbers in check."
He gave them a brief slideshow of the predators they had cataloged so far. It was a rogues’ gallery of gaping mouths, tearing teeth, and bristling "hair" — actually specialized, blood-filled skin filaments used for cooling.
"Ramananda," Keir said, "get Tasmeen’s blouse off the top of your head and give us a report on what minerals your orbital probes have found."
Ram sat up with a grin and said, "I have good news and bad news. We didn’t find much in the temperate belt, but there is a good deposit of iron southwest of Kulkidor on the plain called Venturi. It will be easy to mine from a technical standpoint, but it’s miserably hot."
"No other prospects?"
"Get back to what you were doing. Petra, this is your project. Get together with Ramananda the day after tomorrow and make a plan."
"What’s wrong with tomorrow?"
"No, don’t ask Ram anything," came Tasmeen’s muffled reply. "Ram is busy, and in about two minutes he is going to be even busier. So butt out!"
Keir leaned back with a sigh of contentment as the reports continued. Except for Petra, his team was coming together. They were becoming a family, and that was exactly what he had wanted from the beginning.
—— «» ——
Petra Crowley woke up early and alone. Around the camp, the others were bedded down in pairs. Last night had been a homecoming, a celebration, and a party, but she had felt left out. Not that there had been any need. With Stephan still on the Darwin, there had been four men and five women, but three-in-a-bed was a game they had often played during the long years aboard ship. During that dismal, cramped period, every sexual combination had been tried.
No, her problem was not sexual. She hungered for something else. All her life she had been the smartest person she knew, but her brilliance did not shine so brightly in this exalted company. She was convinced that she, not Keir, should be leading this expedition. His caution irked her and his laid-back style of leadership grated on her nerves.
Now that Procyon was chinning itself above the horizon, it was maddening to have to wait while Ramananda and Tasmeen took a day off for a reunion. She felt fettered and frustrated.
She dressed quickly and buckled on her pistol, then set out around the compound, stretching her legs and moving her shoulders in quick motions to loosen the muscles of her back. Dropels were grazing a half kilometer away, and she could see some of the small pack predators bouncing through the tall grasses. She moved up to the fence and leaned against it. The barbs pricked at her.
The fence offended her. It represented the excessive caution that kept her from her work, and from the world she intended to make her own.
Procyon threw long shadows across the grass and warmed her neck.
She yanked unconsciously at the wire, as at prison bars. Cyan was not their enemy. Was she the only one who knew this?
With a sudden burst of defiance, she mounted the wire strands like a ladder and went over the fence.
—— «» ——
Keir went looking for Petra as soon as he woke. He wanted to go over a preliminary plan for the expedition to Venturi, and to check her out on the newly assembled skimmer. When he didn’t find her, and no one had seen her, he roused the others and they made a quick circuit of the camp. It did not take long. Uke found the track she had made in the dew-wet grass; it led them to the fence, then continued out of the compound toward the lower reaches of the river.
Keir stood just inside the fence, glowering. Leia started to touch his arm, and thought better of it. "Tasmeen," Keir snapped, "take over here until I get back."
"You’re not going alone?"
"Of course not. Stupidity is not contagious. I want Viki with me."
"No one else?"
"Why? Do you think Petra is going to defy my order to return? She had better not!"
Tasmeen made no more suggestions. Viki took the rifle Uke was carrying and followed Keir over the fence. The swath of trampled grass led across the clearing and under the trees near the river. Keir pulled out his pistol as they left the clearing. There was a game trail that snaked under the trees. As they followed it, they saw an occasional boot print. Petra had set a good pace, but Keir did not try to match it. "Watch the trees," he said.
"Because they are over our heads!"
Viki winced under the lash of his voice. This was a side of Keir she had not seen. "I meant," she said softly, "why in particular?"
He stopped and leaned his head against the bole of a tree. After a moment he burst out, "God damn that bitch!"
"She has ruined everything. Viki, I don’t know what is in these trees. Neither do you. Neither does Petra. That’s the point. We have to go slowly until we can develop an instinct for what is and is not an acceptable risk. I know ninety percent of the precautions I’ve been taking are unnecessary. I know that I’ve slowed down our progress. But we’re still alive, and we are learning, and we are learning to trust and depend on each other. Without that, we haven’t got a chance."
After a moment, Viki said, "What will you do with Petra?"
Keir shrugged. "I don’t know. A month confined to her quarters on the Darwin, probably. But whatever I do, once punishment starts, things will never be the same."
Two kilometers later, they found where Petra had climbed a tree. The bark was scarred by her heavy boots. On the ground were fragments of a tough, leathery, transparent sphere, shattered and smeared with a gooey paste. Keir crouched and sniffed. "Algae and excrement," he said.
"Keir, this is one of the trees with the points of light in it."
He followed her eyes upward. The scintillations that had teased them from a distance were now high over their heads. He turned the broken fragments in his hands and said, "Can this be the cause?"
"I could climb up and see."
"No. But put this in a sample bag."
They worked their way further along the stream. In the two hours of her absence, Petra had gone further than any of them had gone before. Keir’s rage settled into a slow burn.
The trail turned away from the river and breasted a low hillock. In the bowl-shaped valley beyond they could see a flurry of motion that resolved itself into a small group of pack predators. They were worrying at something in the grass. As Keir and Viki advanced the predators stood their ground, hissing and snarling.
Keir leveled his pistol and began firing. One was smashed backward, a second did a bloody somersault, and a third thrashed about in death agonies with one leg shot away. The others vanished in an explosion of bounding leaps.
Viki turned on Keir in shock, then closed her mouth and turned back to see what had so riveted his gaze.
He was looking at what was left of Petra Crowley.
— «» —
—— « o » ——
They buried her halfway between the fence and the river, digging deep and setting stones over her body before they refilled the grave.
There was an investigation to make and a report to file. The tracks they found told the story clearly. Petra had been jumped from behind, from out of the tall grass, by one of the lion-sized hoppers they called a kavine. Death had been instantaneous. The kavine had taken what he wanted and the pack predators had moved in after he was gone.
They never did find her left leg.
—— «» ——
By late mid-day, when their sleep periods would normally have begun, the burial was finished. Keir called them together around the ashes of the previous night’s celebration.
"I’ve never had to speak at a funeral, but it seems to me that funerals are for the living, for saying things that we already know, to put life and death in perspective and find some comfort.
"We are alone here. We are more alone than any other humans have ever been. When one of us hurts, we all hurt. When one of us dies, a piece of the whole dies. We must be very careful with one another, because we are all we have.
"We come from an Earth that is overflowing with people. One death there is nothing. Had Petra stayed behind and died, no one would have noticed. Here, her death puts our whole world out of balance. And that is why we are here — to find a world where individual lives can be valuable again. At least, that is why I am here. Not as a scientist; not even as an explorer; but as a man searching for a place where humanity can find its soul again.
"I will miss you, Petra."
The others spoke, one by one, fluently or haltingly according to their gifts, and then dispersed. Keir went down past the half-completed laboratory dome, and sat leaning against the gutted shell of Big Bug, not far from the fence. Procyon’s light was unforgiving so near its zenith, lending a hard edge to the landscape, and the scintillating points of light were clearly visible in the trees downriver, where Petra had died.
He closed his eyes. He had no tears for Petra. The anger he felt toward her filled him so that there was no room for tears.
After a while, he heard footsteps and looked up. Tasmeen and Ramananda had found him. Tasmeen knelt gracefully and kissed his mouth. Ramananda put a hand on his shoulder. Tasmeen said, "I think we need to talk."
"We have all been chafing under your rules. You know that? Yes? We complained; a little grumbling here and there. It’s human. It didn’t mean anything."
"But we trusted you. I’m a pilot, Ram does meteorology, Viki is an anthropologist, and you keep us all alive. It’s your job, and we trust you to do it. NASA chose well when they chose you, and we all know it."
Keir nodded. Then he shrugged and said, "Anyway, after this…"
"No, Keir," Tasmeen interrupted, "when tomorrow comes, you must not think we are following your rules because Petra died and proved you were right. We already trusted you, before she died."
Tasmeen slipped up beside him and put her hand on his thigh, moving it in tight circles. She said, "You have not wept."
"I have heard you laugh with Petra. I know you were friends. I know you made love to her."
"Yes. Not recently."
"Not since we arrived here."
"Not since she became your rival."
"I did not understand that rivalry. You could have ended it at any time. One contest of wills, and it would have been over."
"I didn’t want to overcome her. I wanted to convince her. I thought I would be able to win her over, but there wasn’t time."
Unaccountably, Keir felt himself stiffening and Tasmeen’s hand moved to cover him, stroking gently. He reached down to set her hand aside. She said, "We are alive, Keir. Life must be more than lived; it must be worshipped."
She moved her hand back to his thigh and said, "If not now, then soon."
There was silence for a time. Then Ramananda said, "How did you come to be here, now, on Cyan?"
"You’ve heard my story," Keir replied.
"Tell me again. Today, I feel the need to remember Earth."
Keir shrugged and said, "I was born in Chicago, shortly after they nuked Washington and Chicago became the new capital. I was just ordinary. Smarter than most, but no better, no kinder. When I was thirteen, I was well on my way to becoming just another urban thug. I was lean, mean, ignorant, and dangerous.
"We lived on 54th Street that year, on the borderland between two gang territories. They were both trying to recruit me. I had a minor reputation because I had stuck a knife in a kid who tried to steal my coat. I was flirting with both gangs, trying to make up my mind which one would be worth more to me."
Tasmeen felt the tension building in Keir.
"I had an uncle in Wyoming. Ben Dollof, one of my mother’s brothers. He was always telling her we should move in with him. He said ranch life would cure me of what was wrong with me. He said I was too much like my father. He was right about that, anyway.
"Mom wouldn’t go. She didn’t see anything wrong with me, just like she never saw anything wrong with my father."
Sweat was standing out on Keir’s brow. The air was cool enough, but the direct impact of Procyon’s rays was powerful. Tasmeen said, "I know you did finally go to Wyoming, but you never said why."
"My father…" Keir’s voice broke. "My father was a hitter. He beat me, until I learned to run. He beat my mother. She never fought back, and finally he left us. I never knew why. Or cared, really.
"After he left, things were better for a while. But then Mom got a boyfriend, and he was another hitter. She got rid of him, and then there was another. And then another. I tried to talk to her. I told her to fight back or to choose better, but she always thought the next boyfriend was going to be her Prince Charming.
"I came home one night after running with the pack and found her dead. Beaten to death. Her head was half under the sink and her hair was all bloody and stuck to the floor…"
Keir was speaking in a voice devoid of emotion, but his body was beginning to tremble.
"Uncle Ben came out to Chicago and got me. He didn’t ask, he just took me with him, and I was in too much shock to resist. He saved my life. There was nothing for me in that city but a short life and a brutal death. He took me away from all that and showed me how life should be lived, in one of the few places where there was anything like wilderness left in America."
Tasmeen put her arms around Keir’s neck and moved her face very close to his. It was a sexual intimacy, but it was also more than that. Her face, so thin and brown, her eyes so large and dark, her mouth so sweet on his mouth. There was arousal, but there was peace, too. He kissed her and held her close. Almost choking, he finished, "My mother died because she did not believe what she loved could destroy her. But it did."
"Like Petra. That God damned, stupid, stupid, bitch!"
Tasmeen clung to him while he was shaken by an anger so deep it was almost hatred. And then the tears came. She held him through that, too. And when her kisses ceased to be tender and became demanding, they made love in the sweet grass, in Procyon’s hard, pure light, with Ramananda watching over them to keep them safe.