I wiped flakes of melting snow off my face as I helped a firefighting crew in the Jemez Mountains burn wild Blackroot, that predatory lifeform from planet Halcyon. My sample had escaped the Los Alamos National Lab's Biology Department where I'd been studying it, when a worker left the tank lid unlocked. Now it was running wild, destroying indigenous plant life wherever it took hold, and having domestic and wild animals for lunch. As the astrobiologist who brought the cutting to Earth, I figured I was partially responsible for this disaster.
My eyes stung as I squinted at the roiling clouds of smoke, and breathed a bitter taste of scorched root that burned the back of my throat. All around us, seared roots crackled and burst open, spilling yellow fluid and strange organs as they spasmed and burned. The bones and scraps of rotting flesh and hide from animals the root "forest" had devoured lay strewn across the snowy woods.
"Reuben!" I called to a firefighter close by, a squat Hispanic tag built like a tree stump, "watch out! It's crawling up your ass."
Reuben swung around as a black branch snapped free of its ground holds and raised up, exposing pink stubs that lined its underside, where clods of earth still clung wetly, and a circle of teeth like a Lamprey eel's mouth. Yellow flowers suddenly sprouted along its sides like tiny fists opening to attract insects. Reuben lifted his shovel and slammed the branch back down. I heard it crack and thought it was dead, but it just spasmed and retreated.
"Holy Mother of God," Reuben muttered and crossed himself, "what're these things made of?"
"Wish I knew." Actually, I had a pretty good idea, but I wasn't saying, or revealing the source planet of this enigmatic plant/animal.
I spun my stingler's ring from stun to hot, and blasted the retreating branch with a laser burn. It twitched as it smoldered and cracked open, oozing a trail of fluid. The mother branch, thick as a python's body, convulsed and shook free of the dying tendril.
I turned my stingler on a patch of root that was sucking the meaty ribs of a deer, and blasted them. I don't like to kill anything, but this root was highly opportunistic, an introduced species that would wipe out indigenous plants and animals, and had a spectacular, hidden attribute that was worth billions. If word ever got out, it would cause a mad rush to Halcyon to rip up every last branch.
Spirit, that formidable guardian of the planet, director of its evolution, would not stand for human ravagers invading his world once again. He had come close to destroying Laurel, the Terran colony, along with me and my daughter Lisa, when the Terran dream czar began harvesting priceless crystals. The dream crystals that were Spirit's buried tendrils of coagulated blood could make your dreams of choice more real than what passed for reality. It had become the basis of a very profitable, illegal enterprise in new Lost Vegas.
The day was long, and I was grateful to return to the bio lab and shrug out of the sooty coveralls. I showered and got into my street clothes, then sat in front of a tank with the few remaining Blackroot branches. They were already sending out new shoots that crowded the tank. The mock meat and vegies I'd given them in the morning were gone.
"Hungry little suckers, aren't you?" I fished out the key that I alone carried now to unlock the tank. "OK, tags, soup's on."
I lifted myself wearily from the chair, went to the refrig, took out another slab of mock meat, a package of peas, their favorite, unlocked the lid and threw it all in. "Yum," I said as yellow flowers sprang from their sides. A narrow tendril whipped up so fast I couldn't close the lid in time. It lashed out and tightened around my wrist. Tiny claws raked my skin, probing for a vein as I slammed down the lid. The tendril snapped off, but the tip spasmed around my wrist, drawing blood. It began to suck.
"You little crote fucker!" I uncurled it, opened the tank, threw it inside and slammed down the lid. I leaned on it and locked it. "You can eat, scud, but you can't run!" I squeezed my bleeding wrist. It stung, but the tiny claws hadn't gone deep. I shivered as I pictured a mother root. They probably had teeth like a shark's. I went into the bathroom and wrapped my wrist. What was Spirit thinking when he came up with this one?
"Don Rastelli," a thin man with intense black eyes, slicked back dark hair, and a hooked nose strode around the massive oak desk in the dark office.
Rastelli raised his hand from the armrest of his chair. "Alberto. Mio capo." He nodded. "My captain."
Al clasped the white-haired man's beefy hand in both of his and kissed it. "You sent for me, Godfather."
Rastelli nodded. "My son Roberto has received a personal call from someone at a laboratory in Los Alamos. Are you familiar with this lab?"
"Si, Godfather. I have heard of it."
"Well, this person informed my son that there is an experiment being conducted that would be of interest to the family. Sit down, Alberto."
"Gracie, Godfather." Al sat across from the desk and leaned forward with his hands in his lap.
"A drink?" Rastelli gestured toward the two men sitting in the shadows of the room. "Tony, a drink for my guest." He waved his hand. "I forget my manners. Age, Alberto, you understand."
"Si, Don Rastelli,” Al said quickly. “Da niente. It is nothing."
"This person who called," Rastelli said softly and ran a finger over a paper on his desk, "he told Roberto about something the lab is working on."
Tony handed Al a drink.
"Gracie." Al sipped it.
"Prego." Tony returned to his chair.
"Si, Godfather?" Al said. "Something that is of interest to the family?"
Rastelli stared out the window from his desk. "They say it can take an old body, like mine, and make it young again."
Al sat back, his mouth open. "Is this possible?" He straightened. "I do not mean to doubt your words, Don Rastelli. I mean no disrespect."
Rastelli nodded. "They call it Blackroot, and they have destroyed it."
"Destroyed it? I don't understand," Al said. "Why would they destroy it? It must be worth billions."
"Whatever their reasons," Rastelli tapped the paper, "there is a man, the leader of the team who discovered what this plant can do. He is the only one, Alberto, who knows which world this Blackroot has come from."
"I will find him, Don Rastelli, and I will get the information from him, if that is what you wish."
Don Rastelli got up and locked his hands behind his back as he stared out the window at his estate on the north shore of Long Island. "I knew I could count on you, Alberto." He turned and smiled. "You are my most trusted capo. This man's name is Jules Rammis."
Lisa and Sophia rode beside me as I loped Asil across a dry southern slope in the Jemez Mountains that was free of Blackroot.
Sophia and I had picked up Lisa at the Los Alamos Airport after my former wife, Althea, and her new husband Charles put her aboard a small commercial airliner in Denver for the flight and three days with us.
Lisa and Sophia had taken to each other like long lost sisters. I guess I was a little jealous when Lisa clung to her and they laughed together over whispered words. But jealous of which one, I didn't know, and the pleasure of seeing them laughing together overcame the jealousy pretty quickly. It was almost like family again, something I'd missed out on for five years. My fault. Guess I shouldn't have left Althea with a baby and gone to the primitive planet Syl' Tyrria to look for emerging mammals. The one-year assignment for the Lab wasn't the problem, it was the one year that turned into five that was. My dumb call. But that's another story.
The February morning was warm and full of the smell of pine and bird calls. We dismounted, loosened the saddles, and tied the three horses' reins to a tree. My black Arabian stallion nuzzled Stormy, Sophia's Arab mare. Lisa, whose horse Ginger was stabled outside of Denver, had a borrowed pinto named Patches.
I eased back against a tree and chewed a blade of grass as I stared at Stormy, a beautiful white mare with good conformation, a gentle disposition, and an alert manner. "You know, Soph," I reached for her hand, "we should get Stormy and Asil together this spring. I'll bet they'd have a pretty awesome foal."
Lisa, who sat eating a power bar between us, crawled to my side. "How do they make an awesome foal, Daddy?"
"Uh." I sipped coffee from a thermos and glanced at Sophia. "Well," I said, "Stormy has an egg inside her, Lis', and Asil has these tiny things called sperm, and...."
"And?" Lisa asked.
I brushed back her blond curls. Her eyes, a deep blue, stared as she waited for dad's pearls of wisdom to drop.
"Well, then..." Dad managed and sipped more coffee.
"Then what, Daddy?" Sophia asked with a chuckle in her voice.
I slid her a look. Sophia's a beautiful woman, with her mop of dark curls surrounding black, exotic eyes that slant upward, a broad mouth that often widens into a smile or a laugh, and bladed cheekbones that could cut ice.
"Tag who talk before he think," she said, "put foot in mouth."
"Did you get that from a fortune cookie?" I asked.
"Daddy!" Lisa pulled on my sleeve. "Then what?"
"Then," Daddy said in his great wisdom, and gulped more coffee, "the tiny sperm and the tiny egg get together and a little baby begins to grow."
Lisa snuggled against me. "Grow where?"
"Inside the mommy where the baby is safe until she's ready to be born, just as you did, Lis'." I squeezed her shoulders.
"But how does the tiny sperm find the tiny egg inside the mommy?" Lisa asked.
And there it was. Bam! The question that turns parents into politicians, who can talk and talk without saying anything.
Sophia rolled to her back and chuckled as she stared at the sky. "Tell us, Daddy. Enquiring minds want to know."
I watched a black Cadillac leave the gravel road below and bounce across the grassy hill as it approached us. "I wonder who that is." I said and stood up.
So did Sophia. "Probably just some of your friendly Los Alamos neighbors wanting to pass the time." She brushed grass from her pants. "They couldn't have chosen a more opportune time, now could they, Babe?" She winked.
I extended a light telepathic probe across four men inside the vehicle as it ran over a small scrub oak and ground to a stop near us. A sinister sense of darkness settled in my mind as I probed, like a storm cloud that springs over a peak on a sunny day and gives little warning before it turns the sky black and strikes with cold sheets of rain.
I glanced at Lisa. At seven-years-old she is already a powerful tel with the ability to move elements, something I lack. She stared back at me, her eyes wide, her light skin paling, and shook her head as she stepped closer to Sophia. "I don't like them, Daddy."
Dammit! My stingler was in the saddlebag. "Go and mount up," I told Sophia. "Do it casually. Go!" I threw the rest of my coffee on the ground and strolled to the vehicle. "Morning," I said to the unsmiling men who openly stared at me. Dressed in expensive suits, with slicked-back hair and gold cufflinks, they exuded a jaded, big-city appearance that reeked of unquestioned power.
No campers these!
I cleared my throat and glanced at Sophia and Lisa, who had tightened their saddles' cinches, untied their horses, and were mounting. "You tags lost?" I asked the men.
The short, sallow-cheeked one in the passenger seat, with intense black eyes and a hooked nose, leaned out of the open window. "Tell those two to get off the horses," he ordered in a high voice.
I backed away and threw down my empty cup. "What for?"
He reached inside his jacket.
"Go!" I shouted to Sophia and Lisa as he withdrew a snub-nosed stingler. "Go!" I stood between the stingler's aim and Lisa and Sophia as they turned their horses toward a stretch of woods and started for it at a full gallop. They were quickly between trees and lost to sight.
The short tag jumped out of the vehicle, his gun aimed at me as the driver tore grass and dirt and sped after them.
"What the hell do you want?" I asked him.
"Lean against that tree, spread-eagled." He gestured toward the closest Ponderosa.
"If it's money you want," I reached toward my back pocket, "take my wallet. The girls aren't carrying anything worthwhile."
"Don't touch that!" he said. "The tree."
I went to it and leaned my hands against it, my legs spread.
"What do you want from us?" I asked as he patted me down.
He didn't answer. "Sit there and don't move." He motioned to the grass.
A cricket leaped out of the dirt beside me and the tag almost dropped his gun. I tensed, but he held it. I closed my eyes and began to form a tel coil, hoping he was one of the few people left on Earth who hadn't heard from the media that I was a tel. I picked at blades of grass as I spun the red coil faster.
He lifted his weapon. "I'm a sensitive, stupido. That's why the boys left me to take care of you. So cut that shit out!"
"A sensitive?" I said, as though impressed, and continued to fuel the coil. "I'm impressed." I probed for his brainstem as I had when I was forced to kill Priest, a friend who'd been captured by a slave-mine boss, and was about to be burned alive at the stake. I shrugged. "Who knew?"
My gentle probe, calculated to bypass the neo- cortex guardian, detected the brain stem. I targeted it and threw the coil.
"I said I was a -- " he started, then jerked back and dropped his weapon.
I leaped to my feet and scooped it up. It hadn't been a death blow, but it flattened him and he twitched on the ground. "A sensitive?" I asked. "You're lucky I'm letting you breathe, crote!" I shoved the gun into my pants pocket, ran to Asil, strapped on my stingler and went after Lisa and Sophia and the vehicle.
I didn't find any of them, though I searched all morning. At noon, my heart fell. Stormy and Patches munched grass in a field to the west, still saddled.
"Lisa! Sophia!" I called over and over, without an answer. My heart pounded and I felt sick to my stomach, afraid of what I'd find as I searched the bushes and continued to call to them. I sent out tel probes that Lisa would have answered if she were anywhere in the area. Or if she could answer. That last thought clamped down on my ability to think straight.
I was about to contact the police for a search party when the call came in. My hands shook as I turned on my comlink.
"Is this Rammis?" an oily voice asked. "Jules Rammis?"
"Yeah! Who's this?"
"Never mind who. You want to see the kid and your comare alive? You give us what we want or you'll never see them again."
I squeezed the comlink in a tight fist that dug the edges into my palm. "What do you want?" I asked hoarsely. "Don't hurt them. Please! Just tell me what you want."
"That's easy, stronzo. You know the source planet of Blackroot. We trade you that info for the lives of the kid and your woman. By the way, cute kid."
"OK! You got it. Just don't hurt them." I pressed a hand against my stomach. I thought I was going to throw up. "Where do we meet?"
"Black Mesa. Five o'clock in the morning. Be there or start planning your kid's funeral."
"No! I'll be there. Please don't scare her. This morning? Five o'clock?"
"That's what I friggin' said."