Christine Saynes knelt in the sand and carefully brushed pebbles from the curve of exposed bone in her dig site. She swallowed hard, refused to acknowledge the queasiness in her stomach as the face emerged. Nothing native to this primordial world of Tartarus bore such a high, thin-walled brain case. Her trembling fingers traced broken slits that formed a grinning “V” through a mouthful of sand. An extinct intelligent species? “Lord,” she whispered, “wouldn't that be a find!”
Humans and other aliens had lived on the red planet they named Tartarus for over forty Earth years. They’d worked together at the scientific institute in Cape Leone, and done thousands of field studies. No one had ever stumbled on anything like this skull! She sat back. “What are you?”
The skull, more than twice the size of a human’s, lay on its left cheek as though cocked to listen. She ran her tongue over her dusty lips and turned up the lantern. Stark shadows lit the skull's grisly features. Differentiated teeth, evolved for grasping and grinding, seemed ready to clamp down. On what? “Are you really extinct?” she said, and glanced at the reassuring sight of her lit tent on the crest of a close hill.
The sun sank red through mist behind Purgatory Canyon. Twin moons etched sandstone pinnacles into crimson blades.
A sudden whisper through dry weeds.
Christine started. She thought she heard her name called. She ran a hand across her forehead. It had been foolish to wander so far from the field party. The jagged peaks were silhouetted now in darkness. Wind moaned and dragged across her bare arms.
Christine, came a whisper, more a pressure against her mind.
“What? Who is it?” She stood. “Who's there?”
Dead weeds rustled.
She picked up the lantern, touched the pendant around her throat and closed her hand over the figure of the ChristLotus crucified on the Tree of Enlightenment. Someone from the field party playing games? “Stanley, damn you! Is that you, Stan?”
The ground beneath her suddenly lurched. She gasped and flung out an arm for balance. Rocks bounced down. The quaking earth shook her to her knees. She dropped the lantern. My God, earthquake! she thought. Her breath came in hard spurts. “Stay calm!” she told herself. “Stay calm, it's only ground tremors.”
A deafening clap broke like thunder. The ground split and opened a running crevice like a writhing black snake. Her scream was swallowed as the roar ricocheted across dark cliffs. A dank wind rose from the pit and fingered her shirt.
Christine! The voice struck her mind. Come to me.
“What? Who are you?” She pressed her hands to her head. “Get out of my head!” She backed and tripped over a root. The widening crevice caught her and she began to slide into the yawning maw. Strips of clay lumped under her nails as she clawed at loose shale in the deepening rift. The skull rolled down and bounced against rocks. Her lantern followed. In its cold light, the fractured skull's similarities to a human face made its differences more terrifying. She felt dizzy, nauseated, but she could not tear her gaze from the alien face.
The cracked lantern drew back its light and died.
“No!” she cried.
The pit yawned wider and her resistance seemed to drain into it. ‘Help me! My God! What are you?”
Come to me and you will know.
An alien energy smothered her mind, compelled her to move further down into the black crevice.
Soothing approval muffled her terror as she let go of a jutting rock and slid deeper into the pit. Within black shadows cast by the twin moons, it seemed a hawk swooped down on a rabbit. She focused on the image, used it to hold her mind firm. She dug nails into the dirt.
The command came as a blow. She shook her head to throw off this thing that rode her mind and tried to regain control of her thoughts.
A chuckle rose within her mind. The sickly odor of rotted things wafted up from the crack in the earth. Her calf muscles burned from the divided will of inching down and attempting to turn back. “I will not!” she asserted. “I will myself not to. Whatever you are, get out of my mind.” Her voice echoed across the looming walls.
The command crashed down. It mangled her thoughts and raked away the last tendrils of her will.
Christine felt nothing but the desire to follow the underground path, the silent voice that ordered her inside a grotto beneath the rumbling earth that closed the crevice. She entered the dank grotto and went to the black pool of sluggish water as a child would go to the warmth and love of its mother’s arms.
It was black, streamlined, had slanted cat eyes and the fire of stars in its belly. It could stun or kill with silicon reflexes and was the only thing on Tartarus besides insects that could truly fly. It could also seat four. So why the hell was a police manta parked inside my animal sanctuary in the high plains west of Cape Leone?
I was afraid I knew the answer as I stared down from the edge of a crimson promontory. But Randy's death happened six months ago. I'd hoped that Hallarin, the crote-mungering Terran police chief of Cape Leone, had believed my story and filed the case CLOSED.
The sick feeling that invaded the pit of my stomach told me that now I wasn't so sure.
Gretch, my native grunithe mount, turned her long scaly brown neck and nibbled on the toe of my boot in the stirrup. She knows that irritates me and she wanted to continue home to the sanctuary.
“OK! I know.” I tapped her sides and she loped down a dusty trail and to the open gate. The plaque next to it read:
JULES RAMMIS: OWNER
HIGH PLAINS ANIMAL SANCTUARY
Please Do Not Enter. Animals May Be Contagious
To Terrans. Terrans May Be Contagious To Animals
For CONTRIBUTIONS and/or inquiries contact
That sign never stopped the Big H from entering. Around me glottal sounds increased as the late morning heat roused Tartarus’ cold-blooded denizens like animated zombies.
I dismounted, walked through the open gate and was assailed by the strong odor of animals penned too close. But over their natural smell hung that distinct, unpleasantly sweet stench given off by Tartarus' sick creatures.
Gretch flicked her forked tongue to taste the air, swung her head when I removed the rope halter and blanket, and hissed wetly on my back to thank me for giving her the freedom to hunt.
“Dammit, Gretch!” Now I smelled like rotten almonds too.
She waddled through the open gate and stalked down the shadowed path between narctressus and glassy black muse trees, sniffing the air for prey. Her claws clicked on pebbled sand as she loped away.
An aroma of brewing coffee drifted from my fibrin cabin and cigarette smoke curled through the screened window. Was my guest still unaware of my arrival, or was he playing a police spiker game of making me wait and sweat?
I wiped moist palms on my pants, and brushed my sticky hair out of my eyes as I pumped water into the trough and filled two bowls. The animals stirred, some wailed as I approached. It’s a sad thing to see the defeated look of nature's discards.
There were six new arrivals, reptiles and amphibians from the plains and the lowland jungle to the south.
Until three months ago there’d been a higher percentage of animals wounded in fights for territory or mates, or from attacks and possibly accidents. Now most of my patients were sick, which seemed to confirm my fear of plague.
They remained docile as I checked them, these wild creatures who found their way into my clinic on their own. I haven't figured that out yet. I don’t know if the human brain can.
Everything appeared normal as I brought a bowl of water spiked with native antibiotics to a silver-skinned slaotee who lay sprawled in the shade of a barrel-trunked cypod, breathing laboriously. And yet, as I knelt beside her, the rock in my stomach said, “It's all over but the sentencing, Jules”. I eased the slaotee’s head onto my lap, she's about the size of a pony, heard the cabin screen door slam, and jumped. The slaotee jumped too. I stroked her lacy shoulder mane and she settled back down.
Footsteps behind me.
My back grew goose bumps as I brushed dirt from the slaotee's tongue and poured water over it. My own throat felt dry as I listened to the spiker cross the dirt compound.
“Looks like pneumonia,” a familiar voice said behind me. My guest squatted and handed me one of two mugs of steaming coffee. Jack Cole. Crotes! Of course Hallarin would send Jack. I took a sip and set down the cup. “Tartarian pneumonia, Jack?” I asked.
He furrowed his brows. Thick sandy hair stuck out from the shade of his wide-brimmed hat. “I guess so. Diagnosing ‘em is your area, Julie.” I'd given up asking him to call me Jules.
“That's one of the pitfalls,’ I said.
‘Diagnosing their diseases by Terran standards.”
He shrugged. “OK, buddy, so it's not pneumonia.”
“I didn't say that.” I stroked the slaotee. My hand shook as I put down the bowl and water spilled.
Jack glanced away.
“It's possible,” I said, clearing my throat, “that we humans have introduced a virus, and now it's started an epizootic disease.”
“There's no way a bug could slip past the decontamination process,” he drawled. “You know that.”
“I do?” I laid the slaotee's head down, got up and withdrew a perma-sterile towel from a dispenser nailed to a fibrin post. “From what I've heard, the process isn't failsafe.”
“Then come to Leone,” he said too casually.
“Why would I want to do that?”
“There's gonna be a conference at the Leone Research Institute called Search for Understanding.” He gestured toward the slaotee with his cup. “It's supposed to cover all kinds of biological problems and stuff.”
I tucked a corner of the towel into my pants and let it hang while I got the second bowl of water and cast a wary eye at a swamp mumbler. “The only problems that exist on this planet, Jack, are the ones we brought with us.” I started toward the mumbler
Jack rose to follow me, marked my direction and stopped.
The mumbler's eyes were infected, all four of them. Two had lids and were crusted closed. I think the lidless ones are pineal, perhaps sensitive to ultraviolet rays. I'd have to bathe them all with ultrimune. Between the mumbler's ears, set four hand spans apart on a neckless shoulder, he was all mouth, and his mouth was all teeth. Some days are like that down on the farm.
I glanced at Jack. His hand rested on his holstered stingler, his gaze was locked on the mumbler, whose lips twitched as electroplates around them sensed my presence. Or tried to. I don't know. It might not work out of water. What were his windows on the world? I don't think we inhabit the same reality, the mumbler and man.
“What I'm saying, Jack,” I said and stroked the animal's sandpaper shoulder to relax him before treatment, “is that all I can do is treat the symptoms.”
“Oh, I agree,” he said without taking his eyes off the mumbler. “But how do you tell...” He waved his cup toward my patient.
“The symptoms from the animal's natural state?” I gently moved my hand to the mumbler's mouth and eased up his lip. He coughed and sprayed a pink liquid. Poison to paralyze his prey? Or the symptom of a disease? I wiped my hands on the towel and flicked Jack a look. “That's what makes it interesting. How are things in Leone?”
“Growing.” He kept a fixed look on the mumbler. “Everything's growing. You wouldn't recognize the town, Julie.” He rubbed his jaw. “But we got us another missing scientist. Disappeared about fifty kilometers west of here.”
“How long ago?”
“Did he have survival training, equipment?”
‘She.” Jack shook his head.
“They never do.”
“She was out there with a team, but she strayed away to study some other area.”
Was that all the Big H wanted? For me to keep an eye out? Somehow I doubted it. “I'll keep an eye out.” I checked the mumbler's forepaws. The pads were cracked. “Did Hallarin retire yet?”
“Hell, no! You ought to show up in town once in a while. You know, catch up on the airchew. Even the Homeward Inn's expanded. They got live entertainment now.” He leaned against a tree, a thumb hooked in his pants pocket, a memory hooked in his long gaze, then gave me that crooked grin that makes his square coarse face go suddenly playful. I recognized the silent chuckle in his thoughts. It usually precedes a raunchy barroom story.
Not this time.
Not with the mumbler and only God knew what else between us. We held some good memories though, Jack and I, for all that had happened the weekend I stayed in Leone too long, drinking with him while a wounded mumbler killed Randy, my volunteer assistant. For all that, it would've been good to see him. If the croteass wasn’t playing Hallarin's lackey! I offered the mumbler water but he refused it.
“How's the family?” I asked Jack as I gently probed the animal's neck, checking for swollen glands. They were swollen all right, if I were feeling glands. The mumbler muttered, drew back lips and reached out a paw toward me.
Jack gasped and drew his stingler.
“They're here to be healed!” I said quickly and took the mumbler's offered forepaw. I felt hooked claws press lightly into my palm.