science fiction and fantasy writer

Story With Two Names

Mils moved closer to the window to better see past the landing pad outside. The drop ship that had brought her down to the surface was already a bright dot far above, its step drive lassoing gravity to its own purpose. It had been packed with cases and drums of precious organics within minutes of its inbound cargo and solitary passenger being unloaded.

The world was Earthlike enough that the wrongness of its colour palette was disorienting. The afternoon sky was the right colour, but with the wrong number of suns – one angry red, the other a blinding blue-white, that gave everything two overlapping shadows, one reddish, the other grey-blue. The fern-like plants that covered the land in a uniform blanket away from the seashore were a rich, egg-yolk yellow. The port had been built on the edge of the northern circumpolar ocean, and the sea, visible to her right as it curved around behind the port building, was a lurid magenta. The beach on which it broke glistened black.

From the station that morning, local time, both land and sea on the daylight side of the planet had been a patchwork of reds.

“So this is Beande.”

Mils turned at a chuckle. The ghostly pallour and elongated frame of the approaching woman identified her as Off-Earther, even without the ribbed exoskeleton that supported her in the Earth-plus gravity. A lightweight breathing apparatus was draped around the woman’s shoulders. A second dangled from her hand.

“It’s not ‘Beande’,” she said, smirking down at Mils. “It’s ‘B-and-E’. For break-and-enter, nah, like Goldilocks.”

Mils laughed, feeling like an idiot for not recognising the term. “So that’s why the dwarf planets are called Porridge and Chair. And here I was wondering who Beande was in the Bible story.”

“Qian,” the other woman said. “You’d be Sumila, nah?”

“Mils.”

“Mils. Pleased to meet you. I’m your lift out to research camp. Jaycee and Herod and the Apostles were named in the original survey of the system from Sol, nah.” The repetitive speech affectation placed Qian’s upbringing in the Jovian moons. “No one knew the rockies were here until the first miners arrived. The telescopes couldn’t see them from Sol because of the Scree.”

Which explained the belated scramble to mount a mission to the system’s solitary world with a biosphere.

Qian offered the spare breathing mask. “Know how to use this?”

Mils nodded. The mask was a filter plus oxygen supplement. Atmospheric oxygen was seventeen and a half percent, about two points below what a human body needed. The consequences of breathing the alien biologicals in the outside air had been explained to her before she boarded the dropship. She would live, if her exposure was less than an hour or so, but be very unhappy while the doctors cultured her new lungs, and even unhappier after they cracked open her ribs to put the new lungs inside her. It was the first time the company had been anything like forthcoming with information about the planet and its biosphere since she signed her contract, notwithstanding that she had been signed on as a biologist to study said biosphere.

“This way.” Qian caught the handle of a loaded flatbed trolley and pushed it ahead of her. Mils fell into step.

She settled the breathing apparatus around her neck and clipped the mask to the hook on the front of her overalls. Qian led the way into an airlock foyer. Mils felt an immediate pang of claustrophobia as the mask’s rubberised hood closed over her head. A heads-up display appeared at the bottom of her visor when she switched on the filter and oxygen, showing a pair of green lights.

Qian’s voice came through the speakers by her ears. “We have about a forty minute drive to mobile camp, then another half hour to research camp, nah, but we won’t need to wear these in the troopie.” Her hand hovered over the door release. “You Earther?”

Mils nodded. “English.”

Qian lifted her hand, thumb and forefinger extended, spacer’s gesture for a smile. “Nah. You’ll be fine. I’m from Ganymede. I shat in my pants my first time outdoors.”

Qian cycled the outer door and pushed the trolley out onto the ferrocrete. The pulse in Mils’s neck beat against the bottom edge of her mask. She had been offworld before, to Mars and the Belt, but never outside under an open sky that wasn’t Earth’s. It seemed like the moment should have been less prosaic.

The air was chill and damp against her bare hands and neck. A sea breeze pulled at her clothes and hair and snuck down the back of her jacket, making her shiver. She paused, filled with a sudden urge to wrench off her mask and experience this new world with more than just touch and sight. Qian’s eyes crinkled behind her visor.

“Pretty amazing, nah?”

A row of light aircraft were part-covered by tarpaulins at the far edge of the landing pad. Qian didn’t turn towards them.

Mils asked, “We’re not flying?”

“Not until the company sends us some hoppers with step drives,” said Qian. “We’ve had a couple of emergency landings, nah, with moths getting into the turbines.”

“Moths?”

“Imagine a cricket and a prawn had a baby, but bigger, nah. You’ll see.”

She pointed Mils around to the passenger side of a blocky, high-wheeled troop carrier, and opened the rear door to transfer the crates stacked on her trolley. Mils moved to help but Qian waved her off and pointed towards the front of the vehicle. “That’s what you’re here for.”

“Oh.” The native vegetation began just beyond the vehicle’s bull bar.

The plain stretched out, deep yellow as far as she could see. Closer up, she could see waves of subtle motion that rippled through the plants. She held up a hand, turning her palm.

“They’re not moving with the wind.” The plants closest to her were swaying back and forth but the wind was steady. She started to reach out, and paused. “Are they toxic?”

“Not the fronds,” Qian replied, finished loading now and folding her long limbs into the driver’s seat. A soft whine came from the vehicle as she switched on the electric motors. “Don’t touch the bristles on the lower stems, nah?”

Carefully, Mils uncurled a yellow frond with her fingertips. The plant was about hip high, superficially fernlike, except for the colour and the meaty thickness of the foliage.

She gave an exclamation of surprise and withdrew her hand. “It pulled back.”

“Nah, that’s why we’ve called them coral-ferns,” said Qian, from the carrier. “Supposedly they’re somewhere between a plant and a simple animal. More plant.”

Mils straightened to look across the plain. Questions boiled up. Plenty of time, she told herself. She had signed on for a year here. The opportunity of a lifetime.

She returned to the carrier.

“Wait, I’ll cycle the filters,” Qian said, after the doors were closed. Air hissed for several seconds and a light on the dash went green. “Okay, masks off.”

“Where’s research camp?” Mils asked.

Qian aimed a finger at the windshield, while she reversed and turned the carrier around towards a flattened track through the hip-high vegetation. “At the bottom of the foothills. As of about a week and a half ago, nah, Earth time. We’ll start to see the mountains by the time we get to mobile camp.”

“Why’s the port so far from the camps?”

Qian steered casually, one-handed, but kept her eyes on the track. “Research camp was at the port. You just missed the big move. The port’s where it is because seismosaurs don’t come down to the sea, nah. They tend to trample things. Mobile camp follows the seismos.”

Beyond the fact that they had been dubbed ‘seismosaurs’ due to a superficial resemblance to long-necked dinosaurs, the company’s scant briefing package had provided frustratingly little information on the dominant megafauna of B-and-E’s solitary continent. Still, it was more than she had been given about coral-ferns and ‘moths’. At least there had been a picture of a seismosaur in the data file.

The plain rolled past, almost entirely flat, with no visible change in the monoculture foliage. Clouds of tiny creatures rose periodically from the ferns, set to flight by the carrier’s passage.

“What are the bugs?”

“Juvenile moths, some of them. Lots of other species.”

“I didn’t notice any at the port,” said Mils.

“Only inland, nah. They don’t like the sea air.”

Mils leaned her head against the window to watch the murmurations of the swarms.

In the sky above, dim, red Herod was approaching the western horizon while fierce, blue Jaycee stood just past apex. Herod was a late-M class red dwarf around which B-and-E orbited, Jaycee a B-class giant a thousand times larger and more distant – so much larger, in fact, that the point around which the binary system rotated was actually under the larger star’s surface.

As well as B-and-E, Herod was orbited by the two inner rocky dwarfs, Porridge and Chair, and, further out, the Jovian sweeper, Judas, between three inner worlds and the vast asteroid belt of the Scree, where the company’s mining operation was based. The other eleven Apostles were hot Jupiters, tidally locked around Jaycee.

They passed a sharp delineation in the vegetation beside the track, the colour of the ferns shifting abruptly from egg yolk to a more buttery shade. Mils looked out the opposite side. The buttery colour took over for a distance on the other side of the track, as well, then changed sharply to a pale grapefruit colour. Her pulse quickened a beat.

“Oh,” she said. “They’re clonal colonies.”

Qian glanced at her. “Mm?”

“The ferns, the colour lines. Different colonies. How big are they?”

Qian shrugged. “Not rocks, so not my area, nah? The whole plain is a patchwork.”

Mils subsided again, frustrated.

A few kilometres on, they passed into a wide area where the foliage had been roughly flattened into the distance in both directions. Qian turned the carrier to follow the trail of squashed plantlife.

“Seismos,” she explained. “The herd went this way. Mobile camp is about twenty minutes ahead. In a few days the ferns will be standing up again and you’d never know the herd had been through.”

Mils frowned. “The seismosaurs don’t graze on the ferns, then?”

“Bugs live off the ferns, nah. Seismos eat the bugs.”

“Like whales feeding on krill.”

Mils made the next uneasy connection a moment before Qian said, cheerfully, “Which makes mobile camp the whalers, nah?”

#

Seen-By-The-Sky heaved hirself up over the last weather-rounded outcrop and onto the rock ledge. Hir gulped air deeply with hirs mouth, hirs exhalations whuffing noisily from the gill flaps in hirs neck. Below, Faces-The-Dark and Borne-On-The-Wind still toiled up the rocky slope, their empty gathering baskets swinging behind their shoulders. Two days out from Country, the fronds that grew from their gills had become quite limp, as Seen-By-The-Sky’s were, but their movements were still firm and certain. In the high day light, their skins and fronds were stark yellow against the dark stone. Once the red sun had set, they would be better disguised, black on black. High day was normally a poor time to be moving about, but the Lesser Deaths, that might threaten a small party such as theirs, had already followed the southward migrations of the highland herds and flocks. In any case, there was no time to sit still so far beyond the border of their clan’s country.

The shelf was high enough to afford a view over the forested foothills where Country lay. In the hazy distance, Seen-By-The-Sky could see as far as the plain where the Greatest of All made their patient summer journey around the waist of the world. Even far beyond Country’s familiar bounds and with hirs awareness confined to hirs solitary self, hir could read the world – could know, from the wisps of cloud and the taste of the air that the next day would be clear but colder, perhaps cold enough overnight to freeze the surfaces of the mountains streams where they pooled between the stones. Hir could see from the positions of the suns how long the blue evening would be between the red sunset and full dark; could know that a translucent winged Flying Death hovering overhead meant some late-lingering creatures grazing on a hillside meadow nearby.

A sharp point of light climbed into the sky from somewhere far out on the plain, fiercely bright as the blue sun and without colour. It crossed in front of the suns as it ascended, dwindling until Seen-By-The-Sky could no longer see it. A star returning to its place in the sky? But why would a star have come to earth when the making of the world was long since done, back at the beginning of things?

Runs-With-The-Storm claimed to have seen a trio of such lights days before. Traders from neighbouring clans had recently brought stories of foreigners without country intruding onto the plain. Foreigners without country. Were the two connected?

Seen-By-The-Sky could not shake the unease that had dogged hir since before they left to harvest Winter Blessings, remaining with hir even when their last sense of Country was far behind. Country had told them, days before, of a difference, a disturbance, like a taste of sour meat or the touch of foul water.

Catches-The-Rain claimed that Greater Deaths had chased one of the Greatest of All into the valleys and brought it down, nothing more. And it had felt like it could be that. So when Catches-The-Rain had said it was dangerous to go see, with the predators guarding their kill, no-one had argued.

But Seen-By-The-Sky’s unease had only grown, and it seemed to hir that Country’s had, too. But then, as Catches-The-Rain had said, that was to be expected if Greater Deaths had taken up residence, which were destructive of Country and a threat to its people. Still, Seen-By-The-Sky watched the sky where the star had disappeared, and wondered.

Faces-The-Dark and Borne-On-The-Wind pulled themselves up over the last outcrop and straightened beside hir, breathing heavily. Their gill fronds draped, as if lifeless, across their shoulders. The fronds’ colour was still good, though, and would likely remain so for another day or so.

“Are we there?” asked Borne-On-The-Wind, scenting the question with an overtone of relief, while hirs fingers clicked excitement.

“Yes,” said Faces-The-Dark. “You’ve done well.”

Borne-On-The-Wind looked and smelled as pleased as a new hunter after hirs first catch. It was hirs first time outside of Country, the third scar on hirs chest, that declared hirs maturity for the task, still stark and purple. Seen-By-The-Sky’s and Faces-The-Dark’s third scars were as faded as the two above that marked them as old enough to sire young and old enough to carry them in their wombs. Both of them had made the winter journey up out of Country many times.

Borne-On-The-Wind had endured the separation from Country as well as any on their first trek into the mountains. But the strain was evident in the scent and sound of hirs words.

“This way,” said Seen-By-The-Sky. Hir led them across the shelf, to the foot of the gigantic rock that loomed above them, as big as a hill itself. The long work of water and ice had split it with a deep, angled cleft, large enough to admit a person.

Seen-By-The-Sky eased hirself inside, pausing a moment to let hirs eyes adjust to the gloom while Faces-The-Dark and Borne-On-The-Wind crowded in behind hir. Hir saw nothing ahead of hir but the bare stone walls of the cleft. Hir listened, expecting the rustle of thousands of tiny, dry wings as the Winter Blessings jostled in their deepening sleep.

Silence, aside from their own movements.

Seen-By-The-Sky felt a moment’s disorientation. Had hir led them to the wrong place? But no, of course not. Had the Winter Blessings gone elsewhere for their hibernation? There were other roosts, further into the mountains. But they had always been here, for generations of winter harvests.

“Are they further in?” asked Borne-On-The-Wind, with a gulp of uncertainty.

“They are not here,” said Seen-By-The-Sky, barely able to manage the scent or sound to form words.

“Perhaps they have chosen a different cleft,” said Faces-The-Dark, but hirs words were little more certain than Borne-On-The-Wind’s.

“Perhaps,” said Seen-By-The-Sky. Hir forced hirself to swallow hirs uncertainty, trying to put a scent of confidence into hirs voice. “We will see.”

“We cannot stay away from Country much longer,” said Faces-The-Dark.

“We can afford another day or two,” said Seen-By-The-Sky, shooing them back out of the cleft.

“The next nearest roost is that way,” said Faces-The-Dark, pointing.

“Lead us,” said Seen-By-The-Sky.

Faces-The-Dark led out. Borne-On-The-Wind followed without question, but Seen-By-The-Sky had no doubt hir could tell the falseness of their resolve.

#

Whalers.

The blue-grey carcass of the seismosaur loomed, impossibly huge, above the darkening plain. The tracked caravans, factory trucks and hunting vehicles of mobile camp formed a rough circle around it. Tiny human figures crawled over the vast body as crane arms swung overhead like the limbs of a busy spider.

Herod was lowering in a blaze of orange, while Jaycee turned the rest of the sky a luminous azure. The bluer light leached any other colours from the land, turning the coral-ferns a blackened lemon and rendering human skins into variations of charcoal and corpse grey. Where the seismosaur carcass blocked Herod’s red light, the shadows were the red-black of old blood.

Mils’s pulse quickened, fascinated and repulsed by the unearthly scene in equal measure. There was a moment’s blessed relief when Qian pulled the troop carrier to a halt inside the ring of vehicles. The carrier’s suspension had been constructed with a view to the durability of the vehicle, rather than the tenderness of its passengers.

“Masks on, nah,” said Qian.

Relief lasted until the doors opened and the stench hit her. Mils gagged.

“The filters only catch biologicals, not smell, nah,” said Qian. “Don’t puke in your mask.”

Mils breathed through her mouth. “That smell is biological.”

An elfin figure in gore spattered coveralls approached, shucking bicep-length rubber gloves. He extended a relatively clean hand. “You are the new biologist,” he said, speaking standard English but with sharply clipped vowels. The elfin impression was heightened by the bobble-topped woolen beanie he wore against the cold.

“Mils,” Qian supplied, with a sudden sharpness in her tone. “This is A.R., he runs mobile camp.”

Mils accepted his hand gingerly and had the unaccustomed experience of feeling a man’s hand that was daintier than hers. A.R.’s palm was clammy from being in the rubber gloves, but his grip was firm.

“What do you think?” he said.

It’s barbaric, Mils wanted to say. She limited herself to, “I think it stinks.”

A.R. laughed. “It takes some getting used to.”

Mils wondered how it was possible. Like most people, she was accustomed to vat-grown meats and synthesised proteins, neither of which involved living creatures in their production. The only animals she had ever eaten were insects and molluscs. As a biologist, she had dissected carcasses, but the largest terrestrial animal left on Earth was a horse. The only megafauna that remained were giant squid, which she had never had the opportunity to work on. The sheer size of this creature was too overwhelming.

“It’s just so…”

“Primitive?” A.R. suggested, amiably. “Hard to believe that hunting our food like this is economical.”

“Is it?”

A nod. “The proteins need only a little processing to be edible. The bone and hide both have export value. The offal makes good fertiliser for the station gardens. With the small population in-system and easy hunting, even stepping up and down the gravity well, it is cheaper than setting up a protein factory on the station.”

Having something else to focus her mind had allowed Mill’s stomach to settle somewhat.

It’s just a really big horse, she told herself, reaching for scientific detachment. The four pillar legs were the size of large tree trunks, the body like a low hill. A long neck tapered from the shoulders, its other end hidden by the coral ferns. The severed head had been dragged into the butchering circle, larger than the tractor engine to which it was chained.

Mils took a few steps closer. The head was like nothing she had ever seen. She had been able to make out very little in the low-resolution image the company had supplied in her briefing pack. A row of fixed orifices bisected the brick-shaped muzzle. Mouths? Nostrils? Both? Below these were a pair of downward angled eyes – to watch in front of the creature’s feet. Above the mouth-nostrils the creature’s upper face was pocked with tear-shaped indentations. Mils stared while her thoughts whirred.

“Are those pit organs? Thermoceptors?” she asked. “Do the mouths work like vaccuum nozzles? Do they have baleen filters? When can I see a live one in action?”

“Did everything come down?” A.R. was asking.

“Nah, I didn’t see the new pistons for the recoilless rifles,” said Qian. “But they could be in one of the other crates, nah.” Her voice sounded taught, but Mils was too caught up with the seismosaur to wonder why.

They both looked at her.

“Geologist, nah.”

“See, you got used to the smell?”

She gestured a smile.

A.R. said, “This is the last herd for the season. We must move mobile camp south, between the mountains.”

“They’re migratory?” Mills asked. “The seismosaurs.”

He nodded. “Always.”

The planet wore its single continent like a broad equatorial girdle separating its northern and southern oceans, its plains an unbroken, irregular band that traversed the gaps between its scattered mountain ranges. In her mind’s eye a dizzying vision flared, of the eternal journey of these titanic creatures across the endless plains.

“We’ll need those step drive hoppers, nah,” Qian said.

A.R. grunted. “Or to move the spaceport, too.” He nodded towards the enormous carcass. “You can stay, if you like, see for yourself how it works inside. I will let Nabiyah know.”

Mils hesitated. Nabiyah was the head of the research camp – her new boss. Her stomach flipped, too, as she oscillated between excitement and nausea at the prospect of staying for the butchering.

Qian said, “Nabiyah won’t mind. A.R.’s got her round his finger, nah. Whoever does the next run can collect you.” That false note was there again in Qian’s voice, as if what she was saying wasn’t entirely true. The hell with it, Mils decided, let A.R. and Nabiyah sort it out.

“Then, yes. Thank you!”

A.R. signed a smile. “Good.” He picked up the thread of his conversation with Qian that she had interrupted. “Shall we look in the crates? We’re down to four working guns. If one more shatters a piston we will struggle to defend our perimeter.”

Mils followed them around to the back of the troop carrier. Looking around, it occurred to her that the majority of the half-dozen vehicles with heavy guns mounted were parked on the outside of the circle of caravans.

The hair stood up on the nape of her neck. “What are you defending against?”

“Local apex predator,” said A.R. “They mainly hunt juvenile seismosaurs. We have called them ‘sharkodiles’ – you will see why. We will probably have some around after red sunset. We have had incidents with the natives, as well, but the only thing we have that stops sharkodiles is the recoilless rifles on the carriers.”

Mils held up a hand. “Wait, back up. Did you just say ‘natives’? I thought there were no indigenous sapients.” There couldn’t be, or the whole on-world enterprise was illegal.

A.R. looked at her, still for a moment. He made a calming gesture. “Sub-sapient, they say. They are big, and they can be aggressive.”

Qian chimed in, talking rapidly. “Talk to Jeroen when you get to research camp, nah. Koi make better tools than pre-humans, but they’ve got less language than crows.”

Mils frowned. “Koi? As in carp?”

“Wait till you see them, nah. There’s some hanging around research camp if you don’t see any here.”

Clearly, Qian wanted her to let the matter drop. A.R. was affecting disinterest. Disquieted, Mils decided to withhold judgement until she saw for herself.

#

They visited five other clefts that day and the next, roving as far into the mountains as Seen-By-The-Sky and Faces-The-Dark dared to go. All were as empty as the first. Twice more, they saw stars come to earth and, a short while after, rise again.

“Are the stars taking the Winter Blessings away?” Borne-On-The-Wind wondered, watching the second.

The same thought had occurred to Seen-By-The-Sky. “If they were, they would be taking them from here,” hir said. “They should already be here, sleeping.”

“We will have to return,” said Faces-The-Dark, filling the words with a scent of urgency.

The tips of hirs fronds had started to whiten, as had some of Seen-By-The-Sky’s, the fading obvious even in the sullen morning light of the red sun, that turned skin and fronds, trees and stones all to shades of red. Borne-On-The-Wind, younger, still bore sets of healthy colour. Seen-By-The-Sky had noticed, too, the muzziness of hirs own thoughts and the slow movements of both the others, Borne-On-The-Wind’s good colour notwithstanding.

Seen-By-The-Sky chopped a hand in agreement with Faces-The-Dark, but managed a scent of calm. “We will travel through the day until blue sunset. If we are up with the red sun, we should be back in Country by next evening.”

“With empty baskets,” said Faces-The-Dark.

Hir did not need to add that such a thing had never happened.

“Perhaps we are too early, after all,” said Borne-On-The-Wind.

“Perhaps,” said Seen-By-The-Sky, making the word as positive as possible. But it was always the first frost that prompted the movement of the Winter Blessings to their mountain refuges, and that was days past. “Perhaps we will try again in a few more days.”

Hir led them past the meadow that had occupied the Flying Death’s attention two days before. There they found a solitary Barred Spineside, too old and lame to migrate with the herd, but evidently still hale enough to have deterred the flyer. They brought it down and took turns to carry it slung across their shoulders until they camped. Exhausted as they were, Seen-By-The-Sky and Borne-On-The-Wind butchered the beast and wrapped the portions in leaves while Faces-The-Dark cooked a haunch for them to share. They slept uneasily under a sloping shelf of rock, each of them rousing periodically to stoke and feed their campfire. They were more sluggish in the morning, despite having eaten, and Borne-On-The-Wind’s fronds had started to fade, too. Seen-By-The-Sky told hir to lead, hirs own mind too dull for the task, and hir could see that Faces-The-Dark was no better.

They started to improve after red sunset, when the blue sun had turned the sky a luminous azure and themselves and the earth and trees to black and grey. Shortly after, the first sense of Country began to return to their minds. Their pace picked up and, though it took them until night, with the blue sun long since set, they did not pause until Country’s welcoming fronds were all around them beneath the forest trunks, reaching for them, filling their senses and lifting their minds.

All three of them lay down in Country’s embrace and knew no more.

Seen-By-The-Sky woke in full day, with both suns in the sky. Hir lay among the growing fronds, feeling the vibrancy return to the fronds grafted into hirs gills, hirs consciousness reaching out through them, frond-to-frond, far beyond hirs meagre senses. Hir looked up between the questing limbs and scattered, broad leaves of the forest canopy. The blue sun had cast its daytime veil in front of the stars. Which among them, hir wondered, had decided to return to earth again? And why?

Something was still amiss. Hir sat up. Faces-The-Dark and Borne-On-The-Wind were awake too, brought back to consciousness at the same moment as Seen-By-The-Sky.

“There are intruders in Country,” said Faces-The-Dark.

Intruders who had made wounds in Country, who had dug themselves in, unwelcome. What Country knew was not the work of even the largest gathering of Greater Deaths. The three of them stood as one. Country told them that the wounds were in the lower valley, that opened out onto the plain. Several of the clan’s other hunters were there. Most of the clan remained at the forest bower where they had their winter camp.

“We will go to the bower first,” said Seen-By-The-Sky. It was the nearer site.

They hurried on, reinvigorated despite not having eaten. A star fell, as they went, and rose again back into the distance of the sky a short time later.

The winter bower was in a sheltered dell near the edge of Country, woven from the branches of a half circle of trees planted generations before. A creek ran through the dell, fast and deep enough that it rarely froze solid, even in the depths of winter. Country’s fronds grew thickly around and within the bower. The members of the clan at the bower consisted of the elderly and the young, along with a couple of the clan’s hunters who were presently nursing new offspring. Seen-By-The-Sky’s youngest birth-child, Touches-The-Fire, was seated among the other adolescents – those not yet given their fronds and bound to Country, but old enough to be independent of adult care.

Seen-By-The-Sky rested hirs hand on hirs offspring’s head, while Faces-The-Dark and Borne-On-The-Wind unloaded the portions of butchered Spineside from their baskets.

Touches-The-Fire said, “Foreigners have come.” Even lacking fronds of hirs own, the child would be dimly aware of Country’s unease through the feel it put in the air.

“Country told us.”

The clan’s collective anxiety had an animal quality, wordless and pervasive. Catches-The-Rain, shrivelled and crooked except for hirs healthy fronds, watched Seen-By-The-Sky warily.

“The Winter Blessings were not there,” said Seen-By-The-Sky, without preamble.

“We know,” said Catches-The-Rain. “They have not left Country.”

“And the hunters?” Seen-By-The-Sky knew where they were, could feel it through Country’s web. What hir meant was why had the hunters gone down into the lowest valleys.

“Hidden-By-Cloud led them to watch the foreigners,” Catches-The-Rain replied, with a stubborn tang of defiance.

Foreigners, rather than intruders. People. Seen-By-The-Sky kept hirs anger in check. “I will see for myself.”

“I will come,” said Faces-The-Dark.

“And I,” added Borne-On-The-Wind.

“I will return soon,” said Seen-By-The-Sky to Touches-The-Fire.

They journeyed in silence to where Country told them the other hunters waited. Foreigners. Hir turned that over. From where? Hir gaze turned up to the sweep of stars, fading now with the blue sunrise. Surely not.

The rest of the clan’s hunters were squatted in a row, looking down into one of the narrow fingers that the plain extended into the foothills.

Hidden-By-Cloud lifted hirs hand from the curve of hirs belly to beckon Seen-By-The-Sky and hirs companions over.

Something new occupied the centre of the valley floor. It somewhat resembled the sheer rock formations in the mountains that they had so fruitlessly searched. But these faces and columns were peculiarly smooth and regular, broken in places by sections that seemed like lattices of straight tree branches and dotted with other structures for which Seen-By-The-Sky had no analogy.

The ground around the foreign edifice was torn up and cleared bare of Country’s fronds. A narrow scar of bare earth stretched down the valley towards the plain.

“What is it?” asked Borne-On-The-Wind, hirs words almost lost in the cloud of hirs shock.

“The foreigners,” Hidden-By-Cloud answered. “It is their hive.”

Now that hirs eyes had adjusted to the distance, Seen-By-The-Sky could perceive moving figures in the open spaces within the hive’s walls. The foreigners stood upright, like people, and appeared to have arms and legs and head, but even so far away, hir could see that the resemblance ended there.

“Where did they come from?”
Hidden-By-Cloud’s scent was uncertain. Seen-By-The-Sky surmised that the watchers had ventured no closer than this. Hidden-By-Cloud was cautious by nature, and pregnancy had made hir more so. Seen-by-the-Sky had noticed as they approached that one of the clan’s hunters was missing, who had not been at the bower.

“Where is Runs-With-The-Storm?”

“Gone to the country east,” said Hidden-By-Cloud, “to see if they have had better fortune with the Winter Blessings.”

“And where are those? Catches-The-Rain said they had not left Country.”

“Down there.” Hidden-By-Cloud pointed towards the foreigners’ nest. “Strides-The-Wide-Plain came from the country north-and-west,” hir volunteered. “More foreigners are on the plain with their foreign beasts. They are hunting the Greatest of All, and slaughtering Greater Deaths. Stride-The-Wide-Plain’s clan tried to drive them off, but were driven back themselves.”

“Were many killed?” asked Faces-The-Dark. It was hirs sire’s clan in that country.

“Only two, Strides-the-Wide-Plain did not say their names.”

Faces-the-Dark made an animal noise of distress and turned away.

“The foreigners have weapons that made the clan’s warriors fall as if speared in the head,” Hidden-By-Cloud went on, hirs fear and confusion palpable. “But no spears could be seen and afterwards there was no mark on the bodies. The foreigners have stopped them from hunting the Greatest of All. Strides-The-Wide-Plain wishes to gather the clans for war.”

The clan north-west of Country were not harvesters of Winter Blessings, their country being partly on the open plain and too far from the mountains. Instead, they relied on bringing down one of the Greatest of All and smoking and drying its tender meats. The prevention of their hunt was as great a crisis for that clan as the absence of the Winter Blessings was for Seen-By-The-Sky’s.

Hir pondered. Strides-The-Wide-Plain was known to be as hasty as Hidden-By-Cloud was cautious. The foreigners had defeated an entire clan’s hunters, true, but had apparently defended themselves with only a minimum of force when they had weapons that could bring down a Greater Death and could surely have slaughtered the entire clan. And yet they had consigned that clan to starvation, and apparently diverted the Winter Blessings to their nest, below. What to make of it?

Hir turned hirs attention back to the valley. Country was warning them that something approached the foreigners’ hive.

“One of their carrying beasts,” said Hidden-By-Cloud.

A creature ran along the scar from the direction of the prairie. It was of a kind that Seen-By-The-Sky did not know, armoured and blocky. It moved smoothly and fast, emitting a faint, warning whine as it went.

“What does it carry?” asked Borne-On-The-Wind.

“The foreigners.”

Seen-By-The-Sky shared Borne-On-The-Wind’s confusion. “I do not see them.”

“The beast has cavities inside its shell,” said Hidden-By-Cloud. “That is where the foreigners ride.”

Amazement and curiosity got the better of Seen-By-The-Sky’s wariness. Hir stood. “Faces-the-Dark and I will go closer and see.”

#

As the carrier emerged from the coral-ferns onto the cleared ground around the research camp, Mils’s gaze was immediately drawn to what carpeted the bare earth, still dusted with morning frost.

“Oh.”

The carrier’s driver was a terse but not unfriendly Filipino named Hector, with a ragged-edged synthetic skin graft covering most of the left side of his face. “Yeah, the moths. The lights attract them. Like moths, you know?” He lifted the corner of his mouth, making the edges of the graft wrinkle.

Thousands of tiny frozen carcasses lay in drifts around the camp walls. The carrier’s tyres crunched over the top on the way to the gate.

“Why are they dead?”

Hector shrugged. “They fly around the lights until they wear out. Still a lot hanging on the walls in the day.”

The sheer numbers made the scene as shocking, in its way, as the butchered seismosaur.

The gates of the camp rolled ponderously aside at the carrier’s approach. Guards with disrupter rifles watched from the towers to either side. As they passed through the gate, Mils spied the ragged blankets of moths clinging to the shadows in the overhang of the tower walkways.

Research camp was, in effect, a single u-shaped building surrounding an open parking apron, enclosed on its fourth side by the gate. Watchtowers rose from each corner, joined by shielded rooftop walkways. Several people with rakes and shovels were clearing the apron of moth carcasses, piling them to one side of the gate.

Stepping down from the carrier, Mils was hailed by a very tall figure leaning down from the rooftop walkway. She recognised Qian immediately, even with her filter mask and muffled against the cold as she was.

“Have a nice time at the butchering?” Qian called.

Mils signed a smile. “I don’t know if ‘nice’ is the right word, but I’m glad I stayed.”

“Nah. Did you see any koi?”

“No.” The butchering of the seismosaur carcass had been uninterrupted by apex predators or sub-sapient natives.

“Want to? There’s a bunch up on the ridge watching the camp.” Qian gestured towards the stairs that led up to her end of the roof.

With a hasty thanks to Hector, Mils bounded up the staircase, rattling the metal frame with her steps. Qian had moved over to the parapet shielding. A disrupter rifle was slung across her back.

“I thought you were a geologist, not a guard.”

Qian gestured a grin. “Need those step-drive hoppers, nah, to get up into the mountains. Or the rest of the lab gear I asked for, to do more with my samples from around the port. So, until I can get some more interesting rocks, or do more interesting things with the rocks I have, I’m a guard. Or a driver, nah, or the barista – once we find where the coffee grinder is in the packing crates.”

She pointed up the valley side. “Your lucky day, nah. Two of them are coming down. This is the first time.” She touched a finger to the mask at the side of her jaw. “Someone get Jeroen and Nabiyah up here, they won’t want to miss this.”

Mils immediately picked out the two tall figures coming down the slope. Had they been stationary and held themselves lower, their hides would have camouflaged them well. With both suns in the sky, they were a pale ochre among the yellow fronds. It took her a few moments longer to spot the group sitting at the crest of the valley, shadowed by the forest eaves. The native tree-analogues looked like a cross between saguaro cacti and banyan trees, spray-painted red. Prop roots supported spined, meaty branches. The ruddy, lily-like leaves sprang from the branches on narrow vertical shoots. It was hard to tell where one tree ended and the next began or if, like the coral-ferns, entire sections of forest were single clonal colonies.

The two natives were nearing the edge of the cleared ground around the camp. They were approximately humanoid in body plan, hairless and smooth skinned. Mils guessed their hides would be blubbery and lacking pores, like the seismosaurs. Their round heads and thick necks were vaguely fish-like. Like the seismosaurs, they had prominent, gill-like exhalation flaps, although these had theirs above their shoulders rather than at the back of their ribs. Each of them appeared to have something attached to or growing from their gill flaps, yellow like the coral-ferns around them. They wore string belts around their hips, from which hung an assortment of small items, and each carried a bundle of long sticks in one fist. Mils blinked. Throwing spears.

She turned towards Qian to ask how these had possibly been categorised as subsapients. Two other people had joined them at the wall, a short, heavyset woman with a thick plait of silver and black hair down her back, and a stooped white man, very tall but, from the thickness of his bones, obviously Earther. Nabiyah and Jeroen, Mils surmised. For the moment, she held her tongue.

The natives had paused at the edge of the cleared ground. They were big, as A.R. had said, easily topping two and a half metres, she judged. With obvious reluctance, the pair stepped out onto the litter of dead moths. They moved gingerly, searching for clearer patches to place their feet.

One stopped after a few paces, looking around at the drifts of corpses. The other came on, looking up at the wall, head swinging from side to side. They couldn’t move their eyes, a detached part of Mils thought. The nearer native raised its spear bundle to gesture at the camp, twisting at the same time to look back at its companion. It emitted a diverse array of sounds – barks, clicks, rumbles and coughs.

“Are you recording?” Nabiyah murmured.

“Ja. Getting it, for what it’s worth,” replied Jeroen in a thick Dutch or Afrikaaner accent.

Mils wondered how much she could infer from the manners of completely alien beings. Had they been humans, she would have read despair in the stance of the furthest and anger in the nearer.

The further native replied shortly to its companion, then the first turned back to the camp. It stood, watching the watchers on the wall for a moment. Mils had gooseflesh all up her arms. With sudden decisiveness, the native closed the rest of the distance to the wall, stopping where it could lean up and see them.

Up close, it looked genuinely ferocious. Across its chest were three ridged, parallel scars that could only be ritual marks. The things hanging from its neck gills were coral-fern fronds. They looked somehow as alive as the plants growing all around.

Qian’s muttered swearing came through Mils’s earpiece.

“Shhh!” Nabiyah hissed.

The native raised its spears again and spoke – Mils had no doubt it was speech -, addressing the humans gathered on the wall. Its scent came with its words, a confusion of sharply delineated odours. The native moved its hands as it spoke, in a series of what appeared to be aggressive gestures.

It paused, clearly waiting to see how they would react.

“What do we do?” asked Qian, nervously fingering the strap of her rifle. “That didn’t sound like a ‘hello’, nah.”

“Do nothing,” said Nabiyah, sharply.

“It’s just a threat display,” said Jeroen. “Stay still.”

With a loud huff that Mils could only interpret as disgust, the native turned its back on them and stalked back to its companion. It stooped, briefly, to pick up a dead moth, and gathering its companion in tow, continued back into the coral-ferns and towards its compatriots on the ridge.

Mils tore her eyes away. She looked incredulously at Nabiyah and Jeroen. “‘Threat display’?” she mimicked, incredulously. “It was talking to us.”

Nabiyah’s black eyes met hers unflinchingly. “You must be Sumila. We have a lot to discuss.”

#

Seen-By-The-Sky stood over Catches-The-Rain, the dead Winter Blessing an accusation in the dirt at the elder’s feet.

“Country told us, days before we left to harvest Winter Blessings, that something was amiss. You said it was nothing to fear. You said it was just Greater Deaths bringing down one of the Greatest of All.”

The rest of the clan crouched around them, heads down, even the warriors, such was Seen-By-The-Sky’s fury.

Catches-The-Rain sat similarly hunched, but hirs words remained scented with defiance. “It could have been that,” hir insisted. “The feeling was the same.”

“It was not,” said Seen-By-The-Sky with such finality that Catches-The-Rain physically flinched. “You were too afraid to hear what Country was telling us. We all heard it,” hir went on, addressing the rest of the clan now as much as Catches-The-Rain. “We all heard it, but we, too, were afraid and in our confusion we looked to the eldest among us.”

Faces-The-Dark said, “Seen-By-The-Sky is right. What is the point of being joined to Country if we do not heed its warnings?”

“There is none,” said Seen-By-The-Sky.

“What is to be done?” asked Hidden-By-Cloud.

“We must drive them off,” said Borne-On-The-Wind. “They have stolen the Winter Blessings and gathered them to their hive.”

Stolen? Seen-By-The-Sky wondered about that. True, the Winter Blessings had gathered at the foreigners’ hive rather than in their usual hibernation refuges in the mountains. But the foreigners had made no move to harvest the dead Winter Blessings that surrounded them. Clearly, the foreigners had no use for them. Rather, they were like the Greater Deaths, heedless of the damage they did to Country.

The argument continued around hir.

“The foreigners are many, far more than us,” said Hidden-By-Cloud, hirs hand resting protectively over hirs womb.

“Then we must gather the clans as Strides-The-Wide-Plain has said,” retorted Borne-On-The-Wind.

“Runs-With-The-Storm is yet to return from the country east. Our neighbours may have bounty to share.”

“We do not need to make war,” said Faces-The-Dark. “They are just animals, parasites on their carrying beasts. Seen-By-The-Sky heard, too, they cannot speak, their scents are without meaning or intent. Animals can be driven off.”

“What of the weapons that Strides-The-Wide-Plain spoke of?”

“What weapons?” Faces-The-Dark thumped hirs chest. “We can kill Greater Deaths. When the clans gather in spring, we bring down the Greatest of All. Strides-The-Wide-Plain’s clan were overcome and sought to excuse it.”

“Do you think so?” said Seen-By-The-Sky. Hir spoke softly, but the others fell silent. “The foreigners made no aggressive move when I challenged them. Nor are they interested in the Winter Blessings.”

“Then why have they diverted them to their hive?” demanded Borne-On-The-Wind. “Is their intent to destroy us? To take our country for themselves?”

“They have wounded Country,” said Hidden-By-Cloud. “Perhaps their intent is to destroy Country as well.”

The stink of horror and revulsion from every member of the clan was almost overwhelming.

“They are heedless,” said Seen-By-The-Sky. “They do not understand what they do.”

“Animals,” declared Faces-The-Dark, radiating satisfaction.

Seen-By-The-Sky was not so certain, but elected not to pursue the argument. “Gather up baskets. We will harvest as many of the Winter Blessings as we can. Everyone who is able.” Hir gestured to Touches-The-Fire and the other juveniles. “Children too.”

Catches-The-Rain stirred hirself to protest. “Surely it is too dangerous.”

Hidden-By-Cloud, cautious as ever, agreed. Faces-The-Dark and Borne-On-The-Wind stood with Seen-By-The-Sky. Hir raised hirs hand. “Be still. If we make no aggressive gesture, I do not believe we will come to harm.”

Hidden-By-Cloud subsided rather than challenge hir further. Catches-The-Rain made no effort to hide hirs resentment but, unsupported, said no more.

Touches-The-Fire fell into step as Seen-By-The-Sky led the reluctant procession back down to the lower valley. “What if the foreigners decide to stay?”

Seen-By-The-Sky had no real answer. “We do not know if they will. They came suddenly, perhaps they will leave the same way. Perhaps that is their way.” Hir kept hirs fears to hirself, for the sake of hirs child with hirs bare gills. What if the foreigners did not leave? What country would there be for Touches-The-Fire and the other children to be bound to, when they were old enough to take their fronds?

Conversation died when they came in sight of the foreigners’ hive. Seen-By-The-Sky did not allow hirs stride to falter. Their advent caused a stir on the hive’s walls, foreigners hurrying hither and thither, yapping urgently in their animal voices.

“Take only the freshest carcasses. If we smoke them well, they will last us a while,” Seen-By-The-Sky said, when they reached the scarred ground. Hir filled hirs voice with confidence and authority, giving the clan no opportunity to consider the horror that most were witnessing for the first time.

Hir was grateful that the children could only dimly feel Country’s hurt, around the edges of the scar the foreigners had made. Hir could see the hunters struggling with it, the fronds quivering in their gills.

Faces-The-Dark and Hidden-By-Cloud followed hirs lead, directing the children and younger hunters. Seen-By-The-Sky watched the wall as they hurried to comply. The foreigners were gathered in numbers, crowding the walls. Several had decorated sticks in hand – the weapons Strides-The-Wide-Plain had told of? If so, the foreigners made no move to use them.

Hir looked around at the dead Winter Blessings underfoot. There were so many, all that would have fed the clan through the whole of winter, one modest harvest at a time. Most of them were too many days dead, lying out in the suns, to be of use. Not enough left, surely, to see the clan through winter. Perhaps Hidden-By-Cloud was right, and their neighbours would have harvest enough to share.

And if not, what then?

Borne-On-The-Wind called out. One of the foreigners’ carrying beasts approached up the valley. Country’s warning had been lost in the noise of its injury. The shelled beast slowed to a crawl as it neared. A grinding noise from the direction of the hive made Seen-By-The-Sky turn. A section of the hive wall was drawing aside. Foreigners gathered in the opening, their stick weapons ready.

“Clear a path,” hir called. “Let it pass.”

The whole clan paused to watch the shelled thing go by. Close up, it was like nothing Seen-By-The-Sky had ever seen or heard of in all the tales of hirs people. Was it from the stars? Yet the foreigners in the hive were clearly creatures of flesh – strange, admittedly – but like anything hir knew of on earth.

The shelled thing had no legs, but moved along on circular means like sections of log that somehow stayed fixed in place while they rolled. Sections of its upper shell were clear. Faces peered out, foreigners, but lacking the protuberances of those at the hive.

The thing rolled into the hive. The foreigners retreated after it and the wall closed again.

#

“Just because the Babel can’t make sense of it doesn’t mean there isn’t language there,” Mils insisted. “The Babel can’t translate Singlish to Euraf English half the time.”

Jeroen threw up his meaty hands in exasperation. “We aren’t just bloody relying on the Babel. We can’t make sense of it because there is no sense. They’re sub-sapient animals.”

“I saw them for myself,” she reminded him.

“And I’ve studied them for myself,” he snapped.

Nabiyah observed in silence from her perch on a stack of unopened packing crates near the door of the biology lab, shoulders leaned against the wall and her eyes half lidded.

“You saw them outside, picking up the moths, how organised they were. They came with baskets to carry them,” Mils exclaimed. “Baskets that they made.”

“Weaving is not a sapient attribute,” Jeroen replied stubbornly. “It’s common among Terrestrial birds.” He stopped short of adding “as any competent biologist would know”, but she could see him biting it back.

What about throwing spears and knives and tool belts, she thought? She changed tack. “So, the camp’s disrupted the migratory pattern of these moths, and the natives use the moths as a food source.”

“That much we can agree on,” he conceded, his relief evident at the temporary truce. “Although it seems unlikely that the moths would be more than a supplementary food source. We know the juvenile moths shelter inside the coral ferns. We haven’t tracked the adults but our best guess is that they hibernate or shelter in caves in the lower mountains. We don’t know if they’re a short-term pre-winter bonanza for the chimps or a lower intensity supply over the whole season. Unfortunately, the moths have been attracted to the camp’s heat – like moths. Then, when the lights come on, they fly around all bloody night and exhaust themselves in the cold.”

“Even if they’re only a supplementary source, the camp’s still disrupting their food supply. Do we know how marginal they are in winter?”

Jeroen shook his head. “Fairly, would be my guess.”

“Can we leave the lights off and try and brush the moths off the walls?”

Nabiyah spoke for the first time since they had entered the lab. “It won’t work. It’s the heat that’s attracting them, not the light.”

“But it’s the lights that are making them kill themselves.”

“If they are a winter-long food source for the koi, they’re no good if they’re all dead now,” added Jeroen.

Nabiyah was shaking her head before he had finished speaking. “And then what? You want to let the koi into the camp to scrape the moths off the walls?”

“Surely there can’t be any harm letting them take the ones on the outer walls.”

Nabiyah clicked her teeth, then nodded. “I’ll talk to security about leaving the lights off at night. I’m not sure they’ll be happy about letting the koi get so close.”

Their casual use of the term ‘koi’ set Mils’s teeth on edge. It sounded derogatory. “You both know they’re sapients.”

Jeroen growled at her. “Sub-sapient animals are capable of learning and adapting.” He pushed his chair along the bench of half-unpacked lab equipment, and waved irritably in the air space of a display terminal. “Observation Drone Three, live visual,” he told it.

The screen sprang to life. “This is the local tribe, right now. The drone is stationed in a tree by their nest site.”

“Camp site, you mean. Is control of fire another example of sub-sapient tool use?” The picture was hard to discern, with the natives, ferns and trees all black in the blue sunlight. Only the several cooking fires and the creek visible in the background, reflecting the brilliance of the sky, had any colour. She made out a rough circle of natives, mostly squatting, gathered around one standing figure. Heavy smoke rose from the fires. Mils peered closer. “They’re smoking the moths to preserve them!”

Behind the natives, the trees appeared to have grown together to form a tightly woven dome. It could have been a natural formation, but she would have bet against it.

“See the big one, standing,” said Jeroen. “What would you say it’s doing?”

“‘It’? I thought you’d studied them.”

He didn’t rise to the provocation. “We haven’t examined one, but we’ve guessed that they’re hermaphrodites, the same as every other large creature here. The big one.”

“It looks like it’s browbeating the one crouched directly in front of it, the old looking one.”

“Ja, but listen.” He clicked his fingers by the terminal and sound joined the images. “Listen.”

Mils did so. She heard the same kinds of sounds she had heard from the wall. “There are patterns in it.”

“Ja. But there’s no words, no syntax, no grammar. The same sounds, the same strings of sounds, the same modulations of sounds are all repeated in entirely different contexts. I could match what we’re hearing now to other recordings we’ve made of completely different circumstances. This is just a dominance display.”

Mils chewed her lip. Looking at his earnest expression, she had little doubt he could back up the claim. “But what about their tools and weapons? What about the fire?”

“It’s partial sapience. They’re animals, like octopi or crows. Both of those have advanced problem solving. They use tools but have no real language. Great apes were the same. Animals.” He pressed, sensing her wavering conviction. “Look, how would a social sapient being not have language?”

She wasn’t ready to concede yet. “We must be missing something.”

Jeroen pushed himself abruptly to his feet. “We’re not. They’re missing the piece that makes them people. I’m going to get some dinner.”

“Save us seats,” said Nabiyah as he strode past her and out the door. Jeroen raised a hand to show that he had heard.

“He knows,” said Mils, when the door had slid shut again, leaving her and Nabiyah alone in the lab. “He just won’t admit it.”

Nabiyah stretched her arms and stood. “Of course not. He’s scared to.”

“We need a sapientologist.”

The older woman shook her head. “There won’t be any sapientologist. Asking for one would be admitting that there are sapients to study. The company won’t tolerate that, they need this biosphere too much.” She walked over to the window as she talked. “Without this world, the prospects in this system would be limited to mining for rare earths and other ultra precious minerals. Even then it would be marginal. With B-and-E…”

“They can have everything,” Mils finished.

Nabiyah nodded. “Including B-and-E. For the moment we’re maintaining the fiction of minimal intervention – sustainable harvest of the seismosaurs, minimum possible defensive force. But only for the moment.”

Mils frowned at what Nabiyah was suggesting. “A private corporation can’t colonise a world. It’s against–“

“No, but they can hold the patents on the nanomes and inoculants required to survive here – that we develop – all the modified crops and livestock.”

For an entire world, that would be economically dependent on supplying the company’s mining monopoly in the Scree. “But not if there are indigenous sapients.”

“No. What family do you have?”

The question caught her off guard. “Uh. My dad and step-mum and my sister are in England, my brother and his…” Mils stopped, suddenly wondering how badly she had misjudged the station chief.

Nabiyah glanced at her, her expression giving away nothing. “Jeroen and I both have partners and children to go home to when our contracts are up in six months time. That’s why he’s scared. That’s why I am.”

Mils stared at her, hollow fear spreading out from the pit of her belly. “You really think the company would disappear you – us?”

“You really think they wouldn’t?” Nabiyah countered. Now she looked bleakly amused. “Think about the scale of the investment in this system, the size of the fortune to be made here.”

“But… they’d send someone to kill us?”

Nabiyah turned back to the window. “They wouldn’t need to. Do you know what A.R. was before he signed with the company? What he still is, really?”

A chill ran up Mils’s spine.

“He’s a mercenary. So are most of his crew – including Hector, who brought you here.” Hector, whose facial graft was the sort of surgery that injured soldiers got, cheap and crude. Nabiyah went on, “Oh, there are a few at mobile camp who have some actual butchering skills. I believe Yaphet is a veterinarian and I know Ngaio is a forensic pathologist by training. But most of mobile camp are professional soldiers, hired by the company to protect its interests and keep its secrets.” Nabiyah turned to face Mils directly, drawing herself up in a way that made Mils feel small, although she was half a head taller. “Now how much do you feel like making a fuss about indigenous sapients?”

Mils felt sick. A.R.’s welcome and his interest in the new arrival seemed suddenly sinister. “What do we do?” she managed.

With a shrug that suggested the answer was obvious, Nabiyah replied, “We keep preaching the line about sub-sapients. When we get home, we can say what we know, and perhaps we can avert a genocide.”

Mils looked at her in horror.

Nabiyah arched an eybrow. “Do you really think they wouldn’t?”

She and Jeroen would be going home in six months. The year of Mils’s contract yawned ahead of her, abruptly terrifying. “I’ll still be here.”

“Yes. So you need to keep your head down until the peacemakers arrive.” Nabiyah paused and reached out to take Mils’s hand. The older woman’s grip was fierce and, for the briefest of moments, Mils glimpsed the terror she was keeping behind her cool facade. “And if Jeroen and I don’t reach Earth, you need to keep your head down so that you can say what you know when you get home.”

#

Seen-By-The-Sky woke early, in the ruddy twilight before red dawn. It was warm inside the clan’s shelter dome but when hir pushed aside the woven mats that hung over the entrance, hir found frost thick on the ground outside.

Catches-The-Rain sat alone by one of the smouldering fire pits. Hir looked up at Seen-By-The-Sky’s emergence but did not speak. There seemed little left to say between them.

“Are there more?” Catches-The-Rain had asked when the rest of the clan returned with bulging baskets.

“A few, perhaps,” Seen-By-The-Sky had replied. “There are some still on the walls of the foreigners’ nest. Most are too long dead.”

Hir had seen Catches-The-Rain making the same calculation as Seen-By-The-Sky had hirself. “Too few.”

“Perhaps if we had started gathering them earlier, we could have salvaged enough,” Seen-By-The-Sky had said, knowing it was cruel, but not keeping the blame from the scent of hirs words.

Hir was still too angry to apologise without Catches-The-Rain first admitting hirs failure.

Runs-With-The-Storm had returned before blue sunset. Hir had met a party from the country east in the forest in between, coming the opposite way to enquire of them. The eastern clan’s harvest places were not empty of Winter Blessings, but depleted to the point that they doubted their sufficiency.

Seen-By-The-Sky gathered hirs spears and made the trek down to the lower valley. The forest was still, every creature small and large either hibernating or migrated for the cold months. Some of the hibernators might be found and their cocoons dug up. In any winter a few always were but, like the tree roots the clan would bake in the hard weeks before the spring thaw, these were only sufficient to supplement the harvests of Winter Blessings, not replace them. Tree roots and lucky finds of underground hiding places could not sustain the clan through the entire season.

Faces-The-Dark was already on the ridge overlooking the foreigners’ nest. Fierce, white lights blazed from the tops of tall stems above the nest’s walls. Like stars, Seen-By-The-Sky thought. They lit the nest in a ring of full daylight colours amid the red morning fronds. A haze of Winter Blessings swarmed around each star light.

 Faces-The-Dark turned before the sound of Seen-By-The-Sky’s approach could have carried to hir, alerted by Country to Seen-By-The-Sky’s approach.

“Dead Winter Blessings will not keep us,” said Seen-By-The-Sky when hir reached the other hunter.

“If the foreigners let us gather them once, they will let us again,” said Faces-The-Dark.

“Still, it will not be enough. You saw how many were dead.” It had looked like virtually an entire winter’s harvest, and most of them already too far gone to use.

“There are more on the walls of their nest,” said Faces-The-Dark, hirs words carrying a whiff of exasperation at Seen-By-The-Sky’s pessimism. “If they will let us gather the dead, then it seems likely they will let us harvest the living.”

“It will still not be enough.”

“Then what?” Faces-The-Dark demanded.

If the clan starved, then the youngest, without Country’s bond to vitalise them, would be the first to die. Touches-The-Fire would be among them. “The young, who are not yet bound to Country, could find refuge where the foreigners have not come, with another clan, in another countrys.” Since it was Faces-The-Dark hir was speaking to, Seen-By-The-Sky did not attempt to hide hirs dismay at hirs own suggestion.

Faces-The-Dark registered shock, unable, for several moments, to find words. “It is the death of our clan you speak of,” hir managed, eventually.

“It is a chance for our children, and a chance for the clan to survive and begin anew,” said Seen-By-The-Sky. Some of the adults might live to see the spring, might harvest enough from the walls of the foreigners’ nest to last a while, and scrounge from the roots of the trees and underground burrows and the walls of the foreigners’ nest to fend off starvation for the rest of the time until spring.

“The children could not take themselves,” said Faces-The-Dark, slowly. “Whoever took them would have to go too far from Country to return.”

“I have considered that,” Seen-By-The-Sky admitted. Whoever took them would have to be gone long past the time that their gill fronds shrivelled and died. Once that happened, Country would never join with them again. Nor would any other country. Whoever took the children would be as alone as a child for the rest of their life. More so, because they would know what they had lost.

“We have not come to that pass yet,” said Faces-The-Dark.

“We must decide soon,” said Seen-By-The-Sky. “If we wait until we are starving and the winter snows close in, it will be too late.”

A change in Country’s touch made them both look towards the valley floor. One of the foreigners’ carrying things approached the nest.

“Their carrying things are not beasts,” said Seen-By-The-Sky, certain now that hir had seen one of the things up close.

“How can that be?” asked Faces-The-Dark, expressing confusion rather than disagreement.

“There is no life in that. It moves, but it is like the fire or the rain or the wind. You saw the other as well as I did. You heard and smelled it.”

“How?” asked Faces-The-Dark, again.

“They have bent the elements to their will,” said Seen-By-The-Sky. Hir gestured to the nest, where the star lights had just extinguished. The foreigners had come with the stars they had seen, falling and rising between the sky and the earth. Or else the things that carried them and the lights that bathed them had been gifted to them by the stars. “All of the elements, when we have tamed only fire.”

Faces-The-Dark was silent for a time. Eventually, hir said, “But how can wordless animals have such mastery?”

“They are not animals,” said Seen-By-The-Sky. “Go closer again and listen with just your ears. Their voices are only sound, but they have words.”

Faces-The-Dark stared at the hive while hirs thoughts circled reluctantly to the conclusion that Seen-By-The-Sky had already drawn. “Then they cannot know our speech.” Hir was silent a moment, then added, “They will think us animals.”

“Even if it is not their intent to destroy us, said Seen-by-the-Sky, “any protest we make will be as meaningless as the flutter of a dying Winter Blessing.”

Country drew their attention again.

“Catches-The-Rain is coming,” said Faces-The-Dark.

Seen-By-The-Sky gave hirs attention to the elder’s approach. Hir stood. Faces-The-Dark felt the wrongness now, too.

“No,” said Seen-By-The-Sky, softly.

#

Mils picked muzzily at her breakfast. Having stayed awake until local nightfall, she had failed utterly to sleep in the scant few hours between Jaycee’s setting and Herod’s rise. She had ended up sitting by the window in the biology lab, watching the moths swarm around the camp’s floodlights. The recommendation to leave the lights off was under consideration. Day had dawned, reddening the hillsides beyond the reach of the floods, while the sky remained black, the great arc of the Milky Way fading only slightly in Herod’s feeble light. To the west, away from the sunrise, the sky faded to deep green.

The planet’s rotation was about six hours too long for a human body clock, so she was going to either be permanently tired, or largely out of synch with the local day. Most people seemed to try and sleep at night, perhaps with a daytime siesta.

She yawned. At least there was real coffee.

“Wait until full summer, nah,” said Qian, seated across from her at the long dining table. “No night at all, then. Like being in the arctic.” Mils groaned and Qian grinned. “Red day’s not so bad, nah. Still need blackout blinds though.”

Jeroen leaned around the door. “Sumila. There’s another koi coming down to the camp.”

“Again?” exclaimed Qian, with a laugh.

“They must be back for more moths,” said Mils.

Jeroen shook his head. “Don’t think so. Just one, this time.”

They both pushed out their chairs.

“Is it you?” Qian asked. “The koi must like you, nah. You arrive and all of a sudden they never stop visiting.”

They followed Jeroen to the airlock, fitting filter masks as they went, and then clattered up the metal stair to the rooftop walkway.

Nabiyah was already there, along with several others. Hector was among them. When he noticed Mils, he lifted his hand to gesture a smile.

“Two more up on the ridge, watching,” Nabiyah said.

Mils knew where to look but struggled to pick them out. Herod’s light turned everything in the landscape red, including the natives. Its dimness made shapes indistinct. She spotted them, at last. A solitary native approached the camp, moving slowly, arms extended and hands splayed to trail through the scarlet fronds of the coral-ferns. The native held its head high, but its back was stooped, its steps crabbed.

“It’s an old one,” said Mils.

Jeroen glanced up and squinted. “Ja, I think so,” he agreed, returning his attention to the recorder in his hands. She wondered if Nabiyah had talked to him after setting her straight.

Hector had a recorder, too, holding it with his forearms leaned against the parapet.

The native stepped from the ferns and onto the litter of dead moths. Its eyes were on the watchers gathered at the wall, head swinging from side to side to observe them all. It stopped and reached to its string belt, where a chipped stone knife hung.

Painfully, the native straightened its stooped back, stretching up as tall as it could. The effort made its whole body quiver. It held the crude blade up for them to see, pausing to be sure that it had their undivided attention.

It plunged the knife into the gill flap at the side of its neck. With a violent wrench, it ripped the knife forward, opening its own throat.

Mils cried out in horror as the others around her did the same. Her stomach rebelled. She wanted to turn away, to rip of her mask and vomit. She remained transfixed as dark blood, thick as treacle, pumped from the wound and down the front of the native’s torso.

It still held itself rigidly upright for several moments more. Then its legs buckled and it collapsed among the dead moths.

“Bloody hell,” said Jeroen. “Oh, shit.” His hands shook violently, holding the recorder.

Nabiyah was breathing harshly enough to trigger her mask’s microphone. Qian turned and ran down the stairs to hammer on the airlock release, lifting her mask and spewing her breakfast onto the door as it cycled open to let her inside.

Mils stared at the body and the field of tiny carcasses around it, unable to look away. Why would it do such a thing? “They need the moths to get through the winter.”

Nabiyah’s expression was wild behind her mask. “What?”

“That’s the message, why it came down here to suicide in front of us. We have to leave the floodlights off. We have to let them harvest the live moths from the walls, or they’ll starve.”

“Bloody hell. Shit,” Jeroen murmured, beside Mils. His eyes were filled with tears.

Nabiyah was recovering quickly. “That’s a lot of supposition. It could be an order for us to leave.”

“By suiciding?”

“A symbolic gesture to show they mean business.”

Nabiyah’s eyes went wide behind her visor. Symbolic. Animals didn’t suicide to make symbolic gestures. Hector was right behind her, tucking his recorder into his coat before jogging down the stairs. His eyes, when he glanced up at them, were thoughtful. His mask’s earpiece would have picked up everything they had just said, the same as everyone else on the wall. They watched him step gingerly past the spray of Qian’s vomit as he cycled the airlock.

Mils waited until the airlock closed and she saw him pull off his mask. “How do we explain this?” she hissed.

“We saw it,” said Jeroen, dully. “We all saw it. Shit. I just want to get home.”

Mils’s pulse thumped in her ears. “We have to let them in to get the moths.”

“No.” Nabiyah shook her head and added a spacer’s downward chop of her hand for emphasis. “No, we can’t.”

“We have to do something.”

#

Borne-On-The-Wind came hurrying back to the campsite.

“The foreigners have opened the entrance of their nest,” hir said, excitedly.

Seen-By-The-Sky looked up from where hir and the other hunters were wrapping Catches-The-Rain’s body in dry creepers and leaves for cremation. “Tell us.”

Borne-On-The-Wind took a moment to catch hirs breath. “Some came out with a basket and scraped Winter Blessings into it, then beckoned to me.” Hir mimicked the gesture the foreigners had made. “They went back into their nest but left the basket behind.”

“They are inviting us to harvest the Winter Blessings,” said Faces-The-Dark. Before Seen-By-The-Sky could begin to object, hir added, “Let us first go and see.”

Seen-By-The-Sky acceded, although hir knew it would make no difference.

Hir followed the rest of the hunters down to the foreigners’ nest. A few foreigners clustered in the high bowers above the walls. Cautiously, the hunters approached. A basket of some unfamiliar material, bright blue, stood just beneath the wall. Seen-By-The-Sky pushed at it with hirs fingers. The top was a separate piece from the rest of it. Hir lifted the top aside. Inside, a small pile of Winter Blessings twitched feebly, too stupified to try and escape.

“It is an invitation,” said Faces-The-Dark. “They will let us harvest from their walls.”

Seen-By-The-Sky looked up at the Winter Blessings clinging to the sheltered overhangs and crevasses. It was almost too hard to crush the flare of hope from those around hir.

“Not enough,” hir said. “It will not be enough to feed us all through all the winter.”

Excitement died as quickly as it had arisen. They could see it for themselves, now that hir had stopped them to think.

Hidden-By-Cloud spoke first. “Then what is there to do?”

Faces-The-Dark knew, could not face hir to admit it.

“Harvest a few, now,” Seen-By-The-Sky told them. “Enough to show the foreigners that we understand their offer. Use their basket. Leave one of ours to show we will be back.”

Hidden-By-Cloud looked from hir to Faces-The-Dark. “And then?”

“The children must go, must find another country where the foreigners have not come.” Seen-By-The-Sky forced out the words hir had to say to complete it. “I will take them.”

Take them, and be lost to Country.

Fear and confusion filled the air around hir. Faces-The-Dark gave a sob, a wordless, animal sound and scent of grief.

#

Mils leaned out over the tower’s rail to watch. She found herself holding her breath as the natives gathered around the laundry hamper.

“Do you think they understand?”

“Ja, they’ve worked it out already,” Jeroen said, peering past her. “Watch.”

Mils had been surprised at how easy it was to capture the creatures, which seemed insensible once they were roosting, and had not struggled at all when they were dropped into the hamper.

“That’s a relief,” she said, watching the natives tip a few more moths into the hamper. “At least we’ve undone some of the damage.”

“Hopefully.”

“You think the company will buy the explanation?”

“They’ve bought every explanation so far,” said Jeroen. “It suits them to buy it.”

His hand touched hers on the rail, making her jump in surprise. Jeroen didn’t react, other than to move his hand away again. Mils looked down. A translucent data wafer lay on the rail. Heart thudding, she carefully moved her hand to cover it.

“That’s everything we’ve gathered so far,” Jeroen said. “Keep it hidden, make a back-up. Nabiyah and I update our copies every so often as we gather more material. We do it separately, so if one is caught, the other is not suspected. You do the same.”

Mils nodded, her mouth dry. A year. Even if Jeroen and Nabiyah were successful in getting their evidence to governments on Earth, even if they were heard and believed, it would take months for the peacemakers to reach B-and-E. She had to keep her head down for a year. Keep selling the lie that the natives were sub-sapient animals. Once she got home, she could do more.

A broadcast warning interrupted their conversation. “Hopper incoming!”

“What?”

Jeroen pointed past her. “There.”

The hopper was small, a one- or two-seater. The rippling waves of its step drive were clearly visible in the air around its long dragonfly tail. Weapons pods hung underneath its stubby wings.

The natives had seen the hopper’s approach, too, or felt the thrum of its drive. They were clearing out of the yard in haste. The camp’s gate began to roll shut behind them as the hopper came down in the yard. As it passed the level of the wall, Mils saw A.R. sitting beside the pilot. Hector strode out onto the apron as soon as the hopper touched down.

“Shit. Where’s Nabiyah?”

They half climbed, half slid down the ladder from the tower, then clattered along the wall and down the stairs to the airlock.

A.R. was at the lab ahead of them. Leaning in the doorway, Hector glanced back at their approach and shifted aside enough to let them crowd past.

“…so, as we said in our evaluation,” Nabiyah was saying, “great apes, elephants and cetaceans were all recorded making displays of displeasure, often self-destructive. This hasn’t altered our conclusion of sub-sapience.” There were beads of sweat on her brow.

A.R. held up a palm viewer in a delicate hand. Mils didn’t need to see what was on the screen. They had known Hector would send his recording of the native’s suicide straight to his boss. A.R. looked from Nabiyah to Mils and Jeroen.

“I can see,” he said, simply. And that was the end of it. They could explain all they liked about animals making symbolic gestures, A.R. had decided to believe the evidence of his own eyes.

“I am sorry. You will have to erase all of the evidence you have gathered that could be interpreted as… confusing the analysis you have already provided.”

“Our analysis is based on the evidence–” Nabiyah began, but A.R. waved the palm viewer to silence her.

Mils felt, as much as heard, Hector shift in the doorway behind her.

A.R. turned back to her and Jeroen. “We will need the data wafers you all have.”

Mils answered without thinking, “What data wafers?”

“We only needed to look with the proper perspective, to see that data was being copied, and by whom,” said A.R., with a regretful ghost of a smile. “We just needed a reason to see it.”

Mils wanted to argue. Surely they couldn’t be undone so easily! But Jeroen answered over the top of her. “I only just gave one to Mils. It’s in her left coat pocket. She had no role in copying the information.”

A.R. dipped his head in a gracious nod.

Mils looked from him to Jeroen. A.R. watched her with the professional cool of someone paid well enough not to have moral quandaries. Jeroen wouldn’t look at her. Her vison blurred. Her cheeks hot, she fished out the wafer and handed it over.

“Thank you. Yours?”

“It’s in my room,” said Jeroen, thickly.

“So is mine,” added Nabiyah, her face and voice both dull with defeat.

“Hector will go with you. Please also give him the additional copies you each made.”

Jeroen was already turning to go. His movements caught, just for an instant. His face showed nothing.

Mils dug her fingernails into her palms as Hector followed Nabiyah and Jeroen from the room. A.R. dropped the palm viewer and data wafer on the bench beside him.

“Are you really?” was as much of the question as Mils could choke out.

He smiled, faintly, looking out the window rather than at her. “Really what? Going to exterminate some dangerous animals?”

She could barely speak. “You said you could see.”

“You don’t know what I can see. You should think about what you can see.”

He said it mildly, without any sense of a personal threat. But it was the impersonality that raised gooseflesh on her skin.

“You can go,” A.R. said.

#

The children followed solemnly behind Seen-By-The-Sky. Touches-The-Fire was closest behind hirs heels. Hidden-by-Cloud brought up the rear, one hand always resting on the pregnant curve of hirs belly.

They kept to the forest fringes, where there was at least some slim prospect of hunting or foraging. Seen-by-the-Sky’s intent was to move from country to country, until they found places for all the children and for Hidden-by-Cloud to give birth.

“Perhaps you will find sanctuary for them quickly,” Faces-The-Dark had said. “In time to return. Perhaps the foreigners will go, and our children can return before they take another country’s fronds.”

Perhaps all of those things, hir thought.

The cry came as the last touch of Country ebbed from hirs mind. Seen-by-the-Sky staggered. Hidden-by-Cloud gave a cry in response. The children, not hearing, gave off a stink of fear at the adults’ reactions.

“What is it?” Touches-the-Fire asked.

Seen-by-the-Sky steadied hirself. It had sounded like the voice of Country and the voices of all the clan they had left behind, raised in anguish. Hir met Hidden-by-Cloud’s gaze over the children’s heads.

“Stay here. I will see.”

Hir ran up the slope, seeking the edge of the trees, bursting from the shadows into the stark light of high day, and kept going until hir was high enough up the slope to see over the canopy.

Smoke rose from the forest where Country lay. Something hovered in the air, larger than the greatest of Flying Deaths. It was the foreigners’ flying thing. As Seen-by-the-Sky watched, bolts of fire lanced from its belly, down into the forest, into Country. Further away, to the north-west, there was more smoke, black dots hovering in the sky.

The dying cries of Country and the clan stabbed at Seen-by-the-Sky like spears. Hir’s legs would not hold hir. Hir dropped down, sprawling more than crouching.

In hirs anguish, hir saw a vision, blinding as the blue sun, of the future of hirs people. To be bound to Country would be to die, because they could not stand up to the foreigners’ weapons, and they could not run. To live, they would have to leave Country – all countries – behind, let those parts of Country they carried with them shrivel and die. To live, they would have to let the parts of themselves that were Country die.

Eventually, Seen-by-the-Sky pushed hirself to hirs feet. The foreigners’ flying thing still hovered in the smoke over Country. It no longer launched bolts of fire. Hidden-by-Cloud waited at the edge of the forest, ever cautious, with Touches-the-Fire and the other children clustered at hirs sides.

“What did you see?” asked Hidden-by-Cloud.

The question almost undid hir again. It was a moment before Seen-by-the-Sky could answer. “We must go further than we thought to find safety.”

“What has happened?” asked Touches-the-Fire.

Seen-by-the-Sky looked down at hirs child. Touches-the-Fire could never know Country. Nor could any of the others. Would hir be able to teach them enough, after Country ebbed way from hir, taking so much that was hir with it? Hir didn’t know.

“We must cross the mountains,” said Seen-by-the-Sky, placing a hand on Touches-the-Fire’s shoulder. “Our journey will be longer than we had thought.”

<END>

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