Cover Prologue 1 2 3 4 5 6

 

THE SKY PEOPLE

by S.M. Stirling   <joatsimeon@aol.com>


 

CHAPTER TWO:

 

Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th Edtion

University of Chicago Press, 1988

 

Venus: History of observation

...in 1927 and 1928 ultraviolet photographs were taken by the American astronomers William H. Wright and Frank E. Ross. The first studies of the infrared spectrum of Venus, by Walter S. Adams and Theodore Dunham (also of the United States) in 1932, showed that the atmosphere of the planet was possibly an oxygen-nitrogen one. Observations in the microwave of the spectrum, beginning in earnest in the late 1940s, provided the first evidence of the Earthlike surface temperatures.

The greatest advances in the early study of Venus were achieved through the use of unmanned spacecraft. The era of spacecraft exploration of the planets began with the Soviet Pioneer orbiter mission to Venus in 1960, which placed a spacecraft in orbit around the planet and sent four entry probes deep into the Venusian atmosphere. The entry probes provided data on atmospheric structure and composition, while the orbiter observed from above. The orbiter also provided the first high-quality map of Venus' surface topography and resulted in the naming of the continents, oceans and major islands. Most importantly, it also provided the first positive indications of intelligent life...

 

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Venus, Gagarin continent, south of Jamestown Extraterritorial Zone

 

The night would be cold, but at noontime in the canyon the late-summer heat was dense enough to cut, trapped by the fifty-foot walls of dark rock on either side. Beaches lined the edges of the cliffs and arched over the narrow slit in the rock bright sunlight filtered through the drying fall leaves and turned the air into a green-gold twilit shade; enough had fallen to make gold drifts along the banks, and more floated downstream past the feet of their churr.

The stream was low now, trickling ankle-deep over brown polished rock, but you could see that the winter torrents stretched halfway to the top of the cliffs and across the full twenty-yard width of this water-cut groove in the earth. The churr of the five riders were panting a little, tossing their shaggy blocky heads and stopping frequently to lap from pools; the beasts smelled hot and musky, like an overworked dog, and they panted with tongues the size of dishtowels. Now and then one would snap at a passing insect, with a wet chomp! like a door slamming.

The five riders kept going even when they took swigs from their canteens or gnawed biscuit and dried fruit. Three were Terrans in outfits of camouflaged parachute cloth, and two hunters of the Kudlak tribe in straw hats like a Chinese coolie type and knee-length leather pants held up by cross-belted suspenders; they hired out to Jamestown regularly for work like this. The Venusian tribesmen had quivers over their backs and short recurved bows made of laminated shamboo and tharg-horn in their fists, with steel trade-knives at their belts; the earthlings carried their rifles across their saddlebows. Humans and churr all looked tired and worn, sweat cutting runnels in the dust on faces, brown fur matted and dusty.

Marc blew out a long sigh of relief and blinked in the bright sunlight as they came out into a broad open circle, where a sinkhole that had collapsed long ago.

"I was beginning to doubt my memory," he said thankfully. "Mais, here we are."

 The depression was a mile or so across, an irregular oval with walls that were near-vertical in parts, in others collapsed into steep scree covered in thorny bushes. The little river spread more broadly here, in wide shallow pools edged with rushes; those were dry with autumn, their tops shedding white seed-fluff that mingled with insects whose wings glittered gaudy or iridescent, many of them six inches across. The largest of all were the dragonfly-like predators; those buzzed like miniature crop-dusters as they swooped feeding in lethal arcs. Birds larger still had been taking all of them impartially; they exploded upwards in a multicolored swarm as the humans came into view, and the noise level dropped. Cliffsides were streaked with droppings, the guano adding an ammonia pungency to the air and showing where rookeries were in the spring, but the big shaggy twig-bundles of nests were unoccupied right now.

Cynthia Whitlock pushed back her sweat-stained bush-hat and glanced at him sharply. "Did we just escape something?" she said.

"Not exactly," he said, scanning for a good campsite he remembered from his previous visit.

There were a couple of running springs around the edge of the sinkhole even this late in the year, each marked by a clump of trees and bright-green grass and bush. The best was at the top of a short rise, on a knee of rock more than head-height above the level floor. A steady trickle of water as thick through as a man's wrist fell down into a pool before draining down, providing clean water and a readymade shower. The cliff overhead was steep, in fact inclined inward towards the base, which would give shade. Just beyond was a section that had collapsed into a steep slope, which gave a route out if necessary.

"In other words, yes, there was something to worry about," Christopher Blair said dryly. "Was that why you've been pushing us so hard?"

Marc shrugged. "Weh. Thing is, it's getting on towards the winter rainy season. That usually starts with cloudbursts up in the hills before the lowlands get any rain. Flash floods can come down this way fast."

The Cynthia Whitlock had trained as a geologist. She looked at the way the rock had been gouged by water and nodded.

Zhown nodded too as he dismounted, looking around. "Toob! Toob!" he said, pointing at the canyon they'd just left, then around at the sinkhole and up at the cliffs around it. "Bad, much bad in narrow place if rains come. Better here. Better still if we go up there."

Blair raised one blond brow. "You might have mentioned that before we spent two days in a bloody wadi with no way out, old chap," he said dryly to Marc.

"Dr. Feldman and Cynthia thought it was important to get those samples. So it was worth the risk to save a week's travel time," Marc said shortly. "I was keeping an eye out for clouds, and I knew we'd reach this opening today. Otherwise we'd have to wait until the next dry season."

I like Cynthia, Marc thought. Hell, I like Zhown and Colrin. Blair... I don't know exactly why I don't like him. Well, weh, I do know why but it's not just that.

There wasn't any old flotsam on the knee of rock, which meant the floods didn't usually get that high, and there was enough level ground for themselves and their beasts as they set about making camp. That didn't take much time; they unsaddled and hobbled the riding-churr, unloaded the four pack-churr and hobbled them, and turned them loose to browse; at sundown they'd give them some of the smelly oilseed-oats-dried-offal pellets, and scraps. Churr would eat nearly anything, and until then they'd have plenty of browsing around the spring-fed pools and along the ponds.

With rain unlikely they didn't need a tent, and setting out bedrolls took only a moment. Last spring's floods had left plenty of deadwood around the perimeter of the sinkhole, and they soon had a campfire going. Colrin put a pot of water on to boil, and started stringing lumps of meat from a small antelope they'd shot earlier today on skewers, along with chunks of onion from a sack they had with them, then set them in a plastic basin and poured beer, chopped garlic and ground eesum spice in with them. The kebabs and some it-might-as-well-be-rice and dried vegetables and fruit would make a good enough meal; they'd also dug a couple of sack's-worth of tubers from a vine that grew along sandy riverbanks. Something very close to it was a cultivated crop, called a breadnut. The tame variety were about the size of a fist; the wild ones were the size of walnuts, but both tasted a lot like potatoes with a sweetish overtone when roasted in the embers, and the churr loved them too, all the better if they were cooked.

After that they got to work, each group in their own way. The two native hunter-guides unlimbered their horn-and-shamboo bows and started shooting at stumps and logs. Archery was new to them since the earthlings came—nobody on Venus had invented the bow yet, as far as they could tell—and so was riding on a churr's back rather than in a chariot behind it, but they'd taken to both like Russians to strong drink, and practiced relentlessly. It made them more useful, it was something they understood and could copy themselves, and it was a tactful way to refuse to sell them guns.

The Terrans got out their rock hammers and sample boxes.

"Is Zhown and Colrin's Kartahownian as lousy as it sounds to me?" Cynthia said, as they walked towards the southern rim of the sinkhole.

That held two tall sections of cliff where the river flowed into the sinkhole. The hills rose steeply there, several hundred feet; the knife-edged cleft where uncounted seasons had sliced through the rock showed bands in colors from fawn through dull yellow to black. Marc kept his eyes moving all 'round and the rifle in the crook of his arm ready to go, which wasn't easy as the footing changed from rock-and-mud to stream-smoothed rock alone. The stones rattled under the tough ceratopid-hide soles of their boots as the others did the same.

"It sure is," Marc said. "It's not their native language either and some of the sounds are hard for them."

"It's related," Blair cut in. "But distantly, much the way English is to Russian."

"Weh," Marc agreed. "A few of them learn Kartahownian so they can trade with the river valley people, but not that many. They're herders and hunters, mainly."

Blair stopped and raised his eyebrows. "And how are their relations with the city?"

The Englishman had spent a lot of time in Kartahown's territory since he arrived. Which was to be expected, of a linguist and anthropologist, but Marc's duties as a Ranger took him more among the wild peoples. He shrugged and replied:

"Like Bedouin or Mongols in the old days back on earth. Sometimes they trade or work as caravan guards and suchlike, sometimes they raid and steal stuff, sometimes they and the sedentary peoples fight big-time," he said. "There's some intermarriage, too, along the edges."

"That's roughly what I thought. Whose idea was it to teach them how to make bows and ride?" Blair asked, flushing under his tan. "What's that in aid of—is someone trying to recreate Genghis Khan?"

Cynthia looked back at Marc too. He shrugged again and answered:

"The high command sets the policy—we've given the city-folk a lot of new ideas too. Personally I approve. The nomads can be almighty rough, but they need an equalizer. To the city-folk here you don't have any rights unless you're a free Kartahownian, or a damned powerful foreigner. They think the nomads are monkeys from the wilds and treat them like dirt if they can get away with it."

"Most of this planet is pre-agricultural, not even as far along as the neolithic. Civilization is a new and fragile thing here," the Englishman snapped. "It can't take chances."

Marc grinned innocently. "Guess us Americans just can't help sympathizing with a bunch of wild-ass cowboys," he said. "Even if they are wearing lederhosen."

Cynthia snorted laughter; Marc bowed and then turned to the Englishman: "Scissors-paper-rock for who keeps first watch?"

They both turned their backs on Cynthia. Now, what do I think Mr. Bloody Blair will pick? he mused. That needed only a moment's consideration: he flattened his hand.

"Marc has paper, Chris has rock," Cynthia said, her voice carefully neutral. "Let's get going."

Marc nodded easily to both of them as he and Cynthia leaned their rifles carefully against a boulder, keeping his smile from getting too broad. Blair had certain things going for him; he was smart and handsome and charming and well-educated and hard-working and smooth. His big drawback was being an arrogant son of a bitch, of course.

But you can't fault his bush craft, the Cajun acknowledged reluctantly. That's a good position and he's keeping his eyes open.

Marc and the scientist went to work. The banded rock stretched a hundred and fifty feet above them, sheer except for a couple of cracks and fissures; they worked their way up cautiously, driving pitons deep with blows of the blunt hammer side of their picks, testing them carefully, and then reeving the knotted climbing rope through the spring-loaded loops on the ends. After an hour they had a secure pathway from top to bottom, if you were careful and knew your way around a rockface, which they both did. He did wish he had goggles—the limestone they were working on tended to chip and powder, but he didn't want to restrict his peripheral vision. He felt even better about that after something tugged at the corner of his eye and he lashed out with the sharp end of the pick. There was a crunch and a rattle and he held up a scorpion the size of a small bread-plate on the point. The stinger on the end of its tail lashed around in dying reflex, and he jerked back to avoid a drop of the poison.

Cynthia looked at it from her perch about fifteen feet away. "I think I recognize that from the briefing you guys put on. Is it the one whose venom is deadly in thirty seconds?"

"No, that's the little black one; worse than a black mamba back on Earth. These big ones, it's more like a minute or even two. You've only got about thirty seconds to inject the antidote, though."

"Thank God there is one!" She shuddered slightly. "I'm not equipped to blanch, but consider it done."

"I am so equipped, and I'm doing it!" Blair called from the ground. "This ecosystem is simply far too energetic for my peace of mind!"

After that the afternoon went quickly. Rock-climbing could be fun, if you knew what you were doing, although dangerous wildlife made it a little more nerve-wracking than he really liked. Mostly he went where the scientist sent him and chipped out what she wanted him to. That could be real work, when she wanted a chunk as large as his head, but the samples were mostly smaller. Every hour or so Blair spelled him; Cynthia quelled his attempts at light-hearted repartee. At last the thirty-hour day drew to a close, and they laid the samples out on a tarp in the open where the sunlight still reached, away from the shadows pooled at the base of the cliff; the limestone itself had a yellow tint, like the rock that built Jerusalem.

Cynthia peered at the rock samples as if they should be subject to a pooper-scooper law; he'd seen her getting more and more intent—and discontented—all afternoon.

"What's the problem?" he said.

She made a hissing noise. "I'm starting to get really annoyed. I'm going to start sounding like Sam Feldman, pretty soon."

"Oh, I doubt it," Marc said. "You'd have to have five-o'clock shadow to make that scratchy sound Doc does when he rubs his chin."

Cynthia gave a quick unwilling grin. "Point. OK, I'm getting frustrated like he was. Look at that cliff. You were right—good strata. Nice marine sedimentary limestone, uplifted when those mountains south of here got going."

Thirty miles south of Jamestown the land rose from the coastal plain into these rolling hills divided by occasional flattish valleys, oak-savannah gradually turning into low mountains forested with beech, then pine and fir and then alpine meadows. The hills got steeper still south of that, and the rivers cut into them in spectacular fashion. The current theory was that Venus had spectacular mountains because the continental plates were thinner and the magma beneath hotter and more liquid. Plates slipped around faster and collided harder.

"Reminds me a bit of the Dordogne country," Blair said.

"Or the Kentucky pennyroyal," Marc answered.

"Yup, similar in both cases. Except for the mountains, of course."

Some of the tremendous peaks that floated blue against the horizon had snow half the year. On Venus that meant high mountains; only the Mother River pierced them anywhere near here, the one that Kartahown sat on.

"OK, so first off, this is the best undisturbed but sufficiently exposed set we've got so far. I'd guess it covers, oh, one to two hundred million years. Down to the Jurassic in Earth terms. Plenty of fossils just like you said. As good as we're going to get until we get up into the mountains or the Eastblock start sharing their data from their base.

"One would be ill-advised to hold one's breath waiting for that," Blair said. "Amazing how selfishly capitalistic those Johnnies can be, since they decided quote it is glorious to get rich, unquote."

"And they're still paranoid as hell," Marc added.

Cynthia nodded. "Yeah, most of the old bad features and a lot of new ones. So the big news is that this pretty stratigraphy has got the same things we've been finding everywhere, only all together and less ambiguous."

She pointed at a dark layer six inches to a foot thick at the bottom of the cliff. Below that the stone was also dark, but denser-grained and shiny.

"There it is."

"Sam's famous organic boundary layer?" Marc said.

"Yeah. One hundred fifty to two hundred million years ago, as far as we can tell, you get this layer everywhere that was under water then; basically it's a sort of quasi-coal made of solid blue-green and red algae and plankton, coccolithophorids-sort-of, there's nothing quite like it on Earth. It's like someone dropped the first ones into a planetary-sized nutrient bath to watch 'em go fizz! Then you get massive limestone—limestone's usually a biological product, and this sure is, calcium carbonate with some phosphate, lots of seashells. The isotopes look like the atmosphere was anaerobic at the beginning of these strata—mostly C02 and thick, nitrogen only a trace element—but then it gets much more Earthlike, as if biological action suddenly pumped the carbon out of the atmosphere and oxygen into it. It happened fast, couple of million years tops, and when it was over this planet had an oxy-nitrogen atmosphere pretty much the way it does now, only with even more oxygen. That's an eyeblink. Then a little bit up from the atmospheric transition phase, as soon as there's enough oxygen around, you get—"

She pointed at a fossil; it was about a foot long and looked roughly like a curled nautilus.

"You get things like that. It's an ammonite, near as I can tell identical to a couple of the Earthly varieties from the Sinemurian strata of the Jurassic—two hundred million years old. No antecedents, no equivalent of the Triassic or the Burgess Shales, suddenly you go from single-celled organisms, mostly plants, to stuff like ammonites and—" her hammer pointed at another shape "—belemnite cephalopods and fully-developed teleosts, fish with boney skeletons and jaws. That one there looks like a shark. And corals. And dammit—"

They both chuckled at her Feldman imitation.

"—I think that's part of the skull of a marine crocodile. Hell, for all we know there are still ammonites around on Venus. How could we tell? All we've seen is a thin sliver of what's equivalent to Hudson's Bay, and this planet has relatively more ocean than Earth does."

Blair grinned. "There are certainly some very large marine reptiles out there, crocodilians included," he said. "That's why the Kartahownians are so precocious with their catapults. I wouldn't care to go sailing in these waters without one!"

Marc nodded. "Point," he said unwillingly.

"And that's how it goes, all the way up," she said, swinging the hammer up to where the clifftops were catching the sunset. "Suddenly you get new species, every couple of million years, very very similar to critters from Earth. Some of them persist, some don't; some of the older ones persist, some don't, some evolve into new types... same with the land fossils. We've established some tentative sequences—Sam, Dr. Feldman, has found what looks like a proto-churr, about half the size and much more carnivorous than the modern type. As far as we can tell, the fossil record is as screwy as the contemporary ecology here, with sauropods and sabertooths and antelopes and hominids all mixed up."

"Well, that's the word," Marc pointed out. "As far as we can tell. How many thousands of rock-hounds have been collecting fossils all over Earth for how long now? Whereas we've had six or seven people doing it for six years on Venus. That makes 'sampling error' pretty well automatic."

She shot him a look that made him regret speaking. "But what they don't have on Earth is this," she said, pointing to the shiny rock that underlay the whole limestone formation. "That's metamorphic. Sort of a sulfur-rich basalt. And it's goddamned everywhere we've been able to look, at about the same age."

"So what do you and Dr. Feldman think it means?" Blair asked, as they packed the samples in shamboo caskets and lugged them back to the campsite.

The native hunters gave them an incurious glance and went about their work; everyone knew the Sky People, while wizards of great power, were raving mad. Filling a sack with useless rocks and treating it like a treasure was typical of them.

Cynthia was silent until the task was done; Marc was startled when she finally answered. "Sam thinks... and I think... that two hundred million years ago, in the earliest Jurassic... this planet was different. Radically different from what we have now; as far as we can tell, it didn't have life at all. And we don't have any idea what changed it."

 

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Venus, EastBloc Shuttle Riga

Low Venus Orbit - Surface

 

It isn't being dead that is so bad, Captain Binkis thought, as the shuttle Riga began its unplanned reentry.

His father had been a teenage partisan in the war, and had always told him that; he ought to know, as many as he'd seen go and helped on the way.

No, it's the dying that hurts.

At least he didn't have to wait too quietly. The Riga was beginning to shudder as they struck denser air—still a vacuum by ordinary definitions, but when you were traveling at orbital velocities, it didn't take much.

"We're going to skip," Li said; her short hair was plastered to her forehead in little black rat-tails, the lilt stronger in her Russian. "The angle of approach is too shallow."

Lights winked. "I have the controls!" Binkis said, half a shout of triumph.

He did, at least the manual ones. Much good it will do us. But whatever had frozen them out was gone, at least for the present. The shuddering grew worse; he fought with brief bursts of the altitude jets to keep the Riga from tumbling—which would smear them in glowing fragments over half a hemisphere. Deceleration slammed them savagely into their couches, and he felt the world go grey and vision narrow to a tunnel; something warm and salt ran down over his upper lip, tasting of salt and iron as he reflexively opened his mouth.

If he breathed blood back through his sinuses and choked on it, they would all certainly die. Gently, gently, keep the ablative plating on her belly at maximum aspect to their path of descent...

Weight lessened; in an instant they would be in zero-G again... for a very short while, as they bounced off the atmosphere like a flat rock thrown along the surface of a pond. Li was still conscious, though blood flowed from her nose too, and from the corners of her eyes like red tears. Nininze hung limp in his harness, and might have been dead except for the bubbles in the blood that trickled out of his loose mouth.

"Get me a descent vector," he said to Li, in a voice like an ancient rusted gate opening, wrung beyond exhaustion by the mental effort that had saved them.

"Where?" she said faintly, her voice dull and flat.

"One that we can survive, kale!" he rasped. "We're not going to the Cosmograd landing field anyway!"

He could see the curving cone of possible trajectories on one of the screens, one that hadn't been affected by whatever-it-was. Already the whole east-central part of Gagarin was out of bounds, impossible for something with their speed and position, forbidden by Newton. Hands moved on the consol. The schematic of the Riga turned on the central screen, and a course appeared, with the alphanumeric bars beside it listing the rate of descent and angle. He forced his hands to suppleness on the control joystick. A series of blows on the underside of the craft as the vast white-blue disk steadied ahead of them. Then they merged into a juddering rumble, a toning harmonic that made the stainless-steel fillings in his back teeth ache. Flickers of incandescence began to show around the edges of the blunt wedge-shaped prow ahead of them; he ignored them in favor of the instruments as the heat built in the little cabin.

"Here, sir."

Binkis' lips skinned back. "That is in the Prohibited Zone." He shook his head. "No matter. It is not nearly so prohibitive as death."

Figures, figures of life and death, edging up towards the redline limits. He could feel the air begin to take fire—

And they were through it. His whole body shuddered, and sweat washed the dried blood down until thick drops fell off his chin. The rudders began to bite air, a little mushy at first, then more definitely, and the ceramic underbelly of the shuttle started to generate lift as well as shielding them from kinetic energy turned into heat.

"Now get us down, you keshke shunsnukis, you dog-faced whore," he begged the craft he'd piloted so many times. "My sweet Riga, you can do it!"

They were still at better than ten kilometers up, but descending steeply. He wrestled the clumsy craft into its optimum glide, which wasn't much—as an aircraft she had all the grace and nimbleness of a cow falling off a cliff, particularly under manual control. The radar showed tangled mountains ahead, and a hint of flat sea off to his right, to the north; at least they hadn't overshot the whole continent and wouldn't be forced to come down in the open ocean. Drifting in a rubber raft fifteen thousand kilometers from base... that would just make an interesting bit of foreign food for the plesiosaurs. And they had seagoing crocodiles here twenty meters long. Of course, coming down on dry land that far from Cosmograd, assuming they lived, wouldn't be much better. He'd seen an allosaurus snap up a sabertooth once, toss it in the air like a titbit, and then bite the massive predator in half as it fell and pace on like a lizard from Hell, bits dropping from its jaws...

Focus. If you die in the next five minutes, there won't be pieces big enough for anything but bacteria to squabble over.

Li spoke, startling him: "Captain, the radio is still dead. I think I could trigger the distress beacon, though."

"Do it. At this altitude, they may be able to track where we go down."

And walk all the way to get us? his mind gibed at him. Then: For our cargo, possibly, they would, if it is what I think it is.

Down, down. The land ahead becoming less and less of a map, less a blue blur and more mountains, plains, rivers. The Riga would come in hot, faster than a speeding car; it needed a long runway or they'd smash and roll. Nothing would be smooth enough except water.

There. A long lake, like an L with a tiny shorter arm. Kilometers of it, like a fjord between high country, and smooth, smooth to the radar eye. He shouted in triumph and increased the rate of descent.

I will flare her up to kill speed just before we strike and then nose down before we stall, he thought. That meant handling the heavy, low-lift rocket plane like a light aircraft. Since the alternative is death, I am sure that I can do it.

Lower and closer, and suddenly it was a real world out there, not an abstract painting. Through the layer of haze-cloud, and the forested hills just south of the coastal plain were below them, shockingly close. The lake had low rolling downs on one side, higher shaggy heights to his left. No islands, no obvious reefs, and kilometers of water.

But fast, much too fast, he thought. If we touch down at this speed we will spin like a tossed coin.

"Li," he said, over the thuttering of cloven air. "Get ready to help me with Nininze if we have to evacuate quickly."

And... now.

He hit the override button to cut out the subsystem which usually prevented suicide-moves and then hauled back on the joystick, unconsciously straining at it as if it were connected to the control surfaces by something besides electrical impulses. The blunt wedge of the Riga turned its nose up, and up, as if it were trying to climb back to orbit. Speed was transformed into altitude in a few instants of savage deceleration, and his abused body screamed to him in protest. Adrenaline overrode it as he fought for life. There would be a precise instant when the Riga was about to stall and acquire the aerodynamics of a large brick tossed into the sky.

Now.

He pushed the joystick forward. There was a heart-stopping moment of zero-G when it seemed the craft would fall hopelessly stern-first.

"Shudas!" he blurted.

They were going to stall. Then the controls moved, and the Riga lurched. The nose went down. Potential energy became speed once more as they fell; the lifting-body shape of the Riga functioned once more, and the rudders bit the air. But the speeds were lower now, much lower—still too high for a wheels-up landing, but not certain death. The lake grew to a long blue bar before him,

"Velniai griebtu!" he swore exultantly, and then they struck.

The ceramic belly of the Riga was still hotter than molten lead, glowing white and red, just below its certified failure state. A huge cloud of steam exploded out from it as they hit, along with the spray. It wasn't—quite—enough to flip the shuttle on its back. It did mean they rode forward for better than a kilometer on a pillow of superheated water vapor, an almost frictionless bed that meant the Riga squirted forward like a bead of mercury sliding over dry ice. That meant they were traveling fast enough to let the fins bite, and he was able to keep the Riga pointed west, in a swooping side-to-side snake-track way. Just when the hilly western shore was starting to look uncomfortably close the belly dropped into the water proper, with an ominous series of crackling noises—the heat-shield snapping as differential cooling stressed it beyond its parameters. The ride became rougher as well, like a sled traveling over dried corrugated mud.

"Here we go!" Binkis shouted.

The shore loomed up. He steered for a cove with a sloping muddy shore and waving swamp-reeds behind it, throwing a huge rooster-tail of spray as the flat-bottomed craft careened across the calm blue water.

Then they struck. A feeling of huge inertia, pushing him forward intolerably against the straps... and blackness.

 

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BOOM!

The first thing Binkis was conscious of was the smell; something like burnt sewage, with an undertone of rank greenery. The noise that had awoken him was the explosive bolts throwing up the emergency escape hatch; it stood up now like the lid of a box, and smoke poured in, making him cough with the thick rankness. The Riga had run through the swamp and up onto the edge of firm land; the nose was canted up over a massive root, and a towering tree overhung the cockpit; the angle made the acceleration couch like a bed. Every inch of his body ached as if it had been stretched out to twice its proper length and beaten with oak rods, and dried blood coated the lower half of his face like a sticky mask. He managed to wipe some of the sludge away and gasped for breath, but the effort was too much for him, and he slipped gratefully back into the velvet darkness.

When he woke again Li was flipping water from a canteen on his face. As he woke, he saw that Nininze had been laid out on the narrow strip of floor between the workstations, resting on an inflatable mattress.

"Thanks," he croaked, and took the canteen, gulping hastily and then coughing before a steadier drink. "How long?"

"I came to about twenty minutes ago," Li said. "It is four hours since we crashed."

"Landed, Li. Landed. We're alive, so it was a landing."

She nodded with her usual expressionless calm; he had to admit she looked better than he felt, moving fairly gingerly but with her face washed clean of blood.

"It was an inspired piece of piloting, sir," she said.

Binkis nodded. Although... for a moment there, it was if Someone Else was at the controls. He groped at his waist for the first-aid pouch, but Li silently held out two painkiller tablets. The pilot washed them down with more water, coughed again, wiped his face and went on:

"What's our situation?"

Surprising him, she smiled. "We are stranded a very long way from home, Captain," she said. Then serious once more: "We grounded on a spur of firm land—relatively firm land—near the western end of the lake, where the short arm running north-south meets the long east-west one. There are cliffs about two kilometers south of here and extensive swamps to the north and west. I saw plentiful wildlife but no large sauroids. Lieutenant Nininze remains unconscious and is apparently concussed."

Binkis swatted at something on his neck; it squished unpleasantly against his skin. "We'll have to get out of the Riga and set up a camp on dry land," he said. "Then we can see about cobbling together a radio and getting in touch with Cosmograd."

They set to work. There was a spring not far south where a rocky shelf about twelve feet high rose from the soft ground, with a small clearing surrounded by huge evergreen oaks. They unpacked the survival kit, which included machetes, and chopped a way through undergrowth of tall ferns to a game trail that led to the clearing, set up their tent, and then began the difficult business of hoisting the unconscious Nininze out without hurting him still more. Everything was slowed by the battering and bruising their own bodies had taken; neither of them was technically concussed, but you didn't get knocked unconscious without feeling well and truly miserable. The air wasn't too hot, around twenty degrees, and the extra oxygen helped, but it was thick and humid and still, and insects buzzed about their ears ceaselessly. After a while the sweat seemed to help, as if he were sweating out the poisons of fear and pain.

Halfway through the process Nininze began to come to, but semi-conscious and weak, not seeming to know where he was, or able to talk coherently.

"Prakeikimas!" Binkis swore mildly. "Damn!"

"Shall we sedate him, Captain?" Li called through the roof-hatch. "I've already given him the painkillers."

"No, I don't want to waste drugs unless we absolutely must," Binkis said. "It's not a good idea with a concussion, anyway."

There were loops along the edges of the inflated mattress. He used his belt-knife to cut a set of restraints free of one of the acceleration couches and improvised a set that would immobilize the injured man at shoulders and waist and legs; then they rigged a block and tackle from the overhanging branch. Binkis stripped off his shirt to pad his hands and braced himself beside the semi-conscious man.

"I'll hoist him," he said. "You swing him out on the top of the hull—make sure he doesn't land face-down."

"I will be careful to orient him properly," Li said. "Laying him face-down would aggravate his injuries."

As usual he couldn't quite tell if she was completely serious. He snorted and took a careful strain on the rope until the mattress began to lift, raising the Georgian's head and shoulders first. When the tail of the mattress had cleared the perforated metal plates of the deck Li took up the slack on her secondary line, which prevented it from swinging like a pendulum bob.

"Carefully... carefully... carefully!"

He shouted it the last time; the weight had come right off the rope suddenly. Then it burned through his hands, almost fast enough to burn through the cloth wrapping.

"To the devils!" he shouted. "What are you doing, Li, you kumelė!"

There was silence above, then a scuffling, and an earsplitting shriek of agony; beneath it a rumbling bellow, and a snarl like dogs. And instant later something fell through the hatch. It took him an instant to realize it was Nininze's foot, still in its boot, raggedly hacked free of the leg. Binkis froze for a fraction of a second, then snatched up the assault rifle leaning leapt for the back of an acceleration couch and up onto the roof of the Riga.

Two dozen brutish figures had swarmed up onto the upper surface of the shuttle, massive, hairy, slope-browed, snarling with thin-lipped chinless mouths full of tombstone teeth; more dropped down from the tree as he landed. Several were dragging Li away; her eyes bulged over a great hand clamped across her face. Another knelt with a mouthful of Nininze's thigh in his mouth, straining backward with powerful neck-muscles while he sawed his sharp-edged obsidian knife back and forth to free the gobbet of flesh; half a dozen others waited to feed.

Binkis screamed and shot, the long chattering burst from the AK47 sending a bright spearhead of flame into the olive gloom under the tree, the strobing light flashing on the startled faces of the savages and their painted, mud-streaked bodies. Two of them fell dead; another screamed and sprattled before the bolt clicked open. A score of the apish shapes scattered in panic flight, leaping outward into the swamp in huge bounds from the shuttle or running up the tree with the agility of monstrous giant squirrels, but more screamed and crowded closer, brandishing weapons. The pilot fumbled for another magazine and clicked it home just as a thrown club struck him in the knee. He heard the crack of breaking bone an instant before the pain doubled him over, and then he fell as the smashed joint buckled beneath him.

Binkis waited for death. One of the neanderthaloids stooped over him; an older specimen, the hair-beard on his face and the tall topknot of reddish locks streaked with gray, the left eye an empty mass of scars. Tall feathers were tucked into its hair, and the mobile lips elongated into an O of astonishment as it examined the human's gear. It plucked the assault rifle from across his chest and brought it up to its broad blobby nose, sniffing and grimacing.

Another quasi-human pushed close, snarling; he was younger and stronger, with a knob-headed club in one hand. He pointed at Binkis and swung his bludgeon up. The older one made a gesture of negation and continued to examine the rifle. Somewhere Li was screaming again; Binkis choked a little on the rancid musk-stink of the figures around him, and watched stolidly as the length of hardwood rose to crush out his brains for the feasters.

Braaappp!

The AK-47 fired off most of its magazine before the older neanderthaloid released the trigger. Five of the rounds blasted into the one about to kill Binkis, a row of black holes turning instantly red from crotch to sloping forehead. The sixth took the top off the head of one of the ones sitting chewing around Nininze's body, and the rest clipped down bark and twigs from the trees.

The new-made gunman hooted with delight as his fellows cowered. Then he made an imperious gesture, and four of them scuttled forward to lift the pilot in the air. He screamed once as the broken knee-joint twisted, and then fainted.

His last thought was a deep wish that he never wake again.

 

@@@

 

Venus, Gagarin continent, south of Jamestown Extraterritorial Zone

 

Marc woke a little past the middle of the night. What a dream! he thought.

A face with slanted blue eyes and wheat-colored hair framing a high-cheeked, snub-nosed countenance. A diadem of shimmering silvery metal about her brows, and a chill wind from a glowing nexus of light behind her...

"Woah!" he exclaimed, sitting erect.

He'd thrown back the top of the bedroll while he slept. No wonder I made un transport just now, he thought. Who could stay still with a dream like that!

Perhaps the sudden drop in the air temperature had prompted it, just before it woke him. Or maybe it's all those books I read as a kid, he smiled to himself

He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands and then blinked at the fire, dazzling in the darkness even though it had died to a bed of low coals that reflected in red-orange flickers from the rock overhang above. The Terran looked out into the dark; it was near impenetrable, with no moon and even starlight a rare treat. His internal clock told him it was very late—that he'd been asleep six or seven hours—and it was accurate again now that he'd adjusted to this planet's thirty-hour cycle. Call it four hours to dawn; like most people he'd simply taken to adding a few hours each to his waking and sleeping.

But looking south towards the mountains he caught a faint flash of light. And noise, more felt through the air than heard, under the constant splashing of the spring into its pool.

It was Zhown's watch, the elder of the two tribals. He was squatting well away from the fire, wrapped in a blanket with a short spear ready to hand, more useful than his cherished new bow in the inky darkness. Marc had slept in his clothes, but he walked barefoot into the dark.

"You walk quietly, for one of the Sky People," the guide said softly.

Marc could sense the grin in his voice. They spoke in a mixture of English, Kartahownian and the hunter's native language; he wouldn't like to try discussing philosophy in the garbled pidgin, but it did well enough for practical things.

"The sky woke me," he said. "What do you smell? I hear thunder, maybe."

There were only a few real differences that they'd found so far between Venusians and Terrans. Two were that the locals had a distinctly superior sense of smell and somewhat better night-sight; not dog-sensitive noses, but several times better than Marc's equipment, and a slight but distinct advantage in darkness. And the earthlings had keener hearing. All that made sense, given the thicker atmosphere and the lack of a moon or much starlight in the hazy nights.

"Hard to say with all this water close," Zhown said. "I think a storm passes from the sea southward, though. Rain there before daybreak, maybe already-now in the mountains."

Marc grunted—which was a polite acknowledgment, in Zhown's language, and an insult in Kartahownian. You had to keep in mind that a world the size of Earth or Venus was a big place...

"No sense in waking the others," he said at last. "I wouldn't like to try the slope in the dark, not with churr."

Zhown grunted in turn, which was reassuring. The native wouldn't have kept quiet if he disagreed; he thought the Terrans were among Those Others—spirits, quasi-elves, the specialists weren't quite sure what the term meant yet, except that it was associated with the supernatural. But he didn't have all that much awe of them just because they were supernatural, either. Apparently Those Others turned up all the time in his people's stories, and he was perfectly ready to argue with the Sky People in his own area of expertise. In fact, he thought most of them were klutzes away from their town and machines; Marc was quite flattered to be classed as a promising amateur at bushcraft.

He got his rifle and put on his boots, after carefully checking them for scorpions and similar manky nuisances. Then he took a position not far from Zhown and waited, squatting easily. The night was full of sounds, once you quieted your mind and really listened; clicks and buzzes and rustlings, once a huge hooo-hooo in the distance, like a brobdinagian owl, occasional howls and screeches. A little like the bayou country—once there was something like a bull gator calling his territory to the night.

But not much like, and he grinned to himself in the darkness; this was exactly what a younger Marc Vitrac had wanted as he read lurid pulp adventure stories with a flashlight beneath the covers back in the family house on the Bayou Teche. His grandfather had built that home, hand-shaping the cypress joists, and his father had trapped nutria from it in between spells as an oil-platform roustabout. Neither of them had had much understanding of the dreams that shaped Marc's generation.

The news from the first probes, still more the pictures from the second wave, had made all the old classics new again, and inspired an ever-swelling stream of imitators, and set every boy and most girls on Earth to dreaming those particular dreams. Most of them had to content themselves with books all their lives, and bad movies, and documentaries.

But I made it, he thought.

He chuckled aloud. His own picture was probably on the bedroom walls of millions of hero-worshipping kids, and he was undoubtedly the thinly-disguised hero of countless trashy novels and bad TV shows by now—and the illustrated heartthrob of countless girls. If he were somehow returned to Earth, he could write his own ticket and have hot and cold running starlets as long as he wanted. Not that it mattered; barring some unlikely chance, he'd leave his bones here. You didn't ship people between worlds casually, not at fifty million a ticket each way.

But no leaving the bones just yet, he reminded himself, as a rumble of thunder came from the south, definite now, not an if-maybe.

That woke Corlin; Zhown chaffed him in their own language, and the younger guide stoked up the fire. Marc put a clay field-oven full of balls of biscuit dough in it, using a green stick through the handle to lift it in, and set a pot-full of water to boil for zulk-tea. By the time the smell of scorched frying pan and antelope-breadnut-and-onion hash was wafting across the campsite, the gray light of a chilly overcast morning was as well, and the other two Terrans were up. He threw a double handful of crumbled zulk-leaves into the water, and a rich nutty scent was added to the smells of rock and water, vegetation, churr and imperfectly clean human.

"God, that smells good," Cynthia said, as he passed her a cup. She sipped. "God, it tastes awful."

Marc poured shamboo-sugar into his own and stirred it with a twig. "Not that bad," he said, sipping. "Sort of like chicory."

Christopher Blair wasn't a morning person. "Chicory," he said, with a wealth of loathing in his voice. "God, never to taste a decent Darjeeling again, or even Blue Mountain coffee..."

His back was to Marc as he spoke, looking out over the breadth of the sinkhole. The river and pools grew visibly as they ate; by the time the pots were scrubbed out with sand a three-foot surge had crossed the width of it, lapping at the foot of the rock knee they'd camped on and boiling white across at the northern exit. Water filled the canyon they'd traveled to get here six feet deep, a deep rushing and gurning that toned in the rock beneath their feet. Fresh debris washed in by the minute, including whole logs with their root-boles exposed, and one great turtle-like shape with a spiked dome of armor over a back the size of a family sedan. A desperate-eyed bony head reared above the surface, and it gave a mournful hoot like a terrified steam locomotive as the current swept it whirling into the canyon: probably the dinosaurian equivalent of ooooohhhshiiiiittt!

"Perhaps we might have risen a bit earlier," the Englishman said, as the rain started.

Marc shrugged and pointed. Just beyond the overhang the cliff-face had collapsed long ago; the rocky slope was about forty degrees, and climbable by agile humans. The clawed, padded feet of churr could usually follow where men could go.

"Didn't want to try that in the dark," he said. "And we might as well have a hot breakfast. It may be a cold camp tonight if the rain keeps up."

"What's that?" Cynthia said, cutting off Blair's possible reply.

That was a baulk of timber, most of a tree-trunk, with leaves still fluttering from some of the boughs. The main north-south path across the sinkhole was a plunging, swirling cataract by now, but the baulk of timber spun out of the current towards them, traveling more slowly for a little before it was sucked back into the torrent. A length of sodden black fur was caught in the branches—

"Greatwolf bitch," Marc said, shielding his eyes from the increasing rain. "Probably got caught underwater when the trunk rolled over."

He could just see the long yellow-white fangs, caught in a final snarl, but it lacked a male's massive shoulders and mane.

Though if you want to get technical, it's a canid or caninoid and most closely resembles the Miocene predator Epicyon haydeni rather than the any type of wolf in the strict sense, he thought with an inner grin; a lot of Doc Feldman had rubbed off on him. But we call them greatwolves because they're doggie-looking pack hunters and the native names are all hard to pronounce.

Then, aloud: "Hey, that's a pup!"

"Poor thing!" Cynthia said. "She must have carried it up the tree, to try and get it out of the water!"

Something whined and struggled feebly amid the tattered leaves. Decision came quickly; it wasn't too far away, no more than twenty or thirty feet, but it wouldn't stay there more than a few seconds.

"Get a rope ready," Marc said, stripping off clothes.

"I say, old boy, that's not such a good idea," Blair began, speaking mildly for once.

By then Marc was down to his boxers. He hit the water in a flat running dive and immediately wondered if Blair wasn't right. It wasn't all that deep right here, barely six feet, but he could feel the strong rip-currents tugging and dragging at him as the floodwater surged over hidden boulders.

In for a penny, he thought, and struck out.

Foam slapped him in the face and tried to fill his lungs. The water was cold, too, as cold as any he'd felt since survival training on the Big Sur coast back Earthside, sucking at the strength of his muscles. But he'd been raised amphibious, long before diving became a favored sport, even longer before Aerospace Force training. You didn't fight the water, you eeled through it, rode it, sleeked along to make it take you where you wanted to go...

Still, he clung and panted a moment when he grabbed the trunk, blinking and feeling a few spots where things had grazed him. There wasn't much time to rest, though, not if he was going to get back to the others before this thing was sucked into the vortex at the canyon-mouth; as more and more water poured into the sinkhole it was ponding back from the single narrow exit, turning that into churning rapids. Hand-over-hand he pulled himself along the treetrunk until he came to the corpse of the greatwolf. It was about as long as he was, and probably weighed as much, a great shaggy-black mass with fangs the length of his little finger. The pup was a male and probably just weaned, from the state of the mother's dugs, which meant it weighed fifteen or twenty pounds. Luckily it was half-drowned, trapped among the alder's branches in a position that made it scrabble and strain to keep its nose above the churning water. That left it too feeble to struggle when he grabbed it.

"Sorry, little feller," Marc grunted, tracing the branches with his hands and visualizing. "OK, hold your breath."

The cub rolled its eyes and snapped valiantly at him. He took a deep breath of his own and bobbed down, letting the current pin him against the wood. The greatwolf pup had to be pulled straight down to get it out of the cage of broken wood that held it; there was a nasty instant when he thought two branches had scissored around his own leg, and then he pulled free and broke surface again. The cub kicked feebly at his side, its disproportionately large paws scrabbling over his abused skin; he shifted his grip to the back of its neck, which had the added advantage of making it go limp, as it would have when an adult's mouth seized it there for carrying. Then he switched to a side-stroke, pumping his legs against the grip of the water. That was the only practical way to travel, with the weight of the cub hampering him, but he was uneasily conscious that he couldn't see anything ahead through the increasing cross-chop of the flood and the rain that hissed into it, and even more that the water was full of things that could hurt him, and hurt him with no warning at all. A solid knock on one ankle sent a warning shaft of fire up his right leg, but he couldn't slow down and live.

He was starting to really worry when a braded lariat fell out of the air into the water before him. A frantic grab caught it, and he poured his will into the muscle and tendon of his right arm and hand. Then the wet leather snapped out of the water, pulled so hard that moisture squirted out of it under the tension, and he was dragged forward with a jolt that nearly pulled his arm out of its socket. That gave him warning enough that he had his feet under him when he came to the shallows and avoided being dragged over rock. As he'd expected, Zhown had the other end snubbed to the saddlehorn of his churr, and had walked the beast away from the water to drag him out.

Blair tried to say something, but Marc ignored him as he staggered out of the water and under the overhang; the rising flood was lapping at the edge of the rock platform, and it would be over it in a few minutes. In the meantime, he'd risked his life for the sodden bundle of fur in his arms, and he wasn't going to waste it. The pup made a wet splat sound as he laid it on the stone and began rhythmically pressing on its chest. It coughed, sneezed, retched water, and nipped painfully at his half-numb hand as soon as its eyes opened. A full-grown greatwolf could be five feet at the shoulder and outweigh a grown man, higher at the shoulders than the rump and with a head like a split barrel lined with fangs.

And this little critter is already sharp-toothed and has feet the size of dinner plates, he thought, as he shook off drops of blood and wrapped the shivering form in a blanket, to keep it quiet and keep it warm. He's going to be a big 'un, him.

"Hold still, you little son-of-a-bitch," he said, as he stuffed the wiggling bundle into a burlap sack and hung it from one of the pack-saddles.

The churr shied a bit—they were among the greatwolves' natural prey, though that wasn't much of an honor since a pack would kill and eat anything from rabbits to the smaller types of dinosaur. Once the job was done Marc began to struggle back into his sopping clothes; not much of a comfort in the cold rain, but better than standing and letting it run down his naked skin. That gave him a little leisure to pay attention to the rest of his party.

Zhown and the other guide just looked at him as if he was... strange; they probably thought he had some impenetrable spirit reason for doing what he'd done. Cynthia, a bit to his surprise and annoyance, was giving him the sort of glance a rambunctious four-year-old brother might expect. Blair was simple pinched disapproval.

"I must formally protest, lieutenant," he said. "You have endangered the mission, and as your superior officer—"

Marc finished pulling on his waterproof poncho. "I'm not in your chain of command, Wing Commander," he said. "And on this expedition, I'm in charge of the nonscientific aspects."

That shut the Englishman up, at the price of a look of white-lipped fury. Marc felt a bit guilty; it had been a damnfool stunt, and he'd be in some trouble back at Jamestown if the man made an official complaint about it. He was grateful when everyone quietly pitched in to the task of getting the churr up the talus slope, slippery as it was with rain. They carried the gear up to the top, then rigged ropes anchored there. Each secured a safety line through the thick metal ring on the horn of a saddle; then they kept someone ahead of each beast with the cord snubbed around a convenient rock as the churr made the climb. When the last left the campsite, it was ankle-deep. He followed it up, helping with a shoulder against its backside at a difficult spot, as it snorted and squealed and scrabbled its big blunt claws against the rain-slick rock. When they'd heaved the creature up another dozen feet to where the rope was snubbed, Marc and Zhown took a breather.

"I am glad you came unharmed from the water," the native said.

"With the help of my oath-sworn friends," Marc replied.

"With my help," Zhown replied. "And Corlin and Night Face," which was what the locals called Cynthia. "Sun Hair did little but stand and shout loudly and move about."

"You say so?" Marc said, shocked, and got a brisk nod that sent drops flying from the edge of the straw coolie hat.

He knew the native guide didn't like Blair—significant in itself—but he also knew he wasn't in the habit of slandering men either. But he's no less inclined to see what he expects than other men, Marc thought. And so am I, and I've never liked the de'pouille, and hope to beat him out with a woman, which is still more reason to think badly of him. He put the matter from his mind.

"Let's get this whore where she belongs," he said instead.

Hours later, when they were camped in a shallow cave on a hillside several miles northward he let the thoughts trickle back. The problem was that he still didn't have any evidence, except for Zhown thinking that the Englishman hadn't been very enthusiastic about rescuing Marc—and all he could really say was that Blair had tried to stop him taking the risk in the first place, and criticized him for doing it afterwards. Who could say if there had been room for another pair of hands in the effort of getting a rope out to him while he struggled in the flood? If there hadn't, then trying to pitch in would simply have hindered the first comers. And Blair had an excellent record; he'd been crucial in repairing the Carson's damaged reactor, from the reports.

Leave it, he thought. Just keep an eye on him.

There was enough work to keep them all busy. The cave was a thumb-shaped indentation in a steep hillside, extending upward like a crack in the rock, with an overhang in front where their hobbled remuda could get some shelter from the weather. Soon they had a comfortable blaze going, always easier on Venus than Earth. Nothing carnivorous was likely to try and take shelter here from the rain, because even the biggest 'saurs were afraid of fire; given the higher proportion of oxygen in the air, wildfire was a terrible menace here. That was about the only thing they did fear, that and the predators whose shape evolution had hardwired into their pigeon-sized brains. Fortunately they were a thousand feet higher here than Jamestown, and the season was farther along. The cold-blooded giants and the big meat-eaters that preyed on them avoided these coolish heights in fall and wintertime.

The party from Jamestown hung their wet gear from wooden stakes driven into the cave wall's cracks, changed into dry, unrolled their bedding and prepared to wait out the rain; it rarely fell for more than a day at a time this early in the wet season, even in the hills. The cave was even comfortable, if you were used to fieldwork and didn't expect it to warm up like a house; they put heated rocks in their bedrolls to get those toasty for bedtime. Cynthia set out her samples and went on with cataloging and note-taking; Blair talked with the guides and murmured a report on their language into his pocket recorder; the tribesmen saw to the churr; and Marc considered what to do with his greatwolf cub after he'd built a cage of trimmed branches tied together with tough bark. Now that he'd gone to so much effort and risk to get it, turning it loose to starve or be eaten seemed a bit wasteful. And it was too cute to turn into a specimen in Doc Feldman's collection, eyes big with terror and body quivering, whimpering what was probably a continuous cry of: Mom! Come get me, mom!

Hasten slowly, he thought, and decided to ignore it until dinnertime, and he might as well get the meal going. Nothing like a long cold wet day for an appetite. Probably true of the little beastie as much as it is of us.

They had a big aluminum pot along with them. Marc filled that with water and set it to boil, along with salt and a couple of meat-extract cubes he crumbled into it. There was a fair bit of antelope left; it was at its best now, since they'd drained it thoroughly when he gralloched the kill, but it wouldn't last much longer before it went off and had to be fed to the churr. He cut the meat into bite-sized pieces, dredged them in nurr-flour, browned successive loads in the frying pan along with some garlic, and then tossed it into the water to simmer. Raw breadnuts went into the stew next, and dried beans and vegetables from their stores and handfuls of wild greens picked up along the way and Kartahownian spices that tasted a bit like curry-powder and something like sage.

"Needs a good brown roux and some okra or filé," he said, tasting it. "Except for that, not bad."

For most of the afternoon the pup cowered in the darkest, rearmost corner of his cage, growling whenever anyone came near, otherwise nothing but a black shadow and occasional glitter of yellow eyes and a whimper of bewildered grief. The preparation of the evening meal brought him forward to stand with his muzzle pressed against the latticework, wrinkling his wet black nose and licking it as he drank in the fascinating novelty of the scent of cooking meat. The savory odors mixed with wet almost-puppy and drying cloth and leather and woodsmoke and churr.

"Take over for a minute?" Marc asked. "Our furry guest probably likes his pretty rare. Damned if I'm going to swallow it and regurgitate it for him, though."

"Sure, I'll do it," Cynthia said, setting aside a rock. "This isn't going to make any more sense because I stare at it."

She stirred the stew and threw in a little more salt, then mixed a bowl of flour with baking powder, setting it on a griddle over the fire where it began to rise and bubble, browning. Marc snagged gobbets of meat on a sharp twig, piled them on a bark plate and waved it around until the food was warm rather than hot; he added some rich marrow from cracked bones. Then he carried it over to the cage, lifted one edge for an instant and shoved the plate through beneath. The greatwolf cub retreated again, then came forward belly to the ground, growling in a tenor voice. A slight quiver ran through his tail as he sniffed at the warm meat; then he darted forward despite Marc's looming presence, gripped a chunk and dashed back to the far corner to bolt it down. Another and another...

Good thing meat's cheap here, Marc thought, grinning at the supper-dance.

"Me Grug," Cynthia said from over by the fire, making her voice deep, and pounding a fist on her chest. "Grug mighty hunter. Grug tame dog!"

Blair surprised Marc by laughing. "Take it young, feed it, and see if that makes it love you—classic domestication."

"Hey, whatever works," Marc replied mildly.

Eventually hunger overcame caution, and the pup stopped retreating to eat, standing over the plate and bolting its contents in place. He growled and snapped again when Marc pushed an arm into the cage, but more as a warning not to touch the food than in a serious attempt to harm.

Still, begin as you mean to go on, Marc thought.

His hand darted down and took the cub by the ruff at the back of its neck; he shook it gently when it tried to turn its head and bite him, and used his other hand to flick its ear—the same methods its mother would have used to discipline it.

"No!" he said firmly, keeping his hold until it stopped squirming and trying to bite. Then: "Good boy!" as he released it and stepped back.

The twenty-pound puppy whined and laid its ears back, then returned to eating. When it was finished its stomach was notably rounder; it pulled the good-smelling bark plate back with it to the blanket in the rear corner of the cage and settled down again, going to sleep with a limp totality, its mouth slightly open and pink tongue-tip showing.

"Charming," Blair said dryly. "But probably not as practical when it's bigger. And it will be. Very much bigger."

"People have tamed wolves back on Earth," Cynthia said. "And I think it's cute. I miss dogs."

Jamestown had cats, but no Terran dogs as yet; they didn't take to zero-G well, and weighed a great deal more. Interplanetary transport made every ounce count, particularly living ounces.

"People have tamed wolves, my dear," Blair agreed. "However, they're always more dangerous and unpredictable than dogs—and wolves don't grow to be two hundred and fifty pounds, and they can't take a man's leg off with one bite."

Marc shrugged. That was true enough. Greatwolves weren't just big; their broad wedge-shaped heads gave tremendous areas of attachment for jaw muscles, and they could crack a tharg's thighbones the way a kid did a candy-cane. A pack of them could take down a medium-sized 'saur.

"If it becomes dangerous, we can always shoot it," he pointed out. "It's a lot harder to un-kill something than to kill it in the first place. And the species isn't common around Jamestown. It'll be useful for Dr. Friedman's study program."

"What'll you call it?" Cynthia asked.

"I think... Nobs," Marc said, and joined her laughter.

Blair seemed as much puzzled at their amusement as the natives, and a good deal more resentful. Marc was a little surprised; was there anyone who'd been a kid since the 1960's who didn't know that reference?

"No, actually I'll call him Tahyo."

"What's that? Some tribal name?"

"It's Grand Isle for big hungry dog. And he is, him!"

She was still chuckling as she tasted the stew and pronounced it ready. Everyone ladled one of the molded-leather bowls full, took a chunk of the hot griddle cake, and sat down to eat. Marc nodded at compliments, although the natives were like most primitives and preferred the stronger-flavored organ meats to the muscle cuts the Earthlings liked. They sighed after the heart and liver and sweetbreads, and didn't mind hinting that with their wonderful rifles the Terrans could supply an endless series of such treats, leaving the steaks and chops to the churr. They also had a ruthlessly unsporting and practical attitude towards hunting, again much like earthly primitives; if they were economical with game, it was because hunting was dangerous hard work, not from conservationism. Give them a rifle and a motive, and they'd slaughter anything that moved like berserkers on speed.

"I'm not going to shoot a five-ton 'saur so you can have kidneys and brains," Marc grinned.

"Why not?" Zhown said. "Those are the best parts, fried in oil, with crinkletongue spice."

That didn't keep him from scraping the bottom of a second bowl and belching hugely and politely.

 

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Venus, Gagarin Continent—Far West

 

I'm glad that poor bitch Li is finally dead, Binkis thought. I didn't think anyone could scream so long.

That had been... how long ago? Since then his leg had healed somewhat, enough that the knee was merely constant grinding pain rather than agony. He could even move about a bit, on the crutch that A'a had made for him.

The A'a sound meant something like Old One. Or possibly Wise One. He'd tried hard to learn the Wergu language, but that combination of sounds and gestures was more alien than any human language could be, and he'd only had... months... weeks...

It couldn't have been years, could it? I have lost track. Perhaps I am going mad. That would be best... Now I will go and bathe in the springs.

Binkis couldn't smell himself much, though he knew he stank; it was lost in the stunning urine-feces-rotting-food-sweat fetor of the Wergu village; one had to call it that, since there were hundreds of them here. He clawed himself upright along the side of the hut. It had been built of rough fieldstone, then plastered smooth on the inside; he didn't think the Wergu had built it, and they'd certainly patched the thatch badly, and let the windows of thin tanned gut rot and rip to tatters. It wasn't even all that uncomfortable, once he'd scraped the worst of the filth out and collected some dried grasses to lie on. The vermin that affected his captors wouldn't bite him, or at least the body lice and fleas wouldn't—the roaches and flies were inescapable. Dozens were swarming around the scraps of his dinner in the gourd bowl by the door, consuming the last of the rancid fish-and-roots stew. A'a had his females feed the captive well and regularly, the same diet he ate himself; they'd also hauled the prisoner to the hot springs and applied poultices of chewed roots to the knee.

The crutch leaned against the wall by the door and the raw deerhide that covered it. He stuck the padded end under his armpit and brushed the hide aside; it clattered on the stone, and he blinked a second in the bright sunlight. Outside the Wergu children played their stalk-and-pounce games, females tended what camp chores there were—they made the crude tools and weapons as well—and a few cripples or older males slowly starved to death.

Except for A'a. Except for the Old One.

The neanderthaloid was carefully field-stripping the AK-47 as Binkis had taught him. His fingers were too large for some of the smaller parts, but he patiently picked up each one and cleaned it again until they all fit; the Lithuanian had known soldiers a lot less careful about it, when he'd been a young conscript. One of his... acolytes, perhaps; at least, one of the younger males who hung about him... was watching, fascinated, occasionally making a fascinated hooting sound and slapping himself on the head with a solid thock! sound. Now and then he would submissively groom A'a's bristly hide.

The Wise One looked up. He finished snapping home the receiver of the assault rifle, clicked in a magazine and rose, slinging a webbing bandolier full of magazines across his barrel chest. A'a lived in the biggest of the huts now; and the back was stacked with crates of rifles and ammunition. The chief of the band hadn't even objected to moving out to the second-biggest that A'a had used before.

"Come!" he said/signed to the human; there was a gesture, combined with a grunted imperative that turned it into an order. "Show!"

"Show what?" Binkis replied fearfully. "Show rifle?"

A negative; he'd already taught the witchdoctor everything he could about firearms, which was why he'd been afraid he'd go into the pot soon. And the word meant explain as much as show. Perhaps show how...

"Show! Come!" A'a said, and turned to walk away.

The Wergu led him out of the clutch of huts, past the turn-off to the hot springs, and then uphill towards the caves. After a struggle that brought a sweat of pain to his face Binkis made an inarticulate sound of protest. A'a shrugged and threw him over a massive shoulder, trotting effortlessly upward; the jolting ride was only slightly less painful than climbing himself. The Wergu was scarcely breathing hard when he set the human down again; even given the lower gravity of Venus the Neanderthaloids were stronger than any man, beast-strong, gorilla-strong, their great muscles anchored on massively thick bones that gave broader areas of attachment.

"Cave strange show!" A'a said.

As far as Binkis could see, it was just a cave; the limestone cliffs around the lake were full of them. He knew better than to disobey the Wise One, though; he waited while the Wergu shaman kindled a torch and then followed him, his crutch thumping on the sandy floor in rhythm with his wheezing breath. The ceiling swelled out above them, thick with stalactites; bats rustled up there, and the acrid sweet-sour guano stink of their droppings was thick. After a while A'a stopped and gestured to the walls.

"Stick-men make," he said.

Binkis stared, jarred out of his own misery for a moment. The walls were covered by paintings in an eerily naturalistic style; tharg and churr, antelope, sabertooth and cave-lion and raptors, giant ceratopids and duckbills and mountainous titanotheres, ochre-brown, green, crimson, blue. The irregular surface of the rock was used to add life to the images, like an endless band of bas-reliefs, and streaks of soot from animal-fat stone lamps rose above the scenes like exclamation points. In places they had been crossed over with broad splashes of what looked like dried blood, and handprints in the same material. There was a smell of old blood, and of fat and smoke, and cold wet rock.

"Strange cave. Come, show!"

The cave narrowed, until Binkis was stooping over and hobbling painfully. The torch guttered low, but the light seemed to be growing.

No.

The captive blinked. It wasn't as if there was actually a light; more as if he was somehow seeing without it. I am mad. Good.

A'a stopped, raising his torch and squinting as if into absolute blackness. "Show! Show!"

The poor beast wants me to explain this, Binkis thought with an involuntary giggle as he limped forward into the white not-light.

The stone vanished beneath his bare feet; what replaced it seemed to be at the same time soft and yet firm, like some resilient synthetic, but after a while there was no sensation of contact beneath his feet at all.

At last the white light shone through his own body. He lifted his hand, watching bone and tendon move and flex. The pain had vanished in a scent of strawberries, and his fear with the taste of sour cream and springwater. Radiance shone through his skull. A voice louder than God's whispered behind his eyes: Satisfactory.

 

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