Read Darkover: First Contact Online

Authors: Marion Zimmer Bradley

Darkover: First Contact (5 page)

“You may have something there,” MacAran said, but he still looked somber. “If that’s so, though, why do they make such a fuss about First Landing teams when they send them to a new planet?”
“Search me. But maybe on a planet where man never developed, his natural enemies didn’t develop either?”
It should have comforted MacAran, but instead he felt a cold chill. If man didn’t
belong
here, could he
survive
here? But he didn’t say it. “Better get moving again. We’ve got a long way to go, and I’d like to get on the slopes before dark.”
He stopped by McLeod as the older man struggled to his feet. “You all right, Dr. MacLeod?”
“Mac,” the older man said with a faint smile, “we’re not under ship discipline now. Yes, I’m fine.”
“You’re the animal specialist. Any theories why we haven’t seen anything larger than a squirrel?”
“Two,” MacLeod said with a round grin, “the first, of course, being that there aren’t any. The second, the one I’m committed to, is that with six, no, seven of us crashing along through the underbrush this way, anything with a brain bigger than a squirrel’s keeps a good long way off!”
MacAran chuckled, even while he revised his opinion of the fat little man upward by a good many notches. “Should we try to be quieter?”
“Don’t see how we can manage it. Tonight will be a better test. Larger carnivores—if there’s any analogy to Earth—will come out then, hoping to catch their natural prey sleeping.”
MacAran said, “Then we’d better make it our business that we don’t get crunched up by mistake,” but as he watched the others sling their packs and get into formation, he thought silently that this was one thing he had forgotten. It was true; the overwhelming attention to safety on Earth had virtually eliminated all but man-made dangers. Even jungle safaris were undertaken in glass-sided trucks, and it wouldn’t have occurred to him that night would be dangerous in that way.
They had walked another forty minutes, through thickening trees and somewhat heavier underbrush, where they had to push branches aside, when Judith stopped, rubbing her eyes painfully. At about the same time, Heather lifted her hands and stared at them in horror; Ewen, at her side, was instantly alert.
“What’s wrong?”
“My hands—” Heather held them up, her face white. Ewen called, “Rafe, hold up a minute,” and the straggling line came to a halt. He took Heather’s slim fingers gingerly between his own, carefully examining the erupting greenish dots; behind him Camilla cried out:
“Judy! Oh, God, look at her face!”
Ewen swung around to Dr. Lovat. Her cheeks and eyelids were covered with the greenish dots, which seemed to spread and enlarge and swell as he looked at them. She squeezed her eyes shut. Camilla caught her hands gently as she raised them to her face.
“Don’t touch your face, Judy—Dr. Ross, what is it?”
“How the hell do I know?” Ewen looked around as the others gathered around them.
“Anybody else turning green?” He added, “All right, then. This is what I’m here for, and everybody else keep your distance until we know just what we’ve got. Heather!” He shook her shoulder sharply. “Stop that! You’re not going to drop dead, as far as I can tell your vital signs are all just fine.”
With an effort, the girl controlled herself. “Sorry.”
“Now. Exactly what do you feel? Do those spots hurt?”
“No, dammit, they
itch!”
She was flushed, her face red, her copper hair falling loose around her shoulders; she raised a hand to brush it back, and Ewen caught her wrist, careful to touch only her uniform sleeve. “No, don’t touch your face,” he said, “that’s what Dr. Lovat did. Dr. Lovat, how do you feel?”
“Not so good,” she said with some effort, “My face burns, and my eyes—well, you can see.”
“Indeed I can.” Ewen realized that the lids were swelling and turning greenish; she looked grotesque.
Secretly Ewen wondered if he looked as frightened as he felt. Like everyone there, he had been brought up on stories of exotic plagues to be found on strange worlds. But he was a doctor and this was his job. He said, making his voice as firm as he could, “All right, everyone else stand back; but don’t panic, if it was an airborne plague we’d all have caught it, and probably the night we landed here. Dr. Lovat, any other symptoms?”
Judy said, trying to smile, “None—except I’m scared.”
Ewen said, “We won’t count that—yet.” Pulling rubber gloves from a steri-pace in his kit, he quickly took her pulse. “No tachycardia, no depressed breathing. You, Heather?”
“I’m fine, except for the damned itching.”
Ewen examined the small rash minutely. It was pinpoint at first, but each papule quickly swelled to a vesicle. He said, “Well, let’s start eliminating. What did you and Dr. Lovat do that nobody else did?”
“I took soil samples,” she said, “looking for soil bacteria and diatoms.”
“I was studying some leaves,” Judy said, “trying to see if they had a suitable chlorophyll content.”
Marco Zabal turned back his uniform cuffs. “I’ll play Sherlock Holmes,” he said. “There’s your answer.” He extended his wrists, showing one or two tiny green dots. “Miss Stuart, did you have to move away any leaves to dig up your samples?”
“Why, yes, some flat reddish ones,” she said, and he nodded. “There’s your answer. Like any good xenobotanist, I handle any plant with gloves until I’m sure what’s in it or on it, and I noticed the volatile oil at the time, but took it for granted. Probably some distant relative of urushiol—
rhus toxicodendron
—poison ivy to you. And it’s my guess that if it comes out this quickly, it’s simple contact dermatitis and there aren’t any serious side effects.” He grinned, his long narrow face amused. “Try an antihistamine ointment, if you have any, or give Dr. Lovat a shot, since her eyes are swollen so much it’s going to be hard for her to see where she’s going. And from now on don’t go admiring any pretty leaves until I pass on them, all right?”
Ewen followed his instructions, with a relief so great it was almost pain. He felt totally unable to cope with any alien plagues. A massive hypo of antihistamines quickly shrunk Judith Lovat’s swollen eyes to normal, although the green color remained. The tall Basque showed them all his specimen leaf, encased in a transparent plastic sample case. “The red menace that turns you green,” he said dryly. “Learn to stay away from alien plants, if you can.”
MacAran said, “If everyone’s all right, let’s move along,” but as they gathered up their equipment, he felt half sick with relief, and renewed fear. What other dangers could be lurking in an innocent-looking tree or flower? He said half-aloud to Ewen, “I knew this place was too good to be true.”
Zabal heard him and chuckled. “My brother was on the First Landing team that went to the Coronis colony. That’s one reason I was heading out there. That’s the only reason I happen to know all this. The Expedition Force doesn’t care to publicize how tricky planets can be, because no one on our nice, safe Earth would dare go out to them. And of course by the time the major colonizing groups get there, like us, the technological crews have removed the obvious dangers and, shall we say, smoothed things down a bit.”
“Let’s go,” MacAran ordered, without answering. This was a wild planet, but what could he do about it? He’d said he wanted to take risks, now he was having his chance.
But they went on without incident, halting near midday to eat lunch from their packs and allow Camilla Del Rey to check her chronometer and come closer to the exact moment of noon. He drew closer to her as she was watching a small pole she had set up in the ground:
“What’s the story?”
“The moment when the shadow is shortest is exact noon. So I note the length every two minutes and when it begins to get longer again, noon—the sun exactly on meridian—is in that two-minute period. This is close enough to true local noon for our measurements.” She turned to him and asked in a low voice, “Are Heather and Judy really all right?”
“Oh, yes. Ewen’s been checking them at every stop. We don’t know how long it will take for the color to fade, but they’re fine.”
“I nearly panicked,” she murmured, “Judy Lovat makes me ashamed of myself. She was so calm.”
He noticed that imperceptibly the “Lieutenant Del Rey,” “Dr. Lovat,” “Dr. MacLeod” of the ship—where, after all, you saw only your few intimates except formally—were melting into Camilla, Judy, Mac. He approved. They might be here a long time. He said something like that, then abruptly asked, “Do you have any idea how long we will be here for repairs?”
“None,” she said, “but Captain Leicester says—six weeks if we can repair it.”
“If?”
“Of course we can repair it,” she said suddenly and sharply, and turned away. “We’ll have to. We can’t stay here.”
He wondered if this were fact or optimism, but did not ask. When he spoke next it was to make some banal remark about the quality of the rations they carried and to hope Judy would find some fresh food sources here.
As the sun angled slowly down over the distant ranges, it grew cold again, and a sharp wind sprang up. Camilla looked apprehensively at the gathering clouds.
“So much for astronomical observations,” she murmured. “Does it rain
every
night on this damnable planet?”
“Seems like it,” MacAran said briefly. “Maybe it’s a seasonal thing. But every night, so far, at this season at least—hot at noon, cooling down fast, clouds in the afternoon, rain at evening, snow toward midnight. And fog in the morning.”
She said, knitting her brows, “From what I’ve guessed from the time changes—not that five days can tell us much—it’s spring; anyhow the days are getting longer, about three minutes each day. The planet seems to have somewhat more tilt than Earth, which would make for violent weather changes. But maybe after the snow clears and before the fog rises, the sky will clear a little. . . .” and fell silent, thinking. MacAran did not disturb her, but as a thin fine drizzle began to fall, began to search for a camping site. They had better get under canvas before it turned into a downpour.
They were on a downslope; below them lay a broad and almost treeless valley, not in their direct path, but pleasant and green, stretching for two or three miles to the south. MacAran looked down at it, calculating the mile or two lost as against the problems of camping under the trees. Evidently these foothills were interspersed with such little valleys, and through this one ran something like a narrow stream of water—a river? A brook? Could it be used to replenish their water supplies? He raised the question, and MacLeod said, “Test the water, sure. But we’ll be safer camping here in the middle of the forest.”
“Why?”
For answer MacLeod pointed and MacAran made out something that looked like some herd animal. Details were hard to make out, but they were about the size of small ponies. “That’s why,” MacLeod said. “For all we know they may be peaceful—or even domesticated. And if they’re grazing they’re not carnivores. But I’d hate to be in their way if they took a notion to stampede in the night. In the trees we can hear things coming.”
Judy came and stood beside them. “They might be good to eat. They might even be domesticable, if anyone ever colonizes this planet some day—save the trouble of importing food animals and beasts of burden from Earth.”
Watching the slow, flowing movement of the herd over the gray-green turf, MacAran thought it was a tragedy that man could only see animals in terms of his own needs.
But hell, I like a good steak as well as anyone, who am I to preach?
And maybe within a few weeks they would be gone, and the herd animals, whatever they were, could remain unmolested forever.
They set up a camp on the slope in the midst of the drizzle, and Zabal set about making a fire. Camilla said, “I’ve got to get to the hilltop at sunset and try to find a line of sight to the ship. They’re showing lights to establish sightings.”
“You couldn’t see anything in this rain,” MacAran said sharply. “Visibility’s about half a mile now. Even a strong light wouldn’t show. Get inside the dome, you’re drenched!”
She whirled on him. “
Mister
MacAran, need I remind you that I do not take my orders from you? You are in charge of the exploration party—but I’m here on ship’s business and I have duties to perform!” She turned away from the small plastic dome-shaped tent and started up the slope. MacAran, cursing all stubborn female officers, started after her.
“Go back,” she said sharply, “I’ve got my instruments, I can manage.”
“You just said I’m in charge of this party. All right, damn it, one of
my
orders is that no one goes off alone!
No
one—and that includes the ship’s first officer!”
She turned away without speaking again, forging up the slope, hugging her parka hood around her face against the cold, driving rain. It grew heavier as they climbed, and he heard her slip and stumble in the underbrush, even with the strong hand-light she carried. Catching up with her, he put a strong hand under her elbow. She moved to shake it off, but he said harshly, “Don’t be a fool, Lieutenant! If you break an ankle we’ll all have to carry you—or turn back! Two can find a footing, maybe, where one can’t. Come on—take my arm.” She remained rigid and he snarled, “Damn it, if you were a man I wouldn’t
ask
you politely to let me help—I’d
order
it!”
She laughed shortly. “All right,” she said, and gripped his elbow, their two handlights playing on the ground for a path. He heard her teeth chattering, but she did not speak a word of complaint. The slope grew steeper, and on the last few yards MacAran had to scramble up ahead of the girl and reach downward to pull her up. She looked round, searching for the direction; pointed where a very faint glimmer of light showed through the blinding rain.
“Could that be it?” she said uncertainly, “The compass direction seems about right”
“If they’re using a laser, yes, I suppose it might show this far, even through the rain.” The light blotted out, gleamed briefly, was wiped out again, and MacAran swore. “This rain’s turning to sleet—come on, let’s get down before we have to
slide
down—on ice underfoot!”

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