Read Darkover: First Contact Online

Authors: Marion Zimmer Bradley

Darkover: First Contact (6 page)

It was steep and slippery, and once Camilla lost her footing on the icy leafmold and slid, rolled and floundered to a stop against a great tree trunk; she lay there half-stunned until MacAran, flashing his light around and calling, caught her in his beam. She was gasping and sobbing with the cold, but when he reached a hand to help her up she shook her head and struggled to her feet. “I can manage. But thank you,” she added, grudgingly.
She felt exhausted, utterly humiliated. She had been trained that it was her duty to work with men as an equal, and in the usual world she knew, a world of buttons to push and machines to run, physical strength was not a factor she had ever had to take into account. She never stopped to reflect that in all her life she had never known any physical effort greater than gymnastics in the exercise room of the ship, or a space station; she felt that she had somehow failed to carry her own weight, she had somehow betrayed her high position. A ship’s officer was supposed to be more competent than
civilian! She trudged wearily along down the steep slope, setting her feet down with dogged care, and felt the tears of exhaustion and weariness freezing on her cold cheeks.
MacAran, following slowly, was unaware of her inward struggle, but he felt her weariness through her sagging shoulders. After a moment he put his arm around her waist, and said gently, “Like I said before, if you fall again and get hurt badly we’ll have to carry you. Don’t do that to us, Camilla.” He added, hesitatingly, “You’d have let Jenny help you, wouldn’t you?”
She did not answer, but she let herself lean on him. He guided her stumbling steps toward the small glow of light through the tent. Somewhere above them, in the thick trees, the harsh call of a night-bird broke through the noise of the beating sleet, but there was no other sound. Even their steps sounded odd and alien here.
Inside the tent MacAran sagged, gratefully taking the plastic cup of boiling tea MacLeod handed him, stepping carefully to where his sleeping bag had been spread beside Ewen’s. He sipped at the boiling liquid, brushing ice from his eyelids, hearing Heather and Judy making cooing sounds over Camilla’s icy face, bustling around in the cramped quarters and bringing her hot tea, a dry blanket, helping her out of her iced-over parka. Ewen asked, “What’s it doing out there—rain? Hail? Sleet?”
“Mixture of all three, I’d guess. We seem to have lucked right into some kind of equinoctial storm, I’d imagine. It
be like this all year round.”
“Did you get your readings?” At MacAran’s affirmative nod, he said, “One of us should have gone, the Lieutenant’s not really up to that kind of climb in this weather. Wonder what made her try?”
MacAran looked across at Camilla, huddled under a blanket, with Judy drying her wet, tangled hair as she sipped the boiling tea. He said, surprising himself,
“Noblesse oblige.”
Ewen nodded. “I know what you mean. Let me get you some soup. Judy did some great things with the ration. Good to have a food expert along.”
They were all exhausted and talked little of what they had seen; the howling of the wind and sleet outside made speech difficult in any case. Within half an hour they had downed their food and crawled into their sleeping bags. Heather snuggled close to Ewen, her head on his shoulder, and MacAran, just beyond them, looked at their joined bodies with a slow, undefined envy. There seemed a closeness there which had little to do with sexuality. It spoke in the way they shifted their weight, almost unconsciously, each to ease and comfort the other. Against his will he thought of the moment when Camilla had let herself rest against him, and smiled wryly in the dark. Of all the women in the ship she was the least likely to be interested in him, and probably the one he disliked most. But damn it, he had to admire her!
He lay awake for a time, listening to the noise of wind in the heavy trees, to the sound of a tree cracking and crashing down somewhere in the storm—
God! If one fell on the tent, we’d all be killed
—to strange sounds which might be animals crashing through the underbrush. After a while, fitfully, he slept, but with one ear open, hearing MacLeod gasping in his sleep and moaning, once hearing Camilla cry out, a nightmarish cry, then fall again into exhausted sleep. Toward morning the storm quieted and the rain ceased and he slept like the dead, hearing only through his sleep the sounds of strange beasts and birds moving in the nighted forest and on the unknown hills.
Some time before dawn he roused, hearing Camilla stirring, and saw across the dark tent that she was struggling into her uniform. He slid quietly from his sleeping bag, and asked softly, “What is it?”
“The rain’s stopped and the sky’s clear; I want some sky-sightings and spectrograph readings before the fog comes in.”
“Right. Need any help?”
“No, Marco can help carry the instruments.”
He started to protest, then shrugged and crawled back into his sleeping bag. It wasn’t entirely up to him. She knew her business and didn’t need his careful watchfulness. She’d made that amply clear.
Some undefined apprehension, however, kept him from sleeping again; he lay in an uneasy doze, hearing around him the noises of the waking forest. Birds called from tree to tree, some harsh and raucous, some soft and chirping. There were small croakings and stirrings in the underbrush, and somewhere a distant sound not unlike the barking of a dog.
And then the silence was shattered by a horrible yell—a shriek of unquestionably human agony, a harsh scream of anguish, repeated twice and breaking off in a ghastly babbling moan, and silence.
MacAran was out of his sleeping bag and out of the tent, half dressed, Ewen less than half a step behind him, and all the others crowding after, sleepy, bewildered, frightened. He ran up the slope toward the sound, hearing Camilla cry out for help.
She had set her equipment in a clearing near the summit, but now it was knocked over; nearby Marco Zabal lay on the ground, writhing and moaning incoherently. He was swollen and his face had a hideous congested look; Camilla was brushing frantically with her gloved hands. Ewen dropped by the writhing man, with a quick demand to Camilla:
“Quick—what happened!”
“Things—like insects,” she said, shaking as she held out her hands. On the gloved palm lay a small crushed thing, less than two inches long, with a curved tail like a scorpion and a wicked fang at the front; it was bright orange and green in color. “He stepped on that mound there, and I heard him scream, and then he fell down—”
Ewen had his medical kit out, and was quickly moving his hands over Zabal’s heart. He gave quick directions to Heather, who had dropped beside him, to cut away the man’s clothes; the wounded man’s face was congested and blackening, and his arm swollen immensely. Zabal was unconscious now, moaning deliriously.
A powerful nerve poison,
Ewen thought; his heart is slowing down and his breathing depressed. All he could do now was to give the man a powerful stimulant and stand by in case he needed artificial respiration. He didn’t even dare give him anything to ease the agony—almost all narcotics were respiratory depressants. He waited, hardly breathing himself, his stethoscope on Zabal’s chest, while the man’s faltering heart began to beat a little more regularly; he raised his head to look briefly at the mound, to ask Camilla if she had been bitten—she hadn’t, although two of the hideous insects had begun to crawl up her arm—and to demand that everybody stay a good long distance from the mound, or anthill, or whatever it was.
Just dumb luck we didn’t camp on top of it in the dark! MacAran and Camilla might have stumbled right into it—or maybe they’re dormant in snow!
Time dragged. Zabal began to breathe again more regularly and to moan a little but he did not recover consciousness. The great red sun, dripping fog, slowly lifted itself up over the foothills surrounding them.
Ewen sent Heather back to the tent for the rest of his medical equipment; Judy and MacLeod began to fix some breakfast. Camilla stoically calculated the few astronomical readings she had been able to take before the attack of the scorpionants—MacLeod, after examining the dead one, had temporarily christened them that. MacAran came and stood beside the unconscious man and the young doctor who knelt beside him.
“Will he live?”
“I don’t know. Probably. I never saw anything like it since I treated my one and only case of rattlesnake bite. But one thing’s certain—he won’t be going anywhere today, probably not tomorrow either.”
MacAran asked, “Shouldn’t we carry him down to the tent? Could there be more of those things crawling around?”
“I’d rather not move him now. Maybe in a couple of hours.”
MacAran stood, looking down in dismay, at the unconscious man. They shouldn’t delay—and yet, their party had been rigidly calculated for size and there was no one to spare to send back to the ship for help. Finally he said, “We’ve got to go on. Suppose we move Marco back to the tent, when it’s safe, and you stay to look after him. The others can do their exploration work here as well as anywhere, check out soil, plant, animal samples. But I have to survey what I can from the peak, and Lieutenant Del Rey has to take her astronomical sightings from as high up as possible. We’ll go on ahead, as far as we can. If the peak turns out to be unclimbable we won’t try, just take what readings we can and come back.”
“Wouldn’t it be better to wait and see whether we can go on with you? We don’t know what kind of dangers there are in the forests here.”
“It’s a matter of time,” Camilla said tautly. “The sooner we know where we are, the sooner we have a chance—” she didn’t finish.
MacAran said, “We don’t know. The dangers might even be less for a very small party, even for a single person. It’s even odds, either way. I think we’re going to have to do it that way.”
They arranged it like that, and since in two hours Zabal had shown no signs of recovering consciousness, MacAran and the other two men carried him, on an improvised stretcher, down to the tent. There was some protest about the splitting of the party, but no one seriously disputed it, and MacAran realized that he had already become their leader whose word was law. By the time the red sun stood straight overhead they had divided the packs and were ready to go, with only the small emergency shelter-tent, food for a few days, and Camilla’s instruments.
They stood in the shelter tent, looking down at the semiconscious Zabal. He had begun to stir and moan but showed no other signs of returning consciousness. MacAran felt desperately uneasy about him, but all he could do was leave him in Ewen’s hands. After all, the important business here was the preliminary estimate of this planet—and Camilla’s observations as to where in the Galaxy they were!
Something was nagging at his mind. Had he forgotten anything? Suddenly Heather Stuart pulled off her uniform coat and drew off the fut-knit jacket she was wearing under it. “Camilla, it’s warmer than yours,” she said in a low voice, “please wear it. It snows so here. And you’re going to be out with only the small shelter!”
Camilla laughed, shaking her head. “It’s going to be cold here too.”
“But—” Heather’s face was taut and drawn. She bit her lip and pleaded, “
Camilla. Call me a silly fool, if you like. Say I’m having a premonition, but
take it!”
“You too?” MacLeod asked dryly. “Better take it, Lieutenant. I thought I was the only one having freaked-out second sight. I’ve never taken ESP very seriously, but who knows, on a strange planet it just might turn out to be a survival quality. Anyhow, what can you lose to take a few extra warm clothes?”
MacAran realized that the nagging at his mind
been somehow concerned with weather. He said, “Take it, Camilla, if it’s extra warm. I’ll take Zabal’s mountain parka, too, it’s heavier than mine, and leave mine for him. And some extra sweaters if you have them. Don’t deprive yourselves, but it’s true that if it snows you will have more shelter than we do, and it sometimes gets pretty cold on the heights.” He was looking at Heather and MacLeod curiously; as a general rule he had no faith in what he had heard about ESP, but if two people in the party both felt it, and he too had some inkling of it—well, maybe it was just a matter of unconscious sensory clues, something they couldn’t add up consciously. Anyway, you didn’t need ESP to predict bad weather on the mountain heights of a strange planet with a freakishly bad climate! “Take all the clothes anyone can spare, and an extra blanket—we have extras,” he ordered, “and then let’s get going.”
While Heather and Judy were packing, he made time for a word alone with Ewen. “Wait here for at least eight days for us,” he said, “and we’ll signal every night at sunset if we can. If there’s no word or signal by that time, get back to the ship. If we make it back, no sense disturbing everyone else with this—but if something happens to us, you’re in charge.”
Ewen felt reluctant to see him go. “What shall I do if Zabal dies?”
“Bury him,” MacAran said harshly, “what else?” He turned away and motioned to Camilla. “Let’s go, Lieutenant.”
They strode away from the clearing without looking back, MacAran setting a steady pace, not too fast, not too slow.
As they climbed higher the land changed, the ground under foot becoming less overgrown, with more bare rocks and sparser trees. The slope of the foothills was not acute, but as they neared the crest of the slope where they had camped, MacAran called a halt to rest and swallow a mouthful of rations. From where they stood they could see the small orange square of the shelter-tent, only a flyspeck at this height, through the heavy trees.
“How far have we come, MacAran?” the woman asked, putting back the fur-lined hood of her jacket.
“I’ve no way of knowing. Five, six miles perhaps; about two thousand feet of altitude. Headache?”
“Only a little,” the girl lied.

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