Read Darkover: First Contact Online

Authors: Marion Zimmer Bradley

Darkover: First Contact (8 page)

“Here. We can run a perfectly good line of sight from here, and there’s a flat spot to set up your equipment. We’ll wait here for noon.”
He had expected her to show relief; instead she looked at him, with a certain shyness, and said, “I thought you’d like to climb the peak, Rafe. Go ahead, if you want to, I don’t mind.”
He started to snap at her that it would be no fun at all with a frightened amateur, then realized this was no longer true. He pulled his pack off his shoulder and smiled at her, laying a hand on her arm. “That can wait,” he said gently, “this isn’t a pleasure trip, Camilla. This is the best spot for what we want to do. Did you adjust your chronometer so that we can catch noon?”
They rested side by side on the slope, looking down across the panorama of forests and hills spread out below them.
he thought,
a world to love, a world to live in.
He asked idly, “Do you suppose the Coronis colony is this beautiful?”
“How would I know? I’ve never been there. Anyway, I don’t know all that much about planets. But this one is beautiful. I’ve never seen a sun quite this color, and the shadows—” she fell silent, staring down at the pattern of greens and dark-violet shade in the valleys.
“It would be easy to get used to a sky this color,” MacAran said, and was silent again.
It was not long until the shortening shadows marked the approach of the meridian. After all the preparation, it seemed a curious anticlimax; to unfold the hundred-foot-high aluminum rod, to measure the shadows exactly, to the millimeter. When it was finished and he was refolding the rod, he said as much, wryly:
“Forty miles and an eighteen-thousand-foot climb for a hundred and twenty seconds of measurements.”
Camilla shrugged. “And God-knows-how-many light-years to come here. Science is all like that, Rafe.”
“Nothing to do now but wait for the night, so you can take your observations.” Rafe folded the rod and sat down on the rocks, enjoying the rare warmth of the sunlight. Camilla went on moving around their campsite for a little, then came back and joined him. He asked, “Do you really think you can chart this planet’s position, Camilla?”
“I hope so. I’m going to try and observe known Cepheid variables, take observations over a period of time, and if I can find as many as three that I can absolutely identify, I can compute where we are in relation to the central drift of the Galaxy.”
“Let’s pray for a few more clear nights, then,” Rafe said, and was silent.
After some time, watching him study the rocks less than a hundred feet above them, she said, “Go on, Rafe. You know you want to climb it. Go ahead, I don’t mind.”
“You don’t? You won’t mind waiting here?”
“Who said I’d wait here? I think I can make it. And—” she smiled a little, “I suppose I’m as curious as you are—to get one glimpse of what’s beyond it!”
He rose with alacrity. “We can leave everything but the canteens here,” he said. “It
an easy enough climb—not a climb at all, really; just a steep sort of scramble.” He felt lighthearted, joyous at her sudden sharing of his mood. He went ahead, searching out the easiest route, showing her where to set her feet. Common sense told him that this climb, based only on curiosity to see what lay beyond and not on their mission’s needs, was a little foolhardy—who could risk a broken ankle?—but he could not contain himself. Finally they struggled up the last few feet and stood looking out over the peak. Camilla cried out in surprise and a little dismay. The shoulder of the mountain on which they stood had obscured the real range which lay beyond; an enormous mountain range which lay, seemingly endless and to the very edge of their sight, wrapped in eternal snow, enormous and jagged and covered with glaciated ridges and peaks below which pale clouds drifted, lazily and slow.
Rafe whistled. “Good God, it makes the Himalayas look like foothills,” he muttered.
“It seems to go on forever! I suppose we didn’t see it before because the air wasn’t so clear, with clouds and fog and rain, but—” Camilla shook her head in wonder. “It’s like a wall around the world!”
“This explains something else,” Rafe said slowly. “The freak weather. Flowing over a series of glaciers like that, no wonder there’s almost perpetual rain, fog, snow—you name it! And if they are really as high as they look—I can’t tell how far away they are, but they could easily be a hundred miles on a clear day like this—it would also explain the tilt of this world on its axis. They call the Himalayas, on Earth, a third pole. This is a
third pole! A third icecap, anyway.”
“I’d rather look the other way,” Camilla said, and faced back toward the folds and folds of green-violet valleys and forests. “I prefer my planets with trees and flowers—and sunlight, even if the sunlight is the color of blood.”
“Let’s hope it shows us some stars tonight—and some moons.”
“I simply can’t believe this weather,” Heather Stuart said, and Ewen, stepping to the door of the tent, jeered gently, “What price your blizzard warnings now?”
“I’m glad to be wrong,” Heather said firmly, “Rafe and Camilla need it, on the mountain.” An expression of disquiet passed over her face. “I’m not so sure I
wrong, though, there’s something about this weather that scares me a little. It seems all wrong for this planet somehow.”
Ewen chuckled. “Still defending the honor of your old Highland granny and her second sight?”
Heather did not smile. “I never believed in second sight. Not even in the Highlands. But now I’m not so sure. How is Marco?”
“Not much change, although Judy did manage to get him to swallow a little broth. He seems a little better, although his pulse is still awfully uneven. Where is Judy, by the way?”
“She went into the woods with MacLeod. I made her promise not to go out of sight of the clearing, though.” A sound inside of the tent drew them both back; for the first time in three days, something other than inarticulate moans from Zabal. Inside he was moving, struggling to sit up. He muttered, in a hoarse astonished voice,
“Que pasó? O Dio, mi duele—duele tanto—”
Ewen bent over him, saying gently, “It’s all right, Marco, you’re here, we’re with you. Are you in pain?”
He muttered something in Spanish. Ewen looked blankly up at Heather, who shook her head. “I don’t speak it; Camilla does, but I only know a few words.” But before she could muster any of them, Zabal muttered, “Pain? You’d better believe! What
those things? How long—where’s Rafe?”
Ewen checked the man’s heart-rate before he spoke. He said, “Don’t try to sit up; I’ll put a pillow behind your head. You’ve been very ill; we thought you weren’t going to make it.”
And I’m still not so sure,
he thought grimly, even while he wadded his spare coat to put behind the injured man’s head and Heather encouraged him to swallow some soup.
No, please, there have been too many deaths.
But he knew this would make no difference. On Earth only the old died, as a rule. Here—well, it was different. Damn different.
“Don’t waste your breath talking. Save your strength and we’ll tell you everything,” he said.
The night fell, still miraculously clear and free of fog or rain. Even on the heights, no fog closed in, and Rafe, setting up Camilla’s telescope and other instruments on the flat place of their camp, saw for the first time the stars rise over the peaks, clear and brilliant but very far away. He did not know a Cepheid variable from a constellation, so much of what she was trying to do was incomprehensible to him; but with a carefully shielded light—not to spoil the dark-adaptation of her eyes—he wrote down careful strings of figures and co-ordinates as she gave them. After what seemed hours of this, she sighed and stretched cramped muscles.
“That’s all I can do for now; I can take more readings just before dawn. Still no sign of rain?”
“None, thank goodness.”
Around them the scent from the flowers on the lower slopes was sweet and intoxicating, as quick-blooming shrubs, vivified by two days of heat and dryness, burst and opened all around. The unfamiliar scents were a little dizzying. Over the mountain floated a great gleaming moon, with a pale iridescent glow; then, following it by only a few moments, another, this one with pale violet lustre.
“Look at the moon,” she whispered.
“Which moon?” Rafe smiled in the darkness. “Earthmen get used to saying,
moon; I suppose some day someone will give them names. . . .”
They sat on the soft dry grass, watching the moons swing free of the mountains and rise. Rafe quoted softly, “If the stars shone only one night in a thousand years, how men would look and wonder and adore.”
She nodded. “Even after ten days, I find I miss them.”
Rationally Rafe knew that it was madness to sit here in the dark. If nothing else, birds or beasts of prey—perhaps the banshee-screamer from the heights they had heard last night—might be abroad in the dark. He said so, finally, and Camilla, like the breaking of a spell, started and said, “You’re right. I must wake well before dawn.”
Rafe was somehow reluctant to go into the stuffy darkness of the shelter-tent. He said, “In the old days it used to be believed it was dangerous to sleep in the moonlight—that’s where the word lunatic came from. Would it be four times as dangerous to sleep under four moons, I wonder?”
“No, but it would be—lunatic,” Camilla said, laughing gently. He stopped, took her shoulders in a gentle grip and for a moment the girl, biting back a tart remark, thought in a mixture of fear and anticipation that he would bend down and kiss her; but then he turned away and said, “Who wants to be sane? Good night, Camilla. See you an hour before sunrise,” and strode away, leaving her to go before him into the shelter.
A clear night, over the planet of the four moons. Banshees prowled on the heights, freezing their warm-blooded prey with their screams, blundering toward them by the heat of their blood, but never coming below the snowline; on a snowless night, anything on rock or grass was safe. Above the valleys, great birds of prey swung, beasts still unknown to the Earthmen prowled in the depths of the deep forest, living and dying, and trees unheard crashed to the ground. Under the moonlight, in the unaccustomed heat and dryness of a warm wind blowing away from the glaciated ridges, flowers bloomed and opened, and shed their perfume and pollen. Night-blooming and strange, with a deep and intoxicating scent....
The red sun rose clear and cloudless, a brilliant sunrise with the sun like a giant ruby in a clear garnet sky. Rafe and Camilla, who had been at the telescope for two hours, sat and watched it with the pleasant fatigue of a light task safely over for some time.
“Shall we start down? This weather is too good to last,” Camilla said, “and although I’ve gotten used to the mountain in the sun, I don’t think I’d care to navigate it on ice.”
“Right. Pack up the instruments—you know how they go—and I’ll fix a bite of rations and strike the tent. We’ll start down while the weather holds—not that it doesn’t look like a gorgeous day. If it’s still fine tonight we can stop on one of the hilltops and camp out, and you can take some more sightings,” he said.
Within forty minutes they were going down. Rafe cast a wistful look back at the huge unknown range before turning his back on it. His own undiscovered range, and probably he would never see it again.
Don’t be too sure,
a voice remarked precisely in his mind, but he shrugged it off. He didn’t believe in precognition.
He sniffed the light flower-scents, half enjoying them, half disturbed by their faintly acrid sweetness. The most noticeable were the tiny orange flowers Camilla had plucked the day before, but there was also a lovely white flower, star-shaped with a golden corolla, and a deep blue bell-like blossom with inner stalks covered with a shimmering gold-colored dust. Camilla bent over, inhaling the spicy fragrance. Rafe thought to warn her, after a moment;
“Remember Heather and Judy turning green? Serve you right if you do!”
She looked up, laughing. Her face looked faintly gold from the flower-dust. “If it was going to hurt me it would have already—the air’s full of the scent, or haven’t you noticed? Oh, it’s so beautiful, so beautiful, I feel like a flower myself, I feel as if I could get drunk on flowers—”
She stood rapt, gazing at the beautiful bell-shaped blossom and seeming to shimmer with the golden dust.
Rafe thought,
drunk on flowers
. He let his pack slip from his shoulder and roll away.
a flower,” he said hoarsely. He seized her and kissed her; she raised her lips to his, shyly at first, then with growing passion. They clung together in the field of waving flowers; she broke free first, and ran toward the stream which flowed down the slope, laughing, bending to toss her hands in the water.
Rafe thought in astonishment,
what has happened to us,
but the thought slid lightly over his mind and vanished. Camilla’s slight body seemed to flicker, to go in and out of focus. She stripped off her climbing boots and thick socks, dabbling her feet in the water.
Rafe bent over her and pulled her down into the long grass.
In the camp on the lower heights, Heather Stuart woke slowly, feeling the hot sun through the orange silk of the tent. Marco Zabal still drowsed in his corner, his blanket drawn over his head; but as she looked at him he began to stir, and smiled at her.
“So you sleep too, still?”
“I suppose the others are out in the clearing,” Heather said, stirring. “Judy said she wanted to test some of the nuts on the trees for edible carbohydrates—I notice her test kits aren’t here. How are you feeling, Marco?”
“Better,” he said, stretching. “I think maybe I get up for a minute today. Something in this air and sun, it does me good.”

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