Floodtide: Chapters 1 – 3

Floodtide cover

Floodtide new cover for paperback edition

 

 

CHAPTER 1

“FIELD TEAM SENT NEW PROBE TO CAVES last night. Big surprise!” Ray Travers’ voice exceeded lightspeed in excitement.

Jordas Krata suppressed a smile at Ray’s enthusiasm and hurried into the monitor room with a quick greeting for his colleagues. Neither acknowledged him.

“What did it find?” Marcus Carlin was Project Leader and Chief Scientist.

“More Naxadans than we thought.”

What? Are you sure?” For once, Jordas noted, Marcus’s composure was shaken.

In the holotank along the west wall Jordas glimpsed what the probe saw: a lava tube, wide enough for several people to walk abreast in, colonies of luminescent fungi encrusting the rockwalls, and ahead the gape of a cavern with its ice-cave roof.

“Must be another group. Others don’t look like him. See?”

The probe cruised into the chamber. There was some scrubby blackish-red vegetation, but the cavern wasn’t divided up into plots like the farm cavern. Nor did it look like a sleeping cavern. A streamlet wound between boulders in the centre of the chamber. And looking this way and that, a dark humanoid form crept through the underbrush.

As Jordas saw the creature his awareness slid. He clamped his eyes shut against the surge of vertigo, clutching at nothing. His seat was three metres away. He wouldn’t make it. He staggered and braced himself against the wall.

“Change of plan, Jordas –” Marcus began.

Jordas breathed in, legs wobbling. He took a step forwards, hand at his head, but swayed and fell before ever reaching his chair.

As if from a distance he heard Ray exclaim, “Jordas! You all right?”

“…Probably heat exhaustion,” someone muttered. Hands rolled him onto his side. Jordas fought waves of giddiness and confusion, and couldn’t quell the sense of intrusion into his mind.

Someone slapped his face. “Come on, Jordas!”

He forced his eyes open to gaze up at Marcus. “Whaa –?”

“Ray – get some water! And put the hololink onto record.”

The whirl of impressions in his head slowed. Jordas felt an arm under him, helping him up to drink. Liquid splashed onto his overshirt as he tasted its sharpness and chill.

“What happened?” Marcus looked concerned.

“I don’t know, I –” A change in the background hum told Jordas the live hololink was off, and he realised they were waiting for him to speak. “I fainted…I think,” he said, “though I’ve never done that in my life before.” He clambered to his feet, leaning on a chair for support.

“I could do without you going sick right now,” Marcus said. “I was going to ask you to pick up Senator Hartmann from the airport at nine – I’ll need to look into our calculations and costings again now…” He frowned. “But perhaps you should go get yourself checked out instead.”

“I’m fine now,” Jordas protested, straightening. “It’ll be a waste of time going over to Block B. I’ll go for the Senator right away.”

“If you’re sure…Take the pool car. I’ll notify airport security.”

Jordas nodded and left the room, willing each step firmer than the last. He hadn’t taken a day’s sick leave since joining the project four years before and didn’t intend to now.

As he settled back into the seat and instructed the car to take him to the airport he couldn’t help regretting that Senator Hartmann had been assigned to their case. If he’d acted sooner the famine on Mourang wouldn’t have claimed so many lives, Jordas mused, then chided himself for making judgements without having met the man.

By the time the car had parked itself it was several minutes past nine. At Security the officer was scanning the crowd as if seeking someone. Jordas hurried over. The security man peered at Jordas’s collar ID, took a notebook from his breast pocket and consulted it, then nodded and escorted him over to an angular man standing nearby.

The senator’s holo in his own notebook must have been retouched, Jordas realised. Hardened creases ran from nose to chin. The senator’s long upper lip sloped, etching a permanent sneer onto his face. The eyebrows zigzagged at obtuse angles above ice-chip eyes. The cranium, softened only by a few strands of greying hair, reflected the artificial light into Jordas’s eyes. But the strangest and most noticeable thing to Jordas was the senator’s total lack of emotional leakage. It felt as if a steel wall had slammed down around the man.

Unwilling to surrender to first impressions, he inhaled, reminding himself that the project needed the Committee’s help. He stepped forward, hand extended. “Senator Hartmann? I’m Jordas Krata.”

The politician looked Jordas up and down. “I won’t speak to the Press.”

“I’m not the Press,” Jordas said. “I’m Marcus Carlin’s senior assistant.”

Senator Hartmann moved a slender document wallet from one hand to the other. “I was expecting Dr Carlin,” he said as they shook hands.

“He sends his apologies – an urgent matter needed his attention, so he asked me to collect you.”

“I see. What was your name again?”

Jordas told him.

“You sound like an Anglo,” Hartmann said, “but your name doesn’t.”

Jordas squashed down his resentment at the comment. “My father’s from the Scandinavian states, but my mother was English, and I grew up there.”

“Ah-huh?” Hartmann turned to the security officer. “Get my luggage!” he said, heading for the doors.

Jordas raised his eyebrows, but sent the security officer an address from his own notebook, then hurried after the senator. He caught up with him at the doors, keeping his tone mild as he said, “They’ll send your luggage round.”

Hartmann didn’t even acknowledge that.

Heat struck through Jordas’s lightweight loose clothing as the doors swung open.

“God, I hate this planet!” Hartmann muttered behind him.

Jordas turned to see him extract a silk handkerchief from a suit pocket.

“I especially hate whir-flies.” He swiped at an insect which buzzed too close. It fell, iridescent wings silenced forever. Hartmann put his foot on it and ground it into pulp.

Jordas stared. Whir-flies were one of the few flying life-forms to have evolved on Goranon, and quite as beautiful as dragonflies.

“Is it far to the hotel?” Hartmann asked, mopping his forehead.

After what he’d just seen the conversational tone grated on Jordas, but he swallowed his anger. So much for reserving judgement! he thought, and forced himself to answer. “Actually, it’s not a hotel. The hotels are in Rorvik, and I’m sure you discovered on the way here that it’s an uncomfortable trip in and out. We had accommodation available, and thought you’d prefer to be on-site.” Jordas wondered if he’d imagined the brief frown that corrugated Hartmann’s forehead. “The apartments on the other side of the complex are very comfortable. You won’t get any noise from the landing area, so you can relax before getting down to business.” He gestured towards the vehicle park. “I have transport.”

Jordas waited while Senator Hartmann blotted perspiration from his forehead and stowed the handkerchief away, then made for the vehicle park. Indicating the pool car, he opened the door for the politician.

Once seated, Jordas swung the wheel and the car sped away from the airport. He could have left the vehicle on auto, but driving gave him an excuse not to speak. Blue-white sunlight barred his hands on the wheel, skipping between the trees and defying the UV protection the windshield offered. This section of the settlement abutted the edge of the compound. Above the perimeter fence the forest loomed, black and uncompromising; eerie purplish shadows diffused light in the rainforest, half-veiling the distant mountains which scarred the jungle. Goranon was a planet of contrasts: walls of foliage, split only by limestone ridges above which updraughts rioted, stretched in every direction around Axos Research Station; the deserts sandwiching this equatorial belt would fry a man’s blood at midday.

“I came here once before, many years ago,” Senator Hartmann remarked. “The climate hasn’t improved.”

“Official business?” Jordas asked.

“No.” Jordas was less surprised than relieved to sense Hartmann’s barriers go up again. I don’t trust him, he thought. Several kilometres clocked up before they entered the residential area, where blue-black multi-stemmed pseudocedars competed with roofs for light. Jordas pulled up before a two-storey block.

“The apartment’s this way,” Jordas told him. “I’ll call for you at eleven. You can rest until then, acclimatise yourself.”

Hartmann grunted, but followed Jordas to the door and allowed his handprint to be recorded so he could use the apartment.

*

“Senator Hartmann? Marcus Carlin.” The voice of the Chief Scientist was as cool as his smile.

Gerrold Hartmann shook hands with Carlin, noting the beard which the man kept trimmed to a point. What vanity!

“I’m sorry I wasn’t available to meet you this morning. An intriguing discovery here required my attention so I had to delegate that honour,” Carlin explained. “However, my Senior Geologist and Assistant Astronomer, Dr Krata, is trustworthy and efficient.”

An unconvincing excuse. Hartmann wondered if he was being deliberately affronted. The explanation about his accommodation was reasonable enough; he knew from previous visits that turbulence made air travel on Goranon unpleasant. It irked him that this boffin gave his work precedence over meeting him. Surely Carlin was the one who called in the Committee? But there was need for circumspection in his dealings with these people, so he ignored the thought and looked around.

The air boiled despite the telltales streaming at air conditioning vents. He sniffed; rooms crammed with machines all had the same sort of atmosphere, not quite at the level of a definite smell.

One wall was taken up by the vacant cuboid of a holotank. A series of instruments and terminal monitor cubes were ranked on workstations, while a semi-circular table bore four connected tanks; from previous Committee assignments he recognised the equipment as a telescope downlink station for processing data. In a corner stretched a highly-polished desk, probably made of wood from renewable sources. Hartmann thought of the oak desk in his own office. There are ways around the eco-laws if you know the right people…

Beside Carlin’s terminal rose a tray tower stacked with notepads, styli, printouts, and boxes of holochips the size of a man’s thumbnail. Krata was seated at a workstation, pointing to the tank and conferring with the third member of the team. Travers, that’s his name. He remembered it from Asthorn’s briefing at Committee headquarters. Travers was the Assistant Geologist: in his late twenties, with a kinked quiff that looked as if it were about to overbalance, the tinted corneal lenses fashionable in blue-star systems, and an earnest expression. His speech was a quickfire mix of words and handjerks.

Hartmann ran a finger between his neck and shirt collar, hoping the meeting would end before the hottest part of the day; besides, the first whore would arrive from Rorvik that afternoon.

“Have a seat.” Carlin pulled one forwards. “Ray, organise some drinks, will you?” He seated himself beside the politician.

Travers crossed to the drinks dispenser and dialled. The machine took just seconds to deliver.

Hartmann accepted a beaker and sipped. Iced orange juice; no whisky. He grimaced. “The report I received glitched, so I couldn’t read much of it on the way here,” he said. “I know you’ve found some aliens but that’s about all.”

“I’m sorry about the report – we’ll give you a complete update. These people face two threats to their existence.” Carlin spoke over his shoulder as he crossed to the holotank console. “Here’s the map of this sector of space.”

Of course, Hartmann remembered, Carlin’s Senior Astronomer as well as Chief Scientist. He watched him insert a holochip and set the controls. A three-dimensional starmap appeared in the tank. Hartmann spotted the Terran system in the northern quadrant. Towards the centre of the map the Charidas Interchange, staging-post for the several systems in the quadrant, hung like a jewel on a necklace, orbiting the gas giant Theona once a day. He’d often amused himself on-station whilst awaiting connections. Charidas itself was a small orange binary star. Toward the western quadrant lay the Kiai and Declaini systems, and eventually Vanjeyno and Mourang. I had a lucky escape after that business on Mourang. I suppose this’ll be another desperate race against time with no room to manoeuvre. That thoughtstream led to danger; Hartmann steered his thoughts back to the tank.

The holotank view zoomed in on the eastern quadrant. “Here’s the Lyrica star system,” Carlin said, leaning forwards to finger-trace Goranon’s greenish-blue and yellow disk as it rotated around Lyrica. “We’re here – Goranon, second planet out. Our system lies above and east of Malory’s Star.”

He pointed to a nearby system. The holo focused in on the fourth planet in the Malorian system, glittering blue and white. “Naxada.” Beyond it a belt of asteroids whirled about the star. “The farthestmost Malorian planet out is Chryo – a supercool gas giant. And this is asteroid Hamorrah. It’s presently on the opposite side of Malory’s Star from us – but our space telescope can see it.”

He gestured towards the dotted yellow tracer line linking asteroid to planet. “Its trajectory is decaying towards Naxada.” Carlin drew in a deep breath. “Five years ago Hamorrah fragmented into a string of rocks held to their orbit by gravity. We thought it would hit Chryo, but when it was realised it was going to collide with Naxada instead, our project was started. Our field team’s keeping tabs on Hamorrah and observing the effects of regular minor yearly impacts on Naxada. Although it’s lost some mass, it’s not small. The larger final impact will occur in a few weeks’ time – this is the first threat.”

“What do you expect to happen?” Hartmann asked.

“I’ll show you. Graphic of impact with Naxada.”

The tank cleared, and Hartmann saw a close-up holographic view of Naxada. The asteroid’s fragments were ranged above the ice planet, lined up ready to impact. As the planet rotated below the in-falling space rocks, a storm of micrometeorites with embedded larger fragments bombarded the planet. The first major collision site vaporised, along with the asteroid fragment. Strings of secondary impact craters formed behind it as debris was ejected. Some meteors detonated in the atmosphere, but others fell into the oceans, creating tall columns of water.

“Oscillating tsunamis – as high as the depth to the ocean floor,” Carlin murmured. “The blasts will be so powerful that the tsunamis will come in pulses.” He pointed to the trail of impacts as a line-drawing graphic in red traced the progress of seismic waves as they raced around the planet. “We don’t yet know where the biggest fragments will hit, but a major shock on the opposite side of Naxada could cause volcanic activity near our aliens, because the crust is already thinned there.” The graphic swooped in with a close-up of rocks tumbling from a fault. The faultline heaved rocks aside as it propagated outwards in several directions. Carlin waved a hand at it. “The hallmark of an impact – jumbled terrain.”

“So…where does the Committee come into all this? All you have to do is get your people out before that happens – isn’t it?”

“Not quite, Senator. There are unforeseen complications. Of course, you’re right, we will have to evacuate the field team soon, but that cost was built into the original project funding.” Carlin paced up and down between the rows of monitors, tapping steepled forefingers against his lips. “The evacuation of the Naxadans is what concerns us now. That’s where the Committee for Resettlement and Colonisation comes in.”

“What’s the other danger?”

Carlin indicated the man who’d met him at the airport. Krata sat watching his monitor cube, forearms resting on his thighs, but Hartmann already knew he was of only average height for a human male, with regular features. He regarded him with more interest than before. His hair curled to well below his collar, dark as the night sky. The firm mouth spoke of determination, but it was his eyes that arrested the attention: an intense blue even at this distance, the iris muscles were highlighted by flecks and streaks of white.

“Dr Krata will explain the geological background to the discovery of the Naxadans.”

*

“I’ll get some maps up,” Jordas said, resetting the controls by voice command. The holotank filled with a 3-d satellite mosaic. “Naxada has four continents, paired around the poles and heavily glaciated. The oceans are ice-free only around the equator. Like Earth, Naxada is geologically active, with plate tectonic, volcanic and seismic activity. The small axial tilt produces minor seasonal temperature variations.” He sipped his caffeine freeze, then cleared his throat. “Our base lies near a volcano whose flanks are honeycombed with lava tubes.”

“Lava tubes?”

Jordas ran an animation. Lava poured downslope, with golden seams and sparks licking its red and black crust. “Like caves, but they form during runny basaltic eruptions, when the tops and sides of lava streams running down the mountain cool in air.” The tank resumed its satellite mosaic. “When the lava inside drains away, it leaves a tunnel. The Naxadans live in their upper levels.”

“That sounds highly dangerous.”

“This volcano has long been dormant.” Jordas pointed on the map. “Here’s our base, near this mountain chain where the continent’s splitting apart. Climate change, driven by tectonic activity, rifting and intense basaltic volcanism, has led to glacial melting. Soot on the slopes has decreased the ice’s reflectivity and increased this effect. Our field team have been there for four years. Two months ago Matt Johnson fell into a lava tube while sampling ice cores.”

“Lava tube roofs sometimes collapse,” Ray volunteered. “Leaves holes called skylights.”

“Or there can be a thin layer of glassy rock, sometimes weathered away to nothing, with thin ice still on top. On the surface, the glacier usually covers the tunnel roof, but in some places that’s exposed, or lightly covered with snow,” Marcus added. “That’s how Dr Johnson fell in.”

“Many planets’ volcanoes, including Earth, have lava tubes, though not on this scale. On Naxada, some tubes interconnect, but erosion has destroyed some at the surface,” Jordas added. “This lava is quite fluid.”

“How come there are so many tunnels there?” Hartmann asked.

“Successive eruptions have built up many layers of ash and lava tubes.” Another voice command and the holovid swept in on a view of mountains, covered by snow pierced in places by dark rock outcrops. Jordas pointed to the bulge on the side of the Naxadans’ mountain. “See this new volcano – this swelling here – forming on the flank? It’s growing quickly, metres every day. They share a magma chamber. The original volcano may also erupt again, but the problem is that the mountain is glaciated. These blue contours indicate the extent and thickness of the ice sheet.

“Where volcanoes erupt under glaciers, floods follow. Meltwater gets dammed up under the ice until later eruptions release it. When it reaches the lower levels of the lava tubes it’ll enter through the skylights and flood our Naxadans out. – if the lava doesn’t get them first.” He turned to face Hartmann directly. “That’s the second threat to them. We expect the meteor impacts at about the same time.”

Ray smirked. “Caught between a rock and a wet place.”

Jordas cast a rueful glance at him.

“How does the glacier above the volcano stay frozen, with that heat from below?” Hartmann asked.

Jordas made a throwaway gesture. “The ice is thick, and rock acts as an effective insulator. Above the skylights, where some heat can escape, it’s formed ice caves. But if the ice starts to pile down into the caverns, it melts.”

“The original reports on discovery of the planet indicated Naxada was uninhabited,” Hartmann said.

“On the surface,” Jordas agreed. “But these people live underground, and heat trace monitoring is impossible through rock, especially hot rock. So like the first space explorers we use remote sensing methods, and our probes are small and pre-programmed to seek concealment –”

“I know all about the probes,” Hartmann interrupted.

“Indeed. Then you’ll know how beneficial they’ve proved in past first-contact missions. But nobody had used them in such confined spaces before, so working underground presented special problems. Ours rove at times, and use a network of concealed terminals to relay holovid or transmit live. Programming can be changed only when they’re hooked up.”

“Ah-huh.”

“The thing is, microwave radio is subject to rain fade and other precipitation-related problems, and can’t pass through rock, so an expedition would have to use cablephones to communicate with us. But they could use the probes’ system.” Jordas turned. “Ray?”

“Matt broke his pelvis. All excited when they rescued him. Bones in the caves. Sent hoverprobes in. Mapped caves, laid system for probe transmissions. Found more bones. Standard practice – observation before contact. Brought back interesting holovid. Naxada field team very excited.” Ray’s hands signalled at starship speed.

“Ah-huh.”

“Acquired samples.” Ray’s semaphore intensified. “Unexpected: plants, animals, insects. Life in the caves!” He paused for breath, hands finally at rest.

“The field team’s exobiologist confirmed that Naxada’s oceans contain plant-like organisms which help maintain the atmosphere. In addition it’s an evolved atmosphere, so we expected to find other life forms, and we know surface conditions were different in the past.” Marcus sipped his drink. “But without evidence of current surface habitation, we thought any animals other than plankton and fish had simply gone extinct.”

“When it turned out they were underground, everything fell into place,” Jordas added.

“How can life survive down there?”

“There are streams and hot and cold pools. A surprising range of creatures lives underground, one of which has grown in size, adopted an upright, bipedal stance, and developed into humanoids, like apes on Earth, or Kiai saurians. But we’re not sure whether life developed underground in the first place or moved into the caves when the climate became colder.”

“I suppose it was predictable,” Marcus said, “with humanoid life-forms scattered throughout the galaxy. It’s a widespread form because it’s versatile and adaptable.”

“And have you seen these – er – natives?”

Marcus locked gaze briefly with Jordas, then stared at the senator, and for an instant Jordas saw his dislike of the politician in his eyes. Then they flickered and cleared. “Yes,” Marcus said, “we have holovid. Better still, we can go live.” He gestured towards the tray tower on his desk. “At present one probe’s surveying an inhabited cave.”

“Very well,” the politician answered. “Show me.”

“We knew from the fresh bones that humanoids probably lived in the caves,” Marcus said, “and our probes found what we were looking for.” He concentrated on his own tank for several moments, then said, “Ah, here.”

The holotank filled with the image of a cavern. In one corner of the tank, a lava tube led away into darkness. Through the ice-cave ceiling far above daylight filtered in, revealing streaks of colour marking outgrowths of minerals, crystal formations, and occasional clusters of fungi whose eerie glow enhanced the light from the ceiling. The variety and beauty of this world never ceased to amaze Jordas.

“Are these caves formed like the tunnels?”

“Magmas and lavas contain a lot of gas,” Jordas said. “These caves form when gas blisters burst during cooling. They’re on a huge scale here, but even on Earth they’ve been used as living space. The gas escapes upwards and forms these holes – also called skylights – in the cavern roofs.”

Hartmann peered into the tank. “I can’t see any natives.”

“It’s dawn there now. They’re sleeping in crevices in the rock. Look, far left of the tank –”

The probe focused in on the mouth of a crevice. Several humanoids wrapped in cloth slumbered inside, the smallest obviously children of various ages. Of the adults, two were smaller than the others: females, Jordas guessed. The males looked to be a little shorter than the average human. All had white hair.

Jordas leaned forwards, fascinated. The probe had never observed these people so closely before.

“Their use of both spoken and signed language and their high degree of social interaction support their intelligence,” Marcus said.

“How long have you been observing them?” Hartmann asked.

“About three weeks.”

“You must have a lot of holovid of them.”

“Loads. We have a program which deselects anything very private, though, in accordance with our guidelines.” The whole team had undergone intensive training and counselling before using the probes.

“Of course,” Hartmann echoed.

One of the females moved, kneeling beside the other and calling her till she awoke. Jordas was struck by the humanity of the action. The female stretched, yawned, pulled cloth slippers on, and climbed upright. The lens zoomed out. She left the crevice, speaking in an undertone all the while, the other female following. Both were clad in short woven kilts, their skins almost as pale as their hair. White peach-fuzz covered most of their bodies, though not their faces.

One female resembled the other enough to be her daughter, and looked younger, even allowing for their alien appearance. They spoke quietly together, mixing speech with hand signals, as Ray did.

The smaller female turned to face the probe’s hiding place. She was young, and her narrow face had a singular beauty despite her furred torso and limbs. Crimped hair came to just below her ears. Jordas noted the flatness of her chest with surprise; the mother’s upper body bore six small breasts, which nevertheless looked engorged.

Her features darkened like thunderclouds as she looked into the probe lens concealed in shadows, and Jordas could have sworn her river-green eyes held an appeal to him. A shock tore through him. He couldn’t look away from the holotank. But she can’t know we’re watching.

The mother spoke again, and the daughter replied, tossing her hair. Jordas could hardly hear their voices, but from their gestures, they seemed to be arguing.

*

“You should be pleased that they want you, Soolkah!” Gujas watched her daughter stir the dirt with one foot.

“I’m not going to marry them!” Soolkah glared. “Chixi’s fat and old, and his brothers are ugly.”

That wasn’t true of all of them; the youngest, Lorr, was at least pleasant-looking, but Gujas saw Soolkah’s muscles bunch around her mouth in anger. She felt a moment’s apprehension; experience had taught her that this expression always preceded some act of disobedience from Soolkah.

Chixi wasn’t all that old; he had a little over forty highwaters, though few Shiranu lived much past sixty. Gujas’s own mother had died in her fifties, worn out by hard physical labour and childbearing for several men. A body can only stand so much punishment. “I’m sure I don’t know where you get this haughty streak from. Chixi’s amaaj has high status – their plots are always better-positioned and larger than ours, and he’s been negotiating with your fathers for many lighttimes. You should be flattered that he wants you.”

“But Mother, when he takes me he’ll squash me!” protested Soolkah.

“Don’t be crude! Nobody will want to take a ganzu at all!” retorted Gujas.

Soolkah’s temper rivalled a ganzu’s, which had led to much teasing within her family group. “In fact, your fathers and I have been wondering who would take you on – we’re really pleased that you’re to be married, and so quickly after reaching adulthood.” When Chixi and his brothers had offered for Soolkah, it had seemed the perfect solution. But Gujas and her husbands had all known there’d be opposition to the match. She sighed. It just goes to show how right the tradition of the surprise wedding day is!

Gujas had been married for many highwaters, and felt strong affection for all three husbands. She’d given them five live offspring, including Soolkah. That was good, compared to some women, and because she’d borne two healthy daughters, Gujas had acquired status within the tribe. “You’ll soon learn to love them all,” she continued, “when you go with them. It happens that way.”

“So you keep saying,” Soolkah said, shoulders tense.

She’s not convinced. “Well, it happened in my case,” Gujas said in a tone which she hoped would quell further argument. She could understand that Chixi might not appeal. He’s considerably older than Soolkah, but that isn’t unusual for Elder brothers – and, of course, he’s very overweight; but the others aren’t bad-looking. Besides, every woman must be married on reaching child-bearing age. She’d never thought to question her marriage, so why should her daughter? The tribe treasures its women for their rarity, though our lives are tempered by work and hardship for all that. Gujas thought Soolkah’s husbands would cherish her all the more for her beauty of both form and face. I love my daughter, she realised, despite her strange ideas. She picked up a basket woven from streamside rush stalks. “Look sharp, now! Get me some vegetables so I can prepare the wedding feast.”

Soolkah took the basket, mumbling under her breath.

“What’s that?” asked Gujas.

“If the family’s so low-status, why do we have to hold a feast just because I’m being forced to become amaajni with four men I loathe?” Soolkah muttered. But she walked towards the farm cavern tunnel anyway.

Gujas gave her a piercing look, hoping she wouldn’t voice her defiance too loudly. She turned away. The rest of her family lay sleeping. Thank the volcano none of the others are so rebellious! she told herself, and stared after Soolkah as she vanished into the dimness of the tunnel mouth.

*

“Our hyperspace hololink with the research base can also receive transmissions from the hoverprobes,” Jordas explained. “Of course, the Naxadans don’t know they’re being watched.”

“Good. Good. We like to minimise cross-contamination of developing cultures where possible,” Hartmann said. “I guess I should speak to Naxada field base.”

Jordas made the connection, and shortly afterwards there appeared in the tank the holo of a middle-aged man; unusually, he wore spectacles.

Marcus moved nearer and introduced Hartmann, ushering the senator to stand beside him.

“Matt Johnson here…Chief Scientist, Naxada Base field research team. Ah, Senator Hartmann, it’s good to speak to you at last, eh?” Matt’s words were tinged with a Canadian accent, unlike Hartmann’s almost uninflected speech.

“Good day, Dr Johnson. Tell me more about your native problem.”

Matt blinked, and when he spoke again his manner had lost its veneer of politeness. “The Naxadans aren’t a problem, Senator. We just need to make contact with them and get them safely off-planet and resettled.”

“Dr Krata said they weren’t aware of your presence on the planet,” Hartmann said, “so how do you propose to accomplish this?”

“Surely that’s where the Committee’s expertise comes in, Senator?” Matt parried. Light glinted off his spectacles to match the steel in his voice.

“But how do we know that these – people – are any better than animals?”

“Should that be a criterion for rescue, Senator?” Matt said. “We expect to find that, like the Kiai and Zarduthi, their mindset and some behaviours will be different from ours. We also expect some behavioural similarities.”

Jordas finished his caffeine freeze and laid the beaker on his workstation. “The thing is, Senator,” he said, “they have a fully-fledged society based around vegetable farming. And there’s a mystery here: we believe, from the skulls’ dentition, that these people developed as omnivores. Meat is available, yet they’re apparently exclusively vegetarian, from choice.”

“I’ll show you a sign of civilisation our holoprobes found,” Matt said. “One even you can’t dispute!”

“What?”

“Watch, Senator!”

The holotank image changed. Ice-filtered light revealed a cavern in which structures stretched into the distance: unmistakeably buildings, despite the toll of centuries and seismic activity. None bore a roof, though whether by intent or destruction was unclear.

“Ah-huh?”

“It’s a city, Senator…” Matt’s voice rang with passion. “Built by the ancestors of those who still inhabit the caves!”

 

CHAPTER 2

JORDAS WATCHED FOR A REACTION, but Senator Hartmann camouflaged his emotions with impassivity.

“From the probe,” Matt added, “we observed that this city was built over several centuries.” He paused. “These city-dwellers were skilled engineers – a hypocaust used geothermal water to heat the whole city.”

The senator’s eyes remained fixed on the holotank. “How old is it?” he asked.

“The earliest buildings are about two thousand years old. Some are younger, and we’re not yet sure when it was abandoned, or why. But the most interesting discovery here is that although these people never developed writing, they recorded events.”

The probe’s view floated between windowless buildings whose doorways were simple rectangular absences of wall.

“Don’t think much of the architecture,” Ray muttered.

Then the probe reached the encircling wall and focused in on it, and Jordas saw again the frieze carved in the stone. The holovid moved round the buildings, but he never could distinguish the scenes; dust and age had blurred outlines and dimmed colours, and blocks had tumbled in places. The city couldn’t have been inhabited for centuries. Finally the holovid view dissolved to Matt Johnson’s image.

*

“Conditions aren’t favourable above ground, even with a fur coat. There’s nothing to eat up here,” Matt said.

“It’s a wonder they’ve even survived,” Hartmann commented.

“That’s why we need the Committee’s help. See for yourself.” At his voice command the scene switched; the holoprobe panned round, seeing only icy plains stretching in three directions. The whiteness of the light jangled the senses; the shadow of the landing area shocked the eye, emerging as it did from the snowfields. Against the southern horizon clouds of smoke and ash hazed mountains, lingering like a bad smell in the thin still air. Matt saw this view from the research base every day, but the landscape never bored him. Its aridity and grandeur reminded him of winter at home, though Naxadan forests only grew waist-high; hardly as impressive as the swathes of conifer he remembered.

The holoprobe roved on, showing mountains as sharp as dog’s teeth rearing up behind the foothills surrounding three sides of the research station. Among the black rocks piercing the snow flowed rivers of blue-white ice, and to the north and north-east, two of fire. Between and before the volcanoes, a meltwater lake stretched for kilometres. Rocks nearby were scoured by wind and ice, distorted into sculptures of the strangest forms, streaked with the subtle colours of mineral formations. But the land itself spawned only mosses and lichens, and occasional groves of stunted trees.

“Everything the Naxadans need is below ground. The mapping expedition brought back plant samples which our exobotanist, Abdel Tairik, compared with surface samples. He found their DNA was similar, yet differentiated enough that they probably evolved millenia ago. In other words, they developed to their present forms in that underground environment.”

Matt watched Hartmann carefully but could detect no reaction.

“Thank you, Dr Johnson.” Hartmann turned back to Marcus Carlin.

Matt nodded and cut the connection, glad to let Marcus deal with the senator.

*

Marcus noticed Ray Travers hovering beside his desk, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He crossed to him. “What is it?” he asked in an undertone.

“More holovid coming in – from the other cavern. Think we should view it. Might help sway senator.”

Marcus nodded. “Put it on now, Ray.”

Ray gave the voice command, while Marcus explained to the senator what he would see next.

Moments later the holocam lens swooped in on the humanoid hiding in the bushes. Despite the light level in the cavern, Marcus saw again that this Naxadan’s skin was darker than that of any of the tribespeople he’d seen so far. The image grew in the holotank, features resolving by the second: a young male, compact and tightly-muscled. Now Marcus could see that his fine fur differed in texture from that of the other Naxadans; it splayed out in whorls about five centimetres across, with a tiny bare patch at the centre. On one arm was a band of beaten copper; the light-skinned Naxadans wore no jewellery.

“We think he’s from another social group.” Marcus felt his back muscles tense. He’d recalculated the costings while Jordas had been fetching the senator, but without any idea of how many extra people were involved he could only guess at numbers and costs. That doubles the projected budget, and could still be wrong.

As they watched, the Naxadan put a hand to his head.

“Uuuhh…”

Marcus had all his attention on the holotank but turned when he heard the groan from behind him.

Jordas knelt on the floor, hands pressed to his head. “What…?”

“This happened last time we had live transmission from this cavern,” Marcus snapped. “Ray – take him to the Medical Centre – now!” He brushed past the senator and pulled Jordas to his feet, supporting him under one arm. Ray took the other and they got him onto a chair.

“I’m a bit dizzy, that’s all. There’s no need –”

“Jordas, listen! Go see Dr Blumenwald.”

“I’ll be fine soon. I don’t want –” Jordas seemed disoriented.

“Jordas,” Marcus said, “you may be my senior assistant, but my word is law. I’ll call and tell her you’re on your way.”

“I don’t want to let you down,” Jordas argued, “especially now.”

“You’ll be letting me down more by not getting yourself checked out,” Marcus retorted. “Go with him, Ray – he can’t stand by himself.”

Hartmann stepped back to let them pass.

At the door, Marcus added, “Don’t come back till you’re fit. Understand?”

Jordas nodded.

It must be serious, Marcus thought. “Make sure he gets there, Ray.”

“Will do. Here, Jordas.” Ray supported Jordas down the corridor.

Excusing himself to Hartmann, Marcus made an internal holophone call. When he’d finished explaining to Dr Blumenwald’s assistant and extracted a promise that the doctor would let him know what she found, he turned back to the senator. “Let’s find out what’s happening on Naxada,” he suggested.

*

The youth staggered back against a boulder, scraping his arm and side. The dizziness and confusion ebbed, but his legs felt as unsteady as the last time.

Twice in one lighttime now he’d felt, in that whirl of emotion and sensation, something which had been a stranger to him for two highwaters and more: the embrace of sajamu – the sharing of the physical senses. The texture of rough cloth against his limbs, moving as he moved. Touching and holding things that ought not to exist, things he could neither name nor understand. Unfamiliar words filtering through his mind. He tried to dispel the confusion with a headshake. This cannot be, he thought, lowering his hand, outstretched as if to ward away the sensations. In a heartbeat they were gone, though their ghosts lingered against his flesh.

He squatted against the boulder, hands pressed to his head, waiting for his strength to return in full measure. He needed it all in Shiranu territory, though it was many highwaters since Shiranu had fought Sargussi. There were so few of either tribe, now, that neither dared risk actual warfare. The numbers of his tribe had leached away over the generations since leaving the city.

His fur prickled and lifted from his skin like a ganzu’s rage-spines as his proximity sense activated. He bent a branch aside to look around again, but the cavern seemed empty. Yet as the dizziness faded he couldn’t rid himself of the sensation of being watched. It made him feel as vulnerable as a hunted bachu.

Despite the danger of discovery, game here was plentiful, and this being Shiranu territory, the bachu were unafraid. I might eat well, can I but stay away from the Shiranu. It wasn’t that he feared them; but it made no sense for a lone man to take on a whole enemy tribe.

By the cavern entrance he paused, surveying the rocks and cocking his head to listen. There was no sound from the tunnel behind, nor in the cavern. The safety code hurts no-one. He stepped forwards on feet leather-clad against ground that tinkled and crunched as shards of glass cracked underfoot. He moved so as to make the least noise possible as he explored, senses extended against danger. He used the shadows of rock and bush in a way that no Shiranu could, his skin and fur providing its own camouflage.

Ahead, a movement. Eyes tracking on it, he recognised the shape of its back leg: long for bounding, slender yet strong. Good meat. His stomach gurgled its emptiness. He reached for the handspear with its tip of bronze slung at his back. His only living father, Maru, was named for the hunt. I’m nothing if not his son, he thought, and his lips parted in a grin.

*

Soolkah marched along the tunnel, hating the feel of the mud clinging to and weighting her slippers. The last few seasons had been unusually damp, water often leaking in from Outside to flood the lower-lying passages ankle-deep.

She wandered along, lost in thought, pace slowing. Seven lighttimes till blow-out. Before that they’d pack up and leave the area for another seven seasons. The food had to be harvested before the journey. That was why her parents wanted her married quickly. But I must find a way to avoid becoming amaajni with them!

Ever since her coming-of-age earlier that season, she’d been dreading the lighttime when one of the unmarried men of the tribe would offer for her. It was inevitable, with few females of marriageable age and nearly twice as many unmarried older brothers. And each had at least one or two brothers, mostly three or four, and in one amaaj, six. No Shiranu woman ever had it easy.

They’d arrived at the cavern just before her coming-of-age. She remembered Mnanga’s claws probing the private place between her legs, the stretching sensation before the tough membrane inside snapped, the drip of blood down her leg; the approval of the other women. She sighed, remembering her terror; she hadn’t understood why Mnanga, the Eldest woman, was performing the ceremony – until the women’s mysteries were explained to her afterwards. Then she’d been able to let go of her fear. But when the blood of her first course had come only lighttimes later, she’d been scared again. Not, this time, because something was being done to her body without her consent or understanding, but because her body was doing something of its own accord that she hadn’t experienced before.

“Why are you crying?” Gujas had asked. “You’re grown up, a woman.”

“I’m sure to get pregnant now!” Soolkah had snuffled.

“No, no, child! Not until you become amaajne. And perhaps not straight away even then.”

Over several lighttimes the shock and fear had faded. Now desperation filled her instead. As a child, she’d been content. As an adult thrust into an unwelcome situation she couldn’t stop asking questions. Why had Chixi offered for her, and not some other girl? Why him, and not another Elder brother? Why did she have to marry at all? Why, why, why? She stamped her foot. The thought of Chixi’s flabby body heaving against hers made her feel sick. Her mother had told her that sex felt good, but she couldn’t imagine it being even bearable with Chixi’s bulk on top of her, hanging down either side of her body. And though some of the tribespeople had Chixi’s condition, none were as tall and fat as he. I must get out of it, she told herself. But how? She mentally reviewed the tribal stories. No other woman had ever refused marriage, as far as she could remember. And who would have her if she rejected Chixi? Her duty towards the tribe was clear, and to refuse would diminish her origin-amaaj’s status.

If the Sargussi hadn’t been our enemies perhaps I could have married into their tribe. Her face tightened into a grimace as she remembered how Sargussi ways differed from her own tribe’s. She sighed. I’m trapped.

She looked around, realising that she’d neglected her safety, something girl-children in particular were taught as toddlers. Not enough daughters were born, and not all grew up. My parents would be furious if they knew I’d ignored the safety code.

Soolkah shivered. The mud had penetrated her slippers. She looked around. The tunnel’s empty. But she couldn’t help feeling uneasy.

Smoothing a hand down her kilt, she hitched the basket more firmly under her arm. Almost there now. She’d see how much more produce remained to harvest, then all four of her parents could plan how to gather it in. But I won’t be there to help them. I’ll be helping Chixi and his brothers instead. The shock of realisation churned her stomach and dried her mouth. Tonight is my wedding night.

Her parents hadn’t told her until it was almost too late, though she’d seen Chixi and his brothers speaking with her fathers just lighttimes before. It was common practise for marriages to be contracted quickly, especially at harvesttime. But Lorr, the youngest brother, hardly took his eyes off her every time they met, and his coming-of-age had been only lighttimes ago. Chixi had to wait until then. And it’s said that he beats Lorr because of it. He might beat me too.

She walked on, thoughts racing, until she rounded a bend. The tunnel opened out and the farm cavern was spread out in front of her. Light – accompanied by spatters of water – diffused through the ice ceiling, showing plots terraced on a slope heated from below by the volcanic. Glow-cakes lined the walls, the shadows between them forming a pattern on the rockwall as they shed their cold light on the rows of crops. Digging out the irrigation channels again had been hard work, but now their land was fruitful. This season the stream level had risen again, drenching paths and turning dust to mud. There had been a glut of edible fungi this season; but who wanted to eat chillcaps all the time? I’ll get a few, Soolkah thought, but I’ll get mostly vegetables.

She surveyed the cavern before entering. Later, others would harvest food for the coming season, but for now she was alone.

She hoisted the basket onto her hip, wondering where to start. Being alone thrilled and frightened her. Although she had privacy for thought, an accident to a lone Shiranu could be fatal. There was always the risk of a rockfall; and she feared attack from Sargussi hunters, though they didn’t usually come this far south of the city. It was rumoured some even lived in Keramanthu itself, though that couldn’t be true; she was sure no Shiranu had dared visit the city after the plague.

She’d picked a great pile of spicepods before the idea came to her: Why not run away?

But how could you survive? she argued with herself.

Simple. By staying near enough to scavenge food from your family’s plot each season, came the answer. After all, it’s not as if you haven’t worked hard yourself – and you still could, at darktime. There’s always light from the glowcakes to see by –

Impossible, she told herself. That’s what it is. An impossible dream.

All the same, she moved on to the next crop and started picking. She had enough spicepods now, and some chillcaps from the streamside; she needed fruit and root vegetables too. Some black-grey luthu roots would do, and mathnafruit were delicious. She could dry some along with purplish spicepods. She could grind aldu cereal into gritty powder and mix it with water and a little pressed vaazi oil for baking into breadcakes, and… It wasn’t long before she realised she was only picking her favourite foods, and only enough of anything to last a few lighttimes.

I’ll find somewhere to hide, she thought, as the basket filled. I daren’t come back here for food for a couple of lighttimes, but if I leave it too long, the place will be stripped. That made her pause, then add more food, though if she took too much it would spoil before she could eat it. But the heat from below could be used to dry some of her harvest. Her mother would do that to keep food edible over the approaching season. When I need more I’ll have to come back at lightbreak or darktime.

Basket full, she set off as if returning to the sleeping cavern. Her haul was heavy, but she had no intention of starving. After about a pythet the passage diverged west, the only possible escape route since she needed to stay close to her tribe. She couldn’t work a plot on her own, without tools; and she’d have to move on when the tribe did to avoid the blow-out. She’d trail them when they moved on; she knew the route by heart.

Then why not leave first? They needn’t know she’d arrived first. They’d think she was dead, attacked by Sargussi hunters. She could conceal herself, become their shadow, taking part of their harvest to live on.

As she thought of the consequences of her audacity she shivered and felt all six nipples harden on her chest and stomach. All she’d ever learned about personal safety tumbled through her mind; she moved forward slowly and almost silently. The tunnel’s gloom was split only by occasional glowcakes. All to my advantage. She crept forwards in search of a hiding place.

*

What the hell’s happening to me? Jordas asked himself.

This time his head spun so that the corridors passed in a blur. Ray led him with a limp, sweaty touch on his wrist, their arms twisted together, the posture further disorienting Jordas. When they went out into the heat the stormclouds had amassed for the lunchtime downpour. Jordas squinted across the compound at the Medical Centre. Its noviglass windows, darkened to exclude the sun’s rays, cleared as they approached.

The last time he’d been there was when he’d first come to work at the research station. A medical check was compulsory on arrival, and yearly thereafter. That was where he’d met Nina. She didn’t matter to him now; but he remembered why they’d broken up, and had avoided Block B ever since.

He sighed, and the first raindrop fell, a splash of water that burst on the sealcrete with a splat! Ray hurried him across the compound and inside the steel doors.

“Hello, Dr Krata, Dr Travers,” the receptionist greeted them. “Dr Blumenwald’s expecting you. Go through.”

Jordas followed Ray, his heart thudding against his ribs. I wonder if Nina still works here? He swallowed and stepped through the door.

“Hello, Jordas,” Nina said. “We’ve been expecting you.”

Oddly, seeing her wasn’t as confrontational as he’d expected. Well, it was years ago, he told himself. Yet she looked exactly the same: smooth bronze skin, laughing eyes and shiny chestnut-coloured hair.

“How are you feeling now?” Nina asked.

“I’m fine.” Jordas wasn’t, but nor was he going to let this woman guess that, or that coming here unnerved him.

“Sure you are. Well, go in there and strip off to your underwear.” Nina waved a hand towards the changing cubicles. “I’ll just get the medicheck calibrated for you. Have a seat, Ray, if you’re waiting.”

She’d already moved to the control console of the diagnostic machine which dominated the room. Jordas guessed she was loading his file. He shrugged, a gesture more for Ray’s benefit than his own, tottered over to a cubicle, and, once inside, pulled off his long cotton overshirt and loose vest and trousers. As he folded them on the bench he realised this was the same cubicle he’d used when he’d first met Nina. His hands were shaking. He pushed his sandals into a corner and tried to empty himself of all emotion.

When he stepped outside, Dr Blumenwald was waiting. A chunkily-built woman who contrasted with Nina’s daintier figure, she pumped his hand, just as she had four years before, and boomed a greeting. Jordas concentrated on ignoring Nina and smiled at her instead.

“So. Dr Carlin says you fainted. Twice. We better check this out.” Her accent matched her form. “Lie down here. Nina!”

Jordas climbed onto the reclining seat at the side of the medicheck machine and lay still while Nina wired him up for the scan. Her touch made him feel acutely uncomfortable. At last she finished and stepped away, and the machine began its work. He could hear the two women conferring in the background. “…Negative scans…Vital signs okay apart from unusually high blood pressure for this subject…Indications of high stress levels…No signs of any viral or other infections. Other than the stress factor, it compares well to his previous profile…Hmmm. But look at these alpha waves.” Dr Blumenwald came over to Jordas. “How do you feel? Any pain anywhere?”

“None. I just went dizzy and fainted, like this morning.” Jordas lay back, too drained now even to feel embarrassment at Nina’s occasional glances at him, or wonder about his alpha waves.

“No obvious problems apart from some signs of stress. But you didn’t come to see me each year,” Dr Blumenwald boomed.

“I felt fine.” Jordas glanced at Ray, who was examining his fingernails. He couldn’t have failed to hear.

“Sure. So this is what happens when you don’t have your yearly medical. It’s stressful when you have to catch up all at once!” Dr Blumenwald smiled good-naturedly at him. “I am getting a strange result from one test so I’d like to run all the scans again.”

Jordas nodded, aware of Ray’s gaze on him. “You ought to get back,” he said to him, trying to firm up his voice.

Ray searched Jordas’s expression. “Sure?”

“Go on, Ray. Marcus needs you there – go help him.”

Ray nodded and raised his hand in a half-wave, then scurried out of the door on tiptoe.

“Another complete sweep, Nina.”

The machine ran through its repertoire of tests once more. It seemed to take longer this time. Dr Blumenwald conversed with her nurse at her usual volume. Just when Jordas had become desperate for the scan to end Nina came over to him and released the sensors.

“You can get dressed now.”

Jordas sought refuge in the cubicle, relieved to don his clothes again, though he was sweating despite the air conditioning, and not just because of the noon heat. He wriggled his feet into his sandals and left the cubicle.

Dr Blumenwald was examining two charts in the scanner’s holotank. “I’m comparing your brain activity with your previous profile. We should be able to decide if anything unusual’s going on, but don’t expect miracles.” She checked the time. “Have you had anything to eat yet?”

Jordas shook his head. “I’m not hungry right now.”

Dr Blumenwald shrugged. “Nina! Get me some lunch, will you?” She watched Nina leave on her errand, then said, “Nina thinks you avoided your medicals because of her.”

Jordas hesitated, then shrugged. “Okay,” he agreed. “What of it?”

“You could have called me and explained your difficulties.”

“Maybe.”

“I don’t want to pry, but why didn’t it work out for you two?”

“It’s not really your business,” Jordas said. “Why don’t you ask her? You’ve obviously been discussing me.”

She shrugged again. “I was interested to hear your side of the story, since it seems to have affected your ability to follow instructions!”

Jordas acknowledged that with a throwaway gesture and thought back. He’d known he wouldn’t forget what Nina had done to him; but it was hard to explain to anyone else. “She wasn’t ready for the kind of relationship I wanted, and I wasn’t prepared to share her.”

“Hmm.” Dr Blumenwald pointed to a chair. “Wait here, Dr Krata. I’m just going to analyse your results.”

Jordas seated himself, reached for his notebook, and drew his earpieces from the storage facility on the side of the device. Then he looked up Senator Hartmann on its Infosearch facility.

Nina returned and entered Dr Blumenwald’s office. Jordas could hear them talking, but ignored Nina’s glance at him and concentrated on his research. The notepad’s miniature projection tank filled with the head and shoulders of a holovid newscaster.

“Senator Gerrold Hartmann has tonight been cleared of any culpability in the delay in release of funding to the Mourang famine zone two years ago. Five thousand colonists starved to death, and for more than a year their offworld relatives have lobbied for an inquiry into why supplies took so long to arrive. Senator Hartmann, also a member of the World Government on Earth, is one of several politicians who liaise directly between their governments and the Committee for Resettlement and Colonisation on resources and funding. He was accused of vacillating over the release of supplies, but evidence against him was circumstantial, and the Inquiry collapsed. One of his colleagues has been implicated by Senator Hartmann’s evidence…”

“Okay, Dr Krata, you better come in here.”

Jordas stowed his notebook away and crossed the room. On Dr Blumenwald’s desk lay half an egg and cress sandwich in its wrapper. He sat down in the chair she indicated, feeling more relaxed now. His hands weren’t shaking any more and the dizziness had finally leaked away while she’d been checking his results.

“We-ell, I can’t find anything actually wrong with you –”

Jordas stared at her. “Are you sure? I felt pretty rough back there.”

“Well – there is one thing which is…unusual. Both profiles show enhanced psi sensitivity.” Dr Blumenwald didn’t so much shrug as lift her square shoulders in a gesture which travelled throughout her body. “I don’t know if it’s significant, but there are much higher residual activity levels in the new profile. It may be that which caused the dizziness and fainting, if you were in contact with an equally sensitive person.”

“I was tested once before, for the Meiller study,” Jordas said. “They said I was a highly sensitive subject.”

“Really?” Dr Blumenwald didn’t seem very interested. “Well, I did find definite signs of stress, so I’m putting you on a week’s sick leave –”

That was probably because I had to come here. “I’m working on a very important project,” Jordas interrupted. “I can’t take time off for stress!

“Ach, that’s the trouble with you obsessive compulsives!” Dr Blumenwald permitted herself a grin. “They can manage without you for a week,” she boomed. “I’ll fix it. I know Marcus Carlin. He’s totally dedicated, but knows the benefit of fit and healthy staff.” She smiled this time. “Forget about your project for a few days. I think you need a break from your work.”

But will the Naxadans survive? Jordas opened his mouth to protest again, but Dr Blumenwald forestalled him.

“There’s nothing more to be said. I’ve already entered it on your records and I’m just going to call Marcus and tell him. Go home, Dr Krata. Rest.”

As he rose, it occurred to him that he’d got over Nina a long time ago after all. Even his anger had seeped away over the years. Maybe I won’t have to avoid the medical next year. He opened the office door. Nina was watching him. He summoned a smile and said, “Goodbye,” in a careless tone, and left.

Outside, water was still pounding the ground, though it was almost time for the rains to cease. Jordas stepped out, into the rain. The water cooled his flesh. He walked slowly across the deserted compound, fully upright. He usually kept out of the rains but this time he didn’t mind getting soaked. His clothes clung to every inch of his body. It didn’t matter.

Nothing can touch me now, he told himself. I’m free.

And I’ll never let any woman hurt me again.

*

Marcus Carlin flicked off the holophone, hoping he could conceal his dismay. In a corner of the monitor room, Hartmann was talking to Ray and Bill Borthwick, the anthropologist who worked part-time on the project. Marcus could just hear the conversation.

“So what happens to the holovid screened out by your privacy filter?” Hartmann asked. “You must lose some useful information.”

“That’s true, because once edited to archive chips the originals are deleted,” Bill agreed. “The only time the filter doesn’t operate is on live transmissions.”

“I see.”

Marcus beckoned Ray over. “Can you come in a couple of hours earlier tomorrow?” he asked in an undertone. “Jordas is on sick leave. Bill will cover the live hololink monitoring, but he’ll need an update, and with the senator here we’ll be hard-pressed.”

“Sure,” answered Ray. “Dr Blumenwald say what’s wrong with Jordas?”

“Stress. He comes back on the last day of the senator’s visit.” Marcus sighed, pressed his lips together and turned towards Hartmann, intending to continue their lunchtime discussion.

“So about these troglodytes,” Hartmann said.

Marcus frowned. “You mean the Naxadans?”

“Yes. I’d welcome more holovid to study at my leisure. Send your young assistant over tonight to discuss my requirements – I’ll need copies to take back with me.”

“Ray will call round with a selection when he goes offshift.”

“Even better. I need to find out what they could offer the Federal League.”

“Senator, does that matter when sentient creatures will die if they stay where they are? I think that’s a good enough reason for resettling them. So do my colleagues.”

“You see,” Hartmann continued, just as if Marcus hadn’t spoken, “I have to justify the rescue to my superiors, and I don’t see any great advantage to the Federal League in them becoming members.”

You’re not getting away with that one! thought Marcus. There had been no mention of such necessity in the procedures he’d checked before applying for the CRC’s help. The politician puzzled him. What advantage could delaying or not authorising the rescue project bring? He remembered Mourang and changed tack. “Senator, what do you think we want from you?”

“Money,” Hartmann said. “That’s the only reason the Committee would be asked to get involved. You contacted us so we could raise and allocate funding to a resettlement project for these indigenes, then oversee that process.”

“Precisely.” Marcus paused. “But I want funding for two purposes. First, I want to get those people out of there before they drown, and resettled on another compatible world, where they can continue their way of life with minimum disruption. Second, since the city will be destroyed, and it’s probably of historic or even religious importance to these people, I want to put an archaeological team in there with adequate holorecording resources to reconstruct it and, if possible, preserve its artefacts.”

“I see. Do you have estimates for the amount of funding you need?”

Marcus extracted the notebook containing his latest estimates from his desk and handed it to Hartmann.

The senator skimmed through the report.

Marcus watched him and waited as he studied the financial summary intently. When Hartmann looked up, he said, “You asked about benefits to the League, Senator, but it occurs to me that there’s a benefit to yourself in authorising the rescue, particularly after Mourang.”

Hartmann paled. “In what way?”

That’s got him, Marcus thought with satisfaction. “It wouldn’t exactly do your reputation any harm,” he countered. “In fact it would make you very popular within the scientific community, and might even increase your political reputation.”

Hartmann’s brows met in a zigzag for an instant before his usual lack of expression reasserted itself. “You’ll have my decision shortly after I get back to Earth.”

“Oh no, Senator, the situation’s too urgent!” Marcus retorted. “I need a decision from you while you’re here. Otherwise the city will drown and these natives will die along with it.”

 

 

 

CHAPTER 3

A BURST OF STATIC ANNOUNCED that the robot arm of the probe had disconnected itself from the terminal again. Ray Travers had ordered the probe to follow her when he’d seen the young female on her own.

No time now to get what Senator Hartmann had requested. He’d watched the female fill her basket with food from the terraces of black and dark red vegetation – colours Abdel had suggested the plants had evolved to absorb as much light as possible. The surface might be too cold for many plants to survive, but in the caverns roofed by ice caves, they could cling to life; the mixture of volcanic heat, sulphur-tinged springs, and light from both the surface and the luminous fungi had provided potent nurture.

At last the holovid reconnected itself. Concealed from the female’s view, it panned around the mouth of the passage, which had widened out into a cavern again. The female shivered. Ray could see the peach-fuzz of white fur on her body better now; the holoprobe was close behind her.

Hitching the basket on her hip, looking around her, she darted from one piece of cover to another, working her way further inside the cavern. But here no Naxadan hands had irrigated, planted, fertilized and nurtured the terraced plots. Here fewer fungi augmented the light; although mosses and lichens, similar to surface species, had patterned the cavern floor with red and brown-black. Scrub and bushes clustered around a stream which ran through the centre of the cavern, despatching tendrils to chase light. Though no farmer, Ray was sure they weren’t cultivated – they didn’t resemble any of the crops in the farm cavern.

He shrugged. The female had worked her way round almost a quarter of one side of the cavern while his attention had wandered. He saw her reach a crack in the cavern wall and squeeze inside it. Minutes later she reappeared without the basket, glancing around as if she suspected the presence of a watcher. She slipped from one pile of boulders to another until she reached the stream. A few metres along, the rocks formed a screen around part of the brook. She worked her way along the streamside until she could take cover there and was lost to view.

The probe remained connected to its terminal. Ray wondered again why she was there. It was unusual for a Naxadan woman to leave the cavern alone, and so early; the people usually moved about in groups, probably for protection. He tried to return his attention to the tank before him but thanks to the extra shift he was too tired to concentrate. Marcus and the Senator would arrive later. His thoughts wandered. Jordas suffering from stress, eh? He yawned. Bet he’s madder’n Marcus at being off for a week!

*

Jordas reached for the next handhold. He hadn’t tackled this climb before, but he was glad of the challenge. He needed a distraction.

His gloved hand connected with the rock. It seemed solid enough, though roots had sliced through the cliff-face, making climbing hazardous. He tested the boulder before daring to transfer his weight. It’ll hold.

He’d gone straight home from the medical centre and picked up his climbing gear. It’s true that I haven’t had any leave at all this year, he reflected. But I can’t believe that faint was caused by stress, and it’s a damned nuisance that it should happen now.

The next handhold was to his right. Jordas looked for a toehold that would enable him to move across the cliff-face, spotted one and hammered the piton into the crevice. A brushplant was growing out of it. As he transferred his weight again, its stiff spines quivered against his foot. Part of the rock around the crevice crumbled and fell into the forest below. Shit! He recovered himself and shivered, though the day was as hot and clammy as ever. I’ll stop on the next ledge, he promised himself. His hand reached out sideways and found the hold he sought. A quick glance upwards as he felt for the next handhold told him he was nearly there.

Seconds later he hauled himself over its lip onto a limestone pavement. Trees had sprouted through the rock in places, arching overhead, some several metres high, though many were only seedlings. A pseudocedar and its broadleaved cousin almost completely obscured the hazy disk of Lyrica. Jordas lay on the rock, panting and as glad of the shade as he was of sunscreen shots.

He could hear water nearby. This would be a good place to make camp. When he’d recovered, he set to unpacking his belongings, but found his mind still following its previous tack. Dr Blumenwald didn’t take much notice of the results of that brain activity scan. Strange. He thought about the faints and tried to remember the sensations they’d brought, but it was no use: the memories teased him, then slithered away. He shrugged. It probably wasn’t important. And yet – I wonder what really happened. I went dizzy, and I don’t know why – but twice it happened when that dark-skinned Naxadan was on the live hololink…

Although alone, Jordas shook his head. He laid his sleeping bag on the ground to sit on, then prepared to boil water. He knew it would do him good to be away from work for a while, but he couldn’t entirely banish thoughts of the Naxadans.

*

 “Araz?” Gujas couldn’t help it; she’d held back from asking him for too long.

Her eldest husband turned. He was knapping a new harvesting knife from glossy obsidian. Several sharp slivers lay beside him, ready for spear tips. “What?”

“Have you seen Soolkah? She knows I need those vegetables for tonight’s feast.”

Araz looked troubled. “How – how did she take it?”

“Not – well.” Gujas wouldn’t touch him, even with Lagi and Ulon out of their sleeping niche, though she longed for him to hold and reassure her. Her other husbands were in an unused sleeping niche, boiling dyes for the cloth Benna’s amaaj wove. The hot dry reek filled the air. But Gujas had justifiable pride in the quality of the dyestuffs her two younger husbands produced; their goods were sought after throughout the tribe, and Araz’ knapping skills had also brought their amaaj status amongst their people. “Araz, I’m worried about her. It’s almost mid-lighttime. She should have been back long ago.”

Araz wrapped the rest of the blades in a piece of cloth and laid them high on a ledge for safety before answering. “I’ll see if I can find her. She might need help carrying everything.”

Gujas nodded, though his reasoning hadn’t convinced her. There’s surely something wrong. She hadn’t forgotten Soolkah’s expression when she’d told her she was to become amaajni. For a moment Araz stood at the mouth of the niche, face turned in the direction of the dye-cave. As her Eldest husband walked away, guilt pierced Gujas. Should we have told her before? But every daughter must be claimed by one amaaj or another, and only Chixi and his brothers offered for her.

Gujas rubbed one swollen breast. It was time to feed Teffen again. He was shifting coloured stones around on the floor into patterns; they were large enough that he wouldn’t swallow them, and not easy for a child of a little over one highwater to lift. Gujas settled herself down cross-legged against the rockwall, a sleeping cloth protecting her from its rough surface. “Teffen! Come here! Feed-time!”

Teffen understood much more than he said; with two brothers ahead of him, how could it not be so? His smile showed he had nearly all his even white teeth now.

“Come on!” She held out her arms to him. He left his stones and ran across, laughing. She laid him down in her lap and pushed one of the lowest pair of nipples into his mouth. He was sucking contentedly when Araz’ form blotted out most of the light from the main cave. From his breathing, he must have run back.

“I’ve checked the farm cavern,” he said. “She’s not there.”

*

Ray gasped as the holotank darkened, obscuring the cavern. The holovid’s view cleared as a shape slipped forwards from below it: the young male he’d seen earlier. He recognised the copper band on his arm. No taller than the pale Naxadans and a little shorter than a human, but proportionally more powerfully built, muscles flexed under dark skin. The leather kilt hem was ragged, following the shape of some animal’s hide. A belt of thicker leather bore a thirty-centimetre scabbard, from which the hilt of a knife jutted.

Abruptly the Naxadan turned, as if sensing observation. His face was distinctly masculine, but as hairless as the female’s. As if perplexed, he tapped at his chin with one talon. His hands bore four fingers and an opposable thumb; though the claws curved, flashing like scimitars as he flattened himself back against an outcrop for concealment.

“What’s he up to?”

Ray hadn’t realised how involved he’d become with the holotank scene until he heard his own words. Call Matt – see if he knows what’s happening? Don’t want to miss anything.

The cavern’s ice ceiling muted the light, camouflaging the Naxadan’s form against the rocks. He stood unmoving for a minute before dropping into a squat, to edge past the rocks in one fluid movement.

The holovid swung up so the dark shadow below it was still partly visible, but now it included most of the cavern in its field of view. There was no sign of the female but the male lifted his head and sniffed.

Must rely on scent for info. Uh-oh, thought Ray. He watched, wondering whether or not the Naxadan had seen – or scented – the female.

Still crouching, the male moved further into the cave. The holovid’s lens followed him, seeing what he saw.

Ray gave the command for direct contact with Matt.

*

“Chixi?”

He opened his eyes, blinking to clear his vision. His condition tired and irritated him at times, though resting towards mid-lighttime helped.

The focus came back all at once. Araz stood in the mouth of his sleeping niche: Soolkah’s eldest father, a man two or three highwaters older than him. He looked worried.

Chixi drew himself up to his full height so that he towered over Araz. “What is it?”

“I asked Lorr and he said you were here. I –” Araz’ mouth worked as he sought words.

Just say what you have to say and let me rest! Chixi thought, trying not to show his impatience. I’ll need my strength for tonight.

“It’s Soolkah,” said a woman. Beyond Araz, Chixi saw Gujas, her youngest son in her arms, his mouth attached to one of her middle pair of breasts. “She’s disappeared.”

“Disappeared?” After a moment Chixi realised he was gaping at them, so he closed his mouth and spread his hands, palms down, in the gesture of misunderstanding. “Impossible!”

“I sent her to the plot for vegetables early this lighttime and she hasn’t come back.”

Rage invaded Chixi’s mind. His visions of being amaajne at last died like a ganzu in a rockslide. Squashing the urge to grasp Araz by the neck and shake him, he croaked, “Then we must search for her. Now.”

“What about the harvest?”

“The harvest can wait,” Chixi growled. “My wedding can’t!”

“I’ll get Hanook,” Lagi muttered from beyond the niche.

Chixi hadn’t known he was there, though he supposed in the circumstances all Soolkah’s fathers would be. “Good.” It took an effort of will to say the word. He turned to Gujas. “When did you last see her?”

“At lightbreak, when I told her about the wedding and sent her to get food from our plot for the feast.”

“Then that’s where we must look first.” Chixi struggled to keep his temper in check. He concentrated on his brothers to divert his anger. Sajamu from them told him they were still in the farm cavern. “I’ll meet you at your plot with my brothers.” Chixi turned aside and picked up his spear and knife, made by Araz himself and traded for plants two seasons before, when the mathna bushes on Araz’ plot had withered from soil-plague.

“What are you doing?” asked Araz.

“She may have been taken by Sargussi.”

The smaller tribesman’s pupils dilated in shock. “There haven’t been any near our lands for many highwaters, Chixi.”

“Doesn’t mean to say there can’t be now!” he retorted, and pushed past all of them, stomping towards the tunnel which led to the farm cavern.

*

Soolkah sat on the rock outcrop, dipping her feet in the shallows. The streamflow was fast, the water cold, but she disliked the sensation of mud and dirt squelching between her toes even more. As she lifted her feet out, she shook water from them, then rinsed her slippers and pulled them back on. She yawned. That tunnel must be ten pythetu long. She knew they’d search for her today; but with the harvest they might not search up to darktime. They’ve enough to do without worrying about one missing bride! Have they discovered I’ve gone yet? I’d better hide now.

She hoped she hadn’t left a trail in the cavern’s earth floor, and wouldn’t leave water drips on the way back to the niche. She rose, intending to collect branches and twigs to make a switch and brush the earth to conceal her tracks.

But as she tried to get to her feet a hand clamped over her mouth and nose and an arm locked across her stomach. She couldn’t breathe. All she could see before her were coppery-skinned fingers. The cave blurred around her. The fur on her captor’s forearms tickled her throat and stomach, making her own fur stand on end as she strove to speak.

“Be silent!” came a growled command from behind.

His speech sounded strange – old-fashioned and oddly accented. Soolkah felt the warmth of her assailant’s chest at her back as she struggled in his grasp. He must be Sargussi, not that I’ve ever seen one before. Anger boiled up in her that he should break the touch taboo and not care. But if he’s Sargussi, that would explain it –

A noise in the distance alerted her. Chixi and his brothers – and her fathers – would be out searching for her now. She must get under cover.

Her teeth closed on the finger pressed against her mouth.

“Mmmmf! Shiranu ganzu-bitch!” The Sargussi moved his hand slightly.

It was enough – she could breathe. “I’ve got to hide!” she gasped. “My amaaj are searching for me!” It was a direct appeal, but she couldn’t think of anything else.

“Why would you run from your own amaaj?” the Sargussi demanded. “And why would you think I should help you?”

Soolkah thought hard. “If they find you, they’ll kill you,” she hissed.

The Sargussi stood still for a moment, nostrils flaring, head cocked, fur lifting from his skin. For an instant curiosity overcame fear as she realised that the rumours were true: their enemies still possessed the proximity sense her tribe had lost after abandoning hunting.

“Where were you thinking to hide?” he demanded, shaking her.

“You shame me by touching me!”

Really?” His voice was mocking. He never relaxed his grip. “Answer me!”

The fear came back in a rush. Soolkah could feel his knife hilt digging into her hip. Sargussi didn’t take prisoners. Hunters and carnivores, they were rumoured not just to kill Shiranu but to eat them as well. Fear gave her more strength than she’d known she had. She twisted round in his grip and stared up into the face above hers. “Th-the crevice in the rockwall over there –” Trying to keep her hand from trembling, she pointed.

“Quickly, now!” he muttered. “If you speak truth, we may have little enough time.” Pinioning her arms behind her back, he pushed her along before him. “Show me!”

Soolkah stumbled round the outcrop again. Her ears strained for the slightest sounds of pursuit, though as a child she too had learnt to move like a silent shadow on the glassy rockfloor. The cavern and tunnel beyond were silent. But she couldn’t flee further. The tunnel ended in this cavern.

At the niche entrance a hard shove from the Sargussi almost tore her arm from its socket, but pride kept her from complaining. She glanced at the ground. “What about our tracks?”

“Let me deal with that!” he answered. “Now in there with you!” He thrust her forwards, sending her sprawling on the floor. She twisted, trying to rise, and saw he’d followed her inside. He took a length of vinerope from his belt pouch.

She shrank back against the rockwall behind her. “Wh-what are you going to do with that?”

“Tie you, of course! I’ve yet to decide what to do with you!” He reached for her hands, breaking the twine with his teeth when he was done, and started on her ankles. He moved with efficiency and wasted no breath on speech.

That didn’t surprise Soolkah; her tribe also kept silence unless necessity demanded, for fear of discovery by Sargussi hunters and to avoid causing rockslides.

Rolling her on her side when he’d checked the tightness of her bonds, the Sargussi ducked out of the entrance to the cave.

“Where are you going?” she whispered, though her voice sounded loud even to her own ears.

It was enough to detain him.

At last the light fell full on his face. He was young, her own age.

“Tracks,” he said. “Be silent!” Then he was gone.

*

Lorr was cutting mathna fruit from black stems when Chixi found him. He kept the privacy shield raised, forcing his brother to use spoken language.

“Daydreaming again?” Chixi asked.

“That’s not fair,” Lorr muttered. “I work as hard as any of you.” And I don’t have to rest in the middle of the day. But he knew from past experience that with Chixi it was a case of least said, soonest mended, so he crouched down to cut the next couplet of reddish globes. The stalks were tough, the fruit slippery and hard to grasp. There was little room between the branches. It took a practised flick of the wrist to extract the fruit whole. “Come to think of it,” he grunted, “why aren’t you resting?”

“Soolkah’s missing. You’d have known if you ever lowered your mindshield.”

Lorr stared up at his brother. “Missing?” he repeated. “But – she was here this morning. I saw her leave the sleeping cavern.” He swallowed on a dry throat. “We – we’ll become amaajnu with her this evening.”

“No need to remind me of that,” Chixi rasped. His brown-green eyes were hard as stones, and there was a chill in his voice. “There could have been an – accident. We have to find her now. Leave what you’re doing. Fetch your weapons. I’ll wait for you here.”

Lorr nodded. He put the fruit he’d gathered into the basket and hurried down the tunnel without glancing back at his elder brother. He didn’t need to; he could have shared thoughts easily. The effort came in not sharing. Lorr chose to use the privacy shield more often than any of his three brothers, knowing Chixi would bait him if he learned of his feelings for Soolkah. I won’t lay myself open to his sarcasm, he resolved, and tried to swallow his fear for their bride-to-be.

In their sleeping-niche Lorr grabbed spear and knife. His head ached with the effort of keeping the privacy shield going but he ignored the pain. We must find her. Please be safe! He ran back to the farm cavern. Lorr joined the cluster of men had gathered about Chixi; his brothers Jeene and Vru stood beside him.

Hanook, the Eldest man in the tribe, led them towards the tunnel mouth again. “We’ve already searched the farm-cavern twice,” he said. “She’s not here. I suggest we search the nearby tunnels and any caves we come across.” He led the way back into the tunnel. Lorr followed his brothers, aware of the urgent pounding of his heart.

*

The Sargussi had been gone so long that Soolkah began to think he wasn’t coming back, and wriggled about in an attempt to free herself. The floor ground into both fur and skin as she moved; she only succeeded in gathering scrapes and tightening her bonds. Her wrists and ankles smarted from the pressure of the vinerope on them.

All at once he was back, almost filling the entrance to the niche, all broad shoulders and solid muscle. On a submerged mental level she realized he was quite good-looking. In his hands were some dried pricket twigs; his fur bore bloodstains from the thorns. She noted with pride she’d drawn blood on his finger, too.

He laid down the twigs, then propped something else up against the rockwall. In the gloom it took her a moment or two to identify it as a metal-tipped spear. “We were safe from discovery now,” he said, “provided you keep silent.” She heard satisfaction in his voice. He didn’t even bother to glance in her direction as he spoke, concentrating instead on levering rocks out of their resting places and building up a mound near the entrance to the little cave.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“You ask many questions, Shiranu!” He positioned one boulder on top of another. “I’m concealing the entrance.”

“Will we be able to breathe?”

The Sargussi stopped for a moment and turned to face her. He bared his teeth, but he wasn’t smiling. Meeting her eyes, he raised one brow and asked, “Now what would make you think that’s going to matter to you, Shiranu?”