Warning: strong language.
I found Dana’s body in the greenhouse, pale arms limp on the red-stained ground. A broad gash lay across her stomach. Smaller wounds marred her face, her arms. Her green eyes lay open. I felt for a pulse at her neck, her wrists, her heart, again and again, though I already knew she was dead.
I sat and stared, absolutely still, as ice flooded my veins. In that first terrible moment I thought only: This is real. This is a true thing that is happening.
My second thought was a learned response to the first. I can’t panic. On Alvennore, panic is how you die.
And her killer probably hadn’t gone far.
I stood slowly, legs trembling. I knew what had killed her. It was the same thing that had smashed a three-meter hole where the greenhouse door had been. Only one creature on Alvennore could do this to a person.
Focus, Rogan. If ever there was a time to keep your cool…
I found Dana’s chem-pistol a few meters away, slid out the little cylindrical battery to check the charge. Almost empty. She’d put up a good fight.
I drew my own pistol and dashed to the supply hut, a squat metal building off the main compound. With shaking fingers I assembled the chem-cannon. Longer range than the pistol, and a hell of a lot more kick.
Time to go hunting.
Even then, a part of me whispered: What’s the point? If this thing doesn’t kill you, you’ll die in a few weeks anyway. It takes two people to keep this compound running, and now you’ve only got one.
I told the internal voice to stick it and backtracked to the greenhouse, where the dune buggy was still parked. Just as I was getting in, though, I realized it wasn’t necessary. I spotted the damn thing less than a hundred meters away, sitting by a low ridge.
If you’ve never seen an elephant beetle, picture a scarab the size of your dining room table, with eight legs instead of six, and serrated pincers as big as spears. Most of the time they stay deep underground, and when they do come to the surface, they’re skittish. You hardly ever see them. But they move quick as the devil when they attack.
I approached cautiously, circling around at a safe distance, getting a look at him from all angles. Gradually I realized this particular elephant beetle wasn’t going to be hurting anyone anytime soon.
You see, chem-guns are specially designed to dissolve the elephant beetles’ chitinous exoskeletons. It seemed Dana had managed to fire off a good spray, and the beetle hadn’t fled very far before all but one of its legs dissolved. It was now flailing its front right appendage uselessly while its vast curved bulk sat immobile on the barren rock.
Good for you, Dana, I thought, but the words were empty. I felt nothing yet except a distant icy monstrosity inside, and vaguely wondered when it would reach my heart.
I came within a few meters of the beetle. Its carapace was drab green, pockmarked with long, dim scars from its fights with other males. The stumps where its legs had been oozed purple ichor like gelatin. Wide serrated jaws clacked impotently at nonexistent foes, and long feathery feelers–its only sense organ–sniffed the air incessantly, rooted in its tiny bulb of a head. It had no eyes.
Under other circumstances, I might have felt sorry for it. I raised the chem-cannon to end its miserable existence, disgust and revenge and pity all mixed up together.
Yet something held me back.
To this day, I’m not sure why I didn’t shoot. I wish I could say that I had some premonition, that I knew what role the creature had yet to play. But I didn’t. I had no idea.
Maybe I was tired, maybe I was just stupid. But I didn’t shoot. I left it there, trapped, alive.
* * *
I couldn’t go back to Dana’s body. Not yet. To put it off, I dug the hole instead.
I picked up the shovel, feeling its solidness and weight, the cool carbon handle under my callused fingers. I dug the dirt: shovel down, stomp it deeper, lift, toss, repeat.
A positronic vibro-digger could have done the job in minutes, but those use energy, and recharging them drains precious watts from the compound’s central battery.
The battery was everything, here. The compound was highly automated, and it would keep me warm, provide me food, take care of all necessities, as long as its central battery stayed charged. But that wasn’t easy. The solar collectors were useless because it was cloudy all the time. No running water in our territory meant no hydroelectric. There was plenty of wind, but the storms were so strong they destroyed the fans. So the only viable energy source was the lichen that grew on the rocks, fuel for the compound’s organiprocessors. But it took two people working all day just to gather enough organic matter to break even. Without Dana–sure, it would halve the food required and I wouldn’t need as much heat, but the primary systems still had to run. Alone, I wasn’t enough. Alone, the power would run out sooner or later, and I would freeze to death in the night.
Well, I would just have to find some other way, that was all.
I began to sweat in the chilly air. Shovel down, stomp, lift, toss, repeat.
I remembered her dragging me out at night on the rare occasions when the cloud cover parted and you could see a patch of stars, or sometimes a whole quadrant of the sky littered with radiance, a token of happier times. It’s dangerous to go out on the crags at night, so she pulled me up on top of the roof and we sat together and watched the glimmers till the clouds hid them again. I don’t know why she had to drag me. I always loved those stargazing nights with Dana. Probably I was working on some experiment that seemed important at the time.
The sun was creeping dangerously low when I finished the hole. I closed my eyes a long time. Then I walked back to the savaged greenhouse where the body of Dana lay waiting.
It wasn’t until I caught sight of her again that it all broke inside me. I dropped and clawed the dirt and screamed and shook like a child, like a lunatic, like a fresh amputee. I was all those things. I had lost my Dana. The clouds had covered my stars.
When the shrieks and shakes had worked themselves out of my body and I was tired of lying there I crept to her on my knees, looked her all over, took her face in my hands, and wept. And I lay there a while longer, holding her cold hand.
But the sun was getting low, turning red through the layer of cloud, and I had to get inside soon. I lifted her body–it seemed so heavy then, though she’d been light when I lifted her a week ago–and dropped it into the hole and covered it with dirt.
“Dana,” I said, my voice raw and broken.
I wanted to say more. A prayer, a poem, something fitting. Nothing came. Her name was my oration. After that I only stood and stared, though it was dark now, though I knew I should be inside.
* * *
When I turned to leave, a voice stopped me.
No. Not her, not now.
Only one other human being lived within thirty kilometers of us–of me–and she was no one I wanted to see right now. But when you only have one neighbor in a thirty-kilometer radius on a planet like Alvennore, it’s best not to make enemies.
“Hildy. It isn’t safe this late. You should be inside.” Instantly I regretted this; she might want to come into my compound, and I could not in good conscience refuse her, not even someone like Hildy.
“Rogan, last night’s gale was an omen.” Her voice was stern, hoarse. “The stormy season is starting early, and such things do not happen without cause. Something terrible is coming, Rogan.” A sudden gust of wind emphasized her prophecy. Through the swirls of reddish dust, I saw her eyes were white with horror.
This strangeness from Hildy was nothing new. She had visited my compound every month or two throughout the three years of my exile, usually proclaiming some new vision of woe. What started out creepy had long since turned annoying, and I was in no mood for her antics today.
“I can’t really talk right now, Hildy.”
“Come with me,” she implored, stretching out long, dirt-smeared fingers with ragged nails. “Come with me and pray. God is judging His children. We must pray for our redemption.”
I looked at her again, at her dry, quivering lips, the terrible earnestness of her eyes, and for the second time tonight I felt a spike of pity. Hildy had lived on Alvennore all alone (so she said) for the past fifteen years, orphaned as a teenager when a rock avalanche claimed the rest of her family. Her own territory was blessed with an abundance of hot water springs, a bounty of free energy that allowed her to survive by herself in this hostile wasteland. Dana and I had tried to negotiate some of this bounty from her in the past, but always found dealing with her more trouble than it was worth.
But the situation had changed, and if I couldn’t figure out some better plan, perhaps an alliance was in my future after all.
A little guiltily, I nodded. “I can’t tonight,” I said. “But soon, maybe. Sometime soon, if I can, I’ll visit you and we can pray together.”
Without waiting for an answer, I turned and walked back toward the compound. It was rude, but I couldn’t stand to talk to her any longer, not right then. After a time I heard her in the distance behind me, getting into her crater buggy and driving away.
I crawled into my bedroom module and didn’t sleep.