Unaware of watching eyes in the skies above, the stalking grove-wolf pressed its silent attack on the solitary manatree. Circling beyond the reach of the sleek-skinned manatree’s stubby limbs, the grove-wolf suddenly charged forward, throwing its weight against the fleshy pedestal-leg of its prey.
This time, the manatree toppled, the impact and the weight of its attacker bearing it to the ground. Razor jaws telescoped and slashed at the soft, unprotected underside of the manatree. Straw-yellow ichor spewed from the fatal wound, puddling on the ground as the manatree’s limbs curled in the death sign.
“Beautiful,” breathed Eric Kimura. “Just beautiful.”
Two hundred meters above the haze-shrouded brownlands of Warril IV, Kimura lay face-down, watching, in the transparent access crawlway which ran like a seam along the silver-blue gas bag of the airship Calypso. From that vantage, he enjoyed a view he considered superior to that available to the station’s three xenologists.
Imprisoned in the fuselage slung beneath the semi-rigid balloon, wedded to their stereoscopic widescreen and digital zoom, the XB’s rarely saw the planet first-hand. But any time Kimura could steal a few minutes from his duties as the expedition’s gentech, the crawlway offered a private window on the planet’s wonders.
Kimura felt a shuddery vibration in the material of the crawlway as Calypso‘s feather-fan engines labored to hold it in place against a sudden gusty breeze. An instant later, a gentle bell sounded in his ear.
The voice was that of Jayson Ordecht, expedition director. “Here,” Kimura said, starting back down the crawlway toward the fuselage.
“How’s it coming on the dynamic balancer?”
“Just finishing,” Kimura lied. “What’s up?”
“Chir’delana is reporting a Monitor offline in grid 248.”
The Draconan Chir’delana headed the station’s XB team. “You want me to run up in the skiff and look at it?” Kimura offered, almost too eagerly.
“Not particularly — but Chir’delana does. 248’s smack in the middle of the green zone, about ninety minutes north. It’s one of the Monitors on the seasonal change baseline,” Ordecht said. “I’d send Archie, but Chir’delana wants him to go down and play with some new corpse.”
“All Archie could do is pull it out of the ground and bring it back.”
“That, too. Is there anything on your board that won’t wait until tomorrow?”
Kimura reached the end of the crawlway and jumped down to the corridor deck. “Not really. Tell Dione for me, so she doesn’t think I stood her up for lunch.”
“I’ll tell her you’re out with Betty,” Ordecht said. Kimura could almost hear his smile.
It took less than fifteen minutes for Kimura to collect his kit, don an e-suit and climb into Betty, the second of the two skiffs hangered in an open grid beneath the fuselage. Whereas her companion skiff, Archie, sported an array of teleoperated grips and handlers, Betty was a taxi, nothing more — a jet-propelled three-seat alloy egg.
“Betty. Go grid 248, best speed,” he said. The gravwarp skiff dropped away from its mount smoothly, banked, and scooted northward. Kimura twisted in his seat to look back at Calypso, floating gracefully in the smoggy mustard-tinted sky.
Calypso. Aerial Survey Platform 11, attached to Biological Station 3, Clypsis Survey, Xenology Division, Advance Exploration Service. Home. A fifty-meter long, sixteen-compartment laboratory attached to a huge Drachen dirigible. There was something delightfully antiquarian, almost absurdly Millennial, about the sight of it, Kimura thought. Zeppelins in space. Phineas Fogg on Mars.
Actually, Kimura realized, he had no idea what Mars looked like. He had been born on the AES’s advance base in the Draco sector, the second child of an ecologist and a technical historian. Taking his cue (and perhaps his aptitude) from his mother, he had earned his gentech credentials in Service schools on Advent — a cool, watery world grudgingly yielding to terraforming.
Warril VI was dramatically different. It was a world of long days and spectacular sunsets, muggy sixteen-hour days and eternal chill-damp nights. The sunsets, like the smog, were consequences of the volcanic activity located along the planet’s equatorial rift zones. There, great mound-mountains like volcanic puffballs dotted Warril VI’s elastic crust, venting boiling gases and a thick, slow-moving lava through fissures and cracks.
Kimura would have welcomed a close-up look at the dramatic dome mountains. But Calypso‘s concern was the biota of the brownlands and the temperate high-latitude green zones — some fifteen thousand species already cataloged, built on two different variants of the F-amino acid set. The airship would spend the entire six months in the planet’s Northern hemisphere, never closer than several hundred kilometers to the equator.
But Kimura did not feel too badly cheated. It was still a marvel to him that he was here at all. Survey took ten or twelve gentechs a year in this sector, all from the top of the ratings. After taking eight years to climb that high, Kimura was well-prepared to cheerfully appreciate what he had.
The Monitor stood alone on the high point of a gentle knoll covered with reddish whip-leaved grasses and surrounded by a tangled wall of the fibrous growth Chir’delana had named cellhedge. There was no obvious damage; the slender pylon was upright, the silver globe atop it unmarked, the tripod anchor secure and overgrown.
“Well,” Kimura said, looking up the ten-meter length of the pylon. “What’s all this, then?” He touched a gloved finger to a contact, and the Monitor smoothly telescoped downward, bringing the sensor-studded globe to a perfect working height. “Logging. Still have power. I’m thinking it was the fault monitor. That’s the only other thing that could take it offline so fast.”
It was a matter of a few minutes to break the seals on the globe and uncover the mechanisms within. Kimura’s experienced eye quickly spotted a silvery lump filling what should have been an open space between two components. It looked for all the world as though someone had poured a cupful of molten metal into the unit. But when he touched the lump experimentally, he found its surface pliant, plastic.
The answering voice was Dione Welch’s. “Not here, Eric. Can I help?”
“He’s flying Archie for Chir’delana. I’ll get him as soon as I can. What’s going on?”
“This Monitor — there’s foreign material inside it.”
“What kind of foreign material? Something biological?”
He had not seriously considered the possibility until her question put the thought in his mind. Backing a step away from the pylon, he said uncertainly, “That’s not supposed to happen.”
“It does. My last assay, on Jiphia, we had all kinds of problems with a flying species that perched on top of the Monitors because they liked the electric shocks.”
“Ria here, Eric,” broke in a new voice. Ria Barrow was the junior XB. “Can you describe it?”
“Well — silver-skinned, oblong, like a slug or a big pupa, maybe ten centimeters long and that big around the middle. Sound familiar?”
“It’s not moving. It looks like it shorted out the data chassis of the Monitor. If it was something living, it probably got toasted.”
“How’d it get in? Any clues?”
The seals and the top half of the globe had been intact, so Kimura crouched, leaning on his left hand for balance, and scrutinized the bottom half. “Maybe,” he called. “There’s a hole about the diameter of my little finger along the seam between one of the sensors and the shell metal.”
“I thought you said the thing was ten cents around.”
“I did–” Kimura started to answer, when he was distracted by a sudden stabbing sensation in the middle of his palm. “Ouch,” he said, more in surprise and annoyance than in pain, and tried to pull his hand away.
But three long red tendrils of whipgrass had become entangled around his wrist, and he could not move his hand more than a fraction. It was like being in a snare —
“Eric? What was that?”
A sudden involuntary shiver ran through him, and a queasy cold blossomed in his stomach. Grabbing a seamer from the kit, Kimura hacked at the wiry strands of grass until he could jerk his hand free. He stared unbelievingly at his palm as a brown-bodied worm-like something vanished into a neat circular hole in the glove.
Speechless, Kimura tore furiously at the binding straps on the e-suit’s wrist seal, ripping the glove free and flinging it away.
He did not hear. His entire focus was on the flowing blood, the death-white skin, the neat hole near the heel where the something had tunneled into his body. There was a burning pain in his hand, and his forearm began to throb, his body to shake.
“Sweet goddess mother of mystery,” he breathed, staring. “It’s inside me. It went right inside me.”
Then the pain was suddenly everywhere, and he screamed, an animal bathed in fire, all thought banished and consciousness fleeing on its heels.
For three days, he was wretchedly, achingly sick. Viselike muscle cramps left him bruised and crippled. He vomited, horrible wrenching empty-stomached heaves, until his throat was raw and his body drained. Fragmentary moments of wakefulness served only to force him to relive the terror of his twisted nightmares: visions of worms eating their way through his brain, of being held helpless while he burned.
Then came a time when he awoke, body peaceful, mind lucid, to rediscover that a world outside existed. He saw that he was lying in his own bed in the cabin he shared with Dione Welch, saw her sitting across the room at the library interface, her back to him. Seizing hold of the sight, he let go of the nightmares.
“It wasn’t real,” he croaked.
Welch spun around in her chair. There was strain and fatigue in her face, but a moist-eyed relief in her eyes.
“Jayson — Brak — he’s back,” she said into the ship’s com, and then was at his side. “How do you feel?”
“It wasn’t real,” he repeated, giddy. “You can’t know — how awful –“
“It was real, Eric,” she said with gentle firmness.
He stared at her, puzzled, then slowly raised his left hand and looked at the palm. There was a puckered circle of newskin, pale and featureless, near the heel.
“How long?” he breathed.
“Five days. It’s been five days.”
Just then Ordecht and Brak Dermot arrived. Dermot, who doubled as team paramedic, came to the open side of the bed. Ordecht lingered near the door.
“Brak–” Kimura extended his injured hand toward the new arrival. “Is it gone?”
Dermot shook his head. “No.”
“You didn’t take it out?”
“I’m not sure how to. I — we don’t know what it is. I don’t know what’s safe.”
“You brought me back inside when I was –” He searched for a comfortable word to describe his status, but found none.
Dermot looked uncomfortably at Welch. “Not my idea.”
“Archie picked you up, and they kept you in the skiff for the first thirty-six hours,” Welch said. “When you had the bad manners not to die, I made them bring you in.”
Kimura pulled himself up to a sitting position. “Thanks a lot, Jayson. Thanks for caring.”
“You’re contaminated,” Ordecht said without apology. “Even at biohazard 1, I owe the rest of the team some precautions.”
Frowning, Kimura looked to Dermot. “So why aren’t I still sick? Is it dead?”
“It ought to be,” Dermot said grumpily. “If it’s like the rest of the life here, you’ve got at most one protein in common. Different phospates in your DNA chains, mostly different amino acids in your proteins. It shouldn’t have gone after you.”
“Maybe we should just tell it.”
“Your body’s been trying to. Probably its waste products are what were making you miserable — and driving your immune system nuts. Maybe since you’re not dead, that means it is.” He took the wand of the diagnostic imager in his hand. “Let’s find out.”
Kimura frowned. “I hate it when a doctor says that.”
“Lucky for you I’m not a doctor,” Dermot said. “Hold still. You’re blurring the scan.”
“I’m serious. I don’t know half what you’d like me to about human infections and disease. But I know as much as anyone about parasites.”
“Is that what this is?”
“Your other choice is ‘predator,'” Dermot said, passing the wand over Kimura’s left shoulder. “Hmm.”
“It may be a moot point. It doesn’t seem to still be inside you.”
“It is,” Kimura said firmly.
“I can’t find it,” Dermot said, shaking his head. “What makes you so sure?”
“I can feel it.”
“It’s there, dammit,” Kimura said irritably. “Why don’t you get someone in here who knows how to use that thing?”
“I’m the best we got. You want to wait for Alcestis to come pick you up, I’ll go back to my knitting.”
“Maybe your machine can’t detect an X inside a human body.”
“It’s the same kind of imager Archie uses when we’re poking around a kill. Trust me, you have no secrets. Besides, your visitor showed up just fine when we brought you in.”
“Then why can’t you find it now?” Kimura demanded, vaulting out of the bed, his body shaking with the restless energy of his impatient anger. “Don’t you understand? I’ve been violated. There’s a goddamned alien parasite crawling around in my guts.” He smacked the top of the imager with the flat of his right hand. “I can feel it, goddamit, I can feel it. I want it gone. I want it gone.”
Dermot’s smile was tight and tired, empty of empathy. “I know, Eric. Please,” he said, and gestured toward the bed. “I’m trying. Let me work.”
After another hour of fruitless scanning, Dermot excused himself, saying that he would take the data pack to the XB lab for a more detailed review. It seemed an excuse to Kimura, at least. Embarrassed by his failure, uncomfortable being near Kimura, Dermot had grown increasingly cross. His departure was a relief to both men.
But it left Kimura alone, and alone was not a good place to be under the circumstances. Ordecht had called Welch away for some sort of private conversation, and Char’delena and Barrow were off with Archie up in 248.
Their conversation, at least, was not private, and Kimura listened in on their com chatter for company.
“I hate doing this,” Barrow was saying. “Killing healthy organisms just to carve them up–“
“I know,” Char’delana said. “It’s offensive. But if it is a parasite that’s taken hold of Eric, that’s where we’ll find more of them, inside the native species. And we need at least one specimen to study if we’re going to help Brak treat him.”
“He shouldn’t have been brought back inside. Dione jacked Jayson on that one.”
“Save your indignation,” Chir’delana said crisply. “The minute Eric was attacked, this planet went to biohazard 2. We’re all going to have to prove we’re clean before Alcestis will pick us up.”
“I just want to make sure I can.”
“I want to know what kind of F-acid critter can survive a bath in our biochemistry.”
There was a brief silence. “What if Brak can’t clean Eric out?”
There was a longer silence before Chir’delana’s answer. “I imagine that will be Division’s decision. Right now, I’d have to recommend that he be quarantined here.”
“For how long?”
The silence that followed was the longest of all.
“Tondalu,” Barrow said at last. “A big one.”
“There. Six points starboard, along the rim stream.”
“Okay. I see it. Archie, arm the stinger, please. Ria, get me a good angle–“
Kimura switched off the shipcom, suddenly weary. He had fought fatigue since awakening from the fever-coma, certain that more nightmares awaited him. But the real world had proved no refuge from the ugly and the frightening. Given the choice, he thought resignedly, I might as well sleep.
The next time, it was Chir’delana wielding the imager’s wand, with Dermot hovering expectantly nearby. Her face set in a businesslike frown, the grey-haired XB supervisor slowly passed the wand over Kimura’s bare chest, narrowing the focus to a small area just below the heart. When she consulted the display, her frown deepened. Wordlessly, she swept through a full-circle scan of her subject’s chest cavity.
“My mother’s tonsils–” she exclaimed finally, stepping back.
“You see?” Dermot pounced. “You see?”
“See what?” Kimura demanded.
Chir’delana seemed not to hear Kimura. “The boundary layer is inert. Non-nucleated cells.”
“Apparently,” Dermot said. “But it’s all made out of A-proteins. At first, I thought it was something Kimura’s body was producing in defense — like keloidal scarring.”
“No,” Chir’delana said, shaking her head. “It is the parasite.”
“But look at the volume — fifteen or twenty times the entry size, even allowing for its expanded structure.”
“Yes. It must be metabolizing A-proteins as well as the available sugars. I would not have believed–“
“Do I have a right to know what’s going on?” Kimura asked sharply, turning to face the quarrelling XB’s.
Chir’delana looked at him, blinking in surprise. “Of course. We’re hiding nothing–“
“I didn’t tell him what I suspected,” Dermot said. “He may not be following.”
Chir’delana nodded, unperturbed. “Something very interesting has happened, Eric. The parasite has built an encapsulating shell that matches the tissues around it. Your body doesn’t know where to find it.”
“But you found it.”
“It’s made a space for itself between the pleural sac and the spine. If you take a deep breath, you may feel a slight pressure on your lungs.”
“Like just a hint of congestion?”
Kimura nodded. “I’ve been feeling that since I woke up yesterday. This shell — is it why I’m not sick anymore?”
“Almost certainly. When the parasite first entered, it was like a mouse in the clockworks, throwing everything out of kilter. Now it’s found itself a safe little nest out of harm’s way.”
“Have you found it in any of the native species yet?”
“No,” Chir’delana said. “But we will now, I’m sure — now that we know how it likes to hide. It’s probably already in our data, but we didn’t recognize it. And we do know what the ground-living free phase looks like, of course.”
“This also means we can start looking at a way to get it out,” Dermot added.
“No,” Kimura said.
Dermot stared, taken aback. “Why not?”
Kimura looked to Chir’delana. “This is unusual, isn’t it?”
“If it weren’t, there would be no such thing as a Class 1 biohazard. Every planet would either be dead or deadly,” Chir’delana said. “I know of no other case of an organism bridging a biochemical gap this wide. This organism is a molecular chameleon.”
“Then you’ll want to know how it does what it did.”
“You’ll never be allowed to infect another human deliberately.”
“Then you may as well learn as much as you can from me while the parasite and I are getting along.”
Dermot sent a questioning glance sideways to Chir’delana. “I think we should get it out of you as quickly as possible, Eric.”
“Why? I feel fine. I feel as well as I’ve felt any time we’ve been here — any time in the last year.”
This time, the look Dermot sent to the Draconan was a plea for help.
“It would be an invaluable opportunity, Eric,” Chir’delana said slowly. “But your life is also invaluable. I can’t ask you to assume that risk.”
“You didn’t ask,” Kimura said, reaching for his shirt. “Let’s at least wait until you find other specimens.”
“We have the one from the Monitor now,” Dermot said quickly.
“Dead,” Kimura said. “Not very useful.”
“It has not been, in fact,” Chir’delana said. “We would never have predicted this from our examination of it.
“I think Jayson should be involved in this decision,” Dermot said nervously.
“Why?” Kimura asked sharply. “Is it his body?”
“This is very dangerous,” Dermot muttered, shaking his head.
“I’m not afraid,” Kimura said.
They were not brave words. They stated a simple truth. He was not afraid. So clear was that truth, so peaceful and unconflicted his inner world, that Kimura easily shrugged aside the voice that wondered why.
Calypso was crying for Kimura’s attention.
In the six days since the attack, a dozen ship’s systems had posted maintenance calls on the gentech’s scheduling board. None of them were serious, but all were annoying. The dynamic balancer, which juggled the water ballast to keep the airship level and stable, had adopted a two-degree list to port. A navigation interface on the bridge had arbitrarily decided not to accept voice commands. The signal from Number 6 optiscan was breaking up intermittently.
But when Kimura paged Ordecht to ask for permission to return to work, he met with a stone wall.
“I don’t want you leaving your cabin,” Ordecht said, shaking his head.
“Look, Jayson, I’m not sick. I’ve got more energy than I know what to do with. Why don’t you let me get at some of these things?”
“You are sick. How can you say you’re not?”
“I told you. I feel terrific. It isn’t going to bother me to go pull a sensor on the port DB tank, or tweak the box on the nav station.”
“Just because I wear Command bars doesn’t make me an idiot. Parasites reproduce, don’t you know?” Ordecht said, tightlipped. “That thing inside you could be an egg case. How would it be if I let you out and three hours later a couple of hundred little ones come spewing out of you?”
“That isn’t going to happen.”
“Is Chir’delana offering guarantees?”
Kimura bristled. “If what’s inside me does reproduce, the ‘little ones’ will be looking for a nice little patch of acidic Warril VI soil, not more hosts. And they’ll be very disappointed when all they find is carburized deckplate.”
“How do you know what they need?”
“Chir’delana said that they were chemical tricksters. What’s to say that they can’t adapt to this environment?”
He’s afraid, Kimura belatedly realized. The ignorance embodied in the question was dwarfed by the fear which prompted it. “If I can deal with what’s happening inside my body, why the hell can’t you?”
“Every time you tell me how good you feel, I worry that much more,” Ordecht said pointedly. “I’d be a lot happier if you were still scared to death.”
The grove-wolves were running, twenty fifty five hundred five thousand graceful bodies charging head-down across the plain, returning north to the greenlands. The natural maze of the interlocking circles of cellhedge — fragmentary at first, where one bioclime graded into another — slowed but did not stop them. Paced overhead by Calypso, the grove-wolves plunged through the gaps until there were no more gaps, then wriggled through bristly crawlholes, emerging with their brown-grey coats matted with fragments of sticky new growth. In a few days, they (and the seedlings they ferried) would be scattered across several thousand hectares, one mating trio to a cell.
Envy consumed Kimura as he watched them run. The animal-images playing across the display of the tiny slate, flat color shadows of reality, mocked him with their freedom. I should be there–
He laughed uncomfortably at the thought. Sure. I should be on Warril, running with the grove-wolves. I should be giving the local flora a chance to chew on me from the outside as well as from the inside.
And yet, there was something distinctly different in the way he now viewed Warril. It was as though he were somehow plugged into the web of life there, as though the thing inside him had somehow made him part of what was happening below.
You’ve got cabin fever, boy, and got it good. Mr. Ordecht, your gentech will be buggy and crazy both if you don’t let him out soon–
The door clicked open, and Kimura whirled eagerly toward it. “Dione. Thank goodness. You’ve been gone almost all day–“
“There’s a lot to do,” she said, oddly defensive. “A lot of work for the XB’s. The library’s been at full capacity most of the afternoon. And a flurry of traffic with Sector. Inquiries. Updates.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Kimura said. “I’m just glad you’re here now.”
He took a step toward her, but she went the other way, towards the double closet. “Chir’delana wants to put a tracking monitor on you overnight,” she said, her back to him as she opened the closet. “She asked me to tell you she’d be in later.”
“Later enough for us to take some time out now?”
She went rigid. “I don’t have the energy for sex now, Eric.”
“Oh — sure. I understand.” Sitting back on the bed, he watched, puzzled, as she pawed through her clothes and toiletries. “Listen, you’ve been out there with the others. Who can I recruit to lobby Jayson?”
For the first time, she turned and met his eyes. “Why? What do you want?”
“Out,” he said, spreading his hands expressively.
“Jayson doesn’t think that’s safe.”
“I know. I need some help changing his mind.”
Her gaze flicked downward, and she turned back to the closet. “I don’t think its safe, either. These tricksters–“
So the word had entered the ship’s argot as a name for the parasites. “You don’t,” he echoed.
Silent, Welch pulled a caddy tray and a jumpsuit from the closet and swung the door shut.
“Hey, what’s going on here?” Kimura demanded, standing and blocking her path to the door.
“I can’t stay here,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
“I barely slept last night,” she said. “And I have to be sharp, for the rest of the team.” The explanation sounded rehearsed, barely apologetic.
“Dione — I’ve got to have some company.”
“I’ll talk to you on the com. But I’m going to double with Ria tonight.”
Kimura stared, wounded. “You don’t have to leave right now-“
“I still have work to do.”
“Dione–” He reached out to draw her to him, but she recoiled from his touch.
“No. I can’t,” she anguished. “I can’t. Not while that thing is still inside you.”
Reading her eyes, he saw that he had forced her to say what she had come here hoping to hide — a deep revulsion that she could neither justify nor banish. Surrendering, he retreated and let her pass by him and out of the room.
When she was gone, he slumped against the wall, eyes closed, until he had collected himself. Not her fault, he tried to tell himself. Nobody was ready for this. And she doesn’t understand– He sent himself searching for a diversion, settling at last for a tamka duel with the computer.
But before long the restless energy, now tainted by rejection, came on him again. On impulse, he called up a month-old recording of the two of them playfully making love, and as he watched he began to idly masturbate. The empty pleasure and sense memories took the sharp edge off his pain, but he could not sustain either for more than a few minutes.
“Cancel,” he said in a whisper, and the display blanked. “‘lana.”
The Draconan came on the line immediately. “Is there a problem, Eric?”
“If you want to wire me, better come do it now,” he said forlornly. “Because in ten minutes, I’m going to dose with whites until I can’t feel anything anymore.”
In the morning, none of it seemed as important as it had the day before. Not Jayson’s intransigence. Not Calypso‘s aches and anomalies. Not even Dione’s defection seemed to have the power to touch his emotions. The serenity to accept the things I cannot change– He felt a quiet peace, a gentle euphoria, like the warmth of afterglow, the clear-eyed calm of hexodrine.
He was aware, too, of something else. At first he did not know what words to use to name it. There was a newness inside him, familiar and foreign. He felt divided, polarized somehow, though the feeling was not an uncomfortable one. It was as though a line had been drawn inside his body to mark the boundary between self and other — a heightened awareness of the life inside him. The trickster was no longer merely a pressure on his lungs. It was now a presence.
And yet all was one, integrated, harmonious. He shared himself with the other life, and it was pleasant, warm. He felt the energy of the other life, and fed from it.
When Chir’delana came to the cabin for a brief morning exam, Kimura did not share his new perceptions. Like the fast-fading memory of a dream, he knew that the search for the right words would guarantee he would not find them, would blunt the fine and delicate edge of the feeling. He said nothing of it, even when the xenobiologist told him that the parasite was growing.
“The capsule is fifteen percent larger than last night, and forty percent larger than when Brak first measured it,” Chir’delana said. “By tomorrow it will approach the size of the specimen you found in the Monitor. Are you sure that you’re not feeling any discomfort?”
“No,” he said, smiling. “No discomfort.”
“You would tell me, wouldn’t you?” she asked, eyebrow cocked questioningly.
“I feel fine, ‘lana. I really do.”
“Yes,” Chir’delana said, frowning.
“Why does that seem to bother people?”
She met his eyes with her level, unblinking gaze. “Why does it puzzle you?” she asked as she packed away the microsamples of blood and tissue. “They think about what happened to you and it frightens them. They look at you and wonder why you are not fighting. Why you are not as they think they would be. Why you do not wonder at these things.”
Kimura shrugged off the challenge in her words. “I haven’t done anything wrong,” he said. “I don’t understand why you aren’t all with me.”
“They have no experience comparable to yours. They can only think of this as a sickness, and your response as a surrender. In this matter, it is easier for you to be understanding of them than the reverse.”
“You don’t include yourself with them?”
She showed a faint, brief smile before she turned for the door. “No,” she said. “I have had children.”
The oddest thing about her answer, Kimura thought, was that he understood it.
Kimura passed another day and night alone except for Chir’delana’s brief but regular “collection” visits and a longer but less satisfying appearance by Dione.
She tried to be both friendly and cheerful, but the underlying discomfort showed through. Eventually, Kimura wondered aloud if she had been ordered there. Though Dione quickly denied it, Kimura read in her answer that she had, in fact, bowed to some sort of pressure short of an edict. He did not miss her much after that.
Some of the time he spent alone he filled watching the planet below. With six cameras mounted on Calypso herself and the output of the extensive array of Monitors to choose from, there was a rich variety of options.
He heard the cracking and popping of a continental glacier as it edged south from the high latitudes — watched nesting grove-wolves sealing the crawlholes to their chosen homes with a tangle of branches — saw manatrees massing on the brownlands to exchange gene cells before going off to begin building new polyps — a hundred planetscapes, some quiet, some vibrant.
And watching, he built what he could only call a longing for Warril VI — a longing that even a visit to his private aerie in the accessway could not have satisfied. And this restlessness, unlike the others he had felt in recent days, did not pass away. It was a binding and a calling, an invitation to union. He began to feel that, as he was to the trickster, they both were to the world below.
When his attention was not focused on the data displays, it was directed inside. Like a blind man in the dark, he reached out for the presence he sensed there and asked to know it. Was there consciousness there, or merely a molecular automaton? Did the trickster feel him as he felt it? Did it feel at all? Hours slipped away easily as Kimura practiced the unpracticed arts of reflection — introspection — contemplation.
What are you, he asked. But never, he later realized, did he ask what will you be?. That door, he made no effort to open.
“Eric — will you join us in the multi? I’ve called a team meeting to review what the XB’s have come up with on your parasite.”
The voice was Ordecht’s; the surprise, complete. “Are you sure that you don’t want me to just monitor from here?”
“Well — when?”
“We’re gathering now.”
“I’ll — I’ll be there in five.”
Kimura struggled with disequilibrium. He was the cat, closeted too long, suspicious at the sight of an open door, uncertain whether it led to any place he wanted to be.
But he went, the corridors and cabins of Calypso striking his eyes with such unfamiliarity that they seemed to belong to an alien world. The faces of Dermot, Barrow, and Ordecht, looking up at his from around the table in the multi, were those of dimly remembered strangers.
When Kimura was seated, Ordecht signaled his readiness to Chir’delana with a nod.
“The entire XB department has been logging long hours on this problem,” she said. “Ria and Brak have been superb. The results have been very positive. We’ve learned a great deal about what’s inside Eric.”
“So have I,” Kimura said.
They chose to take it as a joke, smiles and polite laughter. “In the process, we’ve also learned a great deal about Warril VI,” she continued. “Even outside our lab, I think it’s common knowledge that life here is based on proteins built from the F-amino set — twenty-two left-handed amino acids, five of which are also in the A-amino set on which our proteins are based.”
Ordecht nodded again.
“It has been received wisdom in xenobiology that the F-aminos are far enough away from the A-aminos to form a deep biological gulf between the proteins they build — and by extension, between the organisms built on those proteins. These last few days, the tricksters have taught me differently. They can bridge that gap.”
Kimura became aware that, although Chir’delana was addressing them all, both Dione and Ria were watching him instead.
“They can do this,” Chir’delana continued, “because they employ a biochemistry which allows them to parasitize a wide range of Warril’s native species. We have found the adult phase in nine major chemoorganotrophs, some of which have almost as little in common with each other as we do with them. The range of protein chemistries involved is astounding.
“The trickster represents one of the cleverest bits of organic engineering I’ve ever seen. The ground-living phase — the ‘plant,’ if you will — produces a transfer cell which is almost completely information, that says ‘this is what I know.’
“Apparently, when the transfer cell enters the host, it ‘looks up’ the host’s chemistry in its chemical library. If it can’t find an entry, it goes underground — builds an enclosing membrane of native material and sets out to analyze the chemistry of the host.”
“Like a little biochemistry lab,” Welch said.
“Like a very good biochemistry lab,” said Barrow, seated beside Kimura. “It’s smart as hell, chemically speaking.”
“Go on,” Chir’delana invited, sitting back.
“To complete the cycle, and the story: the trickster that can survive in a new host makes large numbers of a much smaller transfer cell containing what amounts to an abstract of the secrets of its success — one that says ‘here’s what I’ve learned.’ When one makes its way back to one of the parent forms, the information is merged and reproduction follows.”
“So right now, the trickster inside Eric is analyzing human biochemistry,” Ordecht said, “and preparing to pass on what it discovers?”
“And if it does so, it will become much easier for the tricksters to infest other humans.”
“Yes,” Barrow said.
The heavy-handed choreography of the meeting suddenly became apparent to Kimura. Give him what he wants and let him out, so he’ll be more kindly disposed — bring him together with the family and make him feel like he’s part of the decision — then turn the screws. My friends —
“So you have a diagnosis,” Welch said. “Do you have a cure?”
Not surprisingly, it was Dermot’s turn. “Luckily, we’re not too shabby at the biochemistry business ourselves,” he said. “Even though the trickster’s hiding from Eric’s body defenses in that capsule, it is feeding off him — metabolizing material drawn from his tissues. That gives us a way to go after it.”
He patted the small, soft pouch lying on the table. “Eric, we’ve come up with a host-restriction endonuclease — a cleavage enzyme — that will slice through the trickster’s memory proteins like a hot wire through a spiderweb. Molecular dissection.”
“What about effects on Eric?” Welch asked.
“None. The enzyme won’t find the target molecular bonds anywhere in his biochemistry.” He looked at Kimura. “You won’t feel a thing.”
“Terrific,” Ordecht said. “Terrific work, everyone. Well, Eric — some good news at last. The end of this probably can’t come too soon to suit you. Brak, will you do the honors?”
Dermot reached for the pouch and started to stand, but Kimura was quicker to his feet. “No,” he said.
“No?” Ordecht echoed.
“Eric–” Welch began.
“No,” Kimura repeated, backing toward the door.
“Son of a bitch,” Ordecht said, slowly rising from his chair. “‘lana, I apologize. You were right. Eric — slow down a moment and think this through. Listen to what we’re saying.”
“I listened,” Kimura said. “You want to kill what’s inside me — because you’re afraid of it. I’m not being harmed.”
“The fact that you don’t want to get rid of it ought to tell you how wrong you are.”
“Reason is not enough, Jayson,” Chir’delana said. “Emotion is involved.”
“I can’t help that,” Ordecht said, irritated. “Eric, maybe you don’t get it. Unless we destroy the parasite, you can’t ever leave here.”
“That’s months away. And there’ll be another team coming.”
“Not after this,” Ordecht said. “Not with you as proof that it’s not safe here.”
“You don’t understand,” Kimura said, retreating, his face contorted by anguish. “You don’t understand. I can feel it living in me. I don’t want to feel it die.”
Though he fled the room, they would not let him escape. Dione swept out of the multi on his heels, fire-eyed and furious.
“You goddamned idiot. You’re the one who doesn’t understand,” she shouted, following him down the corridor. “It’s got you so doped with your own neurohormones you can’t think straight.”
“You can’t make me kill it,” he mumbled, almost inaudibly, his feet still carrying him away from confrontation.
“I can rub your nose in your own stupidity,” she fired back. “Ask ‘lana to show you the graphs. You’re being manipulated, juiced with shots of warm fuzzy every time you get close to rebelling at what’s happened to you.”
Calpyso was a small world. All too quickly, Kimura found himself in the forward mechanicals compartment, with only the access crawlway left for escape. His steps slowed, and he turned to face Dione.
“You don’t have the right to tell me what to do,” he said.
“Eric — I don’t want to tell you what to do,” she said, her voice softening. “I want you to see what needs to be done. Raise your eyes and look past today. Look past what you’re feeling now, however wonderful it is.”
“It is wonderful.”
Frustration contorted her features. “Can’t you see what you have to give up to keep it?”
Chir’delana had joined Dione as she was speaking, coming up behind her from the corridor. “Dione — he’s chosen to be separate from us,” she said. “Leave him alone.”
“He can’t hear you now. He can only hear himself. Let him be.”
Dione hesitated, then lowered her eyes and nodded. And then they left him. He waited, expecting Ordecht, expecting Dermot. Expecting them to enforce their view of what was best for him. He waited a long time before he could believe they were not coming, before he could let himself hope that they might leave him alone.
And when he did at last begin to believe, he clambered up into the access crawlway and settled into his familiar spot. The world below was peaceful, and he tried to let go of the conflict and tension and feel the same peace inside.
But he could not find it.
I need more distance, he thought desperately. I have to leave–
And: I can’t count on them. They’re just waiting for me to give in.–
And: who is thinking these thoughts?
And then he returned to his cabin to find Dermot’s little pouch waiting for him on the bed.
“My friends–” he said. “My friends.”
“Thank you,” Kimura said. He stood propped up in a far corner of the cabin, arms crossed nervously over his chest.
Chir’delana nodded gravely and perched on the end of the bed. “Is something happening?”
“What did Dione mean, about the graphs? Is there something you haven’t been telling me?”
“Only that which you are not capable of believing.”
“What do you mean by that?”
Shrugging, she said, “If you feel pleasure, and I tell you that the pleasure is false, your own experience denies my claims. I read the scans and see endorphins and enkephalins arising not from the pituitary, but from elsewhere in your body — placental hormones from a placenta you do not possess, the genes activated from your X chromosomes — a hexodrine drip at precisely the dosage to create a feeling of well-being. These mean much to me, but little to you.”
“You don’t want me to be happy,” he accused.
Chir’delana shook her head. “Untrue, Eric. Nor does what I want matter. You claim the right to choose for yourself. I accept that claim, and have obliged the others to accept it as well,” she said. “But I claim in return the right to ask you who or what is choosing.”
“So long as you are certain.” She rose to her feet. “Was there more?”
Nodding, she turned toward the door.
“Yes,” he said suddenly. He took a tentative step outward from the corner. “I’ve been wondering what it will become.”
“It is what it will become,” Chir’delana said. “Perhaps you should wonder instead what you will become.”
It was a gentle rebuke, but a rebuke all the same. But he did not let it stop him from asking the question he had called her there to ask. “‘lana — is it intelligent?”
“Do you think that it is?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Sometimes.”
“It is such an easy question, and such a hard answer,” she said, her smile soft and maternal. “Not a question merely of biology, but of philosophy and spirituality. You ask if the trickster is intelligent, and I have no answer. I only know that you are.”
Kimura knew there would be screaming. There was never been any hope of avoiding that. It was enough if he could avoid being stopped.
They should have locked him in, killed his cabin terminal and locked him in. But they were still being reasonable, still giving him room. Too much room. They should have locked him in, but they did not. So it was easy. Easy for him to unravel Ordecht’s command lock on the ship’s skiffs. Easy for him to freeze the ship’s systems for the three minutes it took to board one and be gone.
They knew, the moment they were free, what had happened, what mistake they had made. They called to him, words of anger and apostasy, reason and suasion. He did not turn off the com and shut them out — it was their right to rail. Nor did he answer. He listened to the words meant for him, and to the words they meant for each other, with roughly equal concern.
“This crosses the line, Kimura. You’ve taken the choice out of my hands. We’re going to come after you and we’re going to bring you back. That is a fact–“
“Archie’s cold and dark, Jayson. He scrambled the O.S. good.”
“We can reload from the library in about forty minutes–“
“Eric, don’t make things worse. Give me a chance to keep this in the family–“
“What’s happening? Where’s Eric?”
“He’s taken Betty.”
“Where’s he going?”
“From the track, back to 248–“
“Eric, you can’t take the trickster home–“
“He also took the injector.”
“Well, it’s not in his room–“
“What’s he going to do, teach them about that, too? Goddamn chip-head –“
Kimura looked down at the seat beside him and the pouch resting there. He touched it tentatively with one finger, and felt the hardness of the injector cylinder through the cloth. Then he looked out the t-port at the scrub-hedged greenlands below. Already the skiff was slowing.
What was he going to do?
What I want to, came the quick answer. What I want to– “Eric — please –“
The same voice asked in his mind’s ear, Can’t you see what you have to give up to keep it?
What I want—
“Betty,” he said. “Abort last command. Go 51, best speed.”
Eric Kimura walked a hundred meters from where the skiff rested and settled cross-legged on the dry, sterile ground. The air was thick, choking, the ground warm to the touch. Seven spewing gas vents dotted the face of the great turtle-shell mountain rising before him. Ropy pillars of lava squirmed and toppled in slow motion like pyroclastic worms.
The decision was already made. He had made it the moment he had turned Betty southward, turned her away from the greenlands for the dead expanses of the rift zone.
But a decision was not an action was not a promise to anyone but himself. He held the pouch cradled on his lap and let tears run down his cheeks, let himself think his rheumy eyes were the product of sulfur dioxides and fly ash.
Only partly alive. It’s really only partly alive. The rest is me. And I’ll still be here.
The ground quivered beneath him, a faint echo of a feeble earthquake, of turgid pools of lava slowly shifting somewhere below. When it’s gone I’ll know, he thought. I’ll know which part was me and which part was it. What I wanted and what it wanted. I’ll know, even if it will be too late to use the knowledge. At least I’ll know–
He folded back the flap of the pouch, and the injector fell into his hand.
I will never know this feeling again. What I give up now I give up forever.
The stop-catch on the injector surrendered to a soft twist.
But what I claim now will be mine forever. Not a bad trade. Not such a bad trade. Killing to live. To live free. To take the choices back.
Inside the cylinder, twelve milliliters of coppery solution waited. At eye-level, it shimmered in the late sunlight.
It’s easy, they said. You should be glad to be rid of it. It won’t affect you at all, they promised. Empty bleating words from ignorant mouths.
If you feel — if you know — forgive me–
It was not easy, even if it was right. Touching the injector to his skin, thumbing the trigger until the cylinder was empty — they were nearly impossible acts. Cold acts. Acts of self-violation, a voluntary reprise of the initial horror.
But somehow, it was done.
Kimura stayed there, seated before the heaving, groaning dome mountain, until the line between self and other dissolved, until the presence within was only a pressure and then not even that, until the space that had been life was an emptiness, and he was alone.
Until he knew.
The right choice, he thought. What I wanted.
He only wondered, flying back to Calpyso with eyes still wet with acid tears, how long the emptiness would be an ache where joy had once been.
This story was completed June 12, 1988, in Lansing, Michigan, and originally appeared in the December, 1989 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. At this writing, it’s the last short story I wrote on spec, and the last story of mine to appear in one of the traditional digests.