It took some careful maneuvering to finally free herself from a tangled bit of vegetation but, once loose, it was just a short and careful crawl across the surface of the swamp to reach her target. The massive, grey-skinned creature continued to feed contentedly, unaware of the latest parasite to climb up one of its two legs and onto its back.
Cyann tucked a rebellious strand of blue hair behind her ear and leaned forward, utterly unaware of the tension in her body or the lower lip grasped between her teeth as she crept toward the animal's humped shoulders. She figured that the two trunk-like appendages dangling from either side of its face would not be able to reach her there.
They had determined it to be mammalian, but its skin was as hairless as a reptile's and apparently just as tough. With infinite care, she extended a small probe into its epidermis to take a sample, breathing a sigh of relief when this didn't seem to cause enough discomfort for her victim to start swatting the pest on its back. That tiny bit of blood and skin would provide them with endless information about this creature and, satisfied with her work, she raised herself up a little to look around the densely forested landscape.
The bipedal animal lumbered slowly through the swamp as it chewed on bulbous fungus rising above the water, only rarely using its frontal appendages to aid with the meal. The globes burst with a puff of spores, surrounding them in drifting clouds of orange and yellow. She secured herself a little more when her host started to move toward the rest of the small herd, eager to study their interaction. One of the others looked up and watched their approach. There was something wary about its stance and Cyann wondered if it had spotted the foreigner among them.
She smiled when it tilted his head and blinked large, intelligent eyes. Although these herbivores appeared dull and clumsy at first glance, there was something about them that made her suspect at least a rudimentary level of self-awareness - an interesting phase of any planet's evolution. The animal certainly seemed aware of her and moved closer to inspect the strange passenger on its herd-mate's back. With ponderous care, it extended one of its appendages toward her.
A heavy hand dropped onto her shoulder and she nearly jumped out of her chair.
"Don't do that!" Cyann exclaimed. Her mental connection to the crawler probe broke when she removed the headset attached to the neural implant at her temple. She turned from her console to see Anders Devaughn, their project lead for this expedition, stand behind her bearing cups of tea. "Do you have any idea how creepy that is?"
Her boss, friend and uncle by choice grinned and looked over her head at a bank of screens displaying various angles of the research ship's marshy surroundings. "I do. That's what makes it so much fun."
"It's only fun the first few times," Cyann said, not half as annoyed as she sounded, and took a cup from his tray. She looked over to Nigel, their mission pilot and technician, bent over a workstation where he was preparing another of the silicone centipedes for deployment. "Warn me next time he sneaks up on me."
He stopped chewing his lanky blond mustache long enough to reply. "And then what would I do for fun? Ooh, tea."
"Did you get some of that fungus?" Anders asked.
"Yes," Cyann said. "And that green goo. I do think they're eggs of some kind. Amphibian, probably. Can't wait till we get below the surface of the swamp."
He regarded her thoughtfully. "Tomorrow. This is just a sampling expedition. No need to catalog the entire planet. We'll leave that to Roley's team. Bring the probe back in and then get some sleep. You look tired."
"Thanks, Uncle Anders," she said sardonically and picked up her headset. "That's something every girl likes to hear."
"I think your mother slapped me last time I said that to her." Anders dropped heavily into an empty chair beside her and scrolled through some of the data they had gathered about the planet's atmosphere and its inhabitants. "She works too much, too. But after almost thirty years around you two I still don't know when to mind my own business."
Cyann smiled at him with great fondness. He had been a part of her life since her birth and for long intervals more present than her own parents. A family friend rather than actually an uncle, Anders had taken her into his crew when her interest in xenobiology had exceeded the training she was able to receive on Delphi, their home planet. As Human as her mother, Anders understood Cyann's need to learn and discover, and perhaps somehow make sense of her own peculiar parentage.
She looked down at her blue fingernails, as much as her blue hair a reminder of her father's contribution to her unique status as a Human-Delphian hybrid, the only one in existence. Her clan on Delphi had accepted her and her off-worlder mother but outside that small circle she stood apart, not enough Human or Delphian to really fit anywhere. She had happily retreated into her work among newly discovered planets, far away from people who viewed outsiders with disdain and would never truly acknowledge her as one of their own.
"What is it?" Anders said, noting the darkening of her blue eyes, a sure sign among Delphians that something was bothering them.
"Tired. Like you said." She turned back to her screens and activated her neural interface to return her focus to the crawler still riding the mammal's back. "I better get the probe back before these things wander off with it."
"What'll we name them?" Anders asked.
She shrugged. "Your turn, Nigel," she called over her shoulder.
The technician rotated his cramped shoulders and then yawned hugely. "Oh, nice. I get to name the cows. You get to name the cool things with wings and teeth and loud noises." He thought a moment. "How about Cyann's Spotted Leatherbutt?"
Anders nodded and started to enter the name beside the creature's more scientific designation.
"Stop that, you two!" Cyann laughed. The quick warble of an incoming message caught her attention. "News packet is in."She reached over to the com panel and loaded the news onto one of the screens. They caught up on some developments regarding a trade agreement, an announcement of a new appointment to the Commonwealth's governing council, and disconcerting results of yet another rebel attack on Magra.
Cyann switched the report to the ship's main screen when one of the items mentioned Delphi. An asteroid of some sort was heading toward the planet. It was large enough to cause very serious damage in collision but not too large to be diverted or destroyed by Air Command technology. Remarkable, however, was that the boulder had emerged from sub-space using the same
jumpsites that commercial ships used to reach the Delphian sector.
"What are the odds?" Anders murmured. "Kind of sloppy of them to let it even enter the jumpsite."Cyann nodded. All mapped sites had at least an automated Union beacon to monitor traffic entering sub-space, mostly for the purpose of keeping track of pirates and rebels. "Must have fallen in there during someone else's transit. I think I'll skip the Low-G ball scores and get that probe back. And then I'm going to fall into my bunk for about ten hours." She reconnected the small interface node at her temple with the ship's processors and shifted her mental focus back to her control of the crawler outside. Again taking commands directly from her brain, the probe and its small cargo of samples began to move. Her host and the rest of the herd were still grazing on the oversized mushrooms, evidently not bothered by the fog of spores they inhaled. Cyann recorded the antics of some of the juveniles before directing the crawler back toward the animal's sizable rump. It scuttled along its flank, secured to the thick hide by miniscule barbs that allowed it to cling to just about any surface.
"Crap!" she exclaimed, drawing the others' attention.
Nigel looked up at a screen. The probe had fallen off the animal and landed upside down in the mud. "Oops. Nice work, doc."
"Must have slapped me with one of its tails. Make a note that they might be ticklish around the backside. So much for having leatherbutts." Cyann maneuvered the probe, using several of
its many legs to twist it. "It's caught on something.""You're not breaking another one!" Nigel said. "These things just aren't made to stand up to your sort of abuse."
"And they're expensive," Anders added. "Can you get it loose?"
"Trying." Cyann grimaced as she worked the device. "Should have used a bug instead of the crawler. Better shoo the beasties away before one of them steps on it. Those footpads are huge." He nodded and activated a signal to emit a low but annoying sound from the exterior of the research vessel. The animals looked up, appearing more confused than panicked, and slowly organized themselves into a tight troop that moved off into the shelter of taller vegetation.
"Hmm, no good." Cyann removed her headset. "I can't get it loose. Going to have to suit up and go get it."
"Need one more sample," Anders reminded her with a grin. "Guess you'll have to fetch that the old fashioned way, too."
Cyann muttered some rather colorful language as she left the main lab space for the ship's exit area. There she stripped down to her sleeveless undershirt and tights before slipping into a hooded camouflage clean suit. It would not only shield her from the planet's as-yet unknowns but also protect this world from her own contaminates. After a short turn in the decon chamber and a check of her oxygen supply, she left the ship to step onto Siot's moist surface.
"Damn hot out here," she said. She looked over the exterior of the ship that today was green-tinted to blend into the lush surroundings. "Seeing some condensation around the intakes," she reported. "Might want to check the coolant plugs, Nigel."
"On it," came the lazy drawl in reply. "You just go play with your pets and leave the hardware to me."
"The crawler is straight ahead by that greenish boulder," Anders' voice came from the speaker near her ear. "Don't dawdle out there. We're nowhere near ready for contact."
"I see it. It's floating." She moved slowly to give the sensors in her boots time to react to the ground's density and alert her of any deep spots below the marshy surface. The leather-skinned herd of ruminants still huddled among some taller growth, watching her warily from the distance. "Interesting. They have their backs turned to me, but they're keeping an eye out. Juveniles in the center of the group."
"That tail swishing might be agitation," Anders said. "Keep moving. No eye contact. Also, I've got some more life forms approaching from your right." He sent another sound signal through the clearing. "Don't forget a scoop of the poop."
"Yes, yes, can't forget that, can we?" she said and reached into a bag attached to her suit to find a sample container. "Looks like some droppings over there." She turned when a nervous squawk emitted from the herd. As one, they turned and stomped away into the green shadows of the undergrowth. "Where is everybody going?"
"Life form behind you, Cyann. Big one. Return immediately."
"Just grabbing the crawler. I don't see it."
"It floated over to your right."
"Where?" she twisted awkwardly to peer out from behind the visor of her protective suit.
"Leave it for now. We'll come back in a bit."
"There it is." She walked to the edge of the clearing where the water moved more briskly into a small stream draining from the swamp. She stepped over a few larger stones and bent to pick up the device. "Ugh. Sorry, Nigel, we lost a few legs on this one." She slipped it into her pouch and turned to retrace her steps. "Damn!"
"Stuck on something. These boots are too big for me."
"Let's get you back on board," Anders said and she noted the nervousness in his voice.
Something splashed behind her. And splashed again, like something taking long strides through the marsh. Then they all heard a high-pitched staccato call tear through the spore-fogged air, soon answered by another. Disconcertingly, it seemed to come from a considerable height. All of the other animals had disappeared and she suddenly felt strangely abandoned by them.
"Cyann, come on!"
She bent to pull on the boot attached to the bottom of the suit. A few trickles of sweat traced along her cheek, plastering her hair to her skin and obscuring her vision even further. So far they had not detected any overtly hostile species on this planet and had certainly taken care not to encounter any, but what had made her leave the ship without her stunner?
She felt her heart beat somewhere high in her throat and forced herself to breathe evenly. She drew upon ancient Delphian mental disciplines to force her mind into a tranquil state of khamal, a level of guarded awareness that would allow her to block distractions. She felt her training and her heritage do its job to replace her initial panic with something a little more serene.
Another strident alarm rang through the clearing, this time from the ship. And then another, less mechanical cry answered, followed by something crashing through the undergrowth.
"You know, uncle," she said, jerking on the boot wrenched tightly between the rocks. "I think maybe that's what's attracting things."
"Nigel's coming for you," he said, clearly close to panic. "I don't have a clear shot from here. Don't rip your suit unless you have to. Too many poisons out there."
"It's all right. I'm clear." She walked back toward the ship as quickly as the soggy ground allowed. "Whoa!" A biped had broken into the clearing to her right, looking very much like a bird but covered so densely in blue-black fluff that any wings it might have had were not visible. She was reminded of the ostrich-like birds so common on Shaddallam, a planet not far from this one. Except that it was easily five times their size and its beak bore a lining of short spikes. "Are you getting this? Avian, likely flightless."
She broke into a trot, following the muddy tracks her boots had made on her way here. The splashing sound followed her, more rapidly now, and then something massive kicked at her legs to knock her down as if she was no more substantial than the marsh reeds that surrounded her. She was thrown forward, painfully aware that she had just been stepped on. When she lifted her head she saw into an open maw large enough to swallow her whole.
"Soon?" she said.
"What?" Nigel said through her speakers. "Curl up, Cyann. Don't be such a target."
"Get up! Cyann! Move!"
"Well, which is it?" she snapped.Out here. Out here.
Cyann froze, still sprawled in the muck. Someone was there. Someone, something had joined the mental state she had initiated through her khamal. She gasped when this something touched her thoughts, barely there, yet immensely vast. She reached out for it, unable to tear her attention away. I hear you, she returned.
"Cyann?" she heard Anders. "Come on!"
She stared at the enormous creature and remained still. At another time she would have felt as panicked as Anders sounded but nothing could now tear her away from that frail mental contact. The bird seemed to consider the snack placed before it and then stabbed its formidable beak into the ground beside her. She rolled away from it, aware of her complete absence of fear. Did it not see her? After churning up some of the mud with its forceful pecking, the creature stabbed into a deeper puddle and lifted its head again to display a shiny and wiggling creature clamped in its beak. It tipped its head back to swallow the meal and then regarded Cyann with serene disinterest. After a few moments it lifted its stilt-like legs with meticulous care and continued on its way through the swamp.
She watched it move away, only dimly aware that Nigel was wading toward her, looking weirdly alien in his bulky enviro-suit.
The strange presence in her mind faded. She reached for it, tried to snatch it back before it could leave her again, but it floated away like the puffs of mushroom spores all around them.Help me.
Nigel had reached her and pulled her up, a gun ready in his other hand.
"I'm all right. It just didn't see me," Cyann mumbled and looked around. "It's gone now," she added, but she did not mean the bird.
He said nothing while he supervised her through the decontamination sequence and a quick medical check before she went to her tiny cabin for a change of clothes. Anders met her there, clearly upset.
"What was that about?" he said. "You should have returned to the ship at once. You should have taken a gun. What were you thinking?'
Cyann frowned. "It's not dangerous."
"We have no way of knowing that. You know better than this."
She nodded, all too aware that she deserved the reprimand. "Something was out there. It spoke to me."
"What are you talking about?"
"I heard its thoughts."
"Telepathy? That bird?"
"No, not the bird." She hesitated a while, staring at nothing. "Someone out there. Reaching for me. Picking up on my khamal."
He tilted his head. "You know that isn't possible."
"Of course I know," she said more sharply than she really meant to. Whether used to heal or to share an emotion or even to communicate telepathically, the khamal mind-link used by Delphians had to be initiated by touch. Few exceptions existed and certainly not for her, who was only half-Delphian or her Human mother, who was only able to engage through the use of a mechanical interface embedded in her brain. "But there was something there. It... it's familiar. Like..." she glanced at him before shifting her eyes away from his penetrating gaze. "Like before."
He exhaled forcefully and sat down beside her on her bunk, his voice more gentle. "That was a long time ago. You were a child then. Nothing but mental echoes and imaginary friends. Isn't that what the Shantirs decided?"
"They did," she sighed. Nobody knew to what extent her hybrid brain obeyed Delphian mental disciplines and she had been both a vexation and an intellectual puzzle for several of the elder Shantirs that had taken an interest. The peculiar presence she had sometimes encountered had been dismissed as harmless manifestations of her mentors' own khamal state, somehow perceived by the precocious child. The Shantir's Human counterparts at the Union's clinics had declared it to be the girl's desire for kinship among those who saw her as an outsider. Childhood fantasies that would dissipate with age.
"What did it say?" Anders asked cautiously.
She turned her haunted face to him. "Help me."
Anders suppressed the shiver that started low on his back and moved upward to his nape. He reached out to straighten the disheveled blue strands around her face. Her azure eyes had paled to flat and lifeless disks above dark shadows looking like bruises. "You're too tired," he said. "Working too hard."
"I'm fine, Anders. You work just as hard and so does Nigel. I can do my share."
"Well, something's not right. You've been tired and edgy and your attention wanders. That's not like you. I've been around you Delphians for all of my life and I still don't really understand how your mind works. But even I know that hearing random voices isn't part of things. I need you on your game out there. Not distracted by phantoms." He came to his feet. "We're leaving here in a few days and then you're going straight to the Shantir enclave to report this. Let them have a look around inside that pretty head of yours. Get yourself some rest while you're there. You know I can't have you on my team if you're not in top shape. Meanwhile, you're not to leave the ship by yourself and that's an order."