Kai heard Varian’s light step echoing in the empty passenger section of the shuttlecraft just as he switched off the communications unit and tripped the tape into storage.
“Sorry, Kai, did I miss the contact?” Varian came in out of breath, her suit dripping wet, and bringing with her the pervasive stench of Ireta’s “fresh” air, which tainted the filtered air of the shuttle’s pilot cabin. She glanced from the unlit communications panel to his face to see if he was annoyed by her tardiness, but a triumphant grin cut through her feigned penitence. “We finally captured one of those herbivores!”
Kai had to grin in response to her elation. Varian would spend long hours tracking a creature in Ireta’s damp, steaming, stinking jungles—hours of patient searching which all too often proved unproductive. Nevertheless, short of resorting to Discipline, Varian found it nauseatingly irksome to sit still in a comfortable chair through a Thek relay. Kai had wagered with himself that she would manage to avoid the tedious interchange with some reasonable excuse. Her news was good and her excuse valid.
“How’d you manage to capture one? Those traps you’ve been rigging?” he asked with genuine interest, though those same traps had taken his best mechanic and kept him from completing the seismic grid his geologists needed.
“No, not the traps.” There was a hint of chagrin in Varian’s tone. “No, the damned fool creature was wounded and couldn’t run away with the rest of the herd.” She paused to give her next statement full emphasis. “And, Kai, it bleeds blood!”
Kai blinked at her announcement. “So?”
“Are you a biological idiot? Red blood means hemoglobin . . .”
“What’s odd about that? Plenty of other species use an iron base . . .”
“Not on the same planet with those aquatic squirmers Trizein’s been dissecting. They have a pale viscous fluid.” Varian was fleetingly contemptuous of his failure to recognize the significance. “This planet’s one mass of anomalies, biological as well as geological. No ore where we should be striking pay dirt by the hopper-load, and me finding creatures larger than anything mentioned in text tapes from any planet in all the systems we’ve explored in the last four hundred galactic-standard years. Of course, it may be all of a piece,” she added thoughtfully, as she pushed back the springy dark curls that framed her face.
She was tall, as were so many types born on a normal-gravity planet like Earth, with a slender but muscularly fit body which the one-piece orange ship suit displayed admirably. Despite the articles dangling from her force-screen belt, her waist was trim, and the bulges in her thigh and calf pouches did not detract from the graceful appearance of her legs.
Kai had been elated when Varian was assigned as his co-leader. They’d been more than acquaintances on shipboard ever since she had joined the ARCT-10 as a xenob vet, on a three-galactic-standard-year contract. The ARCT-10—like her sister ships in the Exploratory and Evaluation Corps—had basic administrative and operations personnel who were ship-born and ship-bred. But the complement of additional specialists, trainees and, occasionally, high-echelon travelers for the Federated Sentient Planets changed continually, giving those on board the stimulation of meeting members of other cultures, subgroups, minorities and persuasions.
Kai had been attracted to Varian first, because she was an extremely pretty girl and second, because she was the opposite of Geril. He had been trying to end an unsatisfactory relationship with Geril, who had been so insistent that he’d had to change his quarters from the ship-born to the visitors’ area of Earth-normal section in order to avoid her. Varian happened to be his new next-door neighbor. She was gay, bubbling with humor and intensely interested in everything about the satellite-sized exploratory vessel. She quickly infected him with her enthusiasm as she chivvied him into taking her on a guided tour of the various special quarters which accommodated the more esoteric sentient races of the FSP in their own atmosphere or gravity. Varian told him she’d been planet-bound—on how many diverse planets did not signify—so that she felt it was high time she saw how the Explorers and Evaluators lived. Especially since, she added, as a xenob vet, she often had to correct some of EV’s crazier judgments and mistakes.
Varian was a good narrator, and her tales of planetary adventures, both as a youngster trailing after xenob vet parents and as junior in the same specialty, had fascinated Kai. He’d had the usual planetary tours to combat ship-conditioned agoraphobia, and indeed had spent a whole galactic year with his mother’s parents on her birthworld. But he felt his must have been dull worlds in comparison to those responsible for Varian’s wild and amusing experiences.
Another way in which Varian surpassed Geril was in her ability to argue pleasantly and effectively without losing her temper or wit. Geril had always been oppressively serious and too eager to denigrate anything which did not meet with her unconditional approval unconditionally. In fact, long before Kai heard that Varian was to be his co-leader, he had realized that she must have had Discipline, young as she appeared to be. He’d gone as far as to tap for a printout of her public history from the EV’s data banks. Her list of assignments had been impressive even if the public record did not give any assessment of her value on those expeditions. However, he noticed she had been promoted rapidly—this, combined with the number of assignments, indicated a young woman slated for increasing responsibility and more difficult assignments. Granted her addition to the Iretan expedition had been made almost at the last minute when life-form readings had registered on the preliminary probe, but with her background Ireta ought not to post too many problems. Yet the planet was, as she’d said, rampant with anomalies.
“I suppose,” she was saying, “if one has a third-generation sun with planets, one must expect peculiarities; such as Ireta, whose poles are hotter than its equator, stinking of—I’ll remember the name of that plant yet . . .”
“Yes. There’s a small plant, hardy enough to be grown practically anywhere on temperate Earth-type worlds, which is used in cooking. In judicious quantities, let me add,” she said with a wry grin. “Too much of it tastes like this planet smells. Sorry, I digress. What did the Theks say?”
Kai frowned. “Only the first reports have been picked up by our wandering Exploratory Vessel.”
Busy mopping off the worst of her wetness, Varian turned to stare at him, towel suspended. “Fardles!” She sat slowly down in the chair next to him. “That’s unnerving! Just the first?”
“That’s what the Theks said . . .”
“Did you allow time enough for them to manage a reply? Scrub that question.” Varian slumped against the backrest as she added, “Of course, you did,” giving him full credit for his ability to deal with the slowest moving and speaking species in the Federated planets. “That’s unlike EV. They’re usually so desperately greedy for initial reports, not just for the all-safe-down.”
“My explanation is that spatial interference . . .”
“Of course.” Varian’s face cleared of anxiety. “That cosmic storm the next system over . . . the one the astronomers were so hairy anxious to get to . . .”
“That’s what the Theks say.”
“In how many words?” asked Varian, her wry humor reasserting itself.
The Theks were a silicate life form, much like rock and extremely durable, and though not immortal, certainly the closest a species had evolved toward that goal. The irreverent said that it was difficult to know a Thek elder from a rock until it spoke, but a human could perish of old age waiting for the word. Certainly the older a Thek grew and the more knowledge he acquired, the longer it took to elicit an answer from him. Fortunately for Kai, there were two young Theks on the team sent to the seventh planet of this system. One of them, Tor, Kai had known all his life. In fact, though Tor was considered young in relation to the lifespan of his species, he had been on the ARCT-10 since the exploratory vessel had been commissioned one hundred and fifty galactic-standard years before. Tor constantly confused Kai with his great-great-grandfather, who had been an engineering officer on the ARCT-10 and whom Kai was said to resemble. It gave Kai a feeling of curious satisfaction to be on the same mission as a planetary co-leader with Tor. His conversation with Tor, while lengthened by space distance and Thek speech habits, was comparatively brisk.
“Tor had one word, actually, Varian. Storm.” Kai added his laughter to Varian’s.
“Have they ever been wrong?”
“What, Theks in error? Not in recorded history.”
“Theirs? Or ours?”
“Theirs, of course. Ours is too short. Now, about that red blood?”
“Well, it’s not just the red blood, Kai. There are far too many other unlikely coincidences. Those herbivores we’ve been shadowing are not only vertebrates and bleed red blood, but now that I’ve got close enough to have a good look, the things are pentadactyl, too.” She opened and closed her fingers at him in a clawing motion.
“Theks are pentadactyl . . . after a fashion.” Kai was well pleased they had no visual contact during the interchanges, as the Theks had an unnerving habit of extruding pseudopods from their amorphous mass, which tended to distract the viewer, sometimes to the point of nausea.
“But not vertebrate or red-blooded. And not coexistent with another totally different life form, like Trizein’s marine squares.” Varian fumbled at the opening of her belt pouch and withdrew a flat object, well wrapped in plastic. “It’ll be interesting,” she spread the syllables out, “to see the analysis of this blood sample.” With a graceful push, she rose from the swivel chair and strode out of the pilot cabin, Kai following her.
Their boot heels echoed in the emptiness of the denuded passenger section. Its furnishinings now equipped the plastic domes grouped below the shuttle in the force-screened encampment. But Trizein’s work was better accomplished in the air-conditioned storage compartment which had been converted into his laboratory. A terminal to the ship’s computer had been rigged up in the lab so that Trizein rarely stirred from his domain.
“So you’ve finally got an occupant for your corral,” Kai said.
Varian nodded. “See, I was right to plan ahead. At least we’ve a place big enough to stash him/it/her.”
“Don’t you know which sex?”
“When you see our beast, you’ll understand why we haven’t taken a close enough look to know.” She shuddered suddenly. “I don’t know what got to it, but whole chunks have been torn from its flank . . . almost as if . . .” She swallowed hastily.
“As if what?”
“As if something had been feeding on it—alive.”
“What?” Kai felt his gorge rise.
Excerpted from The Mystery of Ireta by Anne McCaffrey. Copyright © 2003 by Anne McCaffrey. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.