No one saw the attack coming. Probably someone, or several someones, ought to have been blamed. Certainly there was a convulsion of recriminations afterward. But since it is an unarguable fact that it is hard to apportion blame--or even to assign it--for something that is without precedent, nascent calls for castigation of those responsible withered for lack of suitable subjects. Those who felt, rightly or wrongly, that they bore a share of the responsibility for what happened punished themselves far more severely than any traditional queen's court or council of peers would have.
For more than a hundred years, ever since there had been contact between AAnn and thranx, animosity had festered between the two species. Given such a fertile ground and sufficiency of time, mutual enmity had evolved to take many forms. Manifesting themselves on a regular basis that varied greatly in degree, these were usually propagated by the AAnn. While a constant source of vexation to the ever-reasonable thranx, these provocations rarely exceeded the bounds of irritation. The AAnn would probe and threaten, advance and connive, until the thranx had had enough and were compelled to react. When forcefully confronted, the AAnn would invariably pull back, give ground, retreat. The spiral arm that was shared by both heat-loving, oxygen-breathing species was big enough and rich enough in stars so that direct conflict, unless actively sought, could be avoided.
Habitable worlds, however, were scarcer. Where one of these was involved positions hardened, accusations flew more sharply, meticulously worded phrases tended to bite rather than soothe. Even so, the swift exchange of space-minus communications was always sufficient to dampen a potentially explosive confrontation. Until Willow-Wane. Until Paszex.
Worvendapur bent his head and reached up with a truhand to clean his left eye. Out on the edge of the forest the wind tended to kick up dust. Lowering the transparent, protective shield over his face, he reflexively extended his antennae through the slots provided for that purpose and moved on, striding forward on all six legs. Occasionally he would arch his back and advance only on his four trulegs, not because he needed the additional manipulative capacity his versatile foothands could provide, but because it raised his body to its maximum standing height of slightly over a meter and a half and enabled him to see over the meter-high, lavender-tinted grass that comprised much of the surrounding vegetation.
Something quick and chittering scuttled through the sedge close to his right. Using the truhand and foothand on that side of his thorax, he drew the rifle that was slung across his back and aimed it at the source of the noise, tensing in readiness. The muzzle of the weapon came up sharply as half a dozen !ccoerk burst from the meadow. Letting out a whistle of fourth-degree relief, he let a digit slip from the trigger and reholstered the gun.
Their plump brown bodies shot through with purple streaks, the flock of feathered !ccoerk fluttered toward the satin-surfaced lake, cooing like plastic batons that had been charged with static electricity. Beneath a feathered, concave belly one trailed an egg sac nearly as big as herself. Idly, Worvendapur found himself wondering if the eggs were edible. While Willow-Wane had been settled for more than two hundred years, development had been slow and gradual, in the conservative, measured manner of the thranx. Colonization had also been largely confined to the continents of the northern hemisphere. The south was still a vast, mostly unknown wilderness, a raw if accommodating frontier where new discoveries were constantly being made and one never knew what small marvel might be encountered beneath the next hill.
Hence his rifle. While Willow-Wane was no Trix, a world that swarmed with dynamic, carnivorous life-forms, it was still home to an intimidating assortment of energetic native predators. A settler had to watch his steps, especially in the wild, uncivilized south.
Tall, flexible blue sylux fringed the shore of the lake, an impressive body of fresh water that dominated the landscape for a considerable distance to the north. Its tepid, prolific expanse separated the rain forest, beneath which the settlement had been established, from inhospitable desert that dropped southward from the equator. Founded forty years ago, the burgeoning, thriving colony hive of Paszex was already sponsoring outlying satellite communities. Worvendapur's family, the Ven, was prominent in one of these, the agri town of Pasjenji.
While rain forest drip was adequate to supply the settlement's present water needs, plans for future growth and expansion demanded a larger and more reliable supply. Rather than going to the trouble and expense of building a reservoir, the obvious suggestion had been made that the settlement tap the ample natural resource of the lake. As the possessor of a subspecialty in hydrology, Wor had been sent out to scout suitable treatment and pipeline sites. Ideally, he would find one as close to the lake as possible that was also geologically stable and capable of supporting the necessary engineering infrastructure, from pumping station to filtration plant to feeder lines.
He had been out in the field for more than a week now, taking and analyzing soundings, confirming aerial surveys, evaluating potential locations for the treatment plant and transmission routes for the water it would eventually supply. Like any thranx, he missed the conviviality of the hive, the press and sound and smell of his kind. Regrettably, another week of solitary stretched out before him. The local fauna helped to divert his thoughts from his isolation. He relished these always educational, sometimes engaging diversions, so long as one of them did not rise up and bite off his leg.
Excerpted from Phylogenesis by Alan Dean Foster. Copyright © 2000 by Alan Dean Foster. 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.