The monster was gruff but polite, with an accent inclining to the French. As she contemplated the hulking sack of bipedal testosterone looming athwart the road, Ingrid could understand why he might prefer to intercept them outside of town and away from staring crowds. Even in a world populated by weird and eccentric Melds, the freewalker’s appearance was outlandish.
And make no mistake about it: he had intended to intercept them. Just the way he stared in their direction was proof enough that his presence on the otherwise empty dirt track was no accident.
She and Whispr were almost a full day out from Orangemund on the single road leading north--“road” being far too flattering a description for the ancient 4x4 trail. There was no indication that it had recently been utilized by machine or man. In this forbidding desert terrain a floater, any kind of floater, would be a more sensible way of getting around. So what little track still existed was not maintained. In any event, the linear remains would shortly peter out in the flat gravel plain and they would have to rely solely on the positioning components in their communicators and the secret route that had been given to them by Morgan Ouspel.
Orangemund lay behind them. In every other direction was the emptiness of the Namib; sand and gravel, sun and scrub, and the bluest sky she had ever seen. Except directly ahead, where stood a monster.
A description unbecoming to a physician, she chided herself. The freewalker wasn’t really a monster; only one of the more radical Melds she had ever encountered. She could hardly be blamed for her initial reaction. Certainly she had seen nothing so outlandish in Savannah, or even in her med-school studies. Extreme conditions called for extreme manips, she realized, and there were few places on the planet more extreme than the Namib desert.
How she had come to find herself afoot at the southern edge of the Namib in the company of two Melds--one jumpy and unpredictable, the other exotic and intimidating--was a tale of searching and discovery that in retrospect seemed far more dream than reality. Of one thing, however, she could be absolutely certain: it was a long way from her familiar family practice and her comfortable codo back home.
While the freewalker studied them she returned the favor. As near as she could tell he was somewhere in his forties. Either side of that she could not have hazarded a guess. Not considering how his body had been pushed, pulled, bloated, coated, maniped, and remelded. In some ways the melding that had been carried out was more extreme than that required to make a Martian, though less so than what was necessary to produce a viable Titanite. As the integrated autostabilizer adjusted her backpack’s position, a glance to the left revealed that Whispr was eyeing the hulk with his usual wariness.
“You a riffler?” His tone was sour, his stance edgy.
The sunscreen-maniped pupils of tiny eyes peered down at Ingrid’s companion out of a wide, almost flattened head. The bald pate was composed of multiple folds of melded skin, each one intended to dissipate a little more of the skull’s internal heat. Only at the forehead, where the edges of individual layers of skin overlaid one another like exfoliating granite, was the melding evident. The lowest folds combined to create a flexible, almost prehensile brow that further served to protect the vulnerable eyes from blowing dust and a pitiless sun.
“Name’s Quaffer. I’m no riffler. I’m a registered guide. Work at it, live by it, made for it. None better between Alexander Bay and Cape Cross. I’d like to guide you.” A flattened hand the size of a dinner plate gestured casually northward. “You going any distance this way, you going to need a guide.”
His voice was deep and booming, though whether the reverberation was due to his height, size, or the mantalike manip on his back Ingrid could not tell. Spread high and wide, the sweeping dorsal area had been radically maniped to permit long-term survival in the desert.
Supported by bone-ladled extensions to his ribs, the fleshy addition was nothing less than a mass of gengineered water-holding cells. The internal plumbing necessary to supply such a growth with water from his throat or stomach had to be more complicated and extensive than the maniped water sac itself. The basic design was simple and practical. As Quaffer’s body utilized the water stored in his back meld it would gradually shrink, like the fat stored in a camel’s hump. When completely empty the fleshy extension would lie flat and loose against his spine. Though the deeply tanned flesh would also double as a sun shield that was not why the freewalker wore no shirt. To make one would require the skills not of a tailor but of a sail maker.
Below the waist and the bulging storage meld, distant from the flattened skull and tiny eyes protected from the glare, the guide’s body was almost normal. Unable to position a pack on his greatly maniped back, Quaffer employed oversized pants’ pockets and a lightweight valise to carry his gear. As storage it appeared insufficient. But then, Ingrid reminded herself, he did not need to tote water. She wondered if he made sloshing sounds when he walked.
What she said was, “Thanks, but we don’t need a guide.”
Expression set, Whispr nodded slowly. “We’re fine on our own.”
From a greater height, downsized eyes regarded him sharply. “Nobody is fine on their own in the Namib.”
“We’re only going out a little ways.” Ingrid tried a friendly smile. “We’re here to look for birds, and other wildlife, and to experience the sights and the sounds of the desert. On our own.” Reaching back, she indicated her pack. “We have enough supplies to stay out for a week or more if we want.”
“Wildlife?” A thin laugh emerged from the wide mouth. It was nearly lipless, the horizontal fleshy pads having been maniped away. Nonexistent lips could not chap in the heat and wind. “There is some, but without a guide you will not see it. Except for maybe lizards and snakes. You get a cobra in your sleepsheet and you will wish you had hired someone who knows how to keep them away.” He shook his head regretfully. “I have guided many visitors. I know people, and I can tell that you are not the kind to spend a week in the desert looking for animals.”
Despite the fact that the big freewalker outweighed him in water content alone, Whispr took a challenging step forward. “You don’t know what ‘kind’ of people we are, or what we’re looking for.”
“Haw! I think maybe I do.” The guide nodded past the infinitely slimmer Meld, in the direction of the low-lying buildings of Orangemund. “I live here all year round. Quaffer knows everybody, and everybody knows Quaffer.”
Acutely aware of their recent clandestine meeting with the Nerens refugee Morgan Ouspel, Whispr was immediately on guard. “It must be nice to be popular.”
The big Meld’s hand shifted slightly to his left. “Anyone in their right mind who comes to this faraway place looking for wildlife looks for it on or beside the river. The only people who search for animals in the desert are scientists. Biologists, zoologists. Herpetologists and entomologists.” His gaze narrowed even more. “Are you two scientists?”
“Maybe.” Ingrid was startled at the ease with which she responded. Something else she had acquired since partnering up with the street-wise Whispr, she realized. Confidence in her ability to formulate a viable lie. “What business of yours are our professions?”
Quaffer looked more amused than offended. “A guide should know all he can about those for whom he is responsible. I should know if you are like helpless children in the desert, or if you are experienced.”
“You don’t need to know anything.” As he started around the freewalker Whispr pulled his communicator. “We’re going. If you try to stop us I’ll notify the police.” He allowed himself a knowing smirk. “Since you say everybody knows you, I’m willing to bet that the police do too.”
“I don’t want to hinder your progress,” the big Meld rumbled. “I want to assist it. There is no way you are going to get deep into the Sperrgebeit without help.”
Whispr gave an exaggerated roll of his eyes. “What makes you think we want to get ‘deep into the Sperrgebeit’?”
The freewalker’s tone changed perceptibly. “Like I said, I know everyone, everyone knows me. Maybe I hear some things--about you.”
Ingrid shot her companion a worried look. Though far from intimidated, Whispr was suddenly cautious.
“You don’t know anything. You haven’t heard anything. You’re fishing.”
“Perhaps a little,” Quaffer confessed. “No harm in that.” As he shifted his feet the melded water sac that was part of his back answered Ingrid’s earlier unvoiced question by emitting a soft gurgling sound. “I suppose you could be scientists. Let’s say that you are. In that case you would not have to pay me for my help. I would freely guide you for a share in whatever, um, ‘scientific’ discoveries you might make.”
As she frowned at him Ingrid wished they were having this conversation under cover. Except for the town behind them and mountains off to the east, there was nothing for kilometers in any direction that would qualify as shade.
“I don’t understand. How could we share a scientific discovery with you?”
The lipless mouth broke into a knowing grin. “I know that there are all kinds of science and all kinds of scientists. Some I have already mentioned. There are also ornithologists, botanists, paleontologists . . .” He startled Ingrid by leaning forward unexpectedly and winking at her. “Geologists.”
A different kind of smile creased Whispr’s face. “Ohhh, so that’s it.”
Ingrid blinked at him. “ ‘What’ is it?”
Her companion nodded at the desert Meld. “I get it now. Our waterlogged friend here thinks we’re after diamonds.”
“Diam . . . ?” Shaking her head, she turned back to the freewalker. “We’re going camping so we can look for wildlife.” For a second time she gestured at her backpack. “If my friend and I dumped everything out of our packs you’d see that we don’t have a single geological tool with us.”
“Does not mean anything.” When Quaffer turned slightly to one side Ingrid got a better look at the remarkable sweep of water-choked flesh that clung to his back like a giant beige coelenterate. “This country is full of diamonds. When the first Germans came here they were filling empty coffee cans with gems by picking them off the ground or sieving them loose out of the sand. You don’t always need explosives and heavy machinery. Not if you know where to look.” He turned back to her.
“I think maybe you two have a line on a place like that that the Germans--and the British, and the Boers--overlooked. A lot of this land has yet to feel the tread of a human foot. Except for the San, maybe, and they never cared nothing for diamonds. You might have a line on an old alluvial deposit, or maybe an unmined inland sea terrace that has been hidden by shifting dunes.” Small eyes burned into her own. “All I know is that nobody leaves Orangemund heading north on foot because they are looking for wildlife.”
Whispr started to go around him. “Then this will be a first for you. Come on, Ing . . . my friend.”
She moved to follow, having to skirt the bulk of the freewalker to do so. Quaffer tracked her progress but made no move to block her path. As she and Whispr lengthened their strides she could feel his eyes on her back. Calling after them, his warning words seemed to hang in the crystalline desert air.
“You are going into one of the worst places on the Earth! I don’t care what kind of communicator or guidance instruments you have with you--the Namib eats people. Without a guide it will eat you!”
Turning so that he was walking backward on the perfectly flat ground, Whispr pulled his communicator and waved it at the freewalker. “If we call for rescue you can be the first to say I told you so.”
“I will say that over your bodies!” Quaffer’s voice was beginning to fade with distance. “Because if you go more than a day’s walk into the Sperrgebeit without a guide, the company security will find you and kill you! Even if you really are scientists!”
As Ingrid shouldered her pack a little higher its integrated air cushions inflated proportionately to ease the burden. “Do you think that’s true, Whispr? Have we only got a day before SICK, Inc. security finds us?”
Her companion’s studied reply was thick with his characteristic fatalism. “If you’ll recall, doc, I thought this was a suicide trek from the get-go. On the other hand, I also never thought we’d make it this far. I feel like a rock rolling down a slope that just keeps getting steeper and steeper. Every step makes me have to go a little faster and shrinks any chance of ever going back the way I came.” He shrugged. “Can’t go back, so gotta go forward.”
“At least,” she said as she stepped over a purposeful migration of ants, “if anything does happen, you got to see your animals.”
“Yeah.” As he recalled their time in the wildlife-rich Sanbona Preserve he tucked his thumbs under the straps of his backpack. He was so thin that only the built‑in auto-stabilization feature kept it from sliding off his narrow spine. “Yeah, that was something.” He glanced over at her. “Thanks for that, doc. Whatever happens from here on out, thanks for that. It sure was different from Savannah.”
“You’re telling me.” She returned her gaze forward. “I wonder what some of my patients would say if they could see me now.”
“Probably worry that you’re taking a big chance on becoming a patient yourself.”
He looked back toward town. There was no sign of movement in their wake. Intensely interested in their goal though he might be, the freewalker was not following them. Already they were utterly alone in the vastness of the southern Namib.
Not utterly alone, he corrected himself. Even though they were now technically intruders in the Forbidden Zone, they were no more than a communicator call away from help. The authorities in Orangemund would not refuse an emergency call from a pair of visiting Namericans. Should a life-threatening situation arise, he and Ingrid could easily request assistance. Doing so would probably mean the end of their quest to learn the secrets of the mysterious metal thread she carried and they might well be prosecuted for trespass, but he doubted they risked incarceration. Especially since his companion was a doctor. He doubted the law worked any differently here than back home, where justice was a mixed salad best dressed with money.
Excerpted from The Sum of Her Parts by Alan Dean Foster. Copyright © 2012 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.