Maire Shanahan waved merrily to Jonas Little as she skipped down the few steps from the general store. The day was bright and sunny with a playful breeze teasing the treetops, inviting them to dance.
Maire was in a wonderful mood. The supply ship had arrived yesterday, bringing a myriad goodies and necessaries. Among the goodies was Seren Baker's latest horror novel, Abel's Cove and Maire could hardly wait to get it home. Jonas called out a greeting and waved back as he trotted past on his big work horse. Maire guessed he was on his way to help mow the field at the Morris homestead.
She walked along the dusty road, her steps continuing light and carefree. She lived in one of the big houses in what passed for downtown in the colony. Most of the unattached men and women lived in one of several large homes, sharing housekeeping duties with their housemates. A few of the more daring had staked out their own homesteads and were trying to make a go of it alone. Of course, no one was really alone. The whole colony worked together to plow, plant and harvest each homesteader's land. In turn, all the crops were shared around. No one went without.
Maire was the schoolmarm, a title which afforded her endless amusement. Her fifteen students ranged from five year old Jesse to sixteen year old Tacy. She ran an old-fashioned one-room school where the children of all grades were often working on different aspects of the same basic theme. She had the older ones help the younger with the so-called Three R's, while she created interesting challenges for the higher grades. After grade eleven students could pursue higher studies using terminals maintained by the Recruits, or they could opt to return to one of the many worlds of the Galactic Confederation.
Maire enjoyed teaching. She had only had her certificate from one of the GF universities for three years and the first two had been spent as a teaching apprentice on a variety of worlds. For the past ten months, she had been on Randarma, teaching on her own for the first time. She had been nervous at the beginning, but had quickly come to appreciate the freedom she had to create curricula for all the grades, to set goals and standards. The Colony Council had been quick to express confidence in her training and abilities. It had been very liberating and exciting to have the decision-makers say to her, "We want them to be able to read, write, do math, to know about the homeworlds, and to be able to work on their own. Inspire them. Motivate them. Do what you can to encourage them to love learning. How you do it is up to you."
Right now there were only a few more weeks of school before they took a month or two of holidays. They were in the middle of a study of the local flora and fauna and had been going on field trips beyond the colony's boundaries.
Gerri Reznik followed Rapsim down corridors and into the offices of Recruit Headquarters' First.
"Are you sure I should be tagging along?" she had hissed at him as they hurried along.
"Of course you should!" His reply had had a no-nonsense tone to it. "You are a Leader Trainee; you should learn what goes on."
She swallowed her anxiety. She was not completely certain how far Rapsim's authority extended, but she was positive he could not override the HQ First. To her amazement, her presence was barely acknowledged by the underling in the outer office. No one attempted to detain her when she followed Rapsim into the inner sanctum.
The First looked up as they entered. A cluster of department heads did the same.
"Ah, Counselor Rapsim," said the First in a welcoming voice. She merely glanced at the Trainee with him. "You got the message, so you know we've lost touch with Randarma and also with the the Hrrgrharr." She growled the mouthful of consonants in the back of her throat. A Poltari section head nodded his approval. Not many humanoid species could pronounce Poltari words.
"How closely did the two events occur?" asked Rapsim.
"The Hrrgrharr reported in last night. There was nothing untoward in their message. This morning, they did not respond to attempts to communicate after they failed to sign in. As for the colony, they were due to make their weekly contact yesterday. We have made numerous attempts to reach them over the past twenty hours. The attempts have not been successful."
Rapsim frowned thoughtfully and The First continued, "Although we are concerned, we are reasonably confident that the colony's problem is their satellite or similar mechanical failure. Therefore, we agree that the Trainee mission will be able to restore communications." She paused a moment, glancing at the Leader of the Trainee mission. "The closest ship to the Hrrgrharr is the Tiyalstar. They have already been alerted and are on their way to the last known co-ordinates, but it will be several days before they reach that area. Your ship should reach Randarma a day before that. If there is any pertinent information to be had from the colony, please inform me at once."
She smiled suddenly. "I doubt there is reason to worry, Counselor, but the sudden change of plans might upset some of the trainees. Watch for...Oh, Dred, Rapsim, you know your job! Dismissed."
As they turned to leave, she spoke one more time, "Oh, and Counselor, perhaps you should introduce Leader Trainee Reznik to Leader Strachan."
Rapsim grinned, nodded and ushered the other two out to the hallway. There he stopped and looked up at his companions. "Oliver Strachan, Gerri Reznik. Rez, Leader Strachan. He will be your mentor this trip."
Leader Strachan smiled pleasantly and offered his hand to Reznik. "Nice to meet you, Trainee." She shook it, smiling nervously. "I have heard a lot about you, Reznik," Strachan continued. "I'll be interested to see how much is true."
Reznik stammered an acknowledgement and glared at Rapsim. The Counselor grinned in reply.
"We will be leaving earlier than planned," said the Leader. "I expect you both on board by 21:00 hours. You have an hour and a bit."
"I better run and grab Andra, then," said Reznik. "Before she unpacks."
"Dismissed, Trainee," said Strachan. Gerri turned and trotted away. Rapsim and Strachan watched her go.
"I hope she's everything you claim, Counselor," said the Leader.
Rapsim smiled, almost to himself. "Oh, she's all that and more, Oliver. I promise you."
"Can I ask you something, Rap?" said Strachan as they strolled along together. Rapsim nodded. "What do you think of our new mission?"
Rapsim's brow furrowed. "There is more to this than we have been told. The First and the others don't think it's relevant or important, but it may very well be. If I were you, I would be doing my utmost to find out everything about Randarma and the Hrrgrharr."
"Thanks, Rap," said Strachan, clapping the smaller man on the shoulder. "See you on board."
They went their separate ways.
The excursion beyond the colony's boundaries was as fascinating for Maire as it was for her students. As a rule, none of them went outside the settled area and the local flora and fauna were so unlike the transplanted ones from home that they could hardly decide where to look first.
The ground cover was nothing like grass, being more like sheets of green tissue paper, rectangular and of varying sizes. The average size was roughly twelve by twenty inches, anchored to the ground along the long edge and overlapping each other in all directions. It was slippery to walk on at first but the class soon learned the technique of sliding their feet as if they were ice skating. They spent over an hour just playing and chasing each other and sliding down small hillocks.
After they had exhausted that novelty, they found a path that led up one of the larger hills where they could examine a copse of trees that grew on the crest. The tree things were unlike anything they had ever seen and the ground beneath them was devoid of ground cover.
The trunks were ribbons of colour, looking almost like a child's picture made from strands of wool. Some of the larger ones had more than thirty different coloured stripes.
Maire's camera was put to good use, each picture examined for clarity and the bad ones deleted immediately. When they got back to school, she could enlarge them on the computer and they could study the composition up close. These trips had rapidly become a favourite activity of her class.
The native fauna largely consisted of a variety of herbivores in varying sizes, whose numbers had been steadily increasing for the five years the colony had been in existence. To everyone's surprise, there was no sign of any predatory species. They wondered what mechanism existed to keep the herbivore numbers under control. When they had first arrived, the animals had been plentiful in terms of species, but there were only a smattering of each. However, each spring season had seen a sizable increase in numbers. Now they were beginning to be a threat to the plant life. They were even beginning to encroach on the colony's crops. The creatures did not realize they could not digest the transplanted vegetables and grains, so they nibbled and trampled the fields in their efforts to assuage their hunger, leaving droppings behind of undigested vegetation. They were really quite a nuisance.
The colonists had resorted to erecting force fields around their homesteads to keep the critters out. They were reluctant to hunt them. Their flesh was indigestible, and the skins did not respond to any known tanning technique. Besides, there might be a chance of upsetting the natural balance even more than the presence of the colony itself was doing. Perhaps the animals ate the vegetation down to the point where most of them ended up starving, thereby reducing the population and allowing the plant life to recover. It made as much sense as any other theory.
Maire and her class took hours of video of the different species which they sent back to the Confederation Central offices for analysis. This day, while exploring a little farther afield than usual, they found a landslide which had uncovered an oddity.
Half a hillside had collapsed, revealing a series of tunnels, like a giant anthill. Inside, there were several chambers with what appeared to be hundreds of eggs. Several had spilled out onto the ground and the children asked if they could bring them back to the compound to try to hatch them.
Maire hesitated a few moments, but decided it would be okay. They would tell the colony council what they had found and even send a few eggs with the next supply ship or Recruit Patrol that came by to take back for study. The eggs did not belong to any of the known herbivore species and they were curious to know what would hatch forth.
Gerri Reznik almost burst into her quarters. Andra Hartwick was stretched out on her bunk reading a book. She looked up as Gerri rushed in.
"What's up?" she asked.
"We're moving out! Get a move on!" Gerri went to her half-unpacked bag and threw everything onto her bed and quickly repacked the essentials.
"What are you talking about?" said Andra, sitting up.
"Mission leaves in an hour or so. We have to be on board PDQ!" Gerri looked through the rest of her belongings for anything important she might have missed, then jammed it all into the drawers built into the walls.
"What?" Andra began going through her own possessions. "You sure? What's the deal?"
"There's some mystery happening at some colony and we're going to go check it out and fix their commsat or whatever. Better than just observing, eh?" Gerri grinned at her friend. "Rap got a message and took me with him to The First's office and everything. Very cool, by the way. I got to meet our Mission Leader, too. Nice guy, I think. Anyway, if you're ready, let's roll, chickie!"
Andra had packed while Gerri was talking and was ready to go. "You're sure we're not going to be too early?"
"No such thing. I'd rather be there and settled when we take off into the depths of space than just walking in the door. Come on!!"
Her excitement was contagious and Andra found herself caught up in it. They walked down the twisting corridors and made their way to the great ports where connections led to the many ships waiting at the base. They found the one that would take them to the King Hussein. With a quickly exchanged grin, they hurried on board, little dreaming of the horror that awaited them at the end of their journey.
Several days earlier, on the Hrrgrharr, the Science Officer had looked at the eggs they had picked up from the colonists on Randarma. He had debated whether to cut one of the leathery objects open to discover exactly what was inside. His scientific side wanted to know but his personal nature insisted that killing a thing to find out what it was was pointless and cruel.
Besides, there was no easy way on board to find out what was inside. The leathery shell had been largely impervious to their mediscanners. All they could make out was something vaguely rounded, curled up in the small space. It seemed to be close to full growth but there was no way to be certain. The species was completely unknown to the Confederation. He was curious.
He set the eggs aside in a plastic container on a countertop in his laboratory. The Poltari ship was at a constant temperature of minus forty degrees Celsius, which was the mean temperature of their home world. He had thought the severe cold might be harmful to the eggs, but so far the creatures inside were still alive. The current assumption was that the cold would keep the creatures from hatching. Therefore, they were not placed in a stasis field. This would prove a costly and horrible mistake.
Barry Crandall was a farmer who enjoyed the challenge of helping tame a new world. He had been a colonist several times before, always on his own in the new world. This time, he had settled into a homestead with two other people in a comfortable arrangement that suited them all.
His partners were Richard Pringle, one of the colony's medical experts and scientists, and Dani Dunn, a mechanic. She was part of the team responsible for keeping the colony's few machines in working order and devising new devices suited to the new world.
Richard's specialty was the healing properties found in herbs and other plants. He was investigating the local flora to see if the raw material could be distilled and used somehow. The native plants contained substances that the colonists could not digest any more than the indigenous animals could digest the colony's crops.
He often went out with the school children on their outings, looking for new plants to examine. He had found the eggs fascinating, and although they were not directly part of his studies, he took a few home.
"You're not hatching those in MY kitchen," said Dani firmly. "We have a perfectly good barn for animals. Put them there!"
Richard offered no resistance, but took the eggs out to the barn and made them a nest in a few bales of straw in an empty stall. There they sat, their internal clocks silently counting down to the moment when their occupants would tear free, feed, mate, lay their eggs and die. In the farm, as in the colony, life went on.
Gerri Reznik lay on her bunk, enjoying the feeling of not being on her feet. The journey so far had been fairly uneventful, but she had been expected to shadow the Leader to a degree for which she had not been prepared. She had discovered that Leaders had more responsibility and more duties than she had imagined, even with the training already under her belt. Reading that the duties were such and such and so on and so forth was far different than having to do such and such and so on and so forth. Right now, she was exhausted.
Randarma was still several hours away and they had still not been able to make contact with the colony. Perhaps it was more than just a commsat out of commission. She wondered if their computer systems had crashed somehow. At this distance, they should have been able to reach them. An uneasiness settled itself deep in her chest. The door beedled at her.
"Come," she said. The door slid open and Counselor ba Sharaval walked in.
"Are you quite all right?" he asked with a concerned voice.
"Yes," she said in a tone that suggested that 'not really' might have been a better answer. Rapsim lifted an eyebrow at her and smiled.
"Please remember who you're talking to, Rez," he said drily. She grinned and sat up.
"All right, Rap. No, not really," she said. He watched her frown and gather her thoughts. He waited. "There is something wrong somewhere--something is nagging at my mind and I can't pinpoint what it is. I don't know if it's something I read in a report, or something someone said in passing, or what exactly. But it's pissing me off mondo greatly."
"Let it simmer, then," he said. "Think of something else for a while. Want to play a game or something?"
"What did you have in mind?" she asked.
"Something simple. Scrabble?"
She laughed out loud. "Sure, Rap, but easy on the Kerialdan words and NO Poltari ones!"
He grinned. "Can we use Smanderian?"
"No! English, Kerialdan and Confederation Standard. Nothing else."
"Done!" He bounded across the room to the little storage cupboard and retrieved their board and pieces. They sat on her bed and put the game between them and settled down to play. Somewhere on a back burner of Gerri Reznik's mind, a pot of something simmered and stewed.
Internal clocks counted down all over the planet Randarma and in the Poltari ship. Out in the wilds of the colony world, in the parts untouched by human hands, razor sharp claws tore through the leathery covering, freeing the ravenously hungry creatures within. To be sure, not all the eggs hatched at once. They had been laid in relays and would hatch so, but hatch they did by the hundreds.
The newly freed 'infants', although there was nothing juvenile about their appearance, abilities or appetite, clawed their way to the surface of the nests which had held the eggs securely for the past fifteen years, slowly, slowly incubating their contents while life on the planet above replenished to the point of becoming dangerously overpopulated. As they burst into the open, blind heads turned this way and that, heat sensors, not eyes, seeking prey. At this part of the cycle, prey was plentiful and unprepared. Fifteen years is a long time to go without predation.
They boiled out of the ground, spreading in huge circles as they moved away from the nest seeking to satisfy their first urgent need. Food. Placidly grazing herbivores, vying for the remaining sheets of ground cover, or for almost leafless bushes, lifted their heads curiously at the rapid approach of the small raveners. The first few were reduced to bite-size morsels in less time than it takes to tell. The unfamiliar scent of blood rising heavily around them panicked the rest. They began to run and were pursued relentlessly. Only the utterly swift escaped. All over Randarma. the pattern went on as the raveners fed their hunger.
Then, bellies full and satisfied, they turned to each other, male seeking female by whatever sensory apparatus told them who was what and who was ready. Mating was quick and frenzied, ending with the still hungry female devouring her erstwhile mate before digging down into the earth to rest a time. Her final act would be to lay her eggs which would sit and wait, growing slowly over the next fifteen year stretch. Wave after wave swept the planet, reducing the plant eating species to pockets here and there, requiring years to recover their numbers. So it had been for millenia; a planet's unchanging cycle, until the strangers, the indigestible strangers, got in the way.
Barry Crandall gave the eggs one last quick whip with the whisk and studied the results. He looked impatiently at the back door, wondering what was taking Richard so long. He had gone out to the barn to gather a few more eggs to add to the omelet and had not returned yet. He supposed he would have to go out himself and look. Doubtless the "other" eggs had caught his attention. He was probably engrossed in examining them for the eight zillionth time. Barry was just about to go shout out the back door when Dani walked in from the sleeping quarters.
"What's up?" she asked, reaching for the coffee pot to pour her first cup of the day.
"Oh, that Richard," came the reply. "I sent him out for eggs ages ago. I can't make this without more eggs." Dani smiled at the familiar complaint.
"I'll go drag him back in," she said. She took a quick sip of her coffee, set the cup on the counter and went out to the barn. As she got closer, she could hear their few chickens squawking as if a fox had gotten in, which was preposterous. They hadn't brought any with the colony. So what was the uproar about? It diminished somewhat in volume but not hysteria, as if some of the birds had decided enough was enough and had shut up. The remaining were certainly trying to make up for their companions' silence. Suddenly, their goats began bleating, screaming almost. The sound made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end and sudden gooseflesh covered her arms. What is going on in there? What is Richard doing? She put her hand to the door and pulled it open. The goats fell silent. A lone hen continued her hysterical noise from high in the barn rafters. Dani wondered how the bird had gotten there. Chickens were not the best flyers ever. Behind the sound of the frenzied cackling was an unfamiliar noise that she could not identify. She stood in the doorway, her eyes adjusting to the shadows, trying to make sense of the scene before her.
Gobbets of flesh covered the floor, almost floating in the great lake of blood that filled one stall and ran in bright rivulets into the drainage grooves down the centre aisle. Bits of white bone were attached to some of the lumps of meat. She could not imagine what had happened or what the source was, until she realized that there were also little pieces of denim and leather and scraps of the shirt Richard was particularly fond of. Her hands flew to her mouth. Oh my GOD!! her mind shrieked! A tiny calm part of her mind realized the abbattoir was the stall where Richard's prize eggs had been kept. Her eyes darted here and there, seeking whatever might have hatched. Darting movement down at the stalls where the goats were kept caught her attention. Something small and round was crouched on impossible legs. Its head turned this way and that. It had no eyes that she could see, but she knew when it sensed her presence. With terrifying speed it came down the aisle, making a chittering hungry noise. Others appeared. Richard had been lucky. All his eggs had hatched.
Dani turned and bolted, screaming in terror, running for the house. Barry appeared at the back door. Dani screaming? Unheard of! He ran down the three steps, alarmed at the quality of the shrieks coming from her throat. He saw her halfway across the yard, her long legs a blur beneath her, arms pumping, mouth open wide. Behind her raced a handful of black round things. One leaped, its front legs extended like arms, its claws sinking into the cloth of her jeans, the flesh and bone beneath. Dani's screaming took on a new tone and she fell, her foot lying beside her.
"Dani!" Barry screamed, sprinting to her aid as the creatures swarmed over her, claws like razors reducing her to bite size pieces. Her screams stopped abruptly. Barry kept running, hoping against hope that he could save her. The creatures fed and excreted unchanged the indigestible food. Their hunger still unassuaged, they turned to the next warm body before them. Barry fell back as they climbed his legs, the pain unlike anything he had ever felt. He lay helpless on the ground and watched as they began to feed on his flesh. Eventually, he too, joined Dani and Richard in eternity. The hungry raveners moved on, looking for a meal that would satisfy their needs.