Things grew large on epsilon Eridani III, but it was the smallest of creatures that brought us down. We were barely two days into the unexplored jungle that lay to the north of S’uval, the riverside port
village that marked the farthest reach of human colonization on the planet.
I lay prostrate and sweating on the bedroll inside my tent,
hallucinating in the throes of my fever. I was dimly aware of T’aylang,
our native guide, bending over me; his massive, cylindrical head filled
my blurry vision. In my delirium, the rainbow of colors refracting off
his eye-hoop mutated into a medieval painting, one that depicted a
terrifying, insane vision of damned souls in hell.
“I’m dying,” I said weakly.
“Death without redemption is a terrible thing to contemplate, Mr.
Bishop,” T’aylang replied.
“The databulb. Make sure it gets to Kline.” I struggled to withdraw
the bulb from underneath my sweat-drenched shirt, where it hung on a
lanyard around my neck. Somehow it seemed imperative that I not take it
into hell with me. Perhaps my own redemption depended on it.
T’aylang reached down and stilled my fumbling hand. “Best to take
it to him yourself. You will survive, as will your colleagues. Eridani
insinuates herself into your flesh as we speak. She is harsh, but not
always deadly. It is only the first step of your true journey.”
There had been no word from Dr. Manfred Kline for nearly a year,
and his Church sponsors had grown anxious.
I figured they’d known at the outset how risky it would be to send
a missionary into the unexplored regions of Eridani III. Their
apprehensions were well-justified. It was the most dangerous planet
mankind had ever attempted to colonize.
The six directors of the Church of the Holy Psychological
Redemption sat across from me at an expansive mahogany conference table
in an inner sanctum of their main temple on Earth. Even the youngest of
them had to be at least twice my age, and my casual field dress clashed
dissonantly with their formal business attire. The Chairman, who I
judged by the depth and profusion of his wrinkles to be the eldest,
cleared his throat.
“Mr. Bishop, it’s not often that we resort to asking for outside
help. As you can imagine, we are somewhat . . . out of our league, here,
so to say.”
As I’d learned in the project brief, Kline himself had proposed the
dangerous posting, and had convinced the directors to send him there
over their objections. It was the Church’s first foray into off-world
proselytizing. I let a derisive snort escape me as I reflected on that
fact now: Ultimately, you just couldn’t resist sending your own pompous
brand of human enlightenment into the dark, heathen universe around you,
I took a moment to compose myself before I replied to the elder.
“Out of your league, to be sure. You’re also a bit desperate, if I
understand your situation correctly. But if it’s any consolation, I
think you’re making the right move by bringing somebody like me into the
Somebody like me: an experienced mantracker who wasn’t afraid to
get his hands dirty. I looked down at the delicate bone china cup that
rested on the table to my right; the eye of its tiny handle was way too
small to accept the insertion of any but a delicate woman’s finger. I
wrapped my large, calloused hand around its body instead and hoisted it
inelegantly to my lips. Weak, lukewarm tea. Needless to say, it wasn’t
my preferred afternoon beverage. A sigh left my lips as I clanked the
cup back down in its saucer.
“Gentlemen, I sympathize with your plight,” I said, reflexively
running my palm over the top of my close-shaved head. “But I’m a
pragmatic man, and–beside my other talents–a minor student of history.
As I read them, the chronicles of mankind are littered with tales of
missionaries being slaughtered by capricious natives or dangerous
predators, succumbing to horrible diseases, poisonous vermin, what have
you. So far as I’m concerned, those folks all had a bit of the
death-wish in them. I’m curious: What makes you think that Kline, if
he’s still alive, even wants to be found? Why not just chalk him up as a
martyr to your cause and be done with it? You know how hugely expensive
my services will be. Is it really worth it to you?”
I saw the subordinate directors drop their heads, but the Chairman
leaned forward and focused his rheumy, gray eyes on me.
“We can’t share Dr. Kline’s Church communications with you, owing
to their confidentiality. But I can tell you this: We know from his last
messages that he was excited at the progress he was making. His tone was
not that of a man with a death-wish, Mr. Bishop. Kline discovered
something important about the psychology of the indigenous natives he
was working with. We need to find him and bring him home safely. Or–God
forbid–if he’s no longer alive, at least obtain proof of his demise,
and retrieve whatever records he left behind. It’s of extreme importance
to the Church that we do this.”
“Well, it’s your money. If you insist on spreading some of it my
way, perhaps I shouldn’t protest so strenuously.” Judging from the
opulence of the room and its furnishings, it was obvious that money was
not in short supply in this Church. Of course, I knew that its
parishioners paid dearly for their spiritual services. I removed a
penknife from my pocket and began to clean my fingernails with it.
“Dr. Manfred Klein is a great man, Mr. Bishop,” the Chairman said.
“A fine psychiatrist, and a true witness to our faith. We simply can’t
forsake him now in the hour of his greatest need–nor can we afford to
lose the fruits of his recent labors.”
Using the stubborn will that only comes to those who are near to
the end of all things corporeal, the ancient man slowly pushed himself
up from his chair with the aid of a cane. A curled topographic map of
Eridani’s main continent sprawled on the table between us. He bent over
it and jabbed a crooked, arthritic finger on the center of an unexplored
area. “He’s in there somewhere, and we mean to bring him out. Will you,
or will you not help us do that?”
There was little doubt as to my final decision. Beyond the
pre-negotiated fee to be paid by the Church, my agent had already
secured a tasty cash advance from one of the major network content
providers, and he had optioned an audio/video specialist and a producer
to document my journey. I would retain half of the media take after
production expenses, with an even better deal on future off-world
syndication rights. Sure, it would be a dangerous mission. But big
rewards always flow to big risk-takers. And I’d already had plenty of
experience traversing the type of terrain we’d be encountering–albeit,
not on Eridani itself.
“I just had to be sure how committed you are to this venture, and
how far you’ll go to pursue it,” I said. I pocketed the penknife and
leaned forward. “I’ll deliver your precious Dr. Kline and his records to
you, gentlemen. Whether or not I present him kicking and screaming in
the living flesh, or stinking inside a body bag–that’s the only thing
undetermined at this point.”
The Director reached into one of his vest pockets and withdrew a
tiny encrypted databulb. “If you find him alive, make sure you deliver
this to him. He’ll be more than willing to return here after he reads
the message on it.” He handed it across the table to me while making a
unique hand gesture, a physical sigil that represented their Church’s
identity. “God go with you.”
I rose and strode to the exit of the conference room, turned, and
looked up at the magnificent glass chandelier that hung over the group
of doddering old men. “I’ll present your grand Church of the Holy
Psychological Redemption with either a living saint or a dead martyr.
Either way, I’m sure you’ll come out ahead.”
As I left the room, I couldn’t help feeling that something stank
about this deal–and it wasn’t the specter of Kline’s rotting corpse. It
was worse than that. It was the kind of smell that clings to insincere
people who are hiding something.
I teamed up with my assigned A/V man, Pete Horvack, along with
Laura Denning, my field producer, a couple of days later. The three of
us boarded the shuttle to the Lagrange-2 wormhole support complex, where
we’d catch the next scheduled skip-ship run to Eridani.
The next morning after our arrival, we stripped and submitted
ourselves to the bio-static immersion process that would protect us
during the skip, and hoped that our hangovers from the night before
wouldn’t follow us to the other side of the Eridani wormhole. Foolish
us. At least I should have known better, since I’d already made a few
off-world skips on other assignments.
“Kill me, Bishop,” Pete Horvack said. He pulled his slightly
overweight body out of the stasis chamber next to mine, his long,
dirty-blonde hair splashing over his shoulders. “Make it quick, so I
don’t have to suffer any more.”
The cameraman sat down on the lip of the tank, holding his head. He
stared mournfully at his toes, which had begun to revert from the
purplish tone that characterized the bio-stasis condition to their
normal pink color.
“You’re cursed with having to live yet another day, Pete,” I said.
“Buck up, man. It’ll soon get worse.” This had been Pete’s first
experience passing through the looking glass.
I suffered a series of racking coughs, then turned and watched the
naked form of Laura Denning, our young producer, slowly make its way out
of her chamber. She retched, brushed a few wet locks of short black hair
away from her cheeks, and puked stringy phlegm onto the floor. Following
this noisy bit of purging, she looked over at me with pouting,
still-blue lips; she had a blanched, pleading expression on her face
that would have melted the heart of any man who didn’t know her.
But I did know her, so my own heart stayed quite solid. Laura was
young, pretty and ambitious. On the last count, overly so; she used any
advantage at her disposal to get ahead in the business. I had to hand it
to her, though: She didn’t mind paying her dues–as evidenced by this
“Was it everything you’d hoped it would be, darling?” I asked her,
In response, she scowled, bent her head down and dry-retched some more.
A cheery skip-ship attendant reached us, passing out clean
bathrobes, towels and plastic sandals, and we walked unsteadily to the
lavatory area to clean up and become human again. We showered, dressed
and moved through the ship’s disembarkation sphincter, out into the
interglobal terminal at M’bassa, the main port of entry into Eridani III.
It was not a large spaceport by any means, and was quaintly rustic
in its construction. A cloyingly sweet aroma of local orchids wafted
through the terminal from open veranda doors. Arching structural timbers
supported the building; they were crafted from a dark local wood, carved
in a meandering, exotic style. The floors were covered with wood parquet
tiles. I remembered having had a similar impression when I passed
through the international airport on Tahiti once. That place had smelled
like the mother of all funeral homes; this one had to be the grandmother.
Customs procedures here were perfunctory, at best. I knew that
Eridani’s biosphere had an effective way of protecting itself from
foreign organisms: it either killed them outright, or quickly rendered
them innocuous. There was little danger of contaminating this planet
with non-indigenous, opportunistic flora or fauna; the natural selection
process here was simply too complex, too unforgiving. The number of
biological niches on Eridani was easily ten times greater than what
existed on Earth, and every one of them was occupied by an organism set
on defending its claim to the death by whatever nasty means it had at
its disposal–tooth or claw, strangling vine, beak or painful stinger.
This made the place particularly interesting to both scientists and
tourists alike–that is, those who could tolerate the myriad
inoculations requisite to obtaining an entry visa. A significant
proportion of the tourist category was comprised of filthy-rich big-game
hunters. It seemed that almost everything on the planet grew big. It had
something to do with the high oxygen content of the atmosphere.
To my mind, that made for a fairer game here. True, I was also a
hunter, so I should have appreciated the challenge. The difference was,
I always tried to bring my prey back alive.
Tourism was a big draw, but certain basic industries were also
being developed. A number of open-pit mines and ore processing
facilities had been established on the planet, and that industrial
sector was rapidly expanding; the lack of any colonial environmental
control regulations made mining and smelting a very profitable
commercial enterprise here. Earth still needed its heavy metals–lots of
them–and this was a place to get them without bearing the burden of
further environmental repercussions. Human civilizations had always been
adept at exporting their seamier problems that way.
“Where are the natives?” I asked the Customs agent while he
transacted my entry visa. “I don’t see any of them in the terminal area.”
The man sniggered as I withdrew my left wrist with its ID embed
from under his scanner. “The donnies? They don’t come here. Pretty much
keep to themselves. An unresponsive lot, generally. Useless as workers.
Not much good for anything. You’ll find that out for yourself, soon enough.”
I had looked forward to seeing the Eridanis firsthand. I knew it’d
be in our best interests to find a native guide to lead us to our
destination. And a few paid porters wouldn’t hurt, either. Laura was in
pretty good physical shape, but I worried about Pete. It was obvious to
me that he didn’t spend much time in the gym–if any at all. We would be
carrying all our provisions with us on our trek, since most of the local
food was poisonous to humans; what wasn’t poisonous hadn’t been
completely sorted out yet by the biologists. The ecology of Eridani was
complex enough that it would take another few decades before that happened.
The customs agent waved me on. While I waited for my colleagues to
pass through, I authorized the release of a few entangled electrons from
my wrist embed. Using a series of finger movements, I kinesthetically
induced their consecutive spin values to code an instantaneous text
message in the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen quantum trap back at the temple
of the Church of Psychological Redemption: “Arrival at Eridani
confirmed.” The EPR technology was good for simple text messages, but
way too expensive for broadband signals. Nonetheless, it provided the
ultimate in data security: only the electron pair-mates retained at the
receiving location could reflect the instantaneously resolved spin
values of their distant brothers.
We were ten and a half light-years from Earth, and our journey had
“We have to get some local color in the can today, Bishop.” Laura
lifted a piece of a pink omelet from her breakfast plate and daintily
placed it between her lips.
What sort of egg it had come from, I didn’t care to know–but I’d
already shoveled most of the one on my plate into my own pie-hole. It
tasted close enough to Terran eggs, I thought.
“Local bazaars,” she continued. “Eridani buildings, unique
architecture. Colorful crafts. Natives moving around, talking, relating
to you as a foreign visitor. Elders drinking tea around tables and
pontificating upon pontificatious things. Dancers and musicians blowing
on their flutes, or whatever it is they blow on here. That sort of thing.”
To this point, we’d not seen a single native, ensconced as we were
in the main resort enclave. None of the hotel employees were Eridani,
nor did any natives lurk outside, begging or hawking wares, offering
taxi rides to off-the-beaten-track places, or soliciting trysts with
young virgin daughters. It seemed. . . unnatural. Foreign to my normal
foreign experience–even including the other three colonized worlds I’d
worked on before.
“I so agree,” I said. “Let’s go find ’em. You fully plugged, Pete?”
He tapped his A/V headset, connected to a socket surgically
implanted in the back of his skull. “Does the Pope shit in the woods?”
We finished our breakfast and marched out of the front hotel
entrance, toward the gate that marked the enclave’s perimeter. A hotel
employee decked out thematically in full British colonial regalia, down
to the white pith helmet, saluted and handed each of us a four-color
brochure, a tourist’s map of the town and surrounding area. I knew that
we’d be seeing a lot more of that intentionally wrought Victorian
colonial ambiance during our time on Eridani. The tourists loved it.
“Have a great day in M’bassa,” he said. “Be sure not to miss
visiting the Roman Catholic cathedral in the main square. And don’t
mistreat the donnies, please.”
He said this like we were carrying whips and chains with us. We’d
already assimilated all the available data on Eridani. From my research,
I knew everything mankind knew about this place and its inhabitants. The
natives were obviously sentient, judging from the known, tangible
evidence of their simple civilization. But they seemed indifferent to
our encroachment into their world. They mostly reacted as though we
didn’t exist. There had been no resistance, no response to our
colonization. The Eridanis had simply sidled aside and gone about their
business as if humans had never arrived three decades ago. They’d react
to direct physical contact, but rarely acknowledged any attempts at
communication. It was as if they thought: If we ignore you long enough,
maybe you’ll just go away.
And so I appreciated, all the more, the challenge of Dr. Kline’s
ministry. The Church of the Holy Psychological Redemption figured that a
person had to absolve himself for his sins, before being absolved by
God. Dr. Kline had adopted traditional Jungian psychoanalytical methods
toward this end, but his Church wasn’t hung up about the precise mode of
perfecting the spirit. It considered any psychiatric method that
unlocked the suppressed layers of the mind to be appropriate for its
purposes–anything short of the use of psychotropic drugs or nanoagents.
These, in their book, were anathema–unholy in the extreme.
I wondered why Kline would have chosen this world, these people, to
proselytize his religion. To me, it seemed a fool’s choice; the Eridanis
were too uncommunicative, too enigmatic, too closed to understanding.
And what kind of sins could they possibly harbor? Judging by the
rudimentary artifacts of their culture and their dull natures, they
seemed scarcely more intelligent than socialized sloths. They were
perfectly adapted and attuned to their environment, and obviously stood
at the apex of the evolutionary tree here–but they were sloths
nonetheless. Surely sin is reserved for human beings, I thought–thanks
to that damnable serpent back in the Garden of Eden.
We walked through the resort’s gate, and the smooth asphalt drive
became a dusty dirt road. Dense green vegetation towered on both sides
of us. I noticed blood-red silken webs strung here and there between the
trees, each dominated by a single spider-like creature with a bunch of
long legs and a body bigger than my fist; the pseudoarachnids pulsed
their webs in and out menacingly as we passed by them. Sharp little eyes
they had, I thought.
We continued walking and came upon something that had the proximate
appearance of a very large guinea fowl, pecking at the ground along the
edge of the lane. It looked like a turkey raised on massive doses of
steroids–except for its longer, birefringent tail feathers and
prominent sharp teeth. Pete, who was walking on that side, caught sight
of it, uttered an expletive, and swerved over to the opposite edge of
It was only early morning, and already it was hot.
“I have to tell you something, Laura,” I said while we walked. “I
never would’ve expected you to take on another assignment with me.”
Laura laughed in a way that hinted more at disdain than humor. She
pulled up short, turned and glared at me. “Bangkok happened a long time
ago, Bishop. Thanks not very much for reminding me about that
experience, but since you did, we might as well get it out of the way. I
really didn’t know what I wanted out of life back then. However, I can
thank you for setting me straight on that.”
“It was innocent enough. An exotic assignment, two young people in
the middle of it, a thrilling moment in time. It was never anything
real. Surely you knew that.”
“Real. Of course. None of what we do is real; it’s all for the
show, for the entertainment. I came to grips with that, in the end. It’s
what we are, it’s what we do. Whores to the slavering masses, providing
their media fix. No apologies necessary, Bishop. I’m a true professional
now–and this project can be my ticket to bigger and better things.”
“Glad you see it that way. I’d hate to think of all that messy
background stuff regurgitating itself at the wrong moment.”
Pete was dutifully capturing all this. He could never know whether
or not it was part of the show. Nor was it his job to decide.
We soon came upon mud brick buildings on the outskirts of M’bassa,
and saw our first Eridani in the flesh–leathery as it was. The native
kneeled in the dirt outside the entrance to one of the crude structures,
pounding a blunt wooden mallet onto some kind of plant material that lay
on a stone metate.
The word “kneeled” was a simplification; the multiple joints of the
Eridani’s bipedal legs were way too complicated to describe that
configuration in one word–the subtleties of their intricate bending
surfaces and folding planes would have driven a mathematical topologist
insane. Fully erect and unfolded, the adult female would have stood well
over seven feet tall.
The tough skin of the Eridani had a deep copper hue, highlighted by
lighter verdigris tones at the edges of its many wrinkles and folds.
Perhaps that color change was merely a trick of the light. To me, it
made her look ancient–like a cast metal sculpture that had weathered
for centuries, then had magically come to life for my aesthetic
I knew this one was a female by the twin rows of dugs that depended
from her chest. That, and the tiny infant that was affixed to one of
them, suckling. From the guidebooks we’d studied, we knew that the
donnies rarely wore any clothing other than a simple loincloth; in this
oppressive heat, I could well understand why. The native used two of her
four upper appendages to wield the mallet, and the other pair to
occasionally scoop out the mashed material from the metate, put it into
a terracotta bowl, and pluck fresh plants from a large woven basket that
sat next to her. She didn’t react in any noticeable way to us standing
there, gawking at her and her child.
It would have been hard to know if she had even registered our
presence, since the eyes of the Eridanis were not discretely focusing,
movable organs. Rather, a thick band of fixed tissue containing
light-sensitive cells encircled their cylindrical heads. According to
the exo-anatomy texts I had researched, I knew that the basal cells of
their eye bands aligned themselves in tightly adjacent vertical columns.
That caused the organ to act like diffraction grating, refracting
incoming light and reflecting it back out in every color of the visible
spectrum. We’d all seen videos of this, of course, but it was still
fascinating to watch the ever-changing waves of color roll across the
arc of the Eridani’s eye-hoop, varying according to the angle of the
ambient light and the viewing aspect of the onlooker. Every color of the
rainbow was represented there–as well as other colors and wavelengths
on either side of the visible spectrum.
Pete approached the woman to get a closer shot. “‘Scuse me, mama,”
he said. “Comin’ in on ya, here. Cute little tyke you got there. Hey
kid, you wanna get your fifteen minutes of fame?”
The Eridani continued to pound, unperturbed. Her child continued to
“Very heartwarming,” Laura said. “But world-class material, it is
not. We can use ten seconds of it, tops. This kind of crap is jejune by
now. Let’s push on.”
Pete got too close and brushed one of the woman’s rising and
falling arms. She suddenly went rock solid, frozen in mid-motion.
“Oops,” he said. “My bad.”
“Pete, we need to motor,” I said.
“Okay, Bishop,” he replied. “So long, cutie-pie.” He reached over
to stroke the infant.
The mother issued a tone, a single long, keening note. Pete’s
fingers stopped an inch away from her infant, and he got a puzzled
expression on his face.
“C’mon, Pete, let’s go. Sometime this century.”
He retracted his hand and backed away from the Eridani.
“Odd,” he said.
“Yes, you certainly are,” Laura countered. She strode off toward
“We can certainly outfit you, sir. No problem with that. But as far
as native guides and porters . . . that’s going to be somewhat of a
problem.” Mr. Percy, the safari stationmaster, looked nervously at me,
then over at Laura and Pete. “And so far as I know, all available human
contract laborers are already out in the field, previously committed.”
I pounded the replica antique desk in frustration and stared at my
“Slipshod planning. This is not starting off well at all. Hadn’t
this all been pre-arranged?”
“But of course,” the agent said. “All the supplies and equipment
for your excursion have been dutifully reserved and are sitting now in
the warehouse. But arranging porterage is the customer’s responsibility,
I sighed in resignation. “Never mind. No sense beating you to a
bloody pulp over it.”
I waved to my colleagues and we turned to leave.
“Hold onto the stuff, Percy,” I told the agent. “We’ll figure
We exited the station and stood on the covered wooden porch outside
it, staring at each other.
“Balls,” I said.
“If I had ’em, I’d be king,” Laura replied.
“Maybe we can just go bowling,” Pete suggested.
I chuckled at that, and stared out at the dirt road. A tall Eridani
ambled past, moving with uncanny grace for his size, as if he was
stalking some sort of prey just beyond the reach of my vision. The
donnie stopped, turned to us, and made a subtle hand gesture that I
vaguely remembered from my meeting with the Church directors.
“Might not be a bad idea, Pete,” I said. “Let’s find out what these
critters like to do for diversion. That’ll probably be the best place to
solicit some help.”
We followed the donnie, walking further down the road into the main
part of town, passing the garishly ornate but slowly decomposing Roman
Catholic mission cathedral in the central square. A few human-run gift
shops constructed in a colonial style were interposed with indigenous
structures. The Eridani ahead of us finally paused at a native mud brick
establishment that was larger than any we’d previously seen. Several
other adult Eridanis loitered outside its entrance.
We entered the building, leaving the bright Eridani sun, leaving
our comfortable human world behind.
The relative darkness inside the building plunged me into momentary
perceptual confusion. At first, all I could see were the refracted,
multicolored sparkles from several dozen Eridani eye-hoops, lining
either side of the long axis of the room. They stretched like perfectly
aligned landing lights alongside an airport runway. As my eyes adapted,
I resolved the bodies of the donnies they belonged to, lying prostrate
on individual woven mats facing a central aisle like huge grasshoppers
sitting on leaves. In front of each one was a flat, fibrous board, about
a foot square, with a small clay cup to one side of it and a pile of
pebbles to the other. A juvenile Eridani moved down the long ranks,
topping up the cups from a large pitcher it carried.
At the end of the aisle, at the head of the room, a single Eridani
knelt, facing us. We watched as he reached into a bowl on his right
side, lifted something out of it and held it in front of his eye-hoop,
then issued a noise that sounded to me like something between a cough
and a dog’s bark. From somewhere in the depths of the room, I heard an
“Christ, we’ve stumbled into a fucking Eridani Bingo Parlor,” Laura
Pete’s reactive laughter echoed through the hall. The juvenile
donnie strode to the front of the room, plucked some sort of small
terracotta object from a pile, and carried it over to, presumably, the
winner’s mat. In a distinctly higher tone, it issued a series of noises
as it cleared the board there, pebble by pebble. We heard a general
chittering sound from the crowd assembled in the room.
None of the Eridanis seemed to notice our presence in their gaming
house. I walked forward toward the head of the room and the gaming
master who knelt there.
“Greetings to you, sir,” I said. “Perhaps you can help us. We’re
looking for a guide and some porters. We’ll pay very well.”
There was no reaction from him. The donnie moved the retracted
number tokens back into the bowl to his right side and shook them in
preparation for the next round. I found myself wondering how in the hell
this race of beings could have possibly survived on the planet, as
passive and unresponsive as they were. On Earth, they’d be gobbled up in
no time at all. And here, on Eridani, with its even more aggressive
ecology–it made little sense to me how they were even able to exist,
much less become the most evolved species on the planet.
“We’re searching for a lost human, a man named Dr. Kline.”
The background chittering stopped, and the gaming master froze.
The sudden silence in the room produced a feeling of total
exposure, and I sensed the hairs on the back of my neck rise in
response. I knew that the eye-hoop of an Eridani simply refracted the
available ambient light, but I could have sworn that the master’s hoop
blazed forth with some sort of internal energy.
“Kline,” the donnie uttered.
“Yes. Dr. Kline. We want to find him. Can you help us do that?”
The gamemaster slowly unfolded himself and stood aright. His form
towered over me.
“You are his . . . associates?” he asked in near-perfect English,
his mandibles contorting in complicated shapes to annunciate the words
“Yes! Yes, we’re friends of his. We wish to visit him. But we need
a guide to lead us there. And some help to carry our things.”
The donnie raised both pairs of his arms and held them
outstretched. “Kline recently proclaimed that new humans would come
seeking him, and they would be carrying the weight of their world with
them. He said the Eridani must help them in their quest. It is meet that
we do so.”
He barked out some rough consonants and a half dozen of the Eridani
players rose from their mats and assembled behind us. One of them strode
forward and stood next to me.
“Call me T’aylang,” he said. “I will lead. Those behind me will
help carry your burdens.”
From their command of our language, it became apparent to me that
the Eridanis hadn’t been completely ignoring our intrusion into their
world for the last thirty years. I wasn’t sure if shaking hands was the
proper protocol, but I held my hand out anyway. The donnie looked down
at it for a long moment, then took it in one of his leathery,
four-fingered appendages and gave it a light wag.
“T’aylang. Right. I’m Bishop. To the stationhouse, then.” I smiled
back at Pete and Laura. “That went pretty well, don’t you think?”
We all turned to leave the gaming house.
“Heck,” Pete said. “I wanted to stick around at least long enough
to play a card or two.”
Laura rolled her eyes and shook her head as she trudged along the
aisle to the front door.
The stationmaster’s eyeballs threatened to exit his skull when the
line of donnies marched into his office.
“Mr. Bishop!” he sputtered. “I . . . I’m at a loss for words, sir.
Totally unprecedented, this.”
I smiled, probably a bit too smugly. “Show ’em to our supplies in
the back, Percy. Time is money. Chop, chop, man.”
The portly man waddled into the rear warehouse, followed by the
five Eridani porters. T’aylang stayed with us in the front office. He
leaned his head back slightly and appeared to study the ceiling fan that
rotated slowly overhead.
“Human tech seems a bit mystifying to you, eh, Big Fella?” I said.
The donnie’s mandibles moved without sound. Finally, he lowered his
head and said, “The device seems . . . in some way poignant to me.
Churning time, to no end purpose. Most of your machines seem to do the
I laughed. “We make do. We humans did manage to find enough purpose
to travel here, after all.”
“Your purposes matter little to us,” T’aylang said. “They are not
well-aligned to the primary axis of life. Dr. Kline recognized this.”
T’aylang folded his arms tightly over his chest in a series of
complex geometrical transformations, the multiple joints blending
sequentially and inexorably into a least-energy configuration. Their
final state represented, in unmistakable graphical terms, the end of his
side of the conversation.
Dense morning fog shrouded the river, and the droning chug of the
boat’s ancient diesel engine made it hard for us to stay awake. Our six
donnies sat quietly on benches lining the canvas-sheltered foredeck.
Occasionally, one or the other of them leaned over the railing and
disgorged a vile-looking, ropy liquid into the water, followed by an
interminable round of mandible grooming.
Their normally deep copper tones had paled significantly since
getting onboard the craft. I felt sorry for them. When or if we ever
figured out what tangible things the Eridani valued, I’d make sure to
pay them well for their discomfort.
I rose and went into the enclosed pilothouse.
“Things seem pretty calm on this part of the river, Cap,” I said.
“Does it stay this wide and smooth all the way to S’uval?”
The ship’s owner and pilot, a grizzled man named Moynahan, grunted
and shifted his chew to the other side of his jaw. “Smooth enough,
although it gets tight aways ahead. We’ll have to watch close for
sandbars. And, of course, the pseudohippos.”
“Those critters dangerous?”
The Captain turned his head and spat towards a bucket in the
corner, missing it wide right. The wiry, gray beard surrounding his
mouth was stained an unappetizing shade of yellowish brown. “Everything’s dangerous out here, Mr. Bishop. But I keep sufficient firepower on hand, if it comes to that.” He jerked his head backwards, toward a gun rack on the wall behind him. Two rifles hung there, one a carbine and the other a more robust automatic assault weapon. Both were military issue–but neither was of recent vintage.
“We do appreciate the charter, you know. I’m glad you were available.”
“Well, I have to tell ya: I didn’t feature carryin’ them locusts
along with. Bad for business–and except for the premium, I’d not have
agreed to it.” The old man looked at me with narrowed eyes. “Just keep
your eye on ’em so long as they’re on my boat, ya hear? Just keep ’em
outa my way.” He reached into a pocket, pulled out a worn tin flask,
uncapped it and took a long swig from it.
I nodded to Moynahan and went back out on deck.
“Everyone peachy?” I asked.
Pete slapped his neck. “Son of a–this damned bug repellent stuff
isn’t doing squat.” His face and neck were considerably lumpier than
they’d been the day before.
“They like you, Pete,” Laura said. “Maybe it’s got something to do
with your rotten breath. They don’t seem to be bothering our help over
there.” She nodded at the donnies.
“Skin’s probably too tough for the bugs to get through it,” I said.
“Hey, this is really not any worse than summertime in the Yukon. That
wasn’t a pleasant assignment. You should have been there, Pete. It would
have put things into perspective.”
“How about you perspect this, Bishop.” Pete shot me a rude gesture
and reached into his bag for more repellent gunk.
Morning turned into afternoon, and we all dozed fitfully. I was
roused by the sound of the boat’s engine revving, simultaneous with the
loud clank of transmission gears below deck. I lifted my head and saw a
group of huge animals bobbing in the water dead ahead of our bow.
Except for their considerably larger size, scaly hides and multiple
rows of teeth, they might well have passed for Earth hippopotamuses.
They blocked our passage around a sandbar that extruded from the shore
on our port side. The donnies chittered and swiveled their frames toward
the front of the boat. Their reaction made me think that the
light-sensitive cells located on the front side of their eye-hoops were
more discriminating than those on the other radial sections.
Moynahan, carrying the carbine, exited the pilothouse and strode
forward to the bow. He aimed the weapon down at the nearest pseudohippo.
A donnie next to him raised one of his upper appendages and knocked the
muzzle of the gun upwards just as Moynahan pulled the trigger, sending
the round into the air.
“Bastard!” the boatman said. He rammed the stock of the carbine
hard into the side of the donnie’s head.
I lurched forward to Moynahan and grabbed his shoulder. “Hold on,
Cap. Take it easy. Let’s have a minute to sort things out.”
“Only thing to sort out is yer lousy locust trash, Bishop,” he
snapped. “I told ya to keep ’em away from me.”
The injured donnie lay prostrate on the deck, several of his mates
ministering to him. A thick greenish fluid oozed from the wound on the
side of his head. It appeared that Moynahan had caught him squarely in
the eye-hoop with the butt end of the stock.
T’aylang suddenly appeared at my side. “It will not be necessary to
destroy these animals to obtain passage through this section, Captain.
Please permit us to deal with them. You may return to your cabin to
prepare the vessel to move forward again.”
Moynahan spat over the side of the railing. “And what’re you gonna
do, plughead? Ask ’em pretty please-like to move aside?” He snorted and
glared down at the wounded Eridani.
“Precisely.” T’aylang moved to the bow and began to chant, a sound
that reminded me slightly of the polyphonous singing I had once heard
Buddhist monks do in Tibet. Except that there seemed to be more than two
voices sounding; each note of the song sounded like a fuller chord, rich
in overtones. I watched T’aylang’s mandibles quiver as he effected the
audial progression of the strange canticle.
In front of us, the pseudohippos reacted, parted and cleared a path
for the boat.
“Well, I’ll be dipped in shit,” Moynahan said, lowering his
carbine. He made for the pilothouse, got the boat back into gear and
moved it slowly ahead, through the gap the herd of beasts had made for us.
Behind me, I heard Laura’s breathy voice ask Pete, “Did you get all
“Is a bear Catholic?” Pete replied.
I turned to T’aylang. “Will he be okay?” I asked, nodding toward
the stricken donnie.
“His physical agony will soon pass, and the wound will heal. A
portion of his sight may be lost. But the memory of the Captain’s
harmful intention will remain ever painful to him.” T’aylang swiveled
his huge form to face me. “We Eridani cannot always react quickly enough
to protect ourselves from aggression when it comes without forethought,
as Moynahan’s did. It is a thing about you humans that we . . . cannot
“T’aylang, I won’t try to make a global apology for the behavior of
my species. It’s what we are. But in future: Let me be the one to
intercede with any humans. Do you understand? Make sure your people know
The Eridani nodded–or, I convinced myself, made a gesture near
enough to that. I sat back down on the bench, trying to parse the
meaning behind the donnie’s words.
A week passed before we reached S’uval, a small port perched at the
farthest navigable point on the river. The unexplored territory
stretched on for several hundred kilometers to the north of us, beyond
the river’s fall line. The rest of our journey would be by land.
Beyond a stationhouse, a modest lodge, and a scattering of mud
brick structures, there was little else to describe the place. We tied
up to a rickety wooden pier, and one of the Eridani porters scrambled up
to the roof of the pilothouse where our baggage had been tied. He began
to pass the parcels down to his donnie colleagues, who formed a
well-ordered brigade to receive them and shuttle them onto the dock.
“I’ll make the run again six weeks from today, Bishop,” the boatman
said. “Be ready. I won’t wait for you.”
“We’ll be here, Moynahan,” I said. “And hopefully, we’ll have an
extra passenger to carry back to M’bassa with us.”
I waved to him perfunctorily and stepped out onto the pier, hearing
the boat’s noisy engine start up behind me. We gathered up our supplies
and headed in a line toward the stationhouse at the end of the pier to
check in with the S’uval agent there. Young Eridanis had gathered by the
edge of the river to watch us; it seemed obvious that the arrival of
visitors was a rare event here. No adults had joined them, I noticed.
The agent greeted us at the door to the stationhouse.
“Welcome, Mr. Bishop! Miss Denning, Mr. Horvack, good day to you
all. We’ve been expecting you since the EPR message from M’bassa station
came through. My name is Percy. Come in, come in! Uh . . . donnies will
stay outside, please.”
I looked back to T’aylang, and then nodded at the covered porch
outside the station. He nodded back.
“I thought your features looked familiar, Mr. Percy,” I said,
entering the large front room of the stationhouse. “Related to the Percy
back in M’bassa, I gather?”
“Yes,” the man said. “Younger brother, am I. Edgar Percy.
Mortimer’s got the M’bassa posting. We had a rather large family, and
all of us ended up in civil service. Curious thing, is it not? Have a
seat here.” He laughed heartily and went to a cupboard behind his desk,
retrieved some dusty glasses from it, and carried them over to a table
near the front door.
“Iced tea, or something stronger, perhaps?” he asked. “I have some
fairly wicked distilled spirits, a local product. You might like it.
Tastes a bit like absinthe . . . although, with not as many green
fairies in it.” He roared at his own joke.
Pete held up his hand. “I’ll take a fairy or two.”
Laura said, “My rule is to never to drink the water in places like
this. Make mine the same.”
“Three’s a charm, Percy,” I said.
The agent grinned and pulled a half-full bottle of green liquor out
of the bottom drawer of his desk, sat down at the table, and poured a
few fingers into each of our glasses. He included his own in the bargain.
“You must know where we’re headed, Mr. Percy. North, to try to
locate Dr. Manfred Kline. Do you know of him?”
The agent, himself almost as portly as his older brother back in
M’bassa, leaned back in his chair and stroked his muttonchop whiskers.
“Oh, yes. Kline came through here three years ago, alone. No one travels
in this territory alone, and I tried to talk him out of heading into the
unexplored region. But he was committed; one o’ them missionary types.
I’ve seen ’em before. To be more precise, I’ve mostly seen ’em going
out–not coming back. And the few who do come back . . . well, I doubt
they stay on the planet. Not judging from the terrified look in their
eyes when they stumble back out of the jungle.”
“Did you have any further contact with him?” I asked.
“Not directly. But an Eridani native came in about a year ago,
asking for some particular articles on behalf of Dr. Kline. Very
unusual, that, for a donnie to communicate directly to a human. The
donnie paid in cold cash, and I ordered the goods from M’bassa. Isn’t
“What did Kline order?”
“Well, that was the strange part. Not survival stuff. Books. Quite
a number of them. Books on biology, virology, genetics, zoology. Nothing
on psychology, though. He was a psychologist, right?”
“A psychologist, and a psychiatrist,” I answered.
“Right. But here’s the thing: He didn’t want downloaded versions on
a databulb. He wanted old-fashioned, printed-out paper books. But if the
power sources for his EPR terminal had failed, or if his stock of
entanglements had run dry, why didn’t he just order more of those? It
didn’t make any sense. He could’ve had the book files sent by EPR link
from his sponsors, directly to him in the field.”
“His Church hasn’t heard from him in almost a year. We have the
rough coordinates of his last known position. Hard to say what’s going
on with him out there. We mean to find out, though.”
“I expect you’re getting paid pretty well for this, Mr. Bishop.” He
looked over at Laura and Pete, and he seemed to study Pete’s A/V headset
I nodded my head.
“Hope you can live long enough to spend it, sir.” Percy raised his
glass to me, drained it, and poured himself another. “Mrs. Percy up at
the lodge will have your rooms ready. I hope you enjoy your short stay.
And I hope I see you again, Mr. Bishop. I sincerely do.”
We checked into the lodge, and Edgar Percy’s wife, Martha, fussed
over us as if we had been long-lost relatives. Two smaller Percys,
likely more civil servants in the making, helped carry our personal bags
to our rooms. T’aylang and the other Eridanis secured lodging in the
neighboring village; it had been made clear to us that donnies were not
welcome inside the human lodge. I doubted that they would have wanted to
join us there, anyway.
Dinner was a treat after days of eating pouched field meals onboard
the boat: fresh trout analog that, we were proudly informed, had been
harvested that morning in the aquafarm pools above the rapids. It was
served alongside a small cut of tender, grilled meat that, while
somewhat gamy, tasted a little like beef. A large communal dish of
purplish plantlike material supported the meal in an obtrusive fashion;
it reminded me of broccoli. We all took some, but mostly toyed with it
on our plates. Dessert consisted of a whipped custard dish, sweet and
A touch more of the absinthe-like liquor after dinner made
everything settle nicely. We pushed our sluggish bodies away from the
table, thanked Mrs. Percy effusively for the chance to gorge ourselves
one last time, and waddled off to a small lounge, where one of the Percy
boys plucked spiritedly at a banjo for our entertainment.
Later, after transmitting a status message to the Church, I lay
back in my featherbed and slept, full of vivid dreams.
Gary Cuba’s stories have appeared in Jim Baen’s Universe, Flash Fiction Online, Abyss & Apex, Andromeda Spaceways and more than two dozen other speculative fiction publications. He lives in South Carolina with his wife and way too many cats and dogs.