We pushed into the jungle above S’uval the next morning, my mind focusing on that special inner spot that had always centered me: I’m nothing but a man who tracks other men for pay; that is what I am, it’s what I do, and nothing else. I seek men who don’t want to be found–whether for reasons of crime, sin, personal disgrace, or some sort of queer, unknown psychological imbalance. Men who have slipped off the net, and have to be netted again so as to answer to others. That is all I am, that is all I need to be.
And I’d dealt with all those types, all those reasons. Yet never had I engaged in a commission as flaky or as suspicious as the one I now pursued. And why did I accept it? I certainly didn’t need the money,
not at this point in my career. For all I cared, Dr. Kline could have fallen down a rat-hole and been eaten by Eridani maggot-analogs.
And yet, I pictured those maggots as wearing the faces of the Directors of the Church of the Holy Psychological Redemption. There was something else going on here, and I was determined to wrench it to the surface.
I removed my field cap and swiped the sweat off my scalp with my hand, turned and waited for Laura and Pete to catch up.
"Hold up a minute, T’aylang! You hanging in there, Pete?"
Pete was panting, trying to catch his breath in the steamy air. "Is the . . . pope . . . a bear?"
"Time for a break, folks," I said.
I was suddenly aware of T’aylang by my side, studying Pete. "This man is not well-adapted to the environment or to the task at hand," he said. "Will we be required to carry him for the balance of the journey?"
"No, just give us a few minutes to rest here, Big Guy. Pete’ll be all right."
I looked sternly at Pete when I said that, hoping to drive that veiled admonition into him.
The Eridani raised his head to an erect vertical position. "This is not a safe place to stop. We are traversing a pyloc’s game trail. Similar to what you refer to in your language as a ‘big cat.’"
"So, are you seeing any?" I unclipped the holster of my firearm.
T’aylang pointed to one of the porters and barked a short command. The other Eridani began to sing, a strange polyphonous song whose ultrasonic overtones made me wince in pain.
"We will persuade any nearby ones to take an afternoon nap. But only a short one. It would be best if your colleague gets his breath back soon, so that we may continue on our way."
Pete gasped and nodded, apparently agreeing in principle with T’aylang.
Pete and Laura lay in their tents, fever racking their bodies and dysentery draining their lives away. The course of my own fever was not far behind theirs. We’d not gotten two days into the jungle before being laid low by one of the more vicious of Eridani predators, one that was too tiny to be seen by the naked eye. In the midst of my hallucinations I could see the irony of the situation, rendered as a wee, red imp wielding a tiny pitchfork.
From time to time, I gained enough momentary presence of mind to sense T’aylang’s huge head hovering above me, to hear him singing softly to me, to feel his appendages gently attending to my bodily needs.
If there is a god that controls our lives, I thanked him later for the blessing of forgetfulness of most of what I experienced during that awful time. I remembered little of the wild ravings and feverish nightmares that wracked me over the next three days. We narrowly survived the ordeal that the alien protozoa had wreaked upon our bowels. The donnies had ministered to us, cleaning up our diarrheic excretions and keeping us hydrated until the tiny spark of vitality that marked us as living human beings was again able to reclaim us.
I clung to Laura, sitting in front of her tent. Pete ambled slowly around the campsite in endless circuits, as if impersonating a zombie. The fever had burned up quite a bit of his fat, and, surprising as it seemed to me, he actually looked pretty fit now.
"That was too close, Bishop," Laura said. "I’m beginning to wonder if it’s all worth it."
"This doesn’t sound like the Laura I know. What happened to the tenacious, career-driven, egocentric girl of my dreams?"
Laura laid her head weakly against my shoulder. "Maybe this kind of an experience changes a person. After all, what’s at the end of it? We produce some vapid entertainment, then no one remembers anything of us when we’re gone."
"Sounds pretty philosophical, gal. But speak for yourself. I only represent the raw content of your media productions. I hunt men down. That’s what drives me. Not the entertainment value–although that part of it does pay a lot of bills."
"But why keep doing it? Surely by now you’ve amassed enough wealth to keep you comfortable for the rest of your life. Why not retire to a villa somewhere on some warm Mediterranean island, with a glass of ouzo at your side?"
I rubbed a cloth over the stubble on top of my head. The tropical foliage drooped near to us, moisture descending in periodic droplets from its broad leaves. "It’s hard to explain, Laura. I learn something from every assignment, something meaningful. Something deeper about the nature of men–but more than that. Pieces of a puzzle, I guess you could say. And the last piece is still missing. I want to find it."
Laura grunted and pulled herself away from me. She crawled back into her tent to sleep.
Pete, completing his latest ambulation around the camp, bent over and studied me from the other side of his perennially live headset.
"A parrot’s death is a terrible thing to behold, Bishop," he said.
"Good dog," I said. The man had not quite yet come back to the planet. "Fetch!" I tossed a pebble into the margin of the jungle and Pete dutifully went off to search for it. I crawled back into my own tent to sleep some more.
We set out again the next morning, T’aylang in the lead. Our pace was slow and we rested frequently, but over the next few days our full strength slowly returned to us.
T’aylang refused to use a machete to blaze a trail; instead, he navigated a circuitous, meandering path that avoided the densest of the vegetation. He followed game trails where they were available, and where they were not, he invented his own lowest-perturbation solutions.
"T’aylang, I don’t mean to question your guidance," I said. "But the way we’re moving, we’ll easily triple the distance–and the time–we have to travel. I’m starting to worry about our how our supplies will play out. Can’t we take a slightly more direct route?"
The tall Eridani stopped and pivoted to face me. "The path is the life, Bishop. It is rarely straightforward." He turned away and made his looping way around yet another overhanging vine.
I grunted and followed him. I was getting tired of hearing his vague, spiritual platitudes in response to every question I asked him.
In the late afternoon, we came upon a wide stream that sluiced through the dense vegetation, a water runoff from the highlands that lay ahead of us.
"We will rest here," the Eridani said. "Soon, the travel will become easier." As if it were on greased gimbals, his cylindrical head pivoted around one hundred eighty degrees to face me. "And your path will then become clearer."
He began to fold his body into a sitting position, and I again marveled at the complex geometrical transforms that were involved in that simple act.
The highlands would be easier to traverse, but no less dangerous. We’d somehow avoided the jungle pseudocats that had surely stalked us up until now. Their reticence to attack was surely due to the sonic influence of the Eridanis–but the uplands were ruled by other predators, more horrific ones.
The jungle thinned out, giving way to an expansive savanna. Mountains lined the far horizon, a band of faint purple in the distance. Closer to us, a herd of gazelle-like animals grazed near a wide, meandering river. Large white ibis analogs waded in its shallows, occasionally thrusting their long, toothed beaks into the water. One of the birds suddenly disappeared beneath the surface, pulled to its death by some lunging, unidentifiable form that showed itself for only an instant. The other members of its flock barely reacted to their loss.
I glanced down at my boot and saw a large iridescent beetle climbing onto it, perhaps thinking to purchase there a better view of any nearby prey. Or maybe I was its intended prey. I shook it off and trotted forward, catching up to T’aylang.
"You were called to lead this mission. But I’m guessing you wouldn’t have volunteered for it, not if it had been your own choice. Could you not have simply declined it? What’s in it for you, T’aylang?"
The Eridani slowed to a stop and tilted his head down. "I miss my wife, Mr. Bishop. And I miss my children, both of them. A girl, ten years old, and a boy, not quite five. They all depend on me. They are my life."
While he spoke, one of his upper appendages fumbled in the pouch he carried. It held his personal effects, and was similar to the pouches that all Eridanis carried around their waists. I suspected that he fondled some icons inside it that represented his family members.
"And it is true," he said. "I would not have elected to leave them. Not of my own volition." He raised his head and the high sun played off his eye-hoop, producing marvelous swirls of colors. "But there comes a time when prophecy must be fulfilled, and all of us become slaves to it."
"We’re only here to find Dr. Kline," I said. "Not to fulfill any kind of prophecy."
"You know not what part you may play in God’s continuing Creation, Mr. Bishop."
The Eridani’s mandibles gnashed for a moment, then he stalked on across the savanna, leaving me standing there.
Later that afternoon, I glimpsed a shadow in the gaps between the tall clumps of grass to the left of us. I saw it only for a second, but soon I saw another flash of movement, this one to my right. It had a wolf-like shape, but with a few too many legs, each articulated in a strange way.
"T’aylang!" I shouted. "It seems we have some company. Should we be concerned about this?"
The striding Eridani kept his head pointed forward as he answered me. "Grellings. A pack of six. They’ve been paralleling us for the last two hours. You humans must smell especially delicious to them. They’re confused, though, by our presence. Seeing Eridanis and humans traveling together is beyond their experience. Nevertheless, we should try to reach that rocky outcrop ahead of us before their hunger overrides their caution. It’s doubtful they’ll try to attack us up there; they’d be too exposed."
"Can’t you just sing to them? Convince them to go away and come back another day, like you did with the pseudohippos and the pylocs?"
T’aylang made a sharp, breathy sound that I had learned was the Eridani equivalent of a chuckle. "Unfortunately, Mr. Bishop, I must ask for your forgiveness here: Neither I nor any of the bearers happen to know the melody or lyrics of their particular song."
"Great. That’s just great," Laura said, unsnapping the restraining strap on her sidearm’s holster.
I did the same, and withdrew my weapon. "Well, I hope you’ll forgive us if we have to take some typically rash human action to keep from getting eaten alive, Big Guy."
T’aylang quickened our pace, and got no objections from anyone. Pete turned in continuous circles as he skipped forward, like a dervish in the throes of panic. Sweat poured from his brow. I found myself pitying Laura when she’d get around to editing this section of his video record; I didn’t see how it could be done in a way that wouldn’t make a viewer feel downright queasy. But maybe that would best match the way we all felt at the moment. We trotted toward the rise that, impossibly, seemed to always remain a half-kilometer away.
A grelling suddenly hurtled out of the tall grass toward Pete, making for his exposed neck. The cameraman shrieked as the beast hit his chest, knocking him to the ground. I swiveled and fired point-blank at it, and a half-second later I heard another shot from Laura’s gun. The mortally wounded grelling rolled off Pete, bellowing in anger and pain.
Pete scrabbled away from the dying animal like a frightened crab, somehow managed to find his feet, then took off at a run with the rest of us for the outcrop. We heard the other grellings behind us, snarling and bickering over the first feeding rights of their disabled packmate. They had indeed been very hungry.
We finally reached the outcrop, although its protection now seemed unnecessary, inasmuch as the grellings were preoccupied with their cannibalistic meal far behind us. It was then when I noticed that the Eridani porters had discarded our food supplies during our mad dash to safety. All we had were our personal tents, bedrolls, lamps and a few cooking utensils, the articles that Laura, Pete and I had carried ourselves.
T’aylang looked ahead over the rolling hills, obviously searching for our best and safest route forward. I watched him confer with another Eridani. Eventually, the tall guide glided over to me.
"The sun will set soon. We will head for the mesa to our left, and try to find a defensible campsite there."
"But what of our food supplies, T’aylang?" I said. "We’ll starve without our Earth rations! We have to go back and retrieve them."
"The loss of your food will not a major problem, Mr. Bishop. We can forage native foods and prepare them in a way that your bodies will be able to tolerate. Trust me on this," the Eridani said.
I had no choice but to trust him. I realized it would be too dangerous for us to backtrack into the veldt, and most of the food contents in the packs would likely have been carried off by now.
An hour later, we collapsed inside the safety of a horseshoe-shaped formation of boulders on high ground that overlooked the savanna. I was exhausted from the hard pace we’d driven to get here, and from the terror we’d all experienced that afternoon. Laura and Pete were equally spent, and even the Eridanis seemed languid. We forwent erecting our tents and collapsed onto the rocky ground, trusting to T’aylang to organize a watch schedule for the night. None of us were much interested in eating.
"We must be getting close now, T’aylang," I said. I approached the Eridani, who’d stopped to inspect the terrain ahead of us. "My reckoning puts us near the point of Kline’s last transmitted messages."
"Close indeed, Mr. Bishop," the Eridani said. "Another day’s travel, and we should be entering his compound."
We’d clung to the high ground, wending our way northward for the last two weeks. To this point I felt less a professional man-tracker than a simple tourist on a game hunt. What special skills had I brought to bear on the mission? None. I’d merely followed the lead of the Eridanis. Had I not held such personal disdain for the Church of Holy Psychological Redemption, I might have even felt guilty for taking their money for this assignment.
As T’aylang had promised, the Eridanis prepared foraged vegetation–roots, leaves, berries and nuts–that we were able to digest. The natives had begun to sing songs whenever we ate, and I’d asked our guide why they were doing this.
"It is part of the preparation process, to make the food safe for you. To let Eridani enter and nourish your bodies without poisoning you," T’aylang had replied.
It sounded like hogwash, I thought, but if they chose to believe it, more power to them–and to us. If it came down to a matter of our survival, I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
"Have you ever personally met Kline?" I asked. "Seen him in the flesh?"
T’aylang suddenly drew himself tall, his complicated joints stretching in a way that I’d not previously seen.
"Had your Christian apostle Paul ever met Christ in the flesh?" he answered. "And did that in any way hinder his ability to witness to the reality of his faith?"
"So, I gather you’ve read the Christian New Testament."
The Eridani made a breathy sound, and swiveled his huge head to face me.
"I have read all your human religious material, Mr. Bishop. From my earliest childhood in the Catholic mission school, before it was abandoned, and from short stints in other missionary schools. I was one of a few Eridanis chosen to study your culture, language and religions closely. Your sacred books contain significant wisdom. But they fail to accurately describe you as a species. Much of the material seems . . . false in that regard. False, with respect to what I have seen of you. If I may speak boldly, you don’t seem deserving of God’s grace–nor do you appear to think much about your ultimate redemption, except in times of extreme duress when you are suddenly forced to face the fact of your mortality."
"I’m not a religious man, T’aylang. I haven’t the temperament for it, myself. You’ll not get a strong reaction from me, regardless of your stated beliefs or feelings. But if it matters, I do agree with your point: most of us don’t usually act on our better, higher instincts. The human spirit may be willing, but our flesh is far too weak. Hell, to be honest, most times our spirit is too weak."
I sat down on a nearby rock, took off my field cap and rubbed the lengthening hair on my head. "And I don’t profess to understand Kline’s Church’s tenets, either–it just seems like a bunch of psychological mumbo-jumbo to me."
The Eridani knelt next to me. "Kline no longer preaches those tenets, Mr. Bishop. He created a newer testament, one that abrogates the false beliefs that he was originally sent here to teach. One that recognizes how we can all live at peace with ourselves and our environment."
"You’re saying that he became an apostate? He denied his Church’s dogma?"
"Yes, that is precisely what I am saying."
I considered this. Had the Church directors known of Kline’s heretical transformation? Had his last messages betrayed him in this regard? I wondered if that had been the Church’s primary motivation to hire me: to track him down and retract him before he could do any more harm to their cause. It had to be so! All that business about Kline’s "important discoveries" was bullshit, a misdirection. The directors had played me for a fool.
It didn’t come as a complete surprise to me. Even so, I felt there was something more, something that I still needed to discover.
We camped in the scree below a cliff. A harsh chill descended upon us soon after the sun moved behind the mountain that towered immediately to our westward side. The day before, a large puma analog had taken one of our now-unladen bearers, the trailing one in our company. We couldn’t react in time to save him. The beast attacked and soundlessly lugged the Eridani’s body off into the maze of boulders surrounding us before we even realized what had happened.
Laura, Pete and I ate our suppers inside my tiny tent, huddled together for warmth. The Eridanis knelt in a close circle outside, eating their own foraged meals, taking turns singing for our benefit.
"My great-freakin’-great-granddaddy used to work for Walt Disney," Pete said. "He was one of them animatronics guys. He did some fantastic parrots. Very faithful to the originals. He did make ’em talk, oh, yes he did."
We’d worried about Pete ever since he recovered from the jungle fever, and even more so after his close encounter with the grellings. He hadn’t seemed quite normal after those experiences–but then again, neither of us knew exactly what was normal for Pete.
"And my great-one-less-freakin’-great granddaddy was, like, a pirate. He inherited one of his father’s mechanical parrots, and the thing went kind of bonkers after a while–pecked out one of great-Gramps’ eyeballs, and so he had to wear a patch after that. Then the thing chewed his hand off one night while he slept, and so he had to wear a hook. And then there was the leg. And those parrots, they live an awfully long time, y’know?"
"Jesus, Pete," Laura said. "Is there ever an actual punch line to any of your cockamamie stories? Why don’t you go take some nice ambient shots of the inside of your own tent?"
"That’s a cool idea, Laura," Pete replied. He grinned and crawled out into the twilight.
Laura and I fell onto my sleeping bag and held each other.
"I’m afraid he’s totally lost it," I said.
Laura sighed. "Well, there’s no help for him until we get him back to Earth. He’ll be better off when we can have his chip embeds cleared. His Union will take care of him if he can’t work again."
I kissed her forehead and studied her face.
"The climax comes tomorrow. We’ll reach Kline, then figure out what part we’re all playing in this grand drama."
"You haven’t gone off the deep end yourself, have you, Bishop?" she asked.
I lay there quietly and looked for an answer. I couldn’t come up with one that would sound convincing. Laura forgave me for that, and we descended into each other, sinking into the time, the place, the lonely circumstance of far epsilon Eridani III.
We entered Kline’s compound in the late morning of the next day. It lay in a narrow canyon crowned by a tall waterfall at its head. Large conifer analogs lined a fast-moving stream that coursed through the ravine, twisting between the canyon’s sheer cliff walls. Near the falls, nestled within a copse of trees, stood a large, arched wooden structure with several smaller ones flanking it.
At least two dozen Eridanis had arrayed themselves alongside the wide pathway into the canyon, as if they had been telegraphed of our arrival. T’aylang raised one appendage, and we heard a cacophonous sound issue from the surrounding Eridanis. I decided it must have been a greeting, or perhaps a cheer.
One of the Eridanis strode forward and conversed with T’aylang. The guide turned and addressed us.
"No weapons are permitted in the camp. You’ll have to give them up here. They’ll be kept safe."
We reluctantly surrendered our firearms and moved onward, winding along the trail that crept toward the heart of the canyon.
A diminutive man met us at the door of the larger arched structure. He sported a graying goatee and mustache, and he wore a simple white tunic and baggy black pants. Sandals encircled his feet, and a straw Panama-style hat covered his head. He supported himself with the help of a crude wooden cane.
"Dr. Kline, I presume?" I said, extending my hand.
"Yes," he replied, taking it. "And what is your name, sir?"
"Bishop, sent by the Church. These are my colleagues, Pete Horvack and Laura Denning. And our guide, Mr. T’aylang."
"Bishop, indeed." Kline laughed. "How very fitting! Come inside."
I turned and saw T’aylang bowing low. He took a small half-step backward as if hesitant to enter with us.
"You too, T’aylang," Kline said. "And your bearers. Come inside. You’re all still very much a part of this."
The Eridani motioned to the porters. They followed us slowly into the building.
Once inside, I pivoted in a full circle to look at the large, single room curving around me. I noted that the structure was composed solely of well-crafted native materials, most of their surfaces carved in intricate, asymmetric patterns. The largest portion of the room appeared to be a meeting area, a wide, flat space unencumbered by any furniture, with woven grass mats laid out in concentric circles around its center. Windows pierced the full circumference of the building, each covered with latticework. To one side of the room, I saw a rustically hewn table with benches, and behind it a low bed frame supporting a thin feather mattress. A bookshelf sat next to the bed, containing a few hardback paper books. On a smaller table nearby lay a dusty, folded-up EPR datacenter.
Kline motioned to the large table. I could hear the sound of the canyon’s waterfall penetrating the lattice shutters; a cool, moist breeze wafted through them. The doctor brought unadorned clay cups for us and filled them with water from a pitcher. We sat down on the benches, and our Eridanis knelt on mats spread nearby.
"First things first, Mr. Bishop. I assume the Church gave you an article addressed to me. Perhaps a databulb, or some other small device?"
I pulled the lanyard over the top my head with the databulb attached to it, and suspended it in front of me.
"As you said. But I’m not sure it’d be wise for me to give it to you. I don’t know why I think that, but I do."
"You are correct in your intuition, sir. It’s quite dangerous. It contains either an explosive device or a virulent nanopackage, rigged to activate when it recognizes my unique genetic signature by direct contact with my flesh."
I heard Laura’s breath catch. Pete grunted and mumbled, "Damned parrots! Can’t ever trust ’em."
Kline took a sip of water from his cup. "And beyond that, I have no doubt that it also contains a ‘snuff’ software routine that would induce a fatal epileptic seizure in anyone who would view its encrypted message on a standard EPR terminal. That would be for insurance. Oh, yes. Quite a dangerous object, indeed."
He smiled and turned toward T’aylang, uttered a series of gutteral barking sounds, then turned back to me. "I asked him to take it into his possession, and to protect it. It will provide important evidence, later on."
I handed the lanyard to the Eridani, which he squeezed over his more massive head, working with some difficulty to get it past the protruding ridge above his eye-hoop. I realized that at some point I’d stopped referring to the Eridanis as "donnies" in my mind. I had come to the conclusion that the word represented the worst kind of racial slur, one that didn’t befit them.
"You were sent here to assassinate me, Mr. Bishop," Kline continued. "I expect you didn’t realize that at the beginning, but you must have put some pieces together during your journey here."
"The Church directors only told me that you’d discovered something important, and gave me the task of finding you and bringing you home," I said. "Later, I learned from T’aylang that you’d gone . . . in your own direction. Things didn’t quite add up, so I began to consider alternate possibilities."
"Indeed, I did stray from their tenets, sir. My sponsors are not only spiritually bereft, but they’ve reacted to my mental evolution with a plan that will be difficult for them to carry out, owing to its inherent complexity. For example, they’ve likely made parallel arrangements to assassinate their assassins–necessarily so, for people as media-connected as you are. Obviously, they can’t have the documented story of their scandalous criminal conspiracy splashed on the networks for everyone to see. So I’m afraid my heretical course has ended up complicating not only their lives, but your own as well. For the latter, I sincerely apologize; it is ultimately my sin to bear. It’s not the first time in the last year that they’ve attempted to kill me."
Another surprising revelation. I removed my field cap, laid it down on the table, and stared at it for a moment. "But something still doesn’t add up, Dr. Kline. If you were convinced we were sent to assassinate you, why did you let us get this far? Why not have the Eridanis under your influence ‘conveniently’ lose us in the jungle? Or let us lose ourselves there? We owe our lives to them, as it is. We’d be dead, were it not for their help. It seems strange, to aid and abet your potential killers as you’ve done."
"Several reasons," Kline said. "First, the Eridanis are not murderers; they are healers at heart–more particularly, healers of the spirit. I could never ask any of them to consciously lead you into peril, only to abandon you to certain death in the midst of it. Would that act not itself constitute a type of murder?"
Kline’s gaze shifted to Laura and Pete. "Second, after its several failures to this point, I knew that the Church eventually had to take on a new strategy, one of subterfuge rather than brute force. Simply hiring more contract killers that keep perishing in the jungle was obviously never going to work. They needed the most talented tracker available, not simply another hired assassin who fancied himself skilled in the tracking arts. And the best trackers are not murderers, after all. They are people who can adapt to any situation they encounter, and find a way to use local resources to achieve their goals."
He returned his gaze to me, and continued. "If you were, in fact, innocent pawns, ignorant of your true mission, then would it also not be a type of murder to refuse you help, when I might otherwise render it? Especially when your journey was undertaken in my name."
Kline paused, and he too studied my field cap, still resting on the table. "But beyond that dilemma, I decided it was time to confront my destiny head-on. If my path is truly the correct one, then I must send a potent message to my erstwhile sponsors: that they can never succeed, no matter what evil strategy they try. They must come to realize that they have fallen from God’s sight, completely and irrevocably."
"And so I should send my own message back to them now," I said.
Kline nodded solemnly.
I began to do that, mouthing the text aloud as I kinesthetically arranged the spin values of the entangled electrons in my wrist embed that made up the coded letters of each word: "Arrived at Kline’s camp. Elected not to deliver the databulb, for obvious reasons. You’ll have to find someone else to play your fool."
There was no return acknowledgement, nor did I expect to receive one. But something still bothered me about the whole setup. If the Church’s plan had hinged on Kline taking the databulb in hand, it seemed to be too much of a long shot, too much that could go wrong with it. Surely the Church knew that Kline would be suspicious of anything they sent his way. Paranoiacs know each other too bloody well, I thought.
We ate then, after Eridani disciples brought in local food for us and laid it on the table. It was a simple meal whose main course consisted of some kind of mashed, grayish root served in small terracotta bowls, with cut stalks of a raw, asparagus-like vegetable served in a larger communal bowl. The Eridanis lay prostrate on their mats and ate, their meals composed of a different foodstuff–one that was no more recognizable to me than ours was. Outside, we heard the multiflorous tones of an Eridani singing while we ate.
"Pete, you’re the key, now," Laura said. "We have to get you back to Earth and get your chips downloaded."
The cameraman held a spoonful of root-mush up and inspected it closely. "Yeah, that’ll sure take a load off my mind, too. Y’know, this stuff isn’t half-bad–for something that looks like bird poo."
"This will be a powerful story, Dr. Kline," I said. "You’ll likely become quite famous–for at least the few days that it stays on Page One. But that shouldn’t matter to you. You’re totally unreachable, untouchable by civilization here."
"Oh, but I fully intend to return with you," the man answered cheerily.
We all looked up from our meals, and the sounds of our chewing stopped. I finally swallowed my mouthful. "Surely that would be too dangerous! You’ll be at risk until we manage to bring the Church’s directors to justice. Let us handle that. Returning now would be foolhardy on your part, wouldn’t it? And what will become of your mission?"
He chuckled. "A man who has chosen my path will always be at risk. Most of my Eridani disciples believe that I am, in fact, fated to perish in some sort of unspecified sacrifice to my new-found faith. Perhaps they’re right; it would certainly follow the standard religious hagiographies. Indeed, maybe that’s the only thing that will ensure my mission’s survival here. But the Church of the Holy Psychological Redemption was correct in one thing: I have discovered something important during my time with the Eridanis, and I need to spread it to other humans on our home world. They must come to know the treasure that they’ve stumbled onto at this far planet. I can only bear witness to that in person. I have a song of healing that men must hear, and it may save us all from perdition."
It was at that point I decided Kline had gone mad, secluded as he had been for so long in this harsh land. And I began to wonder also if the Eridanis had been manipulating him for their own purposes, like a puppet in some alien morality play.
We gathered the next morning to set off for S’uval; a dozen other Eridanis and Kline joined T’aylang and what remained of our original bearers. At least we’d have a fuller repertoire of songs at our disposal to help protect us from Eridani’s more determined predators, I thought.
We all watched as Kline performed some sort of final sacrament for the group of Eridanis that reposed in the copse outside the main building, those who would remain behind. Dusty beams of early morning sun sliced through the canyon’s opening as he moved along the line of their kneeling forms, sequentially placing his hand on top of each of their huge, bowed heads and uttering something that we couldn’t pick up from where we stood waiting.
When at last he rejoined us, all the Eridanis behind him began to sing. I had up to this time only heard individual natives sing, and on those occasions their single voices sounded to me like a whole chorus. To hear dozens of their polyphonous voices singing at once was a thing beyond my experience.
I turned and saw Pete staring toward the singers, capturing the images and the sounds, tears streaming down his cheeks. I found myself hoping that his audio buffers didn’t overflow, as I wiped tears from my own eyes.
"What do the words mean, T’aylang?" I whispered hoarsely, choked with emotion.
"It is difficult to translate," he said. "Partly a farewell, partly a lament–but also a hymn glorifying a hopeful future, about a time beyond what is allotted to any of us here. A time when all prophecy is finally fulfilled, and we all join with the Creator in glory."
We moved across the terrain slower than I’d have liked, in deference to Kline’s presence; the man was not as young as the rest of us, and he was, physiologically, a weak specimen. He walked awkwardly with the aid of two wooden canes, grimacing as if each step was shot through with pain. But he refused to be carried; it was as if his agony was an integral part of his imagined destiny. I wondered more than once how this puny man had managed to reach so far into the interior of this unforgiving land.
We made up for our slow pace by taking a more direct route through the highlands and savanna. The songs of the Eridanis were effective at diverting the menacing predators that prowled the veldt. After three more weeks, we finally pulled up to encamp at the edge of the jungle that marked the last leg of our overland journey. In another week we’d reach S’uval, but even so, we’d already missed Moynahan’s boat–assuming he kept to his word about not waiting for us. Regardless, we could contact M’bassa from the S’uval stationhouse and arrange for another craft to come upriver to fetch us.
We ate our supper in a quiet group, arrayed in a circle around a low campfire. When he finished his meal, Kline rose, muttered a few words in Eridani to his nearby disciples, and walked out into the night alone, likely to meditate for a while.
I crawled over to T’aylang and asked, "Will he be okay out there by himself?"
The reposing Eridani issued a breathy noise, and paused in his meal. "We have another name for Kline, Mr. Bishop, an Eridani title: B’digh Grimadj. Roughly translated, it means ‘Master of Serpents.’ It speaks to an event that occurred in S’uval, at the time Kline embarked on his mission."
I listened intently as the Eridani continued.
"It is said that when Kline set out from S’uval, he came upon a small Eridani child playing alone at the edge of the jungle there. The man spotted a large snake poised to strike at the youth–I think it was an Eridani analog of what you know as a cobra, except much more aggressive and poisonous. He interceded, thrusting himself between the snake and the child, and took the serpent’s venom into his own flesh. The young Eridani ran safely home and told his parents what had happened. They returned to the site of the incident, and found Kline sitting there, unharmed, talking to the raised serpent as if preaching to it. News of this marvel spread quickly, and soon all the Eridanis in the village assembled to watch the strange scene."
"If true, I can only assume that something in Kline’s human physiology made him immune to the snake’s venom," I said.
"Perhaps," T’aylang replied. "Regardless, it was a wonderment to the people there, and several of them followed Kline into the jungle to see what other marvels of faith he might reveal. It marked the beginning of his ministry."
"An incredible tale, T’aylang. But surely Kline was not immune to every poison in this world, was he?"
The Eridani finished his meal and laid his massive head down in a sleeping position. "Surely not. But he didn’t know that, and his honorable act made it incumbent upon the Eridanis to do what they could to protect him from ensuing dangers that would otherwise have killed him. Nevertheless, we obey B’digh Grimadj’s occasional requests to be alone, exposed to the world, trusting that his faith will protect him. When he goes off to be with himself, we say that he is ‘talking to the serpent.’"
It was difficult to know when an Eridani slept, since their eye-hoops had no lids. I assumed that the termination of T’aylang’s conversation marked his entry into that phase.
I rose from the campfire, as did Laura, and we both walked toward my tent to sleep; she’d forgone erecting her own since we’d set out for the return trip to M’bassa. We watched Pete circumnavigate the camp once before he disappeared into his own tent.
"There’s something wrong, Bishop," Laura said. "I feel it, but I can’t explain it."
"I know what you mean. Something’s not right."
We crawled in through the flap of my tent and sat on the bedroll inside. I adjusted the lantern, which had begun to run very low on power. It wouldn’t last another night before its light would be too feeble to be of any further use. "It’s all been too easy so far. I feel like something’s hovering over us, ready to strike."
We stared at each other for a few minutes, then we both crawled back out of the tent in an unspoken, mutual urge to check on Dr. Kline.
"Not in the head, Bishop! Not if you can help it," Laura whispered to me harshly. "Our meat and potatoes are inside there."
We stood a half-dozen yards from the kneeling figure of Kline, and watched helplessly as the weak light of the low-hanging Eridani moon glinted off the blade that Pete Horvack held against the missionary’s throat. I heard Eridanis gathering behind us, chittering amongst themselves. I had drawn my firearm, but I couldn’t come to believethat its bullets would stop Pete from bringing the razor-sharp blade deep into Kline’s jugular veins. Even if I hit Pete squarely, his body’s backlash would complete his conscious intent and drain the life out of the little missionary.
"You catching this, Pete?" I called out. "All of it? It’s not you who’s doing this. You’re not a murderer, man–find yourself and fight it! Drop the knife, before it’s too late. We can work this all out somehow."
Pete looked over at me and laughed. "Silly goose," he said. "You have no idea what’s going on. And why should you? I’m the one here who’s most skilled at observing things–that’s what I do! You’ll soon know why Klein has to die, when the parrots come to fly us all away to heaven." He giggled hysterically and drew the knife tighter against Kline’s throat. In the dim moonlight, I saw a trickle of blood start to descend from it. I heard the doctor gasp.
"God forgive me," I whispered, and shot the crazed A/V man once in the center of his chest. As I feared would happen, his body jerked back violently from the round’s impact, causing his knife to drag deeply across Kline’s throat as he crashed onto the ground. Eridanis rushed forward; I saw T’aylang lift and cradle the missionary’s small form in his four arms. In the weak moonlight, the huge guide looked like a Madonna figure, holding the little man to his bosom. Dim purple and blue hues swept across T’aylang’s eye-hoop as he shook his head slowly.
I too rushed forward, and heard Kline issue a final, gurgling pronouncement: "The prophecy is met. It is done." He coughed, and T’aylang uselessly held one of his hands against the gash in Kline’s throat, foamy blood spurting between his fingers. A minute passed as we stared in helpless shock, then the doctor’s form stilled.
T’aylang lifted his head to the starry sky and issued a long, plaintive cry, sounding like a whole pack of wolves howling at once; it was plumbed to its ineffable depths with overtones of anguish and despair. I wept in its echo out of sheer frustration.
Dr. Manfred Kline was dead.
In the morning, six of the Eridanis prepared to transport Kline’s body back to his upland compound to be buried there. T’aylang approached me, bowed deeply, and handed me the doctor’s complete datalog, which had been attached to a tether around the man’s neck.
"We do not know how Kline’s litany will play out from this point," he said. "But we have faith that you will seek to understand it, and to complete it. You have a special role in God’s continuing plan, Mr. Bishop. Of that, we Eridanis are of a single mind."
I stared at the guide, incredulous. "You and your people are deluded, T’aylang. I’m merely a seeker of men for profit. That’s all I am, all I ever was."
"That is your outward nature. But inwardly, you seek something deeper. You wish to find the ultimate knowledge of what it means to be a man–and more recently, what it means to be an Eridani. We have read your soul and we know this to be true."
I took the log from him humbly. Over the following week, as we made our slow way through the jungle north of S’uval, I read Kline’s records using my portable data terminal.
I hardly needed to. I’d already learned the crux of his story, when the Eridanis had stripped the clothes off Kline’s dead body to wash it, exposing the pair of vestigial limbs that had begun to sprout from his abdomen, below his human arms. And the new joints that had started to form in his legs, making walking extraordinarily difficult for him. And the ridge of light-sensitive tissue that had begun to grow around his scalp, underneath his straw hat. The doctor had indeed gone native in the most essential way; he had allowed the world of Eridani to penetrate him to the genetic root of his being. That had been his true sacrifice.
Kline’s log spoke of his physical change, but the earlier entries consisted of nothing more than a record of his progressive mental derangement. In it were descriptions of strange visions that became more and more infected by meaningless psycho-babble and utopian pipedreams, fanciful tales of men and Eridanis living together in mutual, peaceful respect of all life around them; he envisioned this far environment as a new Garden of Eden. Other journal sections were laced with frightening, revelatory nightmares filled with impossibly complex symbolism and imaginary beasts. Yet other portions revealed inflated, psychotic dreams of grandeur, soaring at times into complete megalomania. In all, it portrayed the vivid, pathetic tale of Kline’s descent into madness.
During the first two years of his mission, the doctor had painstakingly peeled away the layers of his own inner world while preaching to the Eridanis, and he had found nothing there but endless guilt for sins which, to my eyes, seemed very tame–or even, in many cases, totally imaginary. Klein had come to the slow realization that his guilt was rooted in his very being–something that the Creator had hardwired into the brain of every human. No man could ever hope to fully absolve himself for his own sins; guilt was too intimately connected with what it meant to be a human being.
His spiritual frustration was clear enough to fathom. And at some point he was no longer ministering to the Eridanis; they had begun ministering to him. Curing him by inducing the world of Eridani to slowly adapt Kline to itself. They had him ingest certain foodstuffs, minerals, biological agents–each of them sonically activated by selected songs. To the Eridanis, healers at heart, the man had to become an Eridani to be saved, one who was blameless and–like them–perfectly attuned to the ecology of the world.
And as he accepted the inevitability of this slow, physically painful transmogrification, Klein had started to become sane again.
It was no longer a surprise to me why Kline’s Church, who must have learned of his conversion in his last messages, wanted so much to eliminate what had become, to them, an abomination of nature and a perverse confutation of man’s unique position in the universe. But the Eridanis saw through Kline’s tortured soul to the more sublime parts of it–and this, in a living man? They had never encountered it before.
For all Kline’s failings, his mission had been a partial success. Though he could not forgive himself for his imagined sins, to the Eridanis he represented the most open, the most innocent man they had ever encountered. They began to wonder: Might every man have something noble buried within him that made him worth healing? Something that overrode the Eridanis’ inherent distaste of our outwardly aggressive, destructive natures?
Late the next morning, I heard the faint, oddly surrealistic sounds of a banjo tinkling lightly through the jungle. It was one of Edgar Percy’s children, unwittingly guiding us on our final approach into S’uval. We broke out into the clearing at the edge of town and walked toward the stationhouse.
From a hundred yards away, I spied Moynahan’s boat tied to the pier. It was unexpected and, frankly, mystifying to me that the man would have waited this long for our return. I saw him sitting at the head end of the dock, his feet dangling over the edge of it, with a half-dozen young Eridani children clustered around him.
As I approached more closely, it appeared that they were in the midst of playing a game, rolling a handful of crude dice on the rough wooden planks. I saw one of the Eridani youths pick them up and cast them, then heard the pilot’s riotous human laughter amid the chitterings of the young natives, and all of them fell over backwards in glee. Moynahan shoved at one of the Eridani youths playfully, and his laughter roared again through the air. I could scarcely believe my eyes. I had witnessed the result of a small miracle. It was a tiny glint of Kline’s vision of utopia come true: the lion, lying down in peace beside the lambs.
I stopped in mid-stride and considered the precise shape of what I was seeing in front of me: It was, in fact, the missing piece, the piece that I had sought for so many years, the lost part of the puzzle that rolled across the breeze to me in the waves of Moynahan’s rollicking laughter. The part that told me there was yet hope for mankind.
I trudged forward until I was within hailing distance of the man. "Moynahan!" I called. "Couldn’t stay away, I see."
The grizzled boatman pivoted around to face my approaching form. "Hardly, Mr. Bishop. There’s lots of songs to learn up here. I’ve picked up a couple of good ones over the last few weeks." Moynahan laughed again and grabbed at one of the children in mock threat; the child squealed back at him in mock horror as the pilot’s wiry beard descended and tickled the child’s naked abdomen.
I smiled at the vignette, wondering which varieties of native food Moynahan had eaten during his stay in S’uval and what kinds of activating songs the children had sung while he did so. Perhaps the man’s adaptation had started much earlier, during our outward leg; for all I knew, T’aylang may have thrown an extra verse or two into his pseudohippo-song, earmarked sonically to the locally grown chewing tobacco that Moynahan was partial to. I had the feeling that the Eridanis would soon deign to expose more and more humans to their transformative singing as time went by.
It was unfortunate that Pete couldn’t have been here to capture the scene. But the cameraman’s bloody, decapitated head now lay inside a sack carried by one of our porters, carefully packaged and preserved for its eventual journey back on Earth. Thankfully, the captured data from Pete’s basic A/V circuit function would have remained intact, since everything there was hard-wired. I wondered if we’d find evidence of Church nanoagents inside Pete’s brain when we had a chance to analyze it later, or if the cameraman had invented his own role in the awful events that had played out.
We’d left the rest of Pete’s corpse to be carried off by his dream parrots, as he’d wished–although, to my eyes, the carrion birds that came for him looked more like large, multicolored pterodactyls.
We had to evade two additional Church assassins before we boarded the skip-ship back to Lagrange-2. Those agents had lingered behind in M’bassa, patiently awaiting our return there; our new Eridani friends helped us divert them. After that, we had to deal with yet another assassin on Earth before we finally arrived at a network facility, where we downloaded the data from the chips embedded inside Pete’s rotting cranium. These, along with the deadly nanoagents found in the databulb, brought the damning evidence of the Church’s bumbling, murderous conspiracy to light.
Laura edited the exposé in a tasteful and professional fashion, and within the space of two weeks, the Church of the Psychological Redemption was no more. We divulged nothing about Kline’s physical mutation, nor the details of how he had died–nor anything about the uniquely transformative power of the Eridani songs. It was not yet the moment for people to learn of those things. The Eridanis needed time to fully unwrap themselves, and we couldn’t think of a reason not to give it to them.
We found no nanoagents or psychotropic drugs inside Pete’s brain; he’d either acted on his own, or as a pawn in a larger game that the Eridanis were playing. I couldn’t bring myself to believe the latter theory. The memory of T’aylang’s heartfelt wail of grief as he held Kline’s dead body belied that notion. And yet, I found that I couldn’t rule it out entirely, based on Kline’s own speculations about his destiny. Perhaps T’aylang’s wail was simply one of remorse for having been forced to play his key role in their alien passion play.
Laura’s media production won all the available awards in its class, and its profits were immense. None could threaten us now. But the villa on the Mediterranean, and the glass of ouzo that went along with it, did not come to pass. Laura and I were both plagued by our memories of Kline’s visions–along with those of our own, gained in the wake of his passing. They spoke of Eridanis and humans joining together to seek their final redemption–if not in a veritable Garden of Eden, then in a world close enough to it.
We fought against our blood-compulsion to return to the highlands of Eridani, to hear once again the songs that would let us better understand the true meaning of our journey. In the end, it was a losing struggle.
The songs of Eridani were too powerful to resist.
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.