BIG TROUBLE

Excerpt from the journal of Sergeant Teodor Vuksov:

Joy and dread overwhelm me by turns.  We have landed at last on a beautiful new world, the existence of which was noted by our forces nearly fifteen years ago during one of the first battles of the rebellion.  No doubt only its remoteness has kept us from utilizing this planet previously.  Now, that remoteness makes it all the more desirable.

But, it is as I feared.  The Quadrant has infected even this pristine world with its presence.  We homed in on the transmissions between a local base and their Mission Control and touched down in a valley used at one time as a colony site.  We were forced to destroy a Quadrant ship which was at rest nearby, and an armed force of an unknown number attacked our reconnaissance crew.

Though our forces prevailed, we do not know if all the enemy were killed.  If not, they may be in contact with the Quadrant Fleet even now.  They may be planning further attacks against our sick and weary troops.

General Aleksandr is said to believe us safe for at least a few months.  I pray that this is true,  In the meantime, Colonel Borovitch will be scouring the area for enemy soldiers.  At his direction, I am readying a small but relatively healthy platoon for the task.

One thing is sure.  None of us will be safe so long as Quadrant troops remain alive and at large.

*                                          *                                    *                                            *

I think it was the coughing that woke me up.  At first, I couldn’t open my eyes.  Then the horrible smoke taste in my mouth started to gag me, and I tried to roll over because I thought I was going to throw up.  But there seemed to be no way to do that.  I didn’t know if I was just too weak, or if something heavy was crushing down on me, but for a Godawful minute there, I was starting to suffocate.

Then whatever was on top of me spasmed and started coughing, joining a growing chorus of coughs.  I couldn’t become one of the gang because I couldn’t get enough breath to cough with.

There was a shifting, and the massive weight of Captain John Calhoun Vickers rolled off of me, still coughing.  Finally, I could turn over, although I no longer needed to throw up.  I felt pretty sick, just the same.

When Cal came back to his senses, he did a feeble head count.  All of us still had heads.

“That was pretty slick, Cal,” said Morris, between spasms of coughing.

“Yeah,” Beth rasped out.  “And I’m sure at some point, I’ll be glad to be alive.”

I looked around at the forest floor.  The area was a mess.  Scorched trees were lying all over the place in a crazy tangle.  Smoke was still thick, swirling around the blackened stumps.  Not far away was a deep crater.

Cal pointed weakly toward the crater.  “If that had been a direct hit . . .”  He trailed off, none of us needing to hear the rest.

Out beyond the smoke, I heard a crunch, then another.  Cal held up a hand toward us, but we were already stifling our coughing fits while trying to bring our SSRs into play.  Just at the limits of visibility, I saw something dark moving from tree to tree.  That story about the tarks started to tickle my consciousness just a little.  The five of us drew beads on the shape, but it never stopped except behind a tree.  All this time, it was working its way toward our position.

It was behind a tree now, and I think we were all prepared to shoot the next time it appeared.  There was a flash, and a curved piece of metal was flung end over end toward us.  “Get down!” yelled Cal, and he didn’t have to tell us twice.

We crouched there for a tiny eternity.  But nothing happened.  Gradually, Cal stretched up to look at the object.  “What the hell is that?”  he said.

I peered out from under the earthmover to where the object was glinting in blackened rubble.  It was a set of handlebars from an airbike.

“Fifteen years I’ve nursed that thing along.  Now look at it,” said a familiar voice.  His hands up and a rueful smile on his face, Gordon stepped cautiously out into the open.  “That’s all they’ve left me.  Still alive, I see, Captain.”

“Still alive,” said Cal.  I wasn’t sure whether he was agreeing with Gordon or voicing his disappointment that the phrase applied to Gordon too.  “What was the idea of that airbike crap?”

By this time, we had clambered out of our little pit and were taking stock of each other.  We were all blackened, and each had some hair singed off.  Gordon had a cut over his right eye and his left sleeve was in shreds.  There was some blood on his left arm, but the arm didn’t seem to be bothering him.

“The idea,” said Gordon, finding Vanessa with his eyes and smiling at her hurried attempts to wipe her face clean with an equally dirty sleeve, “was to give you lot the chance to get away.  Unfortunately, you’ve not been as quick on your feet as I had hoped.”

“And how were you planning to get away,” asked Cal, sounding a tad petulant.  Nutty though it was, we were all impressed with what Gordon had done, and Cal knew it.

“I was going to calculate that when the time came, ” Gordon said with an unconcern that seemed real enough.  “By the way,” he continued, “we’ve got a lot more company than just that little fighter.  While you were napping, a very big ship came in and landed in the valley not far from the compound.”

“Bigger than the Thalasso?”  The Thalasso wasn’t that big and I knew it, but I figured my question would give us a better idea what we were up against.

Gordon laughed.  “Oh, my, yes, Irish.  I said a big ship.”

“And dark blue,” Vanessa said.  It was not a question, and Gordon only nodded.  Their eyes locked for a moment, then Vanessa looked down.

We all stood there watching our situation go from critical to worse.  Cal finally said, “I have to reconnoiter that ship.  Gordon, get my crew out of this area.”

A couple of us started to protest, but Cal said he had to judge the situation for himself and felt most comfortable doing that alone.

“All right,” said Gordon.  “There’s a river about a length in that direction.”  He pointed toward the deep woods.  “We’ll meet you about a half-length upstream at an island all overgrown with trees.  You really can’t miss it.  Let’s go!”  At that, Gordon took off running and, with a nod from Cal, we followed as best we could.

It wasn’t long before we were out of the blackened area and into the deep woods.  Once we got under tree cover again, I felt a little lightening of my load of terror.  But it had only sunk beneath the surface.  I felt it all around the edges of my consciousness, ready to clench my gut and make my legs weak again any time.

Loud and virtuosic though they were, I didn’t notice the bird-things singing for quite a while, what with fearing for my life and all.  But you couldn’t miss the bugs: gnats buzzing around your head, spindly-legged things that lit on any exposed skin and bit it, and big, black flies that seemed to want in to your nose and ears in the worst way.  We were moving fast enough that, despite the annoyance, they really didn’t have time to bother us as much as they wanted to.

Up ahead, I saw Gordon pull up short, back Vanessa and Morris up, and guide us all around the trees and bushes a different way.  Vanessa asked him what was up, and he gestured toward the area we would have passed.  In that clearing, a tornado of black and white flying things buzzed angrily over the carcass of some dead animal.

“Poisonflies,” Gordon was saying to Vanessa.  “Two bites for most people, and anaphylaxis sets in.  They usually die.  I’ve never seen anybody survive more than two bites.”  I filed poisonflies away in my head with all the other things on this planet that scared me.

We pushed on.  I heard the sound of rushing water ahead of us, a great deal of water.  I was sweating like a pig under my field jacket, and I thought about how it would feel to shuck off my clothes and dive into that cold river we were coming to.

That reminded me of the time my brother and I had dammed up the little creek downhill from our farm.  We were supposed to be painting the tool shed or some such, but it was a hot day just like this one.  Being the conscientious louts that we were, it wasn’t long before we had our clothes off and were playing in that muddy water.  We were so absorbed in building a mud fort on the bank, we didn’t see Mom come up behind us with a willow switch.  She laid to among us with her scourge, and I’m telling you, that was exquisite agony on our bare legs.  You’d best believe we got those chores done in record time.

Funny, the things that trigger our memories, I thought.  Funny, how I”m in imminent danger of having my clock stopped by the Russ, and I can’t keep my mind on what I’m doing, I thought next.

We came to the river.  There was a game trail along the bank and Gordon led us upriver along it.  We had to step carefully now because of the confusion of roots by the river, which meant that we had to slow our pace a little.  This was a good thing, because we were pretty much beat already.  At least it was cooler along the riverside.

The light on the water made millions of tiny reflective diamonds, more dazzling than gemstones could ever be.  There were long-necked birds, white with burnt orange and teal green bands, criss-crossing each other as they swooped down on the water’s surface.  Shiny big-eyed creatures about the size of frogs were thick along the river bank.  They eyed us and shifted nervously as we passed.

I was just getting lost in the beauty of God’s creation and all that stuff when Gordon brought me back to the scary realities of life.  He was in the lead, and asked Vanessa over his shoulder, “So what started this war with the Russians, anyway?”  I’d never heard them called that before.

Vanessa had to think for a moment, which was understandable since she’d been prepubescent when the whole mess got underway.  “I think . . . didn’t it have something to do with a mine, Beth?”

Beth was too tired to say anything but, “Yeah,” so I volunteered that the Russ had objected to paying out the Quadrant’s standard share of the proceeds from what, at the time, was the biggest uranium mine anywhere.  They appealed to the Quadrant Board and were predictably squelched.  So their leader, Igor Smolenkaya, had defied the Board and refused to pay up, as they had agreed to do generations before in their articles of colonization.  One thing led to another, and Smolenkaya told the commander of the local Quad military base to vacate or be annihilated.  The deadline passed, and another, while teams of negotiators tried to work out a deal.  Then the Board decided a bad precedent was being set.  They evacuated their forces for safety’s sake, and prepared for war.

The Russ proclaimed themselves free and independent of Quadrant rule.  They called themselves The United Russic States.  While Quad was still dithering, they attacked, with a skill and ferocity and degree of preparation that surprised the hell out of everybody.  After all, they were fighting for their homes and their families and their very lives while the Quadrant troops were just fighting for money.  Still, Quad was God.  Now, fifteen years later, their home planet was a toxic ruin, most of their bases of operation were destroyed, and they were forced to agree to pretty much the same deal they’d gone to war over.

I saw Gordon shaking his head as we trudged along.  “That story doesn’t surprise me in the least,” he said, sadly.

I waited for him to go on  When he didn’t, I asked, “So what was it you called them?”

“Russians.  That’s what they call themselves on Old Earth,” he said.  I couldn’t help noticing that he wasn’t even out of breath, while my legs were turning to hot mush.  “But they’re the same people,” he continued.  “Same kinds of names, same language, same alphabet.  Just like the China colony.  It’s named after a country on Old Earth, as well.”  He shook his head again.  “All those people, just wanting to be free, to rule themselves as they see fit.”

“Those colonies agreed to abide by the articles of colonization,” I said, feeling vaguely patriotic and sticking up for the Quadrant since Cal wasn’t there to do it.  “They made whatever deal they made.  They ought to stick to it.”

Gordon actually stopped, stopping all of us.  He glared back at me as if trying to decide whether I was worth battering.  “Freedom is not a business deal,” he said savagely, then turned and hiked away with a fierce energy.  We had a hard time keeping up.

A few minutes later, we came to the island Gordon had spoken of.  There was a log from our bank that went halfway across, and another from the island side that overlapped the first one, making a dandy natural bridge.  We had a bad moment when we had to leave the tree cover while crossing, but we got there all right.

The island itself was about the size of a turfball field, and heavily overgrown with trees and bushes.  We could have hidden a battalion in there without being seen from above.  Gordon led us to a little clearing he’d used many times on hunting trips, where we stashed our packs and field jackets.

Beth looked almost comatose with fatigue.  “How you doin’, Doc?” asked Morris.

She looked at him and narrowed her bleary eyes.  “Don’t you worry about me, Qualls,” she said in a sort of tough squeak.

We all lay down in the grassy shade, except Vanessa and Gordon.  I watched the tips of the trees that towered overhead describe big circles in the sky as the wind’s soft, distant roar and the river’s more immediate roar blended in a soothing tapestry of sound that gradually eased away my fear, and the throbbing of my feet, and my grief, until I was gone, sailing off across a windswept canyon.  I heard the birds singing in the treetops far below me.  I looked off into unimaginable distances on every side as I sailed on and on.  I knew I was on an airbike, but it seemed to be directing itself as I dodged around mountain peaks and great birds with feathers of metallic green and gold.

I looked down and one of them was gliding along below me, just off to one side.  It swung its massive beak and struck my foot once, twice, then again.  I opened my eyes, becoming attuned to my aching body once more, and Vanessa was there looking down at me.

“God, Kelly, I thought you were dead,” said Vanessa.  At least I thought it was Vanessa, although I didn’t remember her with her face half-blackened and part of her hair singed off.  She looked worried, and bone-tired.

“Wha’s a matter,” I slurred, adrenaline jerking me into a sitting position.

“You guys have been sleeping for two hours.  And Cal’s not back yet.”  I would have thought she was messing with me, except for the tight sound of her voice.  I felt like I’d just closed my eyes.

Beth and Morris were sitting up too, still half asleep.  Morris muttered, “How could he not be back yet?”

“I don’t know,” said Vanessa.  “But we’ve got some decisions to make.”

Vanessa sat down in our midst, and we all huddled there for a while, staring intently downstream.  Gordon wandered up from the river with a long stick in one hand and a serious-looking knife in the other.  Just as I was getting a grip on my SSR, he sat down too and started whittling.  Nothing was said for a while.

Finally, I managed, “Okay, now, Cal.  Any friggin’ time.”

Morris looked at Gordon.  “He should have been here by now, shouldn’t he, Dr. Gordon?”

Gordon didn’t look up from his stick.  “I should think so,” he said.

“Well, the terrain’s really rough,” said Vanessa.  “He doesn’t know the way, so I’m sure he’s taking it slow . . .”

Beth spoke with some reluctance, which was unlike her.  “All he’s got to do is follow the river, Vaness.  No way he wouldn’t have made it by now.  Unless he’s — well — he might have gotten hurt or something.”  She looked at Vanessa, who was biting a knuckle, and cringed a little.

It made me mad that she had said aloud what was understood very well, I thought, by everybody.  “There is no point in that kind of talk,” I said.  “Everybody’s gonna get needlessly upset.  Vanessa, we’ve just got to give him a little more time, that’s all.”  I was saying it, I was hoping it was true, but I had a sinking feeling all the same.

Disagreement came from an unexpected source.  “I don’t want to get anyone upset,” said Morris with just a touch of uncharacteristic sarcasm, “but we’ve got to consider the possibilities.”

I started to repeat, “There’s no point — ”

“Just hear me out,” Morris interrupted.  “This is something we’ve got to talk about.  All right, Vanessa, you’re Cal’s second in command.”

Beth tried, “Hey, all I said was –”

“We’ve got to consider the possibilities,” repeated Morris, with a patience beyond his years.  “We’ve got to have a plan.  We can’t just sit here till dark, not if what Dr. Gordon says is true.”

Vanessa was visibly trying to pull herself together.  “If Cal’s hurt, we’re wasting time sitting here as it is.  It’ll take us over an hour just to get back to where we left him.  Anything could be happening to him.”

“There’s no going back,” Gordon’s deep, authoritative voice said regretfully.

He had our attention.  Vanessa asked, “Why not?” And Beth, who was still tired and cranky, said, “Look, if we decide to go back for Cal, then that’s all there is to it, okay?”

We were all still looking at him, but Gordon kept on whittling.  He was getting quite a point on that stick.  I saw he would need some prompting.  “Not that we’ve decided anything yet, but . . . what do you mean?”

“The Russ, as you call them, have got to come after us,” said Gordon.  “They’ll know they’re not safe so long as we’re running around out here.”  Beth started to object, but Gordon only went on talking.  “If they were smart, and if they were able, they’d likely start after us right away.  If they did, they could easily be as far as that missile crater by now — maybe further.”

“Yeah,” said Morris.  “That makes sense.”

Vanessa was wavering.  “If Cal’s hurt, we’ve got to go back,” she said with a little tremble in her voice.

“Be a nasty shock to run into the Russ, though,” I said.

“We can’t just sit here worrying about that.  What if he is hurt?  If it was one of us out there, he’d be on his way to help us already.”  Beth was beginning to get a bit worked up.

I said, “Yeah, but we’ve got to be careful, Beth, that’s all we’re saying.”

Vanessa stood up.  “If Cal’s not here in twenty minutes,” she said, “We’ve got to go back.”

Morris looked to Gordon.  “What would you suggest,” he asked softly.

Gordon looked at him, then glanced around at all of us.  “Well, now,” he began.  “The thing your captain was most concerned with was getting his crew to safety.  Is that how you feel too, Vanessa?”

That question was a body blow to her resolve.  “Well, that — that is the ranking officer’s responsibility.  But if there’s a chance that Cal’s hurt, and we’re in a position to help him . .  we’ve got to try.”  She said it, but she didn’t sound so sure any more.

Gordon was talking directly to her now.  “I understand.  Now, here’s our situation.  We are, as you say, at least an hour’s hike from where we left your Captain.  Even if we find him right away and bring him back, meeting no hostile troops, that’s two more hours gone at the least.  Shelter is a four hour hike from here — for me.  In your condition, I’d say five at the least.  And the sun will set in about five hours.”  He paused for effect.  I thought about that long, curved claw he’d shown us.  “If we reach shelter after dark,” he continued, “well, we may reach it and we may not.  I’ll help you whatever you wish to do, but as –”  He turned to Morris.  “What is your name, there, Midnight?”

Morris seemed to find Gordon’s question hugely amusing.  “C.P.O. Morris Qualls, sir,” he answered with a grin.

“As Morris says,” Gordon continued, “It’s bloody well time to decide.”

Vanessa turned half away from us.  She sank back down and put her head in her hands.  She looked awfully young and vulnerable to be filling Cal’s shoes.

Gordon began inspecting his stick.  It was sharp as any spear, and somehow he’d cut little barbs close to the point.  He said, “I’m going to try to stick some fish . . . at least I call them fish.  Anyone care to join me?”  He gave us a meaningful look, then nodded slightly toward Vanessa as he headed toward the river.

“Ah, yes,” said Beth, brightly.  “Nothing like a little fish-sticking.”

“Yeah,” I offered.  “Be a good supplement for our . . . you know . . .”

“Our field rations,” said Morris, bailing me out.  “Yeah, well, I can’t wait to see one.”

And so, muttering inanities, we stiffly and awkwardly followed Gordon down to the water’s edge.  We had to be leaving Vanessa to what was probably the toughest decision of her life.

Gordon took his position with each foot on a boulder, straddling some shallow water.  He was peering intently downward.  “Usually find them around rocks or tree roots,” he muttered, as much to himself as to us.

Morris kept his voice down as he said, “There’s another thing no one’s said yet.”  We looked at him expectantly as Gordon gazed into the dark water.  “Well, I don’t know if it’s sunk in with you guys yet, but we’re as marooned here as Dr. Gordon was.  Is.  With the Thalasso gone, we can’t even contact Mission Control.”

“Don’t worry, lads,” Gordon interjected, not looking up.  “The Quadrant will be along in fifteen, twenty years, and we’ll all be saved.”

Beth said miserably, “If they sent a ship today — and I hope to God they did — it wouldn’t get here for six months.”

We looked at each other for a long moment.  It occurred to me that we hadn’t been on the planet six hours yet, and our position was none too swell.

Gordon made a sudden lunge with his stick.  He pulled a wriggling, long, sinewy, slimy-looking fish-like thing out of the water and held it proudly aloft.  Beth raised one hand, and shaking her head, turned and walked away.  “I wouldn’t eat that with your mouth,” she said, shuddering.

Then I heard something that made my heart leap — and in a good way, this time.  It was Vanessa’s voice, crying out, “Cal!  Cal!  Over here!”

And there he was.  Dirty as hell, tired and scorched, but walking under his own considerable power up the riverbank toward us, was our captain.  He wore a relieved smile that mainly served to separate his dirty upper face from his dirty lower face.  Eschewing our log bridge, he waded out through the shallows, but before he could get to the island we were all over him.  All of us were laughing, splashing, yelling; we hugged him, kissed him, slapped him on the back and tousled his hair, all at the same time.

I looked over to see Gordon, abandoned at the moment of his triumph with the “fish.”   His face was about fifty-fifty chagrin and amusement as he watched the hero’s welcome we were giving Cal.  He glanced at the squirming thing on the pole, shrugged, and tossed his catch, stick and all, up onto the riverbank.

*                                               *                                       *                                            *

The chemical composition of our field rations was such that, when you broke the seal on the carton, the air would interact with something or other inside, the molecules would get all excited, and you’d have a hot meal.  Not necessarily a good meal, but it would be hot.

We had all assembled in the little clearing and were chowing down.  Gordon fried his catch in one of those self-heating skillets which campers and military personnel still use when they don’t want to give their positions away with campfire smoke.  He had cleaned and beheaded the little monstrosity, tossing the offal into the river and carefully rinsing the rock he’d used as his butcher block.  He explained that he didn’t want to draw any poisonflies, which I felt was a laudable goal.

Cal told us about his scouting expedition.  Having worked his way back to where he could get a look at the Russ ship, he’d decided to get in closer and try to figure out how many soldiers she carried, what kind of weapons they had, and so on.  The ship was a troop transport, he said, with at least two hundred Russ commandos on board, all men as far as he could tell.  They had rolled out some tanks, a few heavy-duty airbikes, several all-terrain vehicles — and of course, they had the fighter, which was pulled up alongside the mother ship.

“That’s your fault,” I told Gordon.  “You had every opportunity to take out that fighter with your shotgun, pal.”    We all laughed at my little jest.

“I got other plans for that fighter,” said Cal.  “That’s an SL-14.  Small as it looks from the ground, we can fit three amidships, one or more aft, and of course a pilot and co-pilot.  It’d be a tight squeeze, but I’ve seen it done.”

“Ho, yeah,” I said, thinking that Cal had become quite a kidder.  “All we have to do is borrow it from the Russ.”

But Cal was not smiling.  “We’re gonna take it,” he said.  “Those SL-14s hold a ton of fuel.  That little bird can get us to Walker One, no sweat.”

As we looked at each other in disbelief, I recalled that Walker One was the remotest outpost of the Quadrant Fleet, about a month back toward Tavic.  Our long-range equipment on board the Thalasso had used it as a relay to communicate with Mission Control.  Truth to tell, there wasn’t much on Walker One but communications gear.

Morris broke the silence.  “We’re gonna take that fighter?  How?  With what?”

“Our friend Gordon here knows this country inside and out,” said Cal.  “All we have to do is circle back around somehow to get within striking distance.  If we can get close enough to that fighter, I can take it, pal.  Leave that part to me.”  Cal scraped out the last of his carton.  “One advantage we have is that a lot of them are sick.  Or wounded, or something.  I must have watched them off-load two dozen stretchers or more, and taking care of all those people is gonna tie them down in a big way.”

“Yeah, well, fine,” said Beth.  “So what do we do in the meantime?”

“There’s no meantime,” Cal said, now fiddling with his pack.  “We’re gonna start right now.  We’ll be in position to hit ’em before dawn tomorrow.”  Beth’s face was so tragic I wanted to laugh, but it really wasn’t funny.

“I think you’re forgetting something,” Gordon rumbled.  He gingerly lifted a hot piece of creature into his mouth and began to chew.

Cal looked at him for a moment, as Gordon went on chewing.  “Okay, I’ll bite.  What?”

“The sun will be down in about four and a half hours,” replied Gordon, with grave patience.

“So?  That’s great, all the better.”  There was a hint of challenge in Cal’s tone.

Vanessa said, “Cal, he’s talking about the tarks.”

“I know what he’s talking about,” Cal snapped.  “If there’s any such thing as a tark, we’ll just have to take our chances.   If there isn’t, I’m not gonna miss an opportunity to hit the Russ before they settle in.”

“The Russ will lose a lot of men to the tarks tonight,” said Gordon, scouring his frying pan with a handful of sand.  “But they’ve got men to spare.  There’s only five of you, and I should think you’d want to keep it that way.”

“Uh, there’s six of us altogether,” mumbled Morris, ever modest about correcting his elders.

Gordon turned to him.  “If your captain disregards my advice, there’s five of you.  I’ll be heading for shelter as soon as I finish here.  If you’re caught outside after dark, you’ll all die.”  He looked at Vanessa.  “Which would be a shame.”  It wasn’t lost on me that a few moments before, when it looked like Vanessa would be in charge, Gordon had told her he’d help her no matter what she decided.  With Cal back, it was a very different story.

“Bullshit,” spat Cal.  “You’re coming with us.  Even if what you say is true, we’ve got weapons that didn’t exist in your day, okay?  We’ll cut your little critters to pieces and so will the Russ.  If they lose one man to the local wildlife I’ll be surprised.”  Cal had stood up during this, while Gordon, still seated, regarded him with a bored tolerance that made the blood rise to Cal’s face like I’d never seen.  “And don’t tell me what you will or will not do here,” Cal went on, his voice rising.  “You’re used to calling your own shots and having it your own way.  But this planet is still Quadrant property, and for all intents and purposes, I’m the Quadrant here.  Do I make myself clear?”

The bored tolerance had evaporated.  Now, if I ever saw murder in the making, it was there in Gordon’s eyes.  “Well now,” he said, with a dead calm in his voice.  “So you’re the Quadrant?”  He stood up.  “If I were those two hundred Russians down there, I’d be trembling in my ballet slippers.”  His eyes were burning.

For an instant, they seemed to be straining toward each other, like vicious dogs about to explode in violence and bloody fur.  We were all scrambling to our feet, and I stepped between them, saying, “Okay, now, you guys.  Settle down.”  It was lame, but it was all I could think of.

“Yeah, come on,” said Beth.  “We’re getting real confrontational here.”

Vanessa put a hand on Cal’s shoulder.  “Let’s try a little different approach here, okay?”  Still at Cal’s side, she turned to Gordon.  “Dr. Gordon, isn’t there some shelter we could use that’s a little nearer to here?  You know, close enough so we can try to do what Cal — what Captain Vickers wants to do?”

There were now two people between Gordon and Cal, and still Gordon’s eyes burned into his.  He said, without looking away, “There might be.  Not that I know of, but there might be.  The Hill People may know of something.”  He turned away and began tying up his pack as though nothing had happened, as though he hadn’t just floored us all with his last few words.

“Did you say . . . the Hill People?”  asked Beth.

Morris crouched down and peered intently at Gordon as he said, “Do you mean to say there’s intelligent life on this planet?”

Gordon looked at him and smiled.  “I dunno how intelligent they are.  But they’re people of a sort, and I think they’ll help us.”

“Are you talking about — there’s an indigenous people here?  Get out!  That’s unbelievable!” Vanessa said, with wonder in her voice.”

“I’ll say,” growled Cal, with none.

Morris was practically choking with enthusiasm.  “Well, are they — do they — What are they like?  How advanced are they?”  Bear in mind that, up until that time, no extraterrestrial native peoples had ever been found.

Gordon seemed a little flummoxed.  “Well . . . I’m not an anthropologist.  Uh, they’re tribal.  They fashion some amazing weapons and things from locally available materials.  No metals as yet.  But they know these woods and hills like I wish I knew anything.”

“And that’s where you were gonna take us for shelter?” asked Morris, straightening up along with Gordon.  “Wow!”  Gordon nodded, blinking in the face of Morris’ excitement.  Our Chief Petty Officer was still just a kid.

Vanessa turned to Cal.  “I think this changes the whole equation.  If we can get their help . . . don’t you think?”

Cal was still dubious.  “If they exist . . . I have to admit it’s worth checking into.  Anything that might help even the odds.”

“No kidding,” drawled Beth.

Morris turned earnestly to Cal.  “It’d be worth while just to see ’em!  The first non-human intelligence mankind’s ever encountered!”  He was so charged up, he practically burbled.

“And if they will help us out,” said Vanessa, “it could make all the difference.  Cal, we ought to give it a shot.”

“Yeah, I just said it was worth looking into,” Cal said with some irritation.  “But, Gordon — we have to work together here, so don’t take this the wrong way — I don’t want to lose time over some figment of your imagination, okay?  ‘Cause that could cost us our lives.  You see what I’m saying?”

Gordon, who had been checking his automatic rifle, slammed it into its holster and fixed Cal with a malevolent look.  “I’ve always said self-control is a magnificent virtue,” he grated.  “Fortunately for you I’m feeling uncommonly virtuous.  Let’s go.”

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