Common Ground (A Nearspace Short Story)

Author’s Note: A long time ago (sometime in 1997), I wrote a story about first contact with a species of wolf-like aliens. It was published on a website called Nuketown, which at that time took fiction submissions. As it turned out, these aliens later became the Lobors of Nearspace, and I realized that without knowing it, I had written a part of Nearspace history with that story. So with the publication of the second Nearspace book,  Dark Beneath the Moon, (in which we meet a very important Lobor), I thought I’d share the story with you here. It also appears in my collection To Unimagined Shores. In the Nearspace timeline, the story takes place around the year 2097, before the advent of wormhole travel and almost 200 years before the events in the novels.

CommonGroundCoverWebOur third day on the surface of the new planet, we discovered the worst of our problems.

There’d been glitches, of course, and patch jobs, and arguments while we dismantled the seed modules and organized base camp. The skewed atmosphere and sweltering temperatures made for short tempers. And we’d had only a month to digest the shocking fact that aliens had reached the planet before us. We hadn’t seen or heard from them yet, which didn’t help anyone’s nerves.

But on the third day, when the recon team went to recover the cargo lander that carried our precious CSM’s, it was gone.

And with it, the thousand embryos who were our whole reason for being here. After the first paralyzed seconds of shock, the yelling and crying seemed to go on for a long, long time.

“What do you mean, ‘It’s gone’?” That was Commander Nellis, trying to control his voice, but it came out in a shout anyway. His wife, Amanda, stood behind him, lips pressed together in a grim line, clasping and unclasping her hands. The rest of us crowded around, stunned and terrified.

The recon team leader, Jim Ortega, stared unblinkingly at Nellis, his face ashen. He gulped for air after every few words. “It’s gone. We triangulated—exact location. The chute was there, unhooked—we brought it back—but the lander—gone. There’s a trail—marks in the dirt—nothing else.”

One of the women behind me began to sob, great gulping coughs of despair.

My husband, Laz, spoke up. “Which way does the trail lead?” His voice was calm, but his hand clenched mine, slender surgeon’s fingers trembling slightly.

“W-west.” Jim gulped. “Towards that nearest crop area. I thought we should come back—report—”

Nellis had himself under control now. He laid a gentle hand on Jim’s shoulder. “You did right, Jim. We have to be cautious, here.”

“We’ve got to move now!” someone yelled. “They’ve got our babies!”

“If they break open the lander—”

“I’ll kill them!”

“Who the hell are they, anyway?”

“Why would they take it?”

“Quiet! QUIET!” Nellis’ voice sluiced through the panicked crowd. The shouting ebbed into muttering, then subsided. “I’ll take a team to track the lander immediately. But let’s be smart about this. Ellie, you’ve been monitoring the lander’s status?”

I nodded dumbly.

“Check the readings. See if it’s been compromised yet.”

“Of course.” I could have kicked myself for not thinking of that. Instead, I set off for the command dome at a run.

Behind me I heard Nellis saying, “Folks, stay calm. We didn’t come all this way to let anything happen to the babies. I don’t care who or what has them. We’ll get them back.”

– o –

Of course, the babies were not yet born. They were microscopic embryos, clinging instinctively to the soft fibers of their Cryo-Embryonic Storage Mats, or CSM’s, in the frigid cargo lander. Ten of them were mine and Laz’s, my eggs and his sperm. Every other colonist couple had ten as well, and the rest were donations to expand the future colony’s gene pool. We could raise a thousand children if we wanted—a miracle compared to the one child each couple might have been allowed if we had stayed on humanity-choked Earth. And the embryos were insurance, as well. No one knew how extended coldsleep and the influences of an alien planet might affect normal conception and childbirth, in the beginning at least.

Twenty-seven years of coldsleep seemed a small price to pay. And when this colony, and others like it, were settled, we’d begin preparing to welcome Earth’s overflow. The mammoth bulk of the Achieve had been jammed with colonization equipment, our coldsleep pods occupying only a small corner. But the ships that followed us could simply bring people. Cryo-mechanics and interstellar travel were top priority technology, and soon colonized worlds would be waiting and ready. Hundreds of thousands of children who would never be born on Earth could have a chance at life among the stars.

But ours had been stolen.

My hands trembled as I punched up the readings for the lander. Laz stumbled in behind me, panting. Running was arduous, while our bodies learned to process the new atmospheric mix. I scanned the screen.

“It’s still all right,” I whispered. “The lander’s sealed. Temperature stable. Everything’s still normal.”

I turned and sagged against Laz for a moment, and together we caught our breaths. Then I staggered to the door, to let the others know that for the moment, anyway, our babies were safe.

– o –

It had been a mind-numbing shock to find the planet inhabited. Reconnaissance probes had long ago revealed the second planet orbiting Delta Pavonis as eminently habitable, verdant and populated by heterogeneous fauna. We had sentimentally named it Renata, for rebirth, and confidently expected to have it to ourselves.

A lot can happen in twenty-seven years.

A month ago we had gathered at the bridge viewscreen, a groggy, weak, and sullen lot after almost three decades of coldsleep, for the first glimpse of our new home. The coldsleep hangover pounded in my temples as I tried to comprehend what I was seeing.

Earthlike and alien at once, Renata swathed herself in ribbons of indigo and jade, clouds hanging like casually draped scarves high in the atmosphere. Iron-rich belts of desert lent the planet a russet tone. Most of the verdant land girdled the equator, where we would live. One moon, as grey and grimly pocked as earth’s own, hovered to the left of the planet, while a second, smaller moon spun on the right.

We watched, breathless, as the recon probe was launched, skimming toward the upper atmosphere like a flashing diamond, to begin its work feeding us detailed data from the planet’s surface. A ragged cheer went up. We were weak, but we had arrived safely.

Later, when the initial surface data stuttered onto the screen, I happened to be on the bridge again. Mikhail Chornesky and I were briefing Commander Nellis on the excellent state of the bioseed mats and agricultural equipment. Holly Fisher, an exoplanetologist, saw it first.

“Sir!”

Her voice was strangled, and her usually luminous mahogany skin had gone ashy and dull.

“What is it?” Nellis crossed to Holly’s station as he spoke. “Report!”

“Cultivated areas. Small and patchy, but definitely crops. No dwellings sighted yet. Evidence of small craft—”

“Sweet Mother,” breathed Nellis, his composure shaken for once. “There’s someone else down there?”

“That’s not all, sir,” Holly said woodenly. “There’s a large ship. In orbit around the planet.”

– o –

After decades of searching the skies, humanity had still seemed the lone outpost of sentience in the universe. We had discovered extraterrestrial life in abundance, generally classifiable as plant, animal or insect, but nothing close to intelligent or organized as we knew it. Some still accepted the possibility, but few thought it likely. None of us had the slightest expectation of finding aliens on Renata.

And whoever or whatever they were, they weren’t here by choice. The ship was an orbiting wreck, a massive breach gaping in the aft section. Close contour scans seemed to indicate an internal explosion, but that was all we could tell. It appeared that the aliens were here by accident. The small craft on the surface must be escape vehicles only, having carried the survivors to the nearest safe haven.

Our planet.

– o –

“But we can’t go down there now,” said Jessie Norton. She seemed to force the words out, as if invisible fingers clenched her throat.

I always wondered a little how Jessie made it onto the Achieve‘s crew roster. Oh, she was a first-rate physicist, and her husband, Charles, was a born computer analyst. But Jessie didn’t seem to share the drive that the rest of us did. If she badly wanted children, she hid it well. About the only thing she did seem passionate about was Charles.

Commander Nellis glanced around the bridge. We had converged here, the largest single room on Achieve, as word of the aliens screamed through the ship. No-one muttered or fidgeted. We were a solemn, silent, and troubled group.

“There’s nothing to discuss as far as that’s concerned, Jessie. We have nowhere else to go.”

Gretchen Chornesky, the first officer, was matter-of-fact. “We’re out of fuel, and we can’t return to coldsleep. We all knew the risks. Renata is our only destination, and whatever we find there, we deal with.”

“But the—aliens—we don’t know anything about them. What kind of people are they?”

“Well, Jessie, to start with, they’re not people at all,” Hank Kelly said, grinning. Hank was the zoologist, and his wry Texas humor was never very far from the surface. “And the only way to find out anything about them is to go and meet them.”

A few others nodded hesitantly. Most of us just stood listening, outwardly numb. I wondered if anyone else felt sick.

“It’s not as if we’re invading their planet,” continued Nellis. “They’re just stranded here. Maybe we’ll even be able to help them. We’ll prepare for the possibility that they’re hostile, but we’ll hope for the best. We have to go ahead. There’s no choice.”

“There’s only a small cultivated area near our targeted base camp site,” Holly Fisher added. Her color was back, high, bright stains on her cheekbones. “They’ve spread themselves out considerably, instead of staying in one large group. It might be easier for us to deal with them this way, a few at a time.”

Commander Nellis nodded. “We could pick another site, avoid them altogether, but we’ll have to deal with them sometime. It might as well be now.” He spread his hands wide. “That’s all, folks. We might know more by the time we get down there, but for now we’ll go ahead as planned. There’s lots of work to do, so let’s get back to it.”

I was still frightened, but I knew the commander was right, and his own calm was comforting. For others, it was not so easy. I caught a glimpse of Jessie Norton’s face as she left the room, pale with fear and anger. Charles had his arm around her, whispering in her ear.

Laz and I visited the cargo hold that evening. Most of us made periodic visits down here, checking on the ‘babies’. We’d scan the readouts and press a warm hand against the shockingly cold plastal skin of the lander. It hardly equated to tucking a child into bed, but it was the best we could do.

Laz put an arm around my shoulders and squeezed. “Soon,” he whispered, setting his other hand next to mine on the lander’s side.

“I hope so,” I whispered back. Neither of us voiced the fears we shared. When we were shivering, our hands numb from the cold, we went back to our cramped quarters. Four couples to a room, and none of us very cheery that night. But we spent some time thumbing through a dog-eared old baby-name book that I’d tucked in with my meager personal possessions, and felt a little more hopeful by the time we went to sleep.

Now, a month later, it was beginning to look as if Jessie Norton had been right. The aliens had stolen our most precious cargo, and somehow, we had to get it back.

Lloyd Fisher spent a minute checking the land crawler and pronounced it ready to go again. The nearest cultivated area was about fifteen kilometers away, so that was the place to start looking.

Nellis clambered into the driver’s seat. Perspiration slicked his face, but he was trying like hell to appear confident and cheery.

“We have no real protocol for alien contact, folks, so I’m making this up as I go along. We’re gonna try to make it short and friendly to start. I’m thinking we want biology, zoology, genetics and psychology along when we meet these neighbors. Ellie, Hank, Annick, and Amanda, climb on board. To be on the safe side, we’ll take Doctor Laz along too. And Jim, you can come and ride shotgun. I think that’s enough. Gretchen, you’re in charge here. Keep the comm open and we’ll report when we can.”

It was a squeeze to fit seven of us into the crawler. Laz balanced his medkit on his lap, one arm around my shoulders. I thought everyone must be able to hear my heart pounding. No one said much as we trundled along, the spinning, sawtoothed blades on the crawler’s front end mowing through the verdant underbrush. The aliens had no roads. Behind us, the silvery metal skeleton of the carrybed rattled and flashed under the blistering sun.

Half an hour later we were there. Nellis slowed as we approached, unwilling to give even the slightest hint of hostility. The crawler’s sensors were silent. We all peered into the surrounding forest, but there was no movement, of indigenous fauna or anything else.

Finally we sighted the cultivated area, nestled in a clearing against a rock outcropping maybe fifty feet high. Nellis stopped the crawler. We’d go the rest of the way on foot, although we’d be more exposed.

“Jim, you stay here. We’ll leave all the comm lines open, so you can eavesdrop on what’s happening, and we’ll hear you, too.” Nellis climbed out and swiped his brow with the back of his hand. “Hot as blazes again, dammit. Everyone try to keep a cool head, no matter how hard it is.”

He forced a grin at us, and we all stood for a moment, waiting to see if something would happen. Nothing did.

So we began a slow walk toward the neat rows of crops, all we could see of the settlement. If nothing and no-one emerged from anywhere to meet us, I didn’t know what we’d do next. I hoped Nellis had a plan.

We were perhaps thirty feet from the edge of the garden when a short, peremptory sound rang out. Absurdly, I thought it sounded like a dog’s bark. We froze.

Jim’s voice came tinnily into my ear over the comm. “What the hell was that? You all right, Commander?”

“Okay so far,” Nellis breathed back. “Hold position, Jim. Everyone keep your hands well away from your sides. Turn the palms to the front, make sure they see empty hands, wherever they are.”

Nellis held his own arms out to either side, palms forward. “Hello?” he called. A runnel of sweat coasted down the side of his face, but his voice was steady.

“Hello?”

Without turning to face us, he murmured, “Slowly, now. Big, slow moves.”

He took a long, deliberate step forward. Nothing happened. He took another, and we followed. The hot air clotted around us, thick and silent as we approached the garden. The striations in the cliff face shimmered redly. Beads of sweat trickled ticklish down my sides, but I made no move to wipe them. A dark, moist patch spread across Nellis’ shirt between his shoulder blades.

Once past the end of the garden we saw the cave. A dozen yards distant the shrouded entrance gaped blackly in the rock wall. And under a natural outcropping, half obscured by shadow, stood three aliens.

My stomach churned. My own breath made a hollow whistling sound in my throat. These were the creatures who had our babies. I could not even see them clearly yet, but a fist of fear tightened in my chest.

One of them held up a hand, but we had already stopped. The others were armed, not overtly menacing but standing easily erect, perhaps five feet tall and garbed in wrapped shirts and loose leggings.

The apparent leader gave a short speech, the words a tumbled gibber of growls, yips, and barks. It ended on a questioning note.

I forced myself to focus, think like a scientist. Their faces were vaguely canine, tapering to muzzle-like points. Evolution on their world had favored something that could have started out looking like a German Shepherd, or maybe a wolf.

Nellis turned his hands palm-up in a helpless gesture. “I’m sorry, we don’t understand you. We are from a planet called Earth, and we greet you with all friendship. Can you understand me?”

The alien listened with his head cocked slightly to one side, then mimicked Nellis’ palms-up gesture.

“What does he mean?” breathed Nellis. “Is he saying he doesn’t understand me, or just imitating what I did?”

“Beats me,” Hank whispered back. “At a guess, he’s saying he doesn’t understand. I think at least we have some common ground—speech and body language.”

“Now what?” asked Laz.

“Mime the fact that we’re looking for something,” Amanda hissed. “Maybe draw it, too.”

“Sweet Mother. I didn’t sign up for this.” Nellis pointed slowly to himself and the rest of us as he raised his voice again.

“We are looking for something.” He cupped his hands around his eyes and peered about.

The alien nodded, hesitantly.

“May I?” asked Nellis, pointing to a stick lying nearby. He seemed to have to keep talking, even though it was only noise to the aliens.

The alien nodded again.

Nellis quickly sketched a crude representation of the cargo lander in the soft dirt. It wasn’t much more than a rectangular box anyway, but he included the Achieve‘s call letters and logo painted on the side, and drew a few stick figures around it for scale. Then he stepped back.

The alien who had spoken and one of the others drew linen-like hoods up over their heads, then advanced out into the sunlight. They walked with a light, bouncing gait, the folds of their leggings swinging gently. The third alien remained in the shadow of the cave entrance, and was joined by a fourth, also armed. They watched their companions, and us, with unblinking alertness.

As the two approached, I had to suppress the urge to step back. I had a wild notion that, dog-like as they were, they would smell my dread. But the scientist part of my brain asserted itself, noting details to be considered later.

Their faces and hands were smooth-skinned, a pale umber unlike any human flesh. At the hems of their garments and under their hoods were hints of dense, wavy fur in varied browns and tans. Each hand had an opposable thumb, a long index and middle digit, and a short third and fourth digit. They had no neck to speak of, their heads sloping gradually out to their shoulders, and the soft linen hoods outlined high-set ears with delicate vestigial points.

The leader examined the drawing while the other one watched us. I attempted a smile, but the alien face remained passive. There were no obvious indications of gender. I just thought of them as male, but they could as easily have been female.

The leader looked up at Nellis and nodded. He pointed to the drawing, then pointed to himself, then waved an arm back to the cave. Each gesture was accompanied by a word or two, just as Nellis’ had been.

Nellis pointed to the drawing, then to himself. “We need it back,” he said.

The alien stared. Nellis tried again.

“We need it back. We must take it back with us.” He mimed the lander following us away.

The alien held up a hand in a “wait” kind of gesture. He and his companion returned to the cave and disappeared inside. The others stood guard, still watching us.

“Did it work? Could they possibly be gone to get it?” Annick was breathless.

“I can’t imagine it would be that easy,” said Hank. “Aren’t they spectacular? And we’re communicating with them—in a limited way, but we’re doing it! First contact with an alien species! Christ, I can’t wait to study them!”

“So much like dogs or wolves, but the differences!” hissed Annick. “And their teeth are blunt. Herbivores. That explains these garden plots everywhere.”

“The only thing I can see is you,” grumbled Jim over the comm line. “Someone take a picture, will you?”

No one else seemed to be as frightened as I was, or they were hiding it well. I was determined to do the same. “We could probably learn a lot from these plants,” I said casually, glancing over the rows of crops. “I’d almost swear that’s runner beans on those poles. But some of the others…weird. It’s lucky they’ll grow, if the aliens are here by accident.”

Long rolls of sheer fabric lay stretched beside the garden rows. Sunshades, I guessed, to be suspended from the tall poles as needed. Renata’s sun was probably too intense for some of the alien crops.

With the sweat pouring down my sides and back, I found it rather intense myself.

And then they emerged again, cutting our speculations short. My heart fluttered once, then steadied. Already they were more familiar.

This time four more followed the leader, lugging a long, open, metallic box. It was heaped high with an incomprehensible jumble of metal and plastic. They carried it toward us, following closely behind the leader.

He stopped at the picture of the cargo lander scratched in the dirt. Pointed to the overflowing box behind him, then to us. Pointed to the cargo lander, then to himself and his followers. The bearers panted slightly, tongues lolling out like dogs.

Laz sucked in a deep breath.

“Dammit,” Nellis whispered. “They want to trade.”

“You have to say no,” urged Amanda. “Make it clear that isn’t an option.”

“Try to tell them about the babies,” said Annick, but I think as soon as she said it she knew it was hopeless. We were still at the point of drawing stick pictures; how could we explain about CSM’s?

Nellis squared his shoulders. “No,” he said firmly, shaking his head. “We need this.” He pointed to us and to the lander.

The alien shook his head slowly, the folds of his hood swinging gently with the motion. He patted himself on the chest, spread his hands wide, as if in supplication. It was a strangely human gesture, and I felt a sudden surge of unreasoning compassion. Then he picked up Nellis’ stick and drew a delicate halo of lines surrounding the cargo lander.

“What the—” Nellis glanced up at the aliens, uncomprehending. They were backing away, leaving behind their trade offering.

“Wait!” Nellis started to take a step, but Hank grabbed his arm.

“Easy, Frank. Don’t let this get out of hand. Not yet.”

The aliens kept going until they disappeared inside the cave mouth. The two who had stood guard followed them into the darkness, and we were alone again.

“Now what?” Annick’s voice was trembly.

“I say we go back to camp and regroup,” suggested Laz. “We’re drained, and we need a plan.”

“Doctor Laz is right,” said Amanda. “I hate the thought of going back without the embryos, but we need a chance to think. A break—if not from the stress, at least from the heat.”

“We don’t want to screw this up.” Hank’s eyes were shining. If Hank had been afraid, the fear had bowed to curiosity.

“What about that?” I gestured to the long box of trade offerings. “Do we take it?”

“I think so,” said Amanda. “If we leave it, they might be insulted.”

“What if they think we’ve accepted the trade?” asked Annick.

“We’ll worry about that later,” said Nellis. He stalked to the box and grasped one end. “Grab hold, everyone, let’s get back to Jim. We’ve got a lot of thinking to do.”

And we trudged back to the crawler with the pile of scrap that, to the aliens, was a fair trade for our children. Annick and I cried quietly most of the way home.

– o –

It was awful when we got back to camp.

Some people thought that the long metallic box on the carrybed was all that was left of the cargo lander, and began to panic. The mayhem dissipated only slightly when Nellis explained the true situation. We were shouted and screamed at, berated alternately as cowards, traitors, and idiots. Jessie Norton was at the forefront of that, Charlie trying futilely to quiet her. Hank nearly came to blows with one of the engineers, but his wife, Barbara, calmed him down. As a veterinarian, she probably had experience in soothing all sorts of beasts. Finally, Nellis bellowed the crowd into silence.

There was still muttering when Nellis finished his terse report and ordered everyone to their quarters until suppertime. After the meal, he said, he would expect to hear strategies for dealing with the aliens and retrieving the cargo lander. And violence was not an option.

Those of us who had been with him at the encounter gathered in the command center for an informal debriefing. We spent half an hour scribbling notes about our observations and impressions, every detail we could remember about what the aliens did and how they did it. Then Nellis scanned it all into the main computer and set an analytical compiler running. It was meant to run analyses of native plant and animal life here on Renata, but we were willing to try anything.

Then we began to talk about it, running our own analytical compilers, you might say. Discussion was easy. Drawing meaningful conclusions was not. I suppose it was cowardly, but I didn’t mention my initial terror. I suspected everyone had felt something similar.

Somewhere along the line we began calling them “lobos.” I think Jim started it, but we all picked it up. It was easier than saying “the aliens” all the time, and would be innocuous enough if and when they learned our language.

We talked until suppertime, but nothing was really decided. “At least,” concluded Nellis, “they met us with conciliation, not violence. I’m not saying they wouldn’t resort to that if the need arose, but it wasn’t their first response. It’s a good sign.”

“Are we any closer to figuring out our next move?” Hank sat back with his eyes closed, but his fingers drummed the side of his chair.

“The lander should be all right for another three or four days,” I guessed, “provided they don’t open it. The cryo unit isn’t meant to operate on its own any longer than that. If they break the seal, we’ve got maybe two hours to retrieve the CSM’s and reset the unit.”

“Why haven’t they opened it?” asked Amanda. It was probably only the fiftieth time one of us had said the same thing.

“Maybe they’re holding it for ransom,” suggested Annick.

“But they thought they were trading us that stuff for it,” argued Hank. “They weren’t holding out. They just wanted us to take what they gave us and leave.”

Laz had been silent for a while. “Maybe,” he said now, “they will open it. They just haven’t figured out how yet.”

“But it’s just a coded keypad—oh, I see,” Annick breathed. “They may not even know what that is. Or they do, but they can’t break the code, and they don’t want to risk breaking in and destroying whatever’s inside.”

“The question is, how long will they wait?” Nellis leaned back and covered his eyes for a moment.

“And how long can we afford to wait?” added Jim.

– o –

We gathered in the galley dome for supper, the usual mealtime chatter muted to a low drone of mutterings and whispers. Those of us who had met the aliens kept to ourselves. No-one else seemed disposed to talk to us just yet.

When the meal was nearly over I noticed Charlie Norton sitting alone, his head lowered as he pushed the remains of his meal aimlessly around his plate. While I watched, Charlie glanced several times at the doorway, his face plainly worried.

“Commander,” I whispered to Nellis, “there might be a problem.”

“What’s that?”

“Jessie Norton isn’t here. I don’t think she came to supper at all. Charlie looks worried.”

Nellis glanced in Charlie’s direction and sighed. “Guess I’d better have a word with him. Maybe she’s ill.”

After Nellis left the table, Amanda said, “Or maybe she just doesn’t want to discuss dealing with the aliens. I’m a little worried about her. She tested as xenophobic in her psych profile.”

“So what’s she doing here?” asked Annick.

Amanda shrugged. “Look at all the years we searched for signs of other intelligence and came up empty. SETI never found anything conclusive, or really even suggestive. Everyone had pretty much accepted that we had things to ourselves.”

Nellis strode back to the table with a miserable-looking Charlie Norton trailing behind. Nellis’ voice was tight and clipped.

“Charlie hasn’t seen Jessie since shortly after I sent everyone back to quarters this afternoon. She said she was going to the lab dome to clear her mind, but she didn’t come back.”

“I kept thinking she’d come in for supper any minute,” said Charlie wretchedly. He was shredding a paper napkin into tiny scraps, and the fragments fluttered to the floor around his feet. No-one suggested he should put it in the recycler.

“Maybe she’s still at the lab,” suggested Laz.

Charlie shook his head. “I checked on my way here. I wasn’t worried—until now.” His face twisted as if he were fighting to keep back tears.

I got up and put a comforting arm around his shoulders, although a cold knot was coiling in my stomach. “What is it, Charlie?”

He gulped and stuttered, then the words came out in a rush. “Back at our dome she was talking crazy—how the aliens were monsters who’d deliberately stolen the babies. How we had to take them back by force. Kill the aliens if we had to. Then she said we’d have to get rid of them if we were going to live here anyway. We couldn’t risk…contamination.”

“Sweet God,” said Hank. “And you let her go?”

“She was calmer when she went to the lab,” Charlie sniveled. “I thought it was just talk. Jessie gets worked up about things, you know, and then she goes and does some work and gets back on an even keel and everything’s okay.”

Nellis cleared his throat and looked around the room, gathering everyone’s attention wordlessly. Most of them had been watching us, anyway, and probably straining to hear what was being said.

“Jessie Norton seems to be missing,” Nellis said easily. “I want everyone to spread out and look for her. We can cover the entire camp in a few minutes.

“And stay calm, folks,” he added, as a burgeoning murmur filled the room. “We don’t know yet that anything’s wrong. Come back here immediately if you find anything, and meet here in fifteen minutes in any case to report.”

As we began to disperse, Laz grabbed my hand and pulled me aside. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” he murmured, and I nodded.

With the same thought we ran for the command dome, and the weapons locker. It was never locked. Laz pulled it open and nodded grimly. A stunner and a flux-laser were missing, and a handful of biogrenades. Wherever Jessie was headed, she had armed herself well.

– o –

Laz and I stumbled breathlessly back to the galley to report to Nellis. My lungs burned in the unfamiliar atmosphere. Laz blurted out what we’d found at the weapons locker, and then Gretchen Chornesky swore luridly outside the door.

“Commander!” she yelled in. “She took one of the goddamned ATV’s!”

“Dammit! Lloyd! Where the hell’s Lloyd Fisher?” Lloyd was the best hardware technician we had along, and every vehicle and piece of equipment in the camp had a built-in location transponder. Lloyd would be able to use it to track Jessie’s route.

I was pretty sure what he’d find, and I thought Nellis was, too.

“Commander,” I said quickly, “She must be headed for the lobos’ camp. Why don’t some of us take a crawler and go that way? The ATV’s don’t have the speed the crawlers do. We might catch her before she gets there.”

“You can radio us to come back if the transponder points somewhere else,” added Laz, backing me up. “If we wait to get a perfect reading, we might lose precious time.”

Nellis nodded once, sharply. “Go. You two, Jim and Hank, since you were there today. Take Mikhail and Elias, too, if you can find them fast.”

Mikhail Chornesky and Elias Constantin were two of the biggest men among the colonists, and Elias had a military background. Nellis was making sure we were prepared, if force became necessary.

“And go back to the weapons locker. Take what you might need. But for God’s sake, don’t use anything unless you have to.”

We nodded wordlessly and ran, Laz and I to the weapons locker, Hank and Jim to find the others. We were all at the crawler in under five minutes. Jim swiftly uncoupled the dead weight of the carrybed. I handed out comm headsets and stunners as we pulled away, with Hank behind the wheel.

Full dark had descended, and the crawler’s halogen headlamps spilled searing light into our path. The trail we had cut earlier was a wilting swath of greenery now. No clue betrayed whether the ATV had passed this way. The crawler jolted over the mounds of shorn foliage, making the shadows ahead jump and flicker crazily. I missed the noise of the carrybed rattling behind us. The crawler’s motor was little more than a soft drone, barely audible white noise in the close black night.

This was the first time I’d been outside the camp after dark. The planet’s moons were just past new, and hung like mismatched parentheses in the purplish alien sky. A sharp, coppery tang suffused the still night air, making it heavier, thicker, harder to breathe. Far-off, a night creature wailed eerily. The throbbing ululation prickled the hair on the back of my neck and I shivered, nestling closer to Laz. For the first time, I thought about how far away from Earth we really were.

“How close to the aliens could Jessie be?” Mikhail asked Hank.

Hank shook his head, not taking his eyes from the route ahead. “Impossible to tell. Depends on how far she walked the ATV before she started it up, how fast she’s pushing it. It’s dark, she doesn’t know the way, although we left a pretty clear trail. The lights on the ATVs aren’t as good as these, either. Unless she’s crazy, she’s not pushing it full throttle.”

“Hank,” said Jim, “If she weren’t crazy, she wouldn’t be out here at all.”

The comm set crackled in my ear, and Lloyd Fisher’s voice hailed us. “Hank, we’ve tracked her down. You folks were right. She’s headed straight for the alien settlement, but she’s not there yet. I’m tracking you, too, and I think you’ve got a good shot at catching her. She must have the ATV going full bore, though. It’ll be close.”

“Thanks, Lloyd.” Hank’s voice was unusually grim. “We’ll do our best.”

We rode in silence after that. It was the longest fifteen minutes of my life, jouncing along in the crawler, watching the shadowed alien landscape slither past, wondering what we would find when we caught up with Jessie. And trying not to think about the thousand embryos waiting in the icy cradle of the cargo lander, and whether Jessie was pushing their already perilous existence over the edge and into oblivion.

Hank didn’t stop the crawler where we had left it that afternoon, out of sight of the lobos’ camp. He kept going, spilling the light across the silent rows of crops, not slowing until he had rounded the end of the garden and the cave entrance was in sight. The lights revealed a terrifying tableau.

Jessie stood facing the cave, feet braced, a flux-laser trained on three aliens in the entrance. The lobos stared, unblinking, into the crawler’s blinding headlamps as we came into view, their eyes iridescent green mirrors. All three had weapons trained on Jessie, but their faces were as impassive as ever.

Jessie had obviously been screaming at them, and yelled at us now without turning. The gun she held didn’t waver.

“Stay back! I’m getting the babies, and I’m getting them now.”

Mikhail and Elias had their stunners at the ready, but I motioned to them to hold off. If we had to use violence on one of our own, what might that say to the lobos? We had to tread as lightly as possible.

“Jessie,” I called gently, and took a step toward her. “Jessie, this won’t work. They can’t understand you.”

“They’ll understand soon enough,” she yelled back. “Don’t come any closer, Ellie. I know that’s you.”

“We’re going to get the babies back, Jessie, but this isn’t the way. Come back with us, please. Charlie’s worried about you.”

Jessie laughed suddenly, a harsh coughing sound that held no mirth. “Charlie’s worried. Of course Charlie’s worried. But I’m no damn good to him without that lander, even if he doesn’t know it.”

I risked a glance at Laz and the others, but they shrugged. I took another step.

“Jessie, we’re all worried. You know that. We’re going to get them back. But this isn’t the way. They can’t understand you, Jess, these people don’t—”

“They’re not people,” Jessie shouted. “That’s what Hank said, remember? He was right. They’re things! Look at them! Dogs, for God’s sake!”

The lobos stood unmoving in the entrance to the cave, watching. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Mikhail take aim at Jessie. I couldn’t blame him. She was out of control. But I saw Hank put out a restraining arm and thought I could give it one more try.

“Jessie,” I began again, struggling to keep my voice calm, “We’re all desperate to get the babies back—”

“Desperate!” She spun to face me then, her face twisted with rage and grief, her eyes wild and startling in the lights. I didn’t know if she could really see me or not, against the glare.

“You’re not desperate, Ellie. You don’t know desperate. What are the figures? Ninety-two percent chance you can still have children normally, in spite of all those years of coldsleep, in spite of being on an alien world. For you these babies are just—just backup! Not for me, Ellie. All Charlie ever wanted was children, and I can’t give them to him. I never could.”

“But,” I began, but nothing else came. I was stunned. Fertility was an absolute requirement to make the crew roster. “But the tests…your own embryos in there—”

Jessie shook her head, condescending. “Bought and paid for, Ellie. It took some work, and a lot of money, but I did it. Charlie wanted to come. Charlie wanted a baby. He’d never have been happy if we didn’t come. And I couldn’t give him the baby—”

Another alien appeared in the cave entrance. The one we’d met with earlier that day, the leader, emerged into the light. He said something, a querulous, bark-like string of sounds.

Jessie heard it and whirled back. The alien sound seemed to have severed the last tenuous thread of her sanity. A wordless scream erupted from her throat.

I half-saw, half-sensed a quick movement from Hank, heard a sudden thwit. At the same moment, white fire surged from Jessie’s flux-laser and scythed a flaming, liquefying slash across the last row of crops. It sputtered out just short of the aliens, as Jessie crumpled to the ground.

They watched us stolidly as we ran toward Jessie. Hank and I reached her first, and Hank actually winked at me as he pulled a tiny, crested dart from Jessie’s limp arm.

“Tranqs from Barb’s kit,” he whispered conspiratorially. “Vets have the greatest things. Work as fast as stunners, but no fireworks. Thought it might be less upsetting to our new friends.”

Relief bubbled up and I almost giggled. “Nellis will probably kiss you.”

The lobos approached slowly, with that strangely bouncing gait, as we gathered Jessie up. Their heads were uncovered tonight, their doglike features palpably alien in the glaring lights.

The leader came to stand next to me, and I fought down the fear enough not to shy away. He looked at Jessie and shook his head. His face changed subtly, and I had a fleeting impression of sorrow, and pity. It was so slight that I couldn’t be sure it was there at all, but I responded impulsively.

“She’ll be all right,” I murmured, although I knew he couldn’t understand. “She was…sick, but she’ll be all right.”

The leader reached out then, and put a tentative hand on my forearm for a brief moment. Through my sleeve I felt the gentle pressure of each of those five odd digits, the soft roundness of a vestigial paw pad in the center of his palm. And a fervid body heat that burned even through the fabric like the touch of a fever victim.

Our eyes met, and I saw in his a depth of understanding no canine ever possessed. No matter what Jessie said, they were as far from animals as we arrogantly assumed ourselves to be. My fear dissolved. He gave my arm a light squeeze, nodded, then turned back to the cave. The others followed.

It had been—what? Condolence? I couldn’t be sure. I followed the others back to the crawler bemused, drowning in the memory of alien eyes and an alien touch.

– o –

Back at the camp, I verified that the CSM lander still functioned, and then privately told Commander Nellis what Jessie had said. She wouldn’t wake until the morning, and while Laz fussed around her a bit I tried to comfort Charlie. Laz and Amanda felt confident they could treat her, now that the initial crisis was past.

We didn’t tell Charlie about Jessie’s confession. There would be time enough for her to tell him, and for the rest of us to deal with it, later.

Finally Laz was satisfied that Jessie was all right, took one look at me and diagnosed me as exhausted. Laz is an excellent diagnostician. Could it have been only that morning that we discovered the lander was missing? I was asleep before Laz extinguished the dome light.

– o –

Hours later, I woke in the still-dark dome, chilled and stiff because Laz, as usual, had rolled the blankets around himself like a cocoon. Despite its daytime heat, Renata cooled off considerably at night. I realized that the one warm spot on my body was the patch of skin on my forearm where the alien had touched me; I had slept with my other hand unconsciously covering it.

As I recalled the strange, scorching heat of that touch, I sat up. Suddenly everything tumbled into place, like pieces of a spilled jigsaw that miraculously skitter to a stop adjacent to their proper neighbor. The aliens’ hoods. The sunshades. The caves. The high body temperature. The lander.

I was gasping and laughing as I shook Laz awake. He started, then stared at me in confusion.

“Laz,” I said breathlessly, “I think I know. Why the lobos took the lander, why they want it. It’s cold, Laz. Cold! This planet’s too damned hot for them! And the lander’s cold, cold, cold. Just having it in the cave with them is lowering the temperature. It must be heavenly for them to lean up against it!”

Laz was sitting up now, shaking his head to clear it. “That’s why they haven’t opened it,” he said slowly. “They’re afraid of ruining it.”

“But we can do better than that!” I was out of the bed, scrambling into my clothes. “We’ve got refrigeration units, air conditioners! They’ll trade us the lander back for those!”

I stopped, shaken by sudden laughter. Laz grinned at me, and I leaned over to kiss him.

“Air conditioners for aliens! Renata’s first indigenous industry!” I ran out to wake Nellis, Laz’s laughter ringing through the cool alien night.

– o –

The sun blazed as usual the next morning when we set out with the crawler. This time the carrybed was loaded down with air conditioning units and solar generators to run them. I could barely sit still, despite my lack of sleep.

If I was right, we’d be coming home with the babies. If. My initial euphoria had given way to anxiety. I went over it all again and again. It still made sense. And everyone agreed, berating themselves for not seeing it sooner. But their immediate acceptance, their certainty, frightened me. If I were wrong…but I was trying hard not to think about that.

We pulled slowly into the lobos’ camp and stopped. The gauzy cloth of the sunshades now draped lightly across the tallest rows of crops, and small versions of the lobos played among the rows under watchful adult eyes. Children.

Nellis grinned at me as we clambered out of the crawler. It seemed like a good omen.

The lobo leader emerged seconds later and crossed to meet us without hesitation. His head was covered again against the blistering sun. He and Nellis met near the spot where yesterday’s sketch still lay in the dirt. Nellis picked up the stick.

He pointed to the halo of lines the leader had drawn around the lander, and hugged himself, shivering, to show that he understood what the lobo had meant; the lander radiated cold.

The lobo nodded, then pointed overhead to the sun and shook his head. Too hot.

Nellis nodded excitedly, and signaled Jim to turn on an air conditioner. With a low hum, it whirred to life, and within seconds a chill breeze wafted over us, swirling around Nellis and the lobo.

He turned and sniffed the air curiously, held a hand up to feel the cool air.

Nellis pointed to the AC, pointed to the lobo. Then pointed to the lander, and to himself. Trade?

The leader hesitated.

Inside the drawing of the lander, Nellis drew several tiny figures, smaller than the humans he had drawn outside the lander. He pointed to the young lobos, who had gathered just under the edge of the shade to watch the proceedings with wide eyes. Tapped the tiny figures in the lander. Then repeated the exchange he was offering.

Horrified understanding suddenly swept across the lobo’s features, the emotion evident this time. He swung back to the cave entrance and barked a short string of orders to the lobos who waited there. They hesitated only a heartbeat, then disappeared inside.

The leader turned back to Nellis and pointed to the air conditioner, nodding. I felt my legs go weak and clung to the crawler for support. I’d guessed right. Moments later, a crew of lobos appeared in the entrance to the cave, dragging the lander with them.

Nellis offered a hand to the lobo, who reached out hesitantly to take it in a brief clasp. Then the lobo strode over to me, and offered his hand in perfect mimicry of Nellis. As I took it, prepared for the heat this time, he spoke, a short string of low, yipping syllables.

I smiled. “I have no idea what you’re saying,” I answered, “But someday I will. That’s a promise.”

– o –

Twelve months later, Laz and I watched as our first daughter was born, emerging with a gentle wail from the warm fluid of the gestation tank. By then I had kept my promise. I knew what the lobo had said to me that day. He had apologized for taking our “bright ones”, as the lobos called their children. And in his honour I had thumbed through that dog-eared book of baby names until I found what I was looking for. We named our child Helen Celeste, for she was the first of our own bright ones to be born among the stars.

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