Read Dirge Online

Authors: Alan Dean Foster


To John Haynes
Web-site designer
par excellence


airuna was kneeling beside a flattened blue-brown bush that rose no higher than his knee, watching half a dozen dull yellow slugs with legs combine their efforts to spin a mutual home out of what appeared to be cerise silk. The nature of the instinct that impelled them to effortlessly meld their minuscule exertions would have to be identified by the xenologists. Absolved by his work classification of the need to analyze or classify, he was free to marvel and wonder at the intricate beauty of the delicate alien phenomenon. He felt sorry for the techs who were required to stop, stand, and interpret. Sometimes it was a lot better just to be able to look.

Straightening, he let his gaze rove over the endless forest. Well, not literally endless. The Earthlike pseudo evergreens only occupied the broad temperate belt that followed the planet’s equator. A traveler journeying to north or south would eventually run out of forest and into one of the great ice caps that dominated the surface of Argus V. But since preliminary surveys from orbit had indicated that the forest belt varied between two and three thousand miles in width, there was plenty of room left between the brooding ice for trees.

And for ambulatory life, not all of which was as inconspicuous as silk-spinning slugs. In the two months they had been exploring the planet the surveyors had encountered a number of interesting and exotic larger life-forms. The local carnivores were efficient but not especially impressive—nothing the team couldn’t deal with. Their presence added to the ambience of what was proving to be a chilly but otherwise hospitable world.

“Norway.” Idar came up behind Kairuna, puffing hard and lugging her tripod-mounted census taker with her. “Western Canada. Tasmania.” Slapping her gloved hands together, she began to set up her instruments. Depending on how they were calibrated, they could take an image of a chosen section of ground together with an approximation of every kind and variety of life-form that dwelled therein.

“Kind of cold for me.” Kairuna came from and preferred a warmer clime. The pristine atmosphere and the oxygen infused into it by the untouched forest helped to compensate for temperatures that, while remaining above freezing, precluded anyone but stoic fanatics from running around in short pants. He was glad of his insulated jacket and boots.

“Won’t keep colonizers from coming.” Idar squinted into an eyepiece, adjusted a readout, bent slightly to squint again. “Some folks would call this paradise.”

“If so, it’ll always be one with limited horizons.” Kairuna gazed northward. They were working about a thousand miles south of the northern ice cap, but he still fancied he could see the glint from its leading edge sparkling on the sharp blue horizon.

“So it’s not another New Riviera. What would be? But so far it looks as good or better than Proycon, and people are clamoring to settle there.” Laboring behind her instrument, the census taker shrugged. “There’s still plenty of room available for settlement. Oceans are small because so much of the planet’s water is locked up in ice. People will like it here.” Raising her head to look over the top of the eyepiece, she grinned. “Should be bonuses all around.”

Kairuna contemplated the possibility and found it warming. The gruff voice that chose to dissent made him wince and smile at the same time.

“Bonuses! Ha! I wouldn’t count on it!”

Both techs turned a rueful, knowing smile in the direction of the newcomer. Alwyn was a short, stocky, dyspeptic, highly experienced member of the survey mission’s support team. Able to raise a shelter, arrange for purified water, or fix an enormous variety of instruments in the field with little more than a pocket repair kit, he was as valuable a member of the expedition as he was personally irritating. Nobody on board the
liked him very much, not even his fellow corps members. In addition to recovery and repair, his other area of specialization seemed to be carping and bitching. He did not even have the good grace to shut up when he was working, forcing whichever tech or scientist whose gear he was rejuvenating to have to stand around and listen to his complaining.

He was, however, very good at what he did.

“Why shouldn’t we?” The more argumentative Idar confronted the support specialist without hesitation. “It’s been years since anybody found a world that was even remotely Earthlike.” She gestured expansively at the forest. “Maybe it’s only partly colonizable because of the ice caps, but the rest of it, the upper temperate forest lands like this, will draw settlers in droves. You know the rules: Everybody qualifies for a share in the primary finding and exploration benefits.” She chuckled. “Even you, unless you want to sign over your presupposed nonexistent bonus to me.”

“Thanks,” the specialist muttered, “but I’ll hang onto the designation, just in case I’m wrong and the government decides to play fair and honest with this one.”

“With this one?” Kairuna’s heavy black eyebrows arched. “How many primes for colonizable worlds have you been on?”

“Well, none, actually.” The small, muscular form turned away. “This is my first.”

“This is everybody’s first.” Kairuna mentioned the obvious while Idar adjusted her instrumentation slightly in order to take a new sighting. “There are a lot more ships out looking than there are habitable worlds being found.”

“Right enough,” Alwyn agreed. “And half of those seem to be full of giant bugs who’ve already laid claim to the place.”

Idar looked up from the eyepiece of her taker. “The thranx are our friends.”

“Yeah, sure,” the tech groused. “The government keeps trying to convince us of that. Trying too hard, if you ask me. What about that covert colony they set up in the Reserva Amazonia? If it hadn’t been for that wandering street thug stumbling into the place the rest of us still wouldn’t know about that!”

“It was part of a secret government project.” Kairuna watched something slim and elegant soar across the clear blue sky. At this distance he could not tell if its wings were fashioned of feather, membrane, or some as yet unidentified organic substance.

Alwyn was nodding vigorously. “Sure was. It was such a secret government project even the government didn’t know about it. You ever seen a thranx? I mean, in person?” he challenged the bigger man.

“No,” Kairuna confessed. “Only tridees.”

“They’re ugly little bastards. Like big crickets or mantids with an extra set of limbs.” He shuddered. “I don’t care what the lovey-dovey we’re-all-sapients-together-in-this-galacticarm propagandists mew. You won’t catch me cuddling up next to no goddamn giant bug. And there are plenty of people who feel even stronger about it than I do. Me, if I ran into one, I’d step on it.”

“The thranx are a little big to step on,” Kairuna reminded him. “Especially for someone your size.”

“And they might step back,” Idar added without looking up from her work.

Alwyn thrust his chin forward belligerently. “Exactly my point. The galaxy’s a vast, unfriendly, dangerous place.”

“The more reason to make friends with those who inhabit it alongside us,” Kairuna argued.

Lively blue eyes stared back up at him. “The more reason to be careful just who we nestle up to.”

The discussion was interrupted—not by the weather or the indigenous wildlife, not by the need to continue working, but by a reverberant, insistent howl. Standing on the little knoll debating interstellar relationships while taking the measure of the alien forest, they turned as one in the direction of the wailing, sonorous bellow. It was unfamiliar to all of them.

“What the hell is that?” Alwyn had walked quickly to the edge of the knoll to gaze with even more than his usual wariness in the direction of the landing transport. Idar’s recording was forgotten. Kairuna stood behind the two of them, staring over their heads in the direction of the mournful, insistent howl.

It came not from the vicinity of the landing transport but from the vehicle itself. It was Kairuna who finally recognized it.

“That’s the general alert.”

“General alert?” The census taker frowned back at him. “What the hell’s a ‘general alert’? I know all sorts of situation-specific alarms, but I’ve never heard of a general alert. Especially not on surface.” Her expression was bemused as she stared down the hill in the direction of the camp that had sprung up around the landing field that had been cleared to allow shuttle craft a safe place to set down.

“I told you!” Alwyn was irritatingly triumphant. “You can’t trust a new world, no matter how benign a face it presents.”

In reference to faces, Kairuna wished the annoying service specialist would take his elsewhere. It did not matter that he might be right: The botanist was tired of listening to the other man’s ranting.

“Come on,” he urged them. “We’d better go and see what’s happening.”

“General alert.” Nodding smugly, Alwyn joined them in descending from the densely forested knob and retracing their steps. “I knew it.”


Surrounded by members of the
’s staff, Burgess was staring intently at the tridee. Magnification was visual, not schematic, so he was able to observe the craft that had just joined them in orbit in all its alien glory. It was an impressive ship, at least twice the size of the
. While the prevalent configuration was similar to that of the
and all other vessels equipped with the universal variant of the KK drive, its design and execution differed in a multitude of significant respects.

“Not ours,” one of the techs seated nearby murmured unnecessarily.

“Not thranx, either,” the first officer added. “Unless they’ve been hiding something from us. Could it be one of those AAnn ships the thranx are always trying to warn us about?”

Burgess looked doubtful. “I’ve seen the AAnn schematics the thranx have provided. This design is much too sleek. Could it be Quillp?” Burgess longed for expertise in an area his crew, through no fault of their own, did not possess.

“I don’t think so, Captain.” Though far from positive, the first officer felt secure in hazarding a guess. If he was proved wrong, he would be delighted to admit the mistake. He hoped he was wrong. The inherent pacificity of the Quillp was well known.

Looking sharply to his left, Burgess snapped a question. “Any response to our queries, Tambri?”

The diminutive communications officer glanced over at him and shook her head. Her dark eyes were very wide. “Nothing, sir. I’m trying everything, from Terranglo through High and Low Thranx to straight mathematical theorems. They’re chattering noisily among themselves—I can pick up the wash—but they’re not talking to us.”

“They will. Keep trying.” Burgess turned back to the three-dimensional image floating in the air of the ship’s bridge. “Who are they and what the blazes do they want here?”

“Maybe they’ve already claimed this world.” The observation no one had wanted to voice came from the back of the command section. “Maybe they’re here to inform us of a claim of prior rights.”

“If that’s the case,” the first officer declared, “they’ve been mighty subtle about advertising any prior presence here. There isn’t so much as an artifact on the planet, much less an orbital transmitter. There’s nothing on either of the two small moons, or anywhere else in the system.”

“That we’ve found yet, you mean.” Having stated a contention, the dissenter felt bound to defend it. “We’ve only been here a couple of months.”

“Okay, okay,” Burgess muttered. “Let’s everybody keep calm. Whatever the situation, we’ll deal with it. We didn’t expect to encounter sapience here, much less evidence of another space-traversing species. They’re probably taking our measure as carefully as we are theirs.”
But I wish they’d respond to our communications,
he thought tensely.

“Look there!” Someone in the growing crowd pointed.

A second, much smaller vessel was emerging from the side of the first. Winged and ported, obviously designed for atmospheric travel, it began to recede swiftly from the flank of its parent vessel. Its immediate purpose was self-evident. Anything else those aboard might intend could not be divined from tracking its progress.

“Get on to Pranchavit and the rest of the landing party,” Burgess barked at the communications officer. “Tell them they’re probably going to have company.”

Once again the officer looked up from her instrumentation. “They’ll want to know what kind of company, sir.”

Burgess glanced over at the tridee holo. “Maybe they can tell us.”

By the time Kairuna and his companions arrived at the camp, it was alive with questions and concerns, anxiety and confusion. No one seemed to know what was going on, including those who had recognized the audible signal for what it was. Now they troubled themselves with unsupported inferences and paranoid suppositions. In such company, Alwyn was in his element.

Pushing and shoving their way into an already crowded mess hall, the three late arrivals found themselves confined to the narrow remaining open space next to the rear wall. Up by the service door that led to the main stockroom, Jalen Maroto was waving his arms for quiet. When that didn’t work, he put a compact amplifier to his lips and simply shouted everybody down.

“Shut up! If you’ll just shut up, I’ll tell you what’s going on.” As the crowd noise subsided he added apologetically, “Or at least, what we know.”

“I know!” Alwyn was not afraid to proclaim theories where others were hesitant to venture facts. “Something local’s finally showed up to cause trouble. What is it?” he demanded to know. “A herd of predators? A fast-mutating plague?”

“There’s a plague, all right,” the team leader declared through the amplifier, “but it’s one we brought along with us.” Delighted to take advantage of the emotional release, a number of the assembled turned their laughter in the specialist’s direction. Unrepentant but temporarily subdued, he tried to meet the ridicule of each and every one of them with a defiant glare of his own.

“A ship has gone into orbit near the
,” Maroto informed scientists and support personnel alike. “We don’t know where it’s from, what species built it, or what their intentions are. So far nobody on the
, including the people who are supposed to know about such things, has been able to pull a fact out of a big basket of ignorance.”

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