“How long before Captain Childe admits that we’re stranded?”
Jason held his peace, not wanting to criticize the captain. Already lines had been drawn, separating the seven living crew members from the colonists. Andrax was supernumerary, a Scout hitching a free ride from Banex to Aleph Prime via New Harmony. He did not fit either classification but Jason was thankful to have him aboard. How they could hope to survive without his professional expertise was a question he preferred not to face.
“Well,” Jan continued, “if the announcement hasn’t been made yet, I intend to explore those so called ruins tomorrow. Once Childe starts ferrying down colonists, there won’t be any time. Want to come along?”
Jason said that he did, but later, as sounds from the temporary jungle that surrounded them kept him awake, he wondered why.
The landing craft descended with the sunrise, carrying half a dozen new colonists. Jan met them at the ramp, giving concise orders and turning them over to their more experienced comrades. There was something vaguely familiar about the fourth colonist, but a closer look did nothing to spark Jan’s memory. The man was named Adrian Dumezil, of indeterminate middle age and pleasant, but undistinguished features. Jan motioned him out of line, for no other reason than that he had caught his eye, and he had already intended to take one of the new colonists with him.
Jason and Dumezil carried packs; Jan did not. It was Jan’s order, strictly enforced, that those whose job it was to guard should not be burdened otherwise. More than one colonist had felt Jan’s anger after relaxing his guard momentarily to help a companion.
It takes only a moment of inattention to bring death on a new planet.
Jan set the pace, stepping out sharply. The land rolled gently and their vision was restricted by the fast-growing bushes, but not so restricted as it would have been even a week earlier. The herds of herbys, trihorns, and humpox had battered and browsed the bushes into a thick, tangled, dying mat.
Jason quizzed Adrian, seeking out the climate of opinion overhead.
“No one knows what to believe,” Dumezil replied. “The official word is that there was a computer malfunction, but rumor says that it was a major explosion and that we are stranded. Frankly, rumor is more convincing.” He looked sideways at Jan to ask, “Which is it?”
“Explosion,” Jan answered. Jason winced. “We are here for as long as we survive. Childe is a fool. When he gets around to telling the truth, he will have alienated all the colonists just when he needs them most . . . hit the deck!”
The Scout’s sudden change of tone caught his companions flat-footed. Jan had already gone to cover beneath a siskal bush with his express pistol at the ready. Jason and Dumezil tumbled in to join him.
There was a rustling in the brush and a coughing grunt, then a group of trihorns came into sight. They were magnificent beasts, fully two meters high at the shoulders with shaggy manes sloping away to low, naked rumps. Their heads were massive and sported a single central horn projecting forward and trifurcating, one point up and two down.
They were mammals, of course. Hair, live birth, warm blood, and suckling are all characteristics evolved in just such a harsh, cold climate. It was clearly a family group: a monstrous bull, an uddered female with two hornless suckling calves at her side, and a monopointed adolescent.
The three men remained motionless until they had passed. more tomorrow