Prose Header


by Danielle L. Parker

part 3 of 11

The long dining room was quiet and pleasant. Late evening sunlight slanted through a wide screen that opened upon a stone patio. In the background, over the wall enclosing the doctor’s generous back yard, Blunt heard children’s shouts and the intermittent thwack of a rubber ball. A simmering teapot bubbled softly in the background from the cheery yellow kitchen.

“These are copies of the original survey maps.” Dr. Arlen Greene’s neatly trimmed nail traced a line on the crisp paper spread on his dining room table. “The westernmost settlement is here: a frontier town named Spit It. Populated by a first-in mix of hunters, trappers, outlaws, surveyors, explorers, and a few hardy pioneers. There’s potentially valuable farmland in the valleys beyond.”

The doctor pushed his mug to pin down a curling corner of the map. “Right now, the main source of Spit It’s income is fur trapping. I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen a pard before, Captain? Beautiful fur. They’re nasty predators, of course: six-legged mountain lions. You’ll have to watch out; they like to spring on their victims from hiding, and it’s all over if they get your neck between their jaws! But we’re allowed to export a set quota of their pelts every year. A man named Tom Groban has a cartload set aside for you to pick up. That’ll be your cover.”

Blunt sipped from his mug. The drink was unfamiliar but not unpleasant. It smelled earthy, like mushroom tea, and tasted like beef broth.

“The scale of that map is... what? Five to the centimeter? That’s a long trip.”

“Three days by genuine horseback.” The doctor smiled. “One of the reasons Thimble is so valuable is that terrestrial plant and animal life thrives here — a rare occurrence, as I’m sure you know. But it’s necessary you go to Spit It.”

The doctor’s thin fingers sorted more papers. He drew out a transparent overlay marked with black and red dots. He laid the transparency on top of his survey map.

“The black dots — seventy-six of them — represent sightings of the new life forms. We’ll call them the crabs, for now, though they’re bipedal. The red dots represent kills — kills of humans. You can see that the highest concentration of sightings and kills — more than ninety-three percent — occur around Spit It. The rate is rising every day.”

Greene lifted his hands in a frustrated gesture. “We may have disturbed a previously unknown habitat of the creature. We don’t know. But in any case, that’s the first reason you need to go to Spit It. If you want to see a crab-monster, it’s the place!”

Blunt counted red dots. There were twelve concentrated around the tiny name Spit It. “And the second?”

The doctor pushed his glasses up on his long thin nose, and smiled bleakly. “We’re fortunate there have been only three sightings in the capital area. We were able to kill those creatures quickly, before any offworld visitors saw them. We don’t want our visiting scientists to learn of their presence, naturally.”

He cleared his throat. “I should warn you: a biologist from Earth, Dr. Milton Rutgers, applied for a permit to travel to Spit It. We denied his request. We told him it’s a frontier and too dangerous. But we won’t be able to fob him off forever.”

The doctor sighed. “I’m not sure this isn’t a fool’s errand for you. I’m not sure we should even do this.”

Blunt raised a brow. “Because they’re intelligent?”

“Intelligent enough by Earth’s far too forgiving standards; that’s the problem. So I suppose we should call this murder, if we want to be brutally honest.” The doctor plopped down in his cushioned chair as if his knees had given way. “Or war. These things are, after all, killing us. Five of those kills were children; three were women.

“We’ve tried to communicate with these creatures. Unfortunately, their only interest in us appears to be as food. They don’t have a language; they don’t have a culture. They ignore even their own kind, as far as we can tell. We can’t imagine how they reproduce. But the creatures have proved too adept at evading traps and snares, too successful, too planned in their ambushes, not to have enough intelligence to meet Earth’s standards.”

Greene shook his head. “We don’t want to share our home with these killers, Captain. Earth won’t understand that. Their goodie-goodie bleeding hearts have conveniently forgotten their own violent pioneer history. Anybody remember how many white settlers the Indians killed?”

Blunt’s smile had an edge. “No, I don’t suppose Earth will sympathize with your reasoning.” He shrugged. “I can’t make promises. I said I’ll check the situation out; that’s all I’ve agreed to.”

Dr. Greene removed his glasses and pressed his red-rimmed eyes with a thumb. “I understand. I told Toland and the rest of the council I didn’t see much hope for us. If what I’ve heard about you is true — and it came from sources that should know — you were a thin chance, the only chance we might have, that’s all. I don’t see how you can help us, really, but there’s that thin chance...”

He paused. “Did you know one of the kills was my seven-year-old nephew? They found him hanging in a crab-monster’s larder. He was half eaten.” The doctor stopped. He picked up his mug, and drank. His swallows were loud and harsh.

“I’m sorry.”

“Words. But I suppose one has to say them. Say something. Paper over a tragedy with meaningless manners and rote unmeant sympathy.” The doctor’s voice was sere. “I’m sorry, my manners are not what they should be tonight. Back to business. I arranged a guide for you, a retired trapper named Teddy Bremner. You’ll leave at dawn. I hope you know how to ride a horse, Captain?”

“I spent part of my youth on a farm. Even rode bulls.” Blunt touched his shoulder. “Got a scar here still from old Twister’s horn.”

The doctor nodded. “Good. Bremner will pack a portable radio. We’ll be listening. Just be careful. I suppose you noticed we have a military presence in orbit? Their chief job is to watch for pirates. But they have sharp ears. And eyes. I hope they’re not focused on the planet!”

He shoved back his chair and rose to his feet. “I’ll show you to your room and have a tray sent up for you. My wife and two daughters will be home soon. I don’t mean to be unsociable, but it’s best if they don’t meet you — and no one else does, either. You’ll need your rest. It’s a long hard ride to Spit It!”

Proceed to part 4...

Copyright © 2010 by Danielle L. Parker

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