Read Darkover: First Contact Online

Authors: Marion Zimmer Bradley

Darkover: First Contact (10 page)

MacLeod smiled a wry smile. “I got a contraband dose of Alpha happy-juice once,” he said, “felt just about like that. What happened to us, anyhow, Ewen? You’re the doctor, you tell us.”
“As God is my witness, I don’t know,” Ewen said. “I thought at first it was the fruits, but we only began eating them
afterward.
And we all drank the water three days ago and no harm done. Anyway neither Judy nor Marco touched the fruit.”
Heather put a bowl of hot soup into his hand, went and knelt by Judith, alternately spooning soup between her lips and trying to eat her own. MacLeod said, “I’ve no idea what happened first. It seemed like—I’m not sure; suddenly it was like a cold wind blowing through my bones, shaking me—shaking me
open
somehow. That was when I knew the fruits were good to eat and I ate one. . . .”
“Foolhardy,” said Ewen, but MacLeod, still with that
openness,
knew that the young doctor was only cursing his own neglect. He said, “Why? The fruits
were
good, or we’d be sick now.”
Heather said, hesitantly, “I can’t help feeling it was something to do with the weather. Some difference.”
“A psychedelic wind,” jeered Ewen, “a ghostly wind that drove us all temporarily insane!”
“Stranger things have happened,” Heather said, and artfully maneuvered another spoonful of soup into Judy’s slack mouth. The older woman blinked dazedly and said, “Heather? How did I get here?”
“We brought you, love. You’re all right now.”
“Marco—I saw Marco—”
“He’s dead,” Ewen said gently. “he ran into the woods when we all went mad; I never saw him. He must have strained his heart—I’d warned him not even to sit up.”
“It
was
his heart, then? You’re sure?”
“As sure as I can be without autopsy, yes,” Ewen said. He swallowed the last of his soup. His head was clearing, but the guilt still lay on him; he knew he would never be wholly free of it. “Look, we’ve got to compare notes, while it’s still fresh in our minds. There must be some one common factor, something we all did. Ate, or drank—”
“Or breathed,” Heather said. “It had to be something in the air, Ewen. Only the three of us ate the fruits. You didn’t eat anything, did you, Judy?”
“Yes, some grayish stuff on the edge of a tree—”
“But we didn’t touch that,” Ewen said, “only MacLeod. We three ate the fruits, but neither Marco nor Judy did. MacLeod ate some of the gray fungus but none of us did. Judy was smelling the flowers and MacLeod was handling them, but neither Heather nor I did, until afterward. The three of us were lying in the grass—” he saw Heather’s face turn pink, but went on steadily, “and both of us were making love to her, and all three of us were hallucinating. If Marco got up and ran into the woods I can only assume that he must have been hallucinating too. How did it begin with you, Judy?”
She only shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said. “I only know—the flowers were brighter, the sky seemed—seemed to break up like rainbows. Rainbows and prisms. Then I heard singing, it must have been birds, but I’m not sure. I went where the shadows were, and they were all purple, lilac-purple and blue. Then
he
came. . . .”
“Marco?”
She shook her head. “No. He was very tall, and had silver hair. . . .”
Ewen said pityingly, “Judy, you were hallucinating. I thought Heather was made out of flowers.”
“The four moons—I could see them even though the sky was bright,” Judy said. “He didn’t say anything but I could hear him
thinking.”
MacLeod said, “We all seem to have had
that
delusion. If it’s a delusion.”
“It’s sure to be,” Ewen said. “We’ve found no trace of any other form of intelligent life here. Forget it, Judy,” he added gently, “sleep. When we all get back to the ship—well, there will have to be some form of inquiry.”
Dereliction, neglect of duty is the least it will be. Can I plead temporary insanity?
He watched Heather settle Judy down into her sleeping bag. When the older woman finally slept he said wearily, “We ought to bury Marco. I hate to do it without an autopsy, but the only alternative is to carry him back to the ship.”
MacLeod said, “We’re going to look awfully damned foolish going back and claiming we all went mad at once.” He did not took at Heather and Ewen as he added, rather sheepishly, “I feel like a ghastly fool—group sex never has been my kick—”
Heather said firmly, “We’ll all have to forgive each other, and forget about it. It just happened, that’s all. And for all we know it happened to them too—” she stopped, struck with a horrifying thought. “Imagine that sort of thing happening to
two hundred people . . .”
“It doesn’t bear thinking about,” MacLeod said with a shudder.
Ewen said that mass insanity was nothing new. “Whole villages. The dancing madness in the middle ages. And attacks of ergotism—from spoiled rye made into bread.”
Heather said, “I don’t think whatever it was got far enough down the mountain.”
“Another of your hunches, I suppose,” Ewen said, but not unkindly. “At this point I suspect we’re all too close to it. Let’s stop theorizing without facts and wait until we
have
some facts.”
“Does this qualify as a fact?” Judy said, sitting up suddenly. They had all thought her asleep; she fumbled in the torn neck of her blouse and drew out something wrapped in leaves. “This—or these.” She handed Ewen a small blue stone, like a star sapphire.
“Beautiful,” he said slowly, “but you found it in the woods—”
“Right,” she said. “I found this, too.”
She stretched it out to him, and for a moment the others, crowding close, literally could not believe their eyes.
It was less than six inches long. The handle was made of something like shaped bone, delicate but quite without ornamentation. As for the rest, there was no question what it was.
It was a small flint knife.
CHAPTER SIX
In the ten days the exploring party had been absent from the ship in the clearing, the clearing seemed to have grown. Two or three more small buildings had grown up around the ship; and at one edge of the clearing a fenced-off area had been plowed and a small sign proclaimed AGRICULTURAL TESTING AREA.
“That ought to do something for our food,” MacLeod said, but Judith made no answer, and Ewen looked at her sharply. She had been curiously apathetic since That Day—that was how they all thought of it—and he was desperately worried about her. He wasn’t a psychologist, but he knew that there was something gravely wrong.
Damn it, I did everything wrong. I let Marco die, I haven’t been able to bring Judy back to reality.
They came into the camp almost unnoticed, and for a moment MacAran felt a sharp stab of apprehension. Where was everybody? Had they all run amuck that day, had the madness overtaken all of them down here too? When he and Camilla had come down to the lower camp, to find Heather and Ewen and MacLeod still talking themselves hoarse in the attempt to find some explanation, it had been a bad moment. If madness lay on this planet, ready to claim them all, how could they survive? What worse things lay here waiting for them? Now, looking around the empty clearing, MacAran felt again the sharp stab of fear; then he saw a little group of people in Medic uniform coming out of the hospital tent, and further on, a crew going up into the ship. He relaxed; everything
looked
normal.
But then, so do we. . . .
“What’s the first thing to do?” he asked. “Do we report straight to the Captain?”
“I should, at least,” Camilla said. She looked thinner, almost haggard. MacAran wanted to take her hand and comfort her, although he was not sure for what. Since they had lain in each other’s arms on the mountainside, he had felt a deep gnawing hunger for her, an almost fierce protectiveness; yet she turned away from him at every point, withdrawing into her old sharp self-sufficiency. MacAran felt hurt and resentful, and somehow lost. He dared not touch her, and it made him irritable.
“I expect he’ll want to see all of us,” he said. “We have to report Marco’s death, and where we buried him. And we have a lot of information for him. Not to mention the flint knife.”
“Yes. If the planet’s inhabited that creates another problem,” MacLeod said, but he did not elaborate.
Captain Leicester was with a crew inside the ship but an officer outside told the party that he had given orders that he was to be called the moment they returned, and sent for him. They waited in the small dome, none of them knowing what they were going to say.
Captain Leicester came into the dome. He looked somehow older, his face drawn with new lines. Camilla rose as he came in, but he motioned her to a seat again.
“Forget the protocol, Lieutenant,” he said kindly, “you all look tired; was it a hard trip? I see Dr. Zabal is not with you.”
“He’s dead, sir,” Ewen said quietly, “he died from the bites of poisonous insects. I’ll make a complete report later.”
“Make it to the Medic Chief,” the Captain said, “I’m not qualified to understand anyway. You others can bring up your reports at the next meeting—tonight, I suppose. Mr. MacAran, did you manage to get the calculations you were hoping for?”
MacAran nodded. “Yes; as near as we can figure, the planet is somewhat larger than Earth, which means, with the lighter gravity, that its mass must be somewhat less. Sir, I can discuss all that later; just now I must ask you one question. Did anything unusual happen here while we were gone?”
The Captain’s lined face ridged, displeased. “How do you mean, unusual? This whole planet is unusual, and nothing that happens here can be called routine.”
Ewen said, “I mean anything like illness or mass insanity, sir.”
Leicester frowned. “I can’t imagine what you could be talking about,” he said. “No, no reports from Medic of any illness.”
“What Dr. Ross means is that we all had an attack of something like delirium,” MacAran told him. “It was the day after the second night without rain. It was widespread enough to hit Camilla—Lieutenant Del Rey—and myself, on the peaks, and to hit the other group almost six thousand feet lower down. We all behaved—well, irresponsibly, sir.”
“Irresponsibly?” He scowled, his eyes fierce on them. “Irresponsibly,” Ewen met the Captain’s eyes, his fists clenched. “Dr. Zabal was recovering; we ran off into the woods and left him alone so that he got up in delirium, ran off on his own and strained his heart—which is why he died. Judgment was impaired; we ate untested fruits and fungus. There were—various delusional processes.”
Judith Lovat said firmly, “They were not all delusional.”
Ewen looked at her and shook his head. “I don’t think Dr. Lovat is in any state to judge, sir. We seem all to have had delusions about reading one another’s thoughts, anyway.”
The Captain drew a long, harried breath. “This will have to go to the Medics. No, we had nothing like that here. I suggest you all go and make your reports to the appropriate chiefs, or write them up to present at the meeting tonight. Lieutenant Del Rey, I want your report myself. I’ll see the rest of you later.”
“One more thing, sir,” MacAran said. “This planet is inhabited.” He drew out the flint knife from his pack, handed it over. But the Captain barely looked at it. He said, “Take it to Major Frazer; he’s the staff anthropologist. Tell him I’ll want a report tonight. Now if the rest of you will excuse us, please—”
MacAran felt the curious flatness of anticlimax as they left the Captain and Camilla together. While he hunted through the camp for anthropologist Frazer, he slowly identified his own feeling as jealousy. How could he compete with Captain Leicester? Oh, this was rubbish, the captain was old enough to be Camilla’s father. Did he honestly believe Camilla was in love with the Captain?
No. But she’s emotionally all tied up with him and that’s worse.
If he had been disappointed by the Captain’s lack of response to the flint knife, Major Frazer’s response left nothing to be desired.
“I’ve been saying since we landed that this world was habitable,” he said, turning the knife over in his hands, “and here’s proof that it’s inhabited—by something intelligent, at least.”
“Humanoid?” MacAran asked, and Frazer shrugged. “How could we know that? There have been intelligent life-forms reported from three or four other planets; so far they have reported one simian, one feline, and three unclassifiable—xenobiology isn’t my speciality. One artifact doesn’t tell us anything—how many shapes are there that a knife could be designed in? But it fits a human hand well enough, although it’s a little small.”
 
Meals for crew and passengers were served in one large area, and when MacAran went for his noon meal he hoped to see Camilla; but she came in late and went directly to a group of other crew members. MacAran could not catch her eye and had the distinct feeling that she was avoiding him. While he was morosely eating his plateful of rations, Ewen came up to him.
“Rafe, they want us all at a Medical meeting if you have nothing else to do. They’re trying to analyze what happened to us.”
“Do you honestly think it will do any good, Ewen? We’ve all been talking it over—”
Ewen shrugged. “Mine is not to reason why,” he said. “You’re not under the authority of the Medic staff, of course, but still—”
MacAran asked, “Were they very rough on you about Zabal’s death?”
“Not really. Both Heather and Judy testified that we were all out of contact. But they want your report, and everything you can tell them about Camilla.”
MacAran shrugged and went along with him.
The Medic meeting was held at one end of the hospital tent, half empty now—the more seriously injured had died, the less so had been restored to duty. There were four qualified doctors, half a dozen nurses, and a few assorted scientific personnel to listen to the reports they made.
After listening to all of them in turn, the Chief Medical Officer, a dignified white-haired man named Di Asturien, said slowly, “It sounds like some form of airborne infection. Possibly a virus.”

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