Read Darkover: First Contact Online

Authors: Marion Zimmer Bradley

Darkover: First Contact (7 page)

“That’s the change in air pressure; you’ll get used to it presently,” he said. “Good thing we have a fairly gradual rise in land.”
“It’s hard to realize that’s really where we slept last night—so far down,” she said a little shakily.
“Over this ridge it will be out of sight. If you want to chicken out, this is your last chance. You could make it down in an hour, maybe two.”
She shrugged. “Don’t tempt me.”
“Are you frightened?”
“Of course. I’m not a fool. But I won’t panic, if that’s what you mean.”
MacAran rose to his feet, swallowing the last of his ration. “Let’s go, then. Watch your step—there are rocks above us.”
But to his surprise she was sure-footed on the piled rocks near the peak, and he did not need to help her, or hunt for an easier pass. From the top of the hill they could see a long panorama beneath them, behind them; the valley where they had camped, with its long plain, the further valley where the starship lay—although even with his strong binoculars MacAran could only make out a tiny dark streak that
be the ship. Easier to see was the ragged clearing where they had cut trees for shelters. Passing the glasses to Camilla, he said, “Man’s first mark on a new world.”
“And last, I hope,” she said. He wanted to ask her, put it up to her straight,
the ship be repaired? But that wasn’t the time for thinking about that. He said, “There are streams among the rocks, and Judy tested the water days ago. We can probably find all the water we need to refill our canteens, so don’t ration yourself too much.”
“My throat feels terribly dry. Is it just the altitude?”
“Probably. On Earth we couldn’t come much higher than this without oxygen, but this planet has a higher oxygen content.” MacAran took one last look at the orange tent below them; stowed the glasses and slung them over his shoulder. “Well, the next peak will be higher. Let’s get on, then.” She was looking at some small orange flowers that grew in the crannies of the rock. “Better not touch them. Who knows what might bite, here?”
She turned around, a small orange flower in her fingers. “Too late now,” she said with wry grin. “If I’m going to drop dead when I pick a flower, better find it out now than later. I’m not so sure I
to go on living if it’s a planet where I can’t
anything.” She added, more seriously, “We’ve got to take some risks, Rafe—and even then, something we never thought of might kill us. Seems to me that all we can do is take the obvious precautions—and then take our chances.”
It was the first time since the crash that she had called him by his first name, and unwillingly he softened. He said, “You’re right of course; short of going around in space suits we haven’t any real protection, so there’s no point in being paranoid. If we were a First Landing Team we’d know what risks not to take, but as it is I guess all we can do is take our chances.” It was growing hot, and he stripped off his outer layer of clothing. “I wonder how much stock to put in Heather’s premonitions of bad weather?”
They started down the other side of the ridge. Halfway down the slope, after two or three hours of searching for a path, they discovered a small crystal spring gushing from a split rock, and refilled their canteens; the water tasted sweet and pure, and at MacAran’s suggestion they followed the stream down; it would certainly take the shortest way.
At dusk heavy clouds began to scud across the lowering sun. They were in a valley, with no chance to signal the ship or the other camp of their party. While they were setting up the tiny shelter-tent, and MacAran was making fire to heat their rations, a thin fine rain began falling; swearing, he moved the small fire under the flap of the tent, trying to shield it a little from the rain. He managed to get water heated, but not hot, before the gusting sleet put it out again, and he gave up and dumped the dried rations into the barely warm water. “Here. Not tasty but edible—and nourishing, I hope.”
Camilla made a face when she tasted it, but to his relief said nothing. The sleet whipped around them and they crawled inside and drew the flap tight. Inside there was barely room enough for one of them to lie at full length while the other sat up—the emergency tents were really only meant for one. MacAran started to make some flippant remark about nice cozy quarters, looked at her drawn face and didn’t. He only said, as he wriggled out of his storm parka and pack, and started unrolling his sleeping bag, “I hope you don’t suffer from claustrophobia.”
“I’ve been a spaceship officer since I was seventeen. How could I get along with claustrophobia?” In the dark he imagined her smile. “On the contrary.”
Neither of them had much to say after that. Once she asked into the darkness, “I wonder how Marco is?” but MacAran had no answer for her, and there was no point in thinking how much better this trip would have been with Marco Zabal’s knowledge of the high Himalaya. He did ask, once, just before he dropped off to sleep, “Do you want to get up and try for some star-sights before dawn?”
“No. I’ll wait for the peak, I guess, if we get that far.” Her breathing quieted into soft exhausted sighs and he knew she slept. He lay awake a little, wondering what lay ahead. Outside, the sleet lashed the branches of the trees and there was a rushing sound which might have been wind or some animal making a rush through the undergrowth. He slept lightly, alert for unexpected sounds. Once or twice Camilla cried out in her sleep and he woke, alert and listening. Had she a touch of altitude sickness? Oxygen content or no oxygen content, the peaks were pretty high and each successive one left their general altitude a little higher. Well, she’d get acclimated, or else she wouldn’t. Briefly, on the edge of sleep, MacAran reflected that it was the stuff of entertainment-media, a man alone with a beautiful woman on a strange planet full of dangers. He was conscious of wanting her—hell, he was human and male—but in their present circumstances nothing was further from his mind than sex.
Maybe I’m just too civilized.
In the very thought, exhausted by the day’s climbing, he fell asleep.
The next three days were replays of that day, except that on the third night they reached a high pass at dusk and the night’s rain had not yet begun. Camilla set up her telescope and made a few observations. He could not forbear, as he set up the shelter-tent in the dark, to ask, “Any luck? Where are we, do you know?”
“Not sure. I knew already that this sun is none of the charted ones, and the only constellations I can spot, from central co-ordinates, are all skewed to the left. I suspect we’re right out of the Spiral Arm of the Galaxy—note how few stars there are, compared even to Earth, let alone any centrally located colony planet! Oh, we’re a good long way from where we were supposed to be going!” Her voice sounded taut and drawn, and as he moved closer he saw in the darkness that there were tears on her cheeks.
He felt a painful urge to comfort her. “Well, at least when we’re on our way again, we’ll have discovered a new habitable planet. Maybe you’ll even get part of the finder’s fee.”
“But it’s so far—” she broke off. “Can we signal the ship?”
“We can try. We’re at least eight thousand feet higher than they are; maybe we’re in a line-of-sight. Here, take the glasses, see if you can find any sign of a flash. But of course they could be behind some fold of the hills.”
He put his arm around her, steadying the glasses. She did not draw away. She said, “Do you have the bearing for the ship?”
He gave it to her; she moved the glasses slightly, compass in hand. “I see a light—no, I think it’s lightning. Oh, what difference does it make?” Impatiently she put the glasses aside. He could feel her trembling. “You
these wide open spaces, don’t you?”
“Why, yes,” he said, slowly, “I’ve always loved the mountains. Don’t you?”
In the darkness she shook her head. Above them the pale violet light of one of the four small moons gave a faint tremulous quality to the dimness. She said, faintly, “No. I’m afraid of them.”
“I’ve been either on a satellite or training ship since I was picked for space at fifteen. You—” her voice wavered, “you get kind of—agoraphobic.”
“And you volunteered to come on this trip!” MacAran said, but she mistook his surprise and admiration for criticism. “Who else was there?” she said harshly, turned away and went into the tiny tent.
Once again, after they had swallowed their food—hot tonight, since there was no rain to put out their fire—MacAran lay awake long after the girl slept. Usually at night there was only the sound of blowing rain and creaking, lashing branches; tonight the forest seemed alive with strange sounds and noises, as if, on the rare snowless night, all its unknown life came alive. Once there was a faraway howling that sounded like a tape he had heard, once, on Earth, of the extinct timber wolf; once an almost feline snarl, low and hoarse, and the terrified cry of some small animal, and then silence. And then, toward midnight, there was a high, eerie scream, a long wailing cry that seemed to freeze the very marrow of his bones. It sounded so uncannily like the scream Marco had given when attacked by the scorpion-ants that for a dreaming moment MacAran, shocked awake, started to leap to his feet; then as Camilla, roused by his movement, sat up in fright, it came again, and he realized nothing human could possibly have made it. It was a shrill, ululating cry that went on, higher and higher, into what seemed like ultra-sonics; he seemed to hear it long after it had died away.
“What is it?” Camilla whispered, shaking.
“God knows. Some kind of bird or animal, I suppose.”
They listened in silence to the ear-shattering scream again. She moved a little closer to him, and murmured, “It sounds as if it were in agony.”
“Don’t be imaginative. That may be its normal voice, for all we know.”

has a normal voice like that,” she said firmly.
“How can we possibly know that?”
“How can you be so matter of fact? Oooh—” she flinched as the long shrilling sound came again. “It seems to freeze the marrow of my bones!”
“Maybe it uses that sound to paralyze its prey,” MacAran said. “It scares me too, damn it! If I were on Earth—well, my people were Irish, and I’d imagine the old Arran banshee had come to carry me off!”
“We’ll have to name it
when we find out what it is,” Camilla said, and she wasn’t laughing. The hideous sound came again, and she clapped her hands over her ears, screaming, “Stop it!
Stop it!”
MacAran slapped her, not very hard. “Stop it yourself, damn you! For all we know it might be prowling around outside and big enough to eat up both of us and the tent too! Let’s keep quiet and just lie low until it goes away!”
“That’s easier said than done,” Camilla murmured, and flinched as the eerie banshee cry came again. She crept closer to him in the crowded quarters of the tent and said, in a very small voice, “Would you—hold my hand?”
He searched for her fingers in the dark. They felt cold and stiff, and he began to chafe them softly between his own. She leaned against him, and he bent down and kissed her softly on the temple. “Don’t be afraid. The tent’s plastic and I doubt if we smell edible. Let’s just hope whatever-it-is, the banshee if you like, catches itself a nice dinner soon and shuts up.”
The howling scream sounded again, further away this time and without the ghastly bone-chilling quality. He felt the girl sag against his shoulder and eased her down again, letting her head rest against him. “You’d better get some sleep,” he said gently.
Her whisper was almost inaudible. “Thanks, Rafe.”
After he knew, by the sound of her steady breathing, that she slept again, he leaned over and kissed her softly. This was one hell of a time to start something like that, he told himself, angry at his own reactions, they had a job to do and there was nothing personal about it. Or shouldn’t be. But still it was a long time until he slept.
They came out of the tent in the morning to a world transformed. The sky was clear and unstained by cloud or fog, and underfoot the hardy colorless grass had been suddenly carpeted by quick-opening, quick-spreading colored flowers. No biologist, MacAran had seen something like this in deserts and other barren areas and he knew that places with violent climates often developed forms of life which could take advantage of tiny favorable changes in temperature or humidity, however brief. Camilla was enchanted with the multicolored low-growing flowers and with the beelike creatures who buzzed among them, although she was careful not to disturb them.
MacAran stood surveying the land ahead. Across one more narrow valley, crossed by a small running stream, lay the last slopes of the high peak which was their destination.
“With any luck we should be near the peak tonight, and tomorrow, just at noon, we can take our survey readings. You know the theory—triangulate the distance between here and the ship, calculate the angle of the shadow, we can estimate the size of the planet. Archimedes or somebody like that did it for Earth, thousands of years before anyone ever invented higher mathematics. And if it doesn’t rain tonight you may be able to get some clearer sightings from the heights.”
She was smiling. “Isn’t it wonderful what just a little change in the weather can do? Will it be much of a climb?”
“I don’t think so. It looks from here as if we could walk straight up the slope—evidently the timberline on this planet is higher than most worlds. There’s bare rock and no trees near the peak, but only a couple of thousand feet below there’s vegetation. We haven’t reached the snowline yet.”
On the higher slopes, in spite of everything. MacAran recovered his old enthusiasm. A strange world perhaps, but still, a mountain beneath him, the challenge of a climb. An easy climb it was true, without rocks or icefalls, but that simply freed him to enjoy the mountain panorama, the high clear air. It was only Camilla’s presence, the knowledge that she feared the open heights, that kept him in touch with reality at all. He had expected to resent this, the need to help an amateur over easy stretches which he could have climbed with one leg in a cast, the waiting for her to find footing on the stretches of steep rocky scree, but instead he found himself curiously in rapport with her fear, her slow conquest of each new height. A few feet below the high peak he stopped.

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