Authors: Marion Zimmer Bradley
David had told her when he came back inside a few moments ago that it was much
warmer now than it had been during the storm. Even though she had to admit that she could hear the drips of the melting snow plopping into the high drifts beneath the eaves of the building, Ysaye was not impressed by this so-called “warming trend.” Barely above freezing was still too damned cold. She hoped that the ship would send someone down to retrieve them soon. If this was what planetary exploration was like, she was going to go hide in the core of the computer and never come out again.
Not that this building, which appeared to be some kind of emergency shelter for
people caught out in storms like this, wasn’t interesting in its own way. Working on Commander Britton’s suggestion, Elizabeth had enthusiastically catalogued every single item in it as soon as they got themselves organized, and then she and David had
discussed the implications of each one as they huddled together under the emergency blankets they had salvaged from the ruined shuttle. But Ysaye would much rather have been learning all this from the database, and not at first hand. Actually, she would much rather not have had to learn about it at all.
To Ysaye’s mind, most of the assumptions that could be drawn from the place
were pretty obvious. She was sure that all of the rest shared her sincere thankfulness that whoever had built the place felt the cold the way they did. This shelter had been built as solidly as low tech would permit, and there was plenty of firewood stored near a primitive hearth. That argued either altruism, as Elizabeth held—or a more practical streak, the knowledge that anyone could be caught by such a storm at any time, and it behooved the inhabitants of this place to erect such shelters on the grounds of
Evans had been the worst during their enforced confinement, and his absence had
begun to ease the tension headache Ysaye had been enduring that was an added insult to the mild concussion she had suffered in the crash. Evidently he found being confined in close quarters with other people for long stretches of time almost as unbearable as Ysaye found his grumbling about it, and the tension headache was due entirely to her
increasing irritation with him. As soon as the snow stopped, Commander Britton had suggested that Evans go out to the shed, which appeared to be intended for some sort of riding or pack animals, and begin his analysis of the plants used for fodder that were stored there. The ensuing silence was almost as comforting as a nice cup of hot
chocolate would have been.
Dr. Lakshman had lowered herself to sit beside Ysaye on the floor near the fire.
“Peace and quiet at last,” she sighed. “How’s your concussion doing?”
“I think I’ve just about lost the concussion headache,” Ysaye replied, “And if
certain people manage to stay outside, the tension headache may go away, too.”
Aurora Lakshman shook her head. “I am trying very hard not to think how little I would care if certain people fell off a cliff,” she said wryly. “This shelter is just not big enough to hold Evans
“Aurora,” Ysaye pointed out, “there are still six people in here—and I think
whoever built this shelter was thinking of either fewer people or smaller people.”
“Or people who didn’t gripe as much,” Aurora said. “If Evans had said one more
word about the quality of the emergency rations in the shuttle, I think I might actually have hit him.”
“I’ll admit they weren’t the best thing I’ve ever tasted,” Ysaye agreed, “but they aren’t any worse than the food they served us in training, especially those survival rations when we went out into the desert!”
“Actually, I think they’re a slight improvement,” Aurora said. “And the moaning
and complaining when we had to use the stuff stored
I was ready to strangle him!
His scientific analysis of—whatever they are—was first rate, but we could certainly have done without his personal opinion of their palatability.”
“Or the comparisons to what they tasted like.” Ysaye made a face. “I thought little boys were supposed to grow out of trying to make people sick once they hit
Aurora chuckled. “At least he’s good with his analysis techniques. I’m glad they turned out to be something we could eat, or we’d have been in even worse shape after our own supplies ran out.” She grimaced. “I’m not at all happy with how under-supplied the shuttle is for an emergency like this. Granted, we didn’t expect to spend this long down here, but this situation could easily have been a lot worse than it is, in which case we would be losing personnel by now.” She looked carefully at Ysaye, who was
wrapped in two of the emergency blankets. “How are you doing besides the headaches, Ysaye?”
Ysaye shrugged and tried to look unconcerned. “I’m cold, like everyone else, I
imagine. Except for Evans, who obviously has no nerves, or he’d be getting on his own by now.”
“It’s true that we’re all cold,” Aurora said, “but you’re the one least physically suited to this environment. MacAran, and our lovebirds over there,” she indicated David and Elizabeth, “are descended from people who adapted to live in a cold climate, while your ancestors evolved in Africa.”
“Everybody on Terra is descended from people who lived in Africa,” Ysaye
reminded her. “They proved that way back in the twentieth century.”
“True,” Aurora conceded the point. “But your ancestors stayed there longer than
the ones who became Caucasians. And you have very little surplus body fat, which is what insulates the human body in cold weather. You’re so conscientious about your exercise program on the ship—except when you get involved in a particularly interesting project, of course—”
“You know me too well,” Ysaye laughed.
Aurora smiled back. “It’s hard to keep secrets from your doctor. You’re all right, though?”
“As long as no one asks me to go hiking out in the snowdrifts,” Ysaye told her.
“One step outside that door, and I’ll freeze in place.”
Aurora nodded, chuckling. “Good. As long as you’re all right, the rest of us
should be, too. Think of it as a variation on the canary in the coal mine.”
“Well, I’m qualified for that,” Ysaye agreed. “And at least in this cold weather I don’t have to worry about hay fever— or any allergies from blooming vegetation. Just the dust allergy from the straw, and irritation from the smoke. And the medication I brought with me is still holding out.”
The doctor looked suddenly concerned. “That’s right, I’d forgotten about your
“No reason for you to remember them under normal conditions,” Ysaye said
lightly. “There’s nothing on the ship that bothers me, and I don’t volunteer for landing parties. I don’t know why I’m on this one, and frankly, it’s an honor I could have done without.”
Aurora grinned. “I hate to say this to a scientist of your reputation, but I hear the Captain had a hunch.”
Ysaye’s jaw dropped. “Captain Gibbons dropped me into this mess on a
she said indignantly. She took a deep breath and let it out. “When we get back, I just may program the computer to ‘lose’ all the opera recordings for a few months. Well, at least that explains why I couldn’t come up with a logical reason for my inclusion in this festive little gathering.”
“Such as it is,” Commander Britton said, joining them.
“Well, we do have a campfire,” Ysaye said, with a wry smile.
“Too bad we forgot the marshmallows,” Aurora added lightly. “I’ll have to add
them to the list of suggested supplies for the next time somebody crashes a shuttle in a blizzard.”
MacAran winced, and Ysaye felt a surge of sympathy for him. The pilot was
taking his failure very badly. “Actually, under the circumstances, it was a very good landing,” Ysaye pointed out gently. “After all, we’re alive—although with this
headache, I’m not sure I want to be!”
“Thank you for the kind words,” MacAran said, making no attempt to sound
anything but bitter. “Will you testify at my hearing?”
Ysaye shook her head. “You know perfectly well that they’ll want all of us to
testify, and I don’t think that anyone here is going to find fault with you. I know that I’ll tell the Captain that it wasn’t your fault and that you did a superb job of landing under nearly impossible conditions.” She grinned, and tried to make a joke to lighten his gloomy expression. “Maybe then he won’t take the shuttle replacement out of your pay.”
“Right,” Elizabeth put in, playing along with the joke, “blame it on the weather briefing and he’ll take it out of
The door opened suddenly and Evans bounced in. “What an adaptation! You
aren’t going to believe this! Some of the trees here seem to encase their fruits by thickening their skins into special pods against the snow, and cast the pods off when it gets warmer, so their growing season isn’t interrupted!”
He looked as happy as a child with a new toy, which was certainly an
improvement over his behavior during the storm. Ysaye could understand his reaction; this discovery would be a fine base for a scholarly paper which would bring him prestige in the community of xenobotany. It wasn’t often that anyone in the Service had the opportunity for the kind of research paper that would stun academic circles; when it came right down to it, most research on xenobotany was done at the cellular level and below, and someone like Evans was simply not going to have the time or opportunity to do that kind of research. He was a field xenobotanist; it was his job to decide whether given plants were harmful, neutral, or beneficial to humans. It was not his job to conduct research outside of that sphere—and to be perfectly catty, Ysaye was not certain that he wanted to take the time away from his personal (reliably rumored) explorations of recreational pharmaceuticals to do that kind of research.
He pulled Commander Britton aside and began an enthusiastic report delivered in
speech so rapid that Ysaye could barely follow it and soon stopped trying.
There came a pounding on the door, and everyone looked up in surprise.
Personnel had been drifting back into the shelter for the last hour, but no one had felt the need to knock—that would have been ridiculous…
A split-second later, they looked at one another, counting noses. Ysaye was no
different from the rest; and came to the same conclusion. Everyone was already inside, so that meant whoever was knocking—
A pall of fear fell over the group. For a moment, no one could move.
Then, suddenly, before anyone could stop him, Commander MacAran stepped
forward and opened the door.
To Ysaye’s astonishment—and relief, for however interesting really different
aliens would be, in their current situation she would rather have beings with whom she could communicate—the men on the doorstep looked completely human. No claws, no
fangs—unless they had something hidden under their clothing, they looked to Ysaye as if they were “human to the ninety-ninth percentile.”
There were four of them, tall, fair-haired, and clothed in several layers of heavy clothing: loose breeches, cloaks that hung to mid-thigh, high boots. They wore their hair long, and some of them were bearded, which looked strange to Ysaye, since nobody on board wore a beard.
MacAran began with Standard speech, and, when that unsurprisingly failed, tried
to explain by signs that they had been marooned here by the crash of the shuttle craft, but evidently he was not getting the message across.
Did they have the concept of flight here? Ysaye wondered. She could see no way
that anyone could develop aircraft in this type of terrain, and with weather like that last blizzard.
The leader of the strange men made signs that seemed to Ysaye to indicate that
even worse weather was on the way. He finished by gesturing to them to follow him.
MacAran glanced back at the rest of them.
Commander Britton nodded—dubiously, but nodded. Elizabeth and David made
motions of immediate agreement. The doctor pursed her lips and looked at the strangers sharply, then added her own agreement.
Evans looked impatient as
nodded. Not surprising, Ysaye thought. He was always ready to try and find “angles” on something, and he had been all too ready to swoop down out of the sky and exploit this world, even before they knew about the inhabitants. Right now he was probably looking these natives over and deciding the quickest way to take advantage of them.
Ysaye was the lone holdout; she just did not want to go with these people,
whoever, whatever they were. She didn’t think they were ill-intentioned—but she had the oddest feeling of warning about them. As if, somehow, something was trying to tell her that if she went with them, she would be walking into danger she couldn’t even imagine.
MacAran gave her a sharp look, but the consensus was already in. He nodded
acquiescence, and they all gathered up their belongings and followed the strangers outside.
One of the natives led them to a narrow, deeply beaten path in the snow, not quite a road, but the nearest thing to it that could be made in the snow without heavy machinery. The Terrans followed, perforce in single file, with the rest of the natives bringing up the rear.
As she trudged along the path, Ysaye remained bundled in her blankets, squinting against the glare of sun on the snow. The air was cold enough that her breath steamed, but growing warmer by the moment. Buds and even leaves seemed to be springing out of dormant wood on the trees, some of them emerging as Ysaye watched, as if she were watching a motion-study of leaf development. It looked as if Evans were right—that the leaves and buds had been “stored” for the cold weather. Although it looked to her as if the “pods” simply folded back along the stem, rather than being shed altogether. That would make more sense, really; so that the pods could be reused rather than being lost with each storm and thaw.