Genellan: In the Shadow of the Moon


by Scott Gier

Publication date: July 1996
Copyright © 1996 by Scott Gier

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She was hiking back to where humans had first landed, to Hudson's Plateau, where Commander Quinn, Rhodes, and Rennault had died, where the entire crew of Harrier One --her crew--would have died if it had not been for the cliff dwellers. Buccari owed it to the intelligent creatures to return. The elders had requested her presence. Unspoken in that summons but impossible to ignore was the cliff dwellers' desire to see her son. MacArthur's son. She looked down at the sprawling child, asleep in a chest harness, a solid counterbalance to her backpack.

It was spring again. The planet was awakening, stretching in the sun-star's marginal warmth. And transforming--melting, eroding, trembling in the irrepressible cycles of nature. Grimy expanses of crusty whiteness clung resolutely to north-facing slopes, and the great river, always powerful, swelled magnificently with snowmelt. The river trail was awash, but she had to make the arduous hike now. The fleet would soon return, this time with settlers, with problems. She would have decisions to make. Too many damn decisions.

Thoughts disjointed by fatigue, pack frame tugging at her shoulders, Buccari clambered along an escarpment. It was not warm, but exertion had soaked her T-shirt and stained her leather jerkin. She turned and checked Lizard Lips; the cliff dweller trudged doggedly behind her. She exhaled, shifted her load, and plodded forward. Ahead, Chastain had come to another runoff, a foamy cascade of green and gray.

The bear of a man, floppy cap in hand, backed off from the icy runnel, took three powerful running steps, and leapt. He flailed his arms and crashed against a damp boulder. Stones clattered down the slant toward the rushing torrent far below. Chastain dipped his shaggy head and hunched his mountainous shoulders. A sheepish smile crinkled his soft brown eyes, swelled his fat brown cheeks, and flickered through his wild brown whiskers.

Buccari let Lizard Lips by. The cliff dweller was a guilder, a steam user, taller than Buccari but with shorter legs. His private parts were covered with a dun kilt; his vestigial talons were wrapped with stout leather. A pelt of silky gray grew from the guilder's knobby head and narrow shoulders. Creamy white fur adorned the rest of his body. The creature tossed the Legion communicator to Chastain and then threw his rucksack. Chittering nervously, the cliff dweller unlimbered atrophied flying membranes, took a short run at the tributary, and jumped. His down-stroking appendages whoosh ed with apprehensive energy, but the ugly creature easily cleared the impediment. Overhead an army of hunters wheeling on midday thermals whistled derisively at such feeble flight.

"Careful, Lieutenant," Chastain bellowed, brow furrowed. Beyond Chastain glacier-hung ridges heaved skyward. They had climbed to the boulder-strewn margins of the riparian valley. Isolated clumps of scraggly, yellow-barked spruce and russet-limbed rockberry flourished, but only where spreading flows of talus and rock tumble permitted.

"Kinda slick, Lieutenant," Chastain shouted.

The glacier-melt defile was not wide, but its torrent was powerful. Buccari settled her pack, sucked in a mind-clearing breath, and looked up the river valley to the immense rise of the monolithic plateau, home to cliff dwellers. Beyond the plateau were the ageless mountains, a towering snow-shrouded continental spine stark against an iron-blue sky--geologic monsters, ancient and imperturbable. She looked down at her sleeping child.

"Sir, you want to hand Charlie over?" Chastain asked. The marine placed a grimy, sandaled foot to the brink, lips working beneath shaggy mustaches. He leaned over the splashing feeder and extended a powerful arm. His pack shifted, but Chastain moderated his piston-legged stance only slightly.

Buccari exhaled. The plateau was not getting any closer.

"Here I come, Jocko," she said through clenched teeth. She pushed hard, accelerating with each step. With one hand she held her child; with the other she reached for Chastain's hairy arm. And jumped.

"Aw, Lieuten--!" Chastain blurted. Lizard Lips screeched.

Chastain seized her wrist. In that instant she knew no force in the universe could break their bond. She landed on the rock-studded slope and was surrounded by an iron-hard embrace. Charlie stirred but did not awaken.

"Thanks, Jocko." She exhaled, tilting her chin to give the gentle giant a smile. Chastain blushed, as he always did.

She looked back defiantly at the shattered torrent, its leaping spray dancing in rainbow mists. Far below, the plummeting tributary was overwhelmed in confluence with the river. The greater current, its majestic tumult exploding in brain-dulling cascades, thundered downstream in boulder-rolling waves.

Lizard Lips, downy fur glistening with gems of spray, chirped and thrust the communicator at her. His gruesome countenance jerked upward, long snout lifting in unbridled emotion. Rows of jagged teeth glinted in the bright sun--not a smile.

short-one-who-leads endanger offspring. giant-one must carry, the icons on the coummunicator admonished.

She looked into the ugly creature's double-lidded black eyes and signed back: "My turn to carry. My duty. My offspring."

Chirping with agitation into the ultrasonic, Lizard Lips rudely recovered the communicator and started to punch in more icons. Buccari waved away his efforts and signed: "Talk later. Walk now. Many spans."

Lizard Lips whistled something. Buccari fixed the cliff dweller with an unblinking glare. The chastised steam user bowed formally, if quickly, and jumped into a rolling waddle.

Chastain moved farther from the river. Solid pillars of granite rose between them and the watercourse, shielding them from the crashing hydraulics. Above them, on precipitous cliffs, clusters and points of whiteness moved sedately--mountain goats. The hikers twisted around rugged formations. Trees grew on the higher slopes, but the rugged terrain in which they found themselves was unrelieved rock.

Shrieks! Overhead, hunters, no longer merely swirling motes, plummeted closer. Buccari glanced up at their bedlam. Danger! the hunters screamed. She brought a heightened attention to the ground.

Lizard Lips signed unnecessarily: "Alert. Something wrong."

Movement in the boulders caught her eye. A rockdog! Slinking with feline grace, the predator emerged from dark shadows, sunlight reflecting brilliantly from its silky black pelt.

"Jocko!" she whispered, pointing.

"Yes, sir," Chastain replied softly, unlatching a stubby rifle. "Two more behind us."

She unholstered her pistol as they climbed a tumble of lichen-stained quartz. White and argent-crazed facets sparkled in the sun's rays. The spectacle went unappreciated as snarls reverberated in the air. Chastain eased to the crest of the scintillating rise. His broad shoulders sagged. More snarls. Rockdogs closed in behind them. Lizard Lips screamed, silently to human ears, but the carnivores heard the ultrasonic plea and howled in vicious agitation.

"They got us in a box, Lieutenant," Chastain said softly.

She climbed beside the crouching giant. Sheer cliffs of quartz-veined granite blocked their path. Their only option was to retreat. No fewer than ten rockdogs stalked their rear, measuring them, tasting the air. One crept steadily closer. Chastain raised his rifle.

"Jocko, don't shoot--yet," she begged.

Buccari, pistol held high, hopped from the rocks, watching the predators' movements as they hungrily studied hers. She felt movement. She glanced down. Charlie's gunmetal blue eyes blinked owlishly, unsteadily trying to focus.

"No, Lieutenant! Wait!" Chastain moaned. Lizard Lips screeched.

The near rockdog, at least sixty kilos, silver-hackled and ears shredded by combat, slunk on its belly, cutting off retreat. Other rockdogs moved in. She shifted the pistol, hefted a chunk of quartz, took two forceful steps, and whipped the stone sidearm. The ragged missile hit short, splintering shards of crystal. The beast recoiled and growled magnificently, baring yellowed canines and a piebald tongue of pink and black.

"Stupid dog," she muttered, shifting the pistol to her right hand.

Chastain, rifle butt swinging to his shoulder, jostled her aside. The snarling predator surged forward, hackles bristling, clawing like a bull. It feigned a charge and then settled into a coiled bundle of fury.

"Don't kill it, Jocko," she pleaded, grabbing his sleeve and wrapping her arm around Charlie's head. "Shoot high."

The big man sighed, twitched his weapon upward, and jerked off a round. The rifle's report exploded with echoing resonance, the wasted slug singing off the rocks. The beasts recoiled as one, many disappearing into rocky shadows. The near dog lurched but spun, silver hackles bristling. It sniffed the cordite, lowered its head, and issued a rattling growl. Charlie screamed lustily.

"I gotta, Lieutenant!" Chastain shouted. He aimed, finger tightening on the trigger. The skulking beast sprang.

Zip! A black-fletched dart struck the dog in the neck. A hail of hunter arrows whiffled the air, many sinking into the hurtling dog's body, some clattering among the rocks. The animal, pincushioned with shafts, thudded into the rocks, jerking spasmodically. The noble beast lay convulsing at Chastain's feet, whimpering.

"Now, Jocko," Buccari whispered, hugging her son's head.

The single shot echoed into the mountains, as did the screams of hunters descending. Bows drawn and arrows nocked, the host of sinewed, mattock-headed creatures fired furiously at the retreating targets, killing or maiming. The barking died. The screaming of the hunters diminished to regimented chirps. The only sound was Charlie's crying, and that, too, soon tempered.

Two hunters swooped past her and luffed into the wind, membranes billowing like parachutes. They landed at Buccari's feet. Both charcoal-furred creatures were tall warriors, yet their knobby heads barely reached Buccari's chin. Captain Two, the hunter leader, and Tonto, her old friend, wore sweat-darkened leather over chest and groin. The hideously scarred warrior chief was the second hunter she had named Captain. The first Captain had died in MacArthur's arms as Mac, too, lay dying on the rocky ridge above his valley, heroes of a great battle. She swept away painful memories and embraced her restless child.

Not in a sweet temper, Captain Two bowed stiffly. With fierce and obvious displeasure the warrior screeched and waved spindly four-fingered hands in agitated signals, his splendid ire directed at Chastain. The hunter leader dared not berate Buccari, for that would be grave insult. Even so, Tonto glared at her with fraternal impatience.

"Risk offspring! Shoot dog more quick! Stupid! Stupid!" Captain Two's blurring hand signals were emphatic. Chastain stood blinking at attention, a herculean warrior being reprimanded by a wispy Napoleon, comprehending not half of the flashing hand signals but acutely aware of being dressed down, whatever the language.

Buccari stifled a smile. She consoled Charlie back into calmness and studiously avoided eye contact with the heated hunters. Captain Two, his anger spent, turned and hopped from the rocks. Chirping nervously, Lizard Lips obediently followed the warrior. Chastain looked sideways at Buccari, smiled diffidently, and motioned for her to precede him. They walked in silence past arrow-studded carcasses, toward the river. Tonto and a butcher party collected arrows and hides.

"Dunno, Lieutenant," Chastain said, breaking the silence. "Should've had Et Silmarn fly us to the plateau."

"They don't want kones on the plateau, Jocko," she said.

Buccari understood the cliff dwellers' fear. As alien to Genellan as were humans, the kones were at once Buccari's greatest hope and her greatest apprehension. She had been on the ugly end of powerful konish weapons too many times.

Captain Two waited at a point where they could safely proceed upriver. As Buccari hiked past the hunter leader, the wiry creature bowed with grotesque formality. Buccari returned the honor.

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