© Alison Sinclair, 1995
They found the body in a tuft of floating forest a half-day’s swim from ringsol six. Daven was the first to see it, Rache the first to recognize it for what it was. He stopped Daven’s first stroke towards it, with a hand on the youth’s shoulder and signalled simply, Look again.
They drifted, ten metres below the surface, in the green-tinged submarine sunlight. The body lay slightly above them, cross-barring the stripes of ribbongrass. Rache felt Daven tense and flinch in recognition. He allowed him time to control his revulsion. He knew the young man’s pride. When Daven turned to him, he signalled, Watch for me. Daven nodded, and unshouldered his speargun. Rache indicated that his approach would be circular and oblique, cautious, orthodox. Alone, he might have done otherwise, being already confident he had the measure of the threat. But not while he was responsible for the protection and teaching of a younger.
With Daven flanking him, he circled, swimming slowly, with easy strokes of flippered feet. There was a haze around the body, shimmering slightly. Tiny scavengers, crowding to feast, and fragmenting the rotting flesh. Things decayed quickly in Blueheart’s warm seas. No sign of anything larger. Nevertheless … he paused a moment, sculling, and then searched in his pouches, drawing out a capsule of repellent, and holding it up for Daven to see. Daven nodded, and did likewise. Rache thought, I’ll have to take him hunting. For my own pleasure as much as his education. He had forgotten how much of a pleasure it could be.
This, however … repellent capsule in one hand, speargun in the other, he swam slowly towards the body. He slid between strands of ribbongrass, probing ahead the tip of his speargun, and watching the shadowy depths. This was the moment for caution. Not all these ribbons might be vegetable, and it was not outwith Rache’s experience that a Medusa might use its own kill for bait. He signalled over his shoulder to Daven, Stay back.
No, no Medusa. He scanned the grass twined beside and about the body, automatically cataloguing species. No sign of splines, radials, or other dangers. He shouldered the speargun, freeing his hand, and popped the repellent capsule over the body. The cloud burst; despite his anticipation, he flinched at the flicker and slither of small fleeing bodies over his skin. Squinting, he waited until the bright mist began to disperse, and then peered close.
There was, as he had expected, little left of the face. Eyes and fleshy features eaten away, in places to the bone; hands pared to bone and tendon; skin flensed to muscle, bone, fat. She had been a woman. He could not tell the original colour of the pulped tissue, but he saw no sign of either clothing or hair. She was likely an adaptive, like himself and Daven modified to live in Blueheart’s seas. She wore a wide belt, as he did, with the usual travellers’ utilities, knife, clippers, parers, shell-cracker. Belt and utilities were decorated with polished shell and very dark olivines. Such dark stones could only come from the outflows beneath the Messnier gyre. Odd: The Messnier gyre was two thousand kilometers away. Across her back she carried a charged speargun, the strap sunk into her disintegrating chest. So death had come on her stealthily. He sculled slowly around her, shouldering aside the grass. He could see no sign of gross injury, no missing limbs, no large bites. Tufts of grass protruded from her clenched fists; he could match them to the torn stubs. She had not died easily.
Carefully, he eased himself from her ribboned cage, and swam back to Daven. He was beginning to feel the need to breathe: he motioned them to the surface.
They broke through into the blazing white of a Blueheart forenoon. Fat cumuli strung across a blue, blue sky. Around them, was a slowly shifting sea unbroken by island or shore, though flattened and slightly roughened to the east, by the underside drag of the floating forest. Rache gratefully filled his lungs, and told Daven what he had found and what he thought of it. He said, “We’ll have to take her back, and I’d also like to take some clippings of the vegetation for analysis; it might tell us something about why she died.”
“You’ll take her back to the ringsol?” Daven said. His tone was critical. Rache said, “We are nearer there than the holdfast. We are due there by this afternoon; in fact, by the time we are done here, we will be overdue.” He sculled, riding the swell, waiting. He suspected that the reasons for Daven’s displeasure was as obscure and unthinking as most of his reactions to the ringsol. Four month’s study under Rache had not changed him.
They were both born to the sea, Rache over fifty years ago, Daven under twenty. Human but adapted to make them viable in Blueheart’s brackish sea: their metabolism stabilized against prolonged immersion, their lungs and heart strengthened against water inhalation, their blood and muscle pigments altered and enriched to give them endurance in swimming and diving. Rache’s modifications went further, making him so much the sea-creature that it had been a profound shock to his insular community when, in his thirtieth year, he left the sea.
Gamma Serpens V–familiarly known as Blueheart–was an anomaly amongst the seventeen settled worlds. Humanity, spreading out from Earth, had embarked on a program of survey, settlement and terraforming of all planets at a workable distance from a suitable star. Human adaptation, to the original or the partially terraformed environment, was always an interim phase. The endpoint was always a planet habitable by primary humans.
But on no other planet had adaptation alone been sufficient for survival: elsewhere, adaptives remained dependent on technological support for food, supplies, information. On Blueheart, intrepid adaptives had tested, and then broken, this dependence. They spread across the shallows and throughout the floating forests, establishing holdfasts around reefs, islands, and rafts, foraging and cultivating native and imported plant and animal life. Their experiment became a way of life, a philosophy, and ultimately, an ideology, with all the rigidity and prescriptions thereof. Rache’s family, his home community, were pastorals all; Rache the only dissenter amongst them. He had thought that Daven might be another; now, he doubted it. There was something deeply conventional about Daven. Most times, Rache respected the effort his nephew had made to have come this far. Sometimes the conventionality irritated him. When Daven said nothing, he reiterated, “We must report back. And her home holdfast must know we have found her. The plannet would be the most efficient–”
“What about boomer-relay?”
Rache knew himself rebuked, and fairly so. Boomer-relay was the adaptives’ long distance network, using the ocean sound channel as a conduit. It would reach, first-hand, the most insular communities.
“Thank you, Daven.” He was pleased to see a flicker of satisfaction in the young man’s expression. “But to reach the nearest relay station would take a detour, and we have no time to detour. And when I get back … no doubt I will have messages and people wanting attention and scolding me for taking leave when my new vice-admin has been only forty days installed, no matter how far ahead I had it planned …”
“I could go.”
He had maundering to avert this just this suggestion. Daven, he suspected, knew it. “I would rather know what killed her before I let you go off alone.”
“I’ve travelled alone before. I’ll be back by night. I’m not afraid.”
Rache mused, “Are you that unenthusiastic about returning to ringsol six?” Daven gave him a flat look; Rache’s intended humour had too much truth in it. He said, “Daven, I would not hold you there.”
“I’ve got to …” He checked himself, and looked away.
Rache said, “You know I’m grateful for your interest.”
The flat look again. “Will you want to wrap her.”
“I should. It is not … easy to look at, Daven.”
“I’ll help you, and then I’ll go to the relay station,” Daven said, challengingly. “I haven’t done anything to make you think I can’t, have I?”
Rache sighed. “Don’t help me,” he said. “Go now so you can be assured of reaching the relay station before dark. Stay there overnight, and come back tomorrow, during daylight.” And give me a sleepless night wondering if I did right in yielding to your young pride. He bit his tongue at Daven’s evident satisfaction, and held it between his teeth until the youth had dived out of earshot.
Well, he had at least spared Daven the task of wrapping the corpse. He cut ribbons from the weed which enfolded her, and mummified her, rubbing repellent into each strip. The first time he had done this, he had been fifteen, and the body had been his sister’s. Athene was the only other one in the holdfast modified as he was; she was his essential companion. They had been two days out from the holdfast when Athene had begun to cough blood. Rache held her face above water while she bled to death from undiagnosed complications of her transfections. Rache had wrapped her body against scavengers and swum with it to the nearest rafttown, looking for a miracle.
He was nearly glad that this body was as mascerated as it was. Its look did not remind him. Its feel did not remind him. But its weight, when he roped it to his shoulders, its weight did. It was hard to pull it. The extra exertion and stress increased his need to breathe; he had to swim nearer the surface than he liked, suffering the subsurface drag of waves and the heat of the tropical oceans. He was exhausted in body and spirit by the time he reached the bright buoy and light which marked the ringsol’s site.
He sculled, riding the waves, breathing, oxygen-charging his muscles. The formerly clear sky was streaked with fibrous cloud, spreading from the north east and sharp-combed north east to south west. He could feel a certain aggressive pitch to the waves. Blueheart’s wide tropics bred storms. Daven might be in for more than one night’s wait at the relay station. Rache quietly prayed that the boy did not try to return tonight, ahead of the storm. Swimming under the stars might be glorious–he remembered such nights from the untroubled first years of his marriage–but many of the sea’s greatest hazards surfaced at night. A lone swimmer in difficulties would disappear forever. To find a body before it was completely devoured, as he had found this one, was most uncommon.
Rather than entertain such thoughts he exhaled hard, emptying his lungs of reserve volume, and dived. The light went from white, to umber, to blue-green. The warmth peeled away from his skin as he entered the thermocline. He could feel the pressure mounting on skin, eyes and ears. His right ear, in particular, nagged at the swiftness of the dive. He ignored it. His adaptation permitted him swift descent and ascent; he could dive, with ease, to the limits of sunlight penetration.
Now he could see the station itself, suspended between downwelling sunlight and upwelling artificial light. It was a heavy, shadowy boulle outlined by a cage of warning lights. Only its uppermost surface was windowed and bright. A dashed tether dropped away from its base, the conduit to the geothermal tap. A hundred and fifty metres below the ringsol, over two hundred metres below the surface, eight concentric, circular arrays of lights illuminated a square kilometre of sea floor. From the level of the station the floor glowed a dusky blue-green. From the level of the lights, the dusky blue-green would be the deep, rich, velvet of abundant growth. As a young man, he had been inspired by the thought of bringing light and fecundity to the dark sea floor, of extending the range of sessile, cultivatable habitat.
He elected to enter through the lock immediately adjacent to medical. The draining of the water left him on hands and knees, like a castaway. He did not try to stand until he heard the inner lock unlatch; he was hauling himself upright when it opened. He was a gregarious man, but he was not quite prepared to be greeted by a crowd.
His right ear was still part blocked, distorting voices and making words unintelligible. Their mood seemed euphoric, a high, somewhat brittle excitement. They seemed to be delighted with him about something. But the stares were abruptly deflected by the sight of the body, the chatter dropped away to silence, and the mood plummeted abruptly to dismay. Someone said, “Oh, Rache. Not … Daven–”
“No,” he said, at once, appalled that he had let them think that, even for a moment.
His vice administrator pushed out of the crowd and went on one knee, intent on seeing with her own eyes. Meredis was one of the few who seemed to like Daven despite himself. And her training was medical. He said, forcibly. “Leave it. It’s not Daven. Daven has gone to pass the word on the relay. We think she’s adaptive.” When she still seemed poised to uncover it, he said, “The body’s … badly damaged.”
She looked up at him, grasping his warning, and got again to her feet. He thought, irrelevantly, that auburn hair, deep ruddy skin, and the blue and black of the survey uniform were an atrocious juxtaposition. “I’ll get a float.” Paused, smiled. “And, by the way, congratulations.”
Rache gazed blankly at her.
She smiled even more widely at his blankness, and said, gently, “Your extrap. proposal has been yellow striped.”
He understood the crowd, and its mood, at last.
In the three hundred years since establishment, Blueheart had been under intense study to develop a complete understanding of its present and past geology, climate and ecosystem. The results of these surveys were used to refine models of how the planet might be developed. Until very recently, such models concentrated upon Blueheart’s transformation to a primary habitat, and the design of the altered ecology. Rache’s own was one of the few to advocate leaving the planet unchanged. It had, hitherto, been considered a fringe diversion. No more. It had, abruptly, become a contender.
Someone at the back pitched forward a bundle of cloth; he caught it as it unfolded, and dropped the kaftan over his head. Clad, he felt able to withstand welcome, celebration, and questions. Yes, he was delighted. Yes, he had given some thought to what would need to be done before application for orange-striping. No, he had not thought about whom he would recruit, this had come as something of a surprise, and yes, he promised ringsol six staff would be the first to know. The body rested against his foot, forgotten by all but himself.
And the medics. Meredis returned with the float and the department head of medicine, and Adam de Courcey had the same effect on the enthusiasts that the repellent had on the scavengers: they scattered. The small, fragile-looking man stood regarding Rache with a slightly sour expression. Adam de Courcey disapproved of human adaptation, and to his mind, Rache wore his deformity too lightly. His origin was e Indi III, one of the two planets to be settled without terraforming.
“I have a body here I need stored,” Rache said, letting his hand slide off the bag. De Courcey’s fine features tightened; he nudged Rache aside, though Rache outmassed him twofold, crouched, and started to unwind the shrouding weed. The few who had not left before, did now.
Cause of death?”
“I couldn’t say. Her speargun was strapped across her back, her knife in her sheath, so she wasn’t aware of danger. There are no wounds from shark or bonecrusher attack. Death wasn’t immediate: there is grass clenched in her hands. I would say toxin. She on the edge of a floating forest, and the forests are home to all kinds of poisonous fauna, though most of those shouldn’t kill a human outright.”
Adam paused a moment, without looking up, waiting for him to continue. When he did not, Adam said, still without looking at Rache, “It’ll take genetics to identify her. I’ll survey the missing persons roster.”
“No need,” Rache said. “Daven’s gone to put a message out on the relay. Her home holdfast will know her from descriptions of her and her equipment. If you store the body, they’ll contact us.”
“Pastoral? You’re sure?” He pulled on a pair of gloves and dug in with small fingers, peering close. “Seems pale for an adaptive … If you don’t want me doing genetics, I can do enough pigment analysis to confirm.”
Rache’s stomach rolled at the sight of Adam’s fingers embedded in the mascerated flesh. He swallowed, hard. “No hair, no clothing, and pastoral artifacts. She’s pastoral, and she should be returned to her own lab for autopsy.”
De Courcey flipped the ribbons of grass back into place, and stood. “But will she be?” Rache let the question go unanswered. This was not the time to argue pastoral compliance with adaptation law. Adam said, “You might like to know what killed her. For your own sake.”
“It would be … politic to wait on the autopsy, Dr. de Courcey. But … ” But other adaptives and divers beside himself swam in those waters. He thought of Daven, and said, abruptly, “Do the minimum, but … as soon as possible.”