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Story Excerpt

The Last Days of Good People
by A.T. Sayre


Everyone was on the operations deck while Gare was on the conference call with the Ministry back home. Retii Major had just set below the mountain range opposite, but half of Retii Minor was still above the peaks in the slowly reddening sky. It cast long shafts of light deep into the darkened room through the windows facing down into the valley. The shadows against the back wall shimmered and waved like water in the interference from the camouflage barrier covering the windows, masking their presence under the illusion of an unbroken rock face. A line of shadow cut across Gare’s closed office door diagonally. Its flutter made Warin think of a pennant.

None of them really had much reason to be operations, at least not all at once like this. Warin actually couldn’t even remember the last time he had seen the base’s entire staff together at the same time. Usually it was just him at his station and Lil, the station engineer, at hers across the room where she was now, intensely ignoring everyone as she typed furiously onto her pad. But Rek, Dav, and Bela, they worked more in the field—even when they were in the base their workstations were downstairs in the lab. But they were all up here now. Rek lounged at the free station against the back wall, sitting in a chair and staring at his own feet. There were no other free chairs, so the other two stood around loitering, Bela leaning against the wall by the elevator, Dav by the windows staring out, sipping quietly on something hot. Nobody said a word or acknowledged anyone else.

Warin looked down at the two-dimensional map of the planet floating above his holopad. Retii 4. The map showed three continents, officially labeled LM-A, LM-B, and LM-C—which everyone called Llama, Lamb, and Lorca. They were more long than thin, and boomerang-shaped, with each curving inward toward the other two, making a near ring around a massive inner ocean. The gaps between the points of each landmass were not as close as they looked on this map, nor were the coasts so smooth. And they were a scattering of small, mostly uninhabited islands as well that didn’t show. But the map was thematic, not topographical. The areas shaded red showed how far among the native population the Bug had spread. It was most of the map. The little continent they were on at the bottom of the world, Lorca, was all that was left that was clear. Or at least, only half of it was red.

Warin waved through the hologram to close the map. For a moment he couldn’t remember why he had had it up in the first place. Then he remembered that he had been using it to check something in Bela’s last report. The numbers had been off on some minor point, at least he thought they might have been—but of course they weren’t. He had misremembered. As he should have known. Bela never made mistakes like that. Her grammar could be atrocious at times, but the reports were always very exact. Precise.

He looked over at her leaning against the wall. She stared absently across the room, her arms crossed against her chest. Her face looked calm, distant, as if the moment they were all sharing was boring her. Even as her fingers tapped out some frantic rhythm on her elbows. She must have felt his eyes on her, because she turned to look at him. But before he could wave, nod, even smile at her, she scowled at him and turned away again.

Warin spun his chair away from her, facing out toward the windows. But he was intensely aware of her presence behind him like heat on his back. He ignored it, staring at the peaks out the window, all but dark silhouettes with the blinding sky of the sunset behind them. But he couldn’t focus on them, or on anything, really. His mind jumped around randomly from one inconsequential thought to another. He noticed his right foot tapping on the ground at a frantic pace and pressed his hand on his knee to stop it. Warin sighed. The mood in the room was starting to get to him.

He got up from his desk and walked over to Dav. The old man had a magnifying panel open on the smart-glass window. He glanced at Warin as he approached, and with a finger he slid the panel between the two of them, gesturing at it.

The panel was set to 30x magnification, focused on the native village in the valley below. Several dozen dome-like structures of wood, thatch, and mud—some small, others quite large, but all single story. In the top of each dome was a circular hole, some of which he could see wisps of smoke drifting out of. They were arranged somewhat haphazardly in rings around a semicircle of flat common area at the village center, where even at this magnification the natives were little more than whitish smudges going about their tasks.

Warin knew what the natives looked like. He had seen them in the holovids and images that accompanied the field reports the others gave him to file and organize. Their official designation in the reports was DNS-Retii 4, Dominant Native Species—but everyone just called them rettys. They were large, reaching nearly four meters in adulthood, with long white hair over most of their bodies. They were tripedal, with two large hooved legs pointing forward, and a smaller, third one facing backward that they used like a tail for balance when stationary. Two long, powerful-looking thick arms that ended in three-digit hands came out of their torso right at the base of their elongated necks, which ended in an oval-shaped head with a long snout, powerful jaw, small nose slits, and three eyes, one on each side and the third centered to cover the gap in vision between the other two. Usually the images showed them in simple tunics with little to no jewelry. What adornment they did partake in seemed to be mostly about intricate braiding of their hair, which they would do from head to toe, and could get incredibly complex, involving labyrinthine twists, dyes, and wooden pins. For all their imposing size and alienness, to Warin the images had always exuded a very calm, almost serene presence, their long snouts looking almost like they were in a perpetual state of breaking into a smile.

Dav slid the panel down slightly to focus on the fields below the village. “They’re just about done for the day,” he said to Warin. He increased the magnification. “See them preparing the ground for planting?”

Warin could just make out tiny figures in the fields, swinging some kind of thick staff hard into the ground, dragging it in the dirt for a meter or so, before raising it up again to repeat the motion rhythmically. “They’re turning the soil like that?”

Dav smiled. “They haven’t quite developed the plow yet. As strong as they are it hasn’t been as necessary. Especially around here where the earth is soft. Those staffs have curved blades on the end, kind of like a scythe but angled out to one side. It gets the job done. They’ll get that field turned before sundown, and then the one next to it tomorrow while the young start planting in the first. The children will catch up to the adults by the end of tomorrow and both fields will be planted. Then they take a day, rest, and then move on to plant the next two.”

“How many fields do they have?”

“Twenty-four. Though only half are planted in a given season and the other half left fallow on a rotating basis.”

“Wouldn’t it be better to keep going, get it all done as soon as possible? Why do they take the day off in between?”

“To let the earth recover before asking more of it.”


“It’s kind of a ritual act,” Dav said. “Probably ages ago their ancestors over-farmed their fields and ruined the soil. And the warning passed down to be more careful with how they farm evolved over the ages into the practice.”

“That makes sense for the crop rotation, but not the stuttered planting schedule,” Warin said.

Dav shrugged. “It’s what they do.”

“So when they’re all planted, that’s when they have a festival, right?”

Dav glanced at Warin sideways. “So you do pay attention to the reports.”

“I read them a little,” Warin replied with a smirk. “It’d be impossible not to. Just that if I sat and studied every bit of what you all bring in I’d never get them filed into the database.”

Dav nodded and sipped his drink, staring thoughtfully down at the village for a moment. He continued. “The festival is not quite as big a goings-on around here as it is elsewhere.”

“It is just a village down there.”

Dav shook his head. “Even in the proto-city upriver it’s somewhat subdued compared to the other continents. On most of Lamb, the festival was a week-long affair of music and revelry. One great party. Especially in the bigger settlements. At the trading centers too, even though there was no direct agriculture going on at them. On Llama it was shorter, just the one night on most of that continent like here, but much more intense. They adhered to the rituals as the main focus. Sometimes almost exclusively. There was a village in the northern quadrant where the entire night and following day of the festival was spent in silent meditation. The whole village kneeling together in a semicircle unmoving for an entire solar day.”

“That sounds miserable.”

“I thought it was fascinating. I wrote a paper all about the various customs of the planting festival across the planet a few years ago. It’d be in the database if you’re interested.”

Warin shook his head. “I don’t need that much of a distraction.”

“Well I guess I won’t go ahead with the presentation on the subject I was going to do for everyone after dinner.”

Across the room Rek chuckled. Lil looked up from her pad and glared. “Do you mind?” she snapped at him. Everyone turned to look at the pair of them, as Rek put his hands up in mock surrender and turned away from her. Lil buried her head back into her pad muttering to herself.

Warin turned back to the window. “Maybe you should think about doing it anyway,” he said to Dav under his breath.

Dav shook his head with a grimace and went back to staring quietly down at the village. Everyone else remained silent in their own worlds.

Gare’s office door opened with a squeal that was exaggerated in the silence, causing everyone to jump as the base commander stepped out onto the deck. She stopped at her doorway when she saw everyone looking at her.

Bela stood up off the wall and turned to face her. “Well?” she asked. “What did they say?”

Gare turned to face Bela. She started to speak, but stopped, instead looking downward frowning. “The request was denied.”

Bela nodded and walked away across the room. Rek shrugged. Warin heard Dav, who had turned back around to look out the window, sigh very deeply.

Lil stood up from her seat. “Just like that? No deliberation, no analysis, the Ministry just turned it down flat?”

Gare put up her hands. “We all argued for them pretty vigorously, all the post commanders. Even a minister or two was with us. But it’s a pretty open and shut case, Lil. The rettys are barely out of the Stone Age. Nowhere close to advanced enough to authorize intervention.”

“Are you going to file an appeal?” Dav asked her.

Gare nodded. “A joint appeal from all observation posts. I told them to expect it as we ended the call. Each of you is welcome to add your name too.”

Rek folded his arms across his chest. “Are we required?”

Gare rolled her eyes at him. “Nobody is required to be involved in the appeal, Rek. It’s your own choice.” She looked over at Warin. “I need you to compile the current stats on the rettys, along with a few other things we’ll be filing with the appeal. I’ll let you know which reports and get you a cover page for it by tomorrow. Letters from the other observation posts should be coming in to include as well.”

Warin nodded at Gare. “Of course.”

Gare continued. “But I don’t want any of you to get your hopes up over this,” she said to the entire room. “It’s a long-shot. At best. I will do what I can. So will all the other post commanders and staff. But you should all learn to accept that the Ministry’s decision is not likely to change. The rettys just aren’t advanced enough.”

Lil snorted. “By whose standards?” she asked.

Rek cleared his throat. “Considering it’s us that would be doing the intervening, ours.”

“Yours maybe,” she spat back at him. She turned back to Gare. “What about the culture, the spirituality, the intricate customs and detailed societal organization? None of that matters? Just their tech? Measuring the rettys based on their technology level is unfair. Who cares if they didn’t domesticate animals? They’re herbivores. They didn’t because they didn’t need to, not because they can’t. There’s plenty of other factors the council should take into consideration.”

“You know that’s not how it works. All of that was taken into consideration, not just the tech level. And more.” Gare walked over to the main station in the center of the room. “But it’s just not enough.”

“Those heartless assholes—”

Warin cut her off. “Lil.”

“What?” She nearly shouted.

“You’re not helping.”

“As if any of you are.”

“And what exactly would have us do?” Gare asked sternly. “Hmmm? If you have an idea we’re all listening.” Lil turned back to her commander but said nothing. Gare took a deep breath and continued in a more calm tone. “Nobody’s happy about this. But the Ministry’s decision is clear, and we are duty-bound to observe it. We’re not the arbiters of life and death in the Universe.”

Lil sat back down in her seat heavily, turning to face the wall. “Just another great day in the Federated Ministry of Science.”

Gare did not reply and went back to her computer. Rek got up from his chair with a grunt and called the elevator. The doors opened immediately, and he left.

Warin noticed out of the corner of his eye the light from the windows increase. He turned back around to see what had happened. Retii Minor was all but gone behind the opposite peaks, and proper nighttime was only minutes away. Yet the world outside was brightening, as the mild fuzziness of the view of the valley grew sharper. He turned back to Gare. “The window camouflage is going down,” he said.

Gare looked up at him with a nod and back down at her computer. “I’m taking the masking systems offline.”

“What? Why?”

Gare shrugged. “It’s just a drain of energy now.”

“But what if the rettys notice us? The base?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Dav said to him. Warin looked at the old man. Dav glanced up from the village with a sad smile. “There’s no need to hide. We can’t influence the rettys’ development anymore. They’re going extinct.”

*   *   *


The Bug itself was nothing new to the planet. And was not actually a bug but a virus, initially carried by a few types of a flying parasitic insect. Or at least the equivalent of insects on Retii, which were more arachnid-like. And it thrived in only one region of the planet; the wet, humid jungles on the southern tip of Llama. It was unable to spread beyond that region though, being blocked by dry plains to the north, mountains to the east, and the ocean to the west and south. Which had been fortunate for the rettys, because the Bug had a near 100 percent fatality rate for them. It was the only area of the planet that the rettys had not spread to. Any native who wandered into that rain forest rarely survived more than a few days. As long as they stayed clear of the southern jungles, and the Bug stayed trapped there, the rettys could continue to grow across the rest of the world, safe from the virulent plague.

Then two planetary years ago volcanic activity in the mountains of southern Llama increased dramatically. Which caused the ice in the surrounding peaks to melt at higher rates at the end of winter. Which then flooded into the plains below them, creating pockets of swamp and marshland. Which allowed the Bug-laden insects to break free of the rain forest and spread north throughout the long hot summer. By the time the weather started to cool, several small villages bordering the plains had been completely wiped out.

It could have ended there, or at least soon after. The cold winters in central Llama should have stopped the Bug, killed off its carrying insects and receded back into the swamps from whence it came. That’s what the xenobiologists tracking the Bug in nearby observatories had expected to happen, at least.

“But it mutated and jumped species,” Bela said, rolling over on to her stomach. “Multiple species, actually. Small vermin animals, a couple of the larger vertebrates. Those flying snakes—that’s the one that really spread it. They all became carriers. It killed off a few of them too, but not before they could help spread it everywhere. There was no way we could predict that.”

Warin stared down at her bare back next to him in the bed. “Shit luck.”

Bela glanced up at him raising an eyebrow. “Isn’t it, though?” She turned her head on her folded arms to face away from him.

Warin got out of bed and slipped on his undershorts. He walked over to Bela’s small kitchenette and poured a glass of water. He leaned his back against the sink and drank it slowly, staring down at her. She was suddenly oblivious to his presence. Her shoulders rose and then sank as she sighed, her head shaking ever so slightly as she did. She was then motionless. Warin might have assumed that she had drifted off, but from his vantage he could see a sliver of her eye staring at the base of the lamp on the bedside table next to her.

He swallowed the rest of the water, placed his glass in the sink, and came back to the bed. He sat on the edge, on her side, by her feet, running his fingers gently on her leg. Bela smiled absently.

“Nine, five, and three,” she mumbled.

“What’s that?” Warin asked.

Bela frowned. “That was the Retty population on the three continents before the Bug. Nine million on Llama, five million on Lamb, and three million on Lorca. Now there couldn’t be more than a few dozen rettys left on either of the first two. If that. The fraction of a fraction of a percent that are immune. Lorca’s down to nearly a third of that number and the Bug just got here a few months ago.” Bela reached out and tapped on the edge of her bedside table with her finger. “It’s just so virulent. Once it broke out they never stood a chance.” She turned to look at Warin. “Do you know how the Bug kills them?”

“It’s a respiratory thing. It clogs up their lungs.”

Bela shook her head. “That’s a simplistic description. And lung, singular. The rettys only have a single organ for gas exchange which you would call a lung.”

“All right,” he said. “I’m not the scientist here.”

Bela smiled. “I know.” Warin said nothing, and she continued. “The Bug gets into their system through direct contact with a carrier, either an animal or insect. From there it makes its way into the retty’s lung and lodges all over their, well let’s just call them alveoli, it’s close enough. Though the retty’s version of them pulls in more than just oxygen like ours, they also pull nitrogen and a few other lesser gases from the air for other uses in the body. It’s actually a far superior respiratory system than ours. But anyway, once the Bug attaches to them it starts to siphon off the gases meant for the bloodstream, growing and multiplying rapidly, preventing more and more nutrients from entering circulation. The immune system is always too slow to get involved because the Bug mimics the chemical signature of the capillaries. So nothing stops it and soon the body is getting nothing. Outwardly the retty starts to get sluggish and disorientated. Feverish when the immune system finally goes into action—always too late. Brain function starts to stifle. Every system in their bodies starts to collapse. They grow weak, unable to move, probably in total delirium. And shortly after they first show outward signs, a day at most, they die. Essentially of suffocation.”

Warin shook his head. “Let’s not talk about this anymore.”

“Why not?”

“It’s depressing. A whole species getting wiped out. And there’s nothing we can do about it.”

Bela raised up onto her elbows and gave him a patronizing smile. “There are three things I have in the lab right now that could’ve stopped the Bug cold. And I can think of a few others I could synthesize in a day or two. Hell, I could have made a vaccine with an aerosol delivery system in a week and the rettys wouldn’t have known anything had happened. Except that they all would’ve stopped dying.”

Warin shook his head. “You know we can’t do that.”

Bela slid across the bed. “Noninterference, I know. We can’t interfere in the natural evolution of the planet. We must only observe and study.”

“That’s the mandate, Bela.”

“I know what Ministry policy is, Warin. I’m in the Ministry.” She got out of the bed and walked over to her bathroom. “But sitting on our hands and watching them die off is not the same thing as ‘nothing we can do about it.’”

Bela closed the bathroom door behind her, latching it locked. A few moments later the shower started. Warin shook his head and started to get dressed.

The lights in the corridor were dimmed to simnight level when he stepped out of Bela’s door. He hadn’t realized it had gotten so late. In the windowless living quarters level of the station time of day can start to feel a little hypothetical. Turning down the lights on a schedule helped to keep up the idea of it. And it worked—after just a few meters down the corridor he felt a yawn wash over his head and shoulders, suddenly starting to feel tired. It was like putting a cover on a birdcage, he thought.

Rek and Lil were sitting in the galley talking animatedly as Warin entered. He hugged the wall all the way to the refrigerator as if the meager extra distance would make a difference.

Rek was leaning back in his seat, rubbing his forehead. “I’m not interested in the empty gesture, Lil,” he said. “It won’t change anything.”

“It would be nice if you would show some solidarity,” Lil replied.

“For a meaningless statement?”

“It’s not meaningless.”

“Yes. It is,” Rek said, emphasizing each word. “The Ministry is not going to reverse itself. There’s no grounds for it. But if you all want to file an appeal, that’s fine: do what you want. I have no idea what you think it will do, and I don’t have to take part in it.”

“So why not just add your name if it’s so meaningless?” Lil asked. “What difference would it make to you?”

“What difference does it make to you that I won’t?”

“Maybe I hoped there was a shred of decency in you,” Lil said coldly. “That you could show just a tiny bit of compassion for a whole species that’s going to get wiped out.”

Rek’s jaw muscles clenched. “What I do or do not feel about the natives has nothing to do with it.”

“I’m sure all the untapped mineral resources underneath the rettys that you’ve raved about since you got here have nothing to do with it at all. I mean screw them, right? They’re just in the way of a great profit margin. But once they’re gone there’s no more civilization to protect. There’d be nothing stopping whatever mining consortium you’ll end up working for from staking a claim. So why bother trying to save them?”

Rek glared at Lil stonefaced for a long time. When he got up from the table he scraped his chair loudly across the floor. “Take your sanctimony and shove it up your ass, Lil,” he said. Rek then turned and stormed out of the room.

Lil stared at the doorway after him and then over at Warin, who had his back to her, stirring a bowl of soup intently on the counter. He glanced over his shoulder at her. “So I guess he’s still a maybe,” he said.

Lil snorted and got up from the table. “More like a lost cause.” She walked over to lean against the counter next to him. “There’s just no getting through to some people.”

Warin took a spoonful of soup and blew on it gently. “I doubt accusing him like that helped.”

“So what? You know its true. He doesn’t care. He’s probably happy they’re dying. I bet he’s been sharing his geological data with one of the corporations since he got here, and they’re just waiting to move in.”

Warin shook his head. “The data’s not confidential, Lil.”

“But it’s not available right away, is it? The Ministry needs to send it through a mountain of red tape first. Takes years before anything about this planet is released to the public. I’m sure the head start would be worth it to one of the corporations.”

Warin said nothing and took a spoonful of soup.

“You saw Gare’s letter yet?” Lil asked after a beat. “She sent it out for everyone about an hour ago.”

“I haven’t,” he replied. He turned to Lil quickly. “But I am signing it, before you go off on me for being a soul-sucking bureaucrat.”

Lil scowled at him. “I know you’re signing it. I never thought you wouldn’t. Because unlike him you care.”

Warin nodded. “But you still gotta accept it, Lil,” he said, taking another spoonful. “Rek’s right. It’s not gonna make a difference.”

“Maybe not,” she said. “Maybe they are beyond being shamed. Might need to do something more. Maybe something drastic.”

Warin turned to look at Lil, who was staring at a point across the room. “Such as?”

Lil glared back at him, her eyes narrow slits as she tried to read him. After a moment she shook herself and looked away again. “Nothing,” she said dismissively. “Never mind.” Lil pushed off from the counter. “I have some maintenance to deal with in the basement.” Warin watched her as she quickly hustled out of the room.

Back in his quarters, he sat down at his desk and switched on his pad. It was still remote connected to his workstation on the observation deck. He had been so surprised when Bela had called him he hadn’t even bothered to shut it down. It was a breach in protocol, leaving his station unattended while logged in, though one nobody would likely find out about—or even care that much if they did. Lil did it all the time, and Gare never said anything. She especially wouldn’t care now with what was on everyone’s mind.

He stared at the screen, shaking his head slightly. Rek’s latest report. A geological survey of the inner ocean shelf off of Lorca’s northern coast. Warin scrolled through it quickly, reading only a few lines here and there. Not the attentive reading he usually gave reports, and as such he barely followed any of it. He shook his head and closed the file. He could finish reviewing it tomorrow. There was no rush.

Warin rubbed his forehead. Lil was planning something. He knew it. Maybe she wasn’t fully clear of what that was just yet, but he could see it in her eyes back in the galley that she wasn’t going to just sit back and do nothing. And she had almost told him too, he thought, but she had stopped at the last moment. Which was fine by him. He wanted no part of whatever dumb and pointless gesture she was planning. Whatever it was wouldn’t work, and it wasn’t worth getting in trouble over. Leave him out of it.

He logged off from his workstation and opened his inbox. There was a long message from his sister. She was still not pregnant, which he knew before he even finished reading. Otherwise she would have led off with that instead of the goings-on at the office job she had that he only vaguely understood the dynamics of. He’d read it again and reply to her tomorrow.

Below that was the internal message from Gare with the cover page for the appeal attached, asking for everyone to read it over carefully and reply to her if they wanted their name included on it when the report was filed. Warin opened the attachment and started to read it, but after just a few paragraphs he closed it again and dropped Gare a quick note agreeing to it. He was sure whatever it said was fine. It still didn’t matter.

It was just those two messages though. Still no response to his transfer request. He shut off his pad and leaned back in his chair rubbing his face. Five galactic years was the standard assignment length in his department, but eighteen months was not unheard of. It was considered bad form or the sign of issues to request transfer earlier than that, so he had waited to the very day he had been on planet long enough to put in for his without raising eyebrows. That had been weeks ago, and he had heard nothing. It might have been too late by then to get out of here. What with all that was going on the Ministry might not want to cycle in new personnel now.

Warin would take anything, though. Another backwater planet. Inventory clerk on a Sol system reclamation barge. Even data processing back at central looked better than here. The mood at the post had been slowly deteriorating for over a year now, growing worse as the fate of the rettys grew more certain each day. And then the final decision from command yesterday—he could already sense how the morale had gone right off a cliff.

Why did he have to stick around for it? The others, they were the xenobiologists, the anthropologists, the scientists, it was their job to study the natives and document their fate. Hell, even Lil was integral in keeping the base running. He was just the data analyst. It was integral work to make sure the data the others brought in was organized properly, and that the data between their station and the forty others on planet did not conflict, but anyone could do it. It didn’t have to be him. And he wanted nothing more than to avoid all of the dread that was coming out of every seam in the place now, to be as far away from here as he could as soon as he could, before death came sweeping into the valley.

He got up from the chair and flopped down on his bed without getting undressed, only kicking his shoes off onto the floor absently. He was getting ahead of himself. His transfer hadn’t been denied yet. And maybe it wouldn’t be. Maybe they would let him go someplace else. Maybe they’d want to get new people in here early to prepare for the shift in focus after the extinction event. It made a certain kind of sense to him that they would. After all, his workload was bound to slow down quite considerably. Most of the research was over now. So it might be the perfect time to let him go.

He was able to calm himself down enough to drift off to sleep with that hope, starting to vaguely imagine where he would go once he was free of this planet and its walking dead natives.

*   *   *


The air tasted like menthol. Or at least that’s what Warin thought as he exited the Jeep. He took several deep breaths, walking in a small circle as Dav locked down the vehicle behind him. They had stopped inside in a small clearing in a clump of trees roughly halfway down the mountain and were surrounded by thick forest on all sides. Sunlight only came through in small patches on the ground, but it was not particularly dark; more comfortably shaded.

The colors would definitely take some getting used to. There was green in the leaves above and some of the weed-like plants that grew at the base of the trees, but there was far more blue, white, purple, and yellow in the flora around him. The ground beneath his feet in the small clearing was covered in a flat, porous looking purplish moss that had a glossy sheen as if it was covered in oil. It felt springy under his feet and bounced back quickly from his weight when he lifted his foot. Nearby there was a long overturned tree whose surface was covered in bright yellow clover-looking plants. And from the underside of the deadwood shot chalk-colored stems, curving around the shape of the ancient trunk into the air, ending in blue, square-shaped leaves that dripped down under their own weight. But most of the ground between the large trees was covered with a reddish knee-high or taller brush that stood in patches and walls, looking thorny and impassable.

He didn’t see any animal life, at least nothing larger than a handful of insects perched here and there or flying around. The Jeep’s approach had probably scared off most of it. He could hear them though, both in distant echoey cries and chirps barely audible above the hiss of the wind through the leaves, to others that were seemingly closer. The collective sound of it all felt almost overpowering after so long living with nothing other than the hum of the station for a background. Something large cried out, a high-pitched wheezy sort of sound, clearly far away but it still cut through the air sharply. Warin jumped at it, grasping at the pistol holstered on his hip and looking around furtively. He saw Dav behind him had stopped and turned to look at him over his shoulder. He shook his head reassuringly and turned back to the Jeep without a word.

Warin relaxed with a sigh and walked up to look at one of the trees more closely. It was large, at least three meters in diameter, with bark that was more red than brown, and thin with a light, almost fur-like covering. His eyes rose slowly up the trunk to the branches far above his head. Dark green finger-like leaves in bunches of six or so fluttered as the wind picked up briefly. The branches themselves all bent back from their base as if to wrap around the main body. He saw the same twisting direction of the grooves in the trunk, as if the tree was spinning around like a top.

He reached out to the tree but stopped before his palm touched its surface.

Dav came up to stand next to him. “It’s all right,” he said. He reached out to the tree and rubbed his hands in the furry trunk brusquely. “It’s actually helpful. It’s how they spread their seed. Animals brush against the follicles as they pass by, and they either get caught in the air and float away or get carried away on the animal.” Dav stepped away from Warin and clapped his hands in front of him, looking away. A cloud of white sparkled in a shaft of sunlight next to him.

“It’s pollen?” Warin asked, looking up the trunk of the tree. “For something this size?”

“Not pollen. This is asexual reproduction. Seeds. Very tiny ones.” Dav looked around at the forest with a smile. “Each of these massive things was once just a bit in a cloud of dust.”

Warin shook his head. “You’re kidding me.”

“There are trees back on Earth that do the same thing, or similar at least. It’s not all pinecones, chestnuts, and acorns. I mean I don’t know of anything off the top of my head that goes from microscopic to the size of a great oak, but still.” Dav walked back to the Jeep, where he had rested two sets of packs against the back wheel. Each had a solid ceramic case for storage of delicates with other nylon pouches strapped to the top and bottom. He grabbed one of the sets with a great grunt and slipped it on over his shoulders. He hopped in place to adjust it more comfortably on his shoulders. “Come on, we should get going. We’re burning daylight.”

After an initial circuitous route around ditches and thick brush, they came upon a vague animal path heading further down, just wide enough for them to walk single file. Warin was sweating profusely and breathing hard by the time they found it but kept quiet because he saw no signs of strain in the older man ahead of him. His footfalls started to become unsteady, and he stumbled on a tree root and bumped into Dav.

The older man turned around and grabbed Warin by the shoulders to steady him. “Easy there,” he said. “Let’s stop here for a moment. Take a break.” Dav slid Warin’s pack off his shoulders and rested it on the ground between them. He guided Warin to the base of a tree to rest and then kneeled in front of him, carefully examining Warin’s face. “Feeling a little light-headed?” he asked.

Warin nodded. “It’s nothing.”

“It’s the air. Take a tablet.”

Warin furrowed his brow. “I took one when we left.”

“Take another one.” Dav reached into a pouch on his belt and held one of the little white oblongs up to Warin’s face.

Warin took the tablet in his shaky hand and put it in his mouth. It tingled slightly as it dissolved on his tongue. His mouth filled with an icy cold liquid which he kept swallowing until the tablet was completely gone.

“First time out in this atmosphere is always hard,” Dav said, removing his own pack and sitting down cross-legged. “Your system has too much difficulty getting oxygen out of the air. It takes a while to fully acclimate. We’ll take a quick break here while we wait for the oxygen tablet to get into your bloodstream.”

“Is there a reason we didn’t drive all the way there?” Warin asked, still panting.

“I didn’t want to drop too much on the rettys all at once. We’ll be alien enough for them without showing up in a gleaming magic cart. Besides, I thought you’d appreciate a walk in the outdoors after being stuck inside the post for so long.”

Warin scoffed. “That’s very considerate of you.”

Dav waved his hand at him. “It’s only a couple of kilometers. You’ll be fine.”

Warin rested back on the tree behind him and looked up its trunk. The cover above was thinner here than where they had parked, and he could see more of the sky. Small clouds, thin and with an odd yellowish tint to them, rolled through the greenish-blue sky. Retii Major was not quite directly above, it was more off to his right and very large, easily the size of his fist out at arm’s length.

“I need you to accompany Dav tomorrow,” Gare had told Warin back in her office.

“Why me?” Warin had asked.

“Because nobody else is free, and I don’t want him going to the retty village alone. With the protocols lifted he wants to take the opportunity to study the rettys through direct interaction.”

“And is that a good idea?”

“His seniority allows him a good amount of latitude on what he studies.”

“So he pulled rank on you.”

“That’s not what I said,” Gare said, shaking her head a little too much. “There’s no reason to think there’s any danger at all. The rettys are fairly passive, and they score very low on the xenophobe chart. Dav is confident he knows enough to make contact.”

Warin smirked. “But he doesn’t really know, does he? He’s never been around one of them. Nobody has. It’s all theory. I’m not trained for self-defense, Gare. What good will it be for me to be along if they start chucking spears at us except to be another target?”

Gare rubbed her eyes. “Look, I know this is not in your job description, so I can’t really order you to, but could you just go with him? It’ll be perfectly fine. There’s no reason for concern about Dav going to the village, but I still don’t want him or anyone in the field by themselves. Normally Bela would go with him, but she’s apparently working on something she can’t take time away from in the lab. Lil and Rek are also busy. Your workload is pretty light right now and not about to pick up any time soon.” Gare looked away from him at the pad on her desk. “Besides,” she continued almost offhandedly. “It would look good on your record to log some time in the field.”

He knew that last comment was because of his transfer request. She had never talked with him about it, but of course she knew of it—the moment it had arrived at the Ministry they would have forwarded it back to her for comment. That was standard procedure. And considering his relatively short time on the planet, what she would have to say could have a lot more weight than normal. She probably couldn’t block it outright, or at least he couldn’t see her expending the effort needed to do so. But she could respond to it in such a way as to make it reflect very poorly on him for asking out early.

Warin scratched his ear. He couldn’t really see her doing that. Gare was not a malicious person, and they had always gotten along well. She had to understand why he wanted to leave and that it had nothing to do with her or her command. Why would anyone want to stick around for what was about to happen if they didn’t have to?

She could just let the transfer get buried in her other work though, not acknowledge it in any way. That could delay it for a while. She probably had been putting it off, at least a little, not wanting to deal with it with everything else that was going on. Or conversely, she could also move it to the top of the proverbial pile and expedite the process. In return for a favor from him. Like accompanying Dav to the village even though it wasn’t in his purview.

Which is why he was here now, gasping alien air and leaning against a furry tree.

Of course, he also could have been reading far too much into that one little comment. Seeing subtext that wasn’t there. It was entirely possible. But it wasn’t a chance he wanted to take. Anything that he thought could get him off this planet sooner he would do. Even something as ironic as going deeper into it.

Warin’s dizziness had completely gone. He grabbed the water flask off his belt and took a small drink. Dav noticed and got to his feet. “You feeling better?” he asked Warin.

Warin took a few deep breaths and felt no discomfort. He picked himself off the ground and stood. His legs felt solid underneath him, and his head felt clear. He brushed himself off, nodding to Dav.

Dav smiled back. “Okay,” he said as he picked up his pack, turning to continue on the trail.

The path led out of the trees down a short, sudden incline and into a field of knee-high, purplish, reed-like vegetation that looked to stretch all the way across the valley of lazy hills to the mountains on the opposite side. There was no sign of the village yet, but if his grasp of the area from watching the valley up at the observation deck was reliable, it should be behind the collection of hills ahead to the west.

Warin tilted his head upward and closed his eyes. He had to admit the warmth of sunlight on his face did feel nice. He’d spent long stretches of his childhood in space stations following his parents’ careers, so being inside the observation post continuously was not a problem for him. But direct, real sunlight was something that hadn’t even occurred to him that he had missed. He wasn’t even sure when he had last felt something like it. Before the posting on Retii he had been on an orbiting platform above Novum, a toxic and uninhabitable rock mined for osmium. He definitely hadn’t visited that planet. Not that the sulfuric atmosphere and crushing pressure would have been pleasant if he had. There was the hiking trip on Reticulae a girlfriend had talked him into, but now that he thought about it he wasn’t sure if that was before Novum or on leave just after he was posted there. It was a long time ago, either way.

And that had been a terraformed planet, full of Earth-based flora and fauna. Little more than a planetwide, carefully crafted and maintained garden. This place was nothing like that. This was his first time in a truly alien biosphere. In real nature. He turned around himself as he followed Dav. It went on in all directions. True wilderness. He hadn’t so much as seen an animal beyond someone’s pet before without there being a magno barrier between them. But out here one could come loping up or charging at him at any moment. He smiled. Strangely enough, the thought of it didn’t panic him. It invigorated him. It made his senses feel sharp.

Dav turned to look back at Warin as he continued walking across the field. “So listen, I know I can count on you not to do anything stupid, but when we get to the village just follow my lead, okay? The rettys are friendly, but still, I want to strike just the right tone. So let me do all the talking.”

“I thought they didn’t talk,” Warin said.

“A figure of speech.”

Warin nodded, thinking. “The reports all say the rettys use nonverbal communication. So like, sign language?”

Dav shook his head. “Not so much, no. There is some of that of course, just like we have, but their language is in the face and eyes—gestures, blinks, tensing and releasing of facial muscles. Microexpressions.”

“Are they deaf?”

“Their hearing is fine. At least no worse than yours will get when you’re my age.”

“All right.” Warin adjusted the straps on his pack and stretched out his neck. He continued, “Communicating through expressions like that sounds kind of limiting. At least for a primary form of communication.”

Dav chuckled. “Not at the level they use it. Their visual language is just as detailed as any of our own. The intricacy and subtlety of it took years to decipher.” Dav paused for a second, glancing off into the distance. “The rettys have amazing vision. Beyond having three eyes, which gives them an over one hundred twenty-degree view, they have more than twice the number of optic nerves as we do in each eye. And a larger portion of their brain is used for interpreting the stimulus coming from them. The average rettys’ eyesight is probably better than 30/01 compared to ours. Maybe even more. They can see minute details that our eyes and our brains can’t even register. So it only makes sense that they’d develop nonverbal communication as they evolved. They do have a rudimentary verbal language too, for use over distance, or in pitch black, or any time a visual sightline is not clear. Which is how we’ll be able to talk to them. But it’s not their primary form of communication.”

“Okay,” Warin said. “So that’s what we can use to talk to them, but we’re not going to be able to understand everything they say back?”

“I have something for that, don’t worry.”

“If you say so,” Warin said dubiously. “Is there anything else I should know?”

“That depends on what you know now,” Dav replied with a shrug.

Warin shook his head. “Well assume I haven’t retained much from your reports on them or read back to things filed before I was assigned here.”

Dav smiled. “All right. The basics, some of which I suppose you know. They’re herbivores, asexual, a mostly agrarian civilization, though with some forays into mining and seafaring—though not around here. They score respectably well on the sentience scale and low on the aggression scale.”

“So friendly farmers.”

Dav nodded. “Basically.”

“What about written language?”

“There are a few, but it’s not widespread. It’s mostly for accounting in the larger settlements. Most of their history is handed down orally—or I should say visually in their case. Probably only a handful of the rettys can read anything at the village below.”

“Do they have money?”

Dav shook his head. “Barter. When necessary, which isn’t all the time. They’re more of a collective society.”


“They don’t really have any.”

“No religions?”

“No. Or at least not what you would consider a religion. They have a reverence for the land, which makes perfect sense for a farming community, but it doesn’t seem to have a mystical component to it as such. It’s more utilitarian. They don’t personify nature or see omniscient entities in the stars or clouds. Nothing like that. The closest they come to it is in their stories and myths, which have gotten embellished over the generations with some interesting events. But it’s never developed further than that.”

“So no Gods? No afterlife?”

“It doesn’t seem so.”

“What do they do when someone dies?”

“When a retty dies they’re planted in the farmland. So they can continue to feed their family. And as far as we can tell, that’s it.”

“They use them as compost?”

“Well fertilizer, but yes. I told you, Warin. They’re utilitarian.” Dav was quiet for a moment then continued. “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about them, that they lack imagination, are simple-minded. Because they aren’t. They are very creative people. They do a lot with sculpture, weaving, painting, jewelry, and the stories they tell each other as I mentioned. They have art. They don’t have music strangely enough, but that’s probably because they are more visually orientated than even we are. But they do have creative minds. Even the intricate way they braid their fur, and dye it, and bind it with combs, pins, and things like barrettes—it’s very expressive. Wait until you see them. It’s just for whatever reason, that imagination was never used to try and explain the natural world around them.”

“Why do you think that is?”

Dav furrowed his brow. “I have some vague ideas. But it’s one of the things I hope to learn more about from direct contact. There’s only so much you can learn about a species—”

Dav stopped suddenly, staring to the east. Warin followed his gaze. A dark blotch grew slowly larger in the distance, appearing to be heading toward them.

Warin walked up next to Dav. “What is it?” he asked.

“It’s a herd,” he said, still watching them.

“A herd of what?”

“A local herbivore. Grazers. I don’t remember their classification. I just always think of them collectively.” Dav started walking again at a slightly hurried pace, not taking his eyes off of them. “It looks like they’re on a run.”

Warin followed him. “A run?”

Dav shook his head with a scowl. “They have an oversensitive flight instinct. Gets set off at anything. One of those things steps in a hole the wrong way and jumps in surprise, it’s liable to start a chain reaction through the whole herd. Then the whole mess of them start running.”

“So what you mean to say is a stampede.”

Dav snorted. “If you want. I just don’t like the connotation of that.”

Warin could hear a low rumble coming from the herd, just on the periphery of his hearing but getting louder. “I don’t think word choice is the issue here, Dav. They’re coming this way.”

“I am aware of that,” Dav said. He pointed to a set of bumpy hills a couple hundred meters away. “That’s why we’re heading for there.”

The herd kept getting closer as they made their way to the hills. The rumbling sound grew louder, and inside of it Warin started to hear sporadic, high pitch bleats of individual animals. The sound of it made them both hurry their pace. Halfway to the hills they were close enough for Warin to get a good look at what the animal was: a thick, tubular thing, just a shade darker purple than the grass around them, with a flat horizontal head ending in an oval mouth, just below a triad of eyes that looked wide-eyed and wild, their heads jerking around sharply in all directions as they pushed themselves along on two powerful digitigrade legs. They were top-heavy, so much so that remaining upright was not sustainable on its own, and they would occasionally stumble or start to lean forward as they ran. When they did another single front leg would reach out from just under their long necks and push their body upright again, then go back to tucked tight against their upper torso as they ran. As best as he could tell from the closing distance they weren’t very large either, the biggest being only what he would guess the size of a large dog, though most were half that. But collectively they were hundreds, maybe thousands of them heading toward them.

The two men were still a few meters from the hills and running when the first few leaders of the herd started to whiz past. The rumble and cry of the beasts was deafening. Warin had to dodge more than one of them that ran past to avoid colliding with it. He was sucking in air very heavily again, and his limbs were starting to stiffen and grow clumsy under the exertion. He was honestly shocked at how easily the energy had left him, forgetting completely in the moment that he still wasn’t acclimatized to the air.

Warin was starting to slow down, the sweat heavy on his brow. He could see Dav ahead already climbing up the side of the hill. After a few meters safe above the run, Dav stopped and turned around to look back at him. He waved his hands encouragingly, shouting something Warin couldn’t hear over the roar of the animals.

The herd grew thick, almost impassable, and Warin found himself unavoidably kicking and getting his legs tangled up in the ones that crossed his path too close, nearly falling down over and over. Soon the animals completely surrounded him, so thick he couldn’t see anything below his waist. He tried to use his size advantage over them as much as he could, but the throng of them pushed against him like a strong water current. It got even more difficult the closer to the hill he got, as the herd split around the rise and the mass of animals bottlenecked against the side of it, growing thick in front of him.

An animal slammed hard into his back pushing him forward onto his hands, and he scrambled back up as quickly as he could. He fell again after a few steps. His calf got stepped on as he tried to get up, sending him back down. Another animal hopped over his head, kicking him in the ear. They all started to run over him. He covered his head with his hands. There was a constant rattling sound of their feet connecting with the hard case on his back, like heavy hail or stones hitting a roof. Most of them were small and did not hurt him as they passed, but an occasional heavier footfall on his legs or arms sent a sting up his spine. A musty panic filled his nose, both theirs and his own. He let out a loud yell and clawed with one hand blindly forward underneath them all as best as he could toward the hill, hoping he hadn’t gotten turned around in all of this.

My first wild animals, Warin thought.

He vaguely heard a series of loud pops nearby and smelled something acrid. The footfalls on his body stopped. He opened his eyes again and looked around. The animals over him had inexplicably scattered, cutting a wide circle around his area and pushing themselves behind him deeper into the herd. Some kind of blue smoke hung in the air nearby.

Free of the burden of them on his back he shakily got back onto his feet and stumbled the remaining distance to the hill where he climbed up on his hands and knees to the waiting Dav.

Dav took off Warin’s pack for him and laid him against the hill. “Are you okay?” he asked.

Warin sat up a little breathing heavily. “I think so,” He stretched out his arms and neck slowly. He saw little scratches all over his body, but no real bleeding. His shirt and shorts were covered in little dirt marks, and stretched and frayed at the edges. “Mostly just sore and out of breath. Nothing broken, I think.”

Dav sighed in relief. “That’s fortunate. A colleague stationed over on Llama got caught in a herd once. They got three cracked ribs. Those things are small and light, but all together in a herd it can be pretty rough.”

Warin nodded. “Yeah. I think I’d say calling it a stampede is accurate.”

Dav laughed. “Fair enough.” Dav looked back down the hill at the herd still rushing past. “Come on, let’s get to the top of the hill.”

Warin walked up the steep hill slowly, with Dav supporting him with an arm under his armpit, carrying Warin’s pack on his other elbow. By the time they reached the top, he felt good enough to walk on his own and took his pack back from Dav, carrying it in front of him by the straps. He reached into his pouch on his belt and pulled out a tablet. “By the way,” he said, popping it into his mouth. “Where did you get the fireworks?”

Dav turned to look at him. “The what?”

“The fireworks. Whatever it was you threw at the herd back there.”

Dav looked at him. “I didn’t throw anything at them.”

“Well something made them scatter. I just assumed you threw something at them. Some kind of exploding repellent. You saying you didn’t?”

Dav shook his head. “When I saw you go under I started scrambling back down to try and pull you out. Next thing I know they dispersed around you. I’ve no idea what made them do that. I thought it was just the random herd movement.”

Warin stopped and turned to face Dav. “I swear I heard a bang, a few of them, and saw a cloud of smoke in front of me.”

“Well it wasn’t—” Dav stopped suddenly, looking with surprise over Warin’s shoulder. He turned to follow where Dav was looking.

The top of the hill was a wide and mostly flat ridge, flat enough for some larger flora to take root. Various almost flower-like plants twisted and weaved into each other before giving way to a small grove of narrow trees that came out of the ground at various awkward angles.

Standing between the flora and the trees less than five meters away was a retty leaning forward on a staff they held in their hands, staring directly at them.

*   *   *


The retty made no move toward them. Their thick hands gripped the staff they leaned on loosely, their digits fidgeting as they appeared to adjust their grip. They turned their head side to side bringing each of their side eyes to bear down on the two of them in turn.

The native was dressed in a tan sleeveless tunic with a bulky satchel of some sort draped across their body. All much like the garb Warin had seen in the reports. But the retty’s things were more ratty and old looking and had dark stains that had long ago faded into the fabric. The retty themself looked to be older. Their fur was thin and spotty, and what there was of it was pulled back into fraying braids that looped down over their limbs almost like sleeves on their arms. The hair on their neck was loose and frizzled behind them with only a few wooden looking pins to hold it out of their weatherworn face. Old, definitely. Yet the retty looked in no way infirmed. Warin could see the strong muscles of their arms and neck, which twitched ever so slightly when the native moved. But otherwise the retty looked at ease—relaxed, calm even. Certainly not alarmed in any way. If anything, Warin thought they looked bemused.

Dav grabbed Warin’s hand resting on his holster. “Don’t,” he said flatly.

Warin turned to face the anthropologist. Dav looked like he was resisting the urge to smile. He licked his lips quickly. “Everything is all right,” he said to Warin. “No need for the gun. They wouldn’t know what it was anyway.”


“I told you. They’re not aggressive.”

Warin looked at the Retty who still watched them unmoving. “You sure?”

“Absolutely. Just trust me.”

Warin let go of his holster and dropped his hand limply at his side.

Dav slowly took his backpack off and laid it on the ground, not looking away from the retty. He fished around inside it for a long moment before he found what he was looking for; a monaural headset. He glanced down at it as he stood back up, bringing himself to stand shoulder to shoulder with Warin.

“What’s that?” Warin asked.

“It’s a translator,” he replied. “The natives are visual, remember? I had to make this thing special for them. It links back to our retty language database up at the station. It should be able to read the retty’s face and translate what they say.”


“Well it’s not like there was a way to field test it.” Dav put the headset on, folding out a microphone and monocle shaped viewing glass. “I didn’t have time to print up more than one of these,” he said as he adjusted the glass in front of his right eye. “So you’ll just have to follow along for now. Tune your comm to channel four.”

Warin tapped the bud in his left ear four times. Dav flipped a tiny switch just above the earpiece, and the viewing glass screen started to glow blue around the borders. Dav made a few minor adjustments to the glass.

When he was satisfied he was ready, Dav cleared his throat and put out both his hands in front of him, palms up. He nudged Warin in the elbow, and he did the same. “I greet you. I am a friend,” Dav said, very slow and clearly. Warin heard his words on a slight delay in his earpiece. “We come in peace.”

A fraction of a second after Dav had finished, a series of odd sounds came out of a tiny speaker on the band of his headset. It was surprisingly loud having come from something barely the circumference of a fingernail.

The retty blinked hard, all three eyes in unison. They stretched their head out toward the two men as if straining to hear. Dav touched a button on his headset. “Repeat message.” He took a few steps closer to the retty. Warin followed behind as the same series of sounds came from the speaker.

The retty raised up to stare down at them, cocking their head to the side. Dav stopped moving forward. Warin took a few steps backward looking straight up at them. He had not realized how much the retty had been slouching.

“We are friends,” Dav said, only the slightest bit of crack in his voice.

The retty slumped back down again, bringing their head level with Dav. From behind Dav’s shoulder Warin saw the retty’s face twitch ever so slightly, their mouth open and close, their eyes blink fast, with only an occasional click or chirp.

“What are you, strange creature?” The words came into Warin’s earpiece. “You look nothing like the animals of this land.”

Dav noticeably breathed a sigh of relief. He turned to Warin with a smile, holding the mute button on the headphones. “You heard that?” he asked.

Warin nodded. “Are you sure it’s accurate? I barely saw anything for that much speaking.”

“You wouldn’t, your eyes aren’t good enough.” Dav let go of the button and turned back to the retty. “We are travelers. From far away. We’ve come to make friends. To learn from you and your people.”

The retty cocked their head to the side. Another collection of twitches and blinks. In his earpiece Warin heard, “Your face is gibberish. Is that why you shout?”

“Turn down the volume,” Warin said.

Dav muted the headset again. “That’s not what the retty means,” he said. “Shouting is just anything verbal.” Dav unmuted. “We can only shout. We cannot control our faces. They are too . . . numb.”

The retty’s head bobbed up and down almost as if nodding. “Numb faces,” they said.

Warin snorted. “Only took a couple of minutes and we got a racial slur.” Dav scowled at him.

The retty adjusted their feet. “What is your family?”

Dav blinked. “My family?” he mumbled. “You mean—right, my family.” He gestured to Warin and himself. “We are human. Human beings. My name is Dav. He is Warin.”

The retty looked back and forth between the two of them and walked slowly forward. Warin’s put his hand on Dav’s shoulder. His other hand went to his holster again.

Dav brushed his hand off. “Everything is fine, Warin. Just relax.”

The retty stopped less than half a meter in front of Dav and held out their staff in front of them horizontally on their upturned hands. “Well met Dav human human beings. Well met Warin human human beings,” they said. “I am Tyundelorro, scavenger for Oollaroa. I welcome your friendship.”

Dav smiled wide. “We welcome your friendship.” He stepped closer to Tyundelorro and put out his hand. The retty looked down at it. “This is custom of greeting among us,” Dav said. “To touch our hands. To show friendship.”

Tyundelorro stared at his hand for a long moment, then put out their own next to Dav’s, palm facing up. Dav reached out with his other hand and turned the native’s sideways and placed it in his own. He shook the retty’s hand in both of his.

When Dav released, Tyundelorro held their hand up to their face to look at it. “Strange custom,” they said.

Tyundelorro turned to Warin. Warin straightened his posture and stared back with a forced smile. Tyundelorro held out their hand to him. After a moment’s pause, Warin trepidatiously reached out his own, and Tyundelorro brought up their other hand to cover his and shook up and down slowly. Their skin was coarse against his own, leathery feeling. But the native did not squeeze—they barely exerted any force at all. He relaxed, and his smile became more sincere. When he looked back up at the retty he could see minor twitches in their face as the native spoke to him. But no translation seemed to be coming from his earbud. “Insufficient data,” it finally came out with. Dav’s headset couldn’t see even a profile view of the native from where he was standing. Warin smiled wider, his jaw muscles tensing.

Tyundelorro let go of Warin’s hand and turned back to Dav. “Is this one dumb?”

Dav stifled a laugh, badly. “Not dumb. He does not have this.” Dav gestured to the headset. “This, uh, headband is a tool. It helps us understand you.”

The native poked their hand at Dav’s headset. Dav turned his head to give them a better look. Tyundelorro seemed cautious not to touch it, their hand stopping just short of tapping the headphone.

“You have powerful magic,” they said, moving back away.

“It is only a tool,” Dav corrected. “We have no magic.”

“But your tool speaks,” Tyundelorro said.

Dav shook his head. “We have no magic. I swear. We are just like you.”

“So you say. But I know of no tool that can speak for its master.”

Dav started to respond again before Warin interrupted. “I think this is a point we can let go for now.”

Dav muted the headset and turned to Warin. “It’s important to make sure they don’t see us as gods.”

“They don’t have Gods.”

“Well let’s not give them any. I want to nip it in the bud right now.”

Warin glanced at Tyunderlorro who watched them with that same bemused look on their face. “They just saved me from getting trampled by a herd of three-legged cats. I’m not an expert on alien psychology, but I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.”

Dav turned back to Tyundelorro with a shrug and unmuted his headset again. “We are traveling to your village. Is it far?”

The retty pointed over their shoulder. “Oollaroa is near. Just the other side of these hills there is the road. I should accompany you there. If I am with you then there will be a proper welcome. But I need to finish my task first if you will wait.”

“We can help you with your work,” Dav said, turning to look at Warin. Warin shrugged, not sure what help they could be to the large creature.

“Your friendship speaks with your offer,” Tyundelorro said, holding up their hand. “Follow me to my cart and we will pull it into the field and load the carcasses.” The retty started off down the side of the hill.

“I’m sorry, did they say carcasses?” Warin asked, as Dav picked up his pack and started after them. “Was that an accurate translation?”

Dav didn’t answer and kept going, gesturing over his shoulder for Warin to follow.

Down near the foot of the hill was a wooden cart, which was little more than two solid wheels and a deep basin. It leaned down onto two thick looking handles in the front that were connected by a pliable looking strap at each end to make a very basic harness of sorts. Tyundelorro slid their staff into a set of rings along the side of the basin, picked up the cart by the harness, and pulled it behind them around the hill.

Warin caught up with Dav as he turned around the hill toward the field on the other side of the hill. “What exactly is it that we are collecting out here?” he asked the anthropologist. “The translator said carcasses.”

“It did,” Dav said nodding. He gestured in front of them. Beyond Tyundelorro ahead of them was the field they had crossed to reach the hill. The grass was bent and matted down in a wide swath, torn up and broken in places, though showed signs of rebounding already. In the grass Warin saw little clumps of flesh here and there lying perfectly still.

“The ones trampled in their own stampede,” Dav said.

“But the rettys are herbivores. What do they want with the dead animals?”

“For the crops.”

“More fertilizer?”

Dav nodded. “They have a lot of farmland.”

“And they use these just like their own dead. I can’t tell if this means they think more of these animals or less of their own kind.”

Tyundelorro dropped the cart and turned to the two men. “We can collect enough from here,” they said, pulling out gloves and a kerchief from their satchel. “Take only the larger ones and leave the tiny to the vermin.” The native covered their mouth and nose with the kerchief and headed out into the field as they slipped on the gloves.

Warin turned to Dav. “Did you know this was what you volunteered us for?” he asked.

Dav dropped his pack by the side of the cart. “I assumed it was. They called themself a scavenger. And it’s a common practice in the villages of this region.” Dav rubbed his hands together. “Never thought I’d get a chance to participate, though.” He opened his pack and pulled out a pair of gloves and put them on.

The herd animals were heavier than Warin expected, especially the larger ones, and he wound up dragging them by their legs more than carrying them. To his relief most of the bodies were not especially bloody; they were warped, broken, and most had a trickle of dried bluish liquid from their mouths and eyes, but only occasionally had the trampling broken their skin and spilled their insides out on the ground. And there were enough of them that he could bypass any that were. There was a smell to the bodies, like a sulfuric musk, and as the afternoon wore on it started to grow more noticeable. He pulled the collar of his shirt up over his nose and mouth to block out as much of it as he could.

Dav didn’t act as if he noticed the smell as he worked. In fact he seemed to almost be enjoying himself. “It’s fascinating, you know,” he said to Warin, as they carried a larger corpse together to the cart. “The way the rettys use the herds. Watching them, scanning the land to predict the path a stampede would take, and then picking a spot to collect the ones that get killed after they pass by. I bet our friend here actually caused the stampede to begin with, one of those bomb things he used to save you on a timed delay of some sort. It’s very clever.”

“Yes, very impressive,” Warin said.

Dav continued, ignoring Warin’s tone. “It’s similar to what some of our ancestors would do. Indigenous people in North America used to chase bison off of cliffs, for example. The bison would break their legs or otherwise be immobilized in the fall, leaving them helpless for other hunters to move in and kill them off. The Europeans called them buffalo jumps.”

They swung the heavy corpse back and forth between them in growing arcs, then flipped it over the side and into the cart. It thudded sickly against the other bodies inside.

“I think that’s enough helping,” Warin said. He took an oxygen tablet as he looked out into the field where Tyundelorro was still collecting. They dragged two larger corpses by their feet in one hand as they made their way toward a third. “With the ones they have right now the cart’ll be full.”

Dav nodded and took off his gloves, panting hard. He wiped his brow in the crook of his elbow. “Though it’s not an exact comparison. Buffalo jumps were traps, either built or an enhanced natural feature, and could take out an entire herd of bison at once. A very bloody scene I’d imagine. This thing our friend here does is far more passive. And nowhere close to that scale.”

Warin stepped downwind and away from the cart. “If they instigate the stampede it’s not all that passive,” he said.

“True.” Dav grabbed a capsule from his pack at his feet and popped it into his mouth. “Still, it doesn’t feel like quite the same thing as a hunting tactic, does it? No chase, no direct killing. And they’re not run off the land. In fact,” Dav looked around the area. “The herd is pretty much locked into these fields—mountains on two sides and woods they can’t pass the other two. It’s almost like this whole area is one large pen they can’t get out of. I wonder if the rettys altered the land to keep them in.”

“You think that’s likely?”

“Over many centuries? It’s possible. I don’t think anyone has ever looked into it. But if the rettys did then that would make this a very early form of domestication.”

Warin shook his head. “But the rettys never domesticated animals.”

“Unless they do and we just never noticed.” Dav tapped his fingers on his lips, thinking. “The rettys never had cattle because they’re herbivores, so had no need for food from them. And they are physically one of the strongest animals on the planet so they wouldn’t need them for labor. At least, not enough to bother to take generations to tame something wild. They only have this one use for animals, as fertilizer for their crops. Which doesn’t take a lot of them, so it’s a demand that is easily met with a cartload like this every once in a while. All they need to do is make sure that the source is steady. So the villages and farms around here started trapping them in the fields to provide easy access. And the whole thing didn’t get more sophisticated than that because the population is sparse in this region so it didn’t need to. But it’s still—” Dav turned to Warin, his eyes wide in excitement. “We’re witnessing the very beginning of a major societal development here.”


“Don’t you see? Animal domestication. One of the major leaps in civilizational development. We thought they skipped it, or weren’t advanced enough for it, but all the fundamentals of it are here in this field. This is incredible, Warin. I know it’s small now, but once the practice spreads into the more populated areas of the planet . . .”

Dav’s words trailed off, his eyes locked on the distant mountains over Warin’s head. After a long moment, his shoulders slumped, his head bowed, and he let out a deep sigh. “Shit,” he said, almost under his breath.

Tyundelorro came in from the field and swung four corpses into the cart. The native pulled the kerchief from their face and walked over to stand in front of Dav. “Are you ill?” they asked him.

Dav looked up at him, plastering a thick smile on his lips. He unmuted the headset. “No, I’m fine,” he said. “Just resting. Suddenly felt tired.”

“Odd way to rest on your feet. You already have one too few for all your weight.” Tyundelorro put their hand on Dav’s shoulder. “I thank you for your help,” they said. “You are generous. Now we can head for Oollaroa, and I will make you welcome in my home.”

The native walked to the front of the cart and stepped into the harness. The strap fit perfectly into their upper torso. They turned the cart around to head back toward the road on the other side of the hill.

Warin lifted his pack and put it on his shoulders. Dav turned and watched Tyundelorro as they pulled the cart over the uneven grass, moving slowly, carefully, so as to not tip it over.

Warin picked up the anthropologist’s pack from the ground and held it out to him. “Come on, let’s keep up with them.”

Dav looked at Warin and nodded quickly. “Yes. Thank you,” he said, taking his pack. As he slung his pack over his shoulder, Warin thought he could hear him mumble to himself, “best laid plans of mice and men.”

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Copyright © 2024. The Last Days of Good People by A.T. Sayre

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