The Most Invasive Species

I picked up Doc’s replacement in my safari rover, at the bungalow where Lloyd put her, just off the road to Eddy’s orchard. I’d come to drive her out to the nomads’ place. It was a Saturday, hot and sunny, about a week after the transport landed, and I was thinking how good it’d be to have another professional woman besides Jessica and me in the colony.

Half-unpacked boxes were still stacked on her veranda as Karen, our new doctor, hugged her son, Sam–just a preschooler–and gave her husband a peck on the cheek. Michael was tall and gangly, and he wore a toothy smile as he waved at me from the open door. He was to be Tumbling River’s first schoolteacher.

The new doc lugged her med kit to the rover and puzzled over the back end.

“Looking for the thumb print?” I hopped out of the driver’s side and shoved on a wide-brimmed hat.

“Everything’s so new.” Karen slapped at a fly. “I keep walking into doors.”

“Old, you mean.” I turned the handle and lifted the trunk lid.

“A mechanical latch.” She chuckled at its simplicity and threw her med kit in. “I already love it here.”

I slammed the lid and watched with amusement as she methodically opened the passenger door. “So they still using thumb prints in the Alliance? Everything kept all locked up?”

“How long have you been here?” Karen climbed into the passenger side and threw her satchel in the back seat.

“Eight years,” I said. “I’m an old timer.”

She snapped the seatbelt with casual pride in her own skill. “Not so much has changed. By the way, my name is Karen.”

“Amanda.” I started the rover and handed her a pair of sunglasses.

“This vehicle burns hydrocarbons?” Karen asked.

“Colony’s brand new. Twelve years. We rough it. Ancient technology’s pretty simple. You find these old trucks on a lot of new planets.” I pulled onto the track and we followed the ruts over the bridge and out onto the savanna. “There’s a factory town in the mountains, about a hundred miles north. Makes pretty much everything we use. Even have a paved road to get there. Off planet stuff’s too expensive.”

“But carbon fuels are so dirty.” She grabbed the dash and the door as we jounced over a rock hidden in the grass.

“Hey, we got a whole planet.”

She stared at me in shock.

Oh, yeah. That kind of a joke probably sounded pretty bad to someone from Away. “Hydrocarbon trucks’re only temporary. ‘Till the quarkian fuel cell factory’s done. Another year.” We bumped along the track. “Look.”

She pushed her head through the open window. “Gazelles?”

“We got a guy here we call Adam ’cause his job is to name all the animals. He’s got some long handle for these things, but we just call them deer. Because of the antler-thingies. I make carvings from antlers I find on the ground.”

The graceful, long-legged beasts startled at the sound of the vehicle and darted as a group a little further onto the savanna, then returned to their grazing, some watching our progress across the endless flat. For the next couple of hours I pointed out a bunch of plants, herd animals and birds, the farming machines and a pack of feral dogs. Karen just gaped.

“So, those were Alliance dogs? Not natural panspermic origin?” She eased back into her seat as I slowed the vehicle to negotiate the narrower track through the forest. “Isn’t there some kind of law against introducing new species to a virgin planet?”

I pulled the netting down over my face and Karen did likewise. It was better than rolling up the windows. “I guess. Lloyd’s pretty laid back about Alliance law. We mostly get along okay here. He drags out the books when he has to.”

“But don’t the dogs out-compete native species?”

“Don’t seem to.” I geared down.

“Not yet, maybe.”

“Come on, Doc. Ecosystems change all the time.” The rover’s big wheels crawled over a log. “Whether the dogs got loose or not, no ecology stays the same.”

She put both hands on the dash as we went down a steep embankment. “But when you let animals loose–”

“Well, you can argue that with the big wigs.” I steered into the creek–fewer obstacles. “We came to farm. That means Earth crops.”

“Crops, okay–”

“There’s no half-way. The only way to keep this planet untouched is for no humans colonization at all. That’s not what the Alliance is about.” I pulled the wheel around and brought the rover up the bank. “We’re the most invasive animal there is.”

Well, she couldn’t argue with that.

“Here we are.” I shut off the motor.

We climbed out and stretched our legs in a clearing by a mossy brook. Karen looked expectantly into one of the big trees that arced up in a giant spiral, massive limbs curving out from its trunk horizontally before climbing toward the sky. Its bark had been worn smooth by generations of nomads climbing to the woven bowers they built in the cup at the base of each branch. There were five or six of these dwellings scattered through the woods close by. As I expected, no one was home.

Karen tucked her pant legs into the tops of her boots against the bugs. “Lloyd said they’d be here.”

“They will be.” I pulled supplies from the rover. “There are always a few families here, this time of year.”

“But not necessarily today.”

“They’re probably in the woods looking for berries.” I laid out the blanket on the grass. “They’ll be back before dark.”

Karen settled herself on the blanket. She was interested in everything, and as we sat in the shade and ate lunch she interrupted herself continuously to point out bugs, small birds or brilliant bits of flora while quizzing me about being a translator, about my husband’s research into nomad neurophysiology, about how the operators farmed miles of open prairie by remote control, and about everyone who lived in Tumbling River. Then we drowsed in the hum of the afternoon heat, watching the trees’ photosynthetic filaments flutter overhead like perpetual motion machines.

Karen shook me. “Amanda.”

I swam back to consciousness. The shadows had shifted; it was mid-afternoon.

Karen pointed to a pair of eyes in the depths of the foliage.

I climbed to my feet.

High forehead, arching mane of symmetrical black and white stripes, tufted shoulders. “Fred!”

“Fred?” Karen whispered.

“Names are a bit tricky in their language, so we just call him Fred.” I opened my hands, low and to the sides in the nomad style of greeting. Karen stood behind me near the vehicle, watching.

There was a rustling in the bush to Fred’s left and I picked out Mae and Dot, and after a moment, Grandpa. Fred took his time, but after a bit he came forward. “Who’s the new one?”

Our replacement doctor. This is Karen. Karen, this is Fred.”

Fred held his hand up and I tapped his knuckles with my own, in the nomad style. I could see Karen was a little relieved that Fred was shorter than she, and she took his nudity in stride. She lifted her knuckles and Fred tapped them gently. Mae, Fred’s wife, a slight creature, came forward dragging her baby, keeping her good eye to us. The older child, Tosh, scampered forward curiously. Grandpa, with his characteristic limp, and Dot, Fred’s sister, came up behind them.

Where are the boys?” I asked. “Fred and Mae have two more.”

Fred grunted noncommittally. “Hunting birds.” He lowered his sack to the ground–I could see Karen noting it was an Alliance micro-weave bag–and produced fruits and tubers and a couple of dead mice. “You will eat with us.” He rummaged at the base of a dwelling tree for a gourd to bring water.

Each of us brought out what we had to share and we sat in the grass. The baby, covered except for her face in sparse, fluffy blonde hair, crawled up to me and using my shoulders to bring herself to a stand on two sturdy legs, poked an inquisitive finger in my ear, feeling the cartilage all around. I yipped as she bit my ear with little needle teeth. The adults pressed their lips together and snorted, exchanging delighted glances, their expression of laughter. I chuckled, but gently pushed the little one away. Karen squinted at the bruising on the child’s face.

Tosh scampered to the picnic blanket and took things out of my pack. I’d learned a long time ago that everything brought to the nomads’ place had to be locked up or considered disposable.

Dot produced an Alliance hairbrush and settled in to comb brambles from the graying pelt that covered Grandpa’s back, upper arms and the backs of his thighs. Her own mane and dorsal coat shone deep mahogany–except for a few tufts, marking scars–darker than her brown-tanned skin. The white crest at the front of her mane gave her the wide-eyed look of a VR star caught unawares by a spotlight. I’d long thought Dot more attractive than mousy Mae, with the scar that half-closed her left eye.

Is Karen married?” Without meeting the doctor’s gaze, Mae handed Karen a pale tuber with clumps of dirt clinging to it.

Karen turned at the sound of her name, inexpertly pronounced but recognizable. She accepted the gift, unsure how to eat it.

Yes. Her husband cares for many of our children,” I replied, pulling the toddler’s finger out of my ear again.

There were many grunts of approval at this.

The baby climbed over my lap to investigate my other ear.

A shriek startled us. Fred had leapt up the trunk of the nearest tree home, his fingers clamped around Tosh’s ankle before the boy could disappear into the upper branches. Fred yanked him from his perch and the boy tumbled with a thump to the ground. He was about to rise and run when Fred landed beside him, slapped his head and bit his shoulder with long, sharp incisors.

Tosh lay, silently quivering, his shoulder bleeding, as Fred returned to our circle.

This is yours, Manda.” Fred tossed a gold foil package on the grass before me: a disposable tent, one of half a dozen I owned.

Karen blanched and her nails dug into the tuber she still held. To her credit, she remained seated and silent.

Kids.” Mae shook her head in gentle exasperation. “Sorry, Manda.” She helped herself to a power bar I’d added to the banquet.

We found one of your beehives, gone wild,” Fred said, munching on one of the mice. “Tomorrow, we’ll show you where it is. Karen will like the honey.

‘Tomorrow’ could mean anytime in the next week or two. “That’s great,” I responded, detaching the toddler, whose long toenails were scratching my back as she tried to climb my head, and handed her back to Mae. “But we must leave soon. Today.”

That was a short visit.” Grandpa scowled his disapproval of our rudeness.

We came because Karen has a gift for you, but she has to get back to her own child.”

Grandpa’s face cleared in understanding and the others grunted their respect.

I translated as Karen explained the vaccination procedure and her request to collect baseline data on their health. Though the procedures were noninvasive, the nomads were skeptical until Fred said, “You may protect me. I will decide.”

Karen nodded; with professional efficiency, she applied the vaccine to the skin just below his ear. She put a new pad on her diagnostic machine, labeled it, and pressed it to his wrist.

Fred sat back watching Karen, and waited a moment. “I see no harm,” he announced at last.

Dot handed her brush to Grandpa and came around the little circle to Karen, and Karen repeated the ritual.

Mae came next, and then allowed Karen to treat the baby.

And Tosh?” Karen asked. “And your other sons?”

Tosh,” Fred agreed. “The boys, tomorrow.”

Tomorrow. Well, there would be other tomorrows. Karen took her medical kit to where Tosh still lay in the grass. The adults returned to eating a final few delicacies, chatting and stretching out in the sun’s slanting rays.

Tosh watched with increasing interest as Karen applied the vaccine and took a reading on his health. I also saw her feel his arms and legs, and inspect the bite on his shoulder. She gave me a brief questioning look, and I shook my head. She frowned, and sprayed the boy’s shoulder with an antibiotic anyway.

Seeing she was done, I made our good-byes and we departed.

 

#

 

Dusk slowed our trip through the forest, but we emerged onto the prairie track before the long line of dusty farming machines rotating into town for maintenance, which was a blessing. We rolled down the windows and took off the bug nets, and I watched the glorious sunset as Karen dictated her medical notes. The evening breeze was welcome after the heat of the day.

“That little boy. Tosh.” Karen put away her pod. “He didn’t suffer any broken bones from his fall today, but he has a limb deformity I want to check. It could be a badly healed break.”

“We don’t visit the nomads on a regular basis,” I said, slowing for a particularly deep pothole.

“You know what I suspect.”

I didn’t respond.

“Abuse.”

I increased our speed a little to stay ahead of the dust gusting up from the farming machines on the track behind us.

“It’s pretty clear,” she said. “Mae’s eye. Dot’s scars. Grandpa’s limp. And what we saw today.”

“Alliance law would say we shouldn’t interfere.”

“Alliance law! I don’t see a lot of evidence that Lloyd or anyone else on this planet is concerned about Alliance law. And, the Alliance does have laws about abuse.”

I searched through the deepening twilight for sparks on the horizon that would indicate we were approaching Tumbling River. I wished Karen would stop talking about Tosh.

“You’ve been here eight years. Am I wrong?”

“No.” The exchange between Tosh and Fred replayed in my mind. And other incidents.

“But?”

“No ‘but’.” The dry track became firmer and I picked up speed. “You’re right. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen . . . I guess, family violence. Some in town are pretty upset about it.”

“And what have they done about it?” She braced herself against the jolting of the rover.

I shrugged, feeling rotten. “Not much, I guess.”

“Nothing?”

I avoided a rock. “Lloyd’s talked to some of the nomads.”

“Who?”

Who? “The nomads don’t have government or elders or chiefs.”

“And have Lloyd’s discussions made any difference?”

The lights of town winked in the distance. I felt as though Karen were grilling me, as if she held me accountable. “Not really.”

“What do the nomads say?”

I shrugged. “This is how you raise kids. It’s good for them.”

“Spare the rod and spoil the child,” she said with disgust. “Has anyone suggested there are other ways to discipline?”

“That’s tough, Karen. That brings us right into cultural non-interference.”

Karen gave me a look that asked since when was Lloyd, the Corporation or even the Alliance really concerned about cultural noninterference? When I dodged her hint, she sat back the best she could in the rocking vehicle and glared out the window.

Sunset faded and the prairie sped by, and I was relieved when she didn’t bring up the topic again.

 

#

 

Doc had only vaccinated the few nomad families who traveled close enough to one of our settlements to come in touch with colonists. Karen, on the other hand, had me question the nomads she vaccinated to discern their contact patterns, pointing out that microbes could move well back into the hinterlands on the goods we gave them, infecting nomads who’d never met a colonist.

In our travels together we saw a lot of evidence that many adult nomads–not just Fred–disciplined their children to the point of injury. Karen kept notes, and when she judged the time was right, presented them to Lloyd.

Lloyd eyed her, and said he’d look into it.

She also shared her data with anyone who would listen, which pissed Lloyd off, because then he got complaints from all the villages. He asked Karen to let him handle the situation–in other words, to keep her nose out of it–but they both knew she was within her rights to share her information.

A couple of months after Karen and Michael arrived–a busy time when the second quarter’s harvest was almost in and the Corporation was already putting seed machines onto the fields for the next planting–I was sitting with a cup of mint tea at Jasmine’s Café reading over a treaty Lloyd was negotiating with the nomads for land to be used as an airport, checking for errors in the translation software. Jasmine had a couple of tables under an awning that kept the heat off in the dry season, and today, sheltered me from the rain. Dan, my husband, was scheduled to return from his xenoneurology conference before the third quarter was out, but I was feeling restless and lonely.

It was mid-afternoon when Karen nudged my elbow. “Hi.”

Sam, her four-year-old, hung from one arm and she wrestled with an umbrella in the other.

I flipped my pod to sleep and pulled out a chair. “You just saved me from having to sort out a mess of irregular verbs that don’t conjugate properly in the software I wrote. Tea?”

“Love some.” Karen sat in the chair.

“Mummy!”

“Today was a special day at school.” Karen pulled off her rain slicker. “A nomad family’s in town, and the auntie brought three little ones to school. Wish you’d been there to translate. Michael turned it into a lesson on alien-Alliance communication.”

“Mummy!”

“But Sam isn’t old enough for school.” I ordered Karen’s tea.

The child in question flopped to the veranda and rolled into a third chair, knocking it over.

Karen righted the chair. “It was a good opportunity, so Michael suggested I bring him. But he’s tired now. We’re going home for a snack and a rest before supper.”

“Mummy!” Sam threw his face into his mother’s lap.

“Here.” I fished in my pocket. “Can I buy him a cookie?”

Sam’s face poked over the edge of the table.

“Well,” Karen smiled. “We usually try for a healthier snack, but he’s been pretty good all afternoon.”

“Can I? Can I?” Sam hopped on one foot.

“All right.”

I gave him a credit. “Just ask Jasmine for the one you want.”

He snatched the credit from my hand and ran toward the door.

“Say thank you!” Karen called.

Sam poked his head back through the door. “Thank you!” And was gone.

“So Dan will be back next month?” Karen smiled as Jasmine’s daughter brought tea. “What’s he presenting at the conference?”

“Integration of sensorimotor pathways in nomad children,” I told her. “He’s pretty pumped about it. He found a relationship between environmental stimuli and develop–”

A scream shrilled from the café, accompanied by the thump of something falling.

“Sam!” Karen sprinted from the table before I even recognized the voice as her son’s. I rushed into the café after her.

Sam lay, still and white, next to a toppled table, cookie smashed on the floor beside him. Lem, the nomad who’d brought his family to town, bent over him, fangs bared and fist raised. Jasmine and the other patrons were frozen in a tableau of horror.

Karen inserted herself at her boy’s side as Lem straightened.

Lem.” I nodded toward the door. “It’s crowded in here. Let’s go outside.”

Lem ducked a nod and picking up a loaf of bread, ambled with me into the rain. “You like my rain jacket?” He tucked the bread into the oversized pocket of the yellow slicker. “Lloyd gave it to me. It’s your custom to be covered.” He bobbed his head in respect.

The rain battered my shoulders. “The little boy. In there.” I gestured toward the café. “Did you hit him?”

Yes. He wasn’t watching where he was going. He ran into me.”

Lem, you can’t hit colonists. It makes them very angry.”

Lem reflected on this. He nodded. “A custom,” he said.

“A strong custom,” I confirmed. “Very strong.”

Very well. I will remember.” He touched my knuckles with his, and strolled toward the school. I doubted if he would remember.

 

#

 

Sam suffered a “mild” concussion, but Karen said there was no such thing. The effects of concussions were cumulative and led ultimately to brain damage, she said. Michael was incensed and he hounded Lloyd; but if it did any good, neither Michael nor Karen could see it. Lloyd and I spoke with Lem, and I think Lloyd tried to explain to Michael and Karen that living on another sentient being’s planet came with costs and cautions. We weren’t here to interfere with the nomads’ culture. “‘Even with its dangers, life in Tumbling River is a hell of a lot better than life on some space station,'” Karen quoted him, shaking her head.

Neither Karen nor Michael was satisfied, but it was clear that the matter would be dropped. Lloyd suggested cultural sensitivity and prudence be added to the school curriculum, then took off for a couple of weeks’ negotiations with some of the more distant tribes. Michael seized on this idea and implemented it immediately; and, to his credit, taught a balanced viewpoint that didn’t vilify the nomads.

Dan came home, and I took a week’s holiday, during which nothing outside the two of us mattered. Then, life returned to normal, with Dan spending a week in the bush for every forty-eight hours he was at home, and me going back to feeling lonely and restless.

 

#

 

The third quarter ended, and with it, the rain.

Dan and I were sitting on our veranda after dinner one evening; he, working on a paper on infant brain development in nomads, and I, flipping through local news items on my pod. The sky sparkled with constellations. Faint conversation and the glow of pods drifted to us from two or three of our neighbors’ verandas. Someone up the road–the McTaggarts’ likely–had a campfire. The smell of wood smoke and the hum of distant harmonies underlay a perfect evening.

“Did you hear?” I sipped my wine.

“Hmm?” Dan silenced his earbuds.

“They’re going to put gravel down on the first five miles of the road onto the savanna.” I scanned ahead in the article.

“Waste of money.” Dan flicked his pod to sleep. He leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes. He’d been analyzing data all day. “The fuel cell factory’ll be online next quarter. Won’t need the roads. Good thing, too.”

An engine roared in the distance. I closed my pod and shut off the bug screen to let my eyes adjust to the dark, and peered down the road. “I wonder if that’s Karen.”

“Awfully late.” Dan cradled his beer in his lap and put his feet up on the stool.

“I was talking to Michael before dinner.” I tracked the sound of the engine as the rover approached. “He said she was called out to one of the seeder fleets south of town. An accident.”

“What happened?”

“I think the operator twisted an ankle or something, tripping on the stairs in the control tower. Not major. Michael was surprised she wasn’t back.”

The rover’s lights winked through the trees and the vehicle crossed the little bridge and came up the bank, its headlights bobbing as it negotiated the ruts. It stopped across the road and down a little, in front of Jason and Jessica’s place. Their pods blinked out and Jason turned on a porch lamp that bathed the dirt in front of their veranda in a pool of brilliance. Karen strode toward the house as Jessica descended the steps.

“I’m going to see what happened.” I set my wine glass down and trotted toward the small group. Even from this distance, I could tell it was something bad.

As I came up, Jessica turned toward her husband, questioning.

“Sure we can help out,” Jason said. “For how long?”

“Thanks!” Karen hurried toward the truck. “I don’t know how long.” She opened the back door of the rover and pulled out two wide-eyed nomad children who shivered and clung to one another.

Dan came up behind me. I caught his frown as he took in the scene.

“Their mother was killed,” Jessica explained.

“Killed–” A chill ran down my back. In the years I’d been here, I’d come to know most of the nearby Nomads by name. “Who?”

Karen brought the two little ones up and Jessica knelt and held out her hands. Fred’s older two.

“Mae?” I asked. Numbness prickled me all over.

Dan put an arm around my shoulder.

Karen nodded grimly. “I thought I could take Tosh,” she said. “He’s close to Sam’s age, I think. Do you have room for the baby?”

“Of course,” Dan said. “What happened to Mae?”

Karen’s face darkened. “What do you think?”

“Fred?” Dan said.

Karen stroked the soft hair on the back of the nomad child’s head. “Fred.”

“How can you know?” I asked. “You–”

“I was there. I saw it.” Karen’s nostrils flared. “I was bringing the operator back in the rover and I had to stop suddenly to avoid hitting Mae. The family was foraging in the field for unharvested roots, and they were hidden by the grass. Fred pushed her back for being in my way. She tripped and hit her head on a rock.”

“Then it was an accident.” I had to confirm.

“If you want to call it that,” Karen said contemptuously.

I bit back my temper.

“But you’re sure Mae’s dead?” Jason asked.

“I’m a doctor, for God’s sake!” Karen rubbed her face in frustration. Then she took a breath. “I don’t . . . Fred didn’t mean to kill her. I’m sure he didn’t.”

“But why do you have the children?” My words sounded like an accusation, even in my own ears. “Why didn’t you leave them with Fred and Dot?”

“Fred?” Karen cried in amazement.

The children’s eyes darted back and forth between Karen and me, and I was glad they didn’t know English. At least, I didn’t think they did.

“He’s their father,” I pointed out.

“He’s an animal!”

Her words smacked me in the face.

“I mean . . .”

The others watched us, alert.

Karen looked from me to Jessica to Jason and Dan, then abruptly turned back to the vehicle. “You know what I mean.”

Jessica hustled the children into the bungalow.

I followed her to the road. “We can’t interfere–”

“Sometimes, we can!” she shot back.

“Karen! You can’t just–”

“Fred was in no shape to take them.” She stopped at the rover. “He wouldn’t leave Mae’s side. He was bewildered. Overwhelmed.” She climbed in. “No one could get his attention. Not even the children.”

“What about Dot? Or Grandpa?”

“They weren’t there.” She started the engine. “We have to get these little ones inside and put them to bed. I’ll bring the baby to your place.”

I backed out of the way so she could close her door. “But tomorrow, we have to talk to Lloyd. They’ll have to go back.”

“I already talked to Lloyd.” She put her elbow out the window. “You know what he said? He said it was none of our business. He said we should leave the children out in the middle of the savanna. Ha!”

“I know it sounds hard–”

Her scowl bore into me. “Without their mother those children will die.”

 

#

 

The next day, Dan set his research aside to watch the baby while I went to talk to Lloyd.

“Fred gave his consent.” Lloyd leaned back in his chair and, removing the dictamike from his ear, dropped it in front of one of his active screens. Lloyd’s office was the only place in Tumbling Rock with climate control and it was blessedly cool.

“Voluntarily?” I leaned over his desk. “He understood the translation?”

“I drove out to the field myself, last night, after I talked to Karen. I think the kids should’ve stayed with Fred, but he gave permission.” He waved the paper with Fred’s “x” on it.

I pulled my chair out from my desk. “For how long?”

“‘Til next quarter. Then we’ll see.”

“I don’t like this, Lloyd. It’s like we’re making it up as we go along. When two cultures come into contact there’s always a disaster.”

“We’ve done pretty well so far.” He fished a radialite from among the jumble of work gloves, coffee cups, notes, drives, and mini image displays on his desk.

“We’ve taken four children from their parents, split them up, and put them into unfamiliar homes. They don’t speak English, they’ve lost their mother–”

“Want to see if we can find Fred?” Lloyd dropped the radialite into a pot and threw in a two-serving coffee net. “He took off last night, carrying Mae. South.” He filled the pot with water. “I don’t have manpower to scour the bush for one nomad.”

“Don’t you think it’s a priority?”

“Amanda. You know how big the savanna is. How many pockets of bush there are.”

I did. All too well. I had to admit, my idea wasn’t helpful.

“Listen. When he shows up again . . .”

I slumped back in my chair. “In the meantime, the children’ll be raised human.”

The radialite pinged and Lloyd took it out of the pot. “Well, we can’t have creatures with sharp teeth and claws hurting people.” He poured the coffee into two mugs.

“And how’ll they reintegrate into their family at the end of the quarter?”

“I’m not saying it’ll be easy.” Lloyd pushed a mug toward me. “Karen has the energy to take leadership on this. She can do some research. Let the kids visit nomad families. Find out about their songs and stories and beliefs. And food.” He leaned back in his chair, holding his mug in two hands. “You’re in a good position. You speak the language. Dan knows more about nomad infants than anyone in the Alliance. If anybody can do it, you two can.”

“Dan and I both work.”

Lloyd sipped his coffee. “Show me a family that doesn’t.”

“The nomads.”

Lloyd snorted. “Touché.” He put his cup down. “You’re right, Amanda. We are making this up as we go along. We make up a lot of things as we go along. I wish the nomads had something that passed for a government who’d take responsibility, but they don’t. If you can’t care for the baby, let me know. I’ll find someone who can.”

“No.” Something with a dozen legs floated on top of my coffee. I set the cup aside. “Dan and I are a good choice. But it’s not right.”

“Think of it this way,” Lloyd said. “Something like this probably had to happen sooner or later. The nomads are going to need someone from their own race who can bridge both cultures. One of these kids, when they grow up, will be well educated to serve their species’ needs. This could be a good thing for them.”

“Right. Just keep thinking that, Lloyd.” I stood to go. “And at what cost.”

 

#

 

Karen and Michael, Jason and Jessica, and Dan and I worked as a team. As a result, the nomad children spend most of their time together, frequently at Karen and Michael’s house.

Dan was delighted. “It’s the opportunity of a lifetime,” he said to me one day after lunch a couple of months later, as I washed dishes and he changed the baby’s diaper. This day, we had all four of Fred’s children for the morning–fighting with each other, as usual–as well as Sam, and Jessica’s little girl. Karen had just arrived to take the entire brood for the afternoon and was gathering up all the kids and their paraphernalia on the veranda.

The heat had started early, and my afternoon in Lloyd’s office editing his report was tantalizingly close. I smiled at the baby–toddler, really–with pale skin and undifferentiated sandy-brown fur. Dan and I had named her Julie and she’d already begun to repeat the name, “Chewie.” Now she stared idly at the streaks of sunshine streaming through gaps in the curtains, not protesting the diaper change. “She sure is a good baby. Doesn’t cry. Is that normal?”

“I’d have to compare her behavior with the notes I took out on the savanna.” Dan weighed her, measured her, read her blood work, and took a quick brain scan. “But with daily measurements for three months, on four children of different ages, my data will be rock solid,” he grinned. “Once I get it inputted and analyzed.”

I wiped my hands and took the baby from him. She laid her head on my shoulder. “This isn’t your personal research project.”

Karen poked her head in the kitchen. “I think I have all their stuff. See you at–about six?”

“Great.”

There was a yelp from the veranda followed by noisy tears. Dan dashed to the doorway but by the time I poked my head out, Karen was kneeling between Tosh and Sam, her hands covering a play pod that Sam still clutched. One of Tosh’s older brothers stood behind him, snarling, while Jessica’s little girl watched. Tosh’s other brother lay quietly in the shade for once, panting with the heat.

“It’s mine!” Tosh cried.

Well. He’d certainly picked up an Alliance sense of property rights.

“I had it!” Tears streamed down Sam’s face. “He took it!”

“He called me a monkey!” Tosh bared his teeth.

“Sam.” Karen took the play pod from both boys. “It’s not okay to call names. Tell Tosh how you feel.”

“I was just playing with it and you grabbed it! I got mad.”

Tosh.” Karen looked at the small nomad. “Tell Sam how you feel.”

The pod’s mine. You took it without asking. I wanted it back,” Tosh said. He sat on the veranda.

“But can I play with it?” Sam asked.

Tosh shrugged. His older brother lost interest and lay in the grass.

“We could do a two-player,” Sam offered.

“Okay.”

“Good. Both of you.” Karen gave Tosh the play pod and he rolled on his side and gave it to Sam.

“You’re getting pretty good at the language,” Dan said.

“I get lots of practice with that scenario.” Karen hoisted a bag of toys onto her shoulder.

I handed her the sleepy baby. “Kids are learning to get along. It’s good.”

She gave me a deep-felt smile. “I love them.” She gave Julie a hug and the little one squirmed. “All of them.”

 

#

 

The end of the quarter came and went, but Fred didn’t return. My work with Lloyd, Karen and others took me out to two or three of the nomads’ closest dwelling places, and Karen and I took all of Fred’s children to visit kin there, but we didn’t see Fred. I asked about him, and about Dot and Grandpa. Some seemed to know them but others didn’t. None had any reliable information about Fred’s whereabouts, his plans, or even how he was doing. And every time, as soon as they saw the children, the nomads found some reason to punish them.

The heat became fierce, and nobody traveled if they didn’t have to. Mostly we lay in the shade and drank water. Tried to get a little work done. Fred’s children seemed to take the heat worse than anyone, which was surprising, sleeping for long stretches. I wondered if the baby was sick, and asked Karen to check her out. Karen had the same concern about Tosh and his brothers, but she readily admitted she wasn’t an expert on nomad physiology. “But I did take baseline data when I first came, a year ago,” she remembered.

She compared the data. “Their current activity levels are significantly reduced and all of them have lost weight.” She shook her head. “It’s not the weather. They’re not sick. Neither their antibody levels nor white blood count is raised. Besides, the first thing we did was inoculate them against all our known bugs.”

“Could we have infected them with something unknown?” I asked.

“Possible. We wouldn’t know where to begin to look for such a thing.” She gave me a worried glance. “But I’ll see what I can find. I’ll hunt for parasites, too.”

Dan delved into the masses of data he’d collected, both on the savanna and over the past months in the children’s new environment. He checked chemicals in the buildings, pollution from the vehicles, dietary variations. Neither he nor Karen came up with anything.

The nomads’ response, when we brought the drooping children to see them, was inexplicable. Without exception, the adults became hysterical, hissing and baring their teeth and trying to scratch and bite them. Karen removed the children to the safety of the vehicle, and I tried to get to the bottom of their fears.

Why do you punish the children? They’ve done nothing wrong.”

They’re sick!” the nomads said. “They’re sick!”

Sick? Have you seen this before?” Were they worried that the children would pass on the illness? Is that why they tried to kill them? “How can we help them?”

Bite them! Scratch them!”

I could get no more from the nomads than this, but they were truly agitated. Twice, groups of them ventured as far as Tumbling River, both times seeking to attack the children. Lloyd and I eased the situation each time, but we all became more vigilant.

In the end, all we could do was to continue providing the most nurturing environment possible. We made two of each meal, one for ourselves and a different one for Fred’s children. We stripped their rooms and made nests of twigs and branches and leaves for them to sleep on. We hugged them, read to them, and played with them. But as the fourth quarter wore on and the rainy season approached, they became, if anything, more listless.

After a week of darkening clouds and rising wind, when the first-quarter rain splashed fat drops on the dusty soil, Tosh died.

Michael came to tell us. It was late afternoon. The rain had let up momentarily.

He sat at our kitchen table. “He didn’t wake today at all.”

Dan rocked the baby, who slept in his arms.

“His breathing was shallow. Neither Karen nor I could think of anything more to do for him but stroke his hair and hold his hand.” Michael’s face was pale. “When I came home from school this afternoon, Sam was playing by himself in the living room. Karen was in the bedroom by Tosh’s side. But he was gone.”

Dan and I held hands across the table, unable to fathom the finality of it.

 

#

 

Necessities distracted from the pain. I fetched Jessica and Jason, their daughter and Tosh’s brothers. We went with Dan and the baby to Karen and Michael’s. Tosh’s brothers took one look at Tosh and began to fight.

Stop that!” Jason said, but the boys paid him no heed, and had to be taken from the room and separated.

“We’ll have to let Lloyd know,” Michael said. “Jasmine. Some of the others.”

“I’ll take care of it.” Dan nodded.

“I can drive out to the dwelling place tomorrow,” I said. “I’ll let the nomads know.” Even as I said it, I dreaded the thought. But I was the logical one to do it.

“I’ll watch Julie,” Jessica said gratefully.

There were a hundred details to arrange. Dan left on his errands and people came by to express condolences.

I left to put the baby to bed. I held her close and sang to her and cuddled her in her nest of leaves as the rain pattered outside the open window. She curled her small fingers around my one large one and closed her eyes, nestled on my shoulder.

It was close to midnight, as Dan and I were having a glass of wine at the kitchen table, when Lloyd knocked on the door. “I saw a light on,” he apologized.

“Come in.” Dan fetched a chair.

Lloyd joined us at the table. I filled him in regarding the arrangements.

“I’ll come with you tomorrow,” he offered.

“Thanks, Lloyd. I appreciate it.”

He looked at both of us. “I know you’ve been working on this problem for months. But–Amanda, I have to be direct.”

I gave him my undivided attention.

“This death changes everything. My decision to let Karen take the children was wrong.”

“Fred?” Dan poured Lloyd a glass of wine.

Lloyd accepted the glass. “We still don’t know where he is. We need to inform him as soon as possible, of course. But, no. It’s bigger than that.”

Dan corked the wine and sat down.

Lloyd turned the stem of the wine glass between his fingers. “This is the first sentient to die in Alliance hands in forty years. At least, the first one where we’re clearly culpable.”

“Culpable!” I cried. “Lloyd! We’ve done everything–”

“I know.” Lloyd spread his hands on the table. “But you have to look at it from the Alliance standpoint. This wasn’t a lowlife, shot carrying out a crime. The Judiciary’ll ask, and with good reason, why these children were taken out of their culture and away from their parents.”

“Questions we’ll have no trouble answering,” Dan said. “They would’ve died, otherwise.”

“But, not at Alliance hands.”

“I don’t believe I’m hearing this,” I cried. “How can you–?”

“I know.” Lloyd leaned on the table. “I agree. Otherwise, I never would’ve allowed you to foster the children. I didn’t think this was going to happen. Clearly.” He sighed. “But it has. And it could be an interplanetary incident.”

“Wait.” I tried to read his face. “We can’t find the next of kin. The nomads we’ve met want nothing to do with the orphans. And the nomads have no government to sue us. How can it be political?”

“The nomads–any of them, kin, individuals, groups–would be well within their rights to accuse us of lethal cultural insensitivity,” he said. “Worse. Xeno Intolerance.”

“They couldn’t!”

He held his hands up. “And I agree, the nomads are not likely to pursue action, legal or otherwise. But they don’t have to.”

“Then–?” Dan asked.

“Minority representative groups from the Alliance could do it on their behalf.”

“What for?” Dan pushed back from the table. “It won’t bring Tosh back to life.”

“They don’t care about Tosh. They’d see our action as an erosion of the laws against cultural noninterference. Today, Tosh, tomorrow, any one of them. They’d want blood. A precedent.”

Dan put his arm around me.

“Amanda.” Lloyd leaned back in his chair. “Tomorrow, when we go out to the nomads’ place, we need to return the children.”

Dan looked up at him sharply.

Lloyd was right. But he was wrong, too. Letting the children die at the nomads’ hands was still letting them die.

And the thought of taking Julie back, seeing her bitten and slapped . . .

My stomach soured and I leaned into Dan’s solid warmth for comfort. How could I give my sweet baby over to that?

Dan’s fingers curled into a fist on his knee. “Lloyd, this is a bad decision. It’s expedient for you, but you can’t pretend none of this happened just by sending the other children back.”

“We don’t know that the children will die if we put them back in the environment they came from.” Lloyd stood to leave. “I think we’re pretty clear that they’ll die if we keep them.”

Neither Dan nor I had a response.

Lloyd smiled grimly. “You know, for the most part I really enjoy my work here, in this little backwater.” He looked around the small, dimly lit kitchen. The rain continued to pour outside. “But right now, I’d rather be anywhere else. Doing anything else.”

 

#

 

I don’t recall that I ever experienced a worse day in my life than the one that followed. Lloyd drove. I sat in the front seat holding the baby. Jessica and Jason brought the boys. Michael stayed home with Karen, and Dan watched Sam, and Jessica’s little one.

The trip was endless. Streams had sprung up in all the usual spots, and we had to hunt for places to cross. We got stuck in the mud twice and had to winch our way out. Lloyd mumbled something under his breath about the damned delays at the quarkian fuel cell factory, but for the most part, we made the trip in silence.

We didn’t have long to wait for the nomads to return. They hadn’t gone far, foraging, and had apparently heard the winch whining as it dragged us out of the creek and into the clearing. This time there were about five families there.

We left the children sleeping in the vehicle and Lloyd and I took three of the adults aside to tell them about Tosh. One of the nomads said she knew Dot and would pass on the information. They were subdued and saddened; mute, with sorrow-filled eyes.

As we talked, one of them, a silver haired grandpa, shuffled off to one side of the clearing and lowered himself into the long, wet grass. He slapped his palm on the dampened earth and made a low sound, like a moan or a song. Slap. Slap.

The second man joined him.

The woman, head lowered, returned to the others, circulating about the subdued group with low words. One by one, they approached the old man and took up places about him, near or far, facing or away by some pattern I couldn’t fathom, and took up the drumming and keening. Even the youngest child found his place in the grieving circle, and with each new voice, the death song grew in volume.

Before the woman could become part of the rite, I drew her aside. “We have others,” I told her.

Her eyes sharpened.

“The boy’s brothers, and a baby sister.”

Where!” But the woman’s scrutiny had already flicked to the rover. She made a low yelp, and three women at the edge of the grieving circle lifted their heads and scrambled to their feet.

Lloyd opened the cab door and he and Jason lifted the boys out. Immediately, the adults growled, bit the children, slapped them and chased them toward the dwelling trees. The boys submitted to the beatings, too lethargic to run; but they whimpered and looked at Jessica and Jason, and tried feebly to get back to them.

Don’t hurt them!” Jessica ran to one of the boys, but a nomad woman blocked her way. “It wasn’t their fault!”

The woman kicked the boy until he dragged himself toward the tree.

Jason wrapped his arms about his wife, burying his face in her neck as tears streamed down her cheeks.

Julie cried and clung to me, her tiny body trembling in my arms.

“Amanda.” Lloyd’s voice was low in my ear, just audible above the keening.

The baby’s eyes were big and round and frightened, staring uncomprehendingly into mine. Salt ran from my nose to the corners of my mouth and my heart sagged as I lifted her, struggling, from my hip. Her little ribs seemed so fragile beneath my big hands. She gripped my shirt, screamed as though I was trying to submerge her beneath choppy waves. I had to pry her fingers from my hair.

The older woman who took Julie slapped her face, tore her diaper off, and bit her leg before carrying her up a tree. The ache in my core split me in half.

All the nomads turned their backs on us then, the worst insult they could make. We stood in the rain-soaked clearing, staring up into the screen of leaves, shivering, alone, lost.

One by one, the mourners abandoned us for the canopy, moving their grieving circle out of the taint of our presence.

We trudged back to the rover to begin the dismal journey home.

 

#

 

The rainy season was quiet in Tumbling River that year. I told Lloyd I’d come to a decision; I wasn’t going to bend the rules any more. Lloyd got mad, as if I’d suggested he was to blame for the entire affair. He said, “Oh, come on, Amanda. You bend the rules all the time, just like everyone else. Every time you get behind the wheel of that rover you’re polluting this planet. Don’t be so damned sanctimonious.”

He was right. The only way to do no harm would be to leave the planet. Even then, I would leave my footprint somewhere. And, hell, I wasn’t going to abandon Dan or take him from his work. I wouldn’t leave Tumbling River.

Lloyd didn’t have a lot to say to me at the office after that, beyond what was necessary. Somehow, I didn’t have much reason to visit Karen, either. I returned to my hobby of carving idyllic scenes into the antlers I’d collected over the years, trying not to wonder where Julie was, how she was growing and changing. If she was alive. With the rain, I didn’t have a lot of incentive to leave the house.

Dan and I talked about the ordeal, but we couldn’t make much sense of it. However, we heard nothing from off-planet. If the incident was going to blow up politically, it didn’t do so right away. So, all the preparation we made, arguments about why our actions were justifiable, drifted to nothingness.

Dan, though, was able to make use of the wealth of data he’d collected. It took him months to analyze.

One afternoon, toward the end of the second quarter, he came in from town and stood by the table where I was carving an imagined mountain scene in a particularly large antler. “Amanda.”

There was fear in his voice. I put down my tiny drill and turned off my safety shield.

He frowned at his hands, leaning on the table. “Karen’s been charged with Lethal Xeno Intolerance.”

My skin turned to ice.

As though speaking the words made them real, he paled and put his hand on the back of the chair to steady himself. “And four counts of endangering a sentient. I just heard from Lloyd.” He slumped into the seat beside me and leaned on the table.

Lethal Xeno Intolerance. A capital crime. Punishable by execution.

I tried to wipe away the shakiness prickling my forehead. My mind couldn’t begin to process it all. “–us?”

“Not yet,” he whispered. “We could be accessories.”

“Jesus God.”

He slid his hand over my frozen fingers. There were years of red tape before any execution. We’d be imprisoned. Separated. The closest facility for women was two light years away.

I began to tremble. Alliance prisons housed dozens of species. A conviction of Xeno Intolerance–Lethal Xeno Intolerance–put a prisoner beneath the feet–beneath the contempt, beneath the excrement–of every other convict.

“Murderer, rapist, child molester, xeno butcher. That’s the pecking order, isn’t it?” he said bitterly.

“Michael?” I managed. “Jason? Jessica?”

“And Lloyd.”

“It’s impossible. It’s–”

“No.”

I blinked at him. “We didn’t know!” I pleaded. “We thought we were doing the right thing! How can they–”

He couldn’t meet my eye. “I . . . there’s more.”

I could barely speak. “What?”

“For months, now . . .” he bit his lip.

I wanted to rip the words from his throat.

“I’ve been trying to find a way to explain what I saw in the data. I didn’t want–”

“Goddamn it!”

“All right. Nomad neurology–There are lots of similarities with humans. But the differences, especially in child development–” He swallowed. “Brain growth in nomads is tied to their immune system. Cognition and immune responses are stimulated by cascading proteins–”

“From–” My God. “Injuries?”

He nodded. “Imunostimulation from bruises and cuts prompts–”

But that wasn’t right. “Tosh–and Julie, and their brothers–they loved to be cuddled. They loved to be hugged.”

“Not at first. Remember?” He took my hand. “I think–I think they learned to crave the hugs like . . .” He shrugged. “Pain killers. The only physical stimulation they could get.”

“What!”

“I know. From our standpoint, it’s counterintuitive.”

Visions of the baby in my arms, holding her, singing to her–“All that time–”

“All that time.” Dan took my hand. “We thought we were doing the right thing. But we were wrong.”

“If taking those children was wrong, does that make child abuse right?” My mind recoiled. “There is no right, Dan. No wrong. Not now.”

He hadn’t followed the thought far enough.

“It isn’t just Tosh,” I said.

He squinted in puzzlement.

“Not even just Alliance law, bending the rules. Or our complete disregard for–everything. This entire planet.” I tried to shake away the impotence I felt.

Dan’s face cleared. “The Alliance.” His hand balled into a fist. “We’re only scapegoats. Karen, you, me. Human sacrifice to assuage Alliance conscience. Let our guilt be spread across the media files, while the Alliance rapes a few more planets, a few more species–”

“No!” He still didn’t see. “We can’t blame the Alliance. Or the Corporation. It’s us too. It’s me.” I tried to soften the blow with gentle eyes. “It’s you, Dan.”

His fingers stabbing the table, stopped.

“I relied on rules instead of . . . complexities.” Relief and wretchedness bloomed in my chest. “I even had the audacity to take away Fred’s name, for God’s sake. For my own convenience.” I hadn’t seen. The disrespect of that act.

But now, I hoped, I was beginning to. “I’m going with her.” My words promised courage I wasn’t sure I could sustain. “Karen.”

“To court?”

“Yes.”

“You can’t.” He licked his lips. “We’re not charged yet.”

“I have to.”

“This is one you can’t win, Amanda. No one can.”

The dread in my stomach at my own audacity was somehow mixed with . . . lightness. Conviction. Certainty. “The words have to be said, Dan. Regardless of the outcome, the mirror has to be shown.”

Grief turned to moisture in his eyes. “Yes,” he whispered. He nodded. Touched my cheek with his knuckle. “Then I’m coming, too.”

“You’re sure?”

“We may be only two voices. But voices that must be heard.”

I took his hand. And maybe . . .

Maybe in that mirror’s reflection, we’d see beyond the dichotomy of right and wrong. See the labyrinth that was truth.

 

THE END

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