Mid-Month Novel Excerpt: Alien Influences
Once per month, I’ll publish an excerpt of one of my novels, and I hope you’ll be intrigued enough to buy the rest of the book. I began this practice in February of 2011. Unlike the free fiction I put up every Monday, the novel excerpts will remain on the site. If you want to read the opening to the previous thirteen novels, click here.
This month, I’ve excerpted Alien Influences, which is a stand-alone science fiction novel. It had a strange publishing history, getting great reviews and acclaim in Great Britain only to get caught in a publishing dispute in the United States. It got published with no fanfare here, and in fact had one of the worst covers I’d ever seen. The new cover, below, is one I like quite a bit.
You’ll find ordering information for Alien Influences at the end of this post.
Here’s the back cover copy, followed by the excerpt and the ordering information:
On the sun-scorched planet Bountiful, human colonists live peacefully alongside natives known as Dancers until an unspeakable disaster devastates the colony. Six children found dead, their bodies marked in a bizarre parody of a Dancer ritual. The crime’s solution makes the situation worse, sending ripples throughout the sector, shattering lives.
One man tries to heal those lives. But can he heal everyone involved, and still save himself?
A finalist for the prestigious Arthur C. Clarke award, Alien Influences shows the talents that make Kristine Kathryn Rusch one of the most popular authors working in science fiction today.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch Published by WMG Publishing First Published by Orion Books in 1994
He first saw the Dancer when he was a toddler. He was inside the dome, rosebushes on both sides. The Dancer stood on the dirt street, surrounded by a crowd of people. He knows this is a memory, not an incident someone has told him years after the fact. No one speaks to him of the Dancers. When he mentions their name, people turn away, embarrassed, as if he still has blood on his hands.
In his memory, his hands were pudgy. He sees them raised in supplication: I want…I want…
He had no words, only the desire. The Dancer stood before him, impossibly tall, trapped and flighty against the molded plastic of the dome. It was like him and not like him. It had two arms and two legs, but they were stick thin and shiny black. Its cinnamon smell overpowered the roses. It moved as if it were in water—all grace and light.
I want…I want…
It hummed and whistled, then stopped when it saw him. A little boy was reflected in its large silver eyes. Twin little boys, pudgy arms reaching—reaching—
Sometimes he dreams of the Dancer standing before him, and he wakes, hands outstretched, muttering—
They brought him in after the fifth murder.
The shuttle dropped him on the landing site at the salt cliffs, overlooking the golden waters of the Singing Sea. Apparently something in the shuttle fuel harmed the vegetation near the small colony, so they developed a landing strip on the barren cliff tops at the beginning of the desert. Winds and salt had destroyed the plastic shelter long ago, so he wore the required body scarf and some specially developed reflective cream. Before she left, the shuttle pilot pointed out the domed city in the distance. She said she had radioed them to send someone for him. He clutched his water bottle tightly, refusing to drink until he was parched.
A hot, dry breeze rustled the scarf around his face. The air smelled of daffodils, or so it seemed. It had been so long since he had been to Earth, he was no longer sure what daffodils smelled like.
Everything around him was golden, or bright, dazzling white. The sun felt like a furnace; the heat reflected off all the nearby surfaces. He had read that in some seasons, temperatures went beyond human endurance.
The desert spanned between him and the domed city. A narrow footpath wove its way over the slight dunes, appearing to lead to the city itself. The dome reflected the sunlight. From this distance, it looked small, about the size of his thumbnail, but he knew it housed over a thousand people, homes, and the Salt Juice plant.
He took a deep breath, feeling the dryness in his throat. It had been a long time since he had been off Minar Base. Even longer since he had been hired to do any on-site evaluations. He had prepared by meditating and by reading everything he could find on Bountiful—which was very little outside the production figures for Salt Juice. Still, he woke each morning in a panic, afraid that he was not up to the task they had hired him for. He had tried to be taken off the case, but Bountiful had insisted. They wanted him, a fact that bothered him more than anything else.
To his left, salt continually eroded down the cliff face, little crystals rolling and tumbling to the white beach below. The Singing Sea devoured the crystals, leaving a salt scum that reflected the harsh light of the sun. Perhaps this was where, decades ago, the miners had begun their slaughter of the Dancers. The Dancers were a protected species now, about one one-hundredth of their original numbers.
This place had quite a few protected species, but most lived far away from the colony. The only known Dancer habitat was at the edge of the domed city. All the materials sent to him on Minar Base pointed to the Dancers as the cause of the murders. The colonists wanted him to make a recommendation that would be used in a preliminary injunction, a recommendation on whether the Dancers had acted with malicious intent. That idea left him queasy and brought the dreams back.
Justin glanced back at the barren whitish-brown land leading to the dome. Colonists who escaped this place called it the Gateway to Hell. He could understand why, with the endless heat, the oxygen-poor air, and the salt-polluted water. Just before he left the base, he had spoken with an old man who had spent his childhood on this planet. The old man’s skin was shriveled and dried from too many hours in an unkind sun. He ate no salt, and he filled his quarters with fresh cool water. He said he was so relieved to become an adult because then he could legally escape the planet. He had warned Justin to stay away.
He turned. A woman stood at the edge of the trail leading back to the dome. Her body-length white sand scarf fluttered in the breeze. She had dark skin and wide brown eyes. “I’m Netta Goldin. I’m taking you to the colony.”
She smiled. “The ecology here is fragile. We have learned to accept a number of inconveniences. Be sure to stay on the path.”
His fingers tightened around the water bottle. He hoped they didn’t have to walk far. He was already breathless from the poor air, and he was out of shape. He had neglected his body in the years since Minar.
The reflective white cream gathered in the lines on Netta’s face, making her appear creased. “I hear they brought you in from the base near Minar. Minar is supposed to be lovely.”
“It is.” A shiver went through him. Minar had been lovely, and he hated it. “Your name is familiar.”
“I’m the head of the colony.”
He remembered now. The scratchy female voice on the corded message. “Then you’re the one who sent for me.”
She adjusted his scarf hood. The heat increased, but the prickling on his scalp stopped. “You’re the best person for the job.”
“I deal in human aberration. You need a specialist.”
“No.” She threaded her arm through his and walked down the trail. The salt crunched beneath their feet. “I need someone who knows human and xeno psychology. You seem to be the only one left on either nearby base.”
“I thought you were convinced the natives are doing this.”
“I think the deaths have happened because of interactions between our people and the Dancers. It’s clear that the Dancers killed the children, but we don’t know why. I want you to investigate those dynamics. I also want this done fast. I want to do something about the Dancers, protect my people better than I am now. But I understand that you need to investigate the natives in their own environment, so we have taken no action.”
The wind played with his sand scarf. A runnel of sweat trickled down his back. Small white plants he had never seen before—with prickly spines and a tough look—grew in small clumps in the salt and sand mixture. “I’m not licensed to practice xeno psychology.”
“That’s a lie, Dr. Schafer. I researched you rather heavily before I went to the expense of bringing you here. The Ethics Committee suspended your license for one year as a formality. That was nine years ago. You’re still licensed and still interested in the field.”
He pulled his arm from hers. He had sat by the sea on the first morning in Minar, too. He had been thirty years old and so sure he could understand everything human or alien. And he had understood, finally. Too late. “I don’t want this job.”
“You’re the only one who can do it.” She clasped her hands behind her back. “All the other xenopsychologists in the quadrant have specialized in one species or refuse to do forensic work. Besides, no one is better at this than you.”
“They charged me with inciting genocide on Minar.”
“And acquitted you. Your actions were logical, given the evidence.”
Logical. He should have seen how the land encroached, poisoned, ate away human skin. He later learned that Minaran skin oils were also acidic, but didn’t cause the same kind of damage. The original colonists had died first because of land poisoning, not because the Minarans were acting on an old vendetta. All the work the natives had done, they had done to save the colonists. He had ascribed a human motive, the ultimate sin in xeno work. It had been the wrong human motive and it had decimated a sentient race. “I don’t want to make the same mistake again.”
“Good,” she said. The wind blew her scarf across her face. She brushed the cloth away with a cream-covered hand. “Because then you won’t.”
Once he got inside, the dome felt huge. Houses ran along the unpaved streets in a strict grid pattern. Each lawn had plants he recognized, and the dome itself was a Texas summer blue. The dome protected them from the intense heat, and he was grateful for it. Netta had shown him to his quarters and instructed him to appear for a meeting within the hour.
The meeting room was part of the Command Central base on the western end of the dome. Several buildings made up Command Central; from leaders’ offices to a huge communications center. The meeting room was part of a building that housed the city’s library, records systems, and databases.
Justin went inside, following the wide corridor. All of the buildings he had seen lacked windows, and that, combined with the dome looming overhead, gave him a vague touch of claustrophobia. The artificial lighting was pale after the brightness of the sun. The building was made of old white terraplastic—the kind colonists brought with them to form temporary structures until they could build from the planets natural materials. Wood and stone were not scarce commodities on Bountiful, yet it was almost as if the original colonists had been afraid to use anything native.
He pulled open the door to the meeting room. It was done in white. Chairs lined the windowless walls, and four long, white tables were set up in a square. Three people sat at the edge of the table nearest the door, beside a small, old-fashioned holojector unit that pointed at a blank wall.
Justin recognized the faces from the materials Netta had given him in his apartment. Davis, a thin, wiry man, led the laboratory team. Sanders, head of the medical unit, had hands half the size of Justin’s. He stared at her, wondering how someone so petite could spend her time sifting through the clues left in a dead body. And of course, Netta. Her hair was dark, her skin bronzed by Bountiful’s sun. Netta had brought them all to brief Justin. The only person missing was the head of colony security.
The cool air in the meeting room smelled of metallic processing. Justin walked to the chair that Netta had pulled back for him. He swallowed hard, ignoring the aches in his body. The walk had been longer than he expected, and he really wanted a rest before submerging himself in the problems of the colony. Despite the reflective cream and clothing, his skin had turned a blotchy red. His scalp itched. Little raised bumps had formed beneath his hair. He was afraid to touch them, afraid they might burst.
“Thank you for coming,” Netta said. “I know you must be exhausted.”
He probably looked it. He sat in the chair. It and the table were made of the same hard plastic as the walls. The chair did not bend with his weight. This room had not been designed for comfort or beauty, and its plainness was more distracting than decorations would have been.
“I wanted to get started on this as quickly as I can,” he said. Because then it would be over quicker. Nothing about this job excited him. He didn’t want to investigate alien motives for murdering children.
A small man, his hair greased back and his face darkened by the sun, entered. He dumped papers and holochips on the table in front of Netta.
“Thank you,” she said. She pushed her chair back and caught the small man by the arm. “Justin, this is D. Marvin Tanner. He heads the security forces for this area. If you have any questions about the investigative work prior to this time, you should direct those questions to him.”
Tanner’s gaze darted around the room, touching everyone but settling on no one. His hands shook as he moved. Justin frowned. Tanner had no reason to be nervous. He had worked with the others.
Unless he was afraid of Justin, or something Justin would uncover.
“Most of what I will tell you is in your packet, for your own personal review later,” Netta said. “But let me give you a general briefing now before we show the holos.” She let go of Tanner’s arm and he sat down next to Justin. Tanner smelled of sweat, and something sweet, almost like pot fumes, but marijuana could not be grown in this soil. Besides, he was the head of security. He would eschew the available vices.
“They found the first victim less than three weeks ago,” Netta said. “Linette Bisson was eleven years old. She had been propped against the front door of her home like a rag doll. Someone had removed her hands, heart and lungs.
“The next victim, David Tomlinson, appeared a day later. Same MO. Three more children—Katie Dengler, Andrew Liser, and Henry Illn—were found during the last two weeks. Again, the same MO. These children all played together; they were the same age. And, according to their parents, none of the last three were terribly frightened by the deaths of their friends.”
She paused and glanced at Justin, looking for a reaction. He had none. Most people didn’t realize that children often had no concept of death and the things they feared were not the things adults feared. He was not surprised that the children were not affected. They might not understand.
“The Dancers mature differently than we do,” Sanders said. Her voice was soft and as delicate as she was. “They do grow a little, but their hearts, lungs and hands work like our teeth. The old ones must be removed before the new ones can grow into place. They have developed an elaborate rite of passage that ends with the ceremonial removal of the adolescent’s organs.”
Justin leaned back. The hard plastic of the chair bit into his skin. He felt out of his depth. He needed to know Dancer physiology, psychology and history. He turned to Netta. “You said the Dancers interacted with the colonists.”
She nodded. “For decades, we’ve had an informal relationship. They develop the herbs we use in our exports. We haven’t had any trouble, until now.”
“And the Dancers were allowed inside the dome?”
“We restricted them when the killings started, and now they’re not allowed in at all.”
“We also set up dome guards,” Tanner said. As he moved, his body odor became overpowering. “The dome doors have no locks and can be operated from the inside or the outside. We had done that as a precaution so no colonist would die trapped outside the dome.”
Colonists. Colony. The word choices bothered Justin. The language was evolving differently than he would have expected. The “colony” had been settled for nearly a century. Gradually it should have eased into “city” or “settlement.” The domed area had no name, and even people like Tanner, who had lived in Bountiful their entire lives, felt no sense of permanence.
“We have some holos we’d like to show you,” Tanner said. He got up, and pulled the chips from the pile he brought in. Justin held his breath as the breeze from Tanner’s movements swept over him. He adjusted the holojecter at the edge of the table. He moved chairs away from the wall, leaving a wide, blank space. He pressed the switch, and a holo leaped into being.
Laughter filled the room, children’s laughter. Twelve children huddled on the floor, playing a game Justin did not recognize. The children all appeared the same age, except for one, who sat off to one side and watched. He appeared to be about eight. The older children would pound their fists on the ground three times, then touch hands. One child would moan or roll away. The others would laugh.
Tanner froze the image. “These are the children,” he said. He moved near the images, stopping by a slim blond girl whose face was bright with laughter. “Linette Bisson.” Then he moved to a solid boy with rugged features who was leaning forward, his hand in a small fist. “David Tomlinson.”
Tanner moved to the next child, his body visible through the holos in front of him. Justin shivered. Seeing the living Tanner move through the projected bodies of dead children raised the hackles on the back of Justin’s neck. Superstition, racial memory… His ancestors had believed in ghosts.
So did he. Eager Minaran ghosts.
Tanner looked at a dark-haired girl who frowned at the little boy, sitting alone. “Katie Dengler. Beside her, Andrew Liser and Henry Illn.” The boys were rolling on the ground, holding their stomachs. Their mirth would have been catching if Justin hadn’t known the circumstances of their deaths.
Tanner went back to the holojecter.
“Who are the other children?” Justin asked. At least eight were not accounted for.
“You’ll meet them,” Netta said. “They still run together.”
He nodded, and watched. Tanner switched images, and the projection moved again. The children’s clothing changed. They wore scarves and reflective cream. A middle-aged woman with sun-black skin stood beside them. “Do as I say,” she said. “Nothing more.” They turned their backs to the room, and walked past trees and houses until the dome appeared. The woman flicked a switch, and the dome rose. The children waved, and the dome closed behind them. The younger boy ran into the picture, but an adult suddenly appeared and stopped him.
Tanner froze the image. Justin stared at the boy, seeing the dejection in his shoulders. Justin had stood like that so many times since Minar, watching his colleagues move to other projects while he had to stay behind. He pushed himself back just a little. He had to stay impartial on this one. He couldn’t let himself get involved personally.
“We think this is the first time the Dancers met with the children,” Tanner said.
“Who is that boy?” Justin asked.
“Katie Dengler’s brother, Michael.”
“And the woman?”
“Latona Etanl. She’s a member of the Extra-Species Alliance.” Netta answered that question. Her voice dripped with bitterness. “She believed that having the children learn about the Dancers would ease relations between us.”
Justin glanced at her. “There have been problems?”
“No. The Alliance believes that we are abusing the Dancers because we do not understand their culture.” Netta leaned back in her chair, but her body remained tense. “I thought we had a strong cooperative relationship until she tried to change things.”
Justin frowned. The Alliance was a small, independent group with bases on all the settled planets. Theoretically, the Alliance was supposed to promote understanding between the colonists and the natives. In some areas, Alliance members spent so much time with the natives that they absorbed and practiced native beliefs. On those lands the Alliance became a champion for the downtrodden native. In other lands, the group assisted the colonists in systematically destroying native culture. And sometimes the group actually fulfilled its mission. The Alliance representatives he had known were as varied as the planets they worked on.
“How long ago was this holo taken?” Justin asked.
“Almost a year ago,” Tanner said. But the children weren’t as taken with the Dancers as Latona thought they would be. I believe that was the only visit.”
“What has changed since then? What has provoked the Dancers?”
Netta glanced at Tanner. She sighed. “We want to take control of the xaredon, leredon and ededon plants.”
The basis of Salt Juice, the colonists’ chief export. Salt Juice was one of the most exhilarating intoxicants discovered in recent history. It mixed quickly with the bloodstream, left the user euphoric and had no known side effects according to the initial tests: no hangovers, no hallucinations, no addictions and no dangerous physical reactions. Justin had read in the most recent literature that Salt Juice’s harmlessness was being questioned, but those studies were years from completion. For the time being Salt Juice brought a small fortune into Bountiful. “I didn’t know the Dancers controlled the herbs,” Justin said.
“They grow the herbs and give us the adult plants. We’ve been trying to get them to teach us to grow the plants, but they refuse.” Netta shook her head. “I don’t know why, either. We don’t pay them. We don’t give them anything for their help. They wouldn’t lose anything by teaching us.”
“And the negotiations broke off?”
“About a week before the first death.” The deep voice surprised Justin. It belonged to Davis. Justin had forgotten he was there.
“Let me show the final image,” Tanner said. “It’s of the first death. You can see the others if you want in the viewing library. This one begins the pattern carried through on the rest.”
Justin licked his lips. He didn’t want to see, but he couldn’t say that. He had no options. They had bought his contract and he had to make a ruling in this case.
A ruling meant he had to study all the parts, including the murders.
Tanner clicked the image. The scene was grim. Linette, her hair longer and sun-blond, her skin darker than it had been in the first projection, leaned against one of the windowless inlay doors. Her feet stretched in front of her; her arms rested at her sides. Her chest was open, dark and matted with blood. Tanner froze the projection, and this time Justin got up, examining the holo from all sides. The stumps at the ends of her arms were blood-covered. Her clothing was also bloodstained, but that could have been caused by her bleeding arms. Blood did coat the chest cavity, though. Whoever had killed her had acted quickly. The girl’s eyes were wide and had an inquisitive expression. Her mouth was drawn in a slight O of surprise or pain.
“The wounds match the wounds made by Dancer ceremonial tools,” Davis said. “I can show you more down in the lab if you want.”
Justin nodded, feeling sick. “Please shut that off.”
Tanner flicked a switch and the image disappeared. Five children, dead and mutilated. Justin had to get out of the room. He had received too much information, had seen too much. His stomach threatened to betray him. The others stared.
“This packet and the facts you’ve given so far should be enough for me to get started,” he said. He stood and clutched the chair for support. The plastic was cool beneath his palms. “I’m sure that I will return with questions.”
He let himself out of the room and took a deep breath. The image of the child remained at the edge of his brain, mingling with that of other dead colonists on a world ten years away.
He heard rustling inside the conference room, and knew he had to be gone before the others emerged. He hurried through the dimly lit corridor. Sunlight glared through the cracks around the outside door. He stopped and examined the almost inch-wide space between the door and its frame, forcing himself to think about things other than holographic images. Clearly the people who lived inside the dome had no fear of the elements or of each other. Anyone, or anything, could open that door by wedging something inside the crack.
He felt better outside the room. The people inside made him nervous. They had discovered what they could through instruments and measures and other “scientific” things. He had to crawl inside alien minds and see what had caused such murders. If the colonists had suspected a human killer, they would have brought in any one of a dozen other specialists. Instead, they brought him.
He had to see the Dancers clearly, without dead Minarans clouding his vision. If the Dancers killed with malicious intent, the colony had to be protected or moved. He would simply approach things differently this time. Instead of going to the leaders of the colony, he would go to Lina Base Security, and appeal to the territorial powers. That might prevent slaughter. The Dancers, with their small population, were easier prey than the Minarans.
He stepped outside and blinked at the blue-tinted light. The dome filtered the sunlight, deflecting the dangerous ultraviolet rays, and allowing only a modicum of heat inside. Roses grew beside the door, and young maples lined the walks. Patches of grass peeked through, hidden by bushes and other flowering plants. The care that the colonists had not placed in their homes, they had placed in making the interior of the dome look like Earth. It felt odd to stand there, among familiar trees and lush vegetation, and to know that just outside the dome, a different, alien world waited.
But beneath the scents of roses and fresh grass, another lurked. That sickly sweet odor he had noticed on Tanner. Perhaps it was the scent of this part of Bountiful. Perhaps it belonged to something in the colony that he couldn’t yet identify. Whatever it was, it would bother him until he found out.
He crouched beside the roses. No odd fertilizers, nothing here that obviously created the smell. He put his hand in the brown soil. Perhaps it was less alkaline than the salt cliffs had led him to believe. Or perhaps the colonists had imported the soil, as they had imported everything else. He saw no reason to live in a new place if he were going to try so hard to make it look like the place he had left. That attitude was a difference between Justin and the colonists. He would collect thousands of differences before he was through. The problem was whether thousands were enough—or if they meant anything at all. The differences he had to concentrate on were the differences between human and Dancer thought. Something that should have taken a lifetime of study, he would have to discover in a few days.
That night he dreamed of the Minarans. Their sleek seal bodies dripped with water. They hovered around him, oversized eyes reproachful, as if they were trying to warn him of something he would never understand. They reached out to touch him, and he slapped their fingered fins away. Shudders ran through him. They had caused the murders. But if he told the colonists, they would slaughter the Minarans—the fat mothers, the tiny males and the white pups that not much earlier the children had watched as if they were pets. Minaran blood was colorless but thick. It still coated his hands, leaving them sticky and useless.
Justin blinked himself awake. A fan whirred in the darkness; the blanket covering him was scratchy and too hot. He coughed, and tasted metallic air in the back of his throat. The one-bedroom apartment Netta had given him felt small and close.
He had done nothing right since the Minaran trial. He should have resigned from psychology, let his licenses lapse and bought back his contract. He had had the money then. He wouldn’t have had to serve out his time on Minar Base, the planet hovering in his viewscreen like an ugly reminder. Instead, he stayed, wrote abstracts and papers, conducted studies and worked with an intensity he hadn’t known he had. His colleagues ignored him, and he tried to ignore himself. Just before she left him, Carol accused him of idolizing the Minarans. She said that he hid in his work, that he had buried his emotions in the search for the cause of his own flaws. Perhaps he had idolized the Minarans. He certainly had stored his emotions far from himself. But he knew the cause of his own flaws. He didn’t hide in his work. He liked to think he was atoning.
He rolled over. The sheets were cool on the far side of the bed. Maybe his sense of guilt allowed him to let his contract safeguards lapse so that someone like Netta could buy his services for the next year. The darkness closed around him. When he shut his eyes, he saw the Minarans.
He could, he supposed, cancel the contract and head to Lina Base for re-education, never to practice psychology again. But the work was all he had. Perhaps he was atoning. Or perhaps he simply hadn’t learned….
Justin rose early and drank his coffee outside, watching the colony wake up. He sat on the stoop of the apartment building, looking over some sort of evergreen bush at the street beyond. All of the houses had the same design; a single-story rectangular shape with a door in the center, and no windows at all. They were evenly spaced on square lots. Only the plants out front marked the difference in care and ownership.
The apartment building was square also, but had a second story. The apartments were clearly for guests. He had heard no one in the building during the night, and no one had passed him on the way to work.
The streets were full, however. Adults carrying satchels and briefcases walked by, chatting. Others wore work clothes and carried nothing. A few wore sand scarves and helped each other apply reflective cream. They all seemed quite joyful. Laughing, joking, giggling. He had never seen people so happy to go to their jobs. Work seemed to start at the same time. He would have wagered that the workday ended at the same time, too.
They didn’t need split shifts. Most of the workers processed and shipped Salt Juice. The rest maintained the stores on the south end of the colony or worked in Command Central. They all seemed quite self-sufficient—not surprising, considering their heritage. They had gardens and rarely ordered much beyond staples from Lina Base.
He stood, and went inside. The apartment didn’t seem as tiny as it had the night before. The living room had a couch and two easy chairs, upholstered in green and obviously shipped in from Lina Base, a desk with a computer setup and one wall converted into a 2-D screen, with disks and holochips stored on shelves on the sides. The apartments had been designed for traders who came to deal in Salt Juice. They were obviously given the best the colony had to offer.
The tiny kitchen had water purifiers, air cleaners and an ancient compressor cooker. Cheap paintings, reproductions from works he had seen on Minar and Lina Bases, covered the white plastic walls. He would have preferred windows.
He put his mug in the air cleaner. Then he went back out. The last of the stragglers had gone up the street, and in the near silence, he heard a squeal of laughter, followed by a child’s voice. He followed the sound. It didn’t seem too far away. The laughter came again and again, guiding him to it. He walked in the opposite direction of the workers, past terraplastic homes with no windows, large gardens that passed for lawns and fences dividing property. The fences caught his attention: another need to mark property, or did the colonists feel the need to block each other out?
The laughter grew closer. He turned and saw a small corner park, marked off by a waist-high white gate, and three weeping willows. Flowers grew like vines along the gate and, inside, on the grass, about ten children sat in a circle, playing the game they had played on the holo.
One child stood back, leaning on the plastic gate. He was tall for his age—the gate came to his chest—but the longing expression on his face made him seem even younger than he was. Justin wondered if his own face used to look like that on nights after the Minaran trial, when he passed his colleagues in the middle of a heated round table discussion. He suppressed a sigh and stood beside the boy. It took a moment to recall his name. Michael Dengler.
“What are they playing?”
He glanced at Justin, seemingly surprised that someone would talk to him. “Race.”
The children pounded their fists on the ground three times, then made different hand gestures. They laughed. The muscles bulged in their arms. They had to be in some kind of exercise program. The girl rolled away, stood up, arched her back and growled. “Limabog!” “Arachni!” “Cat!” “Illnea!” the children called. At each name the girl shook her head. Finally someone yelled, “Bear!” She nodded, joined the circle again, and the fist pounding started all over.
“How do you play?” Justin asked.
Michael’s frown grew until his entire face turned bloodred. “I don’t,” he said.
The hair on the back of Justin’s neck prickled, and for a moment, he heard the hushed whispers of former friends gossiping about his failures. He swallowed, determined to distance himself from the boy. “Don’t you play with friends your own age?”
Michael stopped leaning on the gate. “You’re one of the strangers here for the Salt Juice, aren’t you?”
Justin gave a half-nod, not bothering to correct Michael’s misconception.
“You got kids?”
Michael shrugged. “Then it stays the same. I’m the only kid my age. My mom and dad didn’t follow the rules.”
The children burst into laughter and another child rolled away, this time approaching the group on all fours. Apparently this colony still followed the practice of having children in certain age groups, then spacing the next group at least four years away. It was a survival tactic for many new colonies.
“So you want to play with the older kids,” Justin said.
Justin could hear the wistfulness in the boys voice. He watched from outside; Justin had written papers about other people’s work.
Michael glanced at the children, his hands clenching. “They won’t let me play until I grow and learn to think like a big kid. Mom says they should take me for who I am.” He looked at Justin, mouth set in a thin line. “What do you think?”
Such an easy question, asked of the wrong person. Justin had always thought for himself, and it had gained him respect and a following—until Minar. After that, he stood at the edge of the round table discussions instead of leading them, waiting for someone to pull back a chair and let him in. If he had said he was sorry, opened himself up for dissection, perhaps he wouldn’t have been standing friendless in an unfamiliar colony.
“In an ideal world, your mom is right,” Justin said. “But sometimes you have to do what the group wants if you’re going to be accepted.”
Michael crossed his arms in front of his chest, his fists still clenched. His body language made his thoughts clear: he didn’t want to believe. Justin turned away. Once he would have felt the same, but things had changed. Standing outside the group, watching, was more painful than playing inside.
“Could you explain the game to me?” Justin asked.
“No!” Michael spun, and started down the pathway. “Maybe they will. They talk to grown-ups.”
He ran away. Justin almost started after him, then let him go. The boy had reached Justin because Justin saw a similarity between them. Michael didn’t have a lot to do with the investigation.
The children laughed as if they hadn’t noticed Michael’s outburst. Justin took Michael’s place at the gate and watched, to see if he could learn the game from observation before he tried to talk with the children.
By midday the dome filter had changed, giving the colony a sepia tone. The children had refused to talk, running when Justin approached. He would have to get Netta to arrange a time for him to talk with them. Then he walked to the office of the Extra-Species Alliance, hoping to talk with Latona Etanl.
The office was clearly marked, one of the few buildings with any identification at all. Tulips and lilies of the valley blossomed across the yard, and two maple trees shaded the pathway. The office building itself was made of terraplastic, but it seemed larger, perhaps because of the windows beside the door.
Justin mounted the stoop and saw, through the window, a woman get up from her desk. The door swung open, and he found himself staring at the woman from the holos. He recognized her sun-blackened face. It took him a moment to realize she wasn’t wearing a sand scarf. Her long black hair went down to her knees and wrapped around her like a second skin.
“Ms. Etanl,” he said, “I’m—”
“You’re Dr. Schafer. I’ve been waiting for you.” She stood away from the door, and he stepped inside.
The room had the rich, potent aroma of lilies of the valley. A bunch of flowers was gathered in a vase by the window and other vases rested on end tables beside the wide couch and easy chairs that filled the rest of the space. A hallway opened beyond the desk, leading to other, smaller rooms. The sepia-colored light shining through the windows made the outdoors muddy and the interior even brighter than it should have been.
“Your offices are lovely,” he said to cover his surprise at her greeting.
“We like to have pleasant surroundings,” she said, and he thought he heard a kind of condemnation in her voice. “Care for a seat?”
She moved over to one of the easy chairs and waited for him to follow. He sat on the couch, sinking into the soft cushions. She sat down at the edge of her seat, looking as if she were going to spring up at a moment’s notice.
“Latona. I’m surprised you knew who I was.”
“The colony’s small. And Netta told us you would come.” She adjusted her hair over her legs as if it were a skirt. “She blames me for taking the children out of the colony. She thinks I started the Dancers on this.”
Latona hadn’t looked at him. “What do you think?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I don’t think the Dancers are capable of such killings.”
“From my understanding,” he said slowly, “Dancers don’t kill their young. They perform mutilations to help adolescents reach maturity. Could something have happened in the one meeting that would have made the Dancers try to help human children?”
She finally looked at him. Her eyes were wide and black, the color of her hair. “You haven’t seen the Dancers yet, have you?”
He shook his head.
“You need to. And then you can ask me questions.” She took a deep breath, as if hesitating about what she was about to say. “I’ll take you if you like.”
She nodded. “We have protective gear in the back.”
His heart thudded against his chest. He hadn’t expected to see the Dancers yet, but he was ready. A little thrill ran down his spine.
They got up and she led him down the hall to one of the back offices. As she walked past an open office door, she peeked inside. A man sat behind a desk, his bald head bowed over a small computer screen. “Daniel, I’m taking Dr. Schafer to see the Dancers.”
Daniel glanced up. He was younger than he had originally appeared—about thirty or so. “Would you like a second?”
She shook her head. “Not unless he thinks we need one.”
She was asking a question without directing it at Justin. He shook his head. “If she thinks the two of us will be fine, I’m not going to second-guess her.”
Daniel smiled, showing a row of very white teeth. “Latona is our best. She’s studied the Dancers her entire life.”
Latona had already started down the hall. Justin nodded at Daniel, then followed her. The room she entered was the size of a small closet. She flicked on a light and pulled two sand scarves from pegs. She took out a jar of reflective cream and handed it to Justin. He applied it. The goo was cold against his face, and smelled faintly sweet. Then he wrapped the sand scarf around himself, and waited as Latona did the same. She tied a small pack to her waist. Finally she pulled two pairs of sunglasses out of a drawer and handed him one pair.
“Put these on after we leave the dome,” she said.
They left through a door on the back side. The sepia tone of the dome seemed to have grown darker. Latona led him across the yard along an empty pathway until they reached the dome. Two men stood beside the structure, looking bored. Latona nodded at them.
“I’m taking Dr. Schafer to see the Dancers.”
“Netta permit this?” one of the men asked.
Latona sighed. “She doesn’t have to. Dr. Schafer is off-world.”
The man looked as if he were about to say more, but his partner grabbed his arm. He pushed a button and the dome door slid open. Dry heat seeped in, making the air inside the dome feel as plastic as the buildings. Justin followed Latona outside and heard the doors squeak closed behind them.
Sunlight reflected off the white cream on his face, momentarily blinding him. The wind rustled his sand scarf. He already felt overdressed. The air smelled of salt, daffodils and promises.
Latona tugged her hood over her face and headed into the wind. He bent and followed, wishing he could see more of the desert. But the wind was strong and blew the sand at a dangerous rate. He put on the glasses, thankful for the way they eased the glare.
“Netta hates it when I visit the Dancers,” Latona said, “but she can’t stop me. I’m not officially a colony member. Neither are you.”
“Why did you bring the children out here?” The sand was deep and thick, and he was having trouble walking. There were plants on either side, half covered in white sand.
Latona followed no visible trail. She headed away from the dome, away from the landing pad. If he squinted and looked ahead, he saw a dark shape outlined against the horizon. “There are a lot of creatures here the colonists ignore. Little sand devils that burrow tunnels below the surface, birds with helicopter-like wings and insects. Daniel is studying the birds to see if they’re intelligent. Micah, one of my other colleagues, has determined that the sand devils are not. But the Dancers are intelligent, in their own way.”
The sand became thin and packed, almost a mudlike surface. He glanced back. The dome was a small bubble in the distance.
“The early miners hated the Dancers and killed them. The killing stopped, though, when the colonists discovered Salt Juice.”
“This is history,” Justin said. “I want to know about now.”
“I’m getting to now. The Dancers grow the herbs for Salt Juice and although the colonists have tried, they can’t. So they need the Dancers as another intelligent species. The colonists take the plants without recompense, and the Dancers just grow more. I know some of the colonists think the children’s deaths are retaliation.”
“What do you think?”
Latona shook her head. “That’s a human reaction. The Dancers are a different species. They have very alien thought processes.”
The dark shape on the horizon had resolved itself into a grove of trees. They stood at the same height, and their tops were canopied, providing shade.
The wind had eased but his skin felt battered. He brought a hand up to his cheek and felt sand on the cream. Sweat ran down his back, and his throat was dry. “You have water in the pack?”
Latona stopped, opened the pack and handed him a small plastic bottle. He saw others lined in rows of six. He put the bottle to his lips and drank. The water was warm and flat, but the wetness felt good. He handed the bottle back to Latona, and she finished the water, putting the empty bottle into her pack.
“We’re almost there,” she said. “I want you to do what I tell you and nothing else. The Dancers will come when I call them, and will touch you. They’re only trying to see what you are. Their fingers are more sensitive than their eyes.”
They stepped into a shadowy darkness, and it took him a moment to realize that they had reached the trees. They had dark, spindly trunks, wind-whipped and twisted. Sand caught in the ridges, making the trees look scarred. The tops of the trees unfolded like umbrellas, the ropelike leaves entangled and braided to form the canopy. Latona took her hood down, removed her glasses and whistled.
Dark shapes approached. Justin let his hood down and pocketed his sunglasses. The creatures weren’t walking, although they were upright. They almost glided along the hard-packed sand, and had long, twig-thin bodies with shiny black skin, two legs, two arms and wide, oblong heads with large silver eyes. It was easy to see why the colonists had called them dancers; they moved with a fluid grace, as if they made every step in time to a music that Justin couldn’t hear.
His heart pounded. The Dancers surrounded him and Latona, and touched them lightly. He clutched his hands into fists, fighting the feeling of being trapped. Latona held her head back, eyes closed, and Justin did the same. Fingers with skin like soft rubber touched his mouth, his nose, his eyelids. He didn’t move. The Dancers smelled of cinnamon, and something tangy, something he couldn’t identify. The bumps on his scalp burned as the Dancers touched them. He wanted to move his head away, but he didn’t.
He heard whistling and low hums. The sounds seemed to follow a pattern and felt, after a moment, as familiar as a bird’s call. He opened his eyes. Latona had stepped away from the Dancers a little. She was gesturing and churring. One of the Dancers touched her face, and then whistled three times, in short bursts.
“He said they would be pleased to have you visit their homes.”
Justin pulled away from the Dancers. Even though they were no longer touching him, he could still feel their rubbery fingers against his skin. He glanced at Latona, and then at the Dancers again. They had no visible, recognizable sexual characteristics. He didn’t know how she knew the speaker’s gender. “Thank him.”
She did. They walked with the single Dancer through the canopied trees. Justin’s heartbeat slowed. He was growing calmer. If the Dancers were going to hurt him, they would have done so when they met at the edge of the forest. Perhaps. He was assigning human logic. He shook his head and tried to clear his mind.
The air grew cooler as they hit areas without sunlight. The white sand turned into dirt, and small plants grew beneath the trees. His eyes adjusted to the darkness, and he saw clothlike material stretched around trees like handmade tents. The Dancer continued talking, touching things as if he were giving a tour. Latona did not translate.
They followed him inside one of the tents. There the tangy cinnamon scent was stronger. Justin touched the tent material. It felt like waterproof canvas. Rugs made from leaves covered the ground, and in the corners sat glass jars that cast a phosphorescent glow around the room.
“He says he would like to welcome us to his home.”
“Tell him we’re honored.”
She responded and Justin examined the glass jars. They were crude. The glass had bubbles, ripples and waves. The light inside moved as if it were caused by something living.
Their host whistled and churred. Latona watched Justin.
“What is he saying?” Justin asked.
She glanced at the Dancer as if she hadn’t heard him. Then she smiled. “Right now he’s saying that if he were a good host, he would give you a jar, but the jars are valuable, too valuable to give a guest who will disappear before the day ends.”
“Tell him that I plan to return—”
She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.” She slipped out of the tent. “You need to see the rest of the homes.”
He followed her into the shaded darkness outside. “Shouldn’t you thank him?”
“No.” She led him toward more of the tentlike structures. Dancers emerged, hands reaching for the humans’ faces. Latona ducked. Justin did too. He was a bit more at ease, but he didn’t want them to touch him again.
From appearances, the Dancers seemed to be hunter-gatherers. The entire area lacked permanence. The ground was untended and wild with no signs of cultivation. But then, Justin didn’t know what he was looking for. For all he knew, the canopied trees were an edible, renewable resource.
“This is it,” Latona said.
Justin stared at the tents, the scattered possessions. The Dancers huddled around him like shadows in the late afternoon sunlight. “Which ones are the children?”
“The children live elsewhere. Let me ask permission to see them.” Latona turned to a Dancer beside her and spoke. The Dancer whistled and churred in response, gesturing at Justin. Latona nodded once, and then the Dancer walked forward. “Come on,” Latona said.
Justin followed. The hard-packed mud curved inward, as if feet had worn a smooth path through the trees. There were no tents here, and the plants had grown waist-high, their foliage lush. Justin realized then that the land behind them had been tended, that the Dancers had done the opposite of the colonists. The Dancers removed vegetation except for the thin, spindly trees.
Sunlight broke through the overhead canopy. They reached a sun-mottled area where the undergrowth had again been thinned. There the canvas material had been tied to the trees sideways to form a fence. They approached the fence and stared over the edge. Inside, small dark creatures scrabbled in the dirt, tussling and fighting. Some sat off to the sides, leaning on the fence—sleeping, perhaps. Toward the back, larger children lay on the ground, their skin gray in the filtered sunlight. Their fingers seemed clawlike, and their eyes were dark, empty and hollow.
Justin nodded toward the children. “Are they ill?”
“No,” Latona said. “They’ve hit puberty.”
“Do these children ever interact with adults?”
“Not really. The adults treat them like animals. Education into the life of a Dancer begins after puberty.”
Justin shivered a little, wondering at life that began in a cage under a harsh sun. The gray-skinned children did not move, but lay in the sunlight as if they were dead.
The Dancer churred and hovered over them. Justin glanced at it. Latona spoke briefly, then said, “We have to leave.”
The Dancer corralled them, as if pushing them away from the children. Latona took Justin’s arm and led him in a different direction. The Dancer watched from behind.
“This is a quicker way back to the dome,” she said. Some of the cream had melted off her face, making her appear lopsided and slightly alien.
The gray-skinned, sickly looking creatures with the clawed hands haunted Justin. “You never told me why you brought the children here.”
“I wanted them to learn respect for the Dancers.” Latona kept her head down. They moved out of the trees.
“Why? The arrangement seemed to be working.”
“They’re living beings,” Latona snapped. “Humans have a history of mistreating beings they don’t understand.”
“And you think the colonists are mistreating the Dancers?”
“Yes.” Latona pushed a ropy branch aside and stepped into a patch of sunlight. Her sand scarf glowed white. “But I don’t know what the Dancers think.”
“That’s why the Alliance is here, to find out what the Dancers think?”
“And to negotiate an agreement over the Salt Juice herbs.”
Justin frowned. He stepped into the sun, and the heat prickled along his back. “But there is no agreement.”
“You can’t negotiate with the Dancers,” she said. “They have an instinctual memory, and a memory for patterns that allows them to learn language and establish routines. Past events have no meaning for them, only future events that they hold in their minds. It poses an interesting problem: if we negotiate a treaty with them, the treaty will not exist because they will have forgotten it. If we plan to negotiate a treaty in the future, as their language and customs allow, the treaty will not exist because negotiations haven’t started yet.”
“Their language has no past tense?”
“Not even a subtle past. They speak only in present and future tenses. They also have a very active subjunctive. Their lives are very fluid and very emotional.”
“And when one of them dies?”
“He ceases to be.” She glanced at Justin, her lips set in a thin line. “And then they skin the body, eat the flesh, throw the bones to the children and cure the skin. They stretch it and mount it until it becomes firm. And then they use it to form their tents.”
Justin shivered. “What’s in the jars?”
Netta shrugged. “We don’t know. They won’t let us take any for study. Although they offer to, as they did with you.”
“Where did the jars come from?”
“The miners made them. The Dancers used to live closer to the salt cliffs.”
Justin’s mind felt cold and information-heavy. Heat rose in waves from the sand. “What did the children think of the Dancer children?”
Latona shrugged. She took out the cream and reapplied it. “They seemed fascinated. Who knows what would have happened? But Netta banned any child contact with the Dancers.”
“Before the murders?”
“Yes.” Latona handed him the cream. “I’m not supposed to bring them back.”
Justin nodded, done asking questions. He drank the water Latona offered, then looked across the desert. The dome seemed small and far away. He wrapped his scarf around his face and followed Latona, too tired to do anything other than walk.
Latona promised to show Justin a time-lapsed holo of the Dancer puberty rite. He left the apartment the next morning, unable to comb his hair because some of the bumps had burst, leaking pus on his scalp. His skin, which had been a light red the night before, had eased into an even lighter tan. It would take many hours wearing reflective cream under the sun before his skin color even approached that of Netta or Latona.
He had barely missed the morning work rush. He walked along the pathway, staring at the yards and the windowless plastic homes. These people made the most euphoric drug in the system, and they were stay-at-homes who created beautiful yards, but refused to look at their handiwork from inside the house.
The yards had different flowering plants from different climates and different seasons. Roses seemed to predominate, but some blocks preferred rhododendrons, while others had hyacinths. All of the flowers bloomed, too, the tulips with the pansies, the daisies with the sunflowers. It seemed odd that a colony with such botanical expertise could not learn to grow native herbs from seeds.
A movement caught his eye. He turned. The children stood outside a building. It was square, windowless and white, like the others, but smaller than any other building he had seen in the colony. There was only grass around it.
The children were talking seriously. Even though Justin couldn’t hear the words, he recognized the tone: they were angry. A slender girl slashed her hand against the air, and a tall boy caught it, as if to deflect her argument. They moved just enough to let him see inside the circle: Michael Dengler stood there, looking tiny and confused. The girl gestured at him, and Michael shrugged.
Justin walked toward them. The tall boy looked at him and frowned. The children backed away, as if he were an enemy; then, as a group, they turned and ran.
Justin stopped and watched them go. Only one child glanced back as he ran. Michael Dengler. Justin waved. Michael didn’t wave back.
Justin waited until they were out of sight, then walked to the building. He avoided the path and walked across the grass. It was spongy and poorly cared for, unlike the other plants in the area. He stopped outside the building, and stared at it.
A whir of motors came from inside. A single step went to the door, a small footprint in the center of the plastic. Justin stepped around the print and tried the knob. The door opened easily, and a blast of cool air coated him.
Along with the smell. It was tangy and antiseptic. He recognized the smell from every morgue he had visited. Beneath the antiseptic odor was the faint scent of rot. A shiver ran down his back.
Dim fluorescent lights made everything in the room look gray. A white plastic table was the only furniture. Equipment rested beside the sink, and the walls were covered with huge cabinets. The room had originally been used for emergency cold sleep. Now it housed the dead.
He pulled open a drawer. The sound echoed in the small space. Katie Dengler lay there, her grotesque arms at her sides. Someone had wrapped rope leaves loosely around her torso, but through them, he could still see her bloody chest laid open, a hole where her heart should have been. His gorge rose. He made himself swallow as he closed the drawer.
The children had had no place here. Yet nothing appeared to be off limits to them. Nothing except the Dancers.
Suddenly he wanted out of the building. He left and drank in the processed air of the dome as if it were fresh. Odd that they hadn’t buried the bodies yet. But this colony was still following initial settlement procedures. Such procedures called for cremation instead of burial—a precaution because the ashes-to-ashes dust-to-dust philosophy of putting a body into the ground might not work in an alien environment. The bodies were to be kept in cold storage until the investigation was complete.
He shuddered. It was one thing to see holos. It was another to look at the body. The girl had been alive once. Michael’s sister. Someone who tormented him and played with him, and probably loved him. Justin frowned. Michael had been very concerned about his status with the other children, but he hadn’t exhibited any of the signs of a grieving child. No circles under his eyes, no signs of recent nervous habits. Latona had been right. The children seemed to have no understanding of death. Perhaps the argument outside the morgue was the beginning of that understanding.
Justin smoothed his hair and patted his clothes, as if the movement would wipe the stench of the morgue from him. He made himself walk the remaining few blocks to the offices of the Extra-Species Alliance.
A woman sat at the desk. She was petite, with close-cropped hair and wide eyes. “Latona couldn’t be here,” she said, “but she told me to show you the holo, and she said she’d answer any of your questions this afternoon.”
Justin nodded, feeling relieved. If Latona had been there, he would have had to ask her about the burial customs and her suppositions about the children. He was glad that the opportunity slipped by him. He wanted the experience to be private for the moment.
He followed the woman into another closet-sized room with a holojecter set up. She flicked on the jecter, flicked off the lights, and left him.
Dancers filled the room, less frightening without their tangy cinnamon scent. They circled around a gray-skinned child, huddled on the desert floor. The circling seemed to last forever, then a Dancer grabbed a ceremonial knife and slit open the breastbone, reached in and removed something small, blackened and round. Probably the heart. The Dancer handed the black object to another Dancer, who set it in a jar. Then the Dancer slit again, removing two thin, shriveled bits of flesh from the child’s interior. The child didn’t move. Another Dancer put the flesh into a jar beside the heart. Finally the first Dancer lifted the child’s hands by a single finger and sliced once along the wrists. The hands fell off, and the child’s arms fell to its sides. The Dancers carried the child to a tree and leaned the child against it. They wrapped the child’s chest with rope leaves and as they placed the arms on the child’s lap, he could see small fingers peeking out of the hollow wrists like human hands hidden in the sleeves of a jacket one size too big.
The Dancer child did not bleed. Latona’s comparison to a human child losing its baby teeth was an apt one.
Justin sighed. At the end of Katie’s arms were stumps and bits of bone. No fingers hidden in her wrists, waiting to replace that childish version of her hands. Hadn’t the Dancers been able to see that? Or didn’t they understand? He had trouble comprehending a mind with no conception of the past.
He made himself focus on the holo. The time-lapse was becoming clear. The child’s hands grew; its skin grew dark like that of the other Dancers. Gradually, it moved on its own, and the adult Dancers helped it crawl to a nearby tent. Then the holo ended.
He replayed it three times, memorizing each action, and confirming that there had been no blood.
Things weren’t adding up: things Latona had said, things he had seen. He shut off the jecter and left the room, thankful that the woman was not at the front desk. He needed to read his briefing packet to see if the information in there differed from the information Latona had given him about the Dancers.
He hurried back to his apartment and sat in the front room, reading. Latona was right. The Dancers showed no ability to remember things from visit to visit or even within visits. During the murders by the miners, the Dancers returned to the sites of the deaths and continued to interact with the miners as if nothing had happened. They never tried retaliation, and they never mutilated any of the miners.
Dancer pre-adolescents were gray and motionless, looking more dead than alive. The human children Latona had taken to the Dancers were fluid and energetic, as lively as the little creatures he had seen scrabbling in the dirt.
He set aside the packet, not liking what he was thinking. The Dancers were a protected species, so they could not be killed or relocated without interference from Lina Base. The colonists were great botanists and had been trying for years to learn the way to grow the Salt Juice herbs. The Dancers were impossible to negotiate with, and they guarded the seed jealously. What if a colonist figured out how to grow an herb from seed? The Dancers were no longer necessary; were, in fact, a hindrance. The murders allowed Lina Base to send in one expert instead of a gaggle of people—and also put the expert on a strict timetable. Netta had requested an expert with a flawed background, known for his rash judgments. Justin’s impetuous decision-making had led one colony to spray an alkaline solution in an acidic ocean filled with intelligent life. Perhaps this colony wanted him to make another bad decision, and they would use that as an excuse to murder the Dancers.
He leaned his head on the back of the chair. He had no evidence supporting his theory, had only suspicions as he had with the Minarans. He stood up. He had to go to Command Central and send for more help. He could not make this decision alone.
A knock on the door startled him out of a sound sleep. He was lying on the packet on the couch in the apartment’s front room. The knock echoed again. It sounded loud in the nearly empty room. Before he could respond, the door eased open and spread a wide patch of yellow light across the floor.
He squinted and sat up, reaching for a light. As the lights came on, he closed his eyes, wincing even more. “Yes?”
“We have another one.”
He blinked. His eyes finally adjusted to the brightness. D. Marvin Tanner, the head of the dome’s security, stood in the doorway. He seemed calm, except for the odd shaking Justin had noted before.
“Yes,” he said. “Netta sent me to get you. We have another dead child.”
That sickly sweet odor he carried with him like perfume filled the air. His flat tone sent a shiver down Justin’s back. The security officer on Minar had come to him in the middle of the night, hands shaking, mouth set in a rigid line. His voice would crack as he spoke of the dead and his own feelings of helplessness. Tanner didn’t seem to care. Perhaps that was because this was no longer his investigation. Or perhaps he was one of those borderline psychopaths himself, the kind that went into law enforcement because it provided them with a legal way of abusing others.
Justin frowned, swallowing hard. That smell had gotten into his mouth. He could taste the half-burnt scent. He rubbed a hand over his face before something else hit him: Tanner should not have been able to get into the apartment. Netta had assured Justin he had the only key.
“What happened?” he asked.
“You’ll be able to see,” Tanner said. “No one is allowed to work the scene until the entire team has been assembled.”
Justin got up and followed Tanner outside. The dome filter had changed again, this time to one that left everything looking gray and grainy, probably the colony’s equivalent of dawn. Shadows seemed darker, and the dome filter leached the color from the plants. Only the white plastic was unchanged, but startling for the contrast against the physical environment.
People had stepped to the edges of their gardens and were watching the men pass. The street seemed unusually quiet. Justin waited for someone to say something or to follow them. No one did. The people stared as if Justin and Tanner were a two-man funeral procession and everyone else were distant relatives, there only for the reading of the will.
Justin and Tanner turned the corner and arrived at the murder scene. A dozen people stood in a half-circle on the cultivated lawn. Netta and Saunders crouched near the door. Justin pushed through the people and walked up the sidewalk.
She turned, saw him and moved out of the way. This body was headless. Justin stared for a moment at the space where the head should have been, noting as calmly as he could that no blood stained the white plastic door. This child was smaller than the others. Its chest had been opened, and its hands severed.
“You need to see this, too, Justin.” She walked down the steps and rounded the building. He followed. There, in between two spindly rosebushes, the head rested. He stared at it, feeling hollow, noting other details while his stomach turned. Michael Dengler’s empty eyes stared back at Justin. His mouth was caught in a cry of pain. His severed hands were crossed in front of his chin, but Justin couldn’t see his heart or his lungs.
The last time Justin had seen him, he had been running with the other children. Justin crouched down beside him, wanting to touch his face, to soothe him, to offer to take his place. Justin’s life was empty. Michael’s had just begun.
“Michael Dengler.” Netta’s voice startled Justin. He took a deep breath. “His sister, Katie, was one of the earlier victims. His mother is over there.”
A woman stood at the very edge of the semicircle, her hands clutched to her chest. The silence was unnerving. Justin could hear himself breathe. The rose scent was cloying. He turned back to Michael and thought, for a moment, he was staring at himself.
“This is the first time we have ever found the missing body parts. We have to confirm, of course, that the hands are his, but they look small enough,” Netta said.
Justin made himself concentrate on Netta’s words. Michael Dengler was dead. Justin was part of the investigative team. He had to remain calm.
“I need a light,” he said. Someone came up behind him and gave him a handlight. He cupped his hand around the metal surface and flicked the switch, running the light around the head. The boy was pale, the pale of a human body that had never ever tanned. “How old was he?”
Eight. Too young for puberty, even on the outside edges of human physiology. If he had been female, maybe. But even that was doubtful. This was a little boy, a child, with no traces of adulthood—and no possibilities for it. Mom says they should take me for who I am, he had said. What do you think?
Professional, Justin reminded himself. He had to be professional. He took a deep breath, stood up and dusted his knees.
“Someone needs to talk with the mother,” Netta said. “I think you’re the best choice.”
Justin’s heart froze. He didn’t want to deal with someone else’s emotions. He wanted to go back to the apartment, close the door and cry for the little boy who had lost everything. Justin didn’t want to talk with the mother, even if he was the best choice because he had been trained in a helping profession. Helping. He made a small, quiet sound. He had never been able to help himself. How could he help a woman who had lost two children by murder in less than a month?
“Go on,” Netta said. Her words had the effect of a strong push. His movements were jerky as he walked over to Michael’s mother.
She was half Justin’s height, in her early thirties, her eyes dark and haunted. “Ma’am,” Justin said. “I’m Dr. Schafer.”
“He’s beyond doctors now.” Her voice sounded rusty, as if she hadn’t used it for a long time. She smelled pungently of sweat—not the healthy kind, but the kind that appeared when the body was under great stress.
“Yes, he is, but you’re not. Let me talk with you for a moment.”
“Talk?” The word seemed to snap something inside her. “We talked the last time, and talked and talked. I have two more babies, and I want to leave this place. I wanted to leave before, with those crazy aliens out there, killing and killing. You want my whole family to die?”
Her words echoed in the stillness. He didn’t want anyone to die, especially her son. She pushed away and walked to the edge of the steps, staring at what remained of Michael. Justin watched her for a moment, and could think of nothing to say to comfort her. He wasn’t even sure she needed comforting. There was something reassuringly human about her pain.
He was the one who needed to remain calm. His hands were shaking and the back of his throat was dry. He had missed something in the shock of Michael’s death. Something was not making sense. He went to Davis, who was examining the ground near the rosebushes. “Leave the weapon this time?” Justin asked. The killer had, each time in the past, removed the body parts and left the weapon, a thin flensing knife chipped from native rock. Davis pointed. The knife sat on the other side of the bush, away from Michael’s head.
“It’s smaller than I thought,” Justin said.
“But powerful.” Davis leaned over. “See the edge? It’s firm. Anyone could use this knife. If the victim is unconscious, the killer doesn’t need much strength.”
“Not even to cut through bone?” Justin shuddered, thinking of Michael screaming as the knife sliced his skin.
Davis shook his head. “It’s a Dancer knife. They do this stuff all the time. We’ve had people cut themselves in the lab, losing fingers, just handling the things.”
Justin’s odd feeling remained. He glanced around. The houses were close together, the lawns well tended. How could a Dancer sneak in here, steal a child, and return it in such a grisly condition without anyone seeing? How could a Dancer get past the dome guards?
He stood up and took a deep breath. He had to get away from the roses. Their rich scent was making him dizzy. And he hated the silence. He pushed past the semicircle of people to the street and glanced once more at the scene in front of him.
Poor little Michael Dengler. He had wanted so much to grow up, to be part of the group. Justin shook his head. At least Michael had been able to be with them that one last time. At least he had gotten part of his wish.
He leaned against the desk at the office of the Extra-Species Alliance. The cool plastic bit into his palms. Latona stood in front of him, her arms crossed in front of her chest. She had contacted him as soon as she heard about Michael Dengler’s death.
“Dancers do not behead their children,” she said. “I can show you document after document, holo after holo. It’s not part of the ritual. A beheading would kill the child. Someone is killing them. Someone human.”
A chill ran down Justin’s back. She had come to the same conclusion he had. “But the other children died. Perhaps the Dancers thought that the beheadings might work?”
Latona shook her head. “They don’t learn as we do. They think instinctively, perform rituals. Beings with rituals and no memory would not experiment. That’s not within their capability.”
“But couldn’t they modify—”
“No.” Latona leaned toward him. “Dr. Schafer, they remove the lungs and the heart to make way for larger organs. They remove the hands to make for sexually mature genitals. They mate with their hands. The head remains—their heads are like ours, the center of their being. They can’t live without the head, and the Dancers do not kill each other. They never have, not even mercy killings. They have no concept of it.”
And when they die, they cease to be. He shivered. “Why would someone kill children like this?”
Latona shook her head. “I don’t know. I wish I did. Maybe the children know. Maybe they’ve seen something strange.”
He nodded. The children. Of course. If anyone had seen something, the children would have. They were the only ones free during the day. He ducked out of the office. He had to talk to Netta.
Netta’s office was a small room in the back of Command Central. He had already been in the building once in the last twenty-four hours—to send for extra help before Michael Dengler’s death. Lina Base had promised assistance within the next few days; they had to pull people off other assignments and shuttle them to Bountiful. During that visit, though, he hadn’t seen Netta’s office. He wasn’t prepared for it.
The room smelled of roses. Plants hung from the ceiling and crowded under grow lamps attached to shelves on the far wall. Salt Juice ad posters from various nations, bases and colony planets covered the white wall space.
Netta sat on a large brown chair behind a desk covered with computer equipment and more plants. “You have something to report?”
“No.” He had to stand. She had no other chair in her office. “I would like to make a request, though.”
She nodded, encouraging him to continue. She looked tired and worn, as if Michael Dengler’s death affected her as much as it had affected his mother.
“I would like to interview the older children.”
“Why?” Netta sat up, suddenly alert.
“I think they might know something the rest of us don’t.”
She steepled her fingers and tapped them against her lips. “You’ve seen the reports and the holos, and Latona has taken you to see the Dancers. I’m sure you have enough to make a preliminary recommendation without bothering the children.”
“No, actually, I don’t.” He looked around for a chair or available wall space, anything to lean on to ease his discomfort. “Some things aren’t adding up.”
“Everything doesn’t have to add up for a preliminary ruling,” Netta said. “I want quick action on this, Justin. Another child died yesterday. I need to protect my people from these Dancers.”
“And what happens if I get an injunction against the Dancers? That removes their protected status under Parliamentary law. Michael Dengler died inside the dome. His killer might not be native to this planet.”
Netta’s lips turned white. “I brought you here to make a ruling on the Dancers’ motivation, not to solve a crime that has already been solved. Those children died by Dancer methods. I need to know what methods I can use to protect my people from those creatures.”
“I want to talk to the children,” Justin said. The office was unusually hot, probably for the plants. “I want office space by tomorrow, and the children brought to me one by one. I’m doing this investigation by the book, Netta.”
Her eyes widened a little, and for a moment, he felt his suspicions confirmed. Then she reached over and tapped a few lines into the computer. “You’ll have a room and a place, and someone will bring the children to you,” she said.
“Thank you,” he said. Then he took a deep breath. “You aren’t paying the Dancers for the Salt Juice herbs, are you?”
Netta leaned away from the computer, her fingers still touching the screen. “Why?”
“I’m wondering what they’ll lose now that you’ve discovered how to grow your own herbs.” His hands were shaking, revealing his nervousness at his guess. He clasped them behind his back.
Netta studied him for a moment, as if she were tempted to find out where he had gotten the information. Her eyes flicked to the left, then down. It seemed as if hundreds of thoughts crossed her mind before she spoke. “We think the seeds have a religious significance for the Dancers. We don’t know for sure. We don’t know anything about them for certain, despite what the Alliance says.”
A curious elation filled him. He had guessed right. The colonists had learned the secret of making Salt Juice. The Dancers were dispensable.
“The Dancers are dangerous, Justin,” Netta said. “I don’t think you need any more proof of that. I want some action in the next three days on this. I need quick movement.”
He nodded, thinking of the team shuttling in. They would arrive soon. Netta would get her movement, although it might not be the kind she wanted.
Here’s how you order the rest of the book. The ebook is widely available. Here are the links to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords. Other ebookstores should have it as well. The trade paper edition appeared in June of 2012. You can order that from your favorite bookstore or here.
Oh, this is one of my favourite SF books of all time! I still have a battered paperback copy on my shelf and re-read it occasionally.
Thank you, Katherine. I’m truly honored. 🙂