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By Barnes, Steven
Tor Science Fiction Copyright © 1996 Barnes, Steven
All right reserved.
The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.
--James Branch Cabell, The Silver Stallion
"What in the hell is that?"
Jessica Weyland heard the words without recognizing the voice. It originated just outside the stone walls of the Hold's guest bathroom, where she was scrubbing her cheeks with ice-cold water piped from the Amazon Creek.
The bath was part of the Hold's guest suite, attached to a guest bedroom that had been hers before she built her own place at Surf's Up. Toshiro Tanaka, her previous evening's entertainment, still sprawled unconscious across the bed. Sleep-cycle incompatibility prevented them from having anything but an occasional fling. Too bad. Like many a musician, he had such good hands....
"Frozen bat turds! Will you look at it?"
Jessica ran toward the living room before thinking about what she'd heard. Her long, deeply tanned and muscular legs ate the distance between bedrooms and living room in their nine long strides. Her mind flew faster than her feet. Kids paying us back for last night? Gotcha? No. They'd be pretending horror, not astonished curiosity. No, this is something else.
Jessica was tall and blue-eyed, as Nordic as a glacier, withshoulder-length blond hair, high cheekbones, and a large, cool mouth. She moved like the athletic animal she was. The muscles in her calves bounced with every long stride. She was unself-consciously naked: there had been no time to grab a towel.
Her father, Cadmann Weyland, Colonel Cadmann Weyland, had built the Hold as a fortress against monsters even before he understood the grendel threat. The others called him paranoid and worse, even accusing him of faking a threat as part of a power grab, even a military takeover of the colony. He left them then, and built his home on a high ledge, digging into the side of Mucking Great Mountain. Most of it was underground: cool in Avalon's winters, and warm in her summers. Light slanted in through the Hold's louvered ceiling. The living room was Paradise.
A green-tiled channel grooved the middle of the living room. The glacial Amazon ran through that, right through the living room, a foot deep and four feet wide. It had once been deeper and narrower there, but Jessica didn't remember that. It was another of those facts she had been told, and which she believed in the same way that she believed there was a solar system with a yellower star and a planet named Earth.
A gently sloped tile shelf ran along part of the stream. The rest was fenced off by a hedge that grew along the edge of the running water. The hedge was composed of plants from both Camelot Island and the far reaches of Avalon, so that the room was as much aboretum and botanical garden as living space.
Fully half those weirdly shaped plants had thorns and spines. They weren't really cactus, but resembled cactus more than they did any other kind of Terran plant. Avalon plant life needed protection. Any defenseless life-form was instant grendel chow. Some plants had other protection: the violet-petaled beauties with acid resin, tiny deep blue fruiting bulbs with astonishingly active poison, carnivorous lilies that could turn a frog-sized creature to a husk in forty-eight hours. The garden grew more lethal over the years as the children of Cadmann Weyland's Hold grew more able to cope with them. The plants came from everywhere--Camelot Island's highlands, offshore islands, even the mainland, all brought here to line the stream--and despite the garden's lethality it was beautiful.
From her earliest days Jessica thought the Hold was the most wonderful place in the world. At present Cadmann, Mary Ann, and Sylvia were in the southern thorn forests hunting specimens. The Hold and Cadmann's Bluff itself were Jessica's and Justin's for the next day and a half. A safe place despite the garden. A perfect place to begin the initiation of the Grendel Scouts. Later they would be taken to the mainland for their real coming-of-age. There were neither serpents nor scorpions in this paradise.
So who was doing all the yelling?
She was opening the front door when she saw it behind her. Something emerged from the downstream edge of the Amazon's emerald streambed. It wriggled under the lip of the living room's southern, downhill wall to come right into the Aboretum. Something alive. Something thick-bodied and powerful. Its head reminded her a little of a horse's, only stubbier. It pushed its way farther in. The head melded into a broad, powerful neck that grew longer, and longer....
A voice behind her said: "Hot damn! It's an eel!" Toshiro knelt by the side of the Amazon to watch as the beast worked its rubbery length against the current. It splashed cold water on Jessica's bare feet as it moved past. It ignored them completely. Eventually the entire creature emerged into the living room, fully sixteen feet long, and as thick as a horse's upper leg.
The front door slammed open, and two panting children ran in. One of them was a small dark girl, Sharon McAn-drews. She brandished a sharpened stick. Her mouth and eyes were wide as she watched the eel wiggle sinously toward the living room's upstream opening. The other, a fourteen-year-old redheaded, freckled lad named Carey Lou Davidson, gawked at Jessica's chest before reluctantly returning his attention to the eel.
"Stay back," Jessica said quickly. She turned to Toshiro. "Hey, keep an eye on that thing, and watch the kids. I'm throwing on some clothes."
"But what is it?" Carey Lou asked.
Toshiro laughed. "I think that Mrs. Eel is just trying to get upstream."
"Spawning grounds?" Jessica asked.
He nodded. "Remember Chaka's biology lecture last month? The ecology is returning to Camelot now that the grendels are gone. This will be part of it. Hot damn!"
He was hopping on one leg, pulling his pants on, risking intimate injury in his enthusiasm. Jessica was already halfway to the guest bedroom.
She struck the room like a blonde whirlwind, sucking up shirt, pants, and thong sandals without a moment's pause. She was back in the living room before the eel disappeared uphill through the northern wall.
There was a change in the location of the general hooting outside. Jessica exited, pulling on her blouse, neglecting the buttons but knotting the corners together into a makeshift bra. She almost collided with Justin.
"What do you see?" Jessica was already running.
"It's heading right up the hill. Did Dad leave any of the holocam stuff?"
"Ice on my mind! I didn't check."
Justin took off up the hill. She swiftly overtook a mob of shrieking Grendel Biters. "Stay away from it!" she shouted.
"It won't hurt us," Sharon McAndrews said. "It can't, it's too slow."
"You never saw anything on speed," Jessica said.
"No legs," one of the children shouted.
"Yes, all right, but stay away from it anyway, we don't want to scare it." She'd seen the videos of samlon growing legs to become grendels, but that took hours, it couldn't happen in a minute. Still--"Stay away from it."
With an ear-numbing burr, Skeeter VI buzzed up over the edge of the bluff. Jessica turned and shaded her eyes to look into the windscreen. Evan Castaneda, clean-cut, classic Latin features, was at the helm of the silver-blue autogyro. Coleen McAndrews, fifteen but looking much older, sat in the passenger seat, holocam clipped to her right shoulder.
Jessica waved Evan down. The skeeter dipped and buzzed, as if intoxicated by flight.
She hopped onto the runner at the skeeter's side, twined the seat belt around her wrist, clipped a safety line to her belt, and gave a thumbs-up.
With gut-wrenching speed Skeeter VI rose two hundred feet above the house and hovered. From this perspective, Cadmann Weyland's ranch was a miracle of human effort. Rows of soybeans and corn and alfalfa checkered the bluff, and pens for pigs and goats and the small, furry Avalon native marsupials called "Joeys."
Beneath them, the Amazon sparkled in a silvered ribbon, just catching the morning sun. Alongside it raced a stream of children who laughed and urged one another to greater effort. Justin was well in the lead.
"Can you see it?" Evan yelled above the turbine whine.
The sunlight glinted off the stream. She thought she caught a slender shadow, but...
"Try these." Coleen handed her a commlink optical set: binoculars with cameras linked to the colony's central computer system. "Cassandra. I'm turning the war specs over to Jessica."
"Ready, Jessica," the computer responded.
She slipped on the war specs--they looked and felt like heavy sunglasses--and was rewarded by an enhanced version of Cassandra's camera-eye perspective. She adjusted it so the right lens was transparent, and the left gave her the comm-link image.
She squinted her right eye.
Yesss...there be the dragon. Shimmering in the fluorescent reds and blues of the thermal enhancement, the eel struggled its way upstream. "Cassandra, display best size data."
Length: 647 cm.
Estimated weight: 27 kg.
Cassandra gave them a glowing wiggling eel track.
Jessica whispered "Enlarge." The eel stopped, then wiggled forward and back. It expanded to fill her field of vision.
"Who sounded the alarm?"
"Little Chaka or his old man," Coleen said. "One of the Mubutus picked up the river alert. Nothing this big, not ever."
Not for the twenty years we've been here, and not for--She thought about the implications. When humans arrived, the island of Camelot had an incredibly simple ecology, samlon and green slime in the rivers, Joeys and pterodons in the high mountains, and a few thorny or poisonous plants scattered about the plains. Grendels had eaten everything else. But how long had it been that way? "You know what this means? The grendels didn't own this island for thousands of years. They couldn't, the eels wouldn't keep coming back--"
"Sure about that?"
"No, but it's something to think about. Don't lose it!"
"I'll give you another," Coleen said. "What triggered the return after all these years?"
"Now, that is one interesting question."
The tumbled granite majesty of Mucking Great Mountain rose up to greet them. The peaks were constantly swathed in fog. A few irritated pterodons swooped out of their nests to investigate Skeeter VI. Humans didn't hunt pterodons. Over the two decades that humanity had infested Avalon, the great leathery creatures had lost all fear, and now considered the skeeters worthy only of derision. The autogyros were fast but clumsy, barely capable of beating a pterodon on the straightaway, and zero competition at aerobatics.
The eel continued to labor upstream. It humped painfully through the shallows, fighting as urgently as any Earth salmon, ever did.
Jessica repressed a shudder.
This thing was almost certainly a carnivore--but would confine its hunting to water. It might be as dangerous as a moray eel, fully capable of taking a baseball-sized lump out of an unwary buttock, but.it shouldn't be able to do anything else. It couldn't come out of the water.
Still..."If it had speed it would have used it by now," Jessica dictated. "Cassandra, database search, match that image."
"No exact match. One similar life-form, two hundred ninety centimeters in length, observed in a stream on Black Ship Island." A map flashed momentarily in her vision: Black Ship Island was a smaller uninhabited island off the mainland coast.
"Evidence of speed?" she asked.
"None," Cassandra replied. "No visible speed sacs, no structures evolved for cooling. Probability low to nil."
Every skeeter carried a fully armed shock rifle, one of the tools developed in case the grendels ever came back. They never had, but everyone was trained to use the weapons anyway. Shock rifles could deliver numerous designer loads: chiefly a capacitor dart to stun, and an engineered biotoxin which triggered overload of its "speed" sacks. Speed was the superoxygenated hemoglobin that allowed the grendels to accelerate to over 110 km/hr in about three seconds. The toxin drove a grendel completely berserk, drunken on her own "adrenaline." A speed-drunken grendel produced enough heat to cook itself in about seventy seconds.
Evan tapped his ear. "Roger."
"What's the word?" Coleen shouted.
"Kill it. Standing Municipal Order One-four-two. On file. Kill it first, decide whether it's harmful later."
"It's got no legs," Jessica said. "It can barely function on the land. Cassandra says it doesn't use speed. Let's wait."
"Got my orders," Evan said ruefully.
"Is Skeeter Six still set up for dolphin transport?"
"Sure--we flew Quanda and Hipshot up yesterday."
"Great. Somebody was playing with a Ouija board."
The eel struggled up and up, blindly urgent, making surprisingly good time. Justin had kept up with it, although many of the children had dropped back by now. She patched herself through to Justin's comm link.
"Jessie here. What does it look like to you?"
"Ugly thing. Ignoring us, though. What's the word?"
"What do you think?"
"Let's take it alive."
"I like the way you think. Zack's got ice on his mind."
There was a crackle of static and another voice came online. It was Zack Moskowitz, governor of Avalon. "I find that tasteless, young man. You listen to me, both of you--your father has standing orders--"
"Our father isn't here, Zack."
"I want you to kill that thing. We don't know--"
"That's right, we don't. I'll kill it when I'm ready."
She thumped her headset. "Brzztfplt. Gee, Zack, you're breaking up! Over." And switched her comm link off as Evan was bringing the skeeter around for a landing next to a large pond.
The skeeter thumped down on rocks. Jessica snatched up the rifle, and hopped off.
The eel humped itself over a rock break, looked at her without seeing her, and wiggled into the center of the pond.
Coleen moved a little closer, her holocamera recording the entire event. Every time the eel moved, a staccato series of computer-enhanced afterimages flashed before Jessica's left eye. Cassandra's exobiology study program was having a field day.
"Get in closer, Coleen," she said.
The eel swished back and forth through the pond's crystal-clear water. Jessica clambered up a rock to get a better view.
Beside her, Coleen whispered, "Cassandra: M-D Coleen EELTALK," opening a personal file, and began to speak.
"Eel-like. Probably carnivore. Five meters long. Estimate top speed of twenty knots. This is no infant. Cross-hatching indicates healed scars. Minimum of a year old, probably more like ten years, possibly a lot more than that. This is a mature animal seeking a spawning ground."
Justin was the second up over the rocks. The children and others of the teens were behind him. It had been an uphill jog, and despite his superb physical condition he was blowing hard.
Coleen nodded acknowledgment, and kept talking. "We can bet that it didn't spawn here. We haven't seen anything like this. Probably genetic memory. Likes the taste of the water."
"That water's glacial. It won't have much taste," Justin said.
"This is great," Evan said. "The first. The first returning land animal--oceanic?"
"Aside from a couple of the bird-thingies," Coleen said, "you're right."
The eel began to move in diminishing circles, as if claiming the pond for its own. Then it was still. The children gathered around the edge. An expectant hush settled over them.
Jessica anticipated Justin's first request, and handed her comm card to him before the words left his mouth. He sighed with pleasure.
This was something new, something that would occupy conversation for weeks--no mean contribution to their lives. For this alone, she owed the eel a chance to live.
The First would have to allow more frequent visits to the mainland. Have to!
After all--the local ecology was returning. Evidence of it was everywhere. There were three times the flora to be categorized now. The wind carried puffballs and tiny fairy-brollies and fertilized seeds, and the Earth-native crops of Avalon were experiencing their first real competition. Weeds were a universal fact of life.
Two dozen children ringed the pool. The eel was still, then rippled, then was still again. Justin adjusted his face gear, zooming in on the minor miracle.
Something was happening, but Jessica had to get down on her knees and elbows to see it. A jellied mass began to emerge from a gland two-thirds of the way back along the eel's dorsal surface. It squirted out like whipped cream, milky with reddish dots within.
Egg sac. Thousands upon thousands of little eels. Jessica's earphone was sizzling. Zack. "Jessica? Why haven't you killed it yet?"
"Sacrilege," she said distantly. "The miracle of childbirth. It's an ovary thing--you wouldn't understand."
"You don't know what the hell that creature is."
"Oh, and you do, right, Zack?"
The squirting seemed to have stopped. Once again, the pool was still.
Jessica selected a load for the shock rifle. "Thirty kilos, close enough," she said softly, and turned the dial on the capacitor dart. A green light blinked on the rifle dart; the batteries in the stock held sufficient charge. Reluctantly she thumbed the arming switch.
Justin's long face was peaceful. "Now?"
"Not yet. Let's see if it's supposed to die here."
He nodded. The eel was almost motionless, merely shuddering. The rippling became regular, as if it were straining at some mighty task. Its black wet muscularity swelled and released.
Then, about one-quarter up from the tail, a puff of black appeared.
"Semen?" Jessica whispered. "Bifertile hermaphroditic?"
"Why extrasomatic?" Evan asked.
"Think about it," Justin said quietly. "In the old days, this pool might have just boiled with eels. They release their egg sacs. Then they release their semen. The semen spreads through the pond, perhaps preferentially fertilizing other egg clusters. Instant exogenesis."
Coleen whistled. "Wrong. I think it's blood."
The eel had begun to shed its tail. A chunk of meat was separated from the main mass of the body, and blood was more plentiful now.
"All that blood in the water," Justin said. "Best evidence I've seen that grendels weren't native to this island."
Coleen ran to the skeeter, unloaded a roll of absorbent rubber sheeting, and lugged it back to the pond. She took off her shoes and socks and rolled up her pants. "I'd bet minerals in the blood are a clue to Mommy's home territory, her mating ground."
"Mating ground?" Justin asked.
"I say she's not hermaphroditic. Mated before she came up here. Stored up the semen, dumped it here."
The tail had worked its way almost completely loose now, clouding the water with blood. Only a few scraps of tissue held the tail on. They watched as those fibers tore away.
The eel swam in a lazy circle, shedding its former torpor.
"Doesn't look moribund to me," Justin said.
It seemed to notice them for the first time. It dove, wiggling fiercely beneath the surface of the water, and left the pond.
"Time," Jessica whispered, and put a capacitor dart just behind its head. It spasmed once, and then again, and sank.
"Move it!" Justin was already clambering into the water. "We don't want this thing to drown!"
Coleen McAndrews was right after him. "It humped its way over rocks--we saw it out of the water for more than thirty seconds. I think we can make it." The tarp was around the eel in a moment. The children started to plunge in with them. Jessica waved them back. "Watch out for the egg sac!" she yelled. "Stay ashore."
They rolled it out of the pond. Its skin was surprisingly spongy, and oozed water. It was the work of a moment to attach the eel and its roll of protective sheeting to one of the dolphin slings beneath Skeeter VI. Jessica clambered aboard.
"We'll get another skeeter up here," she yelled above the growing whine of the turbines. "Get us an egg sample and meet me at Aquatics."
"There in ten minutes," Justin promised. She whooped and raised her hand, and he slapped it hard. Their eyes shone.
"Got one, dammit," Jessica said.
Ten seconds later Skeeter VI was up in the air, and plunging toward Avalon Town.
Copyright copy; 1995 by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Steven Barnes
Excerpted from Beowulf's Children by Barnes, Steven Copyright © 1996 by Barnes, Steven. Excerpted by permission.
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