The wall at the edge of the village was
high, over ten meters. Nothing of the terrain or wildlife beyond
was visible. Harlan felt the tension starting to build. He had
seen precious little out the window of the shuttle coming in,
only dense forest. Sensories of African journeys were difficult
to come by, even for a lieutenant colonel in the Iotan Army.
The bottom line was that he didn't know what to expect. Olivia
led him to the airlock. They walked into the small chamber.
started to pull her masked hood over her head when Harlan put
a hand on her arm. She didn't appreciate the gesture.
need to talk," he said.
know. I'll save you the trouble."
were going to give me the lecture about how you're the boss
and what you say goes. If we're ten meters from our goal and
you decide it's too risky to continue, we turn around immediately
and I don't argue. Something like that?"
not like that here. I'm in charge." Harlan's temper cracked
a little. Olivia held up a hand. "I know more about what's
on the other side of that door than anyone alive, and you know
nothing. Am I right?"
there is something out of the ordinary, a seismic event, a medical
emergency, a sudden storm, then, yes, I will defer to you
but anything to do with the wild itself? I'm the expert, I'm
the lead, I dictate what happens and how. I requested backup
because it is standard procedure, but it is not an opportunity
for you, it is a responsibility for you, and I define where
your responsibilities begin and end. Is that clear?"
paused. "That's quite a speech."
given it before."
silence filled the little room.
to do with the wild, you're the boss. Otherwise
nodded. She pulled her hood up. Only her eyes were visible now,
through plastic goggles built into the suit, but they still
said volumes about her opinion of Harlan and her estimation
of his worth. He grinned as he pulled on his own hood. Olivia
opened the door.
light was bright, so he didn't see much at first, but the smell
hit him like a roundhouse. It was like the smell he sensed in
the shuttle bay, but many times stronger. He was reminded of
curry, but that wasn't quite right. It was definitely a spicy
sort of smell. The mask he wore wasn't designed to filter the
local atmosphere, which was nontoxic to humans, merely to provide
him with the oxygen that Africa lacked.
was also cold; he estimated at least ten degrees below freezing.
He hoped the gray bodysuit would be warm enough. Olivia walked
out, and Harlan followed.
first thing he saw as his eyes grew used to the daylight was
that the ground was moving. He could feel it under his boots,
shifting and pulsing. He looked down and saw that the ground
was that same color that he was starting to think of as African
Gray. As he looked at it closer, he saw that he wasn't really
standing on ground. It was a writhing mass of creatures. Some
were long and round, python or boa size. Others were flatter,
scuttling like beetles. Many worms slithered in between. Other
stranger shapes, more geometrical: bugs shaped like squares
and hexagons. Thinking he'd walked in the wrong place, Harlan
sidestepped to the left, but it was more of the same. To the
right. Forward. Everywhere. He looked at Olivia in alarm.
the ground. There's no soil," she said.
that we've found. Obviously there's a planetary crust somewhere
underneath, but biomass is all we've seen so far on this planet."
was fascinated as well as revolted. The flat no-man's-land between
the high walls of Bouyain Village and the beginning of the jungle
was a sea of living (breathing?) life. And, most importantly,
it seemed to ignore him.
I hurting anything?"
But if you do crush a nematode or a crustacean, it will be eaten
by something else. Nothing is wasted. Come on." Olivia
trudged forward through the muck toward the trees that marked
the edge of the wilds. Harlan followed, wary. The trees weren't
very tall, not even five meters as an average, but they sported
a very thick canopy of leaves. The leaves were a little greener
than African Gray, but still nothing like an oak or an elm.
There was more strange geometry to them, too. They looked like
some computer model of a leaf where the designer couldn't quite
get the fractals right.
trunks of the trees were almost metallic, very cylindrical and
smooth. No knots that Harlan could see, at least not in the
few he walked under as he followed Olivia. He knocked on one
with a knuckle, and was disappointed when the tree didn't ring
like a bell.
canopy made the jungle dark, dimmer than twilight. Olivia hadn't
turned on a lamp, so Harlan followed her lead. Deeper into the
wild, the smell got heavier, which Harlan hadn't thought possible.
He also wasn't pleased to see that the floor creatures were
slithering and skittering their way up each and every tree trunk.
There was so much movement all around him, and all of it in
minute shades of the same dull color; his eyes began to feel
the strain of sorting out this troublesome data.
hard to see."
turn on your lamp."
know. It's not that it's dark; it's hard to see. You
know what I mean?"
get used to it."
After three years of field study, Harlan guessed. He focused
on the clear, unwrithing shape of his guide. She hiked with
a steady, comfortable pace. Maybe defining the journey as "a
day" wasn't so ridiculous after all.
what's dangerous out here?" he asked.
I'm scared. Well done. But are there any big carnivores? Dinosaurs
here is as evolved as that. The Bouyain trees are the most sophisticated
living thing we've found yet."
trees, huh? Only find them in these parts?"
find them around Bouyain."
are these?" Harlan pointed to the trees ahead.
took a closer look. What he could see of their trunks, behind
the profusion of crawling and sliding creatures, did look a
little different. The grain was a little wider, and the leaves
seemed different, too, almost square.
tree to the left was wrapped like a barber pole by a snake as
thick as Harlan's leg. He couldn't see the creature's head,
didn't even know if it was up above the leaves, sunning itself,
or down in the soup, feeding. Something about the snake's skin
seemed odd. It had a diamond pattern of scales
thought back to the first snake he'd seen, the one he'd stepped
on. It looked like it was the same size, and the scales looked
the same, but the first one had been striped. Harlan was almost
sure. The stripes were hard to see because they were a change
in texture, not in color. But he knew they weren't diamonds.
many species are there here?"
is not a valid concept on Africa."
Harlan stepped up his pace so he could walk at Olivia's side.
"There are thousands right here, it looks like."
there are trillions. On Earth, species was defined as
a collection of creatures that can interbreed. That made sense
on Earth because the points on the evolutionary trail that led
to viable life were few and far between. There were marmosets
and there were humans. None of the steps in between survived,
and marmosets and humans couldn't mate."
know, there are still plenty of people and marmosets on Earth.
You don't have to use the past tense."
ignored his rebuke. "All life was neatly partitioned into
clumps of genetically similar beings. But what would it be like
if there were millions of creatures, spanning the gap between
a marmoset and a human? You could breed any two of them if they
were close enough on the path of evolution. You couldn't define
a species the same way."
what's happening here? We're seeing all the evolutionary steps
suppose you could simplify it that way. We deal in a fuzzy version
of biology that's not about classification but relation."
biology. I get it. So what's different here? Why aren't any
species dying out?"
not the question. Remember, there are no species." She
patted a tree as she walked, almost like a pet. "Each angiosperm
is its own living experiment. The question isn't why they aren't
dying. They are. All the time. You're killing some right now."
was reminded of the mat of life he was walking across. Looking
down, he noted that the collection of creatures already seemed
very different from what was near the airlock this morning.
The flat beetles had given way to spidery contraptions with
seven legs and an ungraceful gait. The worms were few and far
between, replaced by something more like leathery jellyfish.
then what's the question?" he asked.
question is, why are they evolving so fast? But the answer
is easy. Radiation."
Harlan was shocked out of his biology lesson. He hadn't been
in active service during the war in Brazil, before Hermione
left Earth, but he had friends that were. Many of them hadn't
survived a year after exposure to nuclear fallout.
had your DNA capped, right?" Olivia asked.
That's standard practice for soldiers. But still"
standard practice for African researchers as well. You're safe.
The wildlife here is suited to an environment of constant solar
radiation ten hours every day, but it's not immune. Every generation
spawns demonstrable changes. We don't call them Bouyain trees
because they live near Bouyain Village. We made them."
made them? You've been tampering with the"
We didn't engineer them. We built the city. We disturbed the
environment. Every creature living within fifty meters of the
city has adapted to the peculiarities of living close to a human
settlement. The heat we generate, the gasses we expel, the radio
wavesnone of these things are deadly, but they have an
impact. We're having an impact right now, walking to the spring."
been meaning to ask you. How do you know the spring is there?"
that's great. Thanks. And I was worried we were on a wild goose
was clearly annoyed, but not enough to stop walking. Harlan
had to admire her for that.
have done careful analysis of the relative moisture content
levels of the local wildlife, tracking them in many directions
from the village. We have also tagged a few hundred animals
and tried to determine their migratory habits, but that has
been only a marginal success. Still, all the evidence indicates
the presence of a spring that way." She pointed to make
not just take satellite pictures?"
waved a hand at the ceiling of leaves. Harlan looked up, noting
that the leaf shapes here were more like notched ovals.
are other kinds of analysis you can do other than ordinary light.
radar, you'd get nowhere."
was starting to think that he was getting so frustrated with
Olivia that he was seeing spots, but there were some sorts of
little creatures flying around in front of his face. He tried
to wave them away; it did no good.
call them mites, but they really have little in common with
Earth arachnids. In fact, they don't have legs."
they come from?" Harlan was having a difficult time not
swatting at these things, but he knew he'd just look like a
fool if he did.
don't like the area around the village. There are plenty of
things that don't like the area around the village."
it's going to get worse."
nodded. He thought he saw the hint of a smile in her eyes. Maybe
she did have a sense of humor stuffed away inside all that precocious
stopped at midday, after two hours of hiking. Since there were
no rocks or tree stumps, Olivia merely took a seat on the "ground".
can you do that?" he asked.
area had nothing like the pythons near the village. That niche
seemed to be filled by armies of twenty-centimeter-long tank-like
bugs with, Harlan tried to count, twelve double-jointed legs.
He didn't see a head on the creature. One of these brutes skittered
toward Olivia and Harlan almost shouted to her, but it took
a right turn when it got near her and burrowed down into the
muck on some unspeakable mission.
don't have eyes, do they?"
The solar radiation isn't forgiving to optical nerves, so nothing
here relies on light."
why it's all the same color. There's no point in differentiating,
so Mother Nature didn't bother."
nodded. She lifted her hood enough to take a sip from a water
bottle, then tossed the bottle to Harlan, quickly lowering the
hood again. He mimicked her, and returned the bottle. He was
tired, but he still couldn't bring himself to sit down, especially
with those tank-bugs roaming around.
does radar get you nowhere?"
You said radar gets you nowhere?"
leaves bounce it, scatter it everywhere."
looking up, Harlan tried to guess what sort of leaves he'd see
this time. He imagined a Y-shape with little spikes. He was
disappointed to see something like a blocky maple leaf.
loaded with metals. Indium, gallium, silver, gold, palladium"
This planet, the whole system is lousy with them," Olivia
said. If she knew the value those metals had on Earth, she didn't
you know that?"
was told a compass is useless here. No magnetic field."
right. A little more iron and some lead, and maybe the radiation
wouldn't have such an effect on the plants and animals here."
or oxygen in the atmosphere," Harlan suggested.
didn't like something about that comment. She stood up, bracing
herself on the rough shell of one of the tank-bugs. The little
beast seemed annoyed, but unhurt. It scurried away. And so did
Olivia. Harlan was left to follow, wondering why mentioning
oxygen was a sore point.
were groups on all the worlds around Iota that thought Africa
was being wasted. They were radical types, far from the center
of any political party. Most people accepted the rules of colonization
without question. To Harlan, it seemed ludicrous to agree to
be frozen for seventy-five years and brought to an entirely
new star if you weren't on board with the program. And rule
number one was, essentially, "Thou shalt not destroy local
life." Obviously some trees and worms and tank-bugs were
killed to build Bouyain City, but they weren't destroyed as
a species. (Well, maybe they were, but Harlan didn't want to
focus on a technicality.) Rule number one made it clear that
Africa wouldn't be terraformed.
from other systems was watched with polite disinterest by most
everyone around Iota; Harlan knew that one other stellar colonization
ship had to turn around when it found all the habitable zone
planets in the target system were already teeming with life.
That was going to be an unhappy bunch of people when they got
back home. And that star was farther from Earth than Iota. Their
round trip would eventually take over two hundred years.
was a question on the form that everyone had filled out when
they applied for a berth on Hermione. The question was
asked before placement on any of the colonization ships. It
read, "In the event of a mission failure, do you wish to
be revived on Earth upon return, or given priority berthing
on the next outgoing colonization ship?" Harlan had chosen
"priority berthing." When he woke up, he wanted it
to be away from Earth, wherever (or whenever) that might be.
In a moment of idle curiosity a few years ago, he had accessed
the Hermione's records. What was left of her was still
revolving around Asia, at a prudent distance from all the Asian
moons, sleeping peacefully, waiting in case another journey
was required. Harlan broke Hermione's security easily
enough and queried the files of the colonists to find out the
most common answer to that question on the form.
percent asked to be revived on Earth if something went wrong.
These were not people who gave up on the idea of home
Harlan didn't know, and in fact the Iotan Army didn't know either,
was how many of the people currently calling for the terraforming
of Africa were preemies, and how many were native Iotans. Harlan
thought that was a very important question.
oxygen was a sore point because it would be the first change
in a terraforming effort on this planet, a change that would
kill every form of local life as quickly and efficiently as
if Earth had been smothered in carbon monoxide. Probably more
rushed to catch up with Olivia. He found himself swatting at
flying things more often. The mites were still there, but they
were now joined by larger bugs that looked a little like flying
chick-burs. He couldn't see wings or antennae or heads, but
each of these little creatures was covered in spikes. He realized
that he had dozens of them already snagged on his suit, and
he couldn't brush them off. Shoving at them just moved them
noticed Harlan's concern. "We have a spray. We'll get rid
of them before we camp. Keep moving."
felt the chick-burs edging under his duffel and tried to ignore
about the way ahead was confusing to Harlan's eyes. He was,
he had to admit, getting used to seeing an ever-shifting world
painted in very delicate shades of one color, but there was
a fog ahead. Or maybe some sort of heat illusion? That didn't
seem likely in the subfreezing air. Olivia stopped, so he stopped.
He ran a hand over his mask, in case it had fogged up. It was
like there was nothing beyond where they stood. A line in the
jungle was the demarcation point of oblivion.
didn't know there was a wall out here," Olivia said, clearly
annoyed. She took off her backpack and sat on the ground, dejected.
wall?" Like any optical illusion, once the trick was revealed
the picture became clear. Harlan realized what he was seeing.
It was a wall, its top just higher than Harlan's reach. It was
roughly finished but sturdily built, a little thicker at the
base than the top, which was rounded. He could imagine something
like this in a primitive village on Earth, built from lime and
mud and straw. The scale was impressive. It extended straight
as an arrow right across their path as far as he could see in
don't get it," he said. "I though you only built villages
didn't build this. No one built this. It's alive."
took a tentative step back, almost tripping over a thick-bodied
scuttler shaped like an equilateral triangle and sporting somewhere
around thirty legs. The scuttler picked up speed and ran, away
from Harlan and away from the wall.
it hurt us?"
Olivia said, "but it is a problem."
wall still looked manufactured to Harlan, even after he knew
it was a living thing. He walked up to it, inspecting its surface,
which was kind of like stucco, clearly random in design, but
so uniformly random that he could imagine a painter toiling
for hours to get the look just right. He touched it with his
and his finger stuck.
looked up, now concerned. "I didn't say to touch
pulled, but the fabric of his glove was glued to the wall. He
put his other hand flat against the wall to get better purchase.
But Olivia was too late. The leverage did no good, and now Harlan
had both hands welded to the wall. "Be still! I don't want
you trying to push off with your foot now."
How do I get out of this? What's this thing going to do to me?"
going to digest you for a few years. You have to take off your
carefully! If you get bare skin on that thing,
it's not going to be pretty."
first glove came off easily. As he pulled his hand out, the
glove flapped down and remained plastered on the wall. His other
hand was tougher. He had to wiggle his fingers back and forth
for a good minute before he was free. He backed off quickly.
the phrase 'Can it hurt us?' has some other meaning for you?"
was searching through her pack. "Put your hands under your
was about to follow her instructions when something landed on
his left hand. It was almost a butterfly. It had a short, thin
body and four feathery antennae. The wings were different, though,
not the graceful ear-shape that he remembered from swallowtails
and monarchs. These were right triangles. It was as if a translucent
square, hinged down the middle, was sunning itself on his hand.
The wings beat slowly. This was the first thing Harlan had seen
on the planet that wasn't unsettling or frightening or hideous.
going to bite you." Harlan's right hand, almost of its
own volition, reached up to smack the little bug, but Olivia
added, "You'll die if you kill it."
what are you" The creature, with teeth or claws or
something else even more baroque that Harlan couldn't see, bit
into the back of his hand. It was painful. Gunshot painful.
Migraine painful. It took every ounce of his strength to not
bat the thing away. It was difficult to remain standing. Olivia
waited, holding the spare gloves she'd found.
three seconds, the butterfly released its grip and flew off.
Olivia rushed over and covered Harlan's hands. The pain seemed
to fade very quickly.
Harlan was starting to lose his patience with this world.
sensed your smell, it landed, it tasted you, it didn't like
how you tasted, it left. Keep covered from here on out."
shouldn't I have just killed it!? If this is about saving the
damn creatures, I'll"
you had killed it, the others would have smelled its death,
and they would have attacked you, suit or not. And they wouldn't
care how you tasted."
looked around, stunned to realize that there were thousands
of the flittering squares above him, floating in and out of
the tree leaves above. In fact, the leaves here were a triangular
shape similar to the butterflies' wings. If he didn't know what
he was looking for, he would have assumed it was simply a windy
a colony? A hive?"
really. It's very basic instinctual behavior. They don't seem
to cooperate in any other way. Of course, we could be missing
something, but we don't think they're as social as bees or ants."
That's great. If you're worried about too many people coming
here and wrecking the planet, just tell them about those guys."
all in the literature, if you had bothered to read it."
shushed her and did a slow spin. Something had caught his attention.
Some sound that shouldn't have been there. Something human.
Another faint whisper of conversation drifted to him. It came
from the southwest, along the wall. He gestured for Olivia to
follow him, quietly. Thirty meters along, he saw them. A man
and a woman, dressed like Harlan and Olivia; they were doing
something to the wall. They didn't seem to be concerned about
making noise, so Harlan bent into a crouch and moved closer.
these people were, they were prepared. The woman carried something
like a rolled up carpet and placed it against the wall near
the jungle floor. She carefully unspooled it upward, keeping
it straight, making sure there were no gaps. When it was flat
against this side of the wall, held in place by the wall's sticky
surface, she gave it a shove, sending the rest of the carpet
rolling up and over the top. She pressed a button on the side
of the carpet. Hand and foot holds sprouted from the surface
of the mat.
don't know them," Olivia said.
man, a large fellow, broad shouldered, muscular, wearing a colossal
backpack, climbed up the wall using the silver holds. He sat
astride the wall, looking down on the other side. He gave the
woman a thumbs up and climbed down out of sight. The woman followed
him up and over the wall.
and Olivia waited for a minute or so, then moved up to the makeshift
headed for the spring," Olivia said.
do you know that?"
have to be from Bouyain Village. The nearest settlement is a
thousand kilometers away. And for them to be traveling this
close to our path is too much of a coincidence."
thought about it for a second. "You're right."
have to stop them," Olivia said.
aren't with the ABRS; they must be energy scouts."
scouts? You make this stuff up as you go, don't you?" Harlan
I have to spell everything out for you? What do you think this
place where animals drink. Water comes up out of the ground."
never said there was water here," Olivia said.
said you tracked water levels in the local animals."
said I tracked moisture levels. There is no water on Africa."
is a hundred times more biomass on this planet than Earth. Very
few things here live to more than five or six years old."
mean Africa years or Europe years?" Harlan asked. He knew
enough about her now to assume she didn't mean Earth years.
doesn't matter. Don't get sidetracked. That's a lot of things
living and dying all the time. What do you think the lower layers
of the planet are like under us?"
told you all we've ever seen of Africa is living matter. Even
the village foundations were set down on the felled trees of
the initial survey teams. Deep down, under us, is layer after
layer of dead biological matter, pressed and crushed by the
weight of the living. What's going to spring up out of that?"
felt a shiver of realization.