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The colonists expected the six-month journey to Delta Cygni to be fairly boring. They would, they knew, spend much of it getting to know each other, forming and reforming little social groups, the more aggressive alphas among them sorting out their natural pecking order in an environment where the ultimate authority, in the form of the ship's captain, kept them from doing each other physical harm should their mutual rivalry lead to blows.
At least doing all this on the ship was more useful than having to sort it all out when they reached their destination, a small but growing community that had been developing their new world for some eight Earth years; and Jim Ellison at least had no doubt that experience had taught the Colonising Board that sending the colonists out in stasis, while undoubtedly less expensive than feeding them for the duration of the trip, only led to trouble when they eventually landed. As it was, because they knew that during the first few weeks on their new world they would scatter out from their landing point, eventually developing land on the edge of what was already claimed, those whose personalities totally clashed could head off in opposite directions, accompanied by the colonists with whom they had formed friendships, without any of the friction that could be disastrous for the ultimate well-being of the colony.
For the crew, it was almost as boring, with watch after routine watch spent... well, watching. They watched the stars, with occasional glances at their instruments to make sure everything was still as it should be; and if their minds wandered at times and they chatted about almost everything in the known universe, who could blame them? The crew had mostly served together for the nine Earth years since the formation of the Colonising Board; FTL travel meant that they aged less than their families back on Earth, and they had come to regard each other as their family. There was only turnover among the stewards and galley staff, who were mostly pre-university or post-graduate students using one well-paid trip, possibly two, either to give them money for their university stay without taking out a huge student loan or enough to help them repay such a loan.
The alarm klaxon, when it sounded, came as a shock to them all.
Certainly all space vessels had to carry lifeboats, and at least one lifeboat drill early in the voyage was mandatory, a routine carried over from the days of sea transport, but there had never been an emergency requiring the evacuation of any space ship since passengers were first carried into space.
The reaction might have been one of panic, but for that one fact; there had never been an emergency requiring the evacuation of any space ship since passengers were first carried into space.
As it was, after the first moment of stunned silence, those passengers who were in public areas began discussing why the alarm had sounded, their voices loud to be heard over the strident wail of the klaxon. One or two of the more nervous ones glanced towards their acknowledged leaders, poised to move but delaying until someone more decisive did.
The noise stopped abruptly after perhaps ten seconds, to be replaced by the Captain's voice. It was even, unexcited, though a discerning ear - and Ellison's ear was very discerning - might have heard just a trace of forced control. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is Captain Ingsborg. We are trying to discover why the alarm has sounded. As far as we can tell, it appears to be a malfunction, and there is no cause for worry. However, in the interests of safety, passengers should make their way to their assigned lifeboats and wait aboard them until we have determined why the alarm has been activated. You can regard it as a second lifeboat drill. Thank you."
Jim Ellison, alerted by that tiny sign of tension in the Captain's voice, started to move, and glanced back at his friend Rafe, who was still sitting, a stunned look on his face.
"Come on," he said.
"This is impossible," Rafe muttered as he got to his feet. "Space travel is absolutely the safest - "
"There's always a first time," Ellison pointed out quietly.
"Well, yes," Rafe admitted, "but... "
Ellison grabbed Rafe's arm to pull him along, not exactly hurrying but not delaying either. Not even to himself did he admit that even without that tense note he had detected in the announcement, the klaxon had worried him, reminding him of the day the army helicopter in which he had been travelling had crashed. Subsequent investigation, after he was rescued, proved that it had been sabotaged, and a finger had finally been pointed at the man who had ordered the mission, Colonel Oliver, when it was proved that he was involved in drugs trafficking. Everyone on board the helicopter should have died, and Ellison still didn't understand the freak circumstance that let him survive. He had spent eighteen months in the jungle before a team was sent in to investigate the wreckage that had finally been noticed during a routine scan of the area.
One such incident was enough - and while the Peruvian jungle was not readily forgiving of an accident, airless space was totally unforgiving. He preferred being thought of as someone who nearly panicked than run the risk of certain death.
Although they hadn't really wasted any time, they were not the first to reach their lifeboat. Four seats were already occupied by a group of three black men and the teenage son of one of them. Ellison had noticed them on the first, official drill, but had seen very little of the four since then; it seemed that they had chosen to spend their time in the privacy of one of their cabins rather than the not-too-spacious lounge that was an undeclared battle zone for the alpha males among the colonists.
Two of the crew were assigned to each lifeboat; one a member of the regular crew, while the other was one of what might be called the 'domestic' staff. The steward assigned to their lifeboat arrived just after Ellison and Rafe - a young man of very average height with unfashionably long hair tied back in a tight ponytail. Ellison had noticed the man several times in the two months they had been in space, working that part of the lounge/dining area occupied by the colonists who were on assisted passages, purely because of that hair; he found himself wondering why the steward bothered to keep his hair so long, when a short cut was so much easier to keep clean and tidy. He was carrying a heavy-looking backpack slung over one shoulder, so unless he had actually been in his quarters when the alarm sounded, he had obviously taken the time to go back for it before going to his station; equally, however, he hadn't wasted any time getting it.
In the next few minutes, more people arrived. Some passed on down the corridor on their way to other lifeboats, some entered the one Ellison was in. Soon around a third of the seats were occupied, and the steward, who had been watching thoughtfully as his passengers entered, suddenly reached forward and pressed a button on the small control board in front on him. The door slid shut.
He looked around at the passengers, then said, quietly but surprisingly firmly, "Please put on your seat belts."
"Seat belts?" It was a tall man accompanied by a woman who was, presumably, his wife; although attractive, she was, in Ellison's opinion, too old to be a mere 'companion'. "The Captain said it wasn't an emergency. You don't need to treat it like one. Anyway, we didn't have to bother with seat belts at the last drill we did. We were just shown how they fastened."
The steward nodded. "That's true, but circumstances are a little different this time. Last time was simply to make sure everyone knew their lifeboat positions. This time, there's been an alarm sounded. Please put on your seat belt."
"I'll report you to the Captain when this is over. You're over-reacting, treating this as if there was a serious problem - "
"Mr. McCarthy, the Captain isn't going to fault anyone who goes by the book under these circumstances. Indeed, for all I know, this is a deliberate test to see which of the crew do go by the book and which are carelessly lax. When Lt. Brand arrives, he'll be in command, and if he wants to countermand my order, I won't argue with him. But for the moment, however, I'm in command, and I'm telling you I'm assuming the alarm is genuine. Put on your seat belt." This time it was an order, not a request, and there was a quality in his voice that would have had Ellison instantly reaching for his seat belt if he hadn't already fastened it.
"We should do what he says, Ted," the woman with him said persuasively. "It's not as if the man's asking you to do anything unreasonable."
McCarthy looked around the lifeboat, registered that everyone else - including the steward - had fastened their seat belts, and with a sound like a snarl he took his place by his wife's side and snapped the seat belt closed.
The steward said quietly, "Thank you. If you want to complain to the Captain later, my name is Sandburg." He was watching the viewscreen that showed the corridor outside the boat. Several passengers were still moving on past them, none of them hurrying - indeed, some were giving the impression that they were deliberately dawdling, as if they expected the order to leave the lifeboats to be made at any moment.
Two young men stopped at the door of their lifeboat, and Sandburg opened it. They stepped in, and he immediately closed the door again. "Please take your seats and put on seat belts," he said. As they obeyed, he went on, "You're travelling with your sister, aren't you? Where is she?"
The two looked at each other, and the younger one made a face. "She'll be along in a few minutes. She stopped to put on her makeup."
Sandburg opened his mouth, then closed it again without saying anything.
"The Captain said it wasn't an emergency," the older brother said. "But even if it was... even if the house was burning down around her ears, she'd delay to put on her makeup - because 'no lady should ever be seen in public without it'." He was obviously quoting someone, probably the mother who had taught their missing sister the 'value' of wearing makeup. "We've tried telling her that on a colony world that's the last thing she'll need, but she won't believe it."
"I could see delaying for a minute to push a few clothes, maybe one or two items she didn't want to lose, into a bag, but make-"
Sandburg's mutter was interrupted by the sound of an explosion, cut off short as the lifeboat was thrown clear of the ship. It was pushed sideways for an indeterminate time that probably wasn't more than three or four seconds before Sandburg managed to activate the emergency engine and use that to bring the lifeboat to a halt, although it seemed longer.
Slowly, slowly, people began to realize that they were still alive, that they owed both that and their uninjured state to the young steward's insistence on 'going by the book'.
Sandburg swung the little vessel around, his eyes fixed to the screen that would give them a view of the space outside the ship - and saw nothing but blackness.
"I don't think anyone else got away," he said as he cut the engine.
"Are you sure?" Rafe asked, his voice horrified.
"I don't know how far we were thrown from Starseeker, but any other lifeboat that escaped safely would be showing lights. I don't see any lights." He shook his head. "Damn. I was sure some of the others would go by the book as well! That they'd be frightened enough to keep the door shut, at least."
Ellison glanced at McCarthy, then looked back at Sandburg. "Maybe not all of the stewards reached their lifeboats," he suggested. "And the ones who did - maybe they all had someone among their passengers who insisted it wasn't necessary, and none of them were as obstinate as you, Chief," he said. "It would have been very easy to take the option of not resisting anyone's disapproval. We owe our lives to the fact that you did."
"Thanks," Sandburg muttered, sounding almost embarrassed.
"So - what do we do now?" Ellison went on.
"You said it, Chief; Lt. Brand never got here to take over from you - so as the only member of the crew on board, you're in command."
Sandburg took a deep breath. "All right," he said. "We have emergency supplies on board to last a fully-loaded boat for a week. Since there's not quite half the personnel aboard that there should be, that'll double the time to a little over two weeks before we must make landfall, preferably on a reasonably life-supporting planet. We can stretch the time a little more by rationing what we have, but that won't add more than two or three days - emergency supplies are adequate, but not exactly generous in quantity."
"A week's supply of food for a fully loaded lifeboat doesn't seem very much," Rafe said, sounding very uneasy.
"It's partly a question of what can be fitted into a small boat," Sandburg said.
"Can't we send out an SOS?" one of the women passengers asked.
"I'm afraid not. We carry a homing beacon, but it's relatively short-range. Commander Norris should have sent out a distress call as soon as the alarm sounded. If that signal was sent, a rescue ship will be en route within hours, but we're two months from Earth. Even though a rescue ship will travel a lot faster than we did, it'll still take it at least five weeks to get here. If for any reason a distress call wasn't sent, we're unlikely to be missed until we fail to make planetfall on schedule, four months from now." He glanced around the passengers. "You must understand, this is a totally unprecedented situation. There have been exercises run, of course, but something like this has never happened before."
"Is there any chance we could make it back to Earth?" someone asked.
"No," Sandburg said bluntly. "A lifeboat can only go at a fraction of the speed Starseeker made. Yes, we could turn and head back towards Earth and hope that a signal was sent - but if we do, we don't pass near any planet where we could land and wait for a search vessel to pick up our beacon. We'd run out of food before we were found, though if we were very, very lucky we'd be found before we starved to death. But that depends on a signal having been sent, and because the command crew thought the alarm was probably caused by a malfunction, Commander Norris might have delayed sending it until it was too late. We need to head in a direction where there's somewhere we can land - and before you ask, our beacon can be detected over the maximum distance we could cover in three weeks."
"So which way do we go, Chief?" Ellison asked.
Sandburg studied the small screen on the panel in front of him. He pushed several buttons, nodded, then activated the engine again. He edged the nose of the lifeboat round a few degrees, then leaned back. "We're on our way.
"And now, because I know everyone in a fairly big group quickly forms, and remains in, relatively small social groups, I realize most of you probably don't know each other, except perhaps by sight. I suggest we introduce ourselves to our fellow travellers. As you know, my name is Sandburg." He nodded to Ellison, a man he had seen on the Starseeker but who hadn't been one of the passengers he had had contact with; the man who, without saying much, had been the most supportive in this situation.
"Rafe." He looked almost defensively at Sandburg. "You didn't give your other name. I don't need to either."
Sandburg grinned. "One of those names, huh? Sometimes I think a child shouldn't be given a name until he - or she - is old enough to choose his own," and looked at the next man.
"Simon Banks, and my son is Daryl."
Ellison decided that Daryl seemed to be a typical teenager, thirteen or fourteen years old, on the verge of rebellion but not quite there yet. His father was probably around forty, near the upper age limit for colonists.
Ellison noted that Brown sounded nervous, and he was sure than Sandburg had made the same assessment.
"Ted McCarthy. This is my wife." The man sounded sullen, ungracious, obviously unhappy that events had proved his brash assumption wrong.
"Laura," she supplied quietly. They, too, had to be close to the upper age limit.
"... Call me Silver." It was one of the women, who looked to be about thirty. "You really don't need to know my second name."
"Mother one of the hippie generation?" Sandburg asked.
"Yes. It's not that there's anything wrong with my second name, it would be perfectly all right if my first name wasn't 'Silver'."
"Why don't you use another first name, then?" someone asked.
"I don't mind 'Silver' as a name. It's just... "
"The whole name is hippie cute?" Sandburg suggested.
Sandburg nodded, and looked at the next face.
"Andy Russell - this is my brother Don." It was the older brother who spoke.
Twenty people, Ellison thought morosely. And in that twenty, to judge from the way they had spread out over the available seats, there were at least six 'groups', with three of the men - four if you included Sandburg - not attached to any of those groups.
Despite his long hair and his youth, Sandburg had already proved that he had a surprisingly dominant nature; Ellison decided that he would be happy to continue backing the guy up. He considered the others.
The McCarthies. The man might bear watching; he was clearly not accustomed to being faced down, and Ellison suspected that in some ways he would rather have died than been proved wrong.
The four black men - the teenager was old enough to be considered able to accept adult responsibilities - were obviously one group. Simon Banks was clearly their natural leader; how resistant would he be to following someone else? But he looked as if he might be amenable to reason.
Three of the women provided the next group. The youngest of the three - Connor, wasn't it? - seemed to be their alpha, but would probably accept reasonable orders from someone else, unless she was so feminist she objected on principle to taking orders from a man.
The other woman - the one called Silver - was obviously in a group with Ross and Edwards. Hard to say which of them was the alpha.
The two brothers - the older one seemed to dominate the younger, but appearances could be deceiving. Neither seemed particularly bothered by the death of their sister, either; that seemed odd. Even if they had felt no great affection for her - and Ellison was well aware that siblings did not necessarily like each other very much - they were at least close enough that they were travelling together to a new world. He would have expected the brothers to be showing some emotion. Somehow it worried him that they didn't.
Rafe and himself. They weren't exactly friends, more like friendly acquaintances, having been drawn together on this trip only by a common background, though he saw nothing to dislike in the man and he was pretty sure Rafe saw nothing to dislike in him. At the same time, there was a big difference between not disliking and actively liking. He believed himself to be the more forceful character of the two; where he led, Rafe would follow.
The other three colonists - Leigh, Forbes and McLean - were singles. If they had been members of any group, either none of their friends had been assigned to this lifeboat, or else they were among the thirty who hadn't reached it in time. He wondered if that might draw them together to form a seventh group, but as he looked at them, he doubted it. Forbes was an older man, like Banks and the McCarthies close to the upper age limit for a colonist, and looked totally self-sufficient. Leigh... Leigh looked to be too much the loner, thinking primarily of himself and not willing to consider the feelings of anyone else. Sun, who looked Chinese but to guess from his first name was probably at least second generation American... now he just might link up with one of the other groups; probably the brothers, Ellison thought. He looked to be about the same age as the older one.
And Sandburg. As long as Sandburg continued to make sensible decisions and enforce them by strength of character, he was happy to accept the younger man's leadership. He had had enough of command when he was in the army. Although it was in no way his fault - they had been betrayed by their commanding officer - too many men under him had died.
But he had no real doubts about Sandburg. The young man reminded him forcibly of a sergeant he had known, back in his army days. Lucas never raised his voice; never had to. The men under him knew exactly who was boss; he wasn't just an alpha, he was an alpha among alphas, and only lack of education had prevented him from being promoted beyond sergeant. Ellison spared a moment to wonder what had happened to the man before turning his attention back to the somewhat strained atmosphere inside the lifeboat.
No prizes for guessing that they were all scared, though most were hiding it pretty well.
Ellison moved the few steps to where the young steward was sitting at the controls and sank into the co-pilot's beside him. "About how long till we make landfall, Chief?" He was careful to keep his voice down so that the others, who had begun talking among themselves, wouldn't hear.
Sandburg made a face. "I'm not really sure," he murmured, speaking as quietly as the other man. "You know how superficial the statutory lifeboat drill was; it covered letting you know which lifeboat you were all assigned to, and that was about it."
Ellison nodded. "But I don't think any of us thought twice about it. This is the first ever accident in space."
"Well, the first involving a ship carrying civilians," Sandburg said wryly. "One or two freighters have been involved in accidents over the years. But these have always been hushed up. I know about them because even though galley staff are mostly students working short-term contracts, we're still part of the crew, and we hear things the general public doesn't.
"Anyway, the 'training' the stewards were given was as superficial as that first drill. We were shown once what to do - again to satisfy the requirements of the book, that said we should be given training in case the proper crewman assigned to the lifeboat was incapacitated.
"Luckily I have a good memory, and in any case this is my second trip so I've been shown those rudiments twice; I can remember how to fly the 'boat, even how to set a course, but apart from that we weren't given any training in how to read the navigational instruments, and we certainly weren't given any hands-on, practical training. So I know the direction we're going, but not what the distance involved is... and a landing will probably be more like a controlled crash."
"But we can reach a suitable planet before we run out of resources?" Ellison asked.
"Yes. The solar system wouldn't have shown up if it had been out of range. I just hope it has a suitable planet, though - preferably uninhabited, and with edible plants and animals."
"Why uninhabited? Surely an intelligent population would help us?"
"You'd think so, wouldn't you? But you can't guarantee it. For too many people, stranger equals potential enemy. Even the guy living ten miles down the road is regarded with suspicion - 'he's not one of my community, he might come sneaking in to steal some of my resources, even one or two of the women - and that'll weaken my community, and strengthen his'." Sandburg's voice took on a horrified note.
"That's a fairly cynical view, Chief."
"Just realistic, Ellison. I'm an anthropologist; at one time we only studied societies on Earth, but our studies now include some xenoanthropology, because of the handful of inhabited planets we have found - and quite frankly, there aren't that many differences in the way people react to each other, whether they're on Earth or a planet revolving around Alpha Polaris, whether it was a thousand years ago or only yesterday.
"No, it'll be safer for us if we strike a planet that has no intelligent life."
"And live off the land?" Ellison lowered his voice even further. "How well do you think this lot will be able to live off the land?"
Sandburg glanced at him. "Since they were going out as colonists, I'd expect them all to have some basic survival skills," Sandburg replied. "But I wouldn't count on it, and even if they do, that might not be enough. Any skills they have are today's. A lot will depend on how willing and able they are to learn stone age skills."
Ellison was silent for a moment, then, "I'm competent with a bow and arrow, and adequate with a spear," he offered.
Sandburg cocked an inquisitive eyebrow, and Ellison continued, "I spent over a year with a South American tribe a year or two ago. Lived as one of the tribe, went hunting with the men."
"Ellison... " Sandburg said slowly. Ellison saw the moment the connection was made. "Army ranger, stranded when your 'copter went down? Made Time magazine when you got home again?"
"Yeah." If this... civilian made a comment about 'American hero'...
"I bet you hated the publicity." Sandburg grinned. "Seriously, though, that experience could be a lifesaver for the group."
"You're an anthropologist. Have you spent time with primitive tribes too?"
"Yes, except I wouldn't call them 'primitive'. Their skills, learned by you and me, are probably what will keep us alive until a rescue vessel finds us. People from a 'civilised' culture, even ones who live on farms, are too dependent on the local stores for food. The people who grow crops - especially grain - don't really know what to do with a lot of the stuff once it's been harvested, and the animals go off to the nearest abattoir. Someone who worked as a butcher would be useful, but I don't think any of this lot have that kind of practical skill. Just a little general farming knowledge, probably gained through sitting through a couple of lectures they didn't pay much attention to, and the assumption that certain mechanisation will be available and certain supplies, like seed, provided. If we'd made the colony, they'd have ended up leaning on the people already there for a lot of advice, if not actual practical help. Actually, most of them would have discovered that they were better to spend at least a year working for one of the established settlers to get a little experience before getting their own farm."
Ellison looked searchingly at the younger man. "Sounds as if you don't think much of the way colonists are selected?"
"I don't. As I said, this is my second trip, and I had planned to do one more before I quit - it pays well, but post grad students can carry a pretty high debt in student loans. I've been a student at Rainier since I was sixteen, and in ten years my student loans have reached a horrendous total because even though I worked weekends and vacations - apart from the ones when I went on expeditions - and earned a small salary as a TA, I didn't really earn enough to support myself; I didn't want to take out loans, but it was that or live on the street or starve. Housing in a university town isn't cheap, even if you're willing to live in a rat-infested slum.
"I've got a release from Rainier that says I'm still a student there, on sabbatical while I do some research, so I don't have to pay back anything yet, and it lets me back in to finish my doctorate once I finish working for the Colonising Board, whenever that is. The administration might well change between when I first signed up with the Board and when I get back - time for me will be less than time on Earth - so I made sure I was covered, both by Rainier and the bank. The money is only part of the reason, though - I wanted to do at least three trips because that's the subject of my thesis; the reason people move away from Earth. To get a new start, more opportunity for their kids, including the unborn ones, is the least of the reasons." He sighed. "Quite a lot move for exactly the same reasons as many of the early colonists on Earth moved from Europe to America - to escape persecution. Anti-this, that and the other laws only work up to a point, and I'll bet several of the folk on Starseeker - maybe even one or two here on the lifeboat - were there because they'd been the victims of discrimination. A few could have been escaping from an abusive relationship, seeing distance as the only practical way for their abusive or unreasonable partner not to find them. A handful might even have been criminals escaping justice, though that's not something they'd ever have admitted.
"Anyone who can pay their way, the Colonising Board doesn't ask questions; it's only the ones on assisted passage who need to satisfy certain requirements, including saying why they want to emigrate. And even then - as long as they don't actually have a criminal record, there's a lot of leeway. Even to get a fresh start, a lot of people are reluctant to leave familiar territory. So the Board is keen to recruit anyone willing to leave Earth."
"You've been working the colonising ships to find out why people emigrate?"
"And people are willing to tell you?"
"Not always - but you can learn a lot by listening and observing. People tend not to notice stewards; we're background 'noise', only seen if people want something."
"But isn't it a breach of privacy to write about something you've overheard?" Ellison was beginning to have second thoughts about supporting this man, though he wasn't sure who else in the group had the capacity to lead it.
"You make up names," Sandburg said. "You say nothing that will actually identify anyone. 'X% of the people on any trip are escaping from discrimination' is a very blanket assessment, and leaves the field open for a discussion of discrimination in general. But it's amazing how many are willing to talk, given a sympathetic ear. I don't make any secret of what I'm doing, and once they're assured of anonymity, it's amazing how much some of them will say. And in any case, something written in thesis-speak for presentation to a committee is very dry reading, even for someone whose subject it is. If it isn't your subject, you'd be doing well to get past the first page. Any discipline has its own terminology, used so that there's no ambiguity, but a layman wouldn't be able to follow it - not without a very good dictionary within reach.
"Subsequently, it's possible to rewrite the thing in a more readable form for a wider audience. I'm hoping to do that if I can find a publisher - I think the subject is probably interesting enough. It could even be written in the form of a novel. Take half a dozen protagonists, give them varying backgrounds, put them on a ship going to a new world... You can have problems, conflict, romance, and a hopeful conclusion. Could be a best seller."
"Well, you don't lack confidence," Ellison commented. "And I think you'll need it, faced with some of this bunch."
The 'kitchen' was a small console where packets of dried food could be prepared with water heated by a battery. Sandburg, in the interests of giving at least some of the passengers something to do, put Connor in charge of preparing the food; she promptly involved the other women and asked the youngest of the group, Daryl, to take charge of issuing a water ration twice a day. For the others there was nothing to do.
There was very little conversation; for the first few hours there had been some talk as they speculated on what had happened, but in the absence of any way of actually having any of those sometimes wild suggestions confirmed, the subject had palled rather quickly. After the first day nobody seemed to have much left to say on any subject.
By the second day, Ellison was getting twitchy. He knew it was imagination. He knew that the air supply in the small vessel was perfectly adequate, especially since it was carrying a lot fewer passengers than it was designed for; but the smell of twenty unwashed bodies in such an enclosed space already made it feel stuffy and low on oxygen. In part, too, the problem was the enforced inactivity. There hadn't been all that much space on Starseeker to allow the passengers to exercise, but here there was no space. The seats, each provided with a blanket, and which tilted back at an angle to allow so-called comfort for sleeping, filled most of the cabin. A claustrophobically small toilet at the rear of the craft offered the only privacy available on board; the only 'exercise' available was walking to and from it.
Ellison drifted from his seat beside Rafe, and rejoined Sandburg, wondering as he did at the odd interest he felt for the student. Rafe and he hadn't much in common, but they came from a similar moneyed background, belonged to the same social class - not that that counted for much in this situation. Sandburg and he... Sandburg had admitted to 'horrendous' student loans, to having to work his way through university; Ellison's family had wealth enough that he had never had to worry about paying his way. Even though he and his father hadn't seen eye to eye for a long time, even although the more biddable Stephen had been their father's favorite, William Ellison had made sure that his older son was as adequately provided for as the favored younger one.
Sandburg glanced over as Ellison sank into the co-pilot's seat, and grinned a welcome before pushing the notebook he was scribbling in, and the pencil, into his pack.
"How're we doing?" Ellison asked, once again keeping his voice down. If there were any problems, he didn't trust most of the other passengers not to panic, and panic would accomplish nothing.
"I think we're about a day from the solar system we're headed for," Sandburg replied.
"Thank heavens for that!" Ellison said.
Sandburg grinned. "Getting bored?"
"Well, I'm not used to just sitting doing nothing for as long as two hours, let alone two days."
"And as a group, we seem to have run out of conversation. A day or two from now, though, you might be looking back on this boredom and wishing for a little of it."
"Depending on what we find," Ellison finished. He was silent for a moment. "Chief, do you really think a distress signal wasn't sent?"
"Captain Ingsborg was an excellent captain, but he tended to be over-confident," Sandburg said. "He was always reluctant to admit that any situation might arise that he couldn't handle. If the stewards knew that, Commander Norris certainly did, so although the Captain could well have told Norris to delay reporting that there was a problem, Norris might have disobeyed and sent it regardless, since an alarm could always be cancelled.
"Common sense says the Captain should have ordered a distress signal to be sent and the ship abandoned immediately, even if the lifeboats stayed in its vicinity; even if he left a handful of volunteer crewmen aboard to try to find out what had gone wrong. Instead, he indicated that there wasn't a problem. I suspect someone else, probably Commander Limbrey - he was second in command - pushed him into instructing the passengers to make for the lifeboats... but even so, he covered himself from appearing to panic with that 'second lifeboat drill' comment."
"There's bound to be an enquiry," Ellison said. "And we're the nearest thing to witnesses there will be... assuming we're found."
Sandburg nodded. "It might take a while - possibly as much as six or seven months, depending on how they handle the search, and assuming we aren't reported missing until we fail to arrive," he said. "But the distress beacon is good for a year, so I think we will be found... assuming we find a habitable - perhaps I should say survivable - planet."
"As the only surviving crew member, what you say is bound to be important at an enquiry," Ellison commented.
"Even though I'm just a steward," Sandburg finished. He shrugged. "I don't see any point in damaging Ingsborg's reputation. It's easy enough to slant the evidence to make it look as if he was trying to avoid a panic. For all I know, that's what he was doing. Not his fault if the passengers decided it was a false alarm and the stewards manning the lifeboats until the crewmen in charge arrived chose to be sloppy about safety."
"Assuming they'd all reached their designated lifeboats."
"Well, yes," Sandburg agreed. "Though there was certainly time for everyone to reach the lifeboats; anyone who didn't had to have delayed."
"I got the impression that some of the ones we saw in the corridor just before the explosion weren't hurrying, as if they expected to hear an announcement any moment that the malfunction had been discovered and everyone could go back to whatever they were doing."
"That's what I thought," Sandburg muttered.
Ellison glanced down at the pack sitting beside the steward. "If the stewards were mostly students, I suppose some of them might have done what you did, and gone to their quarters for some of their stuff. Have to admit, though, you got it packed up pretty fast."
"This was already packed," Sandburg said, "and sitting just inside the door, ready to be picked up. All my notes, and some emergency supplies I never travel without. I'd probably have risked going for it, but as it happened, I was off duty when the alarm sounded; I didn't wait for an order to abandon ship, just grabbed it and headed for the lifeboats." He grinned. "Blame my Mom; she was a compulsive traveller, didn't believe in settling anywhere for long, didn't believe in gathering much in the way of possessions; she'd dragged me twice around the world by the time I was sixteen. But the one thing she always did, wherever we went, was have a bag packed with what she considered essentials, ready to snatch up at a moment's notice, even if we abandoned everything else. We had to do it two or three times - she didn't let political unrest stop her from going where she wanted to go, even with a young child at heel, and at least once we went out a back window as insurgents were kicking in the front door. I had my own bag ready to grab by the time I was seven.
"When I first went to Rainier, I wondered if I really needed to maintain an emergency bag - it wasn't as if I'd have to run for my life in Cascade - but it was a pretty ingrained habit by then. I didn't think I'd need it on Starseeker, but again, habit... What I keep in it has changed a little, but... Anyway, as well as things like my notes that I didn't want to lose and a change of clothes - and I'm probably the only one here with a change of clothes - I've got some first aid things in it - basics, like over-the-counter painkillers, bandaids, antiseptic cream. A bar of soap - just being able to wash a wound can work wonders to prevent infection. My Swiss army knife. Then there's some general emergency stuff like salt, and matches in a waterproof box - I could light a fire without a match if I had to, but having some will make life easier."
Ellison nodded. "Most people wouldn't think of salt as emergency rations - "
" - but salt has several other uses besides flavoring food," Sandburg finished.
It actually took them around another thirty hours to reach a possible planet. As far as Sandburg could make out, the star was very similar to Earth's Sun, and so he took up orbit around the third planet while he tried to make sense out of the readings he was picking up. Finally he nodded, and announced, "I think we can safely land here. As far as I can tell, there are animals all right, which gives us a potential food supply, but no people - at least, if there are what we might call people, they're not technically advanced, which is good; it means that there are probably fairly large areas where nobody lives, which will make them easy to avoid."
"Wouldn't people help us?" Forbes asked.
"Not necessarily," Edwards said. "They might see us as enemies come to steal their resources, or be superstitious enough to see us as magicians because we've come out of the sky, and attack us because they're afraid. Or even if they were relatively advanced - think of the books that have been written where aliens arrive from space; they're almost inevitably presented as being hostile. Even if they appear to be friendly, how often do they have a hidden agenda? Would you trust someone who arrived from space?"
"He's right," Sandburg said. "The only people we can depend on in this situation are ourselves. That means living off the land until rescue arrives."
There was an uneasy silence as the passengers looked at each other.
"Can we be sure we can safely eat anything we find here?" Don Russell asked.
""We'll be very unlucky if we can't," Sandburg assured him. "Tests have shown that any planet with an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere has a native flora and fauna compatible with human dietary requirements. There are some poisonous species, sure - but then that's the case on Earth, too. We just have to be cautious for the first few days while we work out what's not good to eat from what is. There are a lot of plants on Earth that wouldn't harm anyone, but have no nutritional value for humans; no point in wasting time gathering those. Luckily there's a little thing called an ecological niche - anything that looks in any way similar to an edible, nutritious Earth plant probably is both."
Watching them, Ellison decided that four of them - Edwards, Ross, Silver and Connor - looked less apprehensive than the others; it was possible that, like Sandburg and himself, they had some useful survival skills. Well, six out of twenty wasn't bad. It improved their chances quite considerably.
Sandburg landed the lifeboat in what - as he had feared likely - could only be called a fairly well controlled crash. The small boat bounced once before coming to rest, leaving its occupants quite badly shaken, but unhurt.
He checked the viewscreen; the ground around them was relatively flat, though there was a range of hills in the distance. They were fairly close to a river that ran from the hills, so water was unlikely to be a problem. The ground around them was grassy, quite thickly dotted with what might be called shrubby trees; a large herd of fairly small animals of several obviously different species was grazing not too far away, seemingly not too badly disturbed by the object that had come so suddenly out of the sky.
"Nothing bigger than a sheep," he murmured to himself. "That should mean predators aren't too big either - maybe the size of a wolf? But even so, we can't afford to take chances." He straightened, and glanced around. "Sorry about the hard landing - it's the first time I've had to land one of these, and at least we're all in one piece.
"First thing we have to do is construct some shelters, with a defendable fence around them. Luckily - "
"Aren't we going to live in the lifeboat?" Alan Sun asked nervously.
"We could, and we'll probably have to stay in it tonight, but I imagine most of us will want more privacy that we've had for the last three days as soon as possible." There was a general murmur of agreement. "It's easy to build simple shelters if we can get some tree trunks - or straight branches - not more than two inches in diameter, six to eight feet long, and a lot of thin, flexible branches. We'll need some inner bark as well to make cord. Long fibrous leaves would do if we can't get decent bark. And we'll need a lot of big leaves for thatch. Let's see what we can find. Oh - just one other thing. Until we know a little more about this place, I'd suggest nobody goes off alone - as far as possible we should all try to stay in sight of at least one other person."
People began to move towards the door, most of them glad of the chance to stretch their legs after the enforced inactivity. Only Ted McCarthy remained in his seat, and when she tried to move, he grabbed his wife's arm and held her back. "We're not doing servants' work," he snapped. "Bad enough that he had you preparing food. There are limits - "
Sandburg looked at him, an unreadable expression in his eyes. "This is a matter of working together to survive," he said. "We all have different skills, and we all need to do what we can - even if all you can do is gather firewood, it's helping the group survive. Nobody can expect to freeload, Mr. McCarthy. Put simply - for the next few weeks, possibly months, we're going to have to live as our distant hunter-gatherer forefathers did. Those who contribute to the group - no matter how unskilled that contribution - will be supported by the group. Those who don't are on their own.
"What did you expect to do once Starseeker reached Cygnus, anyway? It's a farming colony - "
"Offering opportunities for a businessman with vision!" McCarthy snapped.
Sandburg grinned mirthlessly. "Perhaps twenty years from now. For the moment, they're self-sufficient but not much more. The Colonising Board, represented by the senior steward of the ships that visit, buys whatever surplus there is; there isn't enough to give the farmers a realistic return and provide an income for a middleman. Inside the colony, it's a barter economy. You think you're the first businessman to see opportunities there? The last one who tried ended up working for one of the bigger farmers for a wage of food and a bed in the barn, and glad to get that.
"A colony as new as the one on Cygnus can't - and won't - support anyone who isn't actually working to develop the planet. You work, you eat. You try to be a middleman making your living off other people's work, just by selling goods for which they already have an adequate arrangement, they don't want to know and won't use the service you think you're offering. They don't need it.
"And quite frankly, the same goes for here. There are twenty of us - roughly speaking, the number of adults there are in the handful of hunter-gatherer tribes you can still find back on Earth. They'll support a sick or injured member of the tribe; they look after the old, though once the old reach a certain level of infirmity they're often - reluctantly - taken into the forest and left to die, because they've become a drain on the tribe's resources; but until they reach that point, they can still serve the tribe by providing information or advice gained through a lifetime of experience. Even the children - by the time they're five the girls are expected to help with food gathering, and the boys are practising with... I'd say toy spears or bows and arrows, except they can bring down small game - rats or mice - to add to the cooking pots.
"We might be lucky and be rescued after just four or five weeks; we might be unlucky and not be found for six months or more. But whether the time is long or short, we can't afford to waste what resources we have supporting anyone who thinks working with his hands is beneath his dignity.
"Only two or three of us have practical experience in living off the land - much of the skilled work involved will fall on us - but unless the others help as much as possible by doing the unskilled work, and trying to learn at least some minimal skills, we won't be able to support everyone. And quite frankly, while I'm willing to work twenty hours out of the twenty-four to keep the group alive, I'm not willing to support someone too self-important to get his hands dirty."
"How dare you - a mere steward - talk to me like that!" McCarthy snarled. "I'll report your attitude to the Colonising Board - "
"I don't think the Colonising Board will be too interested," Ellison said from beside the door, where he had paused to wait for Sandburg. "It's expected that anyone relocating to a farming planet is willing to work; complain about the guy in charge expecting you to work, they'll laugh you out the door."
McCarthy glared at him, and pushed past. Laura McCarthy paused for a moment before following him. "I'm sorry," she said. "His brother died just a few days before we left; a freak accident at his work. Ted's a bit... Well, he blames the fact that Bruce did manual work for his death."
"At the moment he's equating manual labor with being at risk of sudden death?" Sandburg asked.
She nodded. "I know it sounds silly, but... "
"It's understandable, but what I said still goes; we can't afford to support a freeloader, whatever his reason for it. Did the Colonising Board know he planned to set up as a businessman?"
"I don't think so," she said.
Sandburg nodded. "Doesn't surprise me," he said. "If they had, they wouldn't have accepted him. The colony planets are all too new to need them yet... Well, see if you can persuade him that working to help the group is in his own best interests, would you? Because if he shows that he's unwilling, it isn't going to gain him any friends."
Sandburg watched her go, then turned back to Ellison. "We need to organise ourselves to make the best of what skills we have. Can I depend on you to... well, lead the hunt, so to speak? I'm basically too short-sighted to be any good at hunting, as well as being astigmatic, though I'm reasonably handy with a fishing spear... though we probably won't need that particular skill; I've got some hooks in my pack and it should be easy to dig up the local equivalent of worms."
"Yeah, I'll do that," Ellison agreed.
Outside, they found a scene of quite considerably activity. Connor and Silver had clearly taken charge; Connor was directing a group of ten men in the collecting of thin branches that could simply be pulled off the trees, and Silver was supervising Serena, Rhonda and the two younger men as they gathered big leaves, depositing them in a pile beside the lifeboat. Both women, it seemed, knew exactly what they were doing. Laura McCarthy was already moving to join Silver's group; McCarthy himself was hesitating, and Ellison's guess was that he was still reluctant to be seen to be lowering himself to the level of a worker.
"He's going to be dangerous, Chief."
Sandburg glanced at the other man. "Yeah - I think he would dearly like to be the guy in charge, giving out the orders and claiming that he was contributing more to the survival of the group than anyone else." He turned his attention back to the others. "Connor and Silver seem to know what they're doing - we can probably leave the building of shelters to them. How about you and I go and dig a latrine pit? I know a lot of the tribes don't bother with anything like that, they just duck behind a convenient bush, but I suspect most of these guys would feel more comfortable with a designated place to go."
"I think you're right. Do we have a spade?"
Sandburg headed for the rear of the lifeboat and opened a hatch. The small compartment held some tools, including two spades. Ellison grabbed one as Sandburg took two axes. "Connor!" he called. She glanced over, and he held up the axes.
"Right, mate!" she called and as she started towards him, Sandburg put the axes down, took the other spade and closed the hatch.
The two men headed downstream a little way, angling away from the water. When they were about fifty yards from the lifeboat, and hidden from it by some bushes, they paused as if by mutual consent. Ellison stuck his spade into the ground; it went in easily. "Here?" he suggested.
"Yeah, I think so. It would be better a little further away, but it's probably safer for everyone if it's not too far."
"At least until we know what the dangerous animals are," Ellison agreed.
There were some small stones in the soil, but not too many, and the digging was easy enough. They left the earth in a pile at one side. They dug down several feet, a long trench about a foot wide that both men thought would be big enough to hold the waste of twenty of them for two or three weeks. "And if McCarthy suggests we dig a separate one for the women, he can damned well do it himself!" Sandburg muttered.
Ellison grinned. "I suppose we really should provide them with a separate 'facility'," he said. "But they'll just have to get used to communal peeing."
Sandburg chuckled. "I remember one place I visited with my Mom when I was about twelve," he said. "There was a public toilet on the main street; she went in the door marked 'ladies' and I went in the one marked 'men', and we met inside the building..." He studied the trench for a moment. "Actually, I was going to suggest we leave this sort of open-fronted to make it easier to throw a layer of soil in every day or two. We could put a 'wall' across the middle, to provide a sort-of-separate bit for the women - give them a third of the length. As well as back and sides, we could put a 'front' wall up that's maybe three or four feet away - that'll give a sort of privacy but leave enough space for whoever is covering the evidence to do it easily. I don't think we need bother with a roof. Seats? Easy enough to knock up half a dozen frames to sit on, using slightly thicker branches than we'll need for the walls, but I'd doubt we need that many; we're all too used to taking a dump in private, and I suspect that won't change in a hurry. If someone is already in here, I'd guess anyone else arriving to use it will wait."
"Do we have any nails?" Ellison asked.
"As it happens, yes, but not many; and I agree we're better to use them for the toilet seats. I'm not sure many of this lot would trust plant cord not to break. We'll have to make cord to fasten the walls of the shelters, though. OK, I think we're done here for the moment; let's go and see how the others are getting on."
They'd been getting on quite well; there was a large pile of big leaves, and a huge stack of branches of varying thickness; Connor, Ross and Edwards were stripping bark from some of the thicker branches, and Silver was already demonstrating how to make cord using the inner layer.
"Hey, good, you're ahead of us!" Sandburg said cheerfully.
McCarthy glared at them. "So where the hell have you two been?" he growled. "You were sounding off loud enough about everyone doing something - "
"See those spades?" Connor snapped. "My guess is that they've been digging us a latrine - right, guys?"
"Right," Sandburg agreed. "About fifty yards that way. We still need to get seats made for it, but that shouldn't take us long. Finished with the axes?"
"For the moment. No point in cutting more wood than we really need. What we have here should made enough good wattle walls for several shelters."
"We need some for the latrine too," Sandburg reminded her, "and for a wall around the shelters." He glanced at his 'assistant'. "Come on, then, Ellison, we've got some chair frames to make."
They settled on a spot downstream, about midway between the camp and the latrine, to wash, and another a little upstream to get water.
By late the next day they had constructed six rough wooden shelters thatched with large leaves, had built a low woven fence around the latrine trench and a six-foot high one with some thorny branches woven into it around the little group of 'huts'. The door was hinged and fastened with cord made from bark. Occupancy of the huts pretty well matched the social groupings Ellison had already noted, with Sandburg joining Ellison and Rafe and the other 'singles' splitting along what looked like an age boundary, with Forbes and Leigh joining Ross and Edwards, and Sun joining the brothers. Silver moved in with the other three unmarried women.
The following morning, over a breakfast taken from the lifeboat supplies, Sandburg said, "We need to start thinking about living off the land. Keep the rest of the supplies for emergencies. Ellison's had experience hunting with a spear and bow and arrow, though he'll have to make them first. I can fish, and I've got some hooks in my emergency pack. Any of the rest of you able to hunt or fish?"
Connor said, "I can make and use a boomerang."
"Bill and I can use spears," Ross said.
"I noticed some small animal runs," Silver said. "I can set snares. If we don't have any wire I can make them out of cord."
"Daryl and I have done some fishing," Banks offered. "I imagine it'll be using short rigid poles and a fairly short line?"
"Probably," Sandburg agreed. "But the local fish won't be used to having someone dangling a worm on a hook in front of their noses, so lack of any sophistication in our gear shouldn't be a problem. All right, that's eight of us who can go after animal food. But we'll need plant food too." He glanced around at the others.
"How can we be sure anything we collect isn't poisonous?" Rhonda asked nervously.
"Anything we see the local animals and birds eating should be safe," Forbes suggested.
"It's a guide, but not a totally foolproof way to judge," Sandburg said. "On Earth there are some plants that animals can eat perfectly safely, but are poisonous to humans - or else have no food value whatsoever because human metabolism can't break down the elements into something nutritious; at every meal we could stuff ourselves with them until we couldn't swallow another mouthful, and still die of starvation."
"I've studied botany," Serena said. "I know the plants here won't be the same as the ones I've studied, but I know the kind of things to look for; where to look for potentially edible plants. I'm willing to... well, take charge of gathering plant food."
"That's useful," Sandburg agreed. "There'll be twelve of you concentrating on finding plant food, then."
McCarthy muttered something, too quietly for Sandburg to hear him. but made no open objection. Sandburg carried on. "I suggest those of us who'll be hunting take the rest of today to start making whatever we need. Mr. Banks, I've got some hooks and fishing line here; but you will need branches suitable for poles and you'll have to dig for worms - or the equivalent. The rest of you - one of the ways we'll be cooking our food is in a pit. We need to collect some fairly large stones - about half the size of a football. There are some suitable stones in the river."
The people who were to be hunting - or fishing - collected some suitable branches and returned to their camp to work them and make them into suitable weapons. The others headed towards the river, knowing that stones would have to be carried back one or two at a time.
Suddenly the near silence was broken by a yell from the river. "Gold!"
Within moments everyone had gathered around Brown, who was waving a big nugget.
"Let me see." Leigh held out his hand. Brown glanced at him almost suspiciously, then gave him the nugget. Leigh checked it, and nodded as he handed it back. "Yes, that's gold all right," he said. "It was in the river?"
Leigh bent to examine the bed of the river, and straightened again within seconds, holding up another nugget. "Looks like there's a lot of it. We're rich!"
There was a babble of excited voices. After some moments, Sandburg said loudly, "Are we?"
Dead silence. Then - "Of course we are!" Leigh exclaimed. "There's a lot of it and nobody else here. We can gather as much as we want - "
"And what'll we do with it?" Connor asked.
Leigh looked from Sandburg to Connor and back again.
"There's nothing here to spend it on," Sandburg said. He bent and picked up a fairly large, ordinary-looking stone. "This is of more value to us - "
"A stone?" McCarthy said.
Sandburg picked up a pebble and tapped it against the stone. There was a soft chiming sound. "This is flint," he said quietly as he dropped the pebble. "Good quality flint. With flint I can make knives, arrow heads, spear heads - tools to help us survive. We can even use it to start a fire, once we run out of matches." He gave a wry grin. "The lifeboat carries some tools - but whoever approved what it should carry didn't think things through fully, and I'd like to see him try to survive for several weeks, even on Earth, with the items provided. Enough food for fifty people for a week. One or two spades, axes, hammers and a few nails... fine for building shelters, but not one thing aimed at helping us get food. And in almost any situation where the lifeboats might be needed, the survivors would certainly need far more than a week's worth of food. We're just incredibly lucky that nearly half of us have survival skills.
"But gold - we can't use gold for anything - it's too soft a metal to use for tools; its only value is ornamental. And you'll forgive me if I say that in my opinion, survival is more important right now than useless ornamentation. That's why gold ever became valuable; a tribe that could afford to spend time working a metal that didn't serve a useful purpose was obviously a successful one.
"However, Mr. Leigh, I do know what you mean. We'll be here for - I estimate - a minimum of five weeks; it might be as long as five months. But we're bound to be rescued eventually. There's no reason why, any day we have spare time, we shouldn't each gather some of those nuggets to take with us, though we won't be able to take too much - you all know the weight limit you had for luggage. In addition, when we report this to the Colonising Board, they'll send out a survey team. If it proves to be an exploitable resource, we should all get a share of the finders' fee, probably in the form of shares from whatever company buys the rights to mine here. If it isn't exploitable, well, we'll still have whatever we can carry away with us. Once we get back to Earth, that should make us all, if not actually rich, certainly reasonably comfortable financially."
Sandburg studied the group for a moment, assessing everyone's mood. "Okay, if the ones collecting stones would take them back to the camp, I think we can take the rest of the day off. Anyone who wants to spend the time till dark looking for gold, it'll give you the beginnings of your fortune." There was a dry note in his voice that, he decided, few of them registered.
He bent and picked up another big piece of flint as most of the others scattered. Ellison and Connor crossed to him. "Give me those, Chief," Ellison said. "That'll let you get another one or two pieces."
"I'll carry some for you as well, Sandy," Connor said.
"Sandy?" Sandburg spluttered.
"Short for Sandburg."
"Yeah, I got that," he said. "I just didn't think we knew each other well enough yet for nicknames." He quietly ignored the fact that Ellison had been calling him 'Chief' right from the start. "By the way, I was surprised that you were so quick to understand about the gold not making us rich while we're here."
"I understand about survival," she said. "I understand getting your priorities right."
"I suspect we may be the only ones who do really appreciate that," Ellison commented as they started back towards the camp, passing two or three of the others who were already on their way back to the river.
"I'm not sure," Connor said. "Silver, Ross and Edwards seem to have a decent understanding of working for survival as a top priority; Serena too. Banks... maybe, though I think he really considers fishing a leisure activity rather than something vital to providing food."
"But some of them still don't quite understand that there isn't a convenient WalMart or MacDonald's half a block away," Sandburg muttered.
Early next day, Simon and Daryl Banks took one of the spades and went off looking for worms. They collected several, putting them into a small plastic box Sandburg produced from his pack and, taking their fishing poles, headed for the river. Ellison, Ross and Edwards continued working on their spears, finding it easier once Sandburg had provided some flint tools for them, while Connor worked on her boomerang; Sandburg continued chipping away at the flint and, having produced several fairly long flakes to use as knives, began shaping spear heads. "I'm going for functional rather than beautifully finished," he commented as he finished the first one.
So far they had seen no sign of predators, but as Serena led the others off in search of edible plants, Sandburg called, "Keep fairly close together, and watch out for any dangerous animals."
Serena waved an acknowledgement, and he turned his attention back to the flint.
Several hours later, the plant hunters came back, and as they did the two fishers also returned, each carrying several quite big fish. Sandburg checked the harvest, nodding in satisfaction. "Good; looks like we'll eat reasonably well."
Serena took charge of the cooking, once she lit a fire; the fish, wrapped in leaves, went into the hot ash to bake; the plants would be eaten raw until they found some way of making a container that could be used to boil water and make soup or stew - as well as something to serve as cups or bowls. As it was, Serena had simply used more of the large leaves as plates. And although there was plenty of water in the river, until they found a way of boiling it, they decided it would probably be safer to drink the water from the container in the lifeboat, although none of them expected that there would be water-borne diseases that could affect them in the river.
As they ate, the group - with the sole exception of McCarthy - chatted happily and it was clear to the small group who knew how to live off the land that the others were feeling very pleased with themselves for successfully managing to contribute something.
Ellison, Ross and Edwards had spent that day finishing making their spears, and binding the flint points to the wood with cord made from bark. Somewhere, they all knew, there had to be one or more plants that would provide a sticky sap that could be used as glue, but for the moment what they had would serve.
As they worked, they discussed their hunting strategy, and decided that since the animals they were seeing were relatively small, it might be overkill to go as a group, which would be the obvious tactic if they had been facing something the size of a cow or a horse. If they separated, it would triple their chance of making a kill.
Sandburg was less than happy with their reasoning, but accepted that all three were at least armed; so, early next morning, without stopping to eat, they set off in different directions, knowing that if all three were successful, they wouldn't need to go out again for two or three days.
Handicapped by the lack of a good range of tools to work with, Connor hadn't quite finished making her boomerang - it was a little more complicated than the spears, which simply had to be straight and smooth - and after a quick meal from the previous night's leftovers she resumed work on it. Sandburg carried on knapping the flint, making a variety of tools, some of which Connor immediately appropriated. After a while, Don Russell wandered over and watched for a few minutes, before saying, "Could you teach me how to do that?"
Sandburg grinned. The boy - he was little more; Sandburg guessed him to be about two, possibly three, years older than Daryl Banks, and had probably lied and claimed to be eighteen when he applied for a passage to Cygnus - had the right instincts. Although the steward knew that he could keep the group supplied with all the flint tools they would need, it was a skill that was worth passing on. "Sure," he said. He showed Don the stone he was using to strike flakes off the flint nodule, and indicated the small pile of water-smooth stones at his side. "Go over to the river and find yourself several rounded stones like these, different sizes, that feel comfortable in your hand. At the same time - have a look at this." He picked up a flint nodule he hadn't yet started to work on. "See if you can find a couple of these. Knowing how to work flint isn't going to be any use to you if you can't identify it when you see it in the rough."
He split his attention between what he was doing and Don, and decided that as well as gathering stone, the boy was probably also pocketing one or two gold nuggets. Well, fair enough, he thought, as long as he doesn't get too distracted.
It was, Sandburg estimated, around half an hour before Don rejoined him. He had made a sort of pouch from the front of his shirt, and was using that to carry the stones. Sandburg checked them over quickly. "Good," he said. "That's a nice range of hammerstones, and a couple of good bits of flint. Now, the first thing you need to do is prepare a core. That means knocking off the outside bits and leaving yourself with a piece of shaped flint that you can split flakes off... "
The three hunters arrived back several hours later. Edwards was empty-handed; he had, he said, been moving into position when the part of the herd he had been stalking was stampeded by a small pack of animals that looked a little like foxes. Ross had caught a small kangaroo-like creature that had been foraging on its own, not part of the herd; Ellison, arriving a little after the other two, was carrying a rather larger, deer-like animal. He was staggering a little; dropped his catch beside the pit Serena had persuaded Forbes and Leigh to dig, and stumbled over to his 'hut'.
Sandburg frowned, wondering what was wrong, and got up to follow; when he was partway there, Rafe caught his arm.
"I doubt Jim'll want you in there," he murmured. "I've seen him like this before, on the ship; I'd say he's got a bad headache, and just wants to be left in peace until it eases."
"I've got some painkillers," Sandburg said.
"He won't want them," Rafe told him.
"I can at least offer," Sandburg replied, and carried on.
Shaking his head, Rafe watched him go, then turned back to rejoin the others.
Sandburg ducked into the small hut, and found Ellison lying curled on the heap of leaves they had gathered to make beds, his blanket pulled over his head. He crossed to his backpack, and retrieved a container of painkillers and a bottle of water, glad that he had decided not to offer the bottle as a 'cup' for the group. Laying a gentle hand on Ellison's shoulder, he said softly, "Rafe said he thought you had a headache. I've got some painkillers here."
Ellison pulled the blanket clear of his head. He was silent for a moment, then, with an obvious effort, he said, "They won't work. Nothing helps my migraines. The only thing that helps is a dark room and silence... and time."
"Yeah, that sounds like classic migraine," Sandburg murmured. "Light too bright, sounds too loud?"
"Yes, but... that isn't caused by the migraine. That's what causes the migraine." He pressed his fingers against his forehead.
Sandburg drew in his breath sharply. "You're saying... you have an extra-sensitive awareness of light and sound? Enough to trigger a severe headache?"
"You believe me?" It was a desperate whisper. "None of the doctors I saw did."
"Yes, and I... I know it's hard for you to concentrate right now, but can you think of a dimmer switch, like you'd use to vary light intensity? Imagine it... You can see it there on the wall... Right now it's set to maximum. Reach out with your mind, and turn it down... down... The light isn't as bright, it's at a comfortable level... " He looked at Ellison's face, at the tightly closed eyes. "Open your eyes... it should be quite dim in here. Is it?"
Ellison blinked two or three times, and his face seemed to relax a little. "Yes," he whispered. "Yes! It worked!"
"Right. Now let's try something similar for your hearing... A volume control, like you'd have on a televiewer. Got it? Someone has left it set far too loud. Turn down the sound till it's comfortable... "
This one took a little longer, but eventually Ellison relaxed. "Yes - I can't hear everyone outside talking now. And the migraine's not nearly as bad." He was still speaking fairly quietly, as if afraid that if he spoke more loudly it would trigger the migraine again.
"Good. Now remember that little trick. If light and sound start getting to be too much, use those controls." Sandburg hesitated, then said, "It's not just light intensity, is it? You can see really well? Or volume? You can hear things, not just louder, but from much further away than most people?"
Ellison's jaw dropped. "How can you know that?"
"And nobody's ever believed you, not even the doctors?"
"The optician... When I got my eyes tested to see if there was something wrong, he accused me of memorising the eye chart; said that nobody could see that well. No, nobody's ever believed me. Even my father, when I was a child... He used to punish me for making things up... You mean you really believe me?" There was an oddly hopeful note in his voice that tightened the back of Sandburg's throat. "You weren't just humoring the crazy guy?"
"Jim - Can I call you Jim?" When Ellison nodded, he went on. "I told you; I'm an anthropologist and I've spent time with tribes that are still living... well, in the stone age."
"Years ago, I came across a book written by a guy called Richard Burton - an explorer back in the nineteenth century. In the 1860s, when he was in Paraguay, he came across references to people with senses that were more acute than... I'd say normal, except those heightened senses were perfectly normal for the people gifted with them. The subject fascinated me - especially since, as I said, I'm mildly astigmatic and short-sighted and while I can manage without them, I really need glasses. The idea of someone who could see long distances and in poor light... well. Anyway, Burton claimed that every village he visited had one of these people - he called them sentinels, though reading between the lines some were probably more gifted than others. The sentinels patrolled the borders, watched for changing weather patterns, movement of game... basically lived on the outskirts of the tribe, part of the tribe but not really one of the tribe. Being set apart like that was a form of respect; the others were in too much awe of his abilities to feel totally comfortable socializing with him, but it must have given him a very lonely life. The tribe's shaman was in much the same position - the more powerful he was, the more the tribe was in awe of his abilities - so although he lived with the tribe, he too was, in his own away, apart from it.
"So one thing I tried to find out, from any tribe I spent time with, was whether they had one of those sentinels, either while I was there or at some time in the past. A lot of tribes wouldn't admit to having one now, though several did agree that such people had been known in the past; the name the tribes used varied, but was usually a variant on 'watchman' or 'guardian'. You can see how Burton might well have translated that as 'sentinel'.
"When I was working on my Masters thesis I looked for people with heightened senses in America, hoping to write it on sentinels, and I did find some, but the people involved mostly only had heightened senses of smell and taste, though I found a couple of sportsmen with better than 20/20 vision and several musicians with perfect pitch, which in its own way showed very acute hearing. I came across a reference to a woman who was supposed to have 20/8 vision, but I could never track that one to a positive source. I did get a paper out of the subject, but the material for a thesis just wasn't there, and I had to choose another subject for my Masters, and then, subsequently, for my doctoral thesis.
"You're the first person I've found with heightened sight and hearing. Jim, what about your other senses? Are any of them enhanced as well?"
Jim licked his lips, almost nervously. "Sometimes... sometimes I think they all are. Smells can get very intrusive... I can't eat anything too spicy... and sometimes my clothes feel really rough. I usually wash my clothes several times before I wear them, just to soften the material."
Sandburg nodded. "You're the real thing, then. But there's no reason for you to feel disadvantaged by your senses; it's just a case of learning how to control them so they don't overwhelm you. There's got to be something you can visualise for touch and taste and smell, like the dimmer switch for sight, to keep them at a tolerable level."
"Maybe just the volume control thing," Jim said slowly. "Because they don't bother me nearly as much."
"Remember that, then," Sandburg said. "Oh, there's one other thing - light and sound give you a migraine, but have you ever found yourself sort of losing time? Suddenly realizing you've been standing somewhere, maybe looking at something, listening to something, really concentrating on it, and several minutes have passed without you being aware of it?"
"Not really," Jim said. "But if I concentrate too hard on what I'm seeing or hearing, I get a migraine. I'd defy anyone to not be aware of that. I wish I could be not aware of it."
"Mmm. The migraine acts as an automatic control, then. But you shouldn't have to suffer that! Use the volume control." He hesitated. "Burton indicated that tribal sentinels usually had a partner who worked with them. He was primarily interested in the value of the sentinels to the tribes; he wasn't particularly interested in the partners, so he didn't say much about why they were there - presumably he didn't think they served much purpose except to give the sentinel company in what would otherwise have been a pretty lonely life.
"Maybe, though, those partners helped the sentinels in some way Burton didn't see - or didn't understand. Maybe the partner helped the sentinel from being overwhelmed by his senses, by reminding him not to concentrate too hard - by... well, providing him with an anchor."
"All right, Chief - "
"Blair," Sandburg said. Jim looked at him, frowning in puzzlement. "My first name is Blair."
"That's - " Jim hesitated.
"A girl's name? Depends on where you are. I told you my Mom had - has - itchy feet - she can't settle anywhere for long. She didn't see why being pregnant should slow her down - at least until she was close to giving birth, and maybe for a year or two after that. She wanted to see something of Britain, so she went there when I was six months on the way, and I was born there. She'd rented a house, and her neighbors were very friendly, very helpful - a young couple, Blair and Linda Miller. She decided she'd call her child Blair or Linda, depending on whether it was a boy or a girl, and it didn't occur to her that there was any gender ambiguity in the name 'Blair'. We travelled a bit after she left Britain, went back to America - briefly - when I was seven, and that was when I discovered that when they heard my name, a lot of people expected me to be a girl." He shrugged. "Mom actually stayed put in Britain for around five years - I think it was longer than she stayed anywhere once she left her parents' house, and she still visits there for a week or two most years. Anyway, Uncle Blair had been a good masculine role model for me, young though I was, so it didn't worry me. I just decided the people who thought I should be a girl were silly."
"But you didn't tell anyone your first name when we were introducing ourselves on the lifeboat."
"As I got older I discovered that there are people who think that if you have an ambiguously-gendered name, you automatically have to be ambiguously gendered. I decided a few years ago that being thought of as gay because of my name wasn't worth the hassle."
"That doesn't make sense. What your name is doesn't affect who or what you are... "
"Prejudice is never sensible or reasonable." Blair shrugged. "McCarthy's a bit that way. He automatically discounted my order to put on seat belts purely because I was a steward, not a 'proper' crew member who would know if it was necessary; as a steward, I was obviously panicking - even though it made sense to assume the emergency was real. He's not happy about having been proved wrong, either."
"I could see that," Jim agreed.
"Anyway - you were going to say something?"
"Yes. Chief, you know what you said about a sentinel having a partner to help him? While we're here... could you...?"
"Yes," Blair said quietly. "I'll keep a record, if you don't mind - it'll help you afterwards - but just because I've finally discovered a full sentinel, I won't be changing my thesis back." He grinned. "A sample of one isn't big enough. With two or three you can begin to see characteristics; with just one, a behaviour pattern can be personal idiosyncrasy rather than sentinel-based.
"Now I'm going to make my first suggestion as your 'partner'; you shouldn't go out hunting on your own. Yes, you got away with it today and brought back a good kill, but you were almost incapacitated by your migraine by the time you got back. I don't see well enough from a distance to hunt, but I can go with you - we can make the excuse it's to help you carry back whatever you kill, or even tell a modified truth - that having had one migraine, and no medication for it, you don't want to risk being alone in case you get another."
"Or we could just tell everyone the truth - " Jim suggested.
"I'm... hesitant to do that," Blair said. "There has to be a reason why the tribes wouldn't admit to having a present-day sentinel, because I'm sure at least some of them had to have one. It's like I said - the village ten miles away was a different community. Maybe they'd found that if the men of another village knew they had a sentinel, there was a risk that they'd come along and kidnap, or even kill, the sentinel, to weaken a competitor for the resources available. Okay, that isn't a situation that would arise here, but after we're rescued? I wouldn't trust McCarthy not to try to use knowledge of your potential, and I'm quite sure one of two of the others don't know how to keep their mouths shut. The Russells, for example - Don's a nice boy, but he's young. He gets home - because the rescue ship'll take us back to Earth, which is closer than Cygnus - is approached by a reporter, asked about how we all survived - next thing you know the papers have got hold of the story about the guy with super senses.
"Actually, though, I doubt you're the only one with a secret to keep. There's something about the way Daryl Banks is behaving... more like he's on vacation than on his way to a new life. It could just be that he's another young one and everything is an adventure, but... I know his parents are divorced, and I'm just wondering if his father is... well, abducting him, and he doesn't know it." Blair shook his head. "Brown's nervous, and I wonder why."
Jim nodded. "Yeah, I noticed that. I put it down to... well, fear of space."
"That's possible, but I think it's more than that because he's still showing signs of being wary of other people, though I can't think why, unless he's been the target of a lot of racial bigotry. Then there's your friend Rafe - not so much here, but on the ship he seemed to be watching all the time, questioning things - generally far more - well, inquisitive than passengers normally are."
Jim shook his head. "We're not friends - not really," he said. "We don't have much in common... but we both seemed to have less in common with pretty well everyone else. I'll admit I'm not sure why he was on the ship. I don't think he's short of money - he didn't go into detail, but from what he's said, he gets on well enough with his family and they're reasonably wealthy. My family is, too, but I want nothing to do with my father or my brother - that's why I left Earth. I'd finally had enough of Dad trying to interfere in my life."
"I did a paper on family interactions in my sophomore year," Blair said. "I realize now I made some pretty sweeping assumptions based on fairly limited data, but most of the people I spoke to either got on really well with their relatives or else couldn't stand them. But even the ones who loved their relatives sometimes said that they couldn't live with them. They wrote each other, spoke on the phone, but didn't actually visit much." He shrugged. "Mom and I are like that. Uncle Blair and Aunt Linda see far more of her than I do. At the same time, I love her and I don't doubt that she genuinely loves me.
"But there are plenty places you can go on Earth to avoid relatives you want to avoid."
"I know," Jim said. "It just seemed more... well, final, I suppose, to leave Earth. And now we'll be going back there once we're rescued. Almost as if the fates don't want me to leave."
Blair grinned. "I wouldn't have pegged you as a guy to believe in fate," he said. "But there are plenty of jobs you could get on Earth that would allow you to use your senses to help other people, the way a sentinel is supposed to do."
"Would you stay with me, work with me? I know I said 'while we're here', a few minutes ago, but..."
Blair's smile faded a little. "Let's not commit ourselves to a lifelong partnership just yet - no, I'm not turning you down, but I'm well aware that here I'm all you've got. Back on Earth, you might well find someone else who... well, matches you better - you can't tell me that if we'd met on Earth, in a social situation, you'd have given me a second look."
"Probably not," Jim said wryly, "and I'd have been wrong. It takes something like this to show what people are really like."
"But that still doesn't mean I'm the best partner for you. However, I'd be honored to help you as long as you need me, and no hard feelings if or when you find a better partner." He looked searchingly at the other man. "How's your headache now?"
"Gone," Jim said, a surprised note in his voice. "I'm not even sure just when it cleared completely. That's why you kept talking? To take my mind off it?"
Blair grinned. "Guilty as charged - a sentinel's partner keeps him grounded. But I wanted to get to know more about you, anyway. I'm an anthropologist, after all - I'm interested in people."
Jim grinned back. Blair rose easily to his feet, and held out a hand to pull Jim up. "Shall we join the others?"
Side by side, they ducked out of the hut and joined the group sitting around the firepit, from which a tantalising aroma was rising.
Several days passed peacefully. They dropped into a routine, scattering in the mornings, after a breakfast of whatever was left from the night before, to collect food. Even McCarthy seemed to have accepted the need to do something to help the survival of the group, and went off, if not willingly at least without being openly mutinous, with Serena's plant-gathering group. Not everything they collected was for food; after they returned several hours later, they settled, under Silver's instruction, to weave baskets or make cord; Silver herself worked the hide of the animals that had been caught, with a view to making containers that could be hung over the fire to stew some of the meat as well as pouches that each of them could use to store the gold they collected. The animals didn't recognise them - yet - as a danger, and so the other hunters were able to catch enough that her offer to set snares wasn't needed.
Blair quietly helped himself to the antlers and horns of the animals they killed until he had a reasonable selection that he could use as well as the hammerstones to work the flint, and continued to teach Don, although everyone now had a good knife - a flint blade bound to a wooden handle with sinew. Jim spent time making himself a bow and some arrows, now that they had sinew to make a bowstring; they hadn't seen any birds - what flying creatures they had seen seemed to have fur rather than feathers - but in the absence of feathers, he knew he could fletch the arrows by carefully shaving the ends to 'feather' them. It wouldn't be as effective as using actual feathers, but it would work. Connor started a second boomerang, a slightly different shape from the first one, and Edwards began work on an atlatl and darts for it. Ross built a sort of 'smokehouse' where fish or strips of meat could be hung to smoke and dry; they drew up a roster for 'fire' duty, four of them per night, to keep the fires burning. In the evenings, after they ate, the leftover food was put into the lifeboat for safe storage away from any predators; the dried meat would go in there as well, once it was ready. Then they mostly went down to the river, spreading out for about a mile along its length as they collected gold. It also became normal for various members of the group to spend the evenings wearing a blanket wrapped around them like sarongs, as they washed their clothes; the drying garments being hung over some nearby bushes.
The amount of gold each collected varied; Jim and Rafe, both already wealthy, were less interested than the ones who had been on assisted passage to Cygnus. Even Jim and Rafe, however, gathered some; not to join in would make them stand out, draw the attention of the others in a way neither would appreciate. Despite his initial comment about the gold being useless to them, Blair, with student loans to pay off, collected it - he had decided not to risk a third space voyage. Once he got back to Earth, he was staying there! In any case, he had committed himself to helping Jim for as long as he was needed, and Jim had chosen to abandon his plans to emigrate. Indeed, Blair was fairly certain that most of the group would make that same decision. He had overheard one discussion that indicated an extreme nervousness even about being rescued and taken back to Earth, though none of the participants were willing to consider staying where they were and becoming the nucleus of a new colony.
However, morale in the group was high. Even Brown was showing fewer signs of the wariness Blair and Jim had commented on, though he was clearly most at ease inside his own little group.
Halfway through the fourth week, as people were beginning to drift back to camp after an evening spent at the river, there was a sudden commotion.
Brown came out of his hut, for once showing no signs of nervousness. "Someone's taken my gold!" he exclaimed, and there was anger in his voice.
"Are you sure you didn't just move it?" Leigh asked, with a scornful note in his voice.
"Why would I move it? It was there this morning, now it isn't. Someone's taken it. I know it's easy enough for me to collect more, but I'm not working my ass off to make someone else rich. I had enough of that back on Earth. And if someone took my gold, he could easily take someone else's as well." Brown's voice shook slightly, as if he found it difficult to confront anyone.
"Can you be sure your pals didn't take it?" Leigh went on.
Brown glared at him. "Maybe you can't trust your friends, Mr. Leigh, but I sure as hell trust mine!"
"We can check how much everyone has - " Blair began, and was promptly interrupted by McCarthy.
"Damn sure I'm not having my stuff looked into because some stupid nigger can't find - "
"That's enough!" Blair snapped. He took a deep breath before going on more calmly. "I thought we were well past the days when people held stupid prejudices based on skin color or religion. Looks like I was wrong, and bigotry is still alive and well and flourishing in some segments of society. If you're going to judge the competence of your fellow survivors by their skin color, Mr. McCarthy, maybe you'd be better going off and setting up your own camp." He glared at McCarthy, waiting for a reply.
McCarthy swung away, moved to the fire and stood, his back turned, gazing into it.
Blair shrugged and looked around at the others. "As I was saying, we can check how much everyone has, but I doubt that will prove anything; we've all been gathering the stuff at different rates, some of us have more than others, and in any case one gold nugget looks much like another."
Jim decided to step in. "I'm of the opinion that a man whose conscience is clear is unlikely to object; only someone with a guilty conscience has anything to hide."
McCarthy whirled and moved back, to stand toe to toe with Jim. "Are you saying you think I took it?"
"I'm saying that an innocent man has no reason to object to a search," Jim replied.
"And I'm saying it's insulting everyone to insist on a search!" McCarthy snarled. "We've only got Brown's word for it that he had any gold collected in the first place!"
"Brown's, and everyone else who saw him collecting it!" Blair pointed out. He looked around again. "I hate the idea that after what we've gone through, one of us is mean enough, greedy enough, to steal from one of the others."
"Well, I've got nothing to hide," Connor said. "Feel free to check my stuff."
There was a general murmur of agreement, and Blair said, "We can all go from hut to hut. Jim and I will check the amount of gold everyone else has, then two of you can check our hut. Does that seem fair?"
The others - with the sole exception of McCarthy - again murmured in agreement; even Laura McCarthy, after throwing an uneasy look at her husband, joined in.
They started with the hut shared by Connor, Serena, Rhonda and Silver; all four had about the same amount, and Blair nodded; it was about the same as he had, an amount he considered realistic for the length of time they had been picking up the nuggets. They moved on to the hut shared by Forbes, Leigh, Ross and Edwards. They, too, each had roughly the same amount of gold collected, and they moved on to the hut used by Alan Sun and the brothers.
Most of them now had their gold in the hide pouches that Silver had made, but Sun was one of the two or three who didn't yet have pouches, and were still using a tightly-woven basket.
It was instantly clear that the amount in Sun's basket was far greater than that gathered by anyone else. Sun himself stared at it disbelievingly. "That's not all mine!" he exclaimed. "But I swear to you, I didn't take Brown's gold. Someone else has put it there to make me look like a thief!"
Blair glanced at Jim. "Truth?" he asked softly.
Jim nodded. "Yes; I'm as sure as I can be that he's telling the truth."
"That's my instinct, too."
"Talk about blaming someone else when you're caught out!" Leigh growled.
"I believe him," Blair said quietly. "Alan's still carrying the gold he collected tonight - he hasn't had a chance to put it away yet; and when he knew we were going to search, he didn't make any attempt to sneak off and hide any of what he had in his hut, which I'd have expected a guilty person to do.
"Why any one of us would do something like this, I don't know. It doesn't make any sense - unless - " he glared at McCarthy - "someone is deliberately trying to cause trouble inside the group.
"I'm not going to suggest that we keep it all in one pile and simply split it twenty ways when we're rescued; some of us have been more... more conscientious about gathering than others, and it's only fair that they benefit from that. But I'll be watching, and if we discover who was responsible, I suggest we ostracise him; send him - or, in fairness, her - out of our camp and leave him to fend for himself until we're rescued. That's what's done in tribal cultures."
Sun looked over to Brown. "Go and get your bag," he said. "I don't know whether you had more or I did, but I don't suppose there was much difference. I think the fairest thing to do is split what's here evenly in two."
Brown nodded. "Thank you," he said.
Although the incident seemed to have been resolved without ill-feeling Blair, at least, knew that considerable damage had been done to the relationships inside the group. As he, Jim and Rafe settled in bed that night, he said quietly,
"We're going to have more trouble."
"But you got it all sorted out easily enough, and there didn't seem to be any ill-feeling - " Rafe began.
"Sandburg's right," Jim said. "Someone in the group is trying to cause trouble. This time it didn't work. But people are going to start looking over their shoulders at the others."
"Yes," Blair said. "First thing that'll happen - up till now, we've been working in two main groups - the hunters and the gatherers, and at mealtimes we've mixed quite happily. I'll predict that tomorrow everyone will be back inside their own little sub-groups again. Not openly hostile towards the others, but not quite trusting them, either. I'd guess that Don will carry on knapping flint with me, because I'm his teacher and he wants to learn; I think Serena will find that her gatherers spread out a little more and don't co-operate quite as happily, but they will still work together. Where it'll show is around the fire, when we're eating. We might even find people in each group taking turns guarding their huts and the gold they've gathered."
"But what happened today - it was just a practical joke, right?" Rafe said, his voice uneasy.
"There's no 'just' about a practical joke, Rafe," Blair said sadly. "The perpetrator is usually the only person to find it funny. I don't say he's necessarily a troublemaker, but he can cause a lot of trouble. For the victim... Depending on the 'joke', he can feel humiliated, his possessions be damaged, it could cost him quite a lot of money - or in an extreme case, have really serious consequences. When I was still a freshman, I saw the result of one nasty practical 'joke'; all the perp intended was to humiliate a guy who - I'll grant you - was really good, but had made himself pretty unpopular by boasting about how skilled a gymnast he was. The idea was to weaken a piece of equipment so that it would break at a crucial moment, making the guy land awkwardly. Unfortunately he landed so awkwardly he broke his back and ended up paraplegic.
"Nobody actually admitted responsibility, but it was a pretty open secret among the students who it was, and he actually left Rainier inside the month. Rumor was that most of the culprit's friends had argued that there was a risk of injury, but the guy didn't pay any attention." Blair sighed. "Up until then, I'd never thought practical joking was funny; that showed me how potentially dangerous it is.
"Today's little ploy... could have caused a lot of trouble. Fortunately, both Brown and Sun were reasonable about it. Unfortunately, whoever was responsible didn't get the reaction he wanted. I think he'll try again, probably with a different victim."
"And that'll cause more distrust," Jim said.
"Yes. God, how stupid can some people be? There are only twenty of us. We need to work together, dammit, not be split into factions!"
"Do you suspect anyone in particular?" Rafe asked.
Blair was silent for a minute. Finally, he said, "I'll tell you who I don't suspect - you two, obviously, or I wouldn't be speaking so openly to you. This guy is underhand, so I don't suspect McCarthy or Leigh - McCarthy in particular is too openly hostile, though that might be a bluff. I'd doubt it's any of Brown's friends. Edwards, Ross, Megan, Silver and Serena are too aware of the importance of working together for survival. Sun was obviously surprised, so I don't think he did it to himself. That leaves Forbes, the Russells, Rhonda and Laura McCarthy."
"I don't think it would be Rhonda or Laura," Rafe said. "They're both very quiet."
"Hidden depths, Rafe, hidden depths," Blair murmured. "I think Forbes is too sensible, and I'd hate to think it was Don - he's a nice kid. I'm not so sure about Andy, though. He's not been particularly obstreperous, but he's the kind of guy I hated to have in one of my classes, back at Rainier when I was a TA. It wouldn't surprise me to discover he's been in trouble with the law, back on Earth, though probably just minor trouble. Misdemeanors rather than actual crimes. And he's in a good position to interfere with Alan's things. "
"So basically you're saying you think it might be Andy Russell?" Jim asked.
"I don't know. I don't entirely trust him, but that's because I've seen him... I can only say showing off. It could just be that he's trying to be noticed, wanting to feel... well, important, I suppose. I have the suspicion though that if he'd taken Brown's stash, he'd either have thrown it back into the river, just to be a nuisance, or hidden it to pick up once a rescue vessel arrives. I keep coming back to the two quiet women. I can't really see Laura doing anything without her husband's knowledge - he never seems to let her out of his sight - so that brings us down to Rhonda."
"But why?" Rafe asked. "Why would she do something like that?"
"I know - there's no obvious reason why she should," Blair muttered.
"So we've talked ourselves round in a circle, and discovered you don't really have a suspect," Jim said.
"That's about it," Blair agreed. He yawned. "Well, let's just see what tomorrow brings."
Morning brought exactly what Blair had expected. Over breakfast, instead of everyone gathering around the fire as usual, the group splintered into sub-groups that almost matched the way they had finally settled into huts. The only difference was that Silver joined Edwards and Ross, and Leigh and Forbes sat together.
Rafe looked around, then said quietly, "You were right, Sandburg."
"Unfortunately," Blair agreed. "If nothing else happens, the group will probably drift together again over the next few days - a bit wary, but we're too dependent on each other not to. If our perp produces another 'joke', though... " He glanced at Jim. "I think we need to keep our eyes and ears open." He stressed the word 'ears' ever so slightly, and knew from the way Jim glanced down they up again, that the other man had understood exactly what he meant.
After breakfast they each went about their usual jobs; Serena called together her plant gatherers, Simon and Daryl Banks went off fishing, the hunters set off together. Don Russell joined Blair, who was staying behind to work some more flint; although he hoped a rescue ship would arrive soon, he wasn't depending on it.
That night, as their meal baked in the embers, Serena wandered over to where Blair was sitting with Jim and Rafe. "Sandburg, I suppose you've noticed we're collecting less now than we were when we started. We're having to go further afield, so we're losing time travelling."
"I hoped I was imagining it," Blair said. "I know hunter-gatherer tribes are usually nomadic, but they usually stay longer than four weeks in any one spot."
"I think the problem is that we don't know all the edible plants there are. We found some that were safe for us to eat, and we've concentrated on those. If we were collecting a wider range of plants, there wouldn't be the same problem."
Blair nibbled his lip thoughtfully. "Are you suggesting we should move camp?" he asked.
"Not instantly," Serena replied. "But yes, I think that we will have to move soon. Not more than maybe five miles, though."
"Yes, but if we use up all the plant resources in a given area inside a month, then move five miles... in another month we move another five miles... if rescue doesn't come for six months, we could be thirty miles away from here, unless we move at right angles, away from the river, and it's important we stay fairly near water. In any case, I'm reluctant to move even five miles from the lifeboat. I know all the animals we've seen so far have been small, but if there's a migratory large species, predators following that will also be large - and the lifeboat is our ultimate place of safety, as well as being where a rescue vessel will land. Yes, we can leave a message indicating which way we've gone and even how far, but... " He shook his head. "It's the place of safety aspect that most concerns me."
"You couldn't fly the lifeboat five miles?" Rafe asked.
"Lt. Brand might have been able to. I don't think I can - nobody expected an 'abandon ship' emergency ever to arise, and the stewards weren't ever expected to be the only crew to reach the lifeboats, so we were never given more than very basic instruction in how to fly the thing. We wouldn't even have been given that if the regulations hadn't specified that we had to know something about it. In any case, I'm not even sure that the boat wasn't damaged too badly when we landed ever to take off again safely - it was a pretty rough landing."
"I'm going to suggest to the owners that in future all crew members, including the stewards, are given full instruction in how to handle the lifeboats," Rafe said grimly.
"Do you really think they'll pay attention?" Blair asked. "Stewards are mostly students who mostly aren't likely ever to go into space again. It wouldn't be cost effective."
There was something almost predatory in Rafe's smile. "They'll pay attention," he said quietly and confidently.
Jim nodded. "I'll go with you when you go to see them," he said. "I might not be on speaking terms with my father, but he's still an important and influential businessman. Anything anyone else says might be ignored - a student employed as a steward, a group of colonists, some if not all on assisted passage... In this case, money will talk."
After they ate, as usual they headed down to the river to continue their search for more gold, although in the past weeks they had cleared a lot of the larger nuggets lying in full view and were now picking up the smaller ones that were hiding under stones. None of them were bothering about gold dust that would have to be panned for, though there was probably a lot of it; apart from anything else, they didn't have anything suitable to pan with. Blair was privately of the opinion that they had probably each gathered enough to make them all quite rich and that only greed was making them continue. At the same time, however, it gave them something to do that wasn't geared to survival; and he was well aware that for someone who had been travelling to Cygnus on assisted passage, the idea of being rich enough to be independent was probably very seductive. For himself, the thought of paying all his student loans almost as soon as they got back to Earth, and still having enough money to let him finish his studies and not have to worry about finding a job instantly, definitely appealed.
As he turned stones over in search of little pockets of small nuggets, he allowed his mind to wander from contemplation of his doctoral thesis - which wouldn't have quite the range of material as he had hoped, but would still be reasonably representative - to the sentinel. Almost absently, he picked a tiny nugget from a pocket of fine gravel and put it in the small, closely-woven basket he used while he was searching the river.
Blair had cheerfully accepted a role as Jim's companion, originally assuming that once they were rescued he would no longer be needed; now he found himself wondering how long Jim would continue to need his support. Jim obviously thought he would need it indefinitely. Could he commit his... yes, his life to supporting a sentinel? Would he have the patience? He had spoken to Jim about his mother's itchy feet; what he hadn't said was that in their own way his own feet were almost as itchy. One of the things that had drawn him to anthropology was the idea of travelling around the world, observing other cultures. He could settle for a while, but could he put down roots? Settle in one place, work in one place, travel only when he was on vacation, and only then if Jim went too?
He honestly didn't know.
After a while he became aware that the light was beginning to fade. He turned over one last stone, scooped up the two pea-sized nuggets hiding under it, put them into his basket and straightened, to splash out of the shallows. He glanced around. Rafe, working near him, had already stopped; Jim, on his other side, glanced up at the sound of splashing, and joined them. Seeing one or two others as they made their way back to camp, Blair automatically began to count heads. Someone was already back at camp; the gate, which they always closed during the day when there was nobody there, was open.
Serena was already back, throwing some wood onto the fire; Rhonda and Connor with her. Blair went to tip his latest collection into the hide bag that held everything he had gathered, Rafe and Jim following him. When they left the hut, it was to see Silver, Ross, Edwards, Forbes and Leigh coming through the gate, closely followed by the Russells. It had darkened to half light before the McCarthys arrived, and then, a minute or two later, Banks' group walked in.
Blair frowned slightly. "Anyone seen Alan?" he asked.
The others looked around, almost as if searching for the missing man, almost as if they suspected that Blair just hadn't seen him.
"He was further downstream than we were," Andy Russell said. "The last I saw, he was going further away, and then I lost sight of him. That was a while ago, though - it wasn't long after we went down to the river."
Blair considered that for a moment. "Maybe he went further than he meant to, and is having a problem getting back in the dark," he said, "but although we haven't been threatened by anything, it doesn't mean one of us on his own is safe. Jim, suppose you and I go out and see if we can meet him?"
Jim knew instantly what Blair meant; the half light was no great handicap to his sensitive vision. While there was any light at all, he could follow the river for some distance and then find his way back. He nodded. "Okay," he said.
They followed the river for what Blair decided was nearly a mile without meeting Alan Sun. "He can't have gone further than this," he said.
"We must have missed him somehow," Jim agreed.
"And yet... Unless he moved away from the river, which was going to be his guide for getting back to camp, how could you have missed seeing him?" Blair asked.
Jim glanced at him, easily seeing the confidence showing on Blair's face. "Maybe I just wasn't looking properly," he said slowly. "I was assuming that he'd be making his way back upriver to the camp... but what if he'd tripped over something he didn't see in the failing light, fallen, and maybe knocked himself out? We could have passed him because I wasn't watching the ground. Let's go back, and this time I'll keep an eye on the ground."
As they turned, Blair grabbed Jim's sleeve.
"It's almost completely dark now, Jim. I'm going to need guidance if I'm not to trip over something I can't see."
"Oh. Right." They'd only gone a few yards before Jim added, "I thought you were the one who guided me, not the other way around?"
Blair snorted. "Let's just get back to camp, Ellison... with an eye out for Alan on the way." He sighed. "It's a pity this world doesn't have a moon."
But although Jim watched, there was no sign of the missing man, until he had to give up looking because even he was having problems and struggling to see before he spotted the glow of the fire ahead of them.
They both hoped that Sun would be there in camp when they returned, but he was still missing. Neither was completely surprised; Blair in particular had complete faith that if Sun had been anywhere between the camp and the point they had turned back, Jim would have seen him.
"There's nothing we can do tonight," Blair said unhappily. "We could use burning brands to light our way and go out again, but they're not reliable and more of us could end up stuck away from shelter as the brands burned out. Ellison and I had enough problems getting back - we were just lucky he's got pretty good night vision."
The others murmured agreement as Blair fastened the gate closed.
Blair did not sleep well that night. He was worried about Sun and felt guilty about abandoning the search for him, although he knew he and Jim had done everything possible, in the failing light, to find the missing man. He tried not to toss restlessly, aware that if he did he would disturb Jim - soft snores coming from Rafe's direction reassured him that Rafe, at least, would sleep on undisturbed. It wasn't long, however, before he felt a gentle hand touch his shoulder.
"Worrying won't help, Chief," Jim said softly.
"I know," Blair replied. "I know there was nothing more we could have done in the dark. I just keep thinking he must have had an accident; he could be lying there injured, in pain, cold, afraid..."
"Unconscious or dead," Jim said bluntly. "We weren't trying to be quiet, Chief. If we'd passed him, even if he was hurt, if he'd been conscious he'd have heard us and called out."
Blair sighed. "I keep telling myself that," he murmured. "Now if only I could convince myself..."
"I know," Jim said softly. "It's one of the burdens of command." He settled down behind Blair, pulling the younger man's back against his chest and drawing both blankets over them. "I had my share of it, and I had problems when I was in command believing that when something went wrong it wasn't always my fault and it wasn't always avoidable. I know that you're feeling that responsibility right now, and there's nothing I can say that'll convince you that whatever has happened to Sun isn't your fault. But Chief, I promise you it isn't. You've done a damn good job of keeping everyone going - without you, we'd all be dead. Yes, I know several of us have survival skills, but you're the one who kept us alive when Starseeker exploded, the one who pulled us all together.
"You said right at the start that nobody should go off alone. I know we - the hunters in particular - have been a bit lax about that, but someone always had a fair idea where we were. Nobody really knows where Alan went, except that Andy said he was heading further downstream. We've no idea just how far he went. He might just have gone too far, further than we reached before we turned back, and decided to stay where he was for the night rather than try to get back in the dark - in which case he's sitting somewhere, not knowing whether he's being stalked by something, and he'll come back in the morning, very apologetic, having learned a valuable lesson."
"You don't really believe that, do you." It wasn't a question.
"It's the sensible thing to do if he got benighted," Jim said.
"That's not an answer."
"I'm just trying to persuade you to stop worrying so you can get a decent night's sleep," Jim admitted. He pulled Blair closer in silent support, and the younger man relaxed into the offered embrace.
First light found everyone moving; it seemed that nobody had slept particularly well, knowing that one of their number was missing. Indeed, it looked as if the Russell brothers were preparing to go out in search of their hut-mate without waiting to eat, but Blair called them back. "Breakfast, guys. I know you're worried about Alan - we all are - but going off without eating is silly." He glanced over at Serena. "I think looking for him is today's priority - we have enough food gathered that it won't matter if we miss today, don't we?"
It was clearly a rhetorical question, but she replied anyway. "Yes. I mean yes, we have enough gathered for today, so no, it won't matter."
As they started eating, Blair said, "I don't think it'll need all nineteen of us to look for Alan. Since he didn't make it back, I'd guess he's hurt, possibly a broken leg. If that's the case, he'll need to be carried back. I'm not being sexist when I say I don't think the women need come - none of you have the strength to help carry him. Daryl, too - you're old enough to accept a man's responsibility, Daryl, but you don't have a man's strength yet. Don, you as well. I know you're not as old as you're pretending to be. Twelve of us should be enough."
Don gaped at Blair. "How... how did you know?"
Blair's lips twisted slightly. "Personal experience. When I started at Rainier, I was a kid two to three years younger than any of the other freshman, desperately trying to pretend I was the same age as everyone else so I'd be accepted. I recognise the behaviour pattern. Most of the time it works, but just occasionally you over-compensate. I doubt anyone else noticed."
"I had to say I was eighteen," Don said. "The Colonising Board rules say that anyone under eighteen has to have someone over twenty-one to be a legal guardian, even if it's only on paper. Andy's only nineteen, and Gwen was twenty."
"In any case," Andy said wryly, "if I'm honest, Don has always been the responsible, sensible one. He mostly follows my lead, but he can always argue me out of doing something he thinks is stupid." He shrugged. "I owe him my life, you know. When the alarm sounded back on the ship and the Captain said it was probably a false alarm, Don put his foot down, told Gwen and me he was heading for the lifeboat and if we had any sense we'd go with him. I did. Gwen didn't. She was too obsessed with being 'feminine' and 'looking her best' so she could 'attract a man'. That was the only reason she wanted to go to Cygnus - to get herself a husband."
"You sound as if you didn't like her much," Megan said.
"She was what Mom made her," Don said. "We didn't really have anything in common with her. If she hadn't been our sister, no, she wasn't someone either of us could like."
As soon as they finished eating, the men headed off downriver, even McCarthy offering no objection. They took with them two of the long, straight branches the hunters had collected to make into spears, knowing that they would need a stretcher to carry Sun back; two or three jackets or even shirts stretched between them would serve to complete a stretcher.
They spread out a little, in case Sun had in fact moved away from the river, but there was no sign of the missing man. They reached the point where, Blair recognized, he and Jim had turned back the previous evening.
It was two or three minutes later before Andy said, "This is about where we were when we saw Alan going on downstream."
Jim and Blair glanced at each other, both accepting that the missing man had been further downriver than they had been able to reach, and Blair was aware of a subtle sense of relief that they had not, in fact, missed seeing him. It hadn't been safe for them to go further; they had barely managed to get back to camp as it was. Given how dark it had been, they had indeed done everything they possibly could, and he was surprised at how much that eased his conscience.
They went on for several more minutes, and then Edwards, who was a little in front, said, "I think... Is that Alan?"
As the others joined him, Blair saw the dark shape lying on the stones just clear of the water. They moved forward quickly.
Alan Sun was lying face down, the back of his head a bloodstained mess. The small basket he had been using to collect nuggets lay beside one outstretched hand, its contents - and this far downstream, where no-one else had been, he had collected several big pieces - spilled onto the rocks. Andy took an instinctive step forward; Blair caught his arm to stop him. Simon Banks crouched beside the body - there was little doubt that it was a body - and touched the back of his hand to Sun's face. "He's been dead several hours," he said quietly and unnecessarily. He glanced around, then added, "This wasn't an accident. One of us killed him."
"How can you be sure of that?" McCarthy asked, his voice dripping disbelief.
Banks glared at him. "I was a detective back on Earth; worked homicide. I know a murder victim when I see one. If he'd fallen backwards and hit his head, he'd have been lying face up. If he wasn't killed instantly - or knocked unconscious - and managed to roll over, there would have been blood on the stone his head hit. I don't see any stones with blood on them except where it's dripped down the side of his head. I'd say someone came up behind him, hit him hard enough to kill him, then threw whatever he'd used as a weapon into the river."
"But who would have wanted Alan dead?" Andy asked. "He's never hurt anyone - "
"Brown!" McCarthy exclaimed. "He had Brown's gold, remember."
"We settled that!" Blair snapped. "Someone was playing a practical joke on both Alan and Henri, and Henri was satisfied of that."
"He said he was," McCarthy replied.
"Henri was never out of sight of Joel, Daryl or myself," Banks growled before Brown could say anything.
"So maybe you were all involved," McCarthy responded. "You were the last ones back last night. Why?"
"Someone had to be last in," Ross pointed out.
"You and Laura came in just before them," Blair said. "We could just as easily ask why you were so late back."
"I don't have to explain myself to you!" McCarthy snarled. "You don't have any authority here, though you've been giving orders as if you did. You're only nominally one of the crew!"
"Well, since I was being paid to work on Starseeker, I doubt that argument would hold up in a court," Blair said. "I'll agree I wasn't a trained astronaut, but I was one of the crew." He took a deep breath. "Thinking one of our number was a thief was bad enough. Discovering that one of us is a killer is worse, since we still all have to depend on each other for survival."
"I still think it was Brown," McCarthy muttered. "And it's perfectly possible his pals are covering for him - maybe even helped him. How else could Banks suggest what happened? We've only got his word for it that he was a homicide detective! Hell, why would a homicide detective want to emigrate to a colony planet anyway?"
Banks glared at him. "I don't have to explain myself to you either!" he said. "But in the interests of clearing the air - I'm divorced and my ex-wife is contesting custody of Daryl. The guy she's currently living with - he's a complete loser. A charming waster. There's no way I'd let my son grow up influenced by him. Leaving Earth seemed to be the best way to settle the matter." He looked at Blair. "I was a good cop, Sandburg. I'd stake everything I know on my reading of what happened."
Blair nodded. "Just by looking at Alan and the ground around him, I'd agree with you," he said.
"If we were back on Earth, we'd have to leave Alan's body till Forensics could examine it," Banks went on. "But we're not, and we can't just leave him lying here till a rescue vessel arrives, can we?"
"No," Blair said. "We have two options. Bury him here, or take him back to camp and bury him there. I'm reluctant to waste the effort it'll take to carry a body back, but the spades are back there."
"Bill and I could go back to camp and get the spades," Ross offered.
Blair thought for a moment, then said, "No, I think we need to take him back, bury him there. It'll give closure to the people back at the camp, too - he and Don were quite friendly, right, Andy?" Andy nodded. "We've got the tools back there to made a coffin of sorts. And we can mark his grave. Then when we're rescued, his body can be retrieved and taken back to Earth."
The coffin was easily made of long branches fastened together with bark cord, and Alan Sun was buried later that day a little way downstream from the camp. Everyone was very subdued as they returned to camp; if anyone felt like doing anything but sitting quietly talking, nobody, even McCarthy, said so. It was the first day since their arrival that they hadn't been out gathering food - or gold from the river.
And they were still in their little social groups. Blair was quite sure that he wasn't the only one to notice that some of them kept glancing, almost suspiciously, at the other groups.
He found himself thinking about his fellow castaways again.
He was as certain as it was possible to be that the killer had been trying to set Brown up as an automatic suspect, but apart from McCarthy - who was clearly racially prejudiced - nobody had bought it.
Thinking back over the reactions of the others to finding Alan's body... They had all seemed shocked. Andy's move forward had been instinctive, the reaction of someone to seeing a friend lying there. Banks had reacted immediately, too, but if as he claimed he had been a homicide detective - and Blair saw no reason to doubt it - that was a professional response. McCarthy had been quick to accuse Brown, but Blair doubted that McCarthy had any fondness for anyone except himself - not even his wife, who was, Blair suspected, a possession, though she was hardly young and pretty enough to be a trophy wife - and, in addition, seemed to be as full of prejudice as it was possible for one man to be. Pretty well everyone else had remained quiet until Ross offered to go back for the spades.
It was tempting to think McCarthy was responsible, but Blair was honest enough to admit that was his own prejudice speaking; he did not like the man, and he knew he would prefer the culprit to be someone he disliked than discover it was one of the ones he did actually like.
He thought back to the weeks on Starseeker.
Because he was interested in the motives people had for emigrating, Blair had mostly worked among the ones on assisted passage, feeling that their reasons were often the most revealing, but he had watched the interaction of as many of the passengers as possible. Now he tried to remember who he had seen Alan Sun mixing with, and shook his head. Alan had come aboard on his own and while always pleasant hadn't actually joined any group. Blair had spoken to him, but he had been vague about his reasons for emigrating, saying only that he'd wanted a change. Even here - he had linked up with the Russells, but his relationship with them had been fairly superficial, at least on his side.
So he was unlikely to have made any enemies. And the motive for the killing hadn't been theft; the killer hadn't taken the nuggets Alan had collected the previous evening; he'd left them lying where they fell. It just didn't make sense.
The long day finally drew to an end, and everyone headed for bed.
In the morning, over breakfast, Blair said, "I already suggested that we should stay in pairs, at the very least, although we didn't always adhere to that. Now I'm saying that we must stay in groups for our own safety. Alan did nothing to make someone his enemy, so whichever one of us is a killer, we can't guarantee that he - or she - won't strike again, and for no obvious reason. There has to be safety in numbers."
"You wouldn't like to consider the suggestion that another lifeboat made it to here, and it's someone from it who killed Alan?" Leigh asked.
"No," Blair said. "If another lifeboat had got safely away and headed in this direction, we'd have seen its lights while we were still en route - but even if we hadn't, I certainly haven't seen any sign of other people here. I've gone out with Jim most days, but Bill? Frank? Megan? You're the others who've gone furthest afield. Have you seen any sign of anyone?"
There was a muttered chorus of 'No'.
"Simon, you and Daryl have been downriver fishing - did you get much further than where we found Alan?"
"Once or twice," Banks replied. "How far we went depended on how much we caught. But we have been further than that, and didn't see any signs that there were other people here."
"All right. Whoever the killer is, has to have been alone when he killed Alan. Bill, Frank and Megan are the ones who've been going off alone. Doesn't that make them the most likely suspects?" Leigh went on. "Come to that, Megan uses a boomerang. She could have been fifty yards away, used it to kill Alan and he'd never even have known she was there."
"Except that she was with us when Alan was killed," Serena said. "We went upriver two nights ago, and we were back first. And you were with Bill and Frank that night; you'd know if either one went off alone at all."
"We all stayed together," Forbes agreed. "John, you're forgetting he was killed in the evening when we were looking for gold, not during the day when we were more scattered looking for food."
"And speaking of food," Blair said, "we need to go out today to get some. We don't need meat - we've got plenty - but we do need some plant food. Just remember - stay with someone, and every pair stay in sight of at least one other pair. Or trio, or however you team up."
The hunters stayed in camp when the gatherers went off; there were necessary chores to do - collecting firewood, throwing a layer of earth into the latrine pit, finding one or two new stones to replace ones that had broken through being continuously heated and cooled in the skin 'pots' that Silver had made. The most recent batch of drying meat was ready to be put into storage, too, and the 'smokehouse' readied for the next lot.
Simon and Daryl Banks had gone with the gatherers, but Don and Blair stayed behind with the four hunters. Andy had joined up with Rafe, Forbes and Leigh, as he usually did when Don was busy working with Blair.
Although it was getting close to the earliest time that a rescue ship might arrive, Blair was quietly pessimistic about it - so he wanted to gather some more flint nodules, and they had already picked up most of the good ones close to the camp. He had no doubt that a rescue vessel would eventually find them, but he was fairly sure it wouldn't be for a while, unless Norris had in fact ignored Ingsborg's 'malfunction' announcement and sent off a distress call. So he was planning ahead, assuming that there would probably be a cold or wet season somewhere in their future. They were lucky the weather had remained mild and dry, although rain had to be falling somewhere for the river to continue flowing as generously as it was.
Once the immediate chores were finished, the entire group set off towards the river - since they were going further afield, it made sense to have the others along to help carry the flint; with luck, one trip would give them enough flint to supply them with replacements for the tools that broke - retouching had its limits.
At the river, Blair turned upstream, not admitting even to himself that he was reluctant to go back towards where they had found Alan Sun's body. As they went they scattered slightly, a few of them moving a little away from the river as they gathered some plant food. Blair followed the river, picking up nodules of flint from among the rocks at the side of the water, putting them on the bank, and keeping a quietly watchful eye on Don as he, too, gathered up nodules to be picked up as they returned to camp. It delayed them a little - even gathering food, some of the others pulled ahead of them.
They rounded a bend past a clump of bushes, and there ahead of them they saw Laura McCarthy standing, staring down at the ground. Jim gasped, "McCarthy's down!" and speeded up, stumbling as loose stones shifted under his feet. The others followed as quickly as they could.
Ted McCarthy lay sprawled on the ground, a flint knife stuck in his throat and a pool of blood beside his neck. One look at the wound was enough to tell them that he was dead; the knife had severed one of the main blood vessels.
"What happened?" Blair asked as he reached Laura.
She looked at him. "I... he... " She seemed to be in shock, but Blair was aware of what he could only call a somewhat calculating quality in her hesitation.
"What did you do?" Blair asked. "And why? He was your husband, dammit!"
"He... Sandburg, Ted killed Alan, and he was going to kill me. He... He had no reason, none... I had to defend myself. I had the knife in my hand - I'd been using it to cut some plants - and... and... Next thing I knew, he was lying there... "
"There had to be a reason," Blair said quietly.
"He said... He thought I was having an affair with Alan that started on the ship and carried on here. I mean, how stupid could that be? He never let me out of his sight!" There was a touch of hysteria in her voice. "Anyway... how could he think I'd start an affair with a man young enough to be my son?"
"Reverse thinking," Frank said. "Think of the number of older men who have affairs with girls young enough to be their daughters. He might have been tempted by a younger woman, so it was easy for him to see you tempted by a younger man."
She drew a long, sobbing breath. "How could he think that of me? We've been married for twenty-two years! I never once... " She buried her face in her hands. After a moment, she went on. "I'm not sure he was faithful, but I was!"
There didn't seem to be any answer any of them could make.
"We need to get the body back to camp," Blair said after a short silence. "I don't think we need go back for spears to make a stretcher - we can cut fresh branches. Don, Megan, you take Laura back. The rest of us will make a stretcher and bring McCarthy back."
The men watched as the trio disappeared back down the river. Once they were out of sight, Jim said, "Did any of you believe that?"
"No," Blair said. "At least, not the reason she gave. She was clever, though, pointing out that McCarthy never let her out of his sight before any of us could call her on it."
The other two nodded. "It was too... convenient," Frank Ross said. "Alan's killer might or might not have been McCarthy, but it gave her the perfect excuse to kill a husband I think she'd begun to resent - I do believe that she was telling the truth about him being unfaithful. Could be she's resented that for a long time, as well as possibly resenting the way he treated her, and finally saw an opportunity to get rid of him in a way that gained her sympathy."
"And if she continues to claim self-defence... " Jim sighed.
"Nobody can prove otherwise," Blair finished.
By the time the four men got McCarthy's body back to camp, all the others had returned - it transpired that Don had taken a slight detour on the way, letting the others know what had happened. Work was already well under way on a coffin, and Rafe, Martin, Andy and Joel, taking turns with the two spades, were digging another grave beside Alan Sun's.
There was no sign of either Laura or Megan; Serena caught Blair's eye and nodded towards the women's hut. He lowered his head in acknowledgement as Jim and Bill put the stretcher down, and turned towards the hut.
Inside it, Laura was kneeling, curled around herself, quietly sobbing; Megan knelt beside her, a comforting arm around her shoulders. Megan looked up as Blair ducked into the hut.
"How is she?" Blair asked quietly.
"Upset," Megan said as quietly, but with an odd note in her voice.
Blair raised a doubtful eyebrow, and Megan's lips twisted without humor.
"Can she stay in here now?" Blair went on. "I don't suppose she'll want to go back, alone, to the hut she shared with her husband... under the circumstances."
"Check with the others, because it'll make the hut a little crowded, but I expect it'll be all right," Megan agreed.
"We'll be ready to bury him quite soon," Blair went on. "Laura, do you want to be there?"
She raised a tear-stained face. "Not really," she whispered, "but I... I don't see how I can't go. Oh, God, Ted, why didn't you believe me?"
After the funeral, Laura retreated to the women's hut again; Megan and Serena went with her, and Rhonda and Silver weren't far behind them. The men gathered around the fire.
"What happens now?" Forbes asked.
"We've got two choices," Blair said slowly. "When the rescue vessel arrives, we tell them the truth, that two of our original survivors are now dead and that according to the evidence we have, one killed the other and was in turn killed in self-defence by his wife. The other possibility is to say there were only eighteen of us on the lifeboat."
"We can't do that!" Simon Banks exclaimed. "There have been two murders. We can't cover those up! There has to be a proper investigation of the deaths, even if we think we know what happened."
"Actually, I agree with you," Blair said. "I was just pointing out a possible alternative that I suspect one or two of us would favor because it would be the least trouble for us."
"But Laura hasn't tried to deny killing her husband," Leigh said.
"Even when there's a confession, the police still need to check everything out," Simon pointed out. "We only have Laura's word for it that McCarthy killed Alan and meant to kill her. We only have her word that she struck out in self-defence. Yes, I know that sounds harsh - but you'd be surprised how often that's put forward as a defence. Sometimes it's even true - but in many cases the wife just wants rid of her husband. Simpler, faster and more final than divorce. For a start, I'd ask the women to check her out for bruises; if McCarthy was threatening her, I'd expect her to have bruises on her arms or even her neck."
Blair made a face, got up and crossed to the women's hut. "Megan," he called.
She came to the door. "Yes?"
"Come and join us for a minute."
She followed him back to the fire.
"Megan, you're the acknowledged leader of the women," Blair said.
Frowning slightly, she nodded. "I suppose I am," she agreed, "but we tend to be fairly democratic over the things that affect us all. If one of us objects strongly to something, she can say so, and I'll listen."
"Back when we found Laura, it seemed to me that you weren't... let's say impressed by her story?"
"Not really. For a start, if she felt she was in danger all she needed to do was scream - the gatherers had spread out a little, but not that much. After we left you, we saw Martin and Andy before we'd gone more than a couple of hundred yards - well within earshot. She didn't need to stab him. But given that she did, I'm surprised that she went for the neck. For someone striking out in defence I'd have thought the chest was a more likely target. So no, I wasn't impressed. I think he probably did threaten her - I've had the feeling all along that she was... I won't say abused or even bullied as such, but certainly expected to do what he said when he said it. Maybe abused in the early days of their marriage until she learned it was easier to subordinate herself to him most of the time. Maybe she could talk him into being fairly reasonable some of the time, even a lot of the time, once she learned - and accepted - her place."
Simon nodded. "That's pretty much what I thought. In any case, I'm not sure McCarthy could have provided a reasonable defence for killing her - since they always worked together, he would have had to admit to it, and what would his excuse have been?"
"And I'll bet she did at least ninety percent of the work, when there was nobody else there to see how much he wasn't doing," Megan muttered. "He never made much secret of thinking that gathering food or firewood was beneath his dignity."
"So basically you think that she reached breaking point, and decided to kill him, using self-defence as an excuse?" Blair asked.
"Which brings us to the reason we called you out here. Can you find out if she has any bruising that would confirm her claim that McCarthy threatened her?"
"Shouldn't be difficult," Megan agreed. "But remember, threats can be completely verbal; he could have been threatening her and she stabbed him before he had the chance to actually touch her."
Simon nodded. "But some bruising would give a degree of confirmation of her claims."
"The other thing that doesn't make sense... " Bill Edwards said, almost tentatively.
"Yes?" Blair prompted.
"Alan. How could McCarthy have thought he was having an affair with Laura? They were never alone together. Can we even be sure she was telling the truth when she said McCarthy killed Alan? Might she have used that as an excuse, once she decided to kill her husband, and Alan's killer is still one of the rest of us?"
As they settled down that night, Jim told Blair, "I think we're going to have to let Simon in on this sentinel thing."
"Sentinel thing?" Rafe asked.
Blair looked over towards him. "We don't want everyone to know," he said. "Jim had enough publicity in his life over the Peru incident - I suppose you know about that?"
"And when we're rescued, we're bound to be hounded by reporters for a while - survivors of the first civilian accident in space. We'll be big news."
"Yes, we will, won't we," Rafe agreed, a resigned note in his voice.
"And that'll be bad enough. But it could get worse - for Jim. You know how some people can see or hear better than others - just as some people have very poor sight or hearing."
"All Jim's senses are better than average. Imagine being bombarded with loud noise or bright light all the time... That's why he was getting those bad headaches - for example, sounds that to you or me are pretty loud are deafening to him. Tribes back on Earth valued people with those heightened senses - called them watchmen, which a nineteenth century explorer translated as 'sentinels'. Part of the reason Jim's been so successful as a hunter is his sentinel ability. The last thing we need, though, is for someone in our group who's indiscreet to find out, and let the press back on Earth know... Even one of the younger ones in a mistaken fit of hero-worship. Can you imagine the feeding frenzy there would be? 'Stranded on a hostile planet, hero with heightened senses... ' blah blah blah?"
"God, yes. It would die down after a while, but... "
"There were always some of you we knew we could trust to keep quiet," Jim said.
"But there are one or two sayings - 'Two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead'; 'Your friend has a friend, and your friend's friend has a friend... so be discreet'," Blair added. "Yes, those sayings are cynical... but you don't even need to confide in someone. Somewhere down the line something being spoken of between two trustworthy people in a public place could be overheard by someone not trustworthy. And as I just said - hero-worship; the 'I admire this man because... so I want the world to know about him, what he can do...' syndrome. So once we'd worked out that Jim had the heightened senses, we decided it'd be simplest to keep it to ourselves."
"Now, though... Rafe, I can tell when someone is lying, and I don't think Laura is being completely truthful. I don't say she's made her whole story up, but I do think she's shading the truth," Jim said quietly.
"And since Simon is the nearest thing to a police force we have here... " Rafe began.
"We need to tell him that. He may decide to do nothing until after we're rescued - what could we do about Laura while we're here? - but he does need to know."
"I think you're right... and I'm honored that you've trusted me," Rafe said quietly.
In the morning, Blair was relieved to see that the tension that had been keeping the group split over the previous days seemed to have dissipated. With Laura's claim that her husband had killed Alan Sun, and the knowledge that although Laura herself had killed her husband it was in self-defence, there were no more suspicious glances being cast around. Indeed, it seemed almost as if everyone was glad McCarthy was no longer there; he had certainly had no friends among the other survivors.
As they began to split up to go about the day's work, Megan crossed to Blair's side. "It wasn't easy to see in the hut," she murmured. "Too dark, really. But I couldn't see any obvious bruises. I'll watch tonight when we're getting washed." They had adapted to a regime of washing once a day, in the evening after the day's work, to make the single bar of soap from Blair's pack last as long as possible.
"Right. Thanks, Megan." Then, more loudly, "If you go with Bill and Frank today, see if you can bring down one of those mini antelopes."
Megan chuckled. "Ah, you like those, Sandy, don't you? Right, I'll see if I can get one. They do make good eating," and moved away.
Blair turned to look at the others. "Don, you and I need to go and collect the flint we didn't get yesterday. Jim, Simon, Daryl, you want to come and help us? Maybe Rafe, too? If we can get several good pieces of flint today, we might not need to collect any more - we could begin looking for a rescue ship almost any time now - but I'd rather have some to hand unnecessarily than run out and have to go searching at a time that could be less convenient. I know that leaves you a little short-handed, Serena, but if Megan, Bill and Frank are lucky today, we could all go out tomorrow to get plant food."
"I'll hold you to that!" Serena laughed.
The weather had held during the weeks they had been on the planet; they had had warm, sunny days, dry and without much wind. The river had dropped a little since they first arrived, but still held plenty of water, and Blair assumed there had been rain somewhere nearer its source - unlike some of the African rivers that he knew pretty well dried up completely during the dry season. Now, as the little group of six headed upriver, past the nodules that had been laid on the bank the previous day, to continue the aborted flint-gathering session, he was aware of clouds gathering and the wind beginning to rise.
Blair edged over to Jim. "What do you think?" he asked softly.
"I think the weather's breaking," Jim replied. "You do too, don't you?"
"Yes," Blair said as Jim raised his head, obviously listening. "What is it?"
"Thunder," Jim replied. "It's still a long way away, but - yes! I can see lightning, too. I don't think we'll be affected for two or three hours yet, though."
Blair nodded. "Let's hope this isn't the start of a rainy season," he said grimly. "If the river overflows its banks, we could be in trouble."
"I'd suggest we all move into the lifeboat tonight," Jim said.
"Okay." He raised his voice. "Listen up, guys. We want to hurry this up - the way the wind's picking up, Jim and I both think there's going to be a storm soon. Rafe, Don, Daryl, you head back now, collecting the stone that we laid out yesterday. Put it in the lifeboat, and then start putting all the loose things into the lifeboat too - the spades, the branches that have been gathered to make into spears, Jim's bow and arrows. Don't touch anyone else's gold, but put your own in there as well. And your blankets. Once you've done that, stay together, and go and see if you can find the others, tell them to get back to camp and that they should put their things into the boat. You should get the gatherers easily enough, but don't risk going too far looking for the hunters. Rafe, you're in charge. Simon, Jim and I will go on a little further, but we won't be more than an hour behind you."
"Shouldn't you come back with us?" Daryl asked with a worried glance at his father.
"I want to get a little more flint," Blair said, "and we think we've got two or three hours before the storm breaks. Don't worry, Daryl - we won't take any chances."
As the three turned to go, Simon opened his mouth to say something; Blair caught his arm, mouthing 'We need to speak to you in private'.
Simon waited until the others had gone about a hundred yards before he said, quietly but forcefully, "What's so important that you'd stop me from going back with my son?"
"It's a little hard to explain," Blair said. "It'll be hard for you to swallow, but it's something that can be proved. And it might help us work out exactly what happened to McCarthy, even if it still leaves the reason for Alan's death slightly... ambiguous. Let's go on and get some more flint while we talk."
Rather to their surprise, however, Simon proved amazingly accepting of Jim's senses. "I had a friend at school who could hear things before anyone else did," he said. "And whispers that nobody else could hear. But it used to get him in trouble, sometimes. None of the adults would believe him, and even when he tried to prove it, they still accused him of managing to cheat. Eventually his parents moved and we lost touch."
"So you can understand why we don't want everyone to know about Jim's senses?" Blair asked.
"Some of the others wouldn't believe it, but one or two might accuse you of listening in on their conversations - "
"And one or two of the younger ones, like the Russells, might, in all innocence, talk about it to a reporter once we get back, and cause a lot of hassle Jim could well do without. It's going to be bad enough, the media frenzy when we get back, without adding anything else to the mix," Blair said. "I'm prepared to bear the brunt of it - I'm used to standing up in front of a class of students and talking, answering questions; a bunch of reporters won't be that different, and if we can persuade them to concentrate on me, the rest of you should be able to avoid too much publicity. In a way it's my job, anyway - the only crew member to survive." He bent and picked up a flint nodule, putting it on the bank away from the other stones. "We don't need to go much further; another couple of pieces and that should be enough."
"What about McCarthy?" Simon asked.
"As the nearest thing to a police force that we have, I think you should ask Laura for details of what happened, pointing out that the authorities will need to know. If she says she already told us, point out that when she did she was upset, but now she's calmed down she can tell you more coherently... God, I'm trying to tell you, a detective, how to do your job! Anyway, Jim can detect nuances in her voice that will tell him if she's lying. If he stands where you can see him and she can't, he can signal you if she's lying - "
"And I can shade my next question accordingly. Yes."
Blair picked up another two nodules that were lying close together, scooped up a big nugget from under one and pushed it into his pocket. "This'll do me." He grinned. "Want to take five minutes to see if you can get one or two nuggets before we start back?"
"What about the storm?" Simon asked.
Jim tilted his head as he listened. "Still a long way away. I think we can risk a few minutes."
They searched quickly, turning over big stones to reveal the smaller pebbles underneath, and within the five minutes Blair has specified all had gathered several good pieces. Then they headed back, Blair carrying the two pieces of flint. As they reached other pieces he had picked out the other two gathered them up, and all three were carrying as much as possible by the time they reached camp. As they put the flint into the storage compartment, noting that the rest of the flint had been stored there as well, along with a lot of the wood they had gathered up for spears and arrows - the compartment was very full - they heard voices that signified the return of at least some of the others.
They retrieved Blair's pack, their blankets and pouches of gold, adding the new pieces, and put them carefully beside their seats inside the lifeboat, then turned to greet the returning gatherers.
"You think we might have a problem with the weather?" Serena asked Blair as the others scattered to their huts to collect their things before moving into the lifeboat. "I noticed the clouds, and I don't like this wind. I was thinking of heading back even before the others found us."
"We're almost certain there's a storm blowing up," Blair replied. "The huts have done us well so far, and with those big leaves thatching them they shouldn't leak, but if the river overflows... There's no higher ground to move to, but we should be safe in the lifeboat; something built to withstand the vacuum of space should protect us from floodwater. I just wish we knew where the hunting party has gone. I'd be happier if they were back too."
"It's not raining yet," Leigh commented. "Until it does, is there any reason we shouldn't try to add to our fortunes?"
"It could very well be raining further upriver," Blair said. "It could have been raining there for several hours. If so, the river will soon be rising, possibly as a flash flood. I'd have taken the risk - briefly - a couple of hours ago; I wouldn't risk it now. Incidentally - Jim, Simon - I think the three of us should go and collect the gold pouches belonging to Megan, Bill and Frank, in case a flood carries away the huts before they get back."
"You really think that's likely?" Andy asked nervously.
"It's not impossible," Jim said. "I've seen one or two flash floods back on Earth, and it's surprising how destructive they can be. If there had been higher ground anywhere around, I'd have suggested building our huts there; but there wasn't."
"Jim's right," Blair said. "So-called primitive cultures rarely put permanent settlements on low-lying ground. It took 'civilised' man to build on flood plains, then complain when their houses were affected by flooding. We didn't have any choice - we had to stay close to the lifeboat, and I didn't have the skill to steer it towards the hills over there."
The three men went quickly to the huts, retrieved the three pouches and the blankets, and went back to the lifeboat. Megan's was easily distinguished, and kept apart from the other two; since they weren't sure which of the other pouches belonged to Bill and which to Frank, they kept the other two bags together, but Silver was quick to point out that because the two men had been friends for many years, they weren't going to fall out over ownership of the bags.
"They'll probably share what they've got, anyway," she said.
Jim was growing increasingly restless; after a while Blair was aware of hearing distant thunder, and said so.
Jim nodded. "I don't think it'll stay dry much longer. I wish the others were back."
Even as he spoke, Silver, sitting beside the door, said, "Here they are!" She leaned out and waved, beckoning. Two or three minutes later, the three hunters arrived and climbed into the lifeboat. They were empty-handed.
"Sorry, Sandy," Megan said. "We didn't find any animals. They all seem to have moved away overnight."
"Animals have an instinct for bad weather," Blair said. "We think there's a storm blowing up."
"You could be right - the wind has risen quite badly," Bill commented.
"Since we think the weather is breaking," Blair told them, "we took the liberty of bringing your pouches of gold into the lifeboat, in case the river flooded and carried away the huts before you got back. Incidentally, I just remembered - " He glanced at the 'kitchen' area - "how are we for water?"
"There's none in the boat!" Serena exclaimed. "Remember we emptied the tank after we arrived? We never got around to refilling it - it was easier just to boil water from the river."
"We need to get some - quickly. The boat's water tank - Simon, Jim, you two are pretty strong. Come on - let's try to get it filled, or at least partly filled, while we can."
Although the water tank was fitted to the wall of the boat, it could be slipped off its mounting. They carried it quickly to the river, removed the cap from the filler hole and tilted it so that the water began to run in. It was slightly muddy, but the mud would settle fairly quickly.
The distant hills were no longer visible, hidden by what looked like falling rain, but they could all now see the lightning flashing in the direction of the hills, and hear the long rumbles of thunder that followed. Blair watched the river carefully, looking for the faintest sign that the water was beginning to rise more rapidly; and he was aware that Jim was listening intently. "Careful," he murmured. "You don't want the thunder to deafen you."
Jim nodded. "I know," he said. "But I don't want to be taken by surprise by a flash flood. Even a couple of minutes' warning could make all the difference between saving the water tank and losing it as we struggle to save ourselves."
When the tank was around three-quarters full, Blair said, "I think that'll do us. I don't want to risk staying at the river much longer - and a full tank is supposed to be adequate for fifty people for a week."
"I don't hear floodwater yet," Jim said, "but I'd agree; I'll be glad to get away from the river."
They fastened the cap onto the opening, carried the water tank back to the lifeboat and, with an effort, slid it back onto its mounting. Blair glanced around at the others. "Did we pick up everything it would be a nuisance to lose?" he asked. "Because now is the time to remember it - not after an overflowing river has carried away everything we left lying."
There was silence for a moment, then a tentative voice said, "The seats for the latrine?"
"We broke two of them apart and put the bits into the storage compartment," Rafe said. "There wasn't room for more, but we thought two would do - it won't take long to nail them together again, and we can always make more if we need to."
"Don, you remembered to pick up all the flint-working tools?" Blair asked above a long rumble of thunder.
"Yes. I wasn't going to forget those! I want to take mine back home when we're rescued - as a memento, if nothing else. But I'm beginning to think that when we do get back, I want to go to university, study anthropology like you."
Blair smiled. "You could do a lot worse," he said. "For someone who doesn't mind travelling, there are some good anthropological jobs to be had with the Space Exploration Board - and your experience here could give you leverage to get one of them."
"Is that what you're going to do?" Don asked.
"At one time I thought I might, but now... I've changed my mind. No, it's nothing to do with the accident; I've begun to realize, these past weeks, that I'm not as much of a traveller as I thought I was, and I do have a commitment I've been reluctant to accept. But I'm ready to accept it now." Blair glanced around, pausing for a split second as his eyes met Jim's, and saw that his message had been received and understood.
The noise of the river - which had been a constant, familiar sound during their weeks on the planet - suddenly increased, and Blair knew that the flash flood they had feared had reached them. Through the open door he could see that the water was already beginning to overflow onto the bank; he moved quickly to his seat, and pressed the button that closed the door. Moments later, they heard rattling on the roof, and knew the rain had reached them as well.
The viewscreen was working, and they watched as the water deepened around the lifeboat. Several of the fragile huts and walls they had built were quickly carried away, though some remained in place; and the weight of the boat held it in place, though Blair at least knew that if the water got too deep, the boat would probably float and be carried downstream. That worried him; although being moved a few miles to another site could be useful from the point of view of giving them a fresh supply of plant food - once the water level dropped - it would take them away from the two bodies that had to be retrieved, making it hard to find them, and might wash the lifeboat further than a few miles - even into the sea that the river undoubtedly finally reached. That would be bad. He tried to remember if he had seen any sign of a large body of water as the lifeboat descended, but couldn't recall noticing one.
Something bumped against the boat, jolting it slightly forward, then it settled again. "Water's getting deeper," he said.
"How could it get so deep so fast?" Martin asked. "It's got miles of flat land to spread over!"
"Have you ever seen pictures of flooding back on Earth?" Frank asked. "Some areas can flood to a depth of several feet very quickly."
Blair nodded. "It's not long started raining here, but we don't know how long it's been raining upriver. The river could have a dozen tributaries all pouring water into it. I'm hoping though that because the water can spread out over such a large area it won't get terribly deep."
The actual thunderstorm didn't last long, but four days later, it was still raining and a quick check of the viewscreen showed that the lifeboat was still surrounded by water. Fortunately it hadn't become so deep that the lifeboat actually floated, and that was one weight off Blair's mind; but by the end of the fourth day he was becoming concerned about morale. With nothing to do, everyone was getting bored. Certainly they had had nothing to do while the lifeboat was travelling to the planet, but there had been the anticipation of making landfall to keep their spirits up. Now there was the uncertainty of how long the wet weather would last, and no certainty of rescue in the near future to look forward to.
The lack of privacy didn't help.
Blair himself spent part of the time making notes; he could get a paper out of this - hell, he could get at least two papers out of it; one on survival, and one on the problems and reactions of several people stuck in close quarters, totally unable to get away from each other.
One interesting development, in the last few hours, was that Leigh had moved over to Laura, and was speaking softly to her. She seemed to be responding quite animatedly, and Blair glanced at Jim, who was sitting beside him. "What are they saying, Jim?"
"Wouldn't listening be a breach of what little privacy we have?" Jim muttered.
"If it was anyone but Laura, I wouldn't consider it, but I don't trust her."
Jim made a face. "I don't trust her either, but eavesdropping... "
"Jim, don't we owe it to the two dead men to... well, investigate the woman we know killed one of them? She claimed to be absolutely faithful, but already - just four days after her husband... died - she seems to be getting very friendly with another man."
Jim tilted his head slightly, and concentrated. Blair reached over and laid a hand on the other man's thigh, grounding him. After some moments, Jim hissed softly. "She's being amazingly indiscreet... What she told us... she wasn't totally lying, McCarthy did kill Alan, but not because he thought Laura was having an affair with him. McCarthy was a thief... He wasn't caught, but he'd stolen something from Alan's family and Alan had seen him. Didn't apparently recognize him but McCarthy was afraid he would, so... And it seems that Leigh knew McCarthy, knew he was a thief. Leigh said something about them having to be discreet still, because Laura's whole - well, alibi, depended on everyone thinking that she killed McCarthy in self-defence, and if anyone guessed that she'd planned it to get rid of him because she'd fallen in love with someone else... "
Blair looked slightly sick. "That means she was lying about being faithful - "
"And makes it pretty certain that Leigh knew beforehand what she meant to do."
"You know... In Leigh's place, I don't think I'd trust her all that much. If she killed one husband because she wanted another man, what's to stop her doing it again?"
"I know," Jim agreed. "So - what do we do?"
"We can tell Simon, but I don't know how we can prove anything without admitting you overheard them talking."
During the night it stopped raining, and in the morning they could see in the viewscreen that the water level was dropping. By late afternoon, it had dropped enough that Blair finally opened the door, and they all went outside, splashing in the six inches or so of flood water that still covered the ground. A quick check showed that a lot of mud had settled in the latrine trench - once the water had dropped that final six inches, they would have to dig another one. The two graves were still intact, though Blair had expected little else; they had buried the two men far enough from the river that the full force of the water hadn't eroded the ground there. One or two of the wattle walls were still roughly in place, held because they were firmly fastened to the uprights - the longer ones had been quite deeply embedded - again, they had put the huts far enough from the river that the full force of water hadn't hit them.
"But we'll probably have to sleep in the lifeboat for a few nights yet," Blair said. "The ground will be too wet to sleep on. But in the morning, we can make a start on gathering materials to rebuild the huts, as long as the rain doesn't start again."
"We might manage to get some plant food, too," Serena said, "though we'll have to travel a bit. Four days isn't enough to let the ones we've been gathering recover."
They scattered a little, in twos and threes, glad to stretch their legs even although they were wading through inches-deep water, but also glad to get away from everyone else, if only for an hour or so. Several of them went towards the river, but quickly discovered that the closer they got the faster the water ran, and most quickly turned back.
Out of the corner of his eye, Blair saw a sudden scuffle, and turned quickly, to see Laura and Leigh gripping each other's arms. Before he could do anything, Leigh fell backwards into the water, dragging Laura with him. She screamed as she fell, a high, piercing note cut off as her head went under water, and then both were gone, carried away in the fast current.
Bill and Frank began a splashing run towards the river; "No!" Blair yelled.
They stopped, but Frank looked round. "We've got to try to save them!"
"You'll never get them," Blair said. "You'd be carried away yourselves. I don't like it, but there are times when rescue is impossible without risking other lives."
"He's right," Simon said.
"But what happened?" Daryl asked.
"I'm not sure," Blair said quietly. "I turned just before they fell in. It looked as if one of them - possibly Leigh - had maybe overbalanced and Laura tried to save him, but he fell in anyway and pulled her in with him. But that's just a guess. But in any case, they'd gone far too close to the edge of the actual river."
""Will we be able to get their bodies later, when the water goes down a bit more?" Martin asked.
"We can search downriver as far as it's feasible to go," Blair answered, "but seriously? I don't think so."
That night, as the sixteen remaining survivors settled down to sleep, Jim said very softly, "What do you really think happened?"
"Truthfully? I think Laura tried to push Leigh in, and he managed to pull her in with him."
"Could be she saw the fast-moving water as a way of getting rid of a boyfriend - or would-be boyfriend - who knew too much, planned to claim his death was a complete accident, and aimed to make a completely fresh start. But that's just a guess." He was silent for a moment, then went on. "It solves our other problem, though; we have her statement that McCarthy killed Alan, we know she killed McCarthy, and she and Leigh - who might or might not be a complete innocent caught up in it all - drowned in an accident."
"I just hope the authorities don't see the drowning as a very convenient removal of someone we're accusing of murder," Jim murmured.
"Or a very convenient way of blaming someone who's already dead for the murders," Blair agreed.
Next morning the water level had dropped a little more, though the ground was still flooded.
As a watery sun broke through the thinning clouds, Serena took nine of the party plant-hunting; Jim, Blair, Simon, Rafe, Bill and Frank set off downriver to see if the bodies of either Laura or Leigh had been caught on anything and were recoverable. However, although they went a distance that Jim estimated to be close on ten miles before they turned back, they saw no sign of either.
It was a tired group that finally returned to the lifeboat and slumped into their seats. Megan moved over to join Jim and Blair as they sat in the pilot and co-pilot seats.
"I never did get the chance to check Laura for bruises," she said quietly, "but I don't suppose it matters now. What do you think? She knew we were suspicious, and threw herself into the river? Leigh tried to stop her and was pulled in?"
"It's possible," Blair said. "Not something we'll ever know, though."
"No," she agreed, and went back to her own seat.
The others had already eaten, and Serena hurried to take the returned men a meal. As they ate, Rafe said, "Must we tell anyone exactly what happened?"
"What do you mean?" Simon asked.
"Well... Why don't we just say the deaths were all accidents? That Alan fell and hit his head on a sharp stone, killing himself; McCarthy was accidentally cut badly and bled to death before anyone found him; and Laura and Leigh did fall into the river and were swept away; we've searched, couldn't find them, and assume they drowned."
"McCarthy's the weak link in claiming they were all accidents," Simon said. "If we're not found for another six months or so, his body will have decayed to the point where it won't be too obvious his injury is to the neck; if we're found tomorrow, as soon as his body is retrieved any competent medical examiner is going to know that injury was not an accident."
"Then why don't we just say there were only the sixteen of us on the lifeboat in the first place? It would save a lot of hassle," Rafe went on, repeating what had been one of Blair's earlier suggestions.
"And if a mining corporation sets up here and finds the bodies?" Blair asked. "No, we've got to tell the truth about Alan and McCarthy. As for what happened to Laura and Leigh, we've only got speculation, but Megan's suggestion, that Laura felt guilty, jumped into the river and pulled Leigh off-balance when he tried to stop her, so that he fell in too, does make sense. So - as the only crew member here, I'll have to report back to the Colonising Board, and that's what I'll tell them. McCarthy accused Laura and Alan of having an affair, and killed Alan, then tried to kill her; she hit out in self-defence and killed him; then presumably felt guilty, Leigh tried to stop her drowning herself and drowned with her. That's the truth as we know it, and if we tell it, rather than making up something, none of us have to worry that one of the others will let a different story slip."
There was a murmur of agreement.
They were just finishing breakfast next morning when a mechanical droning sound drew their attention. Martin, sitting fairly near the door, moved quickly to it and looked out, in time to see another vessel, a little bigger than the lifeboat, settling on the ground a few yards away.
"We've saved!" he exclaimed as he stepped out.
The others followed him in an excited rush as the door of the rescue vessel opened. Four men got out, to find themselves surrounded by a noisy group, everyone talking at once.
Blair pushed forward, automatically recognizing the commander by his insignia. Two others were of lesser rank; the fourth appeared to be a civilian.
"Sandburg, sir. I was the steward assigned to this lifeboat; the regular crewman assigned to it didn't have time to reach it." As he began to speak, the others fell silent.
"Commander Gratton," the officer introduced himself. "How many...?"
"Sixteen of us now, sir. Since we landed here, four have died. As far as I know, we were the only lifeboat to escape from Starseeker, and over half of the passengers assigned to this boat didn't reach it in time."
"There will be an official enquiry, of course, but... What happened?"
"Everything seemed normal before the alarm sounded; Captain Ingsborg announced that they thought it was a malfunction, but that we should treat it as a lifeboat drill. But not many people really hurried; not even the crewmembers assigned to the lifeboats, unless they were kept busy trying to track down why the alarm sounded. I chose to treat it as a genuine emergency; but only twenty of us had made it to the lifeboat when Starseeker exploded. I had closed the door, opening it as the personnel assigned to the boat reached it then closing it again, so when we were thrown away from Starseeker, we were airtight. But I didn't see any lights to indicate that any other lifeboat had escaped."
Gratton nodded. "Yours is the only emergency beacon we could detect. Now - you say you've had four deaths since you reached here. From injuries?"
"No," Blair said. He explained what had happened, adding, "All that happened in just the past week," and Gratton sighed.
"Pity we didn't get here a little quicker, then, but we came as fast as we could."
The civilian had been standing quietly, but now he stepped forward. "And you have no idea at all what caused the explosion?"
Blair looked at the man, wondering who he was. "None," he said. "Captain Ingsborg might have been trying to avoid a panic when he said it was probably a malfunction, but at the same time, if he had thought it was serious, he would have ordered us to go straight to the lifeboats instead of saying we should treat it as a drill."
"But you chose to treat it as serious."
"Yes. I really thought some of the other stewards would, too. We're - we were - mostly students on one or two journey contracts; none of us exactly blase about space travel. Maybe the regular crewmen assigned to all the other lifeboats arrived, took over, and kept the doors open to let the passengers enter. But Lt. Brand never reached this one, and I was nervous enough to treat the situation as a genuine emergency."
"Don't sell yourself short, Sandburg," Rafe said. "You had a job to do, to be in charge of the lifeboat and save lives, and you did it."
The civilian whirled. "Mr. Sinclair! You're alive!"
Rafe moved forward. "Hello, Evershed. You'll be glad to hear I have some suggestions for you."
"I'm just glad to see that you're all right, sir."
By now the others were all gaping in surprise, wondering just who Rafe was. Gratton, however, obviously understood. "Mr. Sinclair? Your father will be happy to hear you escaped. Er... Do you agree with Mr. - er - Sandburg's assessment of what happened?"
"Yes," Rafe said quietly. "I owe my life to his actions. I also owe my life to Jim Ellison, here; I was too stunned at the idea something could possibly have gone wrong to move, and he pulled me along, made me go to the lifeboat with him. And here - several of our number have survival skills that made life here relatively easy. But we all owe a great debt to Sandburg. He saved our lives by treating the situation seriously, he kept his head, he organized us here... It wasn't his fault, or anyone's, that McCarthy was jealous and possessive without reason, and eventually saw an opportunity to remove a man he saw as a possible rival, then decided to punish his wife for an infidelity of which she was innocent. It wasn't his fault that Laura defended herself, then felt so guilty she decided to kill herself, and Leigh was just unlucky that she pulled him into the water with her when he tried to save her."
Jim and Blair glanced at each other, exchanging in that look a thankfulness that they had never shared their full knowledge with Rafe; in all innocence, believing what he was saying, he was establishing a reasonable explanation for all the deaths.
Gratton was looking around. "It's all very wet."
"It was fine until a week ago," Rafe said. "Then the weather broke and the river overflowed. We've been stuck in the lifeboat for a week."
"In that case you'll probably all be glad to get away from here," Gratton said. He indicated his vessel.
"We have one or two things to pick up," Blair said. "I'm officially reporting that we found gold in the river here; whether it's worth exploiting I don't know, but we collected some for ourselves. And I know Don wants to take back a memento." He grinned at the young man. "And I don't know, but shouldn't we take back the two bodies we have buried here so they can be properly buried back on Earth? The two who drowned... They could be anywhere further downstream. We did go downstream several miles to search for them, and couldn't find them."
"Show me where the ones you buried here are, and I'll send the boat back down to get them, then get the crew to check downstream to see if there's any sign of the other two," Gratton said.
Blair nodded, and as the others turned towards the lifeboat to retrieve their things, he took Gratton over to the two graves. The markers they had put at them were still there. Then he, too, went back to the lifeboat for his pack. Like Don, he took some of the tools he had been using on the flint, pushing them into the pack, then pushing the bag of gold into it as well.
He was flattered to discover that everyone chose to take their flint knives as a memento; Megan collected the boomerangs she had made and Bill his atlatl as well as their bags of gold. Blair paused, looking at the four bags belonging to the dead. He glanced at Jim and Rafe, who had waited for him. "Can I suggest we take those and give the gold in them to charity once we get home?"
"Good idea!" Jim said.
"And Rafe - just who are you?"
Rafe grinned. "And you were a crewman? Doesn't the name 'Sinclair' mean anything to you?"
"Well, the Colonising Board contracts ships from an owner called Sin... " Blair's mouth dropped open. "You're... "
Rafe nodded. "That's my father. Rafe is my first name, but it's one that could be a surname. I was on Starseeker incognito to assess crew performance, and see if the passengers had any... well, grievances about the way they were treated. I was glad to discover that the crew all performed excellently and there were no grievances - but I'll definitely be giving the lifeboat situation a poor report."
"It is difficult to be prepared for all emergencies... " Blair said.
"But the provision of food, and for finding food once we made planetfall, was very poor. In addition, I'll suggest that the stewards get proper training in handling a lifeboat, and that all crewmen get training in how to find food after making planetfall. We were just incredibly lucky that you, Jim and a handful of the others knew how to find food."
They left the lifeboat, and crossed to the rescue vessel.
It took them to a much larger ship. Evershed hurried Rafe off; the last words Jim heard as the two disappeared were, "...father will want to hear from you that you're all right." He sighed, envying Rafe a father who cared.
Gratton handed everyone else over to - "Mr. Durant is the chief steward; he'll look after you," and disappeared, following Evershed and Rafe. The other two crewmembers remained in the small rescue vessel.
Durant grinned a welcome. "Gentlemen, ladies. If you'll come with me, I'll show you to your cabins. Captain Hayes and Mr. Evershed will be wanting a word with you later, but I'm sure you'd like to freshen up first."
"Any chance you can supply us with a change of clothes?" Blair asked. "Or at least get us something to wear while we get these ones washed? We've been stuck for the past week not able to get out of the lifeboat, and you don't need to tell us we stink - we know it! And razors - I for one will be glad to get rid of this beard."
"Razors are easy. I'll see what I can do about clothes, Mr. ?"
"Sandburg. I was the steward assigned to the lifeboat. Thanks."
"And are you the only survivors from Starseeker?" Durant asked as he turned to lead them in the opposite direction from Gratton. "I know yours was the only beacon we picked up. Were you the only ones to reach your lifeboat?"
Blair nodded. "There were four others, but they died on the planet. As for everyone else who should have been with us... Nobody believed it could be a genuine emergency. A lot of the passengers never made it to the lifeboats, and I think all the other boats were caught with their doors open when Starseeker exploded, maybe letting someone in. As it was, we were lucky - I'd just closed the doors behind two passengers who arrived a matter of seconds - maybe a minute - before the explosion." There was no harm in letting the chief steward know that - he had already told Gratton what had happened, he had no doubt Rafe was by now explaining things in detail to the Captain - and someone in Durant's position could keep the scuttlebutt reasonably accurate.
"This is the passenger lounge," Durant said as they reached what was obviously the area assigned for passengers and indicating the first door. "The cabins are down here. There are so few of you, you can have separate cabins."
"I think I'd like to share a cabin with my son," Simon said.
"No problem," Durant replied.
Jim and Blair looked at each other. "I'll go in with Sandburg," Jim said.
Durant looked a little surprised. "But you weren't crew, Mr. ?"
"Ellison. No. But we've become good friends in the last few weeks."
Blair nodded. "We really would like to be together."
"If you're both sure," Durant said. He was clearly surprised that someone who had been a colonist would be so ready to associate closely with a man who had been one of the crew - there was basically a social barrier there.
"We're sure," Jim told him.
Alone in the four-berth cabin, Jim turned to Blair. "Are you quite sure?" he asked quietly.
"Yes. I've had plenty of time to think about things, and I find I can't stand the idea of you finding someone else as a guide. When I told Don I was prepared to make the commitment I'd been dodging, I meant it.
"Mom brought me up to be a traveller like her, and I don't deny I enjoyed travelling. I wasn't sure I could commit to staying put... but then I started to think, and I realized I'd stayed put at Rainier for ten years. So yes, I can commit to staying in one place, if the incentive is right.
"I do want to go back to Rainier, get my doctorate... I've devoted too much of my life to working for it just to abandon it; but after that... Well, after that I can look for work anywhere."
Jim grinned. "I still don't want anything to do with my father, but do you know what my home town is?"
Blair shook his head.
Blair's jaw dropped for a moment, and then he laughed. "That's your home town, so I'd guess that's the one you feel most inclined to use your skills to work for, now you know what they are?"
Jim nodded. "Although I turned my back on the place, I've been feeling just a trifle guilty about it."
"So... we go back to Cascade, I get my doctorate, you...?"
"I could get a job as a cop. After I quit the army I took some time out to think what I wanted to do, and I did consider becoming a cop, till Dad interfered in my life once too often and I decided to emigrate instead. With my army training, I'd get in on the fast track. And you could always try to get into the police as a forensic anthropologist."
Blair looked thoughtful. "That's not been my main field of study, though I'm not totally ignorant of it - my specialty has been cultural anthropology. But if I took a few classes... Yes, I don't see why not."
"And we buy a house together?" Jim asked.
"Yes. I'm not sure what'll happen if either one of us wants to marry, but for the moment, at least, we need to stay together."
There was a sharp knock on the door. Blair moved over quickly and opened it. A steward stood there, a trolley beside him. "You asked for razors, sir? And clothes?"
"Yes. Thank you."
"We've only got general-purpose overalls available, but if you put your clothes outside your door, we'll get them washed as soon as possible, and mended if necessary." He handed over two razors. "What sizes of overall?"
They told him, he selected two and gave them to Blair.
With the door shut again, Blair grinned. "Okay, let's get shaved... and showered... put our clothes out to be washed... and then I'd suggest we go and see how the others are getting on."
"You still feel responsible for them?"
"Well... in a way. Though I suppose Rafe is really the one who should be... Told you he seemed very inquisitive, didn't I?"
"Yes, you did. I envy him, having a father who cares... "
But when they finally got home, Jim discovered that despite their misunderstandings, he had a father who cared, as well.