Shielded by the Rakian Scientist: Chapter Three

What was he doing? Kennet railed at himself. He had projects enough already.

And whatever this woman thought, he was certain that the Garrison hadn’t been so sloppy as to have brought this… creature with them. He scowled slightly. The very thought was insulting, and given Ship’s method of travel, technically impossible.

Well, nearly so.  

He’d check again. 

He always checked.

Guiding the woman into one of the smaller conference rooms, he stopped short.

“There is not a suitable place inside for your horse,” he explained. “However, there is a stable outside. Would that be acceptable?”

The human woman looked around, blinking, as if all the fire had burned out of her.

He didn’t like it.

And he didn’t know what to do, which he liked even less.

“Here.” He pulled out a chair for her, and put the box holding the pieces of the flying creature down on the far end of the table. 

At the replicator panel set into the wall, he programmed up Adena’s favorite drink.  In moments he had a warm mug pressed into the woman’s hands. “Drink this, and I’ll be right back.”

Grabbing the dangling reins, he led the horse off towards the stables. At least, he tried to.

The massive beast refused to budge, just lowered its head and rolled its eyes.

The woman looked up from the mug. “Go ahead and go with him, Goliath. I’ll be fine.”

Goliath chuffed. Clearly, he wasn’t so sure about that, but was willing to humor his mistress.

Kennet didn’t care, as long as the animal moved.

Quickly he led it along the shortest path to the stables that had been built in the first days after the Garrison had arrived on Crucible.

The air sleds were quiet, fast and efficient. but Nic insisted on using local beasts whenever they could, in order to disturb the local population as little as possible. 

A boy from Grasmere came up daily to care for the animals, and Kennet was pleased to find an empty stall and the grain boxes full in the warm building.

The animal settled, he hurried back to the woman, slowing his steps as he came closer to the door. She would be fine. Nothing here would harm her. But that didn’t explain his sense of urgency.

“Shall we start again?” He sat across from the table, watching her.

Her cheeks had more color now.

That was just an observation. It certainly didn’t mean that he had been concerned.

“My name is Kennet. I am the analyst of our group, so it is good that you have brought the specimen to me.”

She looked at him over the rim of the mug and put it down slowly. “I’m Zuri Sturmveld. I’m from the village of Solibek, in the northern mountains.” She tweaked an eyebrow up. “Pleased to meet you, and sorry the flyer tried to eat your face.”

Kennet lips twitched. “If I had allowed it to do so, the fault would have been my own.”

She shook her head, wide eyes fixed on his. “The rumors said the soldiers from the stars were fast, but I didn’t even see you draw a weapon.”

Ah. A topic for another time. Or never. 

That was also an acceptable time.

Kennet could still feel the slightly sticky goo from the creature’s innards on his claws. It was unpleasant, but certainly not the worst thing he’d sliced open.

“Northern mountains,” he muttered, flicking open a globe showing his updated maps of Crucible, repositioning and zooming in until it showed the area to the north of Ship. “Somewhere over here?” He tapped the range close to where Adena’s aunt Vania lived, in the foothills bordering the Haleru’s territory.

“No…” Zuri’s wide eyes were fixed on the map. “We’re more to the east, over here.” She reached for the hologram, pulling the focus to the side, and further north. “Halfway up the mountain, there’s a little valley.”

“Let me,” Kennet started to take control of the map from her, then lowered his hand at her glare.

“Why don’t you show me how instead?” 

That was reasonable.

Not entirely efficient, but he didn’t mind. Much.

“Move your hands like this,” he lay his fingers over hers. “Slowly now.”

The view changed, bit by bit, until with a slip the globe spun wildly before them.

Zuri covered her face with her hands, laughing. “Not what I meant to do, but fun anyway. Alright, you steer, and I’ll tell you where to go.”

Soon enough the image focused on a small valley near the top of the peaks that lay at the northwestern-most point of the range that curved down, cutting off the grasslands from the river and forest that lead to Raccelton, and down to the coast.

“The lake is fed from the waters that come down from Mount Urhom. The water is clean, if a little cold,” Zuri explained, running the tip of her finger down the wavering blue line that trailed down the mountain’s western slope. “It collects in the lake here, and then continues down to the lowlands.”

Kennet nodded, thinking. The lake looked as if it covered the valley floor. With a flick of his fingers, he lay his most recent satellite imagery over the map.  “These houses further back into the valley. That’s your village?”

She nodded, reaching for her home, before pulling her hand away sharply. “So clear,” she wondered, then sat back, studying him sharply. “Did you know I was coming? Why do you have an image of my home?”

Kennet spun the map into a globe again, more slowly this time.  “Having a complete survey of Crucible in its entirety is useful for our work here. That your home was mapped in the process is purely incidental to the project.”

Her lips quirked up. “So you’re saying we’re not that important?” 

“I’m saying that it is impossible for us to know what is important, and what is not, before the information is needed. Therefore I collect it all.” Somehow it felt as if this conversation was slipping out of his control. Surely his surveying methods were not the point. “Tell me when these creatures first began to bother your village,” Kennet asked.

“Almost a year ago,” Zuri’s voice drifted into silence and he winced. This was going to be another one of those disjointed, fragmented tales, wasn’t it? Maybe it would be better to talk about satellite imagery after all.

Then her fingers tightened on her mug, and her chin went up. “Almost exactly one year ago, I noticed that the flock was agitated when they came into the pens at night. She pointed to a section on the map.  “It happened just as we shifted from the winter grazing here, here on the higher side of the lake.”

Kennet pulled the map tighter into the area. Nothing looked out of place, but perhaps he didn’t know what he should be looking for yet.

“Depending on the snowfall, the water level of the lake is unpredictable. That is why our village is further up the slopes, and we’ve got two good wells.  The chatha are smart enough to work their way down to the lake for water they want during the day while they’re grazing, and come into the pens at night.” 

She took another long sip from her mug, eyes fixed on the lake. “Not long after we moved, the flock started coming back agitated, almost hysterical.”

“How exactly do you know when an animal is hysterical?” Kennet asked, curious.

“Spend your life working with them, you’ll know.” Another long sip. “We couldn’t figure it out. And then we noticed that the wool around their shoulders was tangled and torn, as if it had caught on brambles and been pulled halfway out. But nothing like that grew in the area.”

“What about local predators?” Kennet drummed his fingers on the table. This sounded far too much like the troubles Vania’s village had with the Haleru. Except there hadn’t been any maiming of the herd animals there. Just disappearances. 

She shook her head. “One of the reasons our family settled in the valley in the beginning is the lack of large animals. Sometimes we’ll get an aphin coming through, but they’d have eaten the chatha, not just scared them. Even the beastmen don’t come this far north.”

Well. Good to know the Haleru weren’t a surprise to everyone.

“After a few days of wondering what was going on, I went out with the flock, and noticed that they were avoiding the lake.” She pointed to the river that cascaded down the mountains. “They were going all the way up there to get water. It’s rocky on the shores there. No reason for them to go to the trouble.” She pushed the empty mug away. “Then we got busy with lambing season, and I didn’t think too much about it. Until the lambs started going missing.”

“Did you see what was taking them?”

“Those things.” She jabbed a finger at the box that held the pieces of the creature. “Came leaping out of the water, dragged the lambs under.  By the time I got to the water, it was long gone.”

“The lambs were bad enough, but there’s more of those things now. They’ve been breeding all through the summer, and their range is getting farther. It used to be safe enough for the children as long as they avoided the lake shore. Now it seems like they’ve reached the village itself. Going outside now you’re as likely to get a face full of flyer as snow.” Her shoulders slumped. “People are talking about leaving the valley, trying to start over somewhere else.”

“If the lake has been infested, and you have no way to combat the spread, then it would seem to be the logical solution,” Kennet offered.

“No.” She snapped. “The logical solution would be for you people to do something about it. That thing isn’t from here. We’ve never seen such a thing before your castle arrived. You came from another world, right? No one on this world has ever seen anything like that. So it’s your problem. Fix it.”

“We did not cause this,” Kennet started, then caught himself staring at the lines of exhaustion and worry around the woman’s eyes.

Did it really matter? 

Something had happened. Possibly a native creature the colonists knew nothing about had changed its migration pattern. Or perhaps it was a life form with a long dormancy cycle, just now reawakening. That might explain why there were no large predators in the valley, when the human colonists had arrived.

It might be something interesting.

Kennet’s mind ran over the experiments he’d already started in the lab, each waiting for his attention.

But Nic’s parting words still nettled him. Just a bit.

“I will be happy to investigate this. Even if this is simply an unknown organism of this world it will be a valuable bit of information.”

Then he thought of Nettie sitting alone in the garden, staring into the sky.

“However, I’m afraid I cannot go with you at this moment,” he finished. “Perhaps with the others have returned–”

“You’re an idiot, aren’t you?” Coracle said as he materialized on the table between them.

Zuri pushed her chair back quickly, scrambling to her feet.

Kennet’s back stiffened. “That is distinctly and provably untrue.”

Zuri watched the two of them warily.

“Please allow me to introduce another resident of Ship. This is Coracle.”

Coracle leapt gently off the table, twined between her legs and sniffed Zuri’s boots. “Why wouldn’t you go?”

“You know perfectly well,” Kennet growled. “Our guest needs protection.”

Zuri examined Coracle with narrowed eyes. “You’re not a cat,” she said flatly. “I don’t know what you are.” She tilted her head. “Are you real?”

Kenneth blinked quickly. 

While Coracle’s  appearance and disappearances were always disturbing, no one had ever so quickly commented on the question of his physical existence.

“Real enough to take care of visitors to my realm,” Coracle said, turning his back on Zuri with the swish of his tail. “Leave our guest to me,” the-not-quite-cat announced as he walked towards the conference room door. “You can handle this rude human.” 

Coracle walked through the wall without another word.

“Well then,” Kennet said, still surprised. “I’ll need a few minutes to attend to some things, and then we can be off. Shall we take a look at the air sleds?”

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