Color-- -1- -2- -3- -4- -5- -6- -7- -8- -9-
Text Size-- 10-- 11-- 12-- 13-- 14-- 15-- 16-- 17-- 18-- 19-- 20-- 21-- 22-- 23-- 24
The War Against the Chtorr Book 4
A Season for Slaughter
For Ben and Barbara Bova
… with love.
Dennis Ahrens, Seth Breidbar, Jack Cohen, Richard Curtis, Diane Duane, Raymond E. Feist,Richard Fontana, Bill Glass, Harvey and Johanna Glass, David Hartwell, Robert and GinnyHeinlein, Karen Malcor, Lydia Marano, Susie Miller, Tom Negrino, Jerry Pournelle, Alan Rodgers,Rick Sternbach, Amy Stout, Tom Swale, Linda Wright, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Howard ZimmermanSPECIAL THANKS TO:
Bill Aycock, Robert E. Bellus, William Benson, George S. Brickner, Dan Corrigan, RandyDannenfelser, Pamela and Randy Harbaugh, Mark E. Herlihy, Chris Keavy, John Robison, Lee AnnRucker, Harry Sameshima, Kurt C. Siegel, W.
Christopher Swett, The WELL (Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link), Kathryn Beth Willig, and others.
For their generous donations to the AIDS Project of Los Angeles, characters in this book havebeen named after these people or individuals of their choice. The behavior and/or bad habits ofthe named characters are decisions made by the author for the purposes of the story only, andshould not be seen as a representation of the actual person, nor interpreted to mean derogatoryintent on the part of the author.
Chtorr (ktôr), n. 1. The planet Chtorr, presumed to exist within 30 light-years of Earth. 2.The star system in which the planet occurs, presently unidentified. 3. The Chtorran ecology;the living system comprised of all the processes and particles of the Chtorran ecology. 4. Informal usage, either one or many members of the ruling species of the planet Chtorr. Obsolete.(See Chtor-ran) 5. The glottal chirruping cry of a Chtorran gastropede.
Chtorran (ktôr in), adj.
1. Of or relating to either the planet or the star system, Chtorr. 2. Native to Chtorr.
n. 1. Any creature native to Chtorr. 2. In common usage, a member of the primary species ofChtorr, the worm-like gastropede. (pl. Chtor-rans)
-The Random House Dictionary of the English Language Century 21 Edition, expanded.
There are two facts you need to know about the Chtorran ecology: 1) It has grown beyond ourability to investigate and understand; it is therefore also beyond our ability to contain ordestroy.
2) It is unstable.
—The Red Book,
"Ninety percent of success is just growing up."
We smelled it long before we saw it.
The stench came rolling over the hills like a force of nature. I thought of great billowingthunderclouds of microscopic particles. I thought of corrosive chemicals attacking my bronchi,bizarre molecules bonding to enzyme sites in my bloodstream and liver. I thought of tiny aliencreatures setting up housekeeping in my lungs. I thought of emigrating to the moon. Anything tobe away from here.
The smell was almost a visible presence, and it was strong enough to knock down a house. Evenfiltered through the hoods, it was intolerable. It smelled like everything bad in the world,all in one place and distilled down to its most horrible essence. It smelled like putrefactionin a perfume factory. It smelled like day-old vomit and burning sulfur, swamp gas and rottencheese. It smelled like worms and lawyers and last year's politics.
"Hooa! Lordy! What is that?" hollered one of the Texas boys. "Did we hit a skunk?"
"Smells more like lawyer."
"What's the difference?"
"Nobody wants to hit a skunk."
"Welcome to Mexico," said somebody in the back. "Land of a thousand exciting adventures."
"Cap'n," asked one of the new kids. "You ever smelled anything like that before?"
Before I could speak, the same voice in the back replied nastily, "It's the barrio.
This is the largest one in the world. They all smell like that."
"Only until we flush the gringos out." I recognized Lopez's softly accented voice.
"It's the leftover mayonnaise and white bread you're smelling."
"Cool it," I said. "You've got more important things to worry about. A smell like that isstrong enough to attract every carrion eater from here to Waco. Pass the word. Keep an eyeout." My eyes were already starting to water, but I didn't dare lift my contamination hood towipe them.
We were in the leading rollagon. Behind us followed a convoy of four more. We bounced acrossthe denuded hills like a deranged herd of dinosaurs. The deforestation here hadn't been recent,but it had been thorough. Nothing was going to grow here again for a long, long time.Obviously, no Chtorran agency had been responsible for this. What a stupid war this was turningout to be-we were supposed to be defending the Terran ecology; instead we were burning it away,destroying it to save it.
According to the original plan, Terran plants should have been reasserting themselves by now.There should have been sprouts of green everywhere.
Instead-we had a barren moonscape; a rumpled ash-colored terrain of uncomfortable hills andbroken rock, all punctuated by blackened spikes, the remnants of a dead forest. A faint pinkhaze lay across the land; it gathered itself in dark brown pools and lurked in the deep gulliesbetween the hills; and I wondered if this was the source of the smell. The pervasive undercasthid the horizon behind a bleary gray veil; distance just faded away into nothingness. Was thispale dry fog something Chtorran or another one of the delights engineered in the Oakland labs?It couldn't be the product of a living thing, could it? Nothing could live in this stench.
There was life here, of a sort; desperate, hungry, futile-and mostly Chtorran, of course. Therewere black ropy vines stretched across the ground, pulling at it like anchoring cables; andthere were things growing on the vines, occasional bright patches of pink or blue or white, notquite flowers, but not quite anything else either.
There were patches of dark ultraviolet fungus and occasional curtains of red gauze hanging fromdead tree limbs. Deep in the shadowed gullies we could see thick rubbery scars of wormberry,and the occasional clump of leafy black basil. As we rolled on, we started seeing purplecoleus, midnight ivy, and the first bright patches of scarlet kudzu.
The kudzu was turning out to be especially nasty. All it did was grow, but that was enough. Itlooked like blood-colored ivy, and it grew even faster than its Terran counterpart. It couldblanket a house in weeks, a forest in months. You could cut it back easily enough, but youcould never quite eradicate it completely. It just kept coming back. It had the tenacity of abill collector-only quieter. In Georgia a small army of civilians had burned back severalhundred acres of it that was starting to get too close to the edge of Atlanta and found thebones of cattle; dogs, cats, and more than a few missing people. No one was quite sure of thekilling mechanism yet—or even if there was one. Maybe its danger was in its thickness; it wasthe perfect ground cover for small Chtorran predators. Like all things Chtorran, the bestadvice was still avoid it if you can.
Unless, of course, your job was to seek it out. Then you didn't have the luxury of that option.
This particular expedition was here at the specific request of the provisional governor of theTerritory of North Mexico. We were one of three doing on-site mapping of the northeasternwilderness, to determine the success of last year's defoliation. I already knew the answer. Icould have told them the answer before we'd left, before we'd even planned this operation. But-there are people who don't believe anything until they've sent somebody else to see-and eventhen, if it disagrees with what they want to hear, they still won't believe it.
The Brazilian mission had been sent back for reconsideration or put on hold or shifted to aback burner or ticketed for reevaluation or whatever you wanted to call it for the ninth oreleventh or hundred and third time. None of it had anything to do with the mission. All of ithad everything to do with the political relationship of the North American Authority and theremaining nations of South America, several of which, including Brazil, had not reacted well tothe Authority's recent annexation of South Mexico after that country's army and government hadboth collapsed in disarray. The relief operation was mounted from bases provided by thegovernment of North Mexico. Despite, or perhaps because of, that cooperation, serious chargeswere being raised in many Latin capitals that the collapse of South Mexico had been engineerednorth of the Rio Grande.
I had no personal knowledge of the incident. I'd been involved elsewhere at the time,participating in an experiment in brainwashing, one of several then in practice.
But I wouldn't have been surprised to find an American presence in the matter.
South Mexico's not-so-secret-anymore cooperation with the Fourth World Majority in the abortiveGulf Coast invasion had not exactly won them friends in the hallowed halls of Congress. When italso turned out that they had allowed the invading forces to establish clandestine stagingareas in the eastern wilderness, sixteen bills to declare war on South Mexico were introducedin the Senate. The President vowed to veto every one. The war against the Chtorr, she said, wasmore important, and this particular matter would be resolved in its own time and in its ownway. She didn't specify what she meant, but after that the discussions on Capitol Hill becamemuch more restrained.
Not too long after that, the United States and Canada created the North American OperationsAuthority, and each nation ceded specific parts of its national sovereignty to the new body; inparticular the jurisdiction of all military and scientific bodies immediately involved incombating the ecological infestation. Both Mexicos had also been invited, but only the Republicof North Mexico had joined, and that only in exchange for significant trade agreements.
The obvious advantage of the Authority was that it allowed the United States to set the MoscowTreaties aside without specifically violating them. Giving control of your military to anotherbody, which you just happened to control, was about as transparent as a lawyer's promise, butnevertheless legal. Not that anybody cared anymore, but the whole of politics is to find a wayto legalize your particular crime.
Politicians have different priorities from real people.
That the government of South Mexico had collapsed six months later was only a coincidence: SoI'm told. It takes longer than six months to deliberately topple a government. If it can betoppled in six months, it was already on its way out anyway.
For the protection of the, people, the Authority annexed the territory and . : . here we were,picking up the pieces of a project that somebody else had started.
And in the meantime, the Brazilians weren't speaking to us. They'd come around, eventually, butwho knew how long that would take?
Abruptly, the smell got worse. I wouldn't have believed it possible.
They say you get used to even the worst smells. Not true. What happens is that your olfactorynerves shrivel into insensibility, refusing to come out again for two years afterward, not evenwhen tempted with the most alluring scents of all: steak, buttered potatoes, chocolate icecream, hot fudge, fresh strawberries, new car smells, fresh money-nothing.
This smell, the new one, lay across the previous stench like chocolate icing on a skunk.Neither smell was happy about it. The truly awful thing was that I recognized the smell.
The screen in front of me showed our location on the contour-delineated terrain.
The depth was deliberately exaggerated to compensate for the limitations of human senses. Itouched a button and noted for the mission log that we had encountered olfactory evidence of afumble of gorps, also called gorths, gnorths, and glorbs, depending on who you were talking to.The military designation was ghoul.
This was a very bad sign.
Gorps or ghouls were scavengers, garbage-eaters, carrionfeeders. Fully mature, they stood threeto four meters tall. A gorp was a sloth-shaped tower of hair. It had a barrel chest, a flexibleprognathous snout, numerous small nasty eyes, and an attitude almost as bad as its smell. Itscoat was a filth-ridden, flea-infested, rust-colored, dirty mass of coarse stringy hair andage-hardened mats. Its arms were disturbingly long, and the things it used for hands and feetwere immense. Gorps were Chtorran bag ladies.
They ranged in color from startling orange to glow-in-the-dark brown. Sometimes they shambledalong in a vaguely upright stance; most of the time they lumbered on all fours. Because theymoved in slow motion, like koala bears, some people made the mistake of thinking they weregentle beings. It was not a mistake that anyone had lived long enough to make twice. Gorps wereabout as gentle as rhinoceroses. Think of a gorp as a giant, rabid, psychopathic, mutated,hydrocephalic orangutan with the mother of all hangovers-and you were working in the rightdirection. But this was a complimentary description; on a bad day, a gorp looked even worse.
It wasn't simply that a gorp could do you physical harm; it could, and it would, if you annoyedit long enough; no, the real horror was that its bouquet alone could raise blisters on aboulder. What a concentrated dose would do to human lungs was presumed fatal.
A gorp knew only two words: "Gorp?" and "Gorth!" The former was a questioning gulping sound,halfway between a yawn and a bark. The latter was a low-pitched rumble, which was generallyinterpreted as a warning growl.
Gorps were the biggest slobs in the Chtorran ecology. They damaged everything they came near.After a fumble of gorps wandered through a neighborhood, it looked like the aftermath of ablood feud between tornadoes. It wasn't malicious; they weren't angry creatures; it was simplythe naked curiosity of a hungry scavenger raised to a new low. Even those few things that gorpsoccasionally left undamaged behind them carried their incredible reek for weeks afterward.
Gorps were always a bad sign. They weren't particularly wicked by themselves, and they wereeasy enough to avoid; their far-reaching smell usually gave enough advance warning that youcould move to another state before they arrived in your neighborhood. Even if you weren't thatsmart, their lack of speed made it easy for you to keep out of their way; anyone who got caughtby a gorp did it deliberately.
But the presence of gorps almost always meant that there was either a major infestation ofworms nearby-or a grove of shambler trees. Probably shamblers. Even though Gorps preferred tolive on the garbage of the worms, it was safer to trail the shamblers and feed upon theleavings of their tenants. Their appetites were ghoulish; hence the military designation.
My headset beeped abruptly-"McCarthy here," I answered.
"What is it, Captain?" The voice was Major Bellus. Major Robert E. Bellus, officially just anobserver. Unofficially, I didn't know; but I had my suspicions. I'd met him only three daysearlier. He was riding in the rear tank. The comfortable one.
"It's nothing, sir."
"But the smell-?"
"Gorps-or gorths. Or ghouls. But they could be miles from here. They might be rutting. We knowthat there are certain times when their stench gets strong enough to be detectable a hundredklicks away. The skyballs don't show anything within a radius of five, but their visibility isdown due to the haze."
"Go to the satellite view and scan-"
"I already have, sir," I said patiently. "There are no mandalas in this sector. No clusters ofhuts, no single huts. No evidence of worms at,all. We're smelling either a migratory fumble ofgorps, which I doubt, or they're following a grove of shamblers, which I consider much morelikely. The skyballs are scanning for the herd now. Sir."
I knew what he was thinking. Three days ago he'd abruptly taken control of this mission withthe reassuring words, "I'm only here as an observer, you understand?"
I understood. He was taking control. My job was to make him look good. Now he was consideringwhether or not to slap me down for being insubordinate or compliment me on doing my job.
"Very well. Carry on," he said sourly.
Prior to our coming through with rollagons and tanks, we had sent thirty-six spiders and over ahundred skyballs through this area. Neither worms nor humans had been seen here as recently asthree days ago. There were some broken roads to be found, and the occasional abandoned ruin,but there was no evidence of any postdefoliation survival.
The military spiders were now programmed to burn worms automatically, as well as any humans inofficially designated renegade-controlled areas, but they weren't yet programmed to targetshamblers. The software couldn't make all the necessary discriminations yet, and Oakland wasstill playing it safe.
Unfortunately, the shamblers were turning out to be almost as dangerous as worms and renegades.They were tall and ficuslike, with interwoven columnar trunks; where the trunks split, thelimbs stretched upward into tangles of thick ropy branches and dark snakey looking vines; butthe shamblers were always blanketed with symbiotic partners, so no two individuals ever lookedthe same. Some were tall and dark, burnished with large shiny leaves and gauzy lacelike nets;others were slender and bony, but fluffed out with cottony pink tufts of nascent flowering; andstill others were horticultural ragamuffins, a patchwork of colors, dripping down off thetowering growth like a shower of banners and veils.
By themselves, the shamblers would have been obvious. But the landscape they wandered throughwas no longer completely Terran; it was dotted here and there with clusters of tenaciousinfestation; red kudzu and mottled creeper vines, cold blue iceplant and cloying purple fungi,black vampire ivy and wandering wormberry, all of them spreading as rapidly as a nasty rumor.The way the Chtorran infestation rolled over everything-trees, buildings, signs, boulders,abandoned cars-everything looked the same, differing only in the height and breadth of the lumpit made in the landscape. So how could you tell if any specific lump was a shambler-especially
when a shambler could look like anything?
The only sure way was to wait for it to move.
That was the other problem with shamblers. They didn't stay put.
If you spotted a shambler or a grove of shamblers, you had to be prepared to take them downwhen you saw them. You couldn't note their location and come back later. Three hours later, ashambler could be a half klick away-in any direction.
A day later, as much as two klicks. In rugged country like this, it made any kind of a searchdifficult, if not impossible.
It didn't matter anyway. Even if we could cleanse an area, sweeping through it totally andburning everything that moved or even looked like it was thinking of moving, a week later therewould be at least a dozen more shamblers moving ponderously through the same sector.
Dr. Zymph had a theory that the shamblers were in the process of developing migratory circuitsand that if we could tag them, we'd see the whole pattern. General Wainright, who was in chargeof this district, didn't believe in allowing any Chtorran creatures a chance to establish abiological foothold, and certainly not the chance to develop a whole migratory circuit. Dr.Zymph and General Wainright had had some glorious arguments. I'd witnessed two of them beforeI'd learned to stay close to an exit.
The military was growing increasingly antagonistic to the science branch. And vice versa. Themilitary wanted to slash and burn. The science teams wanted to study. Myself-I was getting veryschizophrenic. I could see both sides of the argument. I was a scientific advisor attached tothe military, except when I was a soldier sent out on a scientific mission.
I could also see something else that disturbed me.
Three years ago, everybody was terrified of the Chtonran infestation, everybody was looking forways to stop it; the essential priority was the development of weapons that would destroy theworms. Every scientist I met was interested in containment and control.
Now… the "domain of consciousness" had shifted. The worms had become
"incorporated into our perceptual environment"-we were accepting the fact that they were here,,and with that acceptance, we were losing our commitment to resist, and instead, talking aboutways to survive the inevitable takeover. I didn't like the shift in thinking that kind of talkrepresented. Next would be talk about ways for humans to
"cooperate with the Chtorran ecology."
I'd already seen once how that kind of "cooperation" worked. It wasn't something I wanted tosee again.
Absentmindedly, I checked my pulse. I was getting tense. I forced myself to sit back in my seatand did a quick breathing exercise. One apple pie with ice cream.
Two banana splits with chocolate fudge. Three coconut cakes with pineapple topping. Four date-nut shakes with walnut flakes. Five-what goes good with e?
Elephants. Five elephant burgers with rhinoceros relish… Six fragrant ferret farts.
Seven great galloping garbage dumps. Eight horrible heaps of-never mind.
We rode deeper into the smell. Air-conditioning didn't help; it just made the smell colder.Oxygen hoods didn't help; they just enclosed you in a concentrated bag of it.
Air fresheners didn't work; they just laid a new scent on top of the old one; the resulting mixwas-incredible as it seemed-even worse than before. Someday, somebody was going to win a Nobelprize for inventing an olfactory science that could explain this mucus-blistering assault. Thatis, if anybody survived to hand out the prizes.
The worst part was that you didn't get used to it.
Now we were starting to see big purple patches of wormplant spreading across the crumpledslopes of the hills. They were fat with bright red wormberries, clustered in thick juicy-looking globules. They were edible, just barely-tart and sweet and sour all at the same time,
kind of like cherries with sauerkraut; definitely an acquired taste. Unfortunately, the berriesalso carried the eggs of the stingfly. When they hatched in your belly-it had something to dowith the exposure to stomach acids-the result would be a very uncomfortable case of maggots onthe stomach.
The stingfly larvae clutched the stomach lining with very strong pincers or mandibles whilethey fed and grew. When they were large enough they'd let go, pass through the lower intestinaltract, cocoon themselves upon being exposed to air, and after a month or twelve, depending onthe season, would hatch into a nasty little mosquito-like parent, ready to lay more eggs in thenext patch of ripe worrnberries.
Meanwhile, the wounds the maggots left in your stomach would very likely fester into ulcers.You could die from these ulcers; many already had. It was a slower and more painful death thanbeing eaten by a full-size Chtorran, but every bit as effective.
If I had my druthers, I'd druther be eaten by only one worm at a time, and not from the inside.
Meanwhile, there were agri-techs who were working on ways to make wormberries safe for humanconsumption; they were a great source of vitamin C and easier to cultivate than citrus trees.There were whole new industries being born in the wake of the Chtorran infestation. TheJapanese had even found a way to make sushi out of the Chton-an gastropede-I'd heard it was astasty as octopus, only a lot more chewy. They had also found that Chtorran oil was a superiorsubstitute for whale oil; unfortunately there weren't enough Japanese to drive the Chtorransinto extinction as fast as they had done the cetaceans.
In the meantime, I wouldn't want to go walking across these hills in anything less than a tank.There would be millipedes in the underbrush; this time of year, they'd be feeding on thewormberries. They were attracted by the smell. I'd discovered that the hard way, five years agoat Camp Alpha Bravo in the Rocky Mountains. Apparently, the millipedes didn't mind a chroniccase of maggots on the stomach-or maybe, considering the power of a millipede's stomach acids,the maggots didn't stand a chance. Who knew? There were too many questions that needed to beanswered and not enough scientists.
Wherever there was a break in the sprawling wormplant cover, I could see the overall barrennessof the ground; but already, here and there, the first spidery patches of pink and blueiceplants were beginning to establish themselves. They were rootless wonders, feeding onanything they could, garbage, other plants, even industrial waste; whatever they happened tosprawl across. They lay flat against the ground, creeping in around the edges of thickergrowths, scabrous and ugly webs of mottled ground.
Occasionally, Chtorran plants formed partnerships with the iceplant, but most ignored it as ifit weren't there. Terran plants succumbed. Where the iceplant found a foothold, it grew andflourished, eventually becoming a fleshy mass of blue fingery tentacles. Where it couldn'tflourish, it died-sort of.
Iceplants didn't just die-they shriveled and dried and flaked and blew away.
Wherever a flake landed and found a profitable place to feed, a new iceplant began; it wouldsurvive until it too died and flaked away. You could burn the stuff away, but it always cameback sooner or later.
The really bad news was that it was also a powerful hallucinogenic. Oh, hell, the entireChtorran ecology was hallucinogenic. It was the stuff of which nightmares are made.
We rolled up and down, around and over. Mostly we tried to stay to the crests of the ridges;occasionally we dipped between them. Here the kudzu filled the darker hollows between thehills-filled and overflowed like a tide of blood. In some places, the scarlet ivy was alreadycreeping toward the tops. Soon it would be a terrible glossy carpet, sprawling acrosseverything, a bright stifling blanket, a plague of color and death.
The kudzu was the worst kind of enemy. You couldn't blow it up. Each fragment would try toreroot itself. You couldn't burn it out, because its roots would still survive. You couldn'tpoison its roots without doing more damage to the environment. General Armstrong H. Wainright
would probably want to nuke it to hell and be done with it.
Suddenly: "Something up ahead-"
I punched the keyboard in front of me. My screens lit up to show the view from the aerialprobes. The images bobbed and weaved. Three sweeps of spiders had been through this area, buthadn't reported any contacts.
"There it is."
The probes began to circle it slowly. It was unmistakable. "Be damned. I ain't never seen adead one before."
"Is that a worm, sir?"
"It was," I answered. "Just a baby."
"That's a baby! Shit-I used to drive a truck smaller than that."
"Everybody shut up. Smitty, do the probes show anything else?"
"Is there any network coverage?"
"Sorry. This area hasn't been seeded with remotes yet."
"All right. Pull up close. Lopez, you and your team take samples. Use the remotes. I don't wantanyone stepping outside unless they have to."
The worm had been as thick as a van and twice as long. The body was chewed and still oozing asyrupy black ichor. It had been attacked quite recently, and whatever had done this had beenhungry. Only half of it remained.
"What do you think killed it, sir?"
I shrugged. "Something bigger and meaner."
"An Italian grandmother," put in Marano, the rear gunner.
I responded to that with a noncommittal grunt. "The only thing I ever saw tangle with a wormwillingly was a full-grown grizzly bear, and the result was a pretty cross bear. You neverheard such fancy cussin' in your life." I peered curiously at the screen, while I added, "Thebear walked away with ruffled dignity, and the Chtorran was thoroughly confused. Food isn'tsupposed to fight back. Of course, it was a very small worm and a very large bear." Abruptlypuzzled, I tapped the keyboard in front of me. "Smitty, are these colors accurate?"
"Yes, sir. Why?"
"The stripes. Some of them look white. I've never seen white stripes on a worm before. Lopez,try to get some of the white quills, if you can."
My headset beeped. "Captain?" It was Major Bellus again.
"McCarthy, why are we stopped?" He sounded like he'd just been awakened.
"We found a specimen."
"A dead worm. We're taking samples."
"Oh?" he said. His tone revealed his annoyance.
"It's important, sir. Something killed this worm and it wasn't us."
"It's your mission, Captain. I'm just here to learn."
"Yes, sir. Any other questions?"
"No. I'm sure you'll keep me briefed."
"Yes, sir." I clicked off. Bellus didn't like me, hadn't liked me since the moment he'd failedto return my first salute.
As far as I knew, nobody had ever found a dead worm before. We could kill them, but not likethis. Humans turned worms into blackened rubbery lumps, charred and smoking. This reeking messwas a bad omen. What fed on worms? Nothing that I'd ever heard of. This kind of puzzle hadnasty teeth in it. You could ignore it, drive on by, and ten minutes later something would comecharging up behind you and bite you in the ass. Considering the size of the bites, I didn'twant to take the risk.
"Lopez, you done?"
"Just finishing now, sir. We're bringing the units home."
"Smitty? Anything on the screens?"
"Okay, pop the hatch. I'm going to take a quick look around."
Close up, the worm smelled as bad as it looked-and in the flesh, it looked a lot worse than onthe screens. Worms didn't usually stink like this. Normally, they had a soft, red, mintyflavor, almost pleasant. This was the same smell turned putrid. An olfactory nightmare. Thisworm looked like it hadn't just been eaten, it looked like it had been jellied. I thought aboutspiders, nature's perfect little vampires; they injected the victim with enzymes that bothparalyzed and liquefied, they waited until the critter's internals turned to custard, then theysucked it out. Nasty and efficient. I wondered if something had done the same thing to thisworm.
It couldn't have been a spider, Chtorran or otherwise. The only spiders big enough for thiskind of prey were the ones McDonnell Douglas had built for the North American Authority-andthey didn't bite. They flamed. There were fifty of them patrolling the northern territory ofthe now-reunited Mexico; if any of them had run into anything unusual, it would have signaled.
The size of the bites puzzled me. A large predator would have ripped off strips of flesh. Thesebites were disproportionately neat and clear, as if someone or something had applied a grinderdirectly to the surface of the worm and just chewed it away. Whatever it was, it had onlywanted access to the soft rubbery inside of the worm; once the holes had been opened, it left alot of the skin intact.
Whatever it was, it was gone now. There were only stingflies and carrion bees feeding here. Thesound of their incessant droning had a grating edge. The air hummed annoyingly. I knew theycouldn't get under the hood of my jumpsuit, but just knowing they were out there made me feelnaked and uncomfortable.
Abruptly, part of the puzzle clicked. The carrion bees. I glanced around quickly, then headedback to the rollagon at a run. "Seal the hatch," I ordered before I was even halfway in. Itpopped shut behind me so fast, it slapped me in the back.
"What was it? What'd you see?" Smitty asked nervously.
"Nothing. If I'd seen anything, it would have been too late."
"You know what did this, don't you?"
I shook my head. "No. Not specifically; but if I had to guess-" I pulled my hood off so I couldsplash my face with water from my canteen: "Those weren't big bites, they were little ones.Hundreds of thousands of little ones. That worm got hit by a swarm of something; it attacked,it fed, and…" I shrugged. "Now it's probably gone back to its nest-or whatever."
Lopez looked up from the screen of her microscope. "A swarm of something-?"
"Maybe it's something that we've seen before. We just haven't seen it do this." I was alreadydictating to the computer. "Check for all creatures that eat like spiders, things that poisontheir victims and liquefy their insides. It doesn't have to be big.
We're looking for an effect that would be magnified if the creature fed in a swarm-but maybe itdoesn't swarm all the time. Also consider nonswarming creatures that periodically cometogether." Abruptly, I had another thought. "Is it possible that a millipede swarm couldoverpower a worm?" I had to smile at that. It would be poetic justice. The worms ate millipedes