? 1997 by Jerry J. Davis
James Gregson passed the last of the carnivorous trees and was
halfway through the clearing before he realized there were two men
in his camp. One sat on a log and the other on his chair, relaxing,
making themselves right at home. Not far away was a black and red
jeep, and on the jeep's door was the Bankrightk company logo.
One of the men looked up as Gregson approached. Gregson didn't
seem much of a threat; he was tall but good-natured looking, with
curly black hair and brown eyes. In his arms, however, was a long,
elegantly crafted electronic rifle.
"Look at the size of that stunner!" The man exclaimed,
laughing. He was thin, small, and had a pinched-looking face. He
wore an gray-green jumpsuit with what looked like 50
randomly-placed pockets, and had a name-tag that read, JACKO. "What
is it, a hundred years old?"
The other man, who was taller, rounder of features, wore all
black and was carrying a 10mm projectile pistol. His shirt bore the
Bankrightk logo and underneath was the stitched-in name RUDD. "We
hear you're really onto something, Gregson," he said.
"I don't appreciate you coming into my camp like this,"
Gregson said. "This area is staked and registered to me, and you're
"Hey, you don't have to go all huffy with us," said Jacko.
"We're here to offer you a position with Bankrightk."
"Prospecting?" Gregson asked.
"For what? A salary?"
"Salary, expenses, and a cut. More than you're getting right
"Which is nothing," Rudd said. "We ran a check on your
account. You're broke."
Gregson powered up his rifle. The indicator lights flashed on,
startling the two men, who stood suddenly and backed off a few
meters. "I didn't spend my life's savings to get all the way out to
this hairball of a planet, live in a tent in a field of mud, and
eat gristle worms and drink peat water for a year and a half, just
so I could have a cut of what I discover."
"They're making you a generous offer," Jacko said. "It's not
going to be repeated."
"You can repeat it until doomsday. I'm here as an independent,
and whatever I discover is mine. A hundred-percent mine."
"I don't think he's interested," Jacko said to Rudd.
"Your alternative is no employment at all," Rudd told Gregson.
"It's hard to go prospecting when you're laid up in a med center."
"Accidents happen so suddenly," Jacko said. "You never know
when to expect them."
"That's true," Gregson said. He slung the stun rifle over his
shoulder. "You want to make an accident happen, do it now."
Jacko and Rudd glanced nervously at each other.
"If you threaten me, you'd better be ready to back it up,"
Gregson told them. "I've killed deadlier creatures than you on five
different worlds, and I wasn't using an old stun gun, either."
Rudd sneered. "Gregson, you're way over your head." He and
Jacko turned and walked off toward their jeep. Gregson let out his
breath and relaxed. He watched as they started the jeep's engine
and rumbled off over the uneven ground. When it was out of sight he
leaned his rifle against the log and collapsed in his folding chair
with a sigh.
The main difference between civilized worlds and new colonies,
Gregson noticed, was that one had paved walkways and the other had
dirt paths. This planet, Aeolus, didn't even have dirt paths. He
made his way through the broken foliage, following the trail that
the Bankrightk jeep had plowed back toward "town." His stun rifle,
which was an antique his father once used, was slung casually over
Gregson knew the moment he heard Bankrightk had established an
office on this planet he was going to have trouble. He, like his
father before him, had wandered to the farthest reaches of human
space to get away from the corporations. It was no use, though --
wherever he went they would sooner or later show up. It stood to
reason that if there was a huge profit to be made, that is where
the corporations would go. It was like that throughout history. A
few brave souls would strike out into the unknown, searching for
that one big discovery, but the moment anything valuable was found
the corporations would step in and take it over.
Halfway to town Gregson made a detour, picking his way through
the branches and undergrowth, following the smell of hot bacon and
fried eggs, and -- oh heaven! -- freshly brewed coffee. The trees
thinned and were replaced by Earth plants; rows of corn, potatoes,
cabbage, carrots, tomatoes. There were pens with pigs, cows, and a
few horses. Chickens roamed about, each with a silver inhibitor
band around their necks to keep them from wandering too far. This
was Vern Hudson's farm, and the farm house ahead was a large
cylindrical water storage tank off one of the first colony ships.
The crops and the animals were all Vern's test subjects -- he was a
certified Ecesist, specially trained in adapting Earth life to
alien environments. Vern was nowhere in sight, but his teenage
kids, Bethany and Frank, were on the front porch with their dog.
"James!" Bethany called. "You're just in time. I made an extra
portion just in case you showed up." Bethany, who Gregson had been
courting for several months now, was 19 years standard, with
olive-brown skin, brown eyes, and long straight brown-black hair.
The top of her head didn't quite make it to Gregson's shoulders, so
she had to look up at him to show him her smile.
Her younger brother, Frank, wasn't smiling. He was 17 and
shared his sister's hair and complexion. He was a head taller than
her, however, and almost as tall as Gregson. He was huskier than
Gregson, with square shoulders and a beefy chest. He reached down
as Gregson approached and touched a button on the digital panel
embedded in the dog's head. The dog began to growl.
"Frank!" Bethany said. She touched the animal's head, and the
Frank reached for the dog again and she slapped his hand. They
glared at each other for a moment, and he turned and stomped off.
She turned and smiled at Gregson again, ushering him up to the
house and inside.
The food tasted wonderful, and the coffee was nice and strong.
As he ate, Bethany walked lightly around the table, talking. "...
and since we haven't seen any large tracks of any kind, we don't
think it's really an animal at all. Dad thinks it's spoor from one
of the plants. And I was thinking, if we could find what the source
is before my Dad does, you and I could share the title."
Gregson sipped his coffee, watching her walk, admiring her
soft curves and listening happily to her disarming voice. "If I
agreed to something like that," he told her, "your father would
have your brother kill me."
Bethany stopped, cocking her head to one side and looking at
him through whisps of her hair. "I don't think so."
"Besides, if it's a psycho-reactive agent then it's probably
useless to us. It can be reproduced artificially. The only thing
that would be valuable is if it's something that can only be
produced by a living thing, and we get the rights to the DNA code.
That's the key. If only the DNA can produce it, if the living thing
in and of itself is of value, can we profit."
"Like, if it's a psychic effect."
Gregson nodded. He stabbed the last bit of egg with a fork and
put it in his mouth.
"Dad doesn't believe in that sort of thing."
"Where is your Dad now, anyway?"
"Out at the catfish farm."
He paused in his chewing for a moment, looking into her eyes.
"Out there, huh?"
"Yeah." Her eyes betrayed worry. "I hope he's okay."
"I'm sure he is. You said you never found tracks. It's not an
"I said we never found large tracks."
Gregson dropped the fork on the table and reached out for her.
"Come here." She leaned into him, and he put his arms around her
and gave her a long hug. "He's going to be okay," he said.
"I know," Bethany said. She kissed him. They smiled at each
other, and kissed again. Gregson pulled back, still smiling, but
she wasn't finished kissing yet. She leaned hard against him to the
point where he almost lost his balance and fell out of the chair.
It was then that they noticed that her brother was yelling, and
that something was happening outside.
They hadn't made it to the door before it slammed open and
Vern came stumbling in, looking deranged. Close on his heals was
Frank, shouting, "What's wrong? What is wrong?"
"Dad?" Bethany said.
He bumped against them, stumbling, shaking, mumbling something
unintelligible. He got down on his hands and knees, crawling under
the table. There he curled into a fetal position, his eyes rolled
back so that they could only see the whites. He was panting and
sweat soaked his clothes, beading his face and making his hair hang
in wet, wiry strings. "It's ... a horrible, a demon ... gonna get
... everywhere ... follows me. I think it's a demon ... can't get
away ... can't ..." He shuddered, falling silent. His children
joined him on the floor, hugging him, telling him that he was safe.
Gregson went into the man's work room, passing the man's
elaborate bio-computer, his genetic assembly/disassembly
peripherals, found a cabinet full of pharmaceuticals and pulled out
some anti-shock tabs. He carried them into the dining room, knelt
down under the table, and placed one of the little white stickers
on the man's throat, near the jugular vein. Within minutes he began
to come out of it. He looked up at Gregson from under the table, a
shade of embarrassment in his expression.
"What was it, Vern?" he asked.
"It was horrible," Vern whispered, shaking his head.
"You saw it, then? An animal?"
Vern's mouth moved, but no words came out. When he found his
voice, he said, "Don't go out there. Don't do it."
"You know I've got to."
"Don't do it!"
Gregson turned to leave. Bethany shouted, "James!"
He turned back. "I've got to see what it is."
"It's not worth it." Bethany's eyes were pleading.
He gave her his best smile. "I'll be back."
The carnivorous trees looked more like gigantic moss-covered
fish bones than trees. They had an exoskeleton structure not unlike
Terran insects, and the "moss" was a sticky, deadly substance which
paralyzed and slowly digested several species of indigenous birds.
The most common was the flying dodo, which was a big green
bat-winged creature that regularly crashed into obstacles such as
houses, light poles, and carnivorous trees. One was fluttering and
crying out in its final moments as Gregson entered the forest.
He walked for a couple of kilometers before coming upon a
large, winding creek. He turned and followed it up hill, heading
east. The carnivorous trees thinned, being replaced by a taller,
uglier variety, which grew closer together and blocked out more
sunlight. Here and there a shaft of sunlight made it through, but
otherwise the forest was frighteningly dark.
Gregson slowed his pace and finally stopped. In front of him
the creek was dammed, creating a shallow pond of crystal clear
water. It was here that Vern Hudson was working on a strain of
catfish to be released into the main river. Beyond the pond is
where the trouble was.
He pulled out his biotascope and waved it back and forth.
There were hundreds of life form readings, mostly bugs. There was
nothing much bigger than his thumbnail. He checked the plant life
for biological outgassing; there were numerous substances, but none
registered as a psychoactive nor a pheromone -- at least none that
should affect a human being.
All around the pond were human footprints. One fresh set,
heading straight away from the pond and into the forest back toward
town, were clearly from someone running hard. As he studied them
Gregson realized his heart was pounding, that he was already
afraid. He wondered if it was natural, or if it was somehow being
induced. It's natural, he told himself. I'm a natural coward. He
took a deep breath and pushed on, walking cautiously around the
pond and into dense woods beyond.
About 40 meters past the pond, his biotascope began picking up
readings of a creature. It was right on the outside range of the
device, so he couldn't get much information. It was a larger life
reading, bigger than a dog but smaller than a human. He moved
toward it, wanting to get a look. The forest was so dense here he
couldn't see more than a few meters in any direction; the pond was