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Davis, Jerry - Dna Prospector

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Davis, Jerry - Dna Prospector

     DNA Prospector

     ? 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

     trespassing."

     "Hey, you don't have to go all huffy with us," said Jacko.

     "We're here to offer you a position with Bankrightk."

     "A job?"

     Jacko nodded.

     "Prospecting?" Gregson asked.

     "DNA prospecting."

     "For what? A salary?"

     "Salary, expenses, and a cut. More than you're getting right

     now---"

     "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

     his shoulder.

     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

     growling stopped.

     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

     animal."

     "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.

     "Overpowering."

     "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

     completely out of sight.

     There was a loud cracking sound, and looking down Gregson saw

     a crushed, hollow branch under his right foot. It was like the leg

     of a large, dead insect. So much for being quiet, he thought. Then

     he looked up, his eyes widening. There was a change to the forest.

     Gregson's vision crystallized, the edges becoming sharp,

     distinct. Tiny details of the trees, the forest floor, the light

     and shadow, were all very clear. The feeling of dread swelled

     inside him. Something was very wrong, very dangerous. His immediate

     urge was to back away, to turn and run.

     He took several long, deep breaths, forcing himself to

     perceive. To analyze. This is like a drug effect, he thought. Or

     like being in high quality VR. Or it's something supernatural, his

     fear voice told him.

     Gregson fumbled with his biotascope, making sure it was set to

     record.

     He began moving slowly toward the creature. It was like trying

     to walk upstream in a river. Every cell in his body was trying to

     get him to turn around and go the other way. His heart was thudding

     so hard in his chest that it hurt.

     The dark tangle of branches around him were sinister, hiding

     menace everywhere he looked. He could feel he was being watched. He

     could feel the tension in the air, like a predator was stalking him

     and was moments away from pouncing. Gregson became aware that his

     mouth was dry, and that he was breathing hard. Sweat was streaming

     down from his forehead and into his eyes.

     Gregson had made it a dozen meters in toward the creature when

     the sound came. Starting low and soft, it was an eerie undulating

     cry, growing in volume and pitch. It was a horrible sound, a sound

     that made his pounding heart skip a beat. Then he heard a crashing

     in the forest behind him, and wide-eyed and gun ready Gregson

     whirled around. He saw the two Bankrightk men, who had obviously

     followed him into the forest, turning tail and running away.

     Gregson's whole body shuddered, wanting to follow them, but he

     clenched his eyes tightly shut and took deep breaths, trying to

     calm himself.

     The undulating cry was loud, now, and unnerving. It made it

     impossible to think. Vern Hudson had called it a demon. It sounded

     like a demon. But demons weren't real, they were fantasy. This

     couldn't be a demon. This couldn't be anything supernatural. It was

     just an animal. Just another animal ...

     Gregson recalled all the deadly animals he'd seen in his

     career, animals vicious and deadly. This creature didn't have to be

     supernatural to be a demon. A demon could be an animal. A demon

     animal that paralyzed its prey with fear and then went in for the

     kill.

     His biotascope made a sound. It was the proximity alert.

     Gregson opened his eyes and glanced down at the screen, and saw

     that the damn thing was right behind him. He yelled and ran. He

     didn't look back, he just ran. The running was such a glorious and

     wonderful relief that he kept going, effortlessly, as if a terrific

     pressure was pushing him from behind.

     #

     Gregson arrived at his camp exhausted, only to find that the

     Bankrightk men had been there first. They had taken revenge for the

     fright they'd received. Gregson's tent had been cut apart with a

     laser torch, and the contents smashed and strewn about like so much

     garbage. He stood there, kicking at the remains of his cot and

     portable cooking equipment. His power plant and biopack computer

     were gone. It was basically everything he owned.

     Of course he had insurance. Unfortunately, it took several

     Earth-months to process, and until then he had the choice of

     signing up with Bankrightk or being a bum. Without the biopak

     computer, there was no way for him to register DNA samples.

     He felt it welling up inside of him. Anger, and the desire to

     kill. Common animal emotions. It was very distasteful, very

     unpleasant. They were overpowering.

     Gregson hefted the stun gun. It was a large, heavy weapon, but

     it would not kill -- unless you used it as a club.

     He set off purposefully toward town.

     #

     Bankrightk had the newest and nicest building in town. Unlike

     most of the other reused tanks or spaceship pods, this

     foam-concrete building was actually built as an office. It had an

     authentic Sante Fe adobe look to it. The front door was securely

     locked, and peering through the windows Gregson saw that it was

     deserted.

     The local law enforcement offices were a rusty old half-tank

     propped up as a rain shelter, with an empty glass office in the

     back. The glass was cracked in several places, and the public

     terminals to the orbital police station were all vandalized.

     Gregson had known it was a useless gesture to even try, but he

     thought he should go through the motions anyway. One of the

     terminals, damaged as it was, still worked enough for him to report

     the crime. The reply he received was that the department was

     overwhelmed with search and rescue efforts, and wouldn't be able to

     get an officer down to the settlement for at least a week.

     Gregson pushed the key to acknowledge the message, but the key

     stuck and the terminal began making an annoying beeping sound. The

     screen filled with garbage characters. He stared at it for a

     moment, then pounded on it with his fist. It stopped beeping, the

     screen cleared, and on the display appeared an application for

     employment. Gregson stared at it quizzically for a moment, then

     shrugged and filled it out. Lord knows he was out of a job. It was

     better than working for Bankrightk.

     Gregson wandered around the settlement for a while, hungry,

     unable to afford to eat, then in a depressed mood returned into the

     wilderness heading for Vern Hudson's farm, hoping for another

     charitable meal from Bethany. When he was in sight of the place,

     Vern came running out, yelling hysterically. He was waving a

     blaster in the air.

     Gregson stopped short, wondering if the old man was angry at

     him for something -- wondering if he should run. He almost did. But

     there was desperation in the man's voice, and Gregson realized Vern

     was yelling for help. "Bethany's out there!" he yelled at Gregson.

     "Frank and Bethany went out there, and she's still out there!"

     "What?"

     "Frank came back, but Bethany didn't!" Vern yelled. He was

     wild-eyed with panic and worry. "Can't get Frank to show me where

     she is -- can't get him to talk at all!" He grabbed Gregson's arm,

     looking at him desperately. "I can't go out there alone."

     Gregson took a deep, calming breath, but he was still gritting

     his teeth. "Okay," he said. "Let's follow the tracks."

     #

     There were tracks all around Vern's fish pond. Gregson had

     isolated Frank and Bethany's, but there were two more sets. He

     remembered that the Bankrightk men had followed him there earlier,

     then had run off when the terror struck. Gregson's fear was that

     they had gone and armed themselves to the teeth, returning with

     enough firepower to level the forest. His fears were justified when

     he and Vern heard shouting and gunfire coming from the dense, dark

     woods ahead.

     Gregson already had his biotascope set to record when the

     terror started. He had some interesting readings from his previous

     encounter, and wanted to confirm them. After the terror started

     working on him he ceased to care about the recordings ... there was

     no good reason for him to be out there, except that Bethany was

     lost somewhere and he needed to bring her back. His worry for her

     was like an anchor that kept the terror from carrying him away.

     The Bankrightk men continued to shout and fire their weapons.

     They sounded wild with fear and panic. "Those idiots," Gregson

     whispered to Vern. "If Beth is out here, they're liable to kill

     her."

     Vern said nothing. He clutched his blaster close to his chest,

     sweat pouring from his forehead. His eyes were bulging and his head

     continuously turned from side to side, like he was expecting

     something to sneak up behind him.

     They trudged several meters further into the murky forest, and

     Gregson paused, pointing down. Bethany's footprints continued

     forward, while Frank's lead around and back. This is where the

     terror had gotten to him, and he'd left his sister all alone. The

     Bankrightk men had paused here, and had continued on following

     Bethany.

     From somewhere in the forest came a weird, undulating cry.

     Vern began to back away, but Gregson grabbed him by the shirt and

     pulled him forward.

     Vern blustered. "Let go of me!"

     "Stay with me, Vern."

     "I ... I can't."

     "She's your daughter, damn it -- if you love her half as much

     as I do, you going to stay with me."

     It was dark, but there was a breeze tousling the tops of the

     trees and occasionally a shaft of sunlight would spear down for a

     second or two. The warbling, undulating cry seemed to come from

     everywhere. Gregson pushed forward, rifle pointing forward, every

     nerve on edge. He felt like he was dancing across the surface of

     the terror, keeping above it while still feeling it. It was a

     freefall feeling, unnerving and at the same time exhilarating. He

     moved through a momentary patch of weak sunlight and once again

     into shadow, the shadow now seeming deeper than ever.

     His biotascope registered a life form ahead. A humanoid in a

     highly agitated state. Blood pressure high, pulse rate high,

     adrenal secretions abnormal. Neural pulse rate was two per second

     higher than the usual ten. A far removed part of Gregson thought

     that was odd.

     Gregson made it to twenty meters from the person, keeping a

     tree trunk between him and whoever it was. He turned to say

     something to Vern and found he was alone. Vern had slipped away,

     abandoning him. Gregson felt like turning and running after him,

     but he didn't. He wanted to, but instead he held tightly to his

     father's gun and closed his eyes, focusing his will. I am here for

     Bethany, he thought. I am here for her.

     He opened his eyes and studied his biotascope. The person near

     him wasn't Bethany -- the body mass was too high. It was probably

     Rudd, from Bankrightk. Beyond him was another humanoid, and thirty

     meters further in was the creature.

     There was more yelling, and then gunfire. Gregson stayed

     behind the tree, hiding. The idiots were firing wildly at random,

     totally out of their minds. The bio-readings from both were

     identical; same high pulse, same accelerated neural rate. The brain

     pulse, which was usually right at 40 cycles per second front to

     back, was at an odd 57 cycles per second.

     Gregson struggled to keep his breathing under control. Sweat

     dropped from his forehead and smeared the readouts on the

     biotascope. He squinted, focusing his attention with great effort.

     The pulse in his own brain was also at 57 cycles per second.

     Gregson wiped at the screen, touched the controls. He focused on

     the creature, focusing on the neural indicators. It took a while,

     as the creature was distant. The number finally came up.

     It was the same magic number.

     Gregson adjusted the stun setting down to it's lowest and

     peered around the tree. Rudd had his back to him; Gregson saw him

     as a dark patch of gray against darker gray. He aimed carefully for

     the man's leg, and let off a shot. The gun discharged with a twang.

     Rudd rolled around the ground, crying out. "It's biting me!" he

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