More “What if,” and some comments.

This post contains Chapter II of “Recognition Failure”*, but first some comments. I really do hope for input from readers, so I’ll start by giving some on my own work. Writers are admonished to show rather than tell. It makes the work stronger and more interesting. In the chapter I’ve posted there is a lot of telling, not showing. When I tried to find other ways to convey information allowing the reader to understand where he’s being asked to imagine himself, the work became unwieldy and excessively long. Maybe someone else has an idea. I think subsequent chapters suffer less from this defect than the first chapter does.

A second kind of defect which I often notice in things I read is internal inconsistency. Readers are much better at finding this than authors are. They approach the work with different skill sets than that possessed by the author. If anyone notes any in these chapters, please let me know.

On to Chapter II

*To read Chapter I, see my last post, dated 3-10-2013

 Chapter II

     The simulation that had welcomed the first class, a picture of august wisdom and dignity, was concluding its valedictory remarks to the first class.  The whole ‘ceremony’ business still seemed a waste of time to Jon.  He couldn’t believe three years had passed.  On the one hand, it seemed only days ago he’d started his post-school study. Then again, he knew he was nothing like the boy he’d been when he’d listened impatiently to the welcome speech at the opening of the school. Three years of the hardest work he’d ever done combined with the joy of celebrating successes and mourning failures with the only people in the world who could understand had changed him considerably.

Three more classes had started since then, and the school held more than forty students. Lydia was still the only girl. Most women were expected to raise children and care for husbands, but Lydia had expressed such intense distaste for this program and had produced such high scores on the exams given at the end of the standard seven years schooling that, reluctantly, she was allowed into the first class.  She and Jon had vied for top place ever since, but, to her disgust, no other women had followed her.

Lydia still fully intended a career, but her disinclination to marry had lessened.  Jon suspected she’d selected him for the lucky groom.  He did not share that inclination.  Lydia was all right.  He liked her well enough as a friend. He found her physically attractive, but he was a young man; he found most girls physically attractive. He suspected that life with Lydia would be less than tranquil. She seemed to feel that extra education had transformed its recipients into new beings. Jon felt like the same being, just with more stuff crammed in his head.

The simulated gentleman announced the assignments which the Captain, in consultation with the ship, had chosen for each of the first class of scholars. The students had been frequently consulted as well, so these were scarcely surprising. Jon heard his name called.

*                    *                    *

     The new alimentors were nearly ready. Fifty should be enough, and more would tax the resources he currently had on hand. After he’d assimilated the first harvest of the new beings, it would be different. He’d be able to afford twice that number if it seemed desirable. But, first things first.  The youngster south of him needed a lesson. The lad had been slipping alimentors across into territory that wasn’t his, stealing from the better pastures there. When the old guy’d been eaten he’d have to do something permanent about the kid, hopefully before he reached his full strength in a millennium or so. In the meantime, the kid’s units would  provide a test of the new collector type before they were deployed for their intended use…

*                    *                    *

     “Hey, look!” exclaimed Mike.  “I don’t recall seeing those things this far north before!”

Jon banked the little aircraft into a turn and descended toward the river below. He glanced at a distant line of thunderheads. They should have at least an hour, maybe more, before those would be a problem. The rest of the wildlife survey could wait, anyway.

A herd of animals the size of terrestrial bison but shaped more like the sauropods of Earth’s long past were slowly moving along both sides of the stream, their long necks swinging back and forth as they cropped the vegetation to either side.

“Don’t miss much, do they?  Looks like the grass has been mowed.”

“Yeah, if the mower dropped plenty of dung behind it,” responded Mike.  He and Sharla were assigned to assist Jon, and both of them seemed to regard theirs as plumb jobs.  Had Jon thought about it, he would have been pleased. They landed down wind of the herd and Jon watched them for a few minutes with a pair of field glasses.  “You know, I think you’re right!  I’ve never seen these outside the hills to the south. Those long necks are for browsing in trees.”

“Well, they seem to do a pretty good job as grass cutters too.  Have they got a name?”

“Not officially. I call them Diplos because they look like small versions of the Diplodocene dinosaurs of Earth’s Mesozoic.”

“Whatever that is. Why do you think they moved up here?”

“No idea. Maybe it’s part of a cyclic migration, or a sign of some long term climate change, or God knows what. All that’s part of what we’re supposed to be trying to figure out.”

“Hey!  There’s one down over there. No scavengers yet, so it must be fresh. Want to look?”

“You bet!  I’ve never had a look inside one of those, and I’d sure rather cut up a fresh one. Looks like we can put down just this side of the carcass. We can haul back plenty of samples.”

Jon lifted the little plane using the ground effect ducts beneath the wings and scooted it over the sward. The river was bordered by a smooth, gently-sloping margin two or three hundred meters wide, accommodating the flow during flood times. At the edge of this was a steep rise of five or six meters. One of the beasts had wandered too close to this edge and the bank had given way.  It must have just happened; the herd was still only a few hundred yards away, and none of the small carnivores that descended in great numbers on any carrion had yet arrived.  They found the creature’s remains were still warm.

“This is lucky! You know, that’s one of the mysteries of these big beasts. There’s not nearly as much carrion as you’d expect. There are plenty of young ones, and plenty that look mature, but no old ones. They grow fast, and seem to last only three or four years, but what happens to them? Beats me. I’ve looked hard these last two years, and never seen a birth or a natural death. Only accidents like this.”

“Don’t they have nesting sites?  I thought I heard that.”

“Maybe. There are shallow caves and rock shelters at the heads of some small valleys in the hills. We see plenty of little ones there, and lots of mature ones, too.  It’s the only place they seem to get fractious when people are around, and nobody’s been able to check it out. One more thing I want to do, but I’ll have to get access to a remote, and we haven’t got priority.”

They pulled out the tool chest and Jon put on his gloves and got to work. Mike kept an eye out for trouble. Carnivores weren’t a worry, but sudden weather changes, or fires, or stampeding animals could be. Somebody always kept an eye out.

The fall had evidently broken the animal’s back just behind its shoulders, and it lay on its left side, unnaturally twisted, hind quarters and belly rotated upward relative to the front.  The creature was covered in skin which Jon had been told was remarkably like the skin of a bull or buffalo, but the resemblance to Terrestrial life stopped there.  Jon skinned the upper side of the carcass from the shoulders to the hind legs, and opened the body cavity with a saber saw.  Where a man would have had ribs and a sternum, the body was sheathed with somewhat irregular osseous plates half a meter or so across, bound together with cartilage.  There was no real spinal column, but a set of overlapping bony rods beneath the dorsal surface seemed to fill a similar function.  Beneath these ran a strand of fibrous stuff that seemed to correspond to nervous tissue in earth’s creatures.  A faint smell of old fish perfumed the air.

“Whoosh! That’s got a pong to it! They all smell like that?”  Mike echoed Jon’s reaction to his first dissection of one of Eden’s animals. Was it only a couple of years ago? Seemed longer.

“That’s right, and they taste worse.  Free amines in the flesh.  When they get ripe, they’re really bad,”

“No wonder we don’t eat ’em.”

“You could, if it was that or starve. They’d keep you going for a few months.”

“But the plants would kill you right away!  How come?”

“Same reason you don’t walk around outside town without boots, gloves, and reinforced  clothing.”

“Oh yeah.  I guess the stuff’s too coarse to eat, all right.  I thought there were other problems with eating the stuff, though.”

“Earth plants have silica inclusions called phytoliths, grasses especially, but they’re tiny. These have them big time.  Eating them would be like eating sawdust mixed with ground glass. There are allergy issues as well, but after the glass they’re incidental.”

“Not standard gourmet fare.”

“Not at all.  But I think we haven’t really looked very hard for edible exceptions.  Look at the fish we can eat.  They were found by accident.  Give me a hand for a minute, okay?”

Together they pulled back the flaps of skin and body wall, exposing the internal organs. The cavity was full of viscous blood so dark a red as to look almost black. Jon sampled this, then rinsed away the blood with a spray of river water. “Look at this!  Would you say this animal looked like a Rumblebelly?”

“I never saw one opened up. What do you mean?”

“I don’t know what most of this stuff is. Nobody does. Of course, this is a stomach, more of a gizzard, actually, and this is a gut. The anus is underneath the animal, instead of at the rear, but that’s what it is, no doubt. This is a lung, again there’s no doubt, though it’s not like ours.  It’s better, actually. But there’s just one. There’s no heart, or rather there are several. See, here and here? There are a couple more we can’t see. This seems to be a kidney, and there are four of them. This might be something like a liver, but that’s just a guess. Ratverines and porcupossums have recognizable reproductive organs, but no one’s found anything that look at all like them in these big guys. Anyway, that’s not the point. Alive, this thing doesn’t look at all like a Rumblebelly, but behind the stomach the organs look exactly the same except smaller.  It’s like they’re versions of the same kind of animal designed to live in different niches.”  Jon was bent over the carcass, taking slices from various organs and sampling the contents of the paunch and gut. From near at hand came the mewing sound that indicated that a ratverine, a small  scavenging carnivore, had arrived. As soon as they abandoned the meat it would be swarming with them. In two hours it would be bones.

“Heads up!” There was an urgency in Mike’s voice. Jon looked up.

The herd was disturbed. They’d begun milling aimlessly about, lifting their astonishingly long necks and emitting low, hooting calls. Some of them looked as if they might retrace their progress. The place they were working could again be in their path. The two men hastily threw the tools and sample cases into the plane.

They sat in the cabin with the engine running, ready for a rapid takeoff and watched the  animals, now dashing around in growing panic. Sure enough, first in ones and twos, then in a wave, the herd turned and thundered back toward them, picking up speed as they came.  Jon lifted the craft and hovered.

“What’s got into them?” he wondered aloud.

“Hey, look!  What are those things?”  Mike pointed below.  Among the plunging forms of the grazers moved other shapes nearly hidden by the dust their passage had raised.  The herd, composed of perhaps eighty animals when they’d first seen it, was visibly smaller.  A trail of dead or dying beasts marked its passage, and more fell as they approached.

“What’s that?”  Mike sounded astonished and frightened, but Jon didn’t notice. Out of the dust came a thing from a bad dream.  Absently, almost unconsciously, Jon started a recording camera.  “It’s something that’s not supposed to exist,” he responded.

It was big. That was the first impression.  Five or six meters, half of it a tail tipped with a sharp, scimitar-like blade.  It was black.  A huge, fang-filled mouth gaped as it struck at the neck of the nearest herbivore with a massively clawed forelimb, ripping its throat out.  It settled to gorge on the still moving flesh.

The dust drifted away on a slow breeze. The few survivors of the herd ran off down the river, still sounding their mournful lowing call.

The strange predator hadn’t been alone.  At least twenty of the things moved among the fallen herbivores. They seemed to move with equal ease as upright bipeds or on all fours, and they were intent on eating. There was no squabbling, as there surely would have been among terrestrial carnivores. Instead, the creatures simply, methodically, rapidly consumed the flesh of their victims, slicing and tearing them into chunks that could be swallowed bones, skin, and all.  They ate prodigiously, in near silence.

The closest of them turned an eye on the aircraft from time to time, as if wondering if it could leap high enough to reach it.  It had four eyes, Jon noted numbly.  Two big ones near the front of the muzzle must give it good stereoscopic vision.  Two more, smaller, set farther back and to the sides of its head must give it a visual field with no blind spots.

Mike, who’d never even seen a picture of one animal feeding on another was really distressed, and would have been sick if he hadn’t turned away.  Jon had seen films and disciplined himself to continue observing, but wasn’t much happier.  Both men were glad when the alarm sounded telling them the fuel in the flyer was down to the return requirement plus twenty percent, the regulation safety margin. The carnivores were still feeding as the craft lifted away.

As soon as they were within radio range, Jon requested that another observer be dispatched, and that New Hope try to scan the region from orbit.  The showers he’d expected frustrated the latter possibility, and by the time a plane returned to the area only a few scattered scraps of skin and a pair of partial skeletons remained in an area thick with ratverenes,  porcupossums, and other small carnivorous scavengers, all visibly gorged, and blissfully somnolent.

The big carnivores had vanished. Their tracks all followed the same path, back up the river, across a rugged, ravine-filled apron and into an outcrop of low hills, where they vanished amid hard rock and scree only about six kilometers south of the edge of town. The entire area was searched by low-flying aircraft, and from orbit, using every type of scanner, at every wavelength possible.  No trace of the big animals could be found.  If the camera record hadn’t existed, Jon and Mike could almost have believed they’d hallucinated the whole episode.

Sharla, who had been taking care of some record-keeping while the two men were on what had been expected to be a routine check on local wildlife, was mad with disappointment at having missed seeing the unknown beasts.  Mike said he’d have gladly changed places with her.

Jon was puzzled and worried. How could such huge beasts have been overlooked for a century?  Where could they have gone after the slaughter he’d witnessed? How could they have vanished, almost in his back yard, and left no trace? Did men really know anything about this place?

*                    *                    *

     That had gone rather well.  The youngster would be suitably chastened, and the loss of so many alimentors would significantly slow his development.  He budded a flyer, coding a message in the amino acid sequence of the protein contents of a special organ. It complemented the youth on his flavor, and cautioned him against intruding again. When it was digested by the youngster the message would be read. His kind used acoustic signals, thumping the bedrock beneath them, and frequency-modulated signals in several portions of the electromagnetic spectrum, but the exchange of coded tissue was the best communication modality his kind had evolved.  It was fast.  In less than a fifth part of a year a complex message could be sent and answered.  Most important, it was private. The other methods were not.

     The collectors had worked well. As soon as he’d fully digested their contents he would take the first harvest of the odd little bipeds.

     What could they be? They must be alimentors for someone, but he’d been unable to find out whose. As alimentors they were fantastically inefficient. They wasted energy wantonly, constantly fooling with things.  Their activities were incomprehensible, and sometimes dangerous.  Perhaps their primary had died and they were left over? No, they increased in number constantly. In some ways they seemed as solitary as porcupossums or some other lower form of life, but they were found in groups like the units of some person.  Well, maybe he’d know more after eating a representative sample. In a year or so…

*                    *                    *

     For several months the discovery of big carnivorous animals was a wonder.  The excitable panicked. Most folk were concerned. The ship’s advice and help were sought. The first settlers brought firearms in case the analysis done from orbit had failed to identify some problem. As the years passed without the advent of any need for them, most of the weapons had rusted into uselessness, and no one recalled how to use them. Ship suspected they’d be inadequate against the things Jon and Mike had recorded anyway. The heavier of the rifles were repaired and most people learned to fire them.  A new weapon was designed and built, a rocket-propelled grenade fired from a tube a man could hold on his shoulder. It was cumbersome for a single man to handle, but two man teams could fire six or seven times per minute. The library on New Hope helped with the design, fabrication, and explosive synthesis. Twenty were constructed, and fifteen rounds for each were fabricated. For a few months the folk of Eden trained to use the weapons they had, and kept a lookout at all hours, though from the first a good number felt that since they hadn’t been bothered for a hundred of the local years there was no reason to think whatever beasts might be here would bother them now. They considered the time and effort spent preparing for an attack wasted when other things called for attention.

After some months passed with no further sign of the big beasts, that became the majority view. The guns and rocket launchers which had been scattered through the community were locked up in a central station. The night watch wasn’t abandoned, but was assigned to persons too old or infirm for other duty, and was kept in a manner less and less rigorous.

Jon and his team, because they routinely worked outside of town, were given leave to carry their rifles, and assigned one of the rocket launchers.

Jon understood the arguments against wasting effort on a fruitless enterprise. He might even have agreed, but he’d seen what he’d seen. He couldn’t believe men and whatever those things were could exist as neighbors without trouble. Sooner or later, there would be conflict. He doubted the situation would favor humanity; surely not unarmed humanity.

*                    *                    *

     He’d sent eyes, both winged and footed, to study the prey. They seemed most concentrated and least active three or four hours before dawn. If he started the harvest then he could collect what he wanted rapidly and efficiently. If they were satisfactory he’d plan to crop them every decade or so. That should keep their numbers in check, and the addition to his food resources, while low in energy, would be rich in vital minerals.  For the first time in ages, he was excited as he anticipated. It was time…

*                    *                    *

     Jon and his team had been assigned rooms near the center of town, near the schools and laboratories. The original town plan had been circular, with a core of buildings housing necessary functions. Outward of these came rings of houses set like beads on a string, seventy-five or a hundred yards apart, each with a few fruit trees or vines and little vegetable garden, separated by rings of cultivated land, putting people close to their fields. As the population had grown that pattern had been followed for a while, but it had started to break down as the settlement pressed against the hills to the north.

That was true of all the old patterns, Jon thought. The ship-born system of command and assignment of resources by a captain and council supplemented by a bit of barter no longer worked well. The population was getting too large. Soon there would have to be changes in the way the economic and political life of the settlement was structured.

Some of the younger people, especially a faction led by Jon’s classmate Lydia, were pressing for a general meeting of the settlement with the idea of drafting a constitution. The officer families of his parent’s generation, seeing a threat to their traditional authority, had no interest in or tolerance for such ideas. Jon understood the need, but wanted no part in the undertaking.  When he wondered what he’d want in place of what he knew, his mind went blank.

Jon had turned in early. Tomorrow would be half-week day, and most people would have half a day free of duty.  Mike was in his room, but Sharla had drawn leave to spend the day with her family at their home on the north side of town, out near where Jon’s family lived.

It was a beautiful night in early autumn, cool, but not yet cold. Both moons were in the sky, both gibbous, one waxing, one waning. Just north of Diana, the nearer moon, New Hope, a bright silver needle, hung in its synchronous orbit. He sat before his window looking at the moonlit scene for a while before going to bed.

He found himself out of sorts, morose and discontent.

Lydia had long since realized she and Jon would never make a pair. After she accepted that fact, she’d treated him with a degree of condescension as if he’d somehow failed to measure up to an exacting standard invisible to anyone but herself. Jon ignored her pique, and tried to treat her simply as he did any other friendly acquaintance, but on one occasion he’d allowed his amusement to show.  Since, their few conversations had been icy, somewhat formal, and absolutely correct. She’d paired with Larry, another of the first class of scholars. He’d been happy to dwell in her shadow at school, and seemed prepared to do so for life.

Of the women his age, Jon was drawn most to Sharla, but her affection for Mike was obvious, and it was as obviously returned. The three of them were of an age, but both Sharla and Mike treated Jon as if he were much older than they. In any case, Jon was too fond of both of them to cause trouble in their lives. He did want someone, though. What to do? It was a puzzle. He went to bed.

He wakened suddenly. Momentarily confused, he thought he’d been dreaming, but no, sounds of some sort of disturbance came clearly through the still night air. It came from the northern side of town, a mile and a half away. It must be loud to carry so far. He stepped to the window and pulled back the shade.

The night was old. One moon sat almost on the western hilltop. The other, half way down the western sky, cast a wan light over the prospect. A house seemed to be burning, but that could hardly account for the general uproar coming from that direction. It seemed many people were running, calling out, banging and breaking doors and windows. A few shots were fired, closely spaced, almost in a burst. Above all, there were the shrieks, screams that could come only from people in great agony or terror.  Something very bad was happening over there.  Jon tried to phone, but neither his parents nor anyone else answered.

Jon pulled on his clothing, grabbed his rifle and a bag of clips, and headed for the door. As he passed Mike’s door he started to knock, but it opened before he touched it. Mike, clad only in shorts, was rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “What’s happening?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Something off north. I’m going to check.”

“Shall I go along?”

“Get over to the armory. I don’t know what this is, but it sounds bad. Get the old man to issue weapons to the folks that know how to use them. Then come find me. Oh. Better bring the launcher.”

“God! You think we’ll need it?”

As he went out the door, Jon responded, “I hope not.”

He wasn’t the only one who had wakened. At every door, people stood looking to the north. Jon, a terrible suspicion in his mind, suggested they get inside and barricade the doors and windows as well as possible. He chose a number of men he knew to have been trained with weapons and sent them to the armory. When armed, he said they should return to their homes and be ready to defend them. To his astonishment, he was obeyed without argument.

Once more he started toward the source of the noise. Several minutes had passed, and things had changed. Two or three more houses on the edge of town were burning, but the confused noise and the screams were now much closer. A mass of people, several hundred, he thought, a confused tangle of black and white shapes in the moonlight, fled toward him in evident panic. Someone fell and disappeared beneath the feet of the crowd. They ran in silence. Behind them were those who screamed. Jon knew many people, and recognized many more by sight, but terror-distorted, half seen, the faces before him were beyond recognition.

One of the runners broke from the mob. It was Sharla. Her eyes were wild.  She shook and her teeth chattered, but she dashed inside and in a moment reappeared with her rifle.

Behind the runners came a number of long, dark shapes. They were half or two thirds as tall as a man and four or five times that long. With methodical regularity they knocked down the rearmost members of the clustered mass and snapped them up with huge jaws. The despairing shrieks came from these unfortunates. Jon pressed back into the side of a house and let the fleeing crowd surge past him. He was trying to fire at the animals, but people kept getting in the way. He got off a shot or two, but they seemed to have no effect. The beasts had almost reached him and still their hapless victims shielded them. Suddenly, there they were. A huge black head swung toward him, and for a moment moonlight glittered in one big forward-facing eye. Jon fired almost by reflex.

The beast surged upright, the lower half of a body falling from its jaws. It staggered toward its suddenly blind side. Sharla fell in beside him, still shaking in the grip of hysteria, but her rifle was rock-steady in her hands, and she shot out the beast’s other forward eye. It fell back to all fours, and stood quivering in the road. Two more men with rifles had joined them.  “Shoot for the eyes,” Jon yelled.

It was a command impossible to follow. In the darkness it was hard to tell one end of the things from the other. Still, concentrating their fire on the front of the things, they brought down another and slowed the advance of the rest sufficiently that most of the runners began to pull away.

Four animals remained of the group they’d intercepted. Balked in pursuit of the mob, they turned toward Jon and his companions. In a distant way, Jon realized they were going to die. It took too long, too many shots, to stop the things. They’d never get them all. One of the men who had joined them thought so too, and fled. Sharla dropped to her knee and she and Jon kept up a steady, deliberate fire into the heads of the animals, switching from one to another as they came on..

Jon jumped when Mike placed the tube of the rocket launcher over his shoulder. He dropped his rifle, pointed the tube into the center of a black shape, and pulled the trigger.

He’d never fired the launcher at night, and never at such close range.  The rocket shot from the tube with a brilliant flash, followed immediately by the detonation of the warhead.  The concussion almost knocked him from his feet. Chunks and gobbits of flesh rained over and around them. His ears rang, and the flash left Jon momentarily blind. When his vision cleared he saw the that target animal was almost cut in half.  A rear leg and its tail had vanished. It shook spasmodically, and died. Mike shoved a second projectile into the tube, and a second, slightly more distant animal had its head and forequarters blown away.  Then the four humans were alone on the road.

Not exactly alone. One moon had set, but the other cast enough light to reveal many bodies, and parts of bodies, on the road and in the fields along side it.

Elsewhere pandemonium continued. Both east and west of them the sounds of panic and flight could be heard. A flash and a roar from the east indicated somebody else had gotten a launcher into action. Mike had three more rounds for the launcher in a sling across his back. He picked up Jon’s rifle, and the three started west at a trot, the bag of spare clips, half depleted, banging at Jon’s side. Away from the path over which the predators had driven their prey all seemed unchanged. Houses and fields dreamed in the moonlight, and only distant sounds proclaimed the disaster.  Near the edge of the settlement, more buildings were burning, set afire by upset stoves, Jon suspected.

Abruptly, they were once again among frantic, fleeing people. Now they could see shapes flanking the crowd, preventing it from scattering, while the beasts at the rear took victims at their leisure. A fire flared up close at hand, and in its light five of the animals were revealed.

Sharla blinded one and Mike and Jon killed two in quick succession with the launcher. The remaining two slipped away. Against the distant fires, Jon saw a strange sight. Moving in a steady, unhurried line, the creatures were leaving. They didn’t seem to be fleeing, exactly. They were just going.

A bullet glanced from a fence rail and whined away. They were suddenly aware that people all around town were shooting indiscriminately at anything that moved, and they started to the side of the road to take cover. They’d taken only a step when Mike grunted, gasped, and dropped. Jon grabbed him, threw him across his shoulder, and carried him into the shelter of a wall.  By the light of a match they saw he’d been shot straight through the head. He was already dead.

They stayed in the shelter of the wall till dawn. Jon saw the last of the attacking beasts not much more than an hour after he first wakened but the firing went on all night.

In the gray light, Jon lifted Mike’s body, already starting to stiffen, and, Sharla beside him, made his way back toward the center of town.

*                    *                    *

          He hadn’t even begun to assimilate the take from the harvest, but he knew it had been a calamitous failure. He’d sent fifty of the new collectors, and thirty four returned! Most of them were so full of tiny, poisonous bits of something that it would take almost more energy to digest them than they would provide. One, even two might have met with accidents, but sixteen?

     Those that did return were injured. Most hadn’t even filled their crops, but had come back when they were damaged badly enough to make their return unlikely if it was delayed.

     How could this have happened? The memories he’d had time to examine included no recall of anything formidable enough to challenge the beings he’d sent. Only the game, behaving as game always did. But those sharp pains and bright flashes! What were they? It was uncanny! At the back of his mind he felt an emotion he’d almost forgotten. It was fear.



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