Authors: John Varley
It wasn’t much, but it would have to do. She slung the large ring over her shoulder and started down the hill.
The pool was fed by a two-meter fall from a rocky stream which wound through a little valley. The huge trees arched overhead, completely blocking her view of the sky. She stood on a rock near the edge of the pool, trying to judge its depth, thinking about jumping in.
Thinking about it was all she did. The water was clear, but there was no telling what might be in it. She jumped over the ridge which produced the waterfall. It was easy in the one-quarter gee. A short walk brought her to a sandy beach.
The water was warm, sweet, and bubbly, and easily the best thing she had ever tasted. She drank all she wanted, then squatted and scrubbed with sand, keeping an eye open. Watering holes were places for caution. When she was through she felt reasonably human for the first time since her awakening. She sat on the wet sand and let her feet trail in the water.
It was cooler than the air or the ground, but still suprisingly warm for what looked to be a glacier-fed mountain stream. Then she realized it would make sense if the heat source in Themis was as they had deduced: from below. The sunlight at Saturn’s orbit wouldn’t provide much ground heating. But the
triangular fins were under her now, and were probably designed to capture and store solar heat. She envisioned huge subterranean rivers of hot water running a few hundred meters under the ground.
Moving on seemed to be the next order of business, but which way? Straight ahead could be ruled out. Across the stream the land began to rise again. Downstream should be easiest, and should bring her to flatlands soon.
“Decisions, decisions,” she muttered.
She looked at the tangle of metal junk she had been carrying all … what was it? Afternoon? Morning? Time could not be measured that way in here. It was possible only to speak of elapsed time, and she had no idea how much had gone by.
The helmet ring was still in her hand. Now her brow furrowed as she looked closer.
Her suit had once contained a radio. Of course it was not possible that it had come through the ordeal intact, but just for the hell of it she hunted for and found the remains. There was a tiny battery, and what was left of a switch, turned on. That ended that. Most of the radio had been silicon chips and metal, so there had been some faint hope.
She looked again. Where was the speaker? It should be a little metal horn, the remains of a headset unit. She found it, and lifted it to her ear.
“Gaby!” She was on her feet, shouting, but the familiar voice kept counting, oblivious. Cirocco knelt on the rock and arrayed the remains of her helmet on it with fingers that trembled, holding the speaker to one ear while pawing through the components. She found the pinhead throat mike.
“Gaby, Gaby, come in please. Can you hear me?”
“… eighty—Rocky! Is that you, Rocky?”
“It’s me. Where … where are …” She calmed down deliberately, swallowed, and went on. “Are you all right? Have you seen the others?”
. The most horrible things …” Her voice broke, and Cirocco heard sobs. Gaby poured out an incoherent stream of words: how glad she was to hear Cirocco’s voice, how lonely she had been, how sure she had been that she was the only survivor until she listened to her radio and heard sounds.
“Yes, there’s at least one other alive, unless that was you crying.”
“I … hell, I cried quite a bit. It might have been me.”
“I don’t think so,” Gaby said. “I’m pretty sure it’s Gene. He sings sometimes, too. Rocky, it so
to hear your voice.”
“I know. It’s good to hear yours.” She had to take another deep breath and relax her grip on the helmet ring. Gaby’s voice was back in control, but Cirocco was on the edge of hysterics. She didn’t like the feeling.
“The things that have
to me,” Gaby was saying. “I was dead, Captain, and in heaven, and I’m not even religious, but there I was—”
“Gaby, settle down. Get a grip on yourself.”
There was silence, punctuated by sniffs.
“I think I’ll be all right now. Sorry.”
“It’s all right. If you went through anything like what I did, I understand perfectly. Now, where are you?”
There was a pause, then a giggle. “There’s no street signs in the neighborhood,” Gaby said. “It’s a canyon, not very deep. It’s full of rocks and there’s a stream down the middle. There’s these funny trees on both sides of the stream.”
“It sounds pretty much like where I am.” But which canyon? she wondered. “Which way are you going? Were you counting steps?”
“Yeah. Downstream. If I could get out of this forest, I could see half of Themis.”
“I thought of that, too.”
“We just need a couple landmarks to tell if we’re in the same neighborhood.”
“But I thought we must be, or we wouldn’t be able to hear each other.”
Gaby didn’t say anything, and Cirocco saw her mistake.
“Right,” she said. “Line of sight.”
“Check. These radios are good for quite a distance. In here, the horizon curves
“I’d believe it better if I could see it. Where I am right now could be the enchanted forest at Disney World in late evening.”
“Disney would have done a better job,” Gaby said. “It would have had more detail, and monsters popping out of the trees.”
“Don’t say that. Have you seen anything like that?”
“A couple insects, I guess they were.”
“I saw a school of tiny fish. They looked like fish. Oh, by the way, don’t go in the water. They might be dangerous.”
“I saw them.
I was in the water. But they didn’t do anything.”
“Have you passed anything that’s remarkable in any way? Some unusual surface feature?”
“A few waterfalls. Two fallen trees.”
Cirocco looked around and described the pool and waterfall. Gaby said she had passed several places like that. It might be the same stream, but there was no way to know.
“All right,” Cirocco said. “Here’s what we do. When you find a rock facing upstream, make a mark on it.”
“With another rock.” She found one the size of her fist and attacked the rock she had been sitting on. She scratched a large “C” on it. There could be no mistaking its artificiality.
“I’m doing that now.”
“Make a mark every hundred meters or so. If we’re on the same river one of us will come up behind the other, and the one in front can wait for the other to catch up.”
“Sounds good. Uh, Rocky, how long are these batteries good for?”
Cirocco grimaced, and rubbed her forehead.
“Maybe a month of use. It could depend on how long we were … you know, how long we were inside. I don’t have any ideas on that. Do you?”
“No. Do you have any hair?”
“Not a strand.” She rubbed her hand over her scalp, and noticed that it did not feel quite as smooth. “But it’s growing back in.”
Cirocco walked downstream, holding the speaker and mike in place so they could talk to each other.
“I feel hungriest when I think about it,” Gaby said. “And I’m thinking about it right now. Have you seen any of these little berry bushes?”
Cirocco looked around but didn’t spot anything like that.
“The berries are yellow, and about as big as the end of your thumb. I’m holding one now. It’s soft
“Are you going to eat it?”
There was a pause. “I was going to ask you about that.”
“We’ll have to try something sooner or later. Maybe one won’t be enough to kill you.”
“Just make me sick,” Gaby laughed. “This one broke on my teeth. There’s a thick jelly inside, like honey with a minty taste. It’s dissolving in my mouth … and now it’s gone. The rind is not so sweet, but I’m going to eat it anyway. It might be the only part with any food value.”
If even that, Cirocco thought. There was no reason why any part of it should sustain them. She was pleased that Gaby had given her such a detailed description of her sensations while eating the berry, but she knew the purpose of it. Bomb de-fusing teams used the same technique. One stayed away while the other reported every action over the radio. If the bomb went off, the survivor learned something for the next time.
When they judged enough time had passed with no ill effect, Gaby began eating more of the berries. In time, Cirocco found some. They were almost as good as that first taste of water had been.
“Gaby, I’m about dead on my feet. I wonder how long we’ve been awake?”
There was a long pause, and she had to call again.
“Hm? Oh, hi. How did I get here?” She sounded slightly drunk.
Cirocco frowned. “Where’s here? Gaby what’s happening?”
“I sat down for a minute to rest my legs. I must have fallen asleep.”
“Try to wake up enough to find a good place for it.” Cirocco was already looking around. It was going to be a problem. Nothing looked good, and she knew it was the worst possible idea to lie down alone in strange country. The only thing worse would be trying to stay awake any longer.
She went a short distance into the trees, and marveled at how soft the grass felt under her bare feet. So much better than the rocks. It would be nice to sit down for a minute.
She awoke on the grass, sat up quickly and looked all around. Nothing was moving.
For a meter in every direction from where she had slept, the grass had turned brown, dried out like hay.
She stood and looked down at a large rock. She had approached it from the downstream side while looking for a place to sleep. Now she walked around it, and on the other side was a large letter “G.”
Gaby insisted on turning back. Cirocco didn’t protest; it sounded good to her, though she could never have suggested it.
She walked downstream, often passing the marks Gaby had made. At one point she had to leave the sandy shore and go up onto the grass to avoid a large pile of boulders. When she reached the grass she saw a series of oval brown spots spaced like footprints. She knelt and touched them. They were dry and brittle just like the grass where she had slept.