Terra Incognita: Three Novellas

Connie Willis



Uncharted Territory

Expedition 183: Day 19

We were still three kloms from King’s X when Carson spotted the dust. “What on hell’s that?” he said, leaning forward over his pony’s pommelbone and pointing at nothing that I could see.

“Where?” I said.

“Over there. All that dust.”

I still couldn’t see anything except the pinkish ridge that hid King’s X, and a couple of luggage grazing on the scourbrush, and I told him so.

“My shit, Fin, what do you mean you can’t—” he said, disgusted. “Hand me the binocs.”

“You’ve got ’em,” I said. “I gave ’em to you yesterday. Hey, Bult!” I called up to our scout.

He was hunched over the log on his pony’s saddlebone, punching in numbers. “Bult!” I shouted. “Do you see any dust up ahead?”

He still didn’t look up, which didn’t surprise me. He was busy doing his favorite thing, tallying up fines.

“I gave the binocs back to you,” Carson said. “This morning when we packed up.”

“This morning?” I said. “This morning you were in such an all-fired hurry to get back to King’s X and meet the new loaner you probably went off and left ’em lying in camp. What’s her name again? Evangeline?”

“Evelyn Parker,” he said. “I was not in a hurry.”

“How come you ran up two-fifty in fines breaking camp, then?”

“Because Bult’s on some kind of fining spree the last few days,” he said. “And the only hurry I’ve been in is to finish up this expedition before every dime of our wages goes for fines, which looks like a lost cause now that you lost the binocs.”

“You weren’t in a hurry yesterday,” I said. “Yesterday you were all ready to ride fifty kloms north on the off-chance of running into Wulfmeier, and then C.J. calls and tells you the new loaner’s in and her name’s Eleanor, and all of a sudden you can’t get home fast enough.”

“Evelyn,” Carson said, getting red in the face, “and I still say Wulfmeier’s surveying that sector. You just don’t like loaners.”

“You’re right about that,” I said. “They’re more trouble than they’re worth.” I’ve never met a loaner yet that was worth taking along, and the females are the worst.

They come in one variety: whiners. They spend every minute of the expedition complaining—about the outdoor plumbing and the dust and Bult and having to ride ponies and everything else they can think of. The last one spent the whole expedition yowling about “terrocentric enslaving imperialists,” meaning Carson and me, and how we’d corrupted the “simple, noble indigenous sentients,” meaning Bult, which was bad enough. But then she latched onto Bult and told him our presence “defiled the very atmosphere of the planet,” and Bult started trying to fine us for breathing.

“I laid the binocs right next to your bedroll, Fin,” Carson said, reaching behind him to rummage in his pack.

“Well, I never saw ’em.”

“That’s because you’re half blind,” he said. “You can’t even see a cloud of dust when it’s coming right at you.”

Well, as a matter of fact, we’d been arguing long enough that now I could, a kicked-up line of pinkish cloud close to the ridge.

“What do you think it is? A dust tantrum?” I said, even though a tantrum would’ve been meandering all over the place, not keeping to a line.

“I don’t know,” he said, putting his hand up to shade his eyes. “A stampede maybe.”

The only fauna around here were luggage, and they didn’t stampede in dry weather like this, and anyway, the cloud wasn’t wide enough for a stampede. It looked like the dust churned up by a rover or a gate opening.

I kicked my terminal on and asked for whereabouts on the gatecrashers. It’d shown Wulfmeier on Dazil yesterday when Carson’d been so set on going after him, and now the whereabouts showed him on Starting Gate, which meant he probably wasn’t either place. But he’d have to be crazy to open a gate this close to King’s X, even if there was anything underneath here—which there wasn’t. I’d already run terrains and subsurfaces—especially knowing we were on our way home.

I squinted at the dust, wondering if I should ask for a verify. I could see now it was moving fast, which meant it wasn’t a gate, or a pony, and the dust was too low for the heli. “Looks like the rover,” I said. “Maybe the new loaner—what was her name? Ernestine?—is as jumped for you as you are for her, and she’s coming out here to meet you. You better comb your mustache.”

He wasn’t paying any attention. He was still rummaging in his pack, looking for the binocs. “I laid ’em right next to your bedroll when you were loading the ponies.”

“Well, I didn’t see ’em,” I said, watching the dust. It was a good thing it wasn’t a stampede, it would have run us over while we stood there arguing about the binocs. “Maybe Bult took ’em.”

“Why on hell would Bult take ’em?” Carson bellowed. “His are a hell of a lot fancier than ours.”

They were, with selective scans and programmed polarizers, and Bult had hung them around the second joint of his neck and was peering through them at the dust. I rode up next to him. “Can you see what’s making the dust?” I asked.

He didn’t take the binocs down from his eyes. “Disturbance of land surface,” he said severely. “Fine of one hundred.”

I should’ve known it. Bult could’ve cared less about what was making the dust so long as he could get a fine out of it. “You can’t fine us for dust unless we make it,” I said. “Give me the binocs.”

He bent his neck double, took the binocs off, and handed them to me, and then hunched over his log again. “Forcible confiscation of property,” he said into his log. “Twenty-five.”

“Confiscation!” I said. “You’re not going to fine me with confiscating anything. I asked if I could borrow them.”

“Inappropriate tone and manner in speaking to an indigenous person,” he said into the log. “Fifty.”

I gave up and put the binocs up to my eyes. The cloud of dust looked like it was right on top of me, but no clearer. I upped the resolution and took another look. “It’s the rover,” I called to Carson, who’d gotten off his pony and was taking everything out of his pack.

“Who’s driving?” he said. “C.J.?”

I hit the polarizers to screen out the dust and took another look. “What’d you say this loaner’s name was, Carson?”

“Evelyn. Did C.J. bring her out with her?”

“It’s not C.J. driving,” I said.

“Well, who on hell is it? Don’t tell me one of the indidges stole the rover again.”

“Unfair accusation of indigenous person,” Bult said. “Seventy-five.”

“You know how you always get mad over the indidges giving things the wrong names?” I said.

“What on hell does that have to do with who’s driving the rover?” Carson said.

“Because it looks like the indidges aren’t the only ones doing it,” I said. “It looks like now Big Brother’s doing it, too.”

“Give me those binocs,” he said, grabbing for ’em.

“Forcible confiscation of property,” I said, holding them away from him. “Looks like you could’ve taken your time this morning and not gone off in such a hurry you forgot ours.”

I handed the binocs back to Bult, and just to be contrary, he handed them to Carson, but the rover was close enough now we didn’t need them.

It roared up in a cloud of dust, skidded to a halt right on top of a roadkill, and the driver jumped out and strode over to us without even waiting for the dust to clear.

“Carson and Findriddy, I presume,” he said, grinning.

Now usually when we meet a loaner, they don’t have eyes for anybody but Bult (or C.J., if she’s there and the loaner’s a male), especially if Bult’s unfolding himself off his pony the way he was now, straightening out his back joints one after the other till he looks like a big pink Erector set. Then, while the loaners are still picking their jaws up out of the dirt, one of the ponies keels over or else drops a pile the size of the rover. It’s tough to compete with. So we usually get noticed last or else have to say something like “Bult’s only dangerous when he senses your fear” to get their attention.

But this loaner didn’t so much as glance at Bult. He came straight over to me and shook hands. “How do you do?” he said eagerly, pumping my hand. “I’m Dr. Parker, the new member of your survey team.”

“I’m Fin—” I started.

“Oh, I know who you are, and I can’t tell you what an honor it is to meet you, Dr. Findriddy!”

He let go of my hand and started in on Carson’s. “When C.J. told me you weren’t back yet, I couldn’t wait till you arrived to meet you,” he said, jerking Carson’s hand up and down. “Findriddy and Carson! The famous planetary surveyors! I can’t believe I’m shaking hands with you, Dr. Carson!”

“It’s kind of hard for me to believe, too,” Carson said.

“What’d you say your name was, again?” I asked.

“Dr. Parker,” he said, grabbing my hand to shake it agai ...