The owner’s meeting was over. We had our wraps on and were halfway to our vehicles when Horace called out quietly, “Tree. Jack. A word.” We stopped, curious. The tracker had something to say he didn’t care to share with his boss?
Turned out he did. In a low voice, his back to the ranch house, he asked, “Care to take a little hike?”
Jack and I both nodded, neither of us glancing toward the house. The widow Trace trusted us, but acting furtive would catch her attention for sure, should she happen to be watching through the front window.
Sissy had ridden over with me, so she was included by default. Not that Horace had any intention of excluding her; she was, after all, Security Chief for all of Rodeo Iron. We parked our vehicles in front of the shop as if we were heading into the office to pull a bit of overtime, which we did on occasion, then hiked around to the north side of the big building. Out of earshot of the main house–unless he yelled like a wild man, which he obviously had no intention of doing–Tamblyn explained. “There’s one thing I didn’t bring up at the meeting, but it’s bugging me more than a bit.”
“Why not bring it up?” We had no secrets from Jennifer Trace that I knew of, at least not until now.
The old tracker lifted a gloved hand to scrub at the side of his weathered face, an entirely unthinking gesture. I was pretty sure he didn’t even realize he was doing it. “Jen’s more worried about our diamond gaited mystery beast than she’s admitting. I don’t want to trouble her unnecessarily.”
Jen, now is it? You never called her that before, old man. You are definitely getting some. Awesome, though it was my turn to be distracted. I jerked my attention back to what he was saying.
“…scuffled snow. I haven’t been able to make anything of it so far. It’s not a plop-drop from a tree branch. So I figured maybe a few more eyeballs scoping it out might come up with something. I’m sure enough stumped.”
Jack and Sissy were both nodding, so I figured I’d best do the same. Wouldn’t want to have to admit I hadn’t been listening. Scuffled snow? Horace turned, led the way up the slope to the fence line. We all took turns holding the barbed wire strands apart for each other, ducked through the fence instead of walking way down to the gate, and trooped on up into the forest. Horace had his rifle; the rest of us were packing nothing but our short guns, Jack’s and mine in .22 long rifle caliber at that. If we wound up face to face with a hostile eight foot, eight limbed critter armed with long sharp claws, we were going to be outgunned.
I hoped Horace hadn’t become so obsessed with solving the mystery that he…wait a minute. He was the one packing the long gun. I found myself wishing I’d taken the time to retrieve my .25-06 from the Pontiac’s back seat….
“Here.” The tracker stopped, pointing toward a tiny clearing. “What do you make of that?”
Make of what? I wanted to say, but I kept my mouth shut. I couldn’t see a damned thing except for a handful of pine seedlings, their tips rising barely a foot above the two feet of snow blanketing the landscape.
“Interesting,” Sissy observed, chin in one hand, elbow propped in the other like Jack Benny in one of those early black and white TV comedy sketches. Her pose reminded me of the Benny sketch in which he’s being held up by an armed robber who says, “Your money or your life!” Benny doesn’t answer for a bit, prompting the criminal to repeat his demand, to which Benny replies, “I’m thinking! I’m thinking!”
Jack chimed in, not with any fancy pose, just standing there, looking. “Very interesting indeed.”
I gave up. “All right, what’s interesting? It all looks the same to me, just snow, snow, and more snow!”
“Dead center in the clearing, Tree.” Jack pointed. “The snow has definitely been disturbed, see? Recently, too. Not more than, what, a day or two you think?” His question was addressed to the tracker; the black man on the premises still couldn’t see what on Earth he was talking about.
“No more than that, I’d say. We had a bit of wind and fresh snow, maybe half an inch, three days back. It’s definitely fresher than that.”
Without further ado, he led the way out into the clearing, breaking trail. The rest of us forged along behind. Closer up, I could finally see what he was talking about. In fact, I’d seen snow look like that when I was a kid building a snow fort or snow cave, but I never would have paid the slightest attention to it if three of my most trusted friends weren’t making such a big deal about it.
“There’s a whole lot of mystery here,” Horace pointed out. “Something scuffled the snow, but there are no tracks through the area larger than those of a pine marten going about his business.”
Our quiet consultation was suddenly and rudely interrupted.
“Howdy, howdy, howdy!” The greeting boomed from everywhere, a rich baritone worthy of a TV news anchor, but it wasn’t one of us and we couldn’t pinpoint the location. Four startled humans whirled, crouching, looking in four different directions, covering each other’s backs. Our weapons were in our hands, but never had the Walther .22 felt so utterly inadequate in mine. I thought briefly about shifting the pistol to my left hand so I could draw my folding knife, gave that up as a ridiculous idea, and waited.
We all waited. I could hear the others breathing, especially Horace–he was wheezing a bit–but we said nothing. It wasn’t necessary to turn in circles in an attempt to locate the enemy; we trusted each other implicitly.
What we did not trust was the disembodied voice.
My mind could have been working furiously, or it could have totally blank. I was going with blank. We scanned as far as we could see, but with the forest surrounding us and the clearing no more than forty yards across, that wasn’t all that far. Thankfully, none of us did the greenhorn stupid thing; nobody asked nervously, “Who are you?” Or, “Where are you?” We just waited, wired on adrenaline, hair triggered, four back country combat vets knowing the enemy had the advantage but unwilling to give an inch.
“Isn’t that the right way to say it?” A low woman’s voice this time. We were facing more than one of them. Not that facing was the right word; we still weren’t seeing any faces other than our own.
“Okay, okay, I give up! Don’t shoot!” John Wayne’s voice, I swear to God, to my right. We all switched gears just in time to see a head pop up from the middle of that scuffled snow pile. I zeroed in on the huge round eye staring straight at me, no more than twenty feet away. Had Horace not provided us with a sketch of the thing, I’d have pissed my pants in sheer shock. The skull was even rounder than it was in the drawing, about the size of a furry basketball. Remember, it’s got four eyes, I thought inanely, as if that might be important for some reason.
The oversized muppet head just sat there on the snow, staring, either giving us time to get used to it or…I didn’t know why. Horace was the farthest from me; from his angle, he’d be looking into the next eye over. Jack and Sissy were in between.
The brittle silence was broken by Jack. “Friend or foe?”
“Not foe! Not foe! Don’t know what that means yet.” Chills ran up and down my spine, tap dancing all the way. The thing’s voice sounded exactly like Judi. Exactly like her.
It was that Judi voice, I suspect, which jump started my brain back into action. Nobody threatens my girls and gets away with it. No thing, either. Well then. I was the big bad sole owner of Rodeo Iron, fastest growing welding operation in all of the mountain states. If I couldn’t deal with a little ol’ Creature from the Snow Lagoon, then shame on me.
“Most of your body is underground, isn’t it?” I asked. “In case we get itchy trigger fingers.”
“You said it, pilgrim.” The Duke’s voice again.
Pieces of the puzzle were falling into place, an avalanche of understanding. “When you put your ear to the shop wall, you can hear everything going on inside, can’t you?” It had to be that; how else could it pick up voices from the office (Judi, old Westerns on the CD player when the radio wasn’t going) as well as an amalgam of everything else happening in the welding booths?
“Got it in one.” From the corner of my eye, I saw Jack jerk in surprise; the voice was his, and so was the saying. So far, the mouth under the eye pointing my way had done all the talking. Or at least, I thought it had. When it was speaking, the orifice opened in a perfectly round form, not much different in size from the huge eyeball. No lips moved; there were no lips. Whatever vocal machinery was working inside the creature, it spit the words out as if through a horn, the notes clear and crisp in the chill winter air. What Horace had drawn as an eyebrow was not such at all; it was a slit, possibly for hearing. Or breathing; there was no indication of any sort of breathing apparatus. “Safe to come out?”
The old tracker lost it, just a bit. “You’re asking us if it’s safe?”
“Yes. I’m asking you if it’s safe. You’re the ones with the guns.”
“Somehow,” I said dryly, “I’m not convinced the shooters we have on hand would be enough to stop you if you didn’t want to be stopped.”
“You might get lucky.” My voice this time. “I can harden my skin pretty fast, but not faster than a speeding bullet.”
“Better question.” My turn. “Is it safe for us if you come out? From what little we know so far, you’re one big bad scary critter.”
It was the furry basketball’s turn to be startled. “Amazing. Truly amazing.”
“What is what?”
“What is amazing?”
“It is amazing that we are having a conversation. The Quencil was certain….”
Jack’s exaggerated drawl finished the sentence. “…that any contact you made with the bloodthirsty human race could only end in deep dark disaster and doom?”
The original mellow baritone amalgam was back. “Stick to that voice if you would,” I said. “Having you sound like different people, some of them being us, is…confusing.”
“Oh. Um…all right. Can I come out now?”
We took a chance and glanced at each other. Four sets of shoulders shrugged. I turned back to Mr. Eyeball Basketball. “Why not? Give us a second to take our weapons off full cock, and then come on out.”
The eye managed to convey an impression of confusion; perhaps our visitor’s English vocabulary did not yet include the term, full cock. If he’d been listening to the welders trade insults and off color stories–which he obviously had–full cock could have given him the wrong impression indeed. Nonetheless, he waited, motionless, while Horace flicked the safety on his rifle, Sissy did likewise with her .45 ACP, and Jack and I decocked our .22’s. “All righty, then. Let’s see what you look like.” My heart was still pounding hard enough to be heard in my ears, but I felt somehow certain the Talking Beast was a lot more scared than I was.
It shouldn’t have been. Its rise from the scuffled snow was slow and cautious…but inexorable, and it seemed to go on forever. The four shoulders sloped sharply, the arms as thick and heavily muscled as any bear’s. Longer, though; three feet each at least. They terminated in paw-hands, a fan of claw mounts too powerful to be mere fingers on the outboard sides, a pair of what had to be opposable thumbs on the inboard sides. The torso was thick, no waist to it, leading to legs that also reminded me of a bear–a stretched out grizzly, perhaps, no mere black bear. We couldn’t see the feet, standing in a couple feet of snow as it was, but Diamond Paws towered over us, the eye that I could see moving down easily in its socket to take us all in.
“Holy crap,” Horace muttered. It was one thing to estimate the being’s height at eight feet on a scrap of paper; it was quite another to meet the beast up close and personal.
“Is that your most comfortable position,” I asked, “or could you drop down a bit while we chat? I’m getting a crick in my neck.” That and an inferiority complex, but we didn’t need to go there.
“Sorry.” Diamond melted back down into itself, stopping when his eyes were level with mine. “Is that better?”
“Much better. Do you have any…uh…bones? A skeleton?”
“Bones?” He seemed to be searching his database, trying to identify the term. “Oh. Bones. No. Not exactly. My people are able to harden and soften our forms as needed. We don’t use bones.”
“So. This would be what, a sort of first interview between your kind and ours? Is that right?
Another pause. There would be a number of these, as we were soon to discover, and for good reason. “Not the first interview, really, but…the first interview in a while, yes.”
My turn to think for a moment. “You’ve been in contact with humans before?”
The answer came promptly; Diamond didn’t have to think about this one at all. “Forty-seven thousand, three hundred, ninety-two cycles.”
“For–a cycle is a year? One trip around the sun? What we call a year?”
“A year. Yes.”
Oddly enough, I was rapidly getting used to talking to an air horn stuck in the middle of a basketball-headed furry whatsit’s face. Although it did kind of remind me of the old Purple People Eater song. I said, Mr. Purple People Eater, don’t eat me. “So…your, um, people…have been out of touch with humanity for 47,392 years?”
“Si. I mean, yes.”
“Si? You know Spanish?”
“No. The Mexican family I tried listening to…they were not suitable.”
Not suitable? That meant…”We weren’t your first choice for making contact?”
“No. It is nothing against you. It is that I tried listening to others before you, but their thought patterns made it clear that open contact with them would not…go well.”
Aha! “You can read minds, then?”
“Read minds? I’m not sure of the meaning….” The partially melted monster’s entire body shivered, a subtle shudder but obvious. Diamond did not like finding himself ignorant.
“It means, you can know our thoughts.”
“Oh. I see. It is…some I can. Some I cannot. Pictures, images are easier. You, Tree, are helpful because when you think of a word, you see it spelled in your…in your head. I am able to see the spelling. Thus, I can read, and learn to speak. I cannot write. My extremities are not well suited to writing.”
“I suppose not.” Claws that reflected light, steel or titanium or some such rather than keratin…no, they would not facilitate holding a pen or pencil. They’d be hell on texting, though, if you had a keyboard tough enough to take the hits. “But…the others,” I indicated my companions with a sweep of my arm, “their thinking does not work like that?”
I looked at Jack. “Is this true?”
“Never thought about it,” he admitted, “but yeah…I don’t believe I visualize a word just because I say it or think it.”
“No, Diamond here has got it right. I visualize tracks, trees, anything solid. But words? Not hardly.”
“May I query?” The big alien, or giant mole, or whatever the hell he was, managed to project a bit of a put-out air at being even momentarily excluded from the conversation.
“It seems you will not shoot me. That is good. I was not sure about that; your thought patterns show a willingness to shoot first, ask questions later, shoot, shovel, and shut up. You also close your secrets to outsiders. That is also good. But what will you do, now that you know I exist?”
“What will we do?” I stared, dumbfounded. “Well now, that depends on what this contact is all about, now doesn’t it? I’d say we need to know one helluva lot more about you and your…people, is it? You and your people, why you’re here, what you want from us, yada yada yada.”
“Yada yada yada? What is this yada yada yada?”
It was undoubtedly a silly thing, born perhaps of the strangeness of the meeting, but I felt a distinct relief in knowing Diamond had not run into any Jerry Seinfeld reruns yet. I hadn’t meant to use that damned yada yada yada term; it was one of those infectious, parasitic bits of slang that got under one’s skin and stuck to the lexicon, a burr under my saddle. “And so on and so forth,” I explained, feeling a bit sheepish.
“Ah. Yada yada yada. I will remember that.”
Please don’t, I thought, but kept my trap shut. There were more important topics to cover.
“Perhaps,” I said, hoping I wasn’t letting us all in for it, “you should tell us your story. That is, if you can do so before the sun goes down.” The huge, long furred, sharp clawed, variable hardness being before us might be all congenial and everything at the moment, but I didn’t believe for a second that any of us intended to hang around after dark with this guy. Besides, if we weren’t home in time for supper, everybody from Carolyn West and Wayne Bruce to Judi to Jennifer would be out looking for us, scared to death and armed to the teeth.
Well…okay, Carolyn wouldn’t be doing that. The rest of them would, though.
“Reader’s Digest condensed version?” Diamond asked, and damned if we didn’t all laugh. Okay, so it was a nervous laugh, but real enough for all of that.
“Exactly,” I sputtered, thinking the laughter might have helped ease the obvious tension between us, what with Diamond being a sort-of mind reader and all. “Reader’s Digest condensed version.”
“Well,” the huge creature melted a bit lower, settling in, somehow reminding me of an old mountain man preparing to tell tall tales to a group of greenhorns around a campfire, “it goes like this. I don’t know if my people, the Umthnn, are what you homo sapiens would call aliens or not. According to our legends, we were in fact transported here, used as interpreters in a great spacefaring armada that expanded throughout the galaxies, but how long ago is a matter of controversy among the Wef, our religious leaders. Some say it was more than two billion cycles ago. Others hold to the more popular view, that we arrived quite recently, during the time of the dinosaurs.
“In either case, the Wef agree on one central point. Our people, some of them, a relatively small rebel group, became disenchanted with their masters…and they also determined that this Earth planet was capable of sheltering them, providing sustenance without additional supplementation. So they escaped, simply cutting the bars of their cages by hardening their claws, running into nearby mountains, and digging beneath the surface, quick and dirty escape tunnels, caving in the tunnels behind them as they went, before the Retrievers could hunt them down. The Generals had never realized we could do that; they had fed on our ability to learn languages of nearly any being–save only those too alien for our own minds to survive–and had forgotten, or perhaps never knew, that our natural homes are underground.
“There were not many who did this, the legends stating forty males and forty wives, though of course that is deceptive to hard-gendered species like yours. Any Umthnn can be male or female, either at will or coerced by the presence of a stronger Umthnn, so what is meant is that forty of the escaped rebels were male at that time and forty were wives at that time.” Diamond rippled, a movement that managed to convey the human equivalent of a shrug. “The balance of the sexes might have changed later, depending on need.
“Over the millennia, the Umthnn thrived, growing in numbers, expanding the Umthnn society. The people seldom came aboveground except at night, foraging for food, primarily dead wood such as your termites eat, except that we eat the termites as well, when we find them. Too much protein is not good for our bodies, however; it is much like feeding chocolate to a dog.
“Again according to the legends, our former masters finally left the planet, either having obtained what they came for, or having been defeated by the planet itself; the stories are unclear on that point. But in any event, they were no more, and we were left to our own devices, with none to seek us out and destroy us or return us to bondage. Life was good.
“Eventually, the human race began to rise upon the planet. Some of the Umthnn leaders found them despicable and forbade contact; the two-leggeds reminded them far too much of the Generals we had once served. But others among us felt otherwise. From time to time, contact would be attempted, invariably with terrible results. Either the humans would perceive us as gods or they would perceive us as monsters, objects to be either worshiped or wiped from the face of the Earth. Since our dwellings were not on the face of the Earth but beneath it, our species was not threatened as a whole by the attempts to wipe us out, but finally it was decided the Umthnn should never ever attempt contact with the homo sapiens species again, on penalty of death.”
Diamond stopped speaking. The fur on top of his head stood on end. I was pretty sure he was picturing his own death at the hands of his peers. “You defied the taboo?”
He shook himself, regaining control. “Yes. I did.”
“Why? There had to be a reason.”
“There was. I am not young and reckless. I am Middle Born, having attained an age of twenty thousand cycles–”
“Wait a sec!” I interrupted rudely, shocked into acting as I might have done with a human who’d said such a startling thing. “You’re more than twenty thousand years old?”
“A bit. Yes.”
“How long…how long do the Umthnn live?”
“It varies. Those who survive past their first century have a chance of seeing fifty thousand cycles.”
Fifty thousand years. I stared, speechless. A normal lifespan for an Umthnn is fifty. Thousand. Years.
“Yes,” he went on as if I’d spoken aloud. “Anyway, you asked about a reason I would violate my people’s taboo. What could spur me to do such a thing? I say to you, survival. It is all about survival. We are dying off and we don’t know why.”
That was the end of his story. He waited, motionless. For what? All I had was another question. “You think we humans might be able to help. Why? Man’s track record in preserving other species has not been all that wonderful, you know.”
“I do know,” the Umthnn replied, “but we hope to learn from the best. An eye blink ago, you homo sapiens numbered less than two million people on the entire planet. Now you are everywhere, billions of you. Yours is a success story we wish to emulate.”
“Oh.” I guess I could see that. “We’re not the greatest success story out there, you know. Cockroaches and ants, for example. They both have way higher numbers than we do.”
“That is true,” he chimed–his voice this time mimicking Sissy’s exactly–“but cockroaches and ants aren’t much interested in talking to us. Humans are our only chance to figure out what we’re doing wrong, or not doing right.”
“Hunh,” I grunted. “I guess I can see your point, though I’m not sure humans aren’t going to wipe themselves out sooner or later. Anyway, it’s getting late; we need to scoot. Can we call it quits for the moment, meet right here a week from today?”
“Seven little cycles?” Without shifting a hair that I could see, the Umthnn somehow gave the impression of thinking it over. “Yes, that would be fine. It would be wonderful. This has been a good start; you didn’t even shoot me.”
“Nor did you turn us into thin sliced sandwich meat,” I agreed, “although from what you’ve told us, your own people may not let you off so easy, whenever you check back in with them.”
“Worse than that. They are hunting me even now. If I am not here next week, I will have been…recycled.”
Really. Well now, that would suck. We backed off, both so we could wave goodbye and so we could keep an eye on our new neighbor. Our little chitchat had been all courteous and congenial and all that, but the warrior who blindly trusts a being of that size, armed with claws capable of cutting through prison bars of any sort, is a warrior who deserves to die.
Jack got the final word in as we exited the tree line and headed for the fence. “Sissy,” he decided, “next week, I’ll bring the folding chairs; you bring the hot dogs.”
That is, he thought he was going to have the last word, but my lover was on it. “Better include a couple of blocks of lodgepole pine firewood,” she advised. “Umthnn need snacks, too.”