Merl fiddled with the radio receiver as we walked, pausing when Paula blew a whistle. In the thicker air, the sound would carry far, but it was answered only by musical calls from red-eyed bats swooping overhead.
We were panting and sweating when we reached the west edge of the meadow, where a vine-filled thicket formed a wall a kilometer wide and several kilometers long. Slim gray-barked trees that resembled aspens grew two stories high, their leaves wilted from a lack of water: a dry season or a drought, Paula was not sure. Around them looped tangles of snow-white vines jointed like bamboo that bore dangling thorns and grew so densely that we could barely see inside.
Another snow vine thicket rose on the east side of the meadow just behind our village. Finding crops had kept me too busy to investigate the thickets carefully, but I had learned that the vines parasitized the trees.
These vines had also kept away hunger. Shortly after we landed, orange fruit like translucent persimmons had ripened quickly on the east vines and had recently appeared on the west vines. The fruit had tested safe, contained plenty of vitamin C, and tasted like cantaloupe.
The women had been to these vines. To the left, we could see ripe fruit close by, but to the right, the vines had been picked clean. We turned right, north. Ahead lay a river that pierced both the west and east thickets and our meadow. We had a long way to search, but the sunset was throwing a golden light over everything, reminding us with every glance how late it was. We could not pause to catch our breath.
Uri turned his energy outward as we hurried on. He prowled up to a tall blue-leafed shrub as if an ambush awaited on the other side. He paused dramatically, then dashed around it, recounting out loud the events of a war game he had played in the Russian Army.
"We see lasers ahead and we know where to aim!" Abruptly he fell silent.
I began to run even before we heard him howl.
The three women lay on the other side of the shrub, baskets of snow fruit set down beside them. Uri yelled Ninia's name as if he could shout her awake. He fell to his knees and fumbled at her throat for a pulse, and his voice choked. I lifted Zee's wrist. It was cold and limp. Carrie stared sleepily ahead, and a pair of tiny lizards climbed on her eyeball. I gagged and turned away.
But we had expected something far worse. I had tried to prepare myself for dismembered bodies, perhaps half-eaten or disfigured by giant coral stings, evidence of attack and predation in the battle for survival. The women seemed to have fallen asleep.
They had had peaceful deaths. This was wrong.
We looked around, frightened and silent. Something had killed without an obvious method or motive.
"Let's bring them home," Paula said, her voice low and steady. We began to assemble the stretchers.
* * *
We grieved that night in the plaza of our little village, a fire burning in the clay-and-stone hearth that Zee had built. Some of us talked quietly, sitting on benches in a corner under a canopy of solar panels. Of the fifty who had left Earth, now only thirty-one remained. Uri, tall and lean like a scarecrow, stood staring out at the fields, where glowworms and fireflies flickered like stars beneath vivid auroras. Those bright bugs needed to be seen for a reason that only they knew.
Hedike, a concert musician on Earth, played a serenade on a flute, but the song could not hide the buzzes, rattles, and barks of the night, more eerie than anything on Earth because we could not connect creatures to most of the noises. Something far away roared a song of three low, rising notes, and it was answered by a far-off roar in the opposite direction. Stars without constellations and legends shone overhead. A small star in the east was Sol.
Paula walked among us, gazing into every face to see who needed help and who could offer it. Bryan was talking to Jill when his bass voice rang out, "Something killed them!" Paula went to him and talked gently until he became calm.
But it was what we were all thinking. I went to the little lab. Ramona and Grun worked silently on the autopsies while
chromatographs and computers hummed. The dead women lay under sheets in a corner. I looked away and pulled a flask from a shelf in the cooler. It contained sap that I had found fermenting in some taproots. It had tested no more toxic than cheap Earth wine and tasted sour and buttery.
The sap did not go far, but I had enough for those who grieved the most. Uri raised a gray clay cup in a toast. "For Carrie, Zee, and Ninia, who will never see the future of the Commonwealth of Pax." He drained his cup like a shot of vodka and hurled it at the hearth. It shattered. Zee had made that cup. We did not have another potter.
I kissed Paula good night and rubbed her shoulders for a minute. She would stay awake until everyone had been comforted, and then, as our meteorologist, would prepare a forecast before sleeping herself. I was tired and had to get up before dawn, less than five hours away in Pax's short days and nights. As the colony's botanist I needed light to do my work.
* * *