V: Requiem for the Lizard
Bethany Carter missed her career as a field paleontologist. No one actually went out into the field much anymore, not since the invasion seven years before, though Paleontology had fared better than many other scientific fields. The Visitors seemed almost amused by their fascination with old bones and ancient ecosystems; maybe the reptilian aliens viewed dinosaurs as a kind of kin, or maybe they thought of paleontology as an undisciplined pseudo-science as some other scientists did. Whatever the reason, Bethany's branch of study had missed out on at least some of the oppression and hostility towards their brothers and sisters in other disciplines.
However, they had not missed out on the general danger posed to human populations; unexplained disappearances had quickly stopped most paleontologists from venturing into the field altogether, and the discoveries of the few adventurous souls that did dare brave the wilderness were poor, since no one braved more than a few miles from the nearest shelter. Most good finds seemed to occur in isolated, inaccessible areas that would pose too easy a target. An entire crew could be taken and no one would question it for days, weeks, even months.
Only in Red Dust-supporting areas would anyone venture for even those short jaunts. Most new discoveries now happened in dusty museum basements where unprocessed fossils could still be found by the ton.
But that was not what Bethany had gone to college for. Grubbing around for bone scraps like the rats so favored by the invaders was not for her. She wanted the Big One, the Find of the Century, the find that catapulted paleontology from its nineteenth-century roots truly into the twentieth century. So, after checking levels of the toxin in the wilds of Montana, a state rich in both fossil-heavy badlands and the harsh winters necessary for the life cycle of the toxin-producing bacteria, she told her boss and mentor, curator of the Museum of the Rockies, that she
was ready for a new discovery.
No crew would accompany her; none would risk it, even out here where the Visitors rarely came, where it was so low on the military radar that they simply didn't bother. Only Bethany loaded up her jeep with shovels, picks, all the necessary equipment down to toothbrushes and dental picks for delicate work.
"I wish you wouldn't do this," Mick Johnson, curator and the man who first inspired her in her career path, told her disapprovingly. "Finding a new species of dinosaur isn't worth your life. We've plenty to study right here, where it's relatively safe. Besides, even if you did find something major, you wouldn't be able to haul it out yourself."
"I can mark the spot on a map. Someday someone will be able to go back for it." Bethany's face hardened. "This isn't what I was meant to do," she told him, firm and resolute. "I need to be out there, like I was in the early days. The way our forefathers started. I want to be like Barnum Brown and Roy Chapman Andrews! I've gone soft, Mick. Terribly soft. Good grief, I've gained sixty pounds since the first mother ships arrived." She looked unconsciously towards the ceiling though most mother ships were still gone, only a few hanging ominously over the warmer areas of the world, and Montana had never boasted its own. "Besides, what if it wasn't a comet that destroyed the dinosaurs?"
She left the rest unsaid. What if it wasn't a comet? What if the earth's former ruling reptiles were destroyed by something that could be used against them? They all knew that it was the question that kept them in business, even if no one said it aloud.
"Be careful what you say. Don't let the wrong ears hear that," Mick warned.
Bethany's lips pressed together. She was no resistance fighter, but the thought that still, still there were collaborators, even now when the truth was generally known, made her sick.
"I'm going. I'll be all right," she said. "Mick, it's been over seven years. I need out, just for a little while."
"Be careful, kid," the older man said gruffly. He wiped his hands on his pants, removing the stone chips and dust deposited by the skeleton he was preparing, a pretty little compsognathus.
Bethany took his hand and squeezed it. "I promise, Mick. Don't worry, it's not like I have anything to inform on even if I'm captured," she said. "We're all just a bunch of lizard-lovers."
"Depends on the lizards," Mick said. "The dead ones can't eat you."
"Ha. See you in a month or so. Maybe I'll bring back a map to the first Tyrannosaur family group with nest and hatchlings."
"You said you'd be gone two weeks."
Bethany grinned. "Two weeks digging in the dirt, two weeks vacation. I need one."
"So do we all," Mick said softly. "So do we all."
She was tired, more tired than she thought was even possible, embarrassingly tired. In her early career, she never would have been left panting merely by the hike to her intended search area! But she was having fun, too. She had a treasure of small fossils squirreled away at camp after only three days; not the Find she had dreamed about since she was a little girl, but some pretty teeth, turtle shells, and other detritus from the ancient stream bed she had stumbled upon. Her arms, back, and legs ached and trembled in fatigue and sweat soaked through her khaki shirt, but she didn't quit until the approach of night and dark forced her to.
She was ready to crawl into her camouflage tent after a supper of water, granola, and beef jerky, curled into her light but cozy sweats and looking forward to her sleeping bag. It got cool at night, and a fire was out of the question; she didn't think any Visitor craft would come flying overhead looking for prisoners-or snacks-but she wasn't going to make her location that painfully obvious, either. Yawning and shivering, she was reaching for the zipper of her tent opening when a pair of strong, wiry arms wrapped around her neck.
Bethany squawked as she was thrown to the ground. She didn't have time to register the identity of her attacker before a weight was on top of her, holding her down not by its strength but by the large Bowie knife pressed into the meat of her gut. "Nice, fat one," an eager, creaky voice crowed. "It'll do. It'll do." The knife jabbed as the old woman actually hissed at her. "On your feet, little rat," she ordered. "Up, up."
Crawling to her feet as slowly as she dared, Bethany measured her opponent. Wild hair and wilder eyes notwithstanding, she wasn't a figure to inspire fear. Bethany almost risked going for the knife, but, old as she was, the woman was strong and solid. Besides, the insistent prick of the blade was sharp, and the woman did not seem afraid to use it.
She wasn't going to stand and be shish kebob, though. Bethany turned to run, but the woman
was blindingly fast, sweeping her feet out from under her and adding a shove to make sure
Bethany hit the ground hard.
Bethany grunted as the breath left her lungs, straining to get it back. The woman took advantage of her dazed moment to pull her arms behind her back and wrap a length of tough, prickly rope around her wrists in a figure eight pattern, pulling the bindings burningly tight.
"Up, up," she repeated, pressing the blade into the space between Bethany's shoulder blades hard enough to split her shirt, and the skin beneath it.
Bethany struggled to her feet. "What is this, The Hills Have Eyes?" she bawled. Why had she been worried about space men? Hillbillies were the problem of the day!
Flicking her grey hair out of her eyes, the woman snarled. Holding firmly onto the rope that tied Bethany's wrists, she kept the knife in contact with the girl's body. "Try anything and I'll gut you right here," she warned, and Bethany believed her. "Move. Keep up the pace, but if you run again I'll hamstring you and you can crawl."
Bethany swallowed hard. The old bird was cracked as a walnut. She guided her prisoner by hard tugs on the rope; Bethany could feel blood trickling from under the ropes and winced at every pull. They walked for what had to be several miles, their path lit only by the gibbous moon. After half a night's hike, scrubby vegetation gave way to stunted trees, then taller evergreens. Finally they were stumbling through thick forest in almost pure darkness. Bethany's breath came in hard pants, her mouth dry and dust-coated. Her legs were beginning to seize from the buildup of lactic acid before she heard a satisfied snort behind her. Raising her head to study her surroundings, Bethany saw a dim light wavering from a small break in the tree wall that surrounded them.
A little cabin squatted in the trees, like the woman solid despite its apparent age. Bethany
eyed the heavy door and double-fist-sized padlock hanging from it. She considered yanking away the rope and running, but there was no chance of her making it more than a few steps; her captor seemed almost as fresh as when their journey started. She struggled experimentally and the woman's reaction was as swift as Bethany was afraid it would be; using the rope as a handle, she shoved her face-first into the nearest tree with enough force to make Bethany dizzy.
The girl staggered, recognizing the pressure around her eye socket as an impending shiner. The woman pulled her back and rammed her against the tree again just to make a point. "Enough of that. Too much struggle makes you tough. As it is I'll have to wait."
"You horrible old crone," Bethany muttered. "You are seriously sick."
"Quiet, you little monkey. Don't speak to your betters without being spoken to first." Dragging Bethany to the door, she kicked it open and thrust her inside, following her in and slamming the door shut behind them.
Bethany tried to resist as she was dragged into the farthest corner of the one-room cabin, receiving another slice from the Bowie knife across her shoulder blade. She flinched, then again as the woman used the blade to slice through the rough rope binding her, removing it from her raw, bloody wrists to replace it on her left arm with the cold, rusty metal of one half of an old pair of handcuffs. The other cuff was snapped around an iron bar embedded in the wall.
"I am going to bed," the old woman snarled. "Both of you stay quiet."
Both of you? Glancing around in the dim light of a single kerosene lantern that hung on a hook beside the door, Bethany noticed for the first time another figure curled deep in the other corner. A chain clanked as the shadowed shape shifted its weight to turn lifeless eyes on her.
Bethany blinked. The untidy hair was so dirty that, though she guessed that it had started out as a golden-blonde shade from the way an occasional strand glinted in the dimness, she couldn't be sure. His strong, square jaw line was tight and tense and he fingered the metal cuff he wore around one wrist, an implement straight out of the dark ages, that attached the chain that held him to a bar identical to the one that kept her prisoner.
The most startling thing was that the man was not human. A large swath of the grubby plastic skin that covered the rest of him was missing from the side of his face; from the corner of his eye back to the angle of his jaw and down his neck, green scales showed, marred by a thick scar running along the center of the exposed patch. The eye on that side of his face blazed yellow and red with a slit pupil, though the other one was a mild shade of brown. One arm was also missing its human disguise, revealing a clawed hand and patches of green, scaled skin that seemed uneven and warped, perhaps from a burn.
Bethany hadn't seen a Visitor from this close in a long time, except on TV, and then only in full human guise. The red uniform was missing from this one; instead, he wore jeans, a plaid shirt, and a khaki vest that had seen their best days many years ago. Despite her situation, she ached to discuss with him his planet's history, what sort of creatures their version of anthropologists theorized that they had evolved from. Had there ever been an Age of Mammals on their planet, the way Earth had its Age of Reptiles? Were there any mammals on their planet at all?
Recognizing the analysis as a way to cover her growing panic, Bethany turned away to force herself to stop staring. "Sorry," she whispered. "You startled me."
He didn't answer, just curled up on the floor, turning his back to her and stretching out the scaly arm in an apparent effort to keep the chain as far away from himself as possible. Bethany envied him; she tried to close her eyes, but the twitching of overused muscles in her legs kept her painfully tuned to reality.
Reddish light was just nudging its way past the crack under the door when the old woman's snoring stuttered and stopped with a heavy grunt. She rose from her ragged cot, clearing her throat noisily. Bethany had to concentrate on not flinching when the tough, wrinkled form moved past her to the door, wrenching it open so she could stumble out into the dawn.
Bethany groaned. No bathroom, she realized. The "facilities" were behind whichever tree you chose. Not that she was feeling a need; indeed, her mouth felt like the underside of a leather saddle after her long hike and no water breaks the night before.
After a few minutes the old woman appeared carrying two tin cups and an old, cracked ceramic pitcher filled with water. She poured a cup for herself and drained it, then a second. She half-filled the other tin cup and thrust it towards the bound Visitor. "Drink up, my hunter. I'll want breakfast in a bit." Pouring the last of the water in her own cup, she drank all but a swallow or two, scowled down at it, and put it on the floor, sliding it with her toe towards Bethany. "Dinner doesn't need much," she sneered. "Can't let you get too dehydrated, though. Affects the taste."
Bethany hesitated before picking it up. She didn't want to touch anything that had been in contact with the old woman's lips, but her throat felt like tumbleweeds must have taken up residence. She lifted the cup reluctantly, swishing the first sip around her mouth and draining the second. She stared down into the empty cup wistfully, setting it down with a sigh.
Their captor snorted and disappeared outside again. Glancing warily at the door, Bethany's Visitor companion set his own cup on the floor, nudging it into her reach with his foot.
Looking at him in questioning surprise, Bethany shook her head and tried to push it back. He put his foot out to keep her from moving it any closer, his brow wrinkled in what looked like worry. Bethany eyed him and reached slowly for the cup. He nodded emphatically; snatching it, Bethany gulped the water gratefully and tossed the cup back. He grabbed it out of the air and scuttled back into position just as the old woman returned. Bethany kept her eyes on her fellow prisoner; when the woman turned her back on them, the corners of his mouth lifted into the shade of a smile. Bethany returned it hesitantly, glad for an ally even if he was green. Of course it could all be an act, but under the remnants of his human disguise, there was a haggard quality to his face and body that made her suspect that he had been here a long time.
The old woman gave a dry chuckle. "No use passing those meaningful looks with my supper," she said to her original prisoner. She held a small, boxy instrument in her hand, tossing it casually into the air and catching it again. "But that's later. Right now I want breakfast."
The Visitor stiffened, watching his captor warily. Her mouth split into an ugly smile; pointing the instrument at him, she pushed one of several inset buttons.
Curling around himself in a painful convulsion, the visitor groaned, the sound more ghastly for the resonance in his voice. The woman's laugh sounded like an old hen's cackle. Bethany gasped, horrified, at the sight of his clenched, shaking hands and the grimace that twisted his face. "Stop it!" she finally squawked. "Leave him alone!"
"Just reminding him what happens if he tries to run while he's finding my breakfast," the woman said mildly. Slipping a large, black key out of her pocket, she leaned over the gasping Visitor to unlock the manacle from his scaly wrist. "Come on, you. I'm hungry, and I'm too old and slow to do it myself."
Bethany watched the Visitor climb slowly to his feet, aiming a cold stare at the old woman's back when she turned to open the door. She ushered him outside imperiously, her lip lifted. "Hurry up, Fifth Column scum," she ordered.
Bethany wondered if he really was part of the Fifth Column, or if this was some kind of elaborate trick to try to get information out of Bethany. She stopped wondering after a few seconds; she was nobody, had no access to anything the Visitors would want to know, unless they had developed a sudden interest in Earth's late Cretaceous period.
Something that had been nudging at the back of her mind suddenly flashed to the forefront. What was a Visitor doing out here, anyway? Harsh winters let the Red Dust bacteria renew and multiply, keeping the environment safely poisonous. Was it wearing off even here? She gulped hard, trying not to think of the ramifications.
The door slamming open interrupted her musings. The old woman strode in, followed meekly by her Visitor prisoner. Meek in manner, anyway; his expression was anything but. He carried something in his hands, a wriggling animal of some sort, maybe a gopher. It squealed frantically, struggling and trying to bite. His throat moved in a hard swallow and Bethany realized that he had already eaten something. Oh, well, they were essentially big lizards. At least they didn't eat like Komodo dragons.
"Shouldn't you be dead?" she asked, eyeing the terrified rodent. "This is Red Dust territory."
Glancing away from their captor, the Visitor shook his head, that bitter half-smile making a fleeting appearance. The old woman snorted. "Quiet, you. No, you're looking at two of the few with a natural immunity."
Two of the few . . . ? Bethany stared at her, puzzled. Was she saying she was a Visitor? But her voice didn't vibrate, though now that was not a definite giveaway since most of the Visitors had learned to control it to the point of sounding human. There were other clues, though; she showed no real aversion to bright light, and when she'd held Bethany down, she had been warm, warmer than the surrounding air, and damp with sweat, definitely mammalian. Bethany blinked, glancing at her fellow prisoner. When the woman turned away to rummage around in the single battered cupboard, Bethany pointed at the woman, to her own head, and to the Visitor, her brows raised in question. She thinks she's like you? she mouthed.
He cocked his head at her, thought a moment, and nodded once, slowly, his face grim. Bethany's eyes widened in surprise and she turned to look harder at the old woman.
She turned back to them, a knife in her hand, smaller than the one that Bethany could almost still feel slicing her flesh. Snatching the rodent from her Visitor captive, she slit its throat in a motion so quick it made Bethany jump. She slit the skin from throat to between its back legs and deftly peeled it away almost as fast. "Old teeth and jaws aren't what they once were," she murmured regretfully, and snaked her head down to take a bite out of the animal's haunch.
Bethany's stomach lurched; she put a hand to her mouth, feeling cold sweat break out on her forehead. She wanted to look away, but the woman's red-smeared, smacking lips were almost hypnotizing, holding her gaze as firmly as the handcuffs held her wrist.
The woman finished her grisly meal with every hint of enjoyment. "Lovely," she sighed, tossing the scraps away. "You monkeys have no idea how to enjoy your food. Heating it up and burning it-barbaric! Doing such a thing to your vegetables is bad enough, but to do it to meat . . . it's so dead. You're one step away from carrion-eating scavengers."
Bethany eyed the leftovers; not much remained besides hide and skeleton, but the cabin was already close and warm. They were going to start stinking very soon. The old woman scowled at the Visitor. "Go on, bury it outside. Don't need it rotting in here. If you're not back in five minutes, you know what's going to happen."
He didn't bother to glare, just swept the remains up and left, returning just as silently well before his allotted time was up. The old woman looked disappointed, fingering the cruel little device lovingly. The Visitor crouched in his corner, watching her through the dirty hair that straggled forward to obscure his eyes. Snorting, the old woman turned jerkily, pulling a key out of her pocket and stomping to Bethany's side. "Come on, you little rat. You can make yourself useful until I'm sure your meat is edible. I've a garden to tend, you can water it and weed it."
Bethany stiffened in anticipation; if she could only get far enough away from the mad old thing, she could get enough of a lead to run. But the hope didn't last long; the handcuff the woman removed was replaced by a long coil of rope tied around Bethany's waist and attached to the woman's wrist. "Try and run and you'll be gutted early, and a lot more slowly," the woman threatened.
"Garden? I thought you ate meat," Bethany said.
"I do, mostly. But a raw vegetable now and then is good for the system. Besides, a garden is good bait for the little wriggly Earth things that taste so good. No chatter, now. Work." She kicked at the Visitor in passing. "You too, traitor scum."
Bethany couldn't say she was sorry to be outside; the cabin was not air conditioned or well ventilated, and on a ninety-plus degree day, three people in the single room was making it musty, even when one was ectothermic. At least she was kneeling in the fresh-smelling dirt in a neat green garden.
The trouble was, she wasn't a botanist. The carrots were fairly easy to recognize, and the lettuce, but the rest just looked like bundles of leaves to her, and if a weed was growing too close to one of the desirable plants, it was sometimes hard to tell which was what.
In a row of what might have been beets, she reached hesitantly for what she thought was a weed. A gentle touch on her wrist, cool and scaled, stopped her. The Visitor, crouched next to her, shook his head and pointed a green, clawed finger to the slightly larger plant. She obediently pulled it instead, tossing the little bundle of leaves and twisted roots away from the neat rows.
She learned to recognize the vegetables fairly quickly, and the most common weeds. After an hour baking in the sun, she and her alien partner hauled buckets from a rain barrel and carefully watered the rows of carrots, beets, peas, tomatoes, peppers, and lettuce. Bethany made sure to spill a bit over her hot hands, sighing at the small relief it gave her.
"Get her a drink!" their overseer ordered. "Dehydration leads to sour meat."
When the Visitor brought her a brimming cup of the sun-warmed but temptingly wet liquid, she considered throwing it in the woman's face, but she couldn't stop herself from guzzling it. She could have groaned in pleasure at the sensation of the Sahara in her mouth being washed away.
She froze with the cup still held to her lips; the woman was circling, poking her here and there-waist, upper arm, middle of the chest-her lips pursed thoughtfully. "Three days. Keep you working light, eating light, drinking plenty, meat'll be nice and sweet."
Bethany couldn't suppress a shiver. The Visitor gently took the cup from her suddenly trembling hand. He refilled it and held it out; she shook her head. She would never be able to swallow it past the glass shards in her gut.
She was almost grateful when the old woman dragged her back inside. At least she was out of the sun. The back of her neck tingled with the beginning stages of a bad sunburn and she knew she would be hurting the next day. At least the bedtime sweats she still wore covered most of the rest of her body, though it was not the outfit she would have chosen for working outside in a garden at the end of a Montana summer.
Bethany winced as the woman put her back in the handcuffs, the knife held ready to slice at any hint of rebellion; dark bruises were already forming where the metal dug in, over flesh rubbed raw by harsh rope fibers.
Waving the small, boxy control threateningly, the old woman sent her Visitor prisoner for what she called "provisions." He returned with a handful of garden vegetables and another squealing little animal, this time a squirrel, evidence of a Visitor's quick reflexes. She took the struggling, biting little creature and coolly twisted its head. It quivered for a moment, then fell limp. Grunting in satisfaction, the woman shoved her supplier back into his corner and chained him.
His mismatched eyes glittered as he watched their gaoler take her meal outside with her skinning knife. When the door closed behind her, he tossed Bethany two carrots and a tomato, already washed, keeping a carrot for himself.
Bethany couldn't bring herself to refuse. Her stomach was so empty that it was starting to cramp. The carrots were deliciously sweet; it was hard to eat them slowly, but she forced herself to chew them thoroughly before swallowing each small bite. The tomato she savored, careful not to drip any of the tangy juice. Delicious.
Leaning against the wall, Bethany felt better. She examined the room around her; the cabin was small, primitive, and solid as the trees its log walls had come from. Grabbing the iron bar her handcuff was attached to in both hands, she gave a few experimental tugs, without much hope. Next she tried the handcuffs themselves, and found that though they were rusty, the oxidation was purely cosmetic. There would be no breaking either of the cuffs or the chain that linked them. Her only chance would be to wait until the woman was less than attentive and run.
The Visitor watched her efforts sympathetically. His scaly wrist bore evidence of similar, more desperate attempts on his part, marks where the edges of his heavier cuff had bitten in, more than once.
"How long have you been here?" Bethany murmured, keeping her voice low in case the woman was near.
"I don't know." The Visitor's voice was rough, long unused, making the reverberation more pronounced. He looked shocked to hear his own voice, unconsciously raising a hand to his throat as though surprised it still worked. "What were you doing out here?" he asked after the surprise faded. "Who are you?"
"Bethany Carter. Doctor Bethany Carter. I'm a paleontologist, and I was out digging around like an idiot."
He almost smiled at that. "By yourself?"
"No one else was stupid enough to come, but they were worried about Visitors, not batty old cannibals. I couldn't take it any more. I had to go out and try to do my job."
He looked amused by her explanation, in a tired, hopeless kind of way. "Were you really a Fifth Colomnist?"
"One of the naturalized," he confirmed.
"I'm sorry. So how did you end up here?"
He looked uncomfortable. "I was . . . stupid," he answered evasively. "The woman used to be Mrs. Francine Simpson. She was . . . an experiment. They wanted to see how far the conversion process could go. She ended up as a kind of . . . pet. I was given to her as a gift after I was caught."
"Wow. They made her think she really is . . . how sad. And creepy."
"Yes. Why are you sorry?"
"You said you were sorry when I told you I was a naturalized citizen. Why?"
"Because you must miss your people. Don't you wish you could go home?"
He smiled again, a little wider, and shook his head. "Not really, no. I had more friends here than I ever did in the fleet, and most of the friends I did have were naturalized with me."
"Oh. Sorry. Or good. You got a name?"