17. The Lab Sample's Affection for the Geneticist
Date: 164-993 Imperial.
Location: Miip system (0819), mainworld, uplands.
"So, you don't do much walking up hills in the merchant game then?" Sir David grinned at the Fish, who was obviously suffering.
"Don't these people have grav taxis at the starport?" he shot back.
Silea smiled. She was quite fit, in a gym/pool sort of way. Luan said nothing, preferring to suffer in silence. Sir David finished the conversation with his other spare breath. "It's getting flatter. We must be near the plateau, the village can't be far."
A few minutes later, two Ursa emerged from the scrub beside the trail. They made to turn uphill, then changed their minds and ambled down to meet the Avaricious. They carried long, heavy muskets and the older looking one had a bag tied to his back with game-like bulges showing.
"Greetings, sophonts" called Sir David. "We'd like to visit the village." The Ursa exchanged unreadable looks. He went through introductions, and explained that they were looking for help with a translation.
The Ursa were Termeigh, an adult male, and his nearly adult daughter Yvonne. They spoke Galanglic well enough, and gave simple answers to direct questions, but they just didn't seem interested in getting into a conversation. Sir David ran out of steam after a couple of minutes. "Can you... Do you have any idea who might help in your village?" he finished a bit lamely.
"We will take you if you want. But everybody will be busy" said Termeigh.
"This is the village. We will return to hunting now." And with that Termeigh and Yvonne were heading back down the hill, as Silea called "Thank you" after them. The Avaricious were left standing in the middle of the village, with a few villagers ignoring them and going about their business.
It was not so different from the human village of Arodu, except the doors were wider and the hunting-to-agriculture ratio was obviously higher. There were a few places of business like a carpenter and a smithy. Sir David shrugged and started to ask around, beginning with the more commercial villagers.
He got nowhere fast. Everybody was busy, nobody was interested in doing a little work for hire. The few human villagers spoke and acted just like the Ursa, except they were perhaps a fraction more forceful in their rejection. When he offered one of them some tech level 12 cordage from the ship's stores – 3mm diameter, with a breaking strain of two tonnes, the best trade goods they could think of – he could tell that they wanted it but were rebuffing him anyway. He motioned the rest of the group aside.
"They're stonewalling us. They're not just busy, they're discouraging outsiders. It's some sort of policy thing."
"Maybe if we stand here like lemons for long enough they'll help us to get rid of us" said Fish.
"Or take pity on us..." Luan made one of her rare interjections.
"Well, I'm eating lunch. Something's bound to happen if we start eating." The Fish was a firm believer in something he called "Sod's Law", he'd brought loads of wet weather gear to ensure good weather for the trip. He dug into his backpack for trail rations. Since he obviously wasn't going anywhere, the others started eating too.
Whoever Sod was, he appeared to originate from Miip. Within a few bites, the wind had dropped to nothing then started blowing harder from another direction. The temperature fell noticeably in a matter of minutes. All around them, urgency kicked in – shutters slammed home, breakables were carried indoors, and villagers scurried to and fro.
"I don't like the look of this" said Silea, reaching for her pack.
An older-looking Ursa female came up the steps out of out of a large building with a cleared area out front, which looked like some sort of village hall. She strode up to them purposefully. "You'd better come inside" she said, in the thickest accent they'd heard so far.
They'd just about had time to move into a corner – "Wait there" they were told – when a huge, but low, rumble of thunder shook the shutters. And then the rain came, hammering what little of the building stood above ground. The thunder got closer and higher in pitch as they took in the scene. The hall was about ten meters by five, sunk into a stone-lined pit three meters deep, with only the shallow roof above the ground. The floor was suspended, and Fish made out stonework for drainage channels in the corners.
The villagers had let them in, but they were still not interested in talking. When the storm hit they had been working to get the hall ready for some sort of festival. They carried on in a subdued fashion, making stools and building a small stage at one end of the hall. They did answer a few direct questions: sudden storms were not unusual but this one was especially bad, there would be a heavy toll of damage.
The rain got harder and the wind louder. After forty minutes the door swung open and a fountain of wind and water flew down the steps into the hall, propelling a human couple and their pitifully howling baby. It took two big Ursa to get the door closed behind them. From what was said, the wind had lifted the roof off their house. They weren't the last; an hour and a half later an enormous Ursa came in low to the ground, with two human children about ten years old crawling behind on short ropes.
Time wore on. Work stopped on the festival. The hall became a grim place, with children blubbering and adults snapping as the rain found its way through the turf roof. They heard about two more houses failing in the storm. Then the second roof beam from the door started to creak every time there was a gust. Every time it settled it dropped a spray of water into the room, and the human children would stop grizzling to stare at it in silent fear.
After a few hours Fish poked a length of cane he'd found through the cracks in the floor. He spoke quietly to the others. "If it comes to it, there's room for the children in the crawlspace down there. It's very well drained, and this floor will be the last thing to go."
They were still mulling over that when the door opened once more, and the same huge Ursa who'd towed the human children in earlier staggered in with another Ursa male on his back. The passenger was Turmeigh, the hunter they'd met earlier. He sank in a heap, smearing blood and mud on the floor. Everyone moved towards him. Most of the blood was coming from his paws, and they could see that all his claws had been snapped off or wrenched out. He gasped out his tale, speaking Galanglic as he hazily made out the humans (villagers and travellers) before him.
He and his daughter were caught on a steep hillside when the storm hit. They tried to find shelter, but Yvonne lost her footing and slipped down into a river where she was swept downstream a short way. She got swept against a boulder along with a floating log, which jammed her in place. Termeigh tried to free her, but he lacked the strength and he knew that he could easily get swept away himself which would be no use to Yvonne. So he came back to the village to look for help, and the big Ursa who was patrolling the village in the storm brought him in.
Every villager in the room swept forward to mount a rescue, all clamouring at once. The big Ursa held up one paw to stop them, and they immediately fell silent and waited for him to speak.
"Family people stay" he said. "I'll need a rope and tools..." He walked over and grabbed a coil of rope which had been meant for the decorations, and a bag of carpenter's tools. By the time he got back to the door, three Ursa were waiting. As were the Avaricious, who hadn't said a word.
"This is not your affair" he rumbled.
Silea held up her webbed hand. "If she's in the water, I can help."
"I'm with her" said the Fish.
Sir David said "I was trained as a rescue worker in the Scouts, maybe I can help. Do you have a block and tackle, here, and heavy pegs with a mallet?"
Luan, who looked like she would blow away in a stiff breeze, said nothing. But she didn't move away.
The big Ursa measured them for a moment. "I am Thomas Arheim. We are glad of your help." He reached for the door.
"Before we go, tell the village your names."