Far Horizons All New Tales From the Greatest Worlds of Science Fiction 51

  “She’s no smarter than that rabid, ranting ascetic on Chloe!” Helva’s voice crackled with anger. “As if I’m the one who’s vulnerable.”

  “What was that about the vegetation?” Niall asked. “And close the hatch, love. I don’t want someone peering in and catching sight of a MAAAALE…” He jiggled his hands in clownish antic and dragged out the last word.

  “What about the vegetation?” Helva demanded irritably as she retracted the ramp and shut off access.

  “I’d say it’s dangerous and the power to the walls is to keep it at bay. Remember the roads here? All with neat margins…and haven’t been used…and they employ birds to carry messages? Doesn’t that suggest to you they don’t wander much from the walls of their cloisters?”

  Helva thought about that possibility. “As a weapon against the Kolnari?” she demanded with trenchant incredulity.

  “We can cloak and watch,” Niall said, cocking his head slightly at something he had perceived that eluded her. “That lady seemed far too certain of their…indigenous…protections. And we haven’t seen everything on this world yet, now have we?”

  Helva had been scanning with her exterior sensors, and except for birds coming in to land on what she had initially thought to be multiple chimneys but were rooftop aviaries, she reconsidered the situation.

  “I’m going to try another of their settlements,” she said, and, making sure there were no bodies anywhere near her, lifted slowly. The plaza was so hard-packed from much usage that only little swirls of dust marked her ascent.

  She tried nine settlements, medium, small and another large one, but each time the head woman of the group, while respectful in all other ways, replied that there was no need this time for The Ship Who Sings to worry about Ravellians. But it was good of her to appear to warn them that a time of trial was coming. Helva tried to show the hologram and, after the first horrified glances, everyone turned their backs, squeezing their eyes closed against the proof she tried to exhibit.

  “I don’t think it’s a case of your losing your touch,” Niall said kindly, drumming silent fingers on the armrest. “They honestly believe they’re safe. Not that the mere odor of sanctity ever saved a saint and certainly won’t save these sisters from the Kolnari. But, in case you’ve been fretting too much to notice, every single one of the walls around these cloisters is on full power.”

  “Where’re the sources? That’s something the Kolnari will spot if they make even the most routine scan or aerial reconnaissance.” And Helva was more afraid than ever. On the previous occasion, the expanding sun itself had provided proof positive of danger to the doubting religious. What would it take to prove it this time? And why was she stuck with this gullible lot again?

  She kept trying and kept getting the same responses from all ninety-seven cloisters she visited. On the way to the ninety-eighth, they saw the spark of bright light in the sky that indicated the Kolnari had just demolished the satellite.

  “Nice of them to give us fair warning. Now’s the time to cloak, Helva,” Niall remarked, his fingers in their restless dance on the armrests.

  “I have been while I was flying between these damnable stubborn towns,” she replied curtly, and headed towards the pathetic landing field. Since it was there, and nothing else on this vegetating world offered any other large cleared space as a come-on to the Kolnari, she figured that would be where the invaders would land.

  At dawn, she and Niall arrived close enough to the landing site, hovering just behind the nearest of the hills that surrounded the facility.

  “Ah-ha,” Niall said in a thoughtful drawl, as he leaned across the control board to peer at the forward view screen. He flipped on each of the exterior viewers, reducing them to a patchwork that made Helva almost dizzy until she spotted what had alerted him.

  The landing field, once unpatterned, level soil, had sprouted the most obscene-looking ground cover, greasy, slimy, a sort of pus yellow and mold green. No more than a few centimeters high. Undoubtedly it gave a smooth, even appearance to anyone above.

  “Those are not my favorite colors for a solid footing, Helva,” Niall said in a low ominous tone. “Let’s just hover and shelter in our cloak.”

  “Excellent notion,” she said, noticing on the port sensor near the prow of her ship that tendrils thrust up towards her, lashing in their attempt to snare the ship. She put more distance between herself and the ground. “Very interesting indeed. Malevolent vegetation.”

  Niall began rubbing his hands, an unholy expression on his face. “Serves the bastards right. Though let’s hope their disintegrating metabolism doesn’t affect the stuff. They’re mean enough to poison anything that doesn’t poison them first.”

  “They may have met their match,” she replied, willing to be convinced.

  The first two Kolnari ships to land were two of the heavier, armed cruisers. They landed smack-dab in the middle of the greasy sward and instantly deployed their armored infantry units while gunners started setting up their portable projectile units. They didn’t, as Helva half expected them to, take out the rickety old buildings, which were now covered with viler chartreusey green vines. Not that the Kolnari were apt to be color-conscious. Much less suspicious. Their home world was noted for its offputting appearance.

  The troops marched off the landing field, kicking their metallic booted feet at now calf-high shrubs and bushes that impeded their progress, ignorant of the fact that the growths were brand-new additions on the field. They had split into four sections and each started off up one of the main tracks. Three more of the larger ships landed at one edge of the field, crowded with additional troops, who set off after the vanguard, smaller units turning off at each arterial lane. In quick succession, the yacht-sized spacecraft zoomed in, one or two making such rough landings that they plowed their noses into the ground. They were instantly covered with tendrils and twigs that shortly turned into thick branches, wrapping about the ships, tethering them to the field. Had these not been Kolnari whose prime intent was capture and enslavement of the Ravellians, Helva might have been tempted to warn those unarmed, unsuited people who swarmed out of the ships, coughing, falling to the ground, raising arms upward as if they had just been saved. From dying of asphyxia they had. But Ravel’s indigenous vegetation vigorously began to engulf them…consuming their still-living forms…to judge by the frantic green-covered contortions and the screams, shrieks and tortured calls. The seeking vines penetrated the open hatches, cutting off the escape of any who saw what was happening and thought of seeking safety inside.

  There was undoubtedly not even time for one of the more intelligent captains to warn off the rest of the armada, which continued to touch down wherever they could. Remaining aloft did not seem to have been an option. Every passenger was in too much of a hurry to disembark to notice what had been happening to the earlier arrivals.

  “Truly a just retribution has been meted out to them,” Niall muttered. “A planet fighting back!” The verdure kept moving, probing, twining, inserting itself everywhere, bursting the seams of some of the oldest and most fragile vessels. “After all the violence they have dealt out to unsuspecting and innocent populations…” His voice trailed off and he snapped off the screen displays of the chartreuse catastrophe.

  Without a word, Helva lifted and started up the nearest track, actually the one that headed towards the main settlement, to see what the flora of Ravel was doing to the armored infantry units. The demise of the ground troops—none of which reached even the nearest and smallest of the cloisters—only took a little longer, though they didn’t penetrate even within howling distance of any of the cloisters.

  “The weeds must exude some really corrosive kind of acid. Look at the pockmarks—holes even—in some of that armor where the vine tips have lashed it,” Niall said, shaking his head in amazement. “How do the girls manage that stuff if it can do that to spaceworthy body armor?”

  “I do not care so long as it is as effective as it seems to be.”

  Belatedly realizing the danger they were in, the bold Kolnari were, of course, turning their weapons on the demon flora that was smothering them. Perhaps someone on the space field had lasted long enough to send out a message. But on this field of battle the Kolnari weapons increased, rather than decreased, the foe. Blasting or flaming the vegetable matter only caused it to fragment, each part then expanding and multiplying into more attackers. Kolnari warriors in their heavy boots were being tripped up and, once down, became greeny yellow mounds of writhing shrubbery. Their power packs would have been infiltrated by vine tips, their equipment shorted out. Safe now from Kolnari weapons, Helva uncloaked and recorded the Kolnari defeat, focusing occasionally on what happened when flora was fragmented. She stayed high enough above the carnage…or did she mean “vernage”…to avoid any contact. She thought—only briefly—of trying to acquire a leaf or twig to preserve—at maximum botanical security—for later analysis in the High Risk laboratories at Central Worlds.

  “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Niall said, shaking his head. “We do know that there are inimical planetary surfaces, but one which can be contained, tamed, and used in emergencies? One more for the files!” Then he leaned back in the chair, locking his fingers and rubbing his palms together with the great satisfaction he enjoyed at this totally unexpected Kolnari defeat. “Those lassies learned a thing or two, didn’t they, about passive resistance.”

  “Passive wasn’t what we just witnessed,” Helva said drolly. “They simply let the nature of the planet take its course. Mind you, somewhere in the ethics of their Marian religiosity there must be a shibboleth about taking human lives…”

  “Ha! I never considered the Kolnari as humans,” was Niall’s response. “Besides which, the religious have as much right to protect themselves as any other life-form.”

  “THEY aren’t doing anything. The planet is. That’s the beauty part.”

  “Ah, yes.” And Niall’s tone turned sanctimonious. “Suffer the meek for they shall inherit the earth…of Ravel, in this case. Well-done, ladies, well-done.” He brought his hands together in a silent applause. “We should extend our felicities. Or you should.”

  “I think the outcome was not only taken for granted but has been observed,” Helva said, and activated a long-range screen that showed little flocks of avians circling here and there, before darting off so quickly not even Helva could have plotted so many different course directions.

  When Helva touched down again in the plaza, the Helvana and a group of about fourteen awaited her. They wore long black scarves and tight-fitting black caps.

  “‘We come to mourn Caesar not to praise him,’” Niall quoted.

  “Get thee hence, Marc Antony,” she replied warningly.

  “I’m going. I’m going. I’ll not attend this wake in mournful array.”

  “You’re already arrayed appropriately,” she called after his disappearing figure, then opened her airlock and extended the ramp.

  The deputation entered, making obeisance to her until all had filed into the lounge, their expression somber if respectful, though some were red-eyed with weeping. There would be some tender hearts among such a group. Why they’d spend their tears on the Kolnari, when they knew what would have been their fate, defeated Helva’s understanding. But then, she was not religious. She spoke first, not wishing to be embroiled in specious gratitude for this second inadvertent “deliverance” in which she had been only a passive spectator, not the rescue vehicle.

  “I apologize, Helvana, for doubting your efficiency and ingenuity. The meek have indeed inherited this earth.”

  Helva devoutly hoped that no one else heard the scoffing snort from the passageway.

  “We all deeply regret that we had to prove our invulnerability on Ravel,” the Helvana said in a slow, sad tone. “We shall pray for their departed souls.”

  “I sincerely doubt they had any,” Helva said, an acid remark that occasioned gasps of surprise from some of the younger women. “Uncharitable of me, I know, but I have seen their form of conquest at firsthand. I do not regret their destruction. Nor should any here shed any more remorseful tears or rue the incident. The Universe is now considerably safer. After all, none of you…” She paused briefly. “…did anything. Your planet is well able to take care of unwanted visitors and has done so.”

  There was a brief awkward pause, while the faithful dealt with the unexpected candor of their “savior.” To fill in the silence, Helva went on.

  “How long will it take you to repair the damage to the space field and the tracks?”

  “We may not,” the Helvana said after glancing at her companions. “We keep in touch with the other cloisters and there is really no need for all to assemble at the same time. Each community is self-sufficient and there is no longer any need for the space field.”

  “But you’ll keep the walls functioning.”

  A little smile tugged at the Helvana’s lips. “Yes.” She inclined her head. “They are required to keep the flora of Ravel in its place.”

  “But surely those plant forms that have had such…” Helva hesitated, not wishing to upset the tenderhearted with the word “fertilizing.” “…unexpected freedom will wish to retain it?”

  “What needs to be restored will be. It is a long and painstaking process and we have much to occupy ourselves in the normal course of our daily routine,” the Helvana said.

  One of her escort pulled at her sleeve.

  “Yes, of course, and our eternal gratitude to you should have been spoken of first,” Helvana said kindly to the woman. “We are once again in your debt, Ship Who Sings, and once again have no way to repay your watchful guardianship.”

  “If I said I only happened to be in the neighborhood, would you believe me?” Helva asked gently.

  There was just a hint of a sparkle in the Helvana’s eyes as she caught the irony.

  “Let us then hope that we have not caused you an unnecessary delay,” the Helvana said.

  “No, you have not,” Helva replied more graciously. Perversely, she really didn’t want to destroy her reputation among the cloisters. “I will not be late arriving at my destination.” Since she wasn’t expected at Regulus, that was no lie. More worldly remarks must be made however. “I shall apprise the Fleet that they may stand down from the alert I sent out. I shall report the demise…”

  That rattled them all but the Helvana raised her hand and the startled expressions of dismay were silenced.

  “Let not death be part of the message. Merely that the…emergency has been dealt with,” the Helvana said with great dignity.

  “So it shall be said,” Helva replied solemnly, though she was in honor bound to inform the Fleet that the Kolnari were well and truly annihilated. “If I may suggest it, I would feel better if you let me have the satellite beacon replaced: the one that the…recent visitors blasted from your skies so you will not be further interrupted.” Once the fate dealt the Kolnari invaders was known, no one would dare land on Ravel. “May I attend to that detail for you?”

  “There is a small group of our Marian Circle on Vega III,” the Helvana said. “If you would be good enough to inform them that…a replacement satellite is required, they will attend to the expense and installation. You need not be troubled with such a detail.”

  “It would not trouble me,” Helva said. “But I will inform your sisters in religion of the need and your continued safety. No debt exists between us, wise and good Helvana. I was here when I was needed as I was at Chloe. That is enough.”

  “So be it,” the Helvana said, bowing her head in acceptance while the others murmured the same response. Then, with firm gestures, she led the delegation to the airlock, standing to one side as each made proper obeisance to Helva’s column. This took long enough so that Helva was getting fidgety. She adjusted her nutrient flow to account for the recent stress.

  The Helvana hesitated after she made her deep bow.

  “We shall pray for your lost partner,” she
said, and inclined her head in the direction of Niall’s cabin. “May you be comforted in his loss by another as worthy to hold his position as Niall Parollan.”

  She was gone, leaving Helva so stunned that she couldn’t speak.

  “Pray for me, indeed!” snapped Niall’s crisp voice as he strode into the main cabin.

  Helva closed the airlock with a clang.

  “How did she know that piece of gossip?” Niall went on, “And let’s get off this planet. Gives me the creeps, all those women weeping over Kolnari. Much less me.”

  Somehow Helva went through the necessary routines to lift her ship-self as adroitly as possible. The plaza was clear of all save the Helvana and her delegation, backed up against the main building, forming an orderly triangle on the steps, with the Helvana at the apex. From her stern sensors, Helva saw the upturned faces as the faithful watched the sight of their Ship ascending once again into the heavens from which she had come to succor them.

  “They never will believe you were ‘just in the neighborhood,’ you know,” Niall said, but there was an odd quirk to his lips. “At least that wise one won’t.”

  “We were,” Helva replied, more involved with figuring out how the Helvana had known of Niall’s death when the woman had been no farther inside the ship than the airlock and the lounge. What astonished her even more was that the Helvana’s blessing did comfort her.

  Once clear of the system, Helva sent out an All-Points saying that the emergency was over and that she could report the extermination of the remnants of the Kolnari fleet; full details would be presented at Regulus on her arrival there. She did not give an estimated time, though she encountered several picket forces making all possible speed in obedience to her summons. She knew they were disappointed about losing a chance to gain fame and promotion fighting the last remnants of the Kolnari but she advised them that the Ravellians were not people interested in having quests. Ever. She could, and did, patch across the tapes she had taken of the disastrous Kolnari defeat. Obliquely she kept her word to the Helvana while still satisfying Fleet Intelligence. What she didn’t realize was that her reticence only added to the glamour surrounding her living legend.