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The Denebian Cycle

It started with the firestorm.

A few seconds was all it took for the sky to slide from a deep tropical azure to a solid sheet of charcoal, the contours of individual clouds limned by repeated lightning flickers.

Corrie Asanovic pulled her cape tight across her shoulders. Deep rumbles of thunder, tuned to almost subliminal pitch, reached deep inside her. Static buzzed in the dry air, blue-white sparks jumping between the trees, echoing the lightning high above. Another dry storm, she decided, of the kind that usually drew in towards dusk. This one was earlier than usual, and far more intense.

She pulled the pack onto her back and turned to look for Sam Reubens. There was no sign of him, but that was not unusual. Rube often wandered off on his own, following some new spoor, or the cry of one of the local animal forms. Rube didn’t care about the guidelines for appropriate fieldwork, no matter how often Skip Jennings critted him. Rube was, to be blunt, one self-centred son of a bitch.

Corrie glanced at the comms decal tattooed onto the back of her left wrist. Rube, she thought, and the decal told her: 36°, 12.4m.

She spoke into the decal: “Rube, are you done yet? I think we should be getting back.”

Silence. Corrie scratched at her cheek where, despite her best efforts at hygiene, a new growth of plaque was taking hold. The plaques were a kind of colonial animal, growing like corals wherever they could take hold. She didn’t know quite where they fitted in the taxonomic schema Rube had worked out, but there was some kind of complex symbiosis going on there: a kind of animate lichen, was the best terrestrial analogy she could come up with.

They were a nuisance, whatever. It was ironic, in a way: here they were in a rich, alien environment, where there was next to nothing a human could eat, yet still the local semi-animate life-forms persisted in trying to colonise any exposed surface. Something to do with the natural oils excreted by human skin, Rube had said. He just let the plaques grow, claiming it did no harm, although Corrie was sure he did it simply to be different.

“It’s just ... storm,” he commed now, his soft voice lisping in Corrie’s ear, the sound breaking up with the storm’s interference. “Go back if you ... I’m staying out in the field.”

Bastard. He knew Corrie wouldn’t return without him: that way she’d be the one the skipper critted.

Corrie and Rube were about a kay and a half out from the camp. Cataloguing, sampling, recording: building up an ecofile of the 100 by 100 metre quadrant Skip had allocated them the day before. There were 48 of them in the survey team, deposited on Deneb 5 for 120 days. A low profile survey, to provide the basis for any decision on whether to make contact with the local sub-industrial sentients.

In and out: a scientific snatch squad.

The blast threw Corrie face-down on the ground.

She groaned, rolled over onto her back.

Slowly her flash-blinded vision started to return. She rubbed her eyes, and her hand brushed against her hair: normally collar-length and lifeless, now it was standing on end.

She clawed at it irrationally, feeling that somehow she had been invaded.

“Well, look at you,” said Rube, emerging from the trees. He was stripped to the waist, vivid weals of red, gold and green plaques encrusting his chest and arms – growing so thickly, he had earlier boasted, that his horn of plenty necklace had become effectively grafted into the scaled-over flesh of his neck.

She could imagine herself: sitting on her fat ass in the mud, clawing at her hair, panicking. “The lightning,” she said, feebly. “I... I think I was hit by the lightning.”

Rube laughed at her. “You’d sure know about it if you were,” he said. “Near miss, is all. You planning on sitting there all day?”

The bastard was enjoying it. According to the expedition’s constitution Corrie and Rube were equals: even Skip only governed by consensus, after all. But Rube had been working in the field for thirty or more years and this was Corrie’s first assignment. And, as Corrie kept finding herself thinking, Rube was a grade A bastard.

Would it have been any different if she’d let him fuck her, she wondered? Committed scientist that she was, that was one experiment she never wanted to try.

She scrambled to her feet. Ten kay map, she thought, and her comms decal showed her a low-res map of the region, the image snowstormed with static interference. Picked out in gold were 24 dots, marking the locations of the survey teams. Six of the teams were already back at base. Corrie suspected most of the others were on their way.

“We’d better get back,” she said. The air was still thick with static, the darkened sky alive with lightning: strange, spreading sheets and glows, sudden forks, a continual background flicker. This was no ordinary storm.

Rube just looked at her, then turned his back and headed into the fleshy jungle. Corrie followed him, trying hard not to stare at his scaly back, failing. The man was obscene.

She tried comming base, but all she got was a hiss of static and a patronising glance from Rube.

The trees here were all young growth: what appeared to be a mature tropical jungle was really the product of a single growing season, albeit a season that lasted a little over 35 standard years. The trunks were fleshy, packed with the kind of oils that attracted the colonies of plaques. Any journey through the jungle was an unpleasant experience: suspended from the trees were long, trailing lianas that clung like cobwebs, a cloying curtain that hosted enormous colonies of mites and bugs and god knows what else.

Corrie walked with both arms in front of her and a gauze mask over her face, but that didn’t make her passage much easier.

Rube just walked on, regardless.

Here, deeper in the jungle, the storm was diminished, but Corrie knew that it persisted from the constantly flickering light and the nasty metal taste to the air.

Some time later, she paused to brush the crap from her hair. Most of the other teams were within a kay or two of the base now, drawn as if by a magnet. She looked around, but she didn’t recognise this part of the jungle, even though they must have passed this way about ten hours before. Although she hated to admit it, this godforsaken jungle all looked pretty much the same to her.

They were only about half a kay from camp now.

Rube was out of sight. Thirty metres up ahead, her decal told her. She set out again, walking faster to catch up. She hated to admit that she depended on him, but the sense of isolation from being alone for more than a few minutes was horribly oppressive.

“Hey, Corrie,” he commed. “Better get up here quick, you hear?”

There was something different about his voice, something urgent.

She broke into a jog. “What is it?” she spoke into her wrist.


Then, Rube’s voice, lisping softly in her ear again: “Trouble, Corrie. Big trouble.”

Seconds later she broke out of a screen of undergrowth and almost crashed into Rube’s crusty back. He was hunched to one side, talking into his wrist on a different channel. He barely glanced at her, just gestured ahead.

They had emerged on a small shelf in the face of the hill, where the jungle descended towards sludgy creek of a river they called the Brown Amazon. From this viewpoint they should be able to see the clearing where the Survey had set up base, but not now.

Dark clouds clung to the incline, billowing and twisting, plummeting down the slope towards the flood basin. At first Corrie thought it was some strange atmospheric effect: a ground-hugging, sooty fog.

But then she caught the acrid taste of smoke on the air, and she saw that the flickering she had taken for yet another lightning effect was actually caused by flames.

The forest was on fire.

Corrie barged past Rube, intent on the path that led down the escarpment towards the base camp.

After a couple of seconds she paused, turned.

Rube was still standing on the shelf, just staring at her. “What you planning?” he asked. “Going to beat out the flames with your bare hands?”

She hadn’t been planning anything. Hadn’t been thinking. She just knew she should be doing something.

The bastard was right, much as she hated to admit it.

Below her, the forest plunged down the escarpment, thinning in places where the bedrock broke through the thin jungle soil. About 300 metres down the slope she could see the first flames leaping across the treetops, spreading at a frightening rate from tree to tree.

“It’s the oils,” said Rube. “Everything’s full of it: trees, lianas, even the bugs.”

Just then another tree flared up like a molotov cocktail.

“Like dropping a match on gasoline,” Rube went on.

She should be able to see the base camp from here, Corrie realised. Should be able to see the off-white shell of their Vulcan lander. But all she could see was flames and smoke.

She turned away, peered at the decal on the back of her wrist. Her eyes were too fogged with tears to focus, but she was sure there were less than 24 gold dots on the map now.

The survivors assembled in a clearing, about a kay from the burned out ruins of base camp. Corrie looked around the gathering: what a sad and sorry sight, she thought. Her colleagues lay on the ground or sat against the trees, utterly bewildered and defeated by the tragic turn of events.

They were lucky, she supposed. Lucky not to have burned, like Skip and Jenny and Walter and...

Thirty-five dead, in all.

They’d had no chance, Imran had said. The walls of flame had just wrapped round the base camp like a military pincer movement. Twelve dead and the Vulcan a burned out husk, along with all the food and water supplies for the next hundred-plus days. The others had been picked off by the fire in ones and twos as they attempted to return to camp.

Earlier that day they had searched the jungle for survivors, finding none. It had been a grisly process. They had buried the bodies in makeshift graves beside the clearing, marked so that they could be exhumed when the Darwinian returned. More disturbing, to Corrie, than the sight of the burned and twisted corpses had been the smell of the over-cooked meat. Despite herself, it had cruelly reminded her that she hadn’t eaten for hours.

Across the clearing, Sue and Tanya hugged each other. Corrie smiled to herself, envying what they were sharing. Christ, it was going to be hard for the next few months: we need to take whatever comfort we can find.

Beside her, Rachel lay in a foetal ball. Corrie reached out and touched the back of her hand. The Somalian had lost her lover in the burned-out Vulcan, had slipped into hysteria on discovering that Ahmed had perished. Fortunately, one of the survivors had been equipped with a medical kit containing sedatives.

Now Rachel shifted a little, until Corrie found herself stroking the girl’s head in her lap.

Rube was holding forth in the centre of the clearing. “It’s simple,” he was arguing. “Survival. That’s what it’s all about now. We have 108 days until the Darwinian jumps back within range. When the Darwinian returns, we ping her with our distress beacons and they send another Vulcan down to lift us out. It’s as simple as that.”

“Rube’s right,” said Jake, the native-American zoologist. “It’s a matter of redistributing our priorities. We still have to avoid any contact with the native sentients, but we have to forget any idea of completing the survey work. We–”

“Fuck the sentients,” Rube said. “If my survival means making contact, then that’s what I do, regardless of any questionable effects on cultural evolution.”

Corrie was horrified. “How can you say that?” she demanded, surprising herself with her vehemence. “How can you say that any individual’s life is more important than the damage contact might do to an emergent culture?”

“This isn’t some college role-playing scenario now,” Rube said. “You live or you die. It’s that simple.”

“Hey, hey,” Imran said. The Australian xenthropologist looked around the group. “We’re getting hypothetical, okay? Rube’s right: we got to survive. Corrie’s right: we got to minimise our impact on the native situation. We got a little over a hundred days and we got to survive. We’re scientists, right? We’ve been studying the native lifeforms, right?” He paused, looked around the group. “Who could be in a better position to live off the land than a group of highly trained ecologists?”


Not the missed-a-couple-of-meals kind of hunger Corrie knew from deadline time at college. Not even the hunger she’d experienced on a survival training course, part of the prep for this expedition.

Real hunger.

Gnawing away at her gut. Every movement an enormous effort, every breath laboured. Her body running out of fuel. Head aching, brain thumping inside her skull, her vision swimming, spinning whenever she moved.

Thirst, too. So little to drink...

Stripped to the waist in the oppressive dry heat of the jungle, Corrie leaned against a grotesquely bulging tree trunk. She hugged Rachel to her. The girl, in her grief, had wordlessly sought consolation, glad to accept whatever comfort Corrie could provide.

Earlier that day, Rube had made some crass comment about another couple of dykes in our midst, and only intervention from Imran had prevented Corrie from attacking the bastard.

“I’m talking irony, right?” Imran said. The thin Australian was sitting cross-legged in the forest litter. He waved a hand, indicating the lush vegetation. “We got our own Amazonia here, I’ve never been anywhere so full of life as this. And–”

“Water, water everywhere, but fuck all to drink,” croaked Corrie.

Imran looked puzzled, didn’t get the reference. “Nothing to eat,” he went on. “All this, and nothing to eat.”

Corrie nodded. Imran was okay, if a little too earnest and literal-minded at times. What he said was true.

Corrie could just about manage to keep down a few nibbled fragments from some of the plants and coralline plaques, but any more and she’d vomit until she felt as if she was turning herself inside out. Something to do with the complex oils packed into the cells of just about every living thing in the jungle. Some of the others had even worse reactions if they tried to eat. Rachel, as if her grief was not burden enough, had found it impossible to keep down so much as a mouthful.

Corrie didn’t think it could be long before they suffered their first casualty since the firestorm.

“We have to move,” she said to Imran now. “Migrate.”

Imran looked puzzled. “The Vulcan’s burned out,” he said. “No transport.”

From across the clearing, Rube snorted. “Guess lover-girl didn’t think of that one, hey?”

Corrie ignored him. “Then we walk. Before we’re too wasted to move.”

Sue and Tanya glanced at each other. “It makes sense,” Tanya said, casting a shy, heartening glance towards Corrie. “There’s nothing to keep us here.”

“But it’ll all be like this,” Imran said.

“Think about it,” Corrie said. “Think of the climatic cycle. Thirty-five years ago this jungle was a tundra, emerging from the five year winter. The cold season’s closing in again in a few months. If we head north the cold season will be more advanced.”

There would be rain, or snow even. Drinkable water. And maybe there would be food: if, as Rube argued, the oily, fleshy nature of jungle lifeforms was an adaptation to the dry season, maybe things would be different in the more temperate regions.

Maybe. It was a chance, at least.

Imran looked up, his gaze taking in the gathered survivors. “Okay,” he said. “What do you think? Let’s put it to the vote. Who says we leave here, move north?”

Heart hammering, Corrie raised her hand.

Deneb was setting, its deep ruddy light filtering through the high foliage, reducing the bloated shapes of the trees to eerie shadows. Corrie walked on, supporting Rachel. They had set off at dawn, and for the first five hours Corrie had been fuelled by hope. At least, now, they were doing something other than sitting around the clearing and bemoaning their fate. Last night they had voted to move north with a majority of twelve to two: it had cheered Corrie that Rube had been one of the two dissenting voices.

At noon, Imran had called a rest break. Jake had spent a poor night, and that morning Rube had cited his colleague’s condition as a reason not to move. But Jake had argued that their only hope lay in finding food and water, and again Rube had been defeated.

For an hour they had rested in the jungle, while the three fittest of the team scavenged for water and some of the more edible fruits. They had returned with the single water canister, salvaged from the wreck of the Vulcan, half full of vapid, oily water, and half a dozen pineapple-like growths.

They had divided the spoils, pathetically inadequate as they were, and Corrie had helped Rachel force down a few mouthfuls of water and a sliver of fruit. Ten minutes later Rachel vomited it all back in putrid-smelling green bile. Corrie had managed to keep her own paltry meal down, but the fruit had done nothing to assuage her hunger. The oily flesh sat heavily in her belly, deeply unsatisfying.

An hour after the meal they had set off again, and Corrie had experienced none of her earlier optimism. She began to wonder, as the heat increased and her stomach spasmed with hunger pains, if perhaps Rube had been right. Perhaps they should have stayed put...

Now the sun was going down and the heat was diminishing. From somewhere behind them, Imran called that they should walk for another thirty minutes, and then think about making camp for the night.

During the day, Corrie had watched an enfeebled power-struggle take place among the men. Almost as if by consensus, it had been Imran who had taken tacit charge of the survivors. It was Imran who asked for suggestions, put ideas to the vote; he had settled the occasional disagreement, collated what was known about the planet and catalogued options.

Once or twice Rube had made his objections known, suggested options opposite those proposed by Imran. Always, Imran had thrown the debate open, asked for a democratic vote – and always Rube had been defeated. Corrie was pleased to note that she was not alone in her dislike of the querulous, annoying loud-mouth.

She had noticed another division among their ranks, too. Ever since last night, the women had gathered apart from the men. Tanya and Sue, Rachel and herself formed a group away from the other nine survivors. It had not been until they had set off again after the rest break that Corrie had become aware of the division: the women led the way, Tanya and Sue in the lead, followed by Rachel and herself. Then had come the men, led by Imran, with Rube bringing up the rear like some dissatisfied, skulking dog.

“I’m tired, Corrie...” Rachel whispered.

Corrie halted. Rachel was leaning against her, and she realised that she had been virtually carrying the woman for the last hundred metres.

“Okay, not far to go now. We’ll find a clearing. Stop for the night.”

“Thirsty. Don’t know how thirsty I am, Corrie...”

Corrie smiled to herself. Like to bet, she thought. “We’ll make camp for the night and collect water,” she said, realising as she spoke how terribly inadequate were her words.

Tanya had returned to see why they had stopped. She looked from Rachel to Corrie, shook her head. “I’ll take her,” she said quietly.

“Would you?” Surprisingly, Corrie experienced such a surge of gratitude that she felt like weeping.

Tanya shucked Rachel onto her broad back and strode off, soon catching up with Sue. Lightened of her burden, Corrie walked on.

Not long after setting off that morning, they had happened upon a trail through the undergrowth, long and straight and heading due north. Imran had speculated that it was more than a mere animal track; he suggested that the Denebians followed the trail on their long, migratory treks to the cooler climes of the north. From what little information they had been able to gather, Corrie knew that the Denebians were a tribal hunter-gatherer species, migrating with the planet’s 39-year seasonal cycle: in the winter they gathered in the south, then as the warm season set in they split into tribal groups and headed north to stake out summer territories. The survey had set down at the southern fringe of the Denebians’ summer range: close enough, they hoped, to observe without their activities being detected.

Corrie wasn’t convinced that the trail was anything other than an animal track, but it was a blessing to be free of the undergrowth and the bug-filled curtain of lianas.

What seemed like hours later, Corrie heard a shout from way back in the jungle. She came to a halt and sank onto her haunches. Weakly she called ahead, and a minute later Sue and Tanya appeared, stripped to the waist and slick with sweat.

Tanya knelt carefully and eased Rachel, unconscious now, to the ground. Sue sat cross-legged beside the Somalian, wiping sweat from the girl’s feverish brow. Minutes later the men arrived. They collapsed to the ground, eyes closed as they lay on their backs, breathing hard.

Rube seated himself against the bole of a tree, taking in an eyeful of Tanya’s generous breasts.

“Okay,” Imran said. He paused between words, as if the effort of speaking was becoming too much. “Okay... we’ve no water, and precious little pineapple...” He smiled to himself, no doubt noting the irony of naming something so inedible after a fruit most of them would willingly murder for.

“Any volunteers to go and look for fruit and water?”

Corrie raised a hand. Anything would be better than sticking around and suffering Rube’s lascivious stares. One of the men, an engineer called Pablo, volunteered too. He took the water canister. Corrie was on fruit duty.

She followed the path ahead, while Pablo back-tracked and scouted the trail they had come along. Soon she left behind the sound of the team’s desultory conversation. A strange silence sealed around her; after the cacophony of animal noises during the daylight hours, twilight spelled a period of quiescence. Even though she knew the jungle contained no predators that might endanger her safety, she nevertheless felt a quick and irrational fear. She recalled the last time she had been alone in the jungle, just before the discovery of the fire, and how she had hated herself for wanting Rube’s company, then. She glanced at the decal on the back of her hand: 12 golden dots, 70 metres due south.

She stepped from the trail, hands raised to fend off the lianas. There were some spiky bushes here, the kind that sometimes harboured the pineapple-form plaque colonies that were vaguely edible.

But no, this time they were bare. She straightened, scratching at an encrusted graze on her arm. And then she saw the standing stones.

They were in a clearing about five metres from the path. Corrie stared in disbelief. The light was dimming fast, but even so her eyes were not mistaken. She counted perhaps a dozen tall, pale green stones, roughly hewn, arranged in an oval approximately ten metres by five.

Wondering, she spoke Imran’s name into her wrist-decal. “I’ve come across something that might be of interest. Not exactly what we were looking for–”

“What?” Imran’s question sounded urgent in her ear.

“I don’t know. Stone artefacts. Standing stones of some type.”

“I’m on my way.”

Corrie stepped into the clearing. She passed the first menhir, a little taller than herself, and for the first time it came to her that she was looking upon the work of sentient beings that were not human. So far, she had been limited to pix of the Denebians taken before landing – and the first alleged evidence of the natives had been the north-south forest trail that may have been a migratory pathway. The standing stones were an order of magnitude more advanced than the trail.

Corrie moved past the first stone, and then the ground shifted, creaked, and she was falling.

She screamed, and her fall was broken by something yielding, cushioning her. She controlled her breathing, aware of her crazed heartbeat. She was fine, she was still alive; she had not been speared in some primitive animal trap. I’m okay, she told herself, her laughter spiced with tears of relief.

She was lying perhaps two metres below ground level. The last of the sunlight that reached this far revealed a pit, the walls of which glistened with some dark and viscous substance.

She heard a voice in her ear. Imran. “Corrie. Are you okay? I heard you scream–”

“I’m okay. I’m in the clearing. I fell into a... well, God knows what it is. Some kind of pit. Watch your step, there might be more of them.”

Only when she tried to stand did she realise that she was ensconced in the same soft, yielding substance that comprised the walls of the pit. She sank back into its sticky embrace, laughing to herself.

She had no idea what made her reach out, scoop a handful of slime from the wall next to her head and raise it to her nose. It smelled... well, there was no other word for it, appetising. She stuck out her tongue and touched the gobbet of goo. It tasted slightly sweet, a little meaty, satisfying. She bit into the stuff, its juices cascading over her tongue and down her throat. Unlike the other native food she’d tasted, this stuff – whatever it was – not only tasted good but felt as if, already, it was working to banish her hunger.

She was aware of movement above her and looked up. Imran was peering down at her over the rim of the pit.

“What the hell...?” he began.

Corrie, laughing, raised the manna into the air. “You won’t believe it,” she called up, “but I think we’re saved.”

Rachel walked across the clearing, avoiding the holes in the ground, and crouched before Corrie.

In just three days Rachel had regained her health. She had recovered her strength, put on weight, started to recover some of her former confident swagger. Jake, too, had been miraculously revived from the brink of an ugly death. They had excavated over a dozen pits in the clearing, each one packed with a store of semi-liquefied meat.

They had taken turns to trek into the surrounding jungle on water-collecting duty, though they discovered that water was no longer a prerequisite for survival. As well as providing solid food, the meat also contained sufficient liquid to more than meet their needs.

Now Rachel passed Corrie the canister. Corrie drank, more out of gratitude to Rachel than to quench her thirst.

The black woman smiled shyly. “I just wanted to say thank you – for helping me back there. I wouldn’t have made it without you.”

Corrie reached out and took the woman’s hand. “You’d have done the same for me, Rache. We’re all in this together.”

The others sat around the clearing, sated and relaxed. All except Rube, that is. He went to stand over Imran in the confrontational manner they had all come to recognise.

Imran looked up. “What is it, Rube?”

A silence came down over the gathering. Corrie glanced at the other women, then looked across at Rube.

“I’ve been thinking...” Rube paused, looked around the staring faces. Corrie stopped herself from making a caustic comment.

“I know we’ve speculated what these things might be,” he went on, gesturing towards the open pits. “But we haven’t considered the consequences.”

He let a silence develop. He looked around the team, taking everyone in. At last Imran said, “What consequences?”

“So we think we stumbled across meat stored by the aliens,” Rube said. “Some kind of big animal slaughtered, prepared and buried ritually by the Denebians for retrieval during the migration season...”

Imran was nodding. “It’s as good a hypothesis as any,” he said. They had already considered, and rejected, the possibility that it was a burial ground: the stores of meat were simply too large and well-preserved to match what they knew about the Denebian physique.

Rube waved. “I’m not arguing with the theory,” he said. “But I’ve been considering the results of what we’ve done here–”

Corrie cut in. “What? Are you suggesting that we should have left the meat well alone, Rube? Just continued north and starved to death? “ She realised that she was hardly being fair – at least she should hear what Rube had to say – but at the same time she experienced a malicious satisfaction at baiting him.

He shook his head. “I’m saying nothing of the kind. I just want us to consider what we’ve done. Listen, a few days ago it was you who was going on about how we shouldn’t interfere with the natives...”

His gaze raked the dozen watching faces. “So we’ve dug up and consumed what I suggest was a valuable, and clearly specially prepared, food resource. I don’t think the Denebians will be best pleased when they return to find their larder raided.”

Jake spoke up, “By that time we’ll be long gone, Rube. I mean, how long till the winter season kicks in? A month? Two? We’ll have moved on by then...”

“Which brings us to the main question,” Imran began. He stood up, staring absently into the excavated pits. “We’ve almost finished this store,” he said. “So what do we do next?”

“I think we should keep to the original plan–” this was Rachel, shyly glancing towards Corrie as if seeking agreement- “and head north. You never know, we might find more of these stores: if there’s one, there’s bound to be more. Next time we’ll ration ourselves instead of gorging on the stuff. That way we’ll easily make it until the Darwinian arrives.”

Corrie nodded. “That makes sense. We’ve got over our initial illnesses. We can move north at our leisure, looking for more of the standing stones–” She stopped there and looked at Rube. “Or would you rather we left the meat for the Denebians?”

His gaze was pure dislike. “Hark at the hypocrite who six days ago was worried about the damage contact might do to emergent cultures–”

“That was before we were starving to death!” Corrie began.

He shook his head and turned to Imran. “I suggest that we keep watch at night,” he said. “And keep our weapons at the ready. I wouldn’t want to be sleeping when the Denebians arrive.”

In the event, they were all wide awake when the aliens discovered their presence.

It was five days since Corrie had stumbled upon the subterranean cache, and they had finished the last of the meat the day before. Already, just hours without a meal, Corrie was hungry. She headed into the jungle, searching for any fruit they might have missed, something to fill her stomach before they headed north in search of another underground meat store.

She spent an hour foraging, and to her surprise she found a small clump of green fruits shaped like hand-grenades that had been overlooked by the others. Or maybe someone had tried one and found it to be inedible. She was debating whether to call it a day and return to the clearing when she thought she saw something move in the distance to her left.

She turned and peered. In the aqueous light of the jungle she made out a series of dancing shadows that might have been the play of palm-like leaves in the light of the sun. She told herself she was seeing things and turned towards the clearing.

And screamed.

The thing was running ahead of her, tall and lithe and quick, through the undergrowth towards the clearing. One second it was there, and the next it had vanished, and Corrie was left doubting the very evidence of her eyes.

It had been perilously tall and thin, jet black and hunched, and had moved with frightening alacrity.

She got through to Imran. “I’ve just seen–”

“Corrie. Get back here.”

“I’m on my way. I think I saw–”

“I know. We’ve met them too.”

Corrie rushed back to the clearing, heart pounding at the thought of what she might find. She pushed through the last buggy drape of lianas, stepped into the circle of standing stones, and stopped.

Her colleagues were on their feet, huddled together in the middle of the clearing. They were staring around them at the host of flitting, silent, shadowy figures identical to the one Corrie had seen in the jungle.

She recognised the attenuated soma-types of the native Denebians from her pre-drop studies aboard the Darwinian. But the available stock of images, indistinct and pixelated, were a poor representation of these aliens, failing to capture the essence of the creatures. It was their movements that made them so very alien.

They darted around the clearing with rapid, spry articulation of their long, double-jointed limbs, often coming to a sudden stop and scrutinising the ground with eerie, immobile intensity.

A combination of the failing light and the speed at which they moved left Corrie with only a fleeting impression of their facial appearance. Wide cheeks, long snouts, a cross between reptile and insect. And their eyes... The one thing she could be sure of in the twilight was the fact that they possessed huge, crimson eyes.

Quickly, she moved towards Rachel and the others.

Rube was standing apart from the team, watching the antics of the nearest alien. He glanced at Corrie as she reached out and hugged Rachel.

“Welcome to the party,” he said with cavalier bravado. “Allow me to introduce the Gargoyles. They seem to be just a little puzzled as to what we’ve done with their food supplies.”

Gargoyles, Corrie thought. Despite herself, she thought the name apt.

Perhaps a dozen aliens were cavorting around the clearing, darting down into the open pits with the speed of scurrying insects. They paid no attention to the humans – indeed, Corrie thought, they’re acting as if we don’t exist.

Occasionally the aliens ceased their dervish waltz around the pits, paused long enough to reach out and touch each other with horribly long fingers like waving twigs.

They had checked every pit by now, finding them empty, and it seemed inevitable that they should at last turn their attention to the humans.

Corrie had no way of anticipating her reaction when the Gargoyles, as one unit, turned and rushed towards the humans. They stopped perhaps a metre short, as if their advance had been calculated to startle. Corrie stifled a scream, took a deep, juddering breath as the Gargoyles – there was no other way she could think of them, now – took it in turns to inspect the humans. They darted back and forth, peering with huge red eyes, from time to time reaching out to touch and prod with stiff, cold fingers.

Corrie felt a hand palpitate her right thigh, and her heart almost ceased beating.

At last, after what seemed an age, the Gargoyles retreated and conferred, touching each other in a brief and frantic semaphore. Even then they were never still; always at least half of their group were darting this way and that in a fidgety, ceaseless pavane.

As Corrie watched, one Gargoyle ran nimbly from the clearing and climbed the nearest tree. It did so without apparent effort, and with no reduction of speed. Its rapid ascent of the vertical bole was like an optical illusion.

“What do you think they’ll do to us?” someone asked.

Imran shook his head. “They’ve shown no signs of hostility. I don’t know... Let’s just keep together and do nothing stupid, okay?”

The alien descended from the tree and stilted across the clearing. It was carrying something now, a bunch of what might have been some kind of small, purple fruit, like wrinkled aubergines. It passed the bunch to another alien, who advanced upon the humans.

It towered over Rube, perhaps a head taller, then broke a fruit from the bunch and passed it to him. Hesitantly, he accepted. The Gargoyle broke off another fruit and passed it to the next human. Like this it proceeded until every one of the team was holding one of the small, furry-skinned fruits.

“So what gives?” Rube said, addressing the alien. “You want us to eat these things, is that it?”

As if in response, the Gargoyle snapped a fruit from those that remained and raised it to its mandibles. Corrie did not actually see the alien eat the fruit, but when it lowered its hands the growth was no longer there.

“I think that’s what it wants us to do,” Imran said.

Rube guffawed. “Hey, if you ugly bastards think for one second that...” Disgusted, he tossed the fruit away.

Instantly, the nearest Gargoyle snatched up the fruit and, with a movement too quick for the eye to follow, advanced upon Rube and flashed a hand quickly across his face.

Rube doubled up, spluttering. When he stood upright, Corrie could see that the flesh of the fruit was mashed into his mouth, vivid pink juice spilling over his chin.

He wiped his mouth on the back of his arm, glaring at the alien.

“I think,” Imran said, “that we’d better eat the things.”

Corrie looked from her own fruit to Rube. He seemed to be suffering no ill-effects other than a loss of dignity. Hesitantly, along with Tanya and the others, she raised the fruit to her lips and took an experimental bite.

Sharp, very juicy, and extraordinarily pleasant.

Then Rube collapsed. Immediately, Corrie was aware that her vision was swimming. She tried to focus on Rachel, but the woman’s face floated bizarrely in her vision. Corrie opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came. She seemed to be drifting, detached from her senses. It was not an altogether unpleasant experience.

She watched the aliens. They seemed to be closing in, surrounding her team. Corrie knew, vaguely, that she should be alarmed, but the fact was that she could bring herself to feel nothing.

She was aware of cold fingers, prodding her, and her last thought was that they were being shepherded from the clearing.


The cave was a big, horseshoe-shaped cavern excavated into the side of the limestone bluff, with two entrances and a central, hub-like pillar. Set into the curving wall of the cave was a series of hollowed-out cells, each one packed with vegetation from the jungle floor, forming so many beds.

Corrie lay on her back and tried to recall the journey here. It had seemed to last forever, but it could only have lasted a matter of hours. They had arrived in darkness, she knew. Five to ten kilometres, she guessed.

How long had they lived in the cave, as guests of the Gargoyles? Corrie raised her hand, stared at the decal. She concentrated, but the figures there made no sense at all. A part of her – the part that knew she was neglecting her duties and herself – understood also that this was not right: another part told her to accept the beneficence of the aliens. It was the only way they had of surviving until the return of the Darwinian.

She pushed herself upright and looked around the cave. The others occupied their individual cells, either sleeping or simply too blitzed to move.

She struggled from her own cell and stood on unsteady legs. Her vision swam, and her sense of balance was affected. Across the cave, in a cell opposite her own, Rachel was sitting upright and staring at her with uncomprehending eyes.

Slowly, Corrie made her way across to the Somalian woman.

She sat on the edge of the cell, reached out and took Rachel’s fingers. She raised her other hand, indicating the decal. “How long...?” she managed.

Rachel stared at her, shook her head. “How long until the Darwinian arrives?” Her words were slurred, retarded. She looked mystified.

Corrie shook her head. “No – I mean, yes... How long have we been here?”

Rachel stared at her. “On Deneb 5?”

Corrie opened her mouth to speak. Communication was almost impossible. She could not contain the progression of their conversation in her mind.

She had no idea how long they had been on Deneb 5. It seemed like a lifetime. Her other life, her life on Earth, seemed like the memories of another person altogether.

She hit her temple with the heel of her right hand. “No, I mean – how long have we been here, in the cave?”

Rachel was smiling to herself, her eyes staring at a point way beyond Corrie. Slowly, the black woman lay on her back and closed her eyes.

“A week,” she heard the voice, issuing from the next cell. “Maybe a little more.”

She turned. It was Rube. He lay propped on a pile of vegetation in his cell, staring at her. She focused on him, wondering if her eyes were playing tricks on her. The entirety of Rube’s torso now seemed to be scabbed over with the iridescent plaque, almost like a covering of chitin. His head sat atop the multi-coloured armour, bloated but unaffected by the plaque. A ginger growth of beard testified to the possibility that they had been in the cave for a week.

“The Darwinian,” Corrie said. She stopped. That seemed the extent of her ability to articulate the thought swimming nebulously in her head. She forced herself to concentrate. “I mean... how long before it gets here?”

Rube laughed. “Jesus Christ, does it matter?” he said. Like Rachel, his voice was slowed, slurred. “What’s the rush? We’re doing okay, aren’t we? You were always one cocky, uptight bitch, Asanovic.”

She waved in futile disgust and pushed herself away from the cell. She made her way around the cave, stopping before each of the dozen cells in turn. Imran... he too was out of it, lying back on his litter of leaves with a beatific expression on his face. Jake – he was sitting upright, legs crossed, staring right through Corrie. When she waved a hand before her eyes, he didn’t so much as blink. She moved on, around the curve of the cavern, and came to the cell in which Tanya and Sue huddled together. The women were naked, sweat-slicked limbs entwined. For a while they had conscientiously peeled the plaques from each others’ bodies, but they had neglected the duty for the past few days. Corrie made out invading colonies of the plaque, like lichen, splotched across the women’s fattening bodies: a patchwork alien carapace.

She reached out and touched a leg, waggled it back and forth in a bid to elicit some response, but Tanya just moaned and turned over.

Corrie looked around the cave. Her thoughts were slow. She wanted nothing more than to lie down in her cell, sup on the juice of another fruit.

Something made her walk past her cell and approach the cave entrance. She closed her eyes, squinting. After the half-light of the cave, the glare of the setting sun was a painful dazzle. Her sight adjusted at last and she made out the bloated hemisphere of Deneb going down behind the jungle on the far side of the river.

On the shelving sands before the cave-mouths, a triptych of Gargoyles stood very still, as if frozen. Corrie had often seen them like this, in postures that made no sense in the human schema of arrested motion.

They looked more than ever like insects in their immobility.

Corrie approached the aliens and walked around them. Their eyes were open, each pair focused on a different point. They seemed not to notice her.

She struggled to fathom what made the attention of the Gargoyles so frightening. For days the aliens had fed and watered the stranded humans, supplying them with half a dozen varieties of fruit, all of which had a sedative, soporific effect on the team.

And yet, while the Gargoyles danced attendance to the human’s need for sustenance, in all other respects they seemed to ignore the team.

It was this disparity that was so eerie.

Corrie smiled to herself, pleased that she had managed to work out something so complex. She knew why, though. It was sunset, hours since they had last been fed, and the mind-crippling effects of the fruit were wearing off.

She reached out, touched the cold, hard skin of the closest alien. It turned, suddenly, and stared at her with its ember-like eyes.

She controlled her breathing. Her heart gave a panicky little flutter. “Thank you,” she said. Until this moment, she hadn’t understood that the complex array of emotions she felt towards the Gargoyles included gratitude, but she realised that if not for their succour she could well be dead by now.

The thing stared at her, or past her, unmoving. She raised a hand to her mouth, mimicked eating. “For the food. Thank you.”

Without warning, the Gargoyle twisted, from the head down, in a single, flowing movement, until it stood with its back to her, its head angled downwards. Corrie had tried to communicate with the Gargoyles before, but had never got through. The beings didn’t seem to recognise that her sounds and gestures were an attempt to convey information. She wondered, as she had before, if an individual Gargoyle had the capacity to reason through such ideas. So much of their behaviour appeared ritualised, instinctive even. They clearly communicated with each other, but then so too do honey bees and chimps. The aliens showed no sign of curiosity about the humans in their charge, made no effort to communicate other than to ensure that the humans ate. They were highly organised, but in the week or so since first contact Corrie had seen little in the life of the settlement that evidenced culture or society. Were the Gargoyles even sentient at all, she wondered?

She turned at a sound behind her. A dozen Gargoyles were emerging from the caves in the face of the limestone bluff. They almost ran, leaning forwards, on their double-kneed legs, carrying fruit towards the humans’ cave.

Corrie felt a finger in her back, prodding her towards the cave. She obeyed, followed the other Gargoyles inside, and returned to her cell.

This time, though, when a Gargoyle approached and handed her one of the small purple dopefruit, she raised it to her mouth and mimed the act of eating. Satisfied, the alien departed. She looked around the cave. Her colleagues were devouring the fruit, rapt expressions on their bloated faces.

Corrie lay back, already the act of thinking no longer an impossible labour. She considered the events of the last few days, then remembered her decal and raised her hand. In the failing light of the cave, she made out the illuminated numerals. They still had another 94 days to wait until the arrival of the Darwinian.

The next day, Corrie discovered that she was bleeding.

She awoke suddenly from vivid dreams of the firestorm and its aftermath. She sat up and stared around the cave. She no longer felt groggy and distanced, at one remove from the reality around her. She could see clearly and her mind was sharp and alert.

The sound of the Gargoyles, entering the cave on their morning rounds, had awoken her. She watched the aliens as they filed through the farthest entrance and approached Rachel, Imran and the others. She counted twelve Gargoyles, and this time as she watched them she noted the stylised, ritualistic basis of the feeding ceremony. Before, no doubt, she had been too out of it to notice.

Now each alien approached its designated human, made a quick, complicated gesture in the air, and proffered the fruit. Corrie watched Rachel reach out and grab the small, green orb, and stuff it into her mouth.

One by one the humans were fed, and before the Gargoyle bearing her own fruit approached, Corrie knew that again she would simulate the act of eating.

But this time the Gargoyle turned away, before proffering her fruit, and handed it instead to Jake in the neighbouring cell. While the others ate, Corrie sat upright and experienced the irrational feeling of being excluded. Within minutes, the rest of her team had eaten their fill and were sleeping again.

She wondered if the Gargoyles were aware that she had feigned eating her dopefruit last night. Was this why they had declined to feed her this morning? She felt a stab of fear that the aliens were one step ahead of her, knew what she was doing. Also, it occurred to her that she would starve without the sustenance of the fruit.

She stood up and moved towards the cave mouth, and it was only then that she became aware of the dried blood caking her inner thighs and staining the crotch of her leggings. At the same time she felt the pain in her belly. For the past few days, she realised, she’d been so drugged up that she had failed to notice the usual pre-menstrual cramps. There was nothing she could do about it now, short of washing in the river and making herself some kind of makeshift breech cloth.

She left the cave and stepped out into the bright orange morning sunlight. The three Gargoyles were stationed between the caves and the bank of the river, maintaining odd, contorted postures and staring into space.

Corrie hurried down to the river, stripped off her leggings and dunked them in the river. She washed them in the thick, oily water as best she could, then laid them on the sand and waded back into the warm water, aware that she had been wallowing in her own excrement for days in that cave. The water of this infernal planet might not have been all the appetising, but it served well enough to cleanse the accumulated filth from her body. She submerged herself, luxuriating in the sensation.

Later, she tore a strip of fabric from her shirt, folded it and stuffed it into the gusset of her dried leggings.

No sooner had she returned to the cave than one of the three Gargoyles followed her in and grasped her arm in a sharp, pincer grip. It pulled her from the cave and pushed her away down the shelving incline. The other two aliens joined it before the cave and the three then adopted the statue-still, twisted postures of old.

Corrie watched them, shivering at the touch of the alien’s fingers on her upper arm. Clearly, then, she was persona non grata in the cave. From now on she would be forced to look after herself, while keeping a close eye on the welfare of the rest of her team. Perhaps it would be for the best. If she could survive until the Darwinian returned, she could tell the rescue team where to find the others.

She waded across the river and for the next couple of hours searched the margin of the jungle for edible fruits. She found a couple of the crusty pineapple growths, and a few berries she knew to be just about edible.

By the time she returned to the river and squatted on the bank opposite the limestone caves, another eviction had taken place. She was in time to see one of the Gargoyles escort Rachel from the cave and push her roughly towards the river. The African stumbled, fell. Corrie could hear her cries of anguish, and at the same time as experiencing compassion for the woman, she felt also the pleasure of knowing that she was no longer the only outcast.

She waded into the river and up the other side. Rachel was lying in the sand, semi-conscious and whimpering. She wore only leggings, having discarded her tunic to combat the increased heat of this latitude. Corrie helped her to her feet and half-carried her into the water. They crossed the river and Corrie laid Rachel in the shade of a spreading bush with broad, palmate leaves. She felt safer here, with the river separating them from the Gargoyles.

She lay down beside Rachel and slept.

When she awoke, the sun was setting and the eviction of undesirables from the cave was complete.

She came awake suddenly, wondering where she was. She blinked up at the broad palm leaf above her head, and the events of that morning came back to her. She sat up quickly. Rachel was lying beside her, smiling in greeting.

Corrie reached out and touched her hand. “How’re you feeling?”

Rachel sat up, stretching. “Fine, now. I no longer feel...” She shrugged. “Drugged, I suppose.”

“Any idea why the Gargoyles evicted you?”

Corrie had assumed that they had thrown her from the cave because she had refused to eat the fruit – but Rachel had been compliant, and still she had been evicted.

She shrugged again. “I don’t know. One minute I was half-asleep – or rather half-drugged – and then one of the aliens was dragging me from the cave.”

Corrie looked up, across the river, and saw two figures – human figures – lying side by side in the sand outside the cave.

Tanya and Sue.

Corrie and Rachel exchanged a glance. “Let’s go and get them.”

They crossed the river and climbed the incline. The triptych of Gargoyles paid them no heed. Corrie hurried over to the women and knelt beside them. They were half awake, still clearly labouring under the influence of the toxic fruit.

“Wait here,” Corrie said. She hurried towards the cave. At any moment she expected the Gargoyles to block her way but it was as if she no longer registered in their perception. She walked into the cave, paused and stared around her. She had not noticed it before, but the place stank of sweat and faeces. The remaining humans – all male, significantly – occupied the cells, semi-comatose and inert.

Quickly Corrie located the water canister attached to Imran’s belt, took it and rejoined the others. With Rachel’s help she managed to assist Tanya and Sue across the river and into the shade of the palm-analogue.

While Tanya and Sue slept off the effects of the drug, Corrie and Rachel searched the jungle for food and drinkable water. They found a couple of pineapples, and a spring of almost-clear water. Corrie filled the canister and returned to the palm tree.

An hour later, first Tanya and then Sue stirred. Corrie helped Tanya into a sitting position, gave her a drink of spring water. When Sue resurfaced, they sat and ate a meagre meal of oily forest fruit.

Corrie told the others why she had thought, mistakenly, that she had been evicted.

Tanya shook her head. “It had nothing to do with the fact that you refused the fruit,” she said. “What do we have in common?”

“Huh?” Corrie shrugged. “What, that we’re women?”

Tanya smiled. “Even more basic than that. I mean, how the hell do the Gargoyles know we’re women?” She laughed at Corrie’s mystified expression. “Look,” she went on, pointing to her own crotch. Her leggings were adorned with a bright Rorschach blotch of blood.

Rachel and Sue glanced down, nodded. Living and working so closely together, their periods had fallen pretty much into step with each other.

Corrie said, “Me, too. I washed my leggings in the river. But why...?”

Tanya shrugged. “Would you credit it, we come light years through space and discover the same old prejudices. The Gargoyles evicted us because they thought us unclean, or contaminated, or whatever. Faulty goods.”

After a long silence, Corrie said, “So... any ideas about what the hell’s happening over there?”

“Perhaps the Gargoyles are simply altruistic,” Rachel said. “They saw that we were starving...”

Tanya looked sceptical. “One thing we can be sure of, girl, is that we can’t ascribe human motivations to the actions of aliens.”

Sue said, “More important than the psychology of the Gargoyles, to be perfectly honest, is how are we going to feed ourselves?”

Corrie stared across the river to the cave-mouths and the trio of immobile aliens. “The simple fact is that we can’t survive off what we can get from the jungle – the pineapple things and berries. We’ve tried that and failed miserably. But we can eat the fruit the Gargoyles provided us with. If we combine the two, ration ourselves to only one fruit a day, then maybe we can make it until the Darwinian arrives.”

“That’s fine in theory,” Tanya said, “but how do we get hold of the aliens’ precious fruit?”

Corrie shrugged. “We follow the Gargoyles to where they harvest the stuff, wait till they leave, and then help ourselves.”

Tanya grunted. “Sounds easy enough...”

Corrie looked up at the sun, calculated. “An hour till sunset,” she said. “The Gargoyles fed us at nightfall. Why don’t we cross the river and wait until they make a move?”

They waited for thirty minutes, until the sun sank huge and ruddy behind the darkening jungle, and the lightning flicker of the evening’s static storm started to dance across the treetops. They waded through the thick, warm waters of the river and climbed the incline of the far bank. Outside the cave they sat, watching the trio of Gargoyles.

Minutes later, from the dark openings of the other caves dotting the limestone bluff, the quick, spry shapes of a dozen Gargoyles emerged and moved off along the bank of the river, heading west.

Corrie nodded to Rachel and the others, and they set off in pursuit.

The Gargoyles moved into the jungle, following a well-worn path. The women followed at a distance, Corrie leading. A little way into the jungle, they came to a clearing. The aliens were gathering fruit from low, ground-hugging bushes and plants. Corrie gestured to the others and they concealed themselves behind a stand of ferns next to the path. As she waited, she imagined following the same routine for the next ninety-odd days until the Darwinian arrived, sneaking around like the outcasts they were, stealing food from behind the backs of the Gargoyles...

Five minutes later the aliens left the clearing and passed the concealing stand of ferns one by one. Corrie held her breath, her heart hammering loud in her ears, and willed the Gargoyles to pass without seeing them.

As their footfalls diminished, she looked around at the others. Tanya nodded. “We’re clear. Let’s go.”

They stood and hurried along the path to the clearing. There were the bushes bearing the forbidden fruit. Corrie, impatient, hurried across the clearing.

The sudden appearance of the alien beside her almost stopped her heart. It stepped from the trees, looming over her, and darted forward. It thrust its great, prognathous mandibles towards her, hissing something loud and admonitory.

Immediately, other Gargoyles appeared from the jungle, moving around the four cowering women in choreographed sequence all the more discomforting for being not in the least threatening.

Then Corrie felt hard, cold fingers pincer her upper arm, and she was forcibly ejected, along with the others, from the clearing. The Gargoyles escorted the women along the bank of the river and left them on the shelving slope before the caves.

For the first time that day, Corrie felt a pang of hunger. As she watched the aliens file into the humans’ cave, a part of her experienced the irrational sensation of envy.

“So what now?” Rachel said. She, too, was staring at the cave.

“We wait till the Gargoyles leave, then go see what we can scrounge.”

“From Rube?” Tanya laughed. “The bastard wouldn’t let you eat his shit.”

“I wasn’t thinking about begging from Rube,” Corrie said. “Maybe Imran or Jake...”

Tanya said nothing, but tacit in her gaze was the doubt that the men would give them the slightest succour.

Ten minutes later the Gargoyles filed from the cave. If they saw the four women, skulking by the river, they paid them no heed. The aliens repaired to their own caves, dark apertures in the limestone face of the bluff, washed pink now in the light of the setting sun.

Corrie led the way up the incline to the cave. She stepped inside, gagging on the stench. It was a good thirty seconds before her eyes adjusted to the half-light. She made out the men, flat on their backs in their individual cells.

She found Imran and approached.

Tanya was beside her. “Good God,” she whispered.

Imran and the others had been stripped naked. It seemed that, in just a day since Corrie had been ejected, the men had gained weight. Their bellies seemed bloated, as well as their limbs. Their bodies glistened with what might have been oil or grease – perhaps some exudation from their diet of fruit? Tanya gagged at the sight and moved to the mouth of the cave.

Corrie knelt beside Imran, found his hand and squeezed. She saw that his eyes were open, watching her.

“Imran, we’ve been thrown out. Me and Rachel, Tanya and Sue. We need food, Imran.”

She glanced around the cell for any sign of discarded or overlooked fruit, found none. “Imran...”

“Corrie...” She had to strain to make out the sound of her name. “Corrie, it’s okay. We’ll survive. They’re taking care of

“Didn’t you hear a damned thing I said?” Corrie was close to tears. “They’ve thrown us out. We have nothing to eat!”

“Corrie, lie down. Take it easy. The aliens will provide...”

“Jesus Christ!” Corrie spat. She moved to where Sue and Rachel were trying to make contact with Jake.

Sue shook her head. “It’s no good. They’re all the same. They’re too far gone.”

They scoured the cave for fruit, managed to gather together a few scraps of rind, a discarded kernel. They hurried from the stench of the cave and sat beside the river.

Despite herself, Corrie started to absent-mindedly chew on the soiled rind. She told herself that she could feel it working on her senses, dulling not only the pain of her hunger, but her fear at what lay ahead. She passed what remained to Rachel, whose expression mixed disgust with the need to eat. She bit tentatively at the hard skin.

“What now?” Tanya said at last.

Corrie let the silence develop. She looked at the decal on the back of her hand. She called up the flight plan of the Darwinian, as if it would be any different to the last time she’d checked. They had 93 days to survive before the ship returned.

“We could always leave here,” she said. “Trek north, just as we’d planned before. We could look for another clearing marked with standing stones. You never know... Chances are that the Gargoyles excavated more than one foodstore. If we follow the migratory trail, checking for clearings...”

She paused there, looked from Rachel to Tanya and Sue. “Put it this way,” she went on. “What do we gain if we stay here? The Gargoyles certainly won’t feed us. There isn’t much food in the nearby jungle, and this damned heat...”

Rachel shrugged, uncomfortable. “But... I mean, what about the men?”

“The men?” Tanya said, and laughed. She spoke for Corrie when she said: “Fuck the men, Rachel.”

They set out in the peachy light of dawn, heading almost due north.

“Keep your eyes peeled,” said Corrie, as they walked. “Look out for anything that might be edible, any source of water. We need to take it wherever we find it.” None of the artificial distinctions between marching time and foraging time that the men had adopted, she thought to herself. “And if there’s any sign of Gargoyles I suggest we get out of sight as fast as possible,” she added. “We don’t understand them, so we can’t go taking unnecessary risks.”

The others nodded and Corrie wondered briefly when it was that the consensus had tacitly accepted her leadership. Rachel, Tanya and Sue were each more experienced than Corrie, yet all now turned to her for guidance.

For the first time, she felt her presence on Deneb 5 justified, that she was, as their constitution said, a full and equal member of the expedition and not just Rube’s field assistant.

They marched through the heat of the Denebian day.

The going was uneven and slow. After a few kilometres, the trail had petered out into nothing and they were traversing rough jungle terrain. The undergrowth was rarely impenetrable, but Corrie found that she had to use a stick to bat the great cobweb-lianas out of her way, and still she found the stuff clinging to her like a musty body-stocking.

Only three months ago she had been in college, celebrating the end of her training. And now...

“Let’s make camp,” said Tanya, breaking into Corrie’s reverie. As the evening static storm settled around them, they found shelter at the foot of a wide-boled tree with a yielding, fleshy trunk. Corrie found it hard to recall how blasé they had been about these storms until the one that had sparked the forest fire and destroyed their Vulcan lander.

Now, the dusk storm was a time for shared memories of those they had lost. Corrie reached out a hand to comfort Rachel, but the Somalian turned away, her own grief back to the fore now that her mind was clear of the sedation and dopefruits.

Hundred kay map, she thought. The comms decal on the back of her wrist showed a low-res map of the region, the image sparking static with the evening storm. There were few features that were of any use to them: the Brown Amazon cutting off one corner of the map, another winding creek to the north. They were still at least a couple of hundred kilometres from their target: the narrow temperate zone, edging steadily south with the advancing cold season. And if Rube’s ecofile had been right, there would be more water there, and more chance of edible lifeforms.

At their present rate, it would take them at least twenty days to get there. But Corrie knew it wasn’t as clear-cut as that: every kilometre further north was a step in the right direction, increasing their chances of survival.

When the storm had passed, they set out again in silence, preferring to keep moving, trying to keep their minds off the growing hunger and thirst.

It was shortly after dawn, two days into their post-captivity journey, that they came upon the clearing.

“Hey,” Tanya said, her voice little more than a parched croak. “Looky here, will you?”

Corrie had been off to one side of the track, scouring a thorn bush for what passed for fruit. Now, she stood at Tanya’s broad shoulder and looked out from the trees, dazzled by the sudden ruddy sunlight.

For a distance of maybe a hundred metres, the forest parted. In places, trees had been unable to grow where the bedrock rose to the surface, but in others Corrie suspected the bulbous saplings had been cleared.

And there, as her vision returned, Corrie began to determine a form to the outcrops of rock that dotted the clearing. Not outcrops, but free-standing, carved blocks of granite: standing stones!

Heart thumping, Corrie tried to stop herself from running into the clearing. They had to be cautious. What if there were Gargoyles in the vicinity, guarding their migratory food supplies? – even more likely if they had learnt that another such foodstore had been plundered a few tens of kilometres south.

But suddenly Rachel was out there, staggering across the open ground, whimpering like a beaten dog in her desperation for sustenance. Sue and Tanya were not far behind.

Corrie lingered for a few seconds more, squinting in the harsh light for any sign of the sudden, flitting movements of the Gargoyles. There were none.

She stepped out into the open and jogged to catch up with her three companions.

Now that her eyes were accustomed to the light, she saw that this storage place was much larger than the one they had found before. It should easily sustain them for the remaining 90 days until the return of the Darwinian.

But... there was something wrong.

Up ahead, Tanya and Sue were on their knees by one of the pits at the foot of a towering granite menhir.

As she approached, Corrie heard a plaintive sobbing, but it did not come from either of the women she could see. She stopped by the pit and looked down. Rachel was in there, two metres down, her body wracked with grief.

Corrie opened her mouth to speak, but there were no words to counter her friend’s distress. The stone pit had been emptied.

She turned away. Ten metres on, she came to a second standing stone and, at its foot, a second denuded pit.

She spent the next thirty minutes going from stone to stone, but every pit had been emptied of its contents.

Later, the sun towering in the morning sky, they sat by the first pit.

“You’re the ecologist,” Tanya said to Corrie. “What do you reckon?”

Corrie shook her head. “If these pits were foodstores set aside for the migratory period, as we thought,” she said, “then why are they empty? We’ve come further north. The cold season should be more advanced–”

“Not that you’d notice,” Sue interrupted, indicating the glowering alien sun.

“But if the season’s more advanced here,” Corrie continued, “then they should be better prepared for the migration, not totally unprepared.”

“Perhaps they use it earlier,” said Rachel, tentatively. “Perhaps they need longer to prepare.”

“But the cold season won’t hit here for a while yet,” said Corrie. “Surely this is too early.”

“Who knows?” said Tanya. “Like we said before, though: they’re aliens – how can we possibly hope to understand them on the basis of so little information and analysis?”

“Survival,” said Rachel, softly. “That’s what it’s all about now. Surviving ’til the Darwinian comes back for us.”

They found the trail that led them to a second Gargoyle settlement heading away from the north-west corner of the clearing.

“What do you reckon?” said Tanya.

Corrie looked at the trail, and then at the encroaching jungle to either side: its gloomy interior tangled with scrubby undergrowth and heavy with dusty, cobwebbed lianas.

Corrie shrugged. “Keep your eyes peeled,” she said, gesturing towards the trail. “We’ll get more distance under our belt in the open.”

Ten kay map, she thought, and her decal showed her a map of the area. A small river sliced through the centre of the map. If the trail held its north by north-west course, they would have to ford the waterway in about five kilometres. She hoped it would be a shallow, slow-moving river, like the one by the first settlement.

That first settlement had been a similar distance from the foodstore they had plundered. A pattern, perhaps...

Moving at the pace of their slowest member – Rachel, limping as the result of jumping into that first empty foodpit – the party approached the river two and a half hours later.

Corrie had time for a little personal hygiene as she walked, picking at the plaques on her exposed shoulders and back, using clawed fingers to rake sticky liana-debris from her hair. She was looking forward to getting into the river to clean the last caked blood from her body and clothing.

A steady, trudging rhythm descended on the four women as they headed north, intent on survival. There was a deep ache in the pit of Corrie’s stomach, something that had gone way beyond hunger and become almost a part of her psyche.

A movement cut through her numbed state of consciousness and instantly Corrie signalled to the others and side-stepped into the undergrowth. It had been a movement that somehow combined suddenness with an agile, alien fluidity.

They hid for several minutes until a dark, improbably thin, tall figure darted across Corrie’s field of view, followed by another seconds later.

A few minutes after that, she stepped from the undergrowth and peered along the trail. Two Gargoyles stood stock still about a hundred and fifty metres away. The women lingered in the shadows until, finally, with perfect co-ordination, the Gargoyles twisted through 180 degrees, from the head down, and darted away along the trail.

After a further half-kay, the trail opened out as the ground fell away towards the river, the exposed golden sandstone cut through by a sequence of meandering rills and gullies.

At first, Corrie didn’t see the settlement, but then she realised that some of the gullies had been roofed over with felled trees to form artificial caverns that faced out across the river.

“It’s a settlement,” she hissed to the others, leading them aside into the undergrowth. “Just like the first one.”

“What do we do?” asked Tanya. “How do we get round it?”

Corrie looked at her three companions. Each had deteriorated rapidly over the course of their latest trek. Rachel and Sue were struggling simply to keep moving, and even Tanya – broad-shouldered, buxom Tanya Chernekova – seemed like a ghosted image of the woman Rube had mentally undressed at every opportunity.

“We don’t,” Corrie said, slowly, trying to figure out the idea that was taking form in her mind. “Think of the first settlement: they had a supply of the dopefruit, didn’t they? They didn’t have it just for us.”

“But they guarded it,” Tanya said.

“They guarded the orchard area where they harvested the stuff,” Corrie said. “But it was easy enough to get in and out of the caves once we’d been outcast, wasn’t it? It was as if we no longer existed. Maybe they’ll have some supplies in these caves.”

“So we just walk right in...?”

“Not quite,” Corrie said, grinning. “Not quite.”

Just as Corrie had suspected when she first saw the settlement, the sequence of artificial caverns all faced out across the river’s flood basin. There were signs here of violent water-flow – the outpourings of melting glaciers, Corrie supposed. It had carved the rills through the sandstone embankment which the Gargoyles had roofed over, and it had scooped out the great river basin that, at present, was only graced with the slightest of turbid trickles at its core.

Rachel and Sue had needed little persuasion to wait in the jungle while Tanya and Corrie reconnoitred. About fifty metres from where the sandstone embankment tumbled down towards the river basin, the jungle proper opened out and thinned. A few meagre tongues of scrubby growth lapped the open ground and the two women worked their way along one of these.

About ten metres from the edge of the embankment, they reached bare ground. Side by side, they crawled across on hands and knees until they could lie belly down and stare out across the settlement.

It was a scene quite unlike the previous settlement. Small groups of Gargoyles were frozen in their now-familiar half-observant, half-stupefied postures, but elsewhere some of the beings lay basking in the afternoon sun with almost cat-like ease. And there were what appeared to be young Gargoyles, too: smaller aliens, flitting about the open space like gnats over a stagnant pool. In short, there was a domestic atmosphere to this settlement that had been altogether absent from the first settlement.

“It’s the season,” Tanya said, answering Corrie’s unspoken question. “This colony is further through the cycle, just as you said they would be as we move north. They’ve bred, it’s a more mature settlement, getting through the seasonal cycle before the winter zone moves south again.”

“Come on,” Corrie said. “We’re not field scientists now: we’re looking for food.” She backed away from the embankment.

Back in the undergrowth, they worked their way along to the first roofed over section of gully, as far back from the river basin as possible. They weren’t, as Tanya had suggested, just going to walk into the caverns: they were going in through the roof.

The roof material had been sliced from the fleshy limbs of some kind of tree. The stuff was tough and rubbery and, Corrie suspected, would put up pretty good resistance to even a laser cutter if they’d had one to hand. But it was flexible and elastic, and she found it quite easy to twist away a flap of the material and peer down into the gloomy interior of the cavern. The musty faecal smell was quite overpowering and, hanging with her head suspended into the opening, she had to fight not to gag.

It took a few seconds for her eyes to adjust, and in that time she expected at any moment to feel cold, twiggy fingers closing around her head, hauling her down into the cave. But it didn’t happen. Instead, she found that she could make out bulky shapes in the gloom.

She was looking into a cavity, hollowed out from a natural cleft in the rock. There was a bulbous shape at the far end and, for a chilling instant, she thought that somehow they had completed a full circle and come back to the original settlement and this was Rube or Jake or Imran wallowing in their own self-centred filth.

But no. She knew that wasn’t true. And, in any case, the smell was not a human one. It was animal, something like the fetid mustiness of a fruit bat colony she had once studied in Irian Jaya.

“Keep your eyes peeled for me: I’m going to take a look.”

Corrie twisted so that her legs dangled through the opening, and then she wriggled her torso through the gap and dropped into the gloom.

The thing in the far end of the cell made a slight peeping sound, but otherwise showed no reaction to Corrie’s intrusion. She approached it, hesitantly. The thing was just a mound of flesh, fully two metres round, almost a perfect sphere. Somewhere, near the summit, there was a protrusion that may have been a head, and to either side were folds of blubber that may have served as some kind of limbs.

She touched it.

Its flesh quivered, was cold, its surface slick with exuded oil. What it reminded her of most was some kind of bizarre cross between a seal and the oily, fleshy trees of the dry jungle.

And also, it reminded her of the men they had left behind, although clearly this thing had not the slightest trace of humanity about it.

She snapped herself out of her reverie. It was as if the musty scent in the air was doping her. In the gloom, she searched about the cell, found a few meagre scraps of food: discarded, shrivelled rinds, a few rubbery, dried up gobbets of fruit-flesh, dropped out of reach of the cell’s occupant.

She stepped from the cell, into another similar one. Its occupant, too, wallowed at one end of its filthy domicile, and here she found more scraps of food, even a small number of untouched dopefruit littering the floor.

She swallowed the juices welling up in her dried out mouth. She knew she must fight the desperate urge to bite into one of these discarded fruit. She had to keep her wits about her, had to get back to the others.

Gathering her booty into a fold in the shirt knotted at her waist, Corrie passed through the cell’s narrow opening.

There was a sudden, high-pitched shriek and cool fingers closed around her arms. Chitinous mandibles flashed before her face, and the red ember glow of Gargoyle eyes.

Then she was on her rear, feet kicking feebly, as the Denebian dragged her through the cavern, one long-fingered hand wrapped around her arm, another tangled in her hair.

A sudden glare of sunlight, and then her feet lifted clear from the ground and she was, briefly, flying through the hot, dry air.

Then she struck the dirt in a crumpled, bone-shocked heap.

She drew breath, nearly choking on the dust kicked up in the air around her. She peered through slitted eyes, and through the settling dust clouds she could see a Gargoyle, poised statue-like a few metres away. She couldn’t be sure if it was the one that had ejected her from the cavern. She looked around, and worked out that she was in the clearing she and Tanya had observed from the top of the embankment. There were other Gargoyles nearby, some in frozen repose, others flitting about, yet others lying spread-eagled, basking in the sun.

And then she realised that some of the figures they had taken for sun-bathers were, in fact, withered, almost mummified corpses. These figures were smaller than the Gargoyles with which she had become familiar, their bodies stocky and short-limbed. There was something about them that recalled the grossly bloated figures occupying the cells.

She rolled onto her side and slowly rose to a squatting position.

None of the Gargoyles appeared to be paying her any attention. She jogged across the clearing to where a trail climbed the edge of the embankment and soon she was back in the jungle fringe, working her way across to where the others would be waiting.

“Don’t you see?” she said to Tanya, Rachel and Sue, when they had retreated into the jungle and she had described what had happened. “This is the Gargoyles in their natural state. This is how they would have been if we hadn’t somehow interrupted their natural cycle.”

“But what are they – these creatures in the caves?”

“Their society has two castes,” Corrie said. “They lay out the foodstores in the jungle for this elite caste and then, when the stores are exhausted, they round the elite up and take them back to the caverns to look after them. We stumbled upon that foodstore and the Gargoyles somehow took us for members of their elite caste and took us back to their settlement.”

“What about the corpses?”

“I don’t know. Maybe they weed out the ones with diseases or some kind of flaw. They took our menstrual bleeding as a sign of disease and cast us out, just as they cast out any of their own with comparable signs of weakness.”


They headed north again, sticking to their reasoning that survival would be more feasible in the temperate zone. Corrie waited until that night before telling the others that she was carrying a few scraps of dopefruit.

Gathered in the root-hollow at the base of a large, broken-limbed tree, they shared out the pieces of fruit she had managed to scavenge. The first bite sent digestive juices scorching painfully up her gullet in anticipation. The second sent a sense of mellow well-being seeping through her body.

Soon the food was gone and for the first time in days Corrie felt sated. Tanya and Sue were curled up in each other’s arms, asleep already. Corrie turned to Rachel, brushed her lips across her friend’s cheek and slumped against her, asleep before either of them hit the ground.

Nine days later, they found the third set of standing stones.

There were fewer this time, nineteen of them, and they were smaller. Corrie wondered if the Denebian tribes had some kind of class structure, with the tribes ranked according to the size and number of their standing stones. Perhaps, but xenthropology wasn’t her field. That made her think of Imran, and for the first time in days she wondered what was happening to the men they had left behind.

The pits here were empty, as they had anticipated. In unspoken consensus, the four women followed the trail that led roughly northwards away from the standing stones. Corrie consulted her map and saw that a small river crossed their path about seven kays due north. If this followed the pattern of the first two finds, that would mark the location of a Gargoyle settlement.

They camped out in the jungle about a kilometre short of the river.

Corrie took first watch, as the other three slept. In the dark confines of the jungle, ‘watch’ was really an inappropriate term: she listened instead. By now she was familiar with the night-time sounds of the jungle, the occasional rustles and calls of nocturnal creatures, the usually distant whoops and hollers of the agile lizard-like creatures that inhabited the high canopy of the forest.

She drank from the flask, filled from a nearby dew-pond formed in the hollowed-out horizontal limb of a tree. It was cooler at night now, and the air moister, which meant that thirst, at least, was not the problem it had been further south.

And then she heard the scream.

It sounded like a baby... a baby in intense pain. The kind of agonised wail that cuts right through to any human with the merest scrap of empathy.

She shook herself. The sound had only lasted for an instant, and now she wondered if she had somehow imagined it, some kind of aural hallucination. Something in the water, perhaps.

She was just beginning to relax when she heard it again, lasting a full two seconds.

“What is it?” Tanya was at her side.

“I don’t know,” said Corrie. “But it’s coming from where I think the settlement will be. And it’s bad – I know that much, for sure.”

They approached the settlement in the grey twilight hours before dawn. The screams had lasted well into the previous night and, even when they had subsided, none of the women could settle again.

They knew they were nearing the settlement when they heard the steady sobbing drifting towards them from up ahead.

The women exchanged glances as they edged cautiously through the undergrowth towards the growing lightness of the forest fringe.

They came to the river first, a muddy, slow-moving ribbon of slime about ten metres wide. Across the water was a wide, gravelly shelf, a riverine beach enfolded by a great, lazy loop of river. And beyond this area, the land rose in a low cliff-face dotted with the openings of caves, much as Corrie had expected to see.

But she had not anticipated the tableau laid out on the gravel clearing. Strewn like beached jellyfish across the stones were the hulking, bloated bodies of the Denebians Corrie had previously thought of as an ‘elite caste’. But what culture would treat its elite in such a manner?

The beasts had been hauled from their caverns, and that alone must have been responsible for some of the damage Corrie saw before her.

The bodies had been skinned alive. The great hulks lay quivering, sobbing and groaning in the heat of the rising sun. Vivid red trails led from each massed body back to the cave-mouths, scraps of what must have been skin flapping in the breeze, stripped from the bodies as they were dragged out into the open.

Had all of these creatures been cast out for some reason, had they all been rejected as, first Corrie, and then the other three women had been? Did some remain in the caverns?

But no. As Corrie stared, unbelieving, she recognised the flitting movements of the Gargoyles, up by the caves. Clearly, they had not yet finished with their tortured captives.

They moved so fast!

An instant after she had seen them emerging from the caves, some of the Gargoyles were down by their mounded charges in the open. Even as she watched, one of them skipped up onto a flayed torso and was down on the ground again, holding another scrap of skin aloft. A piercing, baby-cry tore through the morning air a split-second later.

Corrie turned away.

“What are they doing?” she gasped.

Tanya shook her head, still watching. “Some kind of ritualised torture and massacre. Maybe we were wrong all along: it’s not a caste system, but some kind of intensive farming. Maybe they’ve been fattening these creatures up for harvest.”

Corrie remembered the pathetic corpses she had seen at the previous colony. “No,” she said. Although they had physical differences, there was a definite continuity of features between the Gargoyles, the rejected creatures cast out from the caves to die, and the bloated forms being tortured here today. “They’re the same species.”

“Cannibalism, then,” Sue said. “They eat some of their own in order to survive the coming winter season.”

Corrie steeled herself for another look.

Out across the river, the settlement had come alive with the early morning sun. The beach was swarming with Gargoyles.

“Something’s going on,” she said. The Gargoyles were strapping great belts of twisted liana around the mounds of blubber. Soon, every one of them was harnessed and teams of Gargoyles lined up to haul on the straps.

Instantly, a chorus of wails broke through the air,

The things started to move, slithering across the gravel, lubricated by their own seeping body juices.

“How long before they invent the wheel?” Tanya muttered darkly, at Corrie’s shoulder.

They followed them. There was something gruesomely compelling about the spectacle.

They had to find out what was happening, Corrie told herself. They had to understand this world if they were to survive.

The first of the haulage teams reached the river. They waded through, and soon their harnessed charge followed, half-floating in the thick water.

They emerged on the near side, and set out at a grindingly slow pace along the trail Corrie and her companions had followed the previous day.

The journey took most of the day. Deneb hung low and red in the evening sky by the time the first team of Gargoyles entered the clearing of standing stones.

They stopped by one of the stones, and suddenly it was a free-for-all, with Gargoyles swarming over their stupefied charges.

“It’s not cannibalism,” said Corrie, slowly, as the women looked on in horror. “They’re fucking the things.”

“You mean...”

“This is how they treat their females,” Corrie said, and it all started to fall into place. “The males are migratory, the things we’ve been calling Gargoyles. Every winter they head south, and every spring they return to the northern breeding grounds.”

“And the females,” Rachel said, “spend the winter underground. The males dig them up, fatten them up–”

“They must give birth some time,” Tanya said. “We saw children at the last colony.”

“Then they bring them back to the burial grounds, impregnate them and bury them again for the winter. The females pupate underground and then, when it’s time to go through the breeding cycle, they emerge again.”

“And that’s why they took us in!” said Tanya. “When they came back to their burial ground, instead of the reincarnated females they had expected, they found strange-looking humans around the empty pits – just as if we’d hatched out! We looked weird, but we were about the right size and we had the right number of limbs...”

Corrie looked at her companions. “And if they’ve reached this stage here, then this is what’s going to happen further south, too,” she said. “Up here we’re further through the cycle, but soon...” She stopped, staring at the others.

“We have to go back and get the men out,” Rachel said.

Tanya shook her head. “They made their choice,” she said. “They chose to stay there, even if it meant turning us away for fear that we’d threaten their pampered existence. It was them who cast us out, every bit as much as the Gargoyles had. And now they have to pay the consequences.”

“But we can’t just leave them to... to that,” Corrie said.

“We’ve seen that you were right about conditions further north,” said Tanya. “Already there’s more water available, the oils in the fruits are less intense. The storms are milder, too. If we stay up here we have every chance of surviving until the Darwinian returns. I say we go on.”

A vote. After all this time of unspoken consensus between the four women, Tanya was calling a vote.

“We have to go back,” said Corrie.

Rachel nodded quickly.

They turned to Sue who, in turn, looked at Tanya.

Tanya slumped. “Okay,” she conceded. “I bow to the consensus. We go back, and if we get there in time we rescue the sons of bitches.”

They pushed themselves hard, knowing that every hour gained might be the hour before the Gargoyles went into rut and dragged their breeding stock out to the standing stones.

They reached the second Gargoyle colony in step with the advancing season: as they approached, they heard the anguished wails of bloated females being hauled from their growing chambers for their final journeys.

The women didn’t pause. They kept going, trying to put the awful sound as far behind them as possible.

“We have to speed up,” said Corrie, over and over, mostly to herself.

She tried and tried, but couldn’t work out how they might rescue the men, who would almost certainly be too drugged and bloated to move.

She was realistic enough to know that they could never hope to rescue all nine. But even if they only managed to rescue one or two, that would be something. The expedition had been a complete disaster, but five or six survivors was better than four.

How would they decide who to rescue, she pondered over and again? It would almost certainly be dictated by chance, she knew. Even if chance dictated it to be Rube, though?

They would have made it, if it hadn’t been for the storm.

Almost delirious with fatigue, hunger and thirst, the four women marched south into the territory of the first Gargoyle colony.

Corrie didn’t recognise it, but her comms decal told her that they were close. Over and over, she tried to comm the men, but there was no response. Either they were too late already, or the men were simply too blitzed to respond.

And now another dry storm was kicking up, and her decal was snowstorming with static, making any communication impossible.

The sky was alive with sheets of blue lightning, the air fizzing with electricity. There was a sudden blast, and Corrie staggered, somehow stayed on her feet.

She smelt smoke.

The lightning had struck a nearby tree and now its oily sap was sizzling, small flames lapping around its trunk, fingering their way into its oily crevices, finding sustenance, spreading, leaping higher.

“Come on,” Corrie gasped, her dry throat aching. Rachel and Sue looked ready to collapse. Their faces were hollowed with hunger, their eyes shadowed and sunken. Corrie and Tanya exchanged glances, then each took hold of one of their companions and half-supported, half-dragged them away from the spreading fire.

They managed, but a short distance ahead another wall of flames cut across the trail.

Fire ahead, fire behind. They were trapped.

Tanya was smacking the back of her wrist, as if that would free her comms decal of interference from the storm.

Suddenly, Corrie recognised their surroundings. She put a hand on Tanya’s arm, and gestured through the trees to her left.

“A river,” she mouthed. She remembered Rube’s invitation: Come on, Corrie. What have you got to hide? She remembered him stripping off, the obscene growths of plaques cut off in a neat line where the waistband of his pants had been. The lily-white flesh below, the bulbous lumps of his genitalia waving about, half-engorged, below, as he advanced on her. Come on, babe. We’re just two humans together. Meaty hands reaching out towards her as Corrie found herself rooted to the spot. Fingers hooked inside the fastening at the front of her shirt, pulling downwards, scaly skin brushing her flesh. What have you got to lose, babe? And then it was over. She’d backed away, cried something at him, and he’d laughed and backed into the river.

Fucking dyke, he’d called her, then, and side-stroked out into the open water.

Now, Tanya and Corrie dragged their two companions through the trees to the river and plunged in. The water revived Rachel and Sue, and the four women waded farther out. Corrie leaned forward into the water’s oily embrace, gave herself to it, breaststroked out into the middle and turned to watch the forest burn.

They found the abandoned settlement in the early hours of the next day. The Gargoyle males must have either perished in the inferno, or set off, already, on their southward migration.

What, then, of their honorary ‘females’?

The others were too exhausted to go on, but Corrie had to see. She forced herself along the trail. One foot, then the other, then the first again. Every step a victory over weariness and starvation.

Suddenly there were standing stones all around her. She must have been on autopilot, just one step, then another.

She looked around.

No sign of the Gargoyles. No sign that anything had happened here. She made her way to the nearest stone.

The pit wasn’t there.

Or rather ... it had been filled, covered over.

She turned through 360 degrees, bewildered, trying to get her bearings. Took one staggering step, and suddenly the ground gave way beneath her foot and she was plunging downwards.

But her landing was soft, yielding.

She was lying perhaps two metres below ground level, the dim sunlight picking out the chamber’s walls, glistening viscously.

She tried to move, but she was enfolded in the same soft, yielding substance that comprised the walls of the pit. She sank back into its sticky embrace, laughing feebly.

Something caught her eye, then, glinting in the morning light. She reached out, hooked a finger round a sliver of metal, a chain. A necklace, with a horn of plenty pendant suspended from it. Rube’s chain...

She sank back in the gloop.

She didn’t know what they did to their females to liquefy them like this; it must be part of the preservation process, she supposed. Rube would have had an explanation.

Her stomach was grumbling, digestive juices burning deep in her belly. At least, she thought, Rube still had a useful part to play in the expedition, after all.

She raised her comm to her lips. “Rachel...” she began.

Weakly, Tanya replied, “Corrie, where are you?”

Corrie smiled to herself, said, “Tanya, I think we’re going to be okay.”

And then she opened her mouth and let the first of the sweet, bloody meat seep in...

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