Fire With Fire – Snippet 21

The fifth time, Mr. Local did not even bother with a detour. He stopped, turned, pointed off into the bush, huddled down and drew a circle with his finger — which was actually one of four radially-arranged, prehensile digits. He pointed into the bush again. Caine just nodded and followed when Mr. Local resumed their northward course.

The next time, Mr. Local just pointed off to one side of the trail and kept moving. After half a dozen such indications, Caine stopped counting.

Night was falling when Mr. Local veered onto a small path to the left. It plunged into a narrow defile between the shoulders of two foothills which crowded against the trail from the west. Caine checked his watch: in thirty minutes, he was due to contact Site One so that they could relay his daily check-in call to CINCPAV COMCEN — but flanked by these steep granite escarpments, there was no way he was going to get that signal through. And then he realized that, tonight, he would not be checking in with Site One at all. He would be using Brill’s portable transmitter to send a three-digit recall code directly to Admiral Silverstein. Establishing contact with Mr. Local meant that Caine’s mission was over. It also meant that he had to be extracted posthaste, because now he was in a race to reach Earth before CoDevCo — and possibly others — could stop him from delivering the news of what he had found on Dee Pee Three.

Mr. Local seemed to pick up the pace a bit when the defile opened out into another valley: much smaller, but — for all practical intents and purposes — inaccessible, except through the narrow passage they had just come. A refuge? Mr. Local’s hidden home?

But Caine saw he was not to learn the answer to that, for Mr. Local selected yet another new trail. This one was a narrow switchback that ascended the rear of the hills, which sheltered this glen from the main valley. It was an easy climb and was mostly carpeted by the spongy weeds and low fronds that were Dee Pee Three’s equivalent of meadow grass.

It was dark when they reached the summit of the hill and stood looking out across the valley and up toward the stars. Caine hazarded a closer approach to Mr. Local, who made no move away when the human came to stand beside him. Caine wondered if he would be so brave in the Pavonian’s place — and doubted it.

For a long moment they looked at the stars together in silence. Then the Pavonian crouched down and patted the ground. Then he patted his own chest. He repeated the combination: he patted the ground and patted his chest.

Yes. Your place. Your planet. I wish I could tell you how sorry —

But then Mr. Local stood again, and pointed at Caine, the tendril-finger unfolding with slow, deliberate precision at the center of his chest. Then Mr. Local turned and pointed up, back across the valley.

At the stars.

Caine felt his scalp jump back reflexively. My God, he knows. He knows we’re from space. Good Christ —  “Yes. Yes, yes. That’s right. We’re from there, from the stars –“

The Pavonian made a rumbling noise in his chest—which was where his mouth seemed to be — and moved back a step. He pointed at Caine again.

Who nodded. Okay. Me.

Then Mr. Local slowly, cautiously, moved behind Caine, before extending his arm, then his hand, and then one tendril at the stars — again.

Caine followed along the sightline of the alien arm, hand, finger — and noted, with surprise, that he was looking at something very familiar. Although appearing flattened, the Big Dipper was clearly visible about one-third of the way above the center of the western horizon. The cup of the dipper was a square box here, the handle now a straight bar with one kink in it.

The surrounding stellar patterns similarly reprised those found in Earth’s own night sky. The Big Dipper was still discernibly part of the larger constellation of Ursa Majoris, which had retained much of its shape. However, here the Great Bear was somewhat thinner, leaner — more like a wolverine. Except, this one had grown bull’s horns — and had a very bright yellow eye.

Caine stood silently for several long seconds, waiting. Okay: so I’m looking. He turned; Mr. Local was very close, and Caine finally saw his eyes — a triangle of lusterless mauve circles on each angled “side” of his face.

Mr. Local withdrew his arm and waited a moment. Then with great, deliberate slowness — as if educating a child of unpromising perspicacity — he pointed at Caine. His finger recurled into his palm. He moved so that he was directly behind Caine and his arm stretched out above Caine’s shoulder. Once again the finger uncoiled — but this time, so sharply that it snapped out like a whip and quivered.

Okay — I get it. Right — there: and Caine noted that the finger was pointing at Ursa Majoris’ new eye — or to the horn just above it: he couldn’t quite tell.

Caine frowned: what was so important about this bright new star in Ursa Majoris? A new star — which meant it had to be a star that was between Delta Pavonis and Sol itself, a star that would therefore not appear in the constellation as seen from Earth. Indeed, back home, that new star would have to be on the opposite side of the sky from the Ursa Majoris constellation. And come to think of it, someone had mentioned Ursa Majoris when he arrived, someone at Downport —

Brinkley. Brinkley had mentioned that, from Delta Pavonis, you could locate Alpha Centauri by finding it crowded into the head of Ursa Major. So the big yellow eye, just to the right of Epsilon Ursa Major, that was Alpha Centauri. But the more Caine looked, the more he realized that no, Mr. Local’s finger was stabbing urgently — almost trembling — at the tip of the wolverine’s most prominent horn. Located just a finger’s width above the new eye, the horn was capped by a smaller, dimmer yellow star that was also a newcomer to the constellation. That put the new star on an almost straight line that started at Delta Pavonis, went through Alpha Centauri, and then on toward —

Caine felt his skin freeze and the hair on the back of his neck rise up. Trembling, he turned slowly to look at Mr. Local, who leaned back a little and emitted a long, low purr. He pointed outward yet again, clearly indicating the tip of Ursa Majoris’ horn.

Caine turned back, his legs shaking, saw nothing but the little yellow star, heard nothing but Brinkley’s inane introductory chatter: “…as seen from this system, all the major green worlds are pretty much on a straight line: here, Alpha Centauri, Earth –“

Earth. He’s pointing at Earth. He knows I’m from —

Caine spun around: Mr. Local was gone. As if he had never been there. Caine swallowed, heard the great mechanical gulping noise it made in his throat, and turned back. Earth. Of course: Earth.

And then, all the pieces started to fall into place —