Science fiction?  I admit I don’t pass this way often these days, so just for a change…a big one, this, but splitting it doesn’t seem to be an option, so I cordially invite you to make a night of it – bring a friend, if you want?

“We’re in for a storm.”  Jaca says, absently rubbing the fur behind Quietus’s ear with her long fingers.

From the observation platform we have a perfect view, an uninterrupted vista of the Great Plains.  Beyond the ascending wisps of haze from Smokedog fires I too have seen the dark sky, clouds building before the Periclean sun.

I draw Jaca to me, engaging her in a kiss.  We are alone on the platform and I want more, but she desists gently, hands on my chest.

“Not now, Malcor.”  She murmurs, forehead against my own.  “We have things to do, yes?”

I agree reluctantly.  We have things to do.  Before evening there are insect nets to bring inside, outdoor experiments to cover.  Jaca turns from me, stares towards the sunset; pensive, reflective, remote.

“Ixce arrives tonight.”  Her voice is almost a whisper.

“So he does.”  I will not look at her.

Yes, Jaca my love, we are in for a storm.

I call Quietus to me:  he obeys, of course, tail wagging, brown eyes bright.  Together we leave Jaca to her thoughts, descending the circular stairway which leads into the Spartan crew quarters of Periclea Settlement J8.

Periclea is our sun star, a tiny part of the constellation of Orion, a mote in the eye of The Hunter only visible to those who seek her:  the unromantically-listed J8 is her only habitable planet, with just one research station:  this one.

It was not always so.  When you speak to the Silusians of J8 they will submerge their small sharp features into their big fleshy necks and pretend they have not heard.  Only the Mariaca will talk of the place; the legends, the tales.  In their Gordian tones they will tell of times when the sunlight floods the plains in a blood-red hue; when a million ghosts of a doomed Palataian race rise to walk their forgotten world, and all who dare to stand upon its sacred soil tremble in fear of that sight.

I?  I do not listen to such tales.  Nonetheless, when I was asked to come here I hesitated:  for a young geologist J8 was hardly a career move.  It was only when they told me that the senior archaeologist was Jaca Icindae that I agreed.

During my university days Jaca moved at the margin of my world.  In the year above mine, this graceful, elusive girl with her soft curves and softer voice had seemed beyond the reach of my dreams.  I loved her from afar with that desperate, unrequited longing that is the tragedy of youth;  knowing she was not for me, seeing her walk hand-in-hand with another, the man with the greatest intellect that had ever graced our college.

So J8’s forgotten space in the universe became somewhere to be.  A small settlement, a research station really, no more.  And I would like to say the geology is interesting, but the only interest here, for me, is warmer and more alluring than any rocks: Jaca.  When one loves someone enough it is perhaps only gratitude, or loneliness, that will make them love you in return, yet for those of us without pride that will be enough – until Ixce comes.

Ixce: that great mind:  Ixce – Jaca’s first love.

Our crew are in the communal area, lounging around as usual at this time of day.  The games plates are all live, their hologram superheroes thrashing through rituals of conquest and slaughter.

“Now you are mine, Jacoranda!”

“Die, Mastachian dog!”

“Seek the sacred keys of Morcal!”

I pass through, warning of the storm, reminding them they too have duties to attend.

The passage to the airlock is lined with our ‘outdoor suits’ – light self-contained clothing we wear whenever we pass beyond those bland steel doors to the outside.  I slip one over my uniform, grip the air-lug between my teeth.  The doors open with a sibilant wheeze.  Quietus follows: he needs no suit.

Nor do I, if truth be told.  I stand with Quietus in the vestibule, waiting patiently while the system stabilises so I may walk outside, knowing that the atmosphere beyond the doors is not toxic, or even mildly debilitating.  For our species it is breathable; just not in quite the ideal balance.  So we follow this ritual each time we go out without any real need.  This mystifies Quietus, and maybe slightly amuses him:  he sits watching me, head to one side, then trots after me as the doors close.

I work quickly, packing, folding, and retrieving the little pods of data as I shut down the machines.  All the while I watch the western horizon, half-expecting a lander with Ixce aboard to soar into view, even though I know it is not due for hours yet.  And as I watch the sunset turns the land as red as blood, and the Smokedog fires glow like tiny lanterns from their lairs on the Plain.

Smokedogs:  wild wolves of the Plains, the Mariaca say; enigmatic beasts hunting the Kessa deer in packs with an intelligence and guile that has never ceased to fascinate me.  We have known them so long, yet we know so little about them.  Those fires, for instance: we know the dogs create them but we have never seen one created.  We do not know how, or why; although one of our more humorous colleagues once suggested that perhaps they liked their meat cooked?

Approach the fires and they extinguish:  by the time one draws close, the dogs are gone – ash, hot ash is all that remains.

Quietus nuzzles my hand, reminding me that he never makes fires.  Ah, I didn’t mention, did I?  Quietus is a Smokedog.

My predecessor, whose name was Dev, discovered that certain of the Smokedogs were attracted to our settlement.  They would gather outside in the night just sitting patiently, staring up at him on the observation deck.

“Not all of them, you understand?  Those out on the Plains, they’re wild, untameable creatures – vicious, probably.  But these, the ones with the darker eyes, they seem to like us.”

Dev adopted one, brought it inside, treated it as a pet.

“Curious thing.”  He told me:  “As soon as I allowed Quietus in, the others went away, as if he were a sort of emissary, or something.”

When Dev left at the end of his tour of duty, Quietus stayed behind.  Oh, he pined for a while, but I befriended him and he soon came around.  He gazes up at me now, those adorable, honest eyes set in the perfect symmetry of his little face, the image of unquestioning love.

“You are distressed.”

He could catch you like that.  He did me, the first time.  I had my back to him when he did it.

“Do I serve you?  Are you content with me?”  He doesn’t actually speak, of course – cannot, with those canine teeth and that elongated jaw; yet he can find a place in your head, and if you answer him with words, he seems to understand.  Sometimes I think he reads my mind, too.

“Me, distressed?”  I make a show of denial, but he can see right past that.

“Ixce.  Who is Ixce?”

“Oh, only the greatest biologist of our generation, that’s all.”

“A superior brain.”

“A superior brain.”  I acknowledge, thinking that Quietus is unusually interested in Ixce.  But he will recognise that Ixce is the cause of my disquiet, of course.

“And your woman will mate with him?”

I shrug.  This is a little too direct for my present depressed state.

“It is natural.”  Is all Quietus ‘says’.

I pat his head, gaining some comfort from the warmth of that thick, dense flesh.  If you tried to pick him up, Quietus would not object, but you would be in for a surprise.  A third my size or rather less, he is nevertheless heavier than me by several kilos.

“Yes. Natural.  Quietus – don’t you ever get homesick for your family?  You’re a pack animal, aren’t you?  This isn’t a natural way for you to live.”

“My pack is always with me.”  Quietus tells me in my mind.  “Do you want me to go back?  Are you content with me?  Do I serve you?”

“Yes of course; of course you serve me.”  Sometimes, when I feel already a little sad, just that gentle voice within me will make tears come.  “No, don’t leave me, Quietus.  I’d miss you like hell.”

I finish packing up the equipment, crying like a baby.

Back inside the settlement I leave Quietus to consume some choice comestibles from the galley while I go to our private quarters to change into more formal clothing.  Jaca is already there, already undressed.  She drifts about the cabin before me as insubstantial as a spirit, a naked wraith, knowing how I watch her and indulging me with a breathtaking vision of beauty.

“I’ll shower first.”  Jaca decides.

“We could shower together.”

She gives me an arch look.

“It might be the last time.”  I say, wishing instantly that I hadn’t said it.

Jaca does not reply, but gives me a quick smile, then closes the wet-room door upon me.  “Lock.”  She instructs.  The door does as it is told.

I remember how you looked in those first summers, when the bright Itake flowers were fresh on the bud and the sands of the Great Plains shone like burnished amber.  Five years now – five years knowing he is forever in your heart – five years of solitary grief for a love that is always on the edge of extinction.

Outside the storm is gathering:  thunder crackles, rain beats upon the skin of our little home.  Ixce descends from its epicentre like an avenging angel, his lander’s engines roaring out a trumpet call.

We all stand in the corridor to the airlock in orderly submission, awaiting the great man.  Jaca stands at my side, her skin glowing, the subtlety of her scent placing her intentions beyond doubt.

The hatch opens and  Ixce is among us.

“Jaca!  My darling, how gorgeous you look!”  And to me, curtly: “Malcor.  Nice to see you again.”

Oh, Jaca!  How easy you make it for him, this Gabriel of the fearsome look and the golden hair!  How you quake before him – how your eyes are alive now, the way they were when I first coveted you, the way they have never lived for me!

I turn away, the decisions of my life all made on my behalf.  I see at once a battle I cannot win, a mountain I can never climb.

Jaca returns to our quarters late this night.  I have been awake for hours when she steals in and undresses on tiptoe, sliding furtively beneath our coverlet.  I do not ask her where she has been.  I know.

And so it is, for the next few interminable days, while I rub along with Ixce as best I can, liaising with him as I am meant to do.  In so small a community our respective sciences converge and overlap in many ways.  He is interested in the Smokedogs just, I am afraid, as much as Quietus is interested in him.  For it is not only my girlfriend and love who has deserted me:  Quietus has too, fawning over Ixce quite disgracefully every chance he gets.  Now, while we discuss his kindred together he sits by his adored’s feet, head resting on Ixce’s knee as he dotes upon the great man.

“No-one knows what the fires are for.”  I tell Ixce.  “We’ve tried to find out, but it’s almost impossible to get near them.  Even Quietus won’t discuss it.”

“How do they breed, do we know?”

“Not really my field, although I must admit I’m curious.  Again, it seems to be a closed book.  Strange, though.  No-one’s ever seen a puppy.”

“Really?”  Ixce is intrigued.  “Well now, we must discover these things, mustn’t we, Quietus old chap?”  Quietus looks into his eyes with total devotion.  I am sure he is giving his reply – but not to me.

Over breakfast on the morning following our discussion Ixce proposes an expedition.

“Quietus is an impressive little mutt.  I rather fancy finding out a bit more about his country cousins.  Care to join us?”

This invitation comes as something of a surprise, especially since the ‘us’ includes Jaca.  But as soon as we set out I discover Ixce’s reasons for having me along:  I carry things.  Our two buggies are loaded to the gills:  Ixce’s with Jaca and Quietus, mine with everything else.  It turns out that Ixce’s lander is full of experimental surprises, nearly all of which weigh more than Quietus.

We bump over the untracked Plain, Ixce and Jaca side by side in the lead, Quietus next to Ixce on his other side.  Jaca frequently needs Ixce’s supporting arm to steady her as their buggy lurches:  he is quick to assist, but she does not appear to complain when his hand steadies her thigh more than it needs, or accidentally touches her breast.

My supporting arm is employed in a manner similar to Ixce’s, but the stray leg of a tripod has not the same frisson of allure.  The thing – I never do find out what it is and Ixce certainly never uses it – actually falls off the buggy once, so that I have to stop to retrieve it.

“Careful with that!”  Ixce reminds me.  He murmurs something and Jaca giggles foolishly.

We journey for rather more than an hour, down into the basin where the greatest intensity of Smokedog fires occur.  As if by some prearranged signal, Quietus suddenly jumps from his seat on Ixce’s buggy, at which Ixce stops.  I nearly run into the back of him.

Now we set off on foot behind Quietus’s eager rear, Ixce and Jaca in earnest conversation, I in my role as porter.  Upon a rise thick with tall grasses Quietus stops and lays down, his dark stare focused on the depression beyond.  As soon as I see the look upon Ixce’s face I know that my pet has been communicating with him – probably all the way from the settlement.

“Are you content with me?  Do I serve you?”

You treacherous little rat!

Easing my burden from about me while making as little noise as possible, I join my prostrate colleagues at the rim of the basin, cautiously parting the grasses enough to see down into the undergrowth below.

“A Smokedog den.”  Ixce whispers to me, indicating a spot where the greenery appears to have been flattened, trodden into a natural circular amphitheatre.

“Rather light on Smokedogs.”  I point out.

“Quietus thinks they’ll be here soon.”  Does he now?  “Get my cameras, there’s a good chap.” For an hour we wait, while the sun climbs higher in the sky and cloud-galleons sail across the ocean of heaven.

Ixce asks, to pass the time:  “There was a dominant species here, wasn’t there?  Some form of anthropoid?”

“There are remains, for sure.”  Jaca replies.  “Ruined cities, stone monoliths, graves and grave goods.  We have quite a lot of archaeology back at base.  They reached a state of advancement rather similar to the Incas on Earth, then they died out.”

“We have no idea why,”  I add.  “Why they disappeared, I mean.  A sudden episode of some kind, like a meteor strike perhaps – no idea.”

“How long ago was this?”

“Oh, recent; quite recent.”  Jaca shifts herself uncomfortably.  “No more than a thousand years ago.”

I lie there, half-listening as Ixce and Jaca’s conversation dribbles on, but more intent upon the grasses rippling hazily in the midday heat.  So beclouding is the haze I nearly miss a sudden, purposeful movement in some scrub to our left.

“There!”

Within seconds our depression in the landscape is brimming with Smokedogs;  rangy brutes more than half as big again as my unfaithful servant Quietus – who now lies next to Ixce in the grass, his head between his paws; for all the world as though he were asleep.

No domestic pets these:  their eyes are the yellow of the timber wolf, their fangs long and curved. They move and weave among one another, collisions resolving themselves with a quick snarl and a flash of saliva-slick teeth as they enforce their seniority in the pack.  At the centre of the meeting-place the elder, larger Smokedogs gather, while those less prominent in the hierarchy retreat to form an outer circle.

As the lesser dogs settle themselves, those nearer the centre of the basin form groups of three or four or five.  From time to time, a dog will break from one group to join another.   All stand head to head as if engaged in conversation.    Fascinated, we watch this process, our personal difficulties put aside:  we are the first humans to get close to a Smokedog parliament.

“They are interacting in social groups!”  Jaca whispers. “Malcor, does this remind you of anything?”

Then, as if upon some spoken command, all the Smokedogs lie down, old and young in two concentric circles, facing an arena which is now completely clear.

Silence.  No movement – not even a breath.

We wait.

From somewhere in the long grass to the east there rises a deep, resonant baying sound – a Smokedog giving tongue.   Every dog in the pack raises its head, stretches its vocal cords to give one united answer; rising and falling – a sound to chill the warmest heart, a threat of something more direful than doom itself.

I hear Jaca gasp.  Out into the clearing comes a lone dog, emerging from the grass with slow, uncertain tread – but such a dog!  Whether from great age or from disability (I cannot know) it is gnarled and twisted into a grotesque parody of its species:  lips drawn, tongue lolling, eyes closed.  Its pelt hangs from it in matted festoons of fur, its legs drag it along as if they might any moment give way beneath it.  But all these trials are as nothing by comparison with the immensity of its belly, which gives the animal the appearance of an obscenely bloated bladder with legs, so stretched and hardened that it looks as if it must burst at any second.

Reaching the centre of the arena this repugnant creature staggers and falls.  Around it, the mature dogs begin a gentle whimpering, while those younger bloods of the outer circle give vent to their excitement in yaps and yelps.

I know something of import is about to happen – I cannot possibly predict what.  Glancing at my companions I see similar expectation written upon their faces.   Jaca is first to understand.

“Oh my god it’s catching fire!”

A flicker of red flame has appeared, around the elbow joint of the dog’s front leg.  Tiny at first, it dips and dances in the wind – innocent, almost as though it has strayed there, quite by chance; a burning leaf perhaps, or some wraith conjured by spirits.  But within the wreckage of the creature a much fiercer heat is gathering – its flesh begins to ripple and crack.   Daggers of fresh flame escape, piercing skin, splitting joints apart with cushions of white heat; and yet it moves!

Ixce points to the paws, still probing feebly at the soil.  “It’s dead!  It must be dead!”  But it is not.

With a last despairing howl from its blackened mouth it rolls, exposing a stomach burned open by a forest of flame – and now its whole carcass is ablaze – a raging inferno of such heat that even with our gift of distance I feel compelled to shield my face.

“Spontaneous combustion!”  Ixce whispers, awe in his voice.  “Oh, look at this!”

The burning dog is now no dog at all.  It is a furnace, but a furnace with purpose.  For squirming and shaking itself in the midst of the flames a vague shape, a Smokedog shape, is forming.  No sooner has this creature found its feet than it leaps from the fire: naked of fur but unmistakeably one of Quietus’s brethren – nearly-grown and refulgent with flame!

The fiery creature stands before the inferno which spawned it – head low, white-hot eyes intent upon its mother’s remains.  At once all the dogs around the arena give tongue – a sound I have so often heard but never, until now, understood – then the outer circle of the pack parts to make room for its new member and it bounds through the space that is made, right to the very eastern rim of the basin, before turning to give a long howl in answer, a majestic, luminous miracle baying fire to the sky.  We look on, deprived of speech, as the newly born’s flesh seems to finally extinguish itself, gradually cooling.  Only when the hot fury of its cremated parent has diminished to more moderate proportions does it join the outer ring.  Two dogs move aside to provide space and it lies there, scorched, a haze of smoke hanging over it.

The pack stays for a while, its senior dogs conversing approvingly, we must assume, in their little groups, before drifting away, two by two, back into the long grass.  And their new comrade follows, leaving a smouldering carcass to burn on into the dusk.

That evening we gather on the Observation Deck, Jaca, Ixce, Quietus and I, ready with our assembled thoughts to explain what we have seen.

“Simple.”  Ixce says.  “We see dogs, we think puppies.  But Smokedogs don’t have fluffy little babies, they reproduce by fire.  It isn’t such an untenable concept:  the ancients believed that a certain breed of lizard – the Salamander – was born in a similar way.  We witnessed a pregnant female giving birth – now we have to develop upon the science surrounding it.”

“Awesome!”  Jaca breathes.  “One thing troubles me, though.  Did we, or did we not witness the behaviour of a dominant species today?  I mean, why have they never interfered with us?”

“They don’t see us as a threat?”  I suggest.  “One small settlement – a research station, really, nothing more.  Perhaps if we tried to expand it would be different.”

“I’m new here.”  Ixce interjects; “You’re the geologist, Malcor:  have we any reason to expand?”

“Possibly.  I’m finding evidence of ore, although no sign of deposits yet.”

“If we do,”  Jaca says,  “I think we should be very careful.  I can’t exactly explain why, but I believe those creatures were responsible for wiping out the Palataians.”

“And learnt from them,” I agree.  “That was just like a Palataian religious gathering today.    Their meeting-place was organised like a temple.”

“Wow!  Wild stuff!”  Ixce thumps the air with his fists.  “Come for a drink,  Malcor;  I want a word, if I may?  You stay here, Jaca my darling:” He gives my darling a meaningful look; “Keep Quietus company, will you?”

Jaca distracts Quietus, tickling his tummy in a way he finds irresistible as we leave together.  This is an unusual grouping and from Ixce an unusual request.  I confess myself puzzled.

“I needed to get us away from that damned animal.”  Ixce explains:  “Do you know, Malcor, the blessed creature has been picking my brains with mathematical and quantum theory questions all day?  It’s a dog, for god’s sake!”

“Anything you couldn’t answer?”  I ask mildly.

“That’s cheeky!  No.  But what a brain!”  He takes my arm.  “We’re on the edge of something very big, here, Malcor – very big!  I require your help.”

“How?”

“All the way back this afternoon I was worrying about a way to get hold of a specimen of these creatures, and then it struck me – we have one in our midst!  We have to dissect Quietus, old chap.  I’m going to need an extra pair of hands to subdue him.”

“Quietus?  You’re going to kill him?”

“Name of research, Malcor – we have to do these things.  I want to see how he works – understand that incredible density of his.  First thing after breakfast tomorrow, bring him to the lab.  Don’t be late!”

As it happens, I do not see Quietus again that night.

In the quarters we have shared for most of five years I find Jaca folding the last of her clothes into a travel bag.

“Malcor, my dear:  I’m so sorry.”

“You’re moving in with him?”

“We both knew….”

“Yes.”  I am plunging into some bottomless pit.  “I suppose we did.”

“We have to work together.  We mustn’t fall out over this.”

“No.  Mustn’t fall out.  Friends.”

I do not rise early the next morning:  for a while I lie in our bed, wondering whether to bother to rise at all.  When I get to breakfast I cannot really eat, but pick absently at my food – drink too much coffee; a lot too much.

I am alone.  The crew, who always start early, have finished and gone about their business.  No sign of Ixce – I try not to imagine him lying with Jaca – try not to picture them together:  but no sign, either, of Quietus.  Has he divined his fate with that perfect instinct of his and gone into hiding somewhere?

Jaca comes to the table.  We glance awkwardly at each other, I for my part half-expecting to see the flushed complexion of new love, but Jaca does not reward me:  if anything, she seems a little flustered.

It is a while before the silence is broken.  One of us has to do it.  Me.

“Where’s Ixce?  Sleeping late?”

Jaca mutters so quietly I cannot hear.

“Sorry?”

“I don’t know where he is.”  She says with a hint of bitterness.  “When I woke up this morning he had gone.  I think Quietus must be with him – he’s gone, too.”

An unwelcome presentiment prompts me to look inside the lab, but it is empty and as pristine as it was after cleaning last night.

When I return to the breakfast table, Jaca is still there, her head in her hands:

“Something happened, didn’t it?”  I ask her.

“No!  No, nothing….”

“Come on, Jaca.  I can read your moods well enough by now.  Tell me!”

“It was wrong!  I can’t explain it – he’s different somehow.  It’s as if his head is somewhere else – as if he’s almost forgotten who I am!  Then, when I woke up….  Look, I’m sure it’s nothing; nothing at all.”

“Sure.”  I can see the truth in Jaca’s eyes.  Right decisions, wrong ones.  We all make them.  “History doesn’t always repeat itself,”  I say, and she understands.

Slowly, the hours of morning pass.  We attack our work mechanically, going through our tasks with minds apart, thoughts too deep and personal to share.  Out on the plains the Smokedog fires burn.  I am outside with my seismic experiments, watching as one of the newer fires flares, and because of my greater knowledge closer to it than I have ever been.

At around midday, as I walk down the hill to check upon a malfunctioning receptor, I discover the blood.  There is a considerable quantity of it; dark and tacky, no more than twelve hours old.  The bushes around it are broken and trampled with struggle:  studying it more closely I begin to find particles of flesh and bone, shreds of cloth from an outdoor suit.  With churning stomach I extract slides from my kit, taking samples.

Jaca joins me in the lab, made fearful by my urgency.  Together we work to identify the victim, a deepening horror growing within us both.  There is no doubt.

When the final hammer falls, Jaca runs sobbing from the room.  I gather the crew together for a solemn announcement.

“Science Officer Ixce was attacked and most probably killed – either last night or this morning.”  I tell them. “We have to try and find him.  Draw arms from the secure cupboard and break out the armoured buggies.  We may have a fight on our hands.”

“Do we know what got him, Malcor?”  A security officer asks.

I shake my head.  “I only know of one predator on this part of the planet.  It has to be the Smokedogs.”

Then I ask, as an afterthought:  “Has anyone seen Quietus?”

No-one has.

It occurs to me that no-one has ever tried to shoot a Smokedog, and I wonder briefly how susceptible that thick, solid flesh will be to our primitive bullets:  we are, after all, a research station, unworthy of sophisticated weaponry.

Jaca joins me as I work over my gun, her features pale and strained.  “Ixce’s lander is fuelled up;” She reminds me:  “Wouldn’t it be useful as a scout?”

I shake my head.  “Too fast.  Not much in the way of censor equipment, either – it’s just a standard shuttlecraft.”

The crew are at the back of the settlement, starting up the three armoured buggies we use in a security alert.  I have no battle plan.  I am not a soldier.

“Let’s go and do it.”  I say.

We get no further than the communal area.

At first, the sight of Ixce’s naked form standing in the centre of the room refuses to register in my brain.  It is as if I am accepting an illusion; giving credence to a ghost.  Then, as the recognition that he is there slowly imposes itself, I can say or do nothing.  I find myself rooted to the spot.

Jaca’s strangled cry barely reaches my ears.  “Ixce!  Oh, Ixce!”

She starts forward as though she will embrace him, but somehow doesn’t:  a wall of doubt is there – science is there, saying no.  No, this cannot be.

“You – your blood.  Darling you must be hurt!  You must be!”

But you aren’t, darling, are you?

I find my tongue.  “Ixce.  You are supposed to be dead.”

Ixce cocks a quizzical eyebrow:  “Reports exaggerated?”

“No, my report.  You look extremely healthy for someone who must have lost at least eight pints of blood.”

He looks puzzled, really perplexed; as though he cannot fathom what either of us is talking about.

“Where have you been?  Where are your clothes?”  Jaca asks.

“Out.  I went out early. It’s so warm out there, and we all know each other’s bodies, don’t we?  I had to go back and have another look at those dogs, Malcor.  I told you I would, didn’t I?”

“No.  You told me something quite different.  Ixce – where’s Quietus?”

“How would I know?”

“Not certain, but I think somehow you do.”

Ixce shakes his head.  “Sorry, no bells ringing.  Now, I have to leave I’m afraid.  Everything finished here – all packed up!  If I’m prompt I’ll manage a rendezvous with the Silusia freighter:  get home quickly, eh?  Be nice to make Earth-fall again before summer’s over.”

“You’re leaving?”  Jaca cries incredulously.  “Just like that?  You said you’d stay – a tour of duty, you said.”

“Change of plans, Jaca dear.  Sorry.  Way things are, you know?”

I can only imagine the turmoil inside Jaca’s brain:  the scientist in her vying with the woman – the realist with the lover.  Yet it will take more than a psychological barrier to keep her from him now, her Gabriel, her Archangel.  She runs to him, arms wide to enfold him, heart bursting in her breast.  “Ixce darling, please?  You can’t!  You can’t!”

Before he can restrain her she has thrown herself upon him, arms around his shoulders, lips seeking his in a frightened, soulful kiss.  In that awful second he moans something, a word I cannot hear because the whole settlement is racked by Jaca’s scream.  She staggers back from him, arms akimbo, staring incredulously down at herself, her face frozen in shock.  She is burning, smoking, her flesh rising in blisters.  She stares at her hands:  “Ixce?  My god!”

Now for the first time I fix upon Ixce’s eyes – yellow eyes, slitted and angry:  I see his fingers, long and bent, the nails pointed.  I see the stoop of his flanks, full of spring and speed.  And I see the truth.

The last of our crew are coming back into the communal area, alerted by Jaca’s scream.

“Stop him!”  I tell them.  “Don’t let him get to the lander!”

Raising my own gun, I position myself between Ixce and the passage which communicates with our landing pad.  He advances.

“Worthless!”  His lip curls, his stare despises me.  “I was not for you, Malcor – I could never waste myself on you!”

I am backing off as I try to keep my gun trained upon him.  The malevolent yellow orbs of his eyes pierce my soul.

“So you waited, didn’t you?”  I am trying to keep my voice controlled, calm.  “You waited for a brain greater than any of the Palataians – the next step in your evolution – even if it had to come from another world.”

“We’ve waited years for this intellect – years!”  Ixce snarls.  “As it was with the Palataians, so it is with Ixce – consumed and reborn of fire!  Don’t try to stop me:  nothing can stop me!  You know that, don’t you, Malcor?  Don’t you!”

A hot hand, or claw as it may be, shoots out:  a vice grips my throat. I am held aloft, the flesh searing from my neck – spun around and flying, a helpless projectile aimed at the crew who do not scatter in time to avoid me.  In the melee of arms and legs I hear two shots fired before I black out.

By the time I come to the air is filled with the roar of the lander’s engines.  Quietus is right: nothing can stop him now.

Horribly burned, Jaca stands shaking with a rifle in her scorched hands.

“I fired twice,” she mumbles between swollen lips.  “I’m not sure if I hit him.”

And so it is.  I have sent a message to Starfleet, of course, but I am not believed – we none of us are.  Shortly after it was sent Jaca got her own confidential memo from them asking her to comment upon my ‘mental condition’.

I am packing now, taking a last look from the observation platform at the plains and the distant Smokedog fires.  Below me, a little semi-circle of Smokedogs sit, gazing up at me with looks which exude devotion.  I am of no use to them, of course.  Since Jaca confirmed my ‘apparent frailty’ I am bound for rehabilitation in the Betelgeuse system.  Realistically, I may be back at work within a year – maybe two.  Jaca and I speak rarely; we avoid each other most of the time – I doubt if she will even say goodbye.

And do the wires buzz with Ixce’s name?  Well no:  you see, shortly after Earth-fall he took a vacation with a very great friend of his, a political genius named Paka Sind.  When the hotel where they stayed caught fire only Paka Sind survived:  Ixce’s body has never been found.

Everyone speaks well of Paka and they say he will be Secretary-General one day.  Those who know him well remark upon his energy and the strange colour of his eyes……..

© Frederick Anderson 2019.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

16 Comments

  1. Frederick – you have a sadistic streak hidden away. You soften me up with your “All Dogs Go to Heaven” post from last week – and with this latest offering you have me wondering if I’ll ever again be able to live with a dog in my house!

    For an initial effort in the foray you did quite well and I was able to visualize everything quite clearly. As for the smoke-dogs themselves – I kept thinking of the devil dogs from the 1984 “Ghostbusters” movie.

    Once again – excellent work!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks David! I have to tell you I love dogs as much as any man. Honey (the family hound) has made it quite clear I should tell you that. I don’t recall having seen the devil dogs – I shall have to chase a copy of that film.

      Like

  2. I love the density of this and the idea of smokedogs is brilliant. The whole story reminds me of something Bradbury would do. It has the same kind of feel, a balance of everyday humanity and the extraordinary. Enthralling.

    And major points for the name Quietus. That one will stick with me for while.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Do you know I haven’t read anything of Ray Bradbury’s since forever! It’s down to my appalling overall levels of reading in recent years, and I’ve no excuse, really. Smokedogs 451, perhaps? I used to write a lot of Sci-Fi and dystopia, but that, too, has become neglected – hence this. I’m going through an ‘experimental’ phase at the moment, I think. Maybe I should become a lifestyle guru?
      Thank you so much for your comments, Mae, as always. Sometime in the future could we imagine a cat called Quietus?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I can see where you would excel at SciFi and dystopia. I used to write some of it back in the day as well,and haven’t experimented with it in ages. An experimental phase is good 🙂

        I haven’t read Bradbury in a very long time either, but he’s the type of writer you never forget.

        I love the name Quietus. Just no self-imploding cats, LOL.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Fred, you had me gripped from the beginning. After your post of dogs and souls last week, I wasn’t sure where you were going with this, but I soon found out! No parallel at all. You have a marvellous imagination and ability to paint scenes with words. I am so glad I saved this to read on a Friday afternoon, when I am weary and in need of an uplift. I hope you do more along this line. Hugs and much <3, always. xXx

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Dear Fred, I am struggling with a flu-bug and new techie stuff, but I will endure. Promise and your story was a highlight. It was the idea of transformation by fire that captured the imagination with this one, as well as your wonderful writing style of course. Turning the norm on it’s head like that, is something you created naturally. Huge hugs and much ❤ for you. xXx

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Product of my warped mind, Jane – what can I say? Flu and techie in one weekend is beyond the human grasp, I think: the only way to have flu is to lie back and enjoy it. Get well soon! BTB, I too am struggling: in my case with Skype! It should be simple, shouldn’t it?

          Liked by 1 person

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