Scenting the Dark

“Scenting the Dark” originally appeared in Apex Digest.

Scenting the Dark

By Mary Robinette Kowal

 

Lifting the stopper from the vial to his nose, Penn inhaled slowly.  Against the neutral backdrop of his ship’s cleanroom, he picked out aromas of quince, elderberry, and  bright Martian soil that hinted of blood, with undercurrents of cinnamon and Zeta Epsilon’s fragrantly sweet longgrass.  He sighed, blowing the scents out again.  The perfume was still out of balance.

The boarding chime rang, letting him know that Madison had returned.  The round tones resonated off the glass labware and sent vibrations across his scalp as it slowly, slowly faded.  God, it was gorgeous — picking up the temple bell when they were on Mosholu had been one of his better choices.  He’d eventually get the whole ship converted to real things instead of all the virtual hoo-ha it came with.  Well, maybe not the whole ship; the skip drive had to exist in quantum state, but by God, the controls at least were made out of real ebony and brass.

The intercom buzzed and Madison’s honeyed voice came over the wires, “Hey there, Mr. Man.  Got a surprise for you.”

“A musk lion?”

“Maybe.  Maybe not.  Come on out.”

“I anticipate the pleasure of your discovery.”  He slid his left hand forward until he found the wire stand that held his work trials.  His fingers followed the trail of braided metal up to the smooth glass vial.  He slipped the stopper into it with practiced ease.

With one hand touching the stainless steel work bench, Penn paced the distance to the cleanroom’s door.  Opening it brought a cacophony of scents containing the dark mineral oils that lubricated the doors, and the green plants to filter the air, and dog and…something else.  Something new.  Penn lifted his head, scenting in anticipation.  Madison, that tease… she must have found a musk lion. 

The boarding chime rang again.  Maybe more than one.  Good.

“Cody?” He held his left hand down while the tick-tick-tick of claws hurried to his side.  Cody thrust her damp nose into Penn’s hand, and licked once with her warm tongue before sliding forward into working position.

Penn fondled his dog’s silky ears as she slipped past to bring the harness under his hand.  The leather handle was warm where it had lain against Cody’s back.

“Airlock.”

Without hesitation, Cody led him down the hall, her shaggy tail beating against the back of Penn’s legs.   Truth be told, even if his blindness were repairable, he would be hard pressed to give up his dog.  She was a real lady. Not like a machine or electrodes in his brain.  Loyal and true.   Hell’s bells.  The fool dog was so excited to be working that Penn didn’t even have the heart to let on that he knew the ship well enough to find his way to the airlock without help.

The new scent was so rich.  Pungent with sexual intensity and spices that only flirted with the familiar.  Penn quickened his pace; his clients would pay top dollar for a perfume with this.  “Smell that, Cody?  That’s why parfumiers like Lenox will never rise to the sublime.  Synthetics.  Feh.  Any Joe with a copier can make a fake.” That’s why he did expeditions to new worlds before they were opened for colonization.  Hitting the market with a unique ingredient guaranteed that he maintained the top position in his field.

Around the corner, something heavy scraped against the metal deck of the ship.  Penn had wanted oak floors, but had to concede that they would not survive the heavy traffic through the boarding area.  The thing, probably a cage, held something that squealed with a high rough voice.  “Sounds like Madison had a successful expedition, eh, Cody?”

She whined in response.

The new aroma was decidedly coming from the boarding area.  It was mixed with the more familiar smells of Cody and the salty tang of Madison, but even with those distractions, the spicy musk begged him to breathe deeper and absorb the aroma into his pores.

As they neared the boarding area, Cody hesitated.

The boarding chime rang a third time and with it came a dry hissing, like sand blown across the steel floor.  Cody flinched again.  Then stopped.

“It’s all right, lady.”

She whined.

“Cody, forward!” He fumbled, searching for her head with his free hand.  Cody trembled and shifted.  What had gotten into her?  He smoothed the fur on her ruff.  “C’mon, lady.  You’re on duty.”

The air in the corridor shifted and brought a smell like blood and offal.  Sweat suddenly beaded under his arms and ran down his ribcage.  “Madison?”

Somewhere in front of him, the musklion squealed once as if in answer to his call.  Penn gripped Cody’s harness tighter.  “Find Madison.”

For a moment, Cody did not move.  Penn’s mouth dried; if she refused to work…  She huffed — not quite a bark — and stepped forward.  Hugging the wall, Cody led him down the corridor to the boarding area.

The cage rattled and an animal raged in a high chattering voice.  From the cage came the heavy spice of alien musk.  Despite its intrigue, Penn found himself holding his breath.

Cody whined as they crossed the threshold into the airlock, but did not falter.  The altar bell chimed their departure.

On the ramp outside, warmth bathed Penn telling him that the sun was out.  The dissonance of what passed for birdsong on this planet had stilled.  Wind hissed in his ears, walling him in with white noise.  At the end of the ramp, Cody led him across a spongy, uneven surface.  The wind pushed him as if it were a bully on the playground, teasing the blind kid.

Cody did not take him far from the ship — only nine paces — before she came to a dead halt.  “Madison?” The wind tossed his aide’s name aside.

Under his grip, Cody hunkered into a crouch.  Stiff and beginning to shake, Penn knelt with her, reaching out with his free hand.  The ground was soft with thick short fronds, like a living shag carpet — the moss that Madison had described when they first landed.  He slid his hand forward until it met cloth.

Startled, he pulled back for a moment before reaching forward again.  Quickly now, he recognized Madison’s arm and slid down it to grip her hand.  Warm and sticky with what must be blood, it lay unresponsive in his grasp.  “Hang in there.  I’m here.”

Penn toggled his communicator to call for emergency services.  Flat tones confirmed his request, but he was so far out from a settled world, it might be weeks before his call was answered.

But his ship was only nine paces away.  He could find his way without holding onto Cody and carry Madison.

It wasn’t that far.

Penn inhaled to steady his nerve and almost choked as the wind shifted to blow from his front.  Something rank and wet with blood and urine lay along the wind’s path.  Penn squeezed Madison’s hand again.  “We’ll take care of you.”

He let go of Cody’s harness.

Using Madison’s arm as a guide, he slid his hand up to her shoulder.  Raw wet meat filled the top of her sleeve, then nothing.  Penn jerked his hands away.

He fell back on his rump, retching.  Something warm and moist touched his face.  Penn screamed and slapped out, slamming into familiar fur.  Cody yelped.

“Oh God.  Cody, I’m sorry.  Sweet lady, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He reached for her, sobbing with relief when she came to him.  Penn folded his arms around her and buried his face in her soft coat.  Clinging to her, he rocked back and forth.

Madison’s hand had still been warm, which meant it hadn’t been .  .  .  removed long ago, which meant she might be alive and needing him.  His mind shied away from the likelihood that Madison had already bled to death.  It hadn’t been more than five minutes since the boarding chime had rung and– “Bloody hell.”

He was on an open plain.  Even if Madison hadn’t described the place when they landed, the strong breeze and unfiltered sunlight should have told him.

He was on an open plain and whatever had killed her was probably still in line of sight.  Penn grabbed for Cody’s harness.  They had to get inside.

Halfway to his feet, Penn stopped.  What if the thing hadn’t spotted him because he was kneeling?  He listened, trying to hear anything past the sound of his own heart and the wind.  It carried nothing but scent: moist, verdant moss; the heavy undernotes of loam and stone; when the wind shifted and flicked to come from in front of him, it brought the harsh sharp smell of urine mixed with blood.

The thing would be there.

Or perhaps not.  Cody had not shied away.  Maybe Madison lay ahead and Penn was about to abandon her.

He rubbed his thumb over the leather grip on Cody’s harness.  He would trust his dog.  If she hesitated, even a little, they would go back to the ship.

“Cody, forward,” he whispered, still half-crouched.  His good dog led him smoothly ahead.  Through her harness he felt no hesitation.

He sniffed, searching for where the scent was strongest.  “Left,” he whispered.

What could have done this?  Not a musk lion — despite the ruff that gave them their name, they were no bigger than a capuchin monkey.  The survey reports had said that there weren’t any larger predators on this planet.

They had gone eleven paces when Cody slowed, then stopped.  No matter which direction the wind blew, the hard ammonia smell of urine stayed in Penn’s nostrils.  He crouched again, braced this time for what his hands might find.

He patted across the soft moss until he touched cloth, coarse twill, Madison’s trousers.  Her leg beneath was warm.  Penn followed the line of her thigh up.  The material was soaked.  Blood?  His hands followed the topography of her body, sinking into valleys of savagery.  Gashes carved out of her hip.  When his hand touched the broken end of a rib, it moved.

A shallow gasp.

“Praise the saints.  Hold on, Madison.” Penn pulled his shirt off and wrapped it around her.  The wind moved over his bare torso like dozens of tiny cold fingers.

He tied the sleeves around her chest and slid both hands under her.  He fixed the location of the ship in his mind.  All he had to do was retrace his steps.

Eleven paces, then turn slightly and take nine more.  He could do this.

Penn pushed to his feet.  Clutching Madison to his chest, he turned to his right.  That was far enough.  Wasn’t it?

He slid his foot forward over the spongy ground.  One.  Setting his weight, he stepped again.  Two.  Wait.  He had been crouching when he came this way, so his stride had been shorter.  He wanted Cody’s grip in his hand.  She would take him back to the ship.  Penn licked his lips.  It was a decent-sized ship and he hadn’t gone that far.  Worst case scenario, he’d run into the side of it and have to follow it around to the ramp.

The spreading dampness in the shirt wrapped around Madison reminded him that there were other far worse scenarios.  He had to take the shortest path back the ship.

Cody pressed against his left leg and Penn staggered a half-step to the right.  He cursed and tried to correct for the misstep, but Cody was in his way.  Fool dog was so used to working position that she wouldn’t–

No.  Fool man couldn’t realize that she was herding him.  His throat tightened.  He would have cried if he’d owned a working set of tear ducts.  “Good dog.”

Her tail beat against the back of his leg.

“Take me home, Cody.”

With her warm body pressed against his leg, Penn felt his way over the uneven ground.  His arms burned under the strain of holding Madison.  She had not made a sound and only that single gasped breath had told him that she was still alive.

His ankle twisted under him and Penn went down.  His hip caught against Cody.  As his knees jarred against the ground, Penn lost his grip on Madison.  Pitching forward, one hand slammed into the moss, the other against Madison’s leg.

She did not make a sound.

Holding his breath, Penn laid his head on her chest.  Praying for a heartbeat he stayed bent over her, counting senselessly in his head as if the numbers might help.  She lay under his ear without stirring.  At one hundred and twenty-seven Penn sat up.

He pressed his hands against his face, digging his fingernails into his forehead.  Madison was dead and he had no idea what had killed her.  But, by God, he would have it found and shot.  And as for the survey team that had somehow managed to miss a giant predator, every credit in his account would go to suing them to penury.

Cody put a paw on his knee and whined.  Penn dropped his hands to reach for his dog.  He gathered her to him, burying his fingers in her warm fur.  She licked his face.

“Thanks, lady.” Fondling her ears, Penn said, “Let’s get back to the ship.”

Gritting his teeth, he picked Madison up again.  His right ankle sent a stab of pain up his leg, but he’d be damned if he was going to leave Madison’s body out here for the thing.  Cody took her place by his side and herded him back to the ship.

Every step jammed an icepick into his ankle, but Penn would.  Not.  Leave.  Madison.  When his foot hit the bottom of the ramp, he almost fell again but caught himself with his good leg.

The ramp had never seemed so steep.  At any moment, Penn expected the thing to come charging out of nowhere and clamp its jaws around him.  Or mandibles.  Or whatever it had.  Someone would pay for this.

The floor flattened out as Penn entered the airlock, and then he crossed the threshold into the ship. The altar bell chimed as if it were a prayer for Madison’s soul.  He had brought the stink of blood and shit into the boarding area with him, almost obliterating the scent of the musk lions.  At least they had stopped yipping so he could hear the cleansing chime.

Without asking, his mind replayed the boarding chimes.  Once: Madison had come in to set down the cage.  Twice: She had gone back outside.  Thrice…  She had never come back inside.

Cold sweat suddenly coated his bare torso.  Penn swallowed.  “Cody, go to my lab.”

The scent of dead skunk, vomit and blood swept down the corridor from the bridge.  With it, a sound like sand blown across steel.

By his side, Cody growled.

They’d have to pass that corridor to get to his lab.  No time.  “Cody.  Outside!”

She pressed harder against his side.  Penn kicked her, desperate for her to flee.  “Outside!”

The hissing came faster.  Penn turned back the way he had come.  Two steps and he tripped over Cody.  He and Madison landed in a spatter of oily fur scented with sweet musk. The hissing became the sound of a thousand nails scraping across a blackboard.

Penn rolled over, pulling Madison’s body on top of him.  He screamed wordlessly.  Moist, hot and rank with death, the thing’s breath blasted him.

Madison’s body was yanked out of his grasp.  Cody snarled then barreled past him.

“Cody!  No.” Flailing, searching for anything he could use as a weapon, Penn got to his feet.  Everything in the boarding area was permanently bolted down.  Except — the fire extinguisher.  Where was that?

Snarling and a roar like a steam train came from behind him.  He had to get Cody away from that thing.

Penn slid his hand across the wall to the right of the door until he found the cylinder bolted to the wall.  Panting, he yanked the extinguisher free of its holder and fumbled for the nozzle.

Thumps sounded against the corridor’s sides and Cody barked and snarled.

Staggering forward, Penn shoved the nozzle against the thing and squeezed, blasting it with freezing CO2.  The cold air billowed around his hands.  With a cry like a bandsaw, the thing jerked back.

“Cody!  Let’s go.  Go!”

The blast of cold air stopped as the canister emptied.  Penn swung the extinguisher wildly, praying that he wouldn’t hit his dog.

With a thud, it connected with something.  Cody was still growling, so Penn hit the thing again.  Bashing it with one hand, he waved the other, searching for Cody where her growling was loudest.  He touched a tuft of bristles so sharp they stung.  Penn jerked his hand away.

“C’mon, lady.  Leave it!” He had to get her away.  Again he reached and his fingers sank into a wet, viscous mass.  The creature screamed in rage and yanked back.

Then, soft familiar fur.  He didn’t know what part of Cody he’d grabbed.  “On duty!  On duty!”

He hauled backwards, falling as she suddenly moved to his side.  Pushing back, he slid toward the boarding door and slammed into the wall.

“No!” He’d gotten turned around.  Which way was the door?  Cody would know.  “Outside!  Cody, outside.”

The extinguisher shuddered in his hand and twisted away.  Half crawling, he followed his dog.

His right calf went hot with pain.  A flash of anguish painted his brain and a detached part thought,  Yelling, Penn kicked with his free leg.  He struck something unyielding.  He kicked again.

The thing loosened its grip on his leg.  Penn jerked free, feeling his flesh rend on the thing’s teeth.  Falling, he felt the airlock threshold under his knees.  The altar bell chimed as he crossed. Penn let go of Cody’s harness to push himself up.

Cody barked.  Her voice was hard and savage.

Penn slapped the door sensor.  An eternity passed before it hissed shut.  With a dull thud, it impacted on the thing.  And then the damn safety made the door slide open.  Cody’s claws scraped the floor as she lunged toward the opening.

“Cody, stay!”

Penn threw himself on her and tried to get between Cody and the door.  He slapped again at the control.  She squirmed to get past him, snapping at the thing.  “NO!  Fool dog!”  He scrabbled to grab her by the scruff and threw her away from the door.

Teeth scraped his shoulder as he turned with the throw.  Penn spun, shoving with both arms against a surface that was covered in bone and bristle.

Behind him, Cody yelped as she struck the far side of the airlock’s wall.  With strength he didn’t know he had, Penn yelled, “On duty.  Stay!  STAY!”

The inner door of the airlock hissed shut, sealing off the smell of corpses, musklion and the salty tang of Madison.

Penn swayed for a moment, expecting the thing to still be in front of him.  He heard nothing but the wind from outside.  He reached for the airlock door and slid his hand down the unyielding surface.

“My god.”  With a trembling hand, Penn wiped the sweat and blood from his face.  “Cody.  Cody, we’re safe.”

Penn steadied himself against the wall and sank to a crouch.  “Come here you wonderful dog.”

He waited for the tick, tick, tick of her claws to come to him.  The wind dried the sweat on his back, chilling him.  “Cody?”

He swallowed, remembering the yelp she had made when she’d hit the wall.  “Cody, come here lady.”  Penn crawled forward, patting the floor with his hand.

Her claws ticked on the steel, moving away from him.

“Cody?  Where you going?”  Penn held his hand out, beckoning her.

She backed away again, leather harness creaking.  Maybe she wanted him to get out of the airlock.  Penn pushed to his feet and stepped forward, reaching for her harness.

Cody ran.

Outside, her claws scraped against the boarding ramp as she almost slid down it.  Careening forward, Penn chased her.  He didn’t know what was behind them, but if it was enough to scare Cody, then if he stayed there he was dead.

At the bottom of the ramp, he fell, knees mashing through the moss to the rocks beneath.  The wind filled his hearing and he strained for some hint of Cody.  To his right, a faint creak of leather skipped through the space in the breeze.  Penn got to his feet and staggered toward it.  He cursed every time his weight came down on his right foot.  It threatened to fold under him.

“Cody?”

She huffed, not a bark, but a warning.  She was more to his left.  He followed the sound, sniffing.

“What’s the matter, lady?”  He inhaled deeply, trying to catch a whiff of where she was.  The stench of the thing burned his nostrils.  His bowels contracted as slow understanding seeped down.  She was afraid of him.  He smelled like the thing and he had hit her.  Kicked her even.  No wonder she wouldn’t come.  He’d told her to stay away from him.

The ground gave way.  His ankle exploded with fresh pain and Penn  pitched forward.  The land rolled him over, carrying him down a shallow slope.  He stopped on his back.  For a moment, the wind did not fill his ears with its rush.

Beyond the shelter of the small hollow, Penn heard a hissing like a thousand fingers scraping across steel.  Another one.  Why had he thought that there would only be one on the planet? His heart kicked wildly at his ribs.  He had to get back to the airlock.  He could hide in there until help came.

Except — the fall.  He’d gotten turned around. He didn’t know where the ship was.

Penn sat up carefully and the hissing disappeared into the rush of wind.  The thing could be anywhere.

Sinking back down, so he could hear again, Penn shivered.  The hissing was louder.  Penn sniffed the air, searching for the scent of dog.  He whispered, “Cody?  On duty.  On duty…”

END

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Scenting the Dark by Mary Robinette Kowal is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.