Dean R. Koontz

Dark of the Woods


The first bit of trouble came even as they were leaving the starship on Demos's port field; it was a harbinger of worse times ahead.

Stauffer Davis walked down the corrugated ramp with his protection robot, Proteus, at his side. After a tedious flight out from the Alliance central worlds, he was so on edge that the gurgling of plasti-plasma with the robot's spherical, force-capped body ground hard on his nerves and made him somewhat nauseous. Proteus was ignorant of his master's irritation, for every ounce of his being, every drop of his quasi-liquid circuitry was concentrated on maintaining an optimum efficiency watch to detect even the slightest minim of hostile life before it could do damage to his human charge. As he floated on his grav plates, his tiny sensor nodes gleamed in the bright sun — some of them alive with color that radiated from within: amber, crimson, and a soft, pulsing blue. His two chief sight receptors were cataracted white screens — but as watchful as eyes could ever be.

When they were halfway to the minibus that would carry them to the main port terminal, a spiderbat swept low from the east, wings fluffed, claws extended to rip open Davis's scalp…

Inside Proteus, the card taped index of this planet held the information that the spiderbat was a particularly vicious little predator that had been known to go for a three-horned buffalo when it only wanted a snack, leaving better than 99 % of the corpse for the eaters-of-dead-meat. Its wingspread was but eleven inches of leathery membrane; its weight seldom more than two pounds. The only things it had going for it — aside from its maniacal determination and total lack of fear — were its teeth and its long brittle claws which it honed constantly on the limestone outcroppings of its native foothills. The claws could gut a man in moments.

Proteus snapped alert, the force-cap over his main manipulation barrel dissolving as he turned to take aim. A tentacle of plasti-plasma shot out of the casing, wrapped around the spiderbat and throttled it in a shapeless hand of warm goo. Proteus dropped the body on the concrete where it wriggled a moment and was, finally, utterly still and dead.

Later, Davis could not remember whether he heard the wings of the second beast or whether it had called in sympathy to the last spasm of its dying mate. But something registered as ominous… He moved swiftly, fell to his knees and rolled sideways, his hands flung over his head to ward off the second spiderbat. It was always wise to remember that the gods who had made other worlds were the same gods who had made Earth and that one of their prime rules was that all things traveled in pairs…

Fortunately, Proteus had not forgotten.

The dead bat's mate aborted its dive and skidded across the hard port floor. It came for Davis, wings flapping, claws rattling against concrete, eyes bright with rabid madness. It got within six feet of him before Proteus snapped it up and mangled it. He dropped the thing beside the body of its mate.

They boarded the bus.

At the terminal building, the minibus drew to a halt before a small cluster of people who were holding up a banner which declared: WELCOME, STAUFFER DAVIS. He sighed, looked to Proteus and wished that the robot could understand, could listen and discuss and do more than protect. He would have liked to tell Proteus, something then: that fans of historical novels made him want to retch.

They were the last off the bus, the robot floating ahead, his microminiaturized brain weeding the bad from the good and destroying the former. If the world were as black and white for men, Davis thought, things would be a damn sight easier. The insects the machine killed seemed harmless enough, and he decided he might not have properly taped the card indices of Demos's flora and fauna into the thing's memory banks. Proteus's retention cells had experienced hundreds of recordings, erasures, and rerecordings and needed an entire new set of spools. That could be taken care of when they returned to the central worlds; for the present, Davis knew he would have to take the first opportunity to rerelate his mechanical compatriot to the planet and hope that would be sufficient.

“Mr. Davis!” a curly haired, cowish woman gasped, shuffling out of the knot of bookworms. She offered him her white-gloved hand.

He wondered how long it would be necessary to endure their little tribute. Damn, he was tired! “This is flattering,” he managed to say with a smile, though he thought it amazing they could not seem to tell that his teeth were gritted.

Proteus finally decided that the white-gloved woman's live beetle brooch could prove a danger. He flashed a pseudopod out and crushed it against her pink lapel.

“He's apparently not correctly carded to Demos,” Davis said, barely able to suppress his laughter at the dripping mess.

She reached to wipe the bloody splotch from her suit and merely succeeded in smearing her glove as well. “A harmless beetle,” she said. “There's very little that is harmful on Demos, Mr. Davis. Demos is the next thing to Paradise.”

Wasn't the next thing to Paradise — Purgatory? Yes, perhaps this had been a paradise before the Alliance arrived, coating the plains with concrete to berth their giant ships. And it wouldn't have been so bad if only the landscape had been destroyed — but they had obliterated Demos's people as well. Such a small population, the winged people, yet the Alliance had killed rather than make concessions. The Demosians, after all, had been so insolent as to offer resistance to the Alliance's annexation of their world. So the Alliance had shut them up. Permanently… The motto of every ruthless government: Never go around, go over. And, of course, these winged people had been aliens — which word could be translated as “animals” as far as Alliance government was concerned. Forget that the Demosians were intelligent with a culture and heritage that was rich and ancient. To the Alliance, that was irrelevent. The provincial policy-making board of the Earth-centered government considered all alien lifeforms inferior to mankind. Therefore, if an alien was less than a human, he did not require humane treatment. The logic of megalomaniacs; but such were the types in power. The Supremacy of Man coalition still ruled the Alliance as the major party, and they understood only the voice of the gun. Did this dumpy, self-important woman not understand that his next novel would have to be about the slaughter that took place here, about a hundred and seventy million winged men and women who had been murdered in the Alliance's colonization of Demos, with condemning details on the sterilizing effects of the mutant mustard gas that had eventually spelled GENOCIDE in dark letters across the face of an entire race? Paradise…

She interrupted his reverie to request that he address their book club before leaving Demos. That he sign a handful, just a few, not many mind you — will take only a moment — of his first editions which they had brought with them…

There's really little need for one of those here,” the Alliance representative said, motioning toward the bobbling form of Proteus as Davis slouched into a seat before the heavy metal desk.

“He killed a spiderbat just after we got off the ship.”

“Oh, most of those have been exterminated. They're rare anymore.”

“It only takes one.”

The rep frowned.

“I believe you'll be pleased to know you'll be living right in one of the aviaries. It was used by a research team, sociologists, a few years back and is all decked out for human habitation. Working right in there, you'll be better able to get an idea of how they lived.” The last three words were said with an undertone of disgust, as if the winged people had been unimaginably barbaric.

“The Sanctuary is only a mile and a half from where you'll be staying,” the rep continued, pulling at the comers of his mustache with his thin, nervous hands, as if he thought the ordering of that patch of brush would bring a corresponding order to his thoughts. “They'll supply you with food and provisions.”

“Sanctuary?” Davis asked.

“Where they keep the last of the winged people.”

“Keep them?”

“Yes. Until they — well, die.” The rep looked uncomfortable and did not meet Davis's gaze. “We have a car

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