"Grif, this city of yours is sure down at the heels. I hope the other ones are in better shape."
"I don't know what you mean talking about heels. But there are no other cities. Some mining camps that can't be located inside the perimeter. But no other cities."
This surprised Jason. He had always visualized the planet with more than one city. There were a lot of things he didn't know about Pyrrus, he realized suddenly. All of his efforts since landing had been taken up with the survival studies. There were a number of questions he wanted to ask. But ask them of somebody other than his grouchy eight-year-old bodyguard. There was one person who would be best equipped to tell him what he wanted to know.
"Do you know Kerk?" he asked the boy. "Apparently he's your ambassador to a lot of places, but his last name—"
"Sure, everybody knows Kerk. But he's busy, you shouldn't see him."
Jason shook a finger at him. "Minder of my body you may be. But minder of my soul you are not. What do you say I call the shots and you go along to shoot the monsters? O.K.?"
* * * * *
They took shelter from a sudden storm of fist-sized hailstones. Then, with ill grace, Grif led the way to one of the larger, central buildings. There were more people here and some of them even glanced at Jason for a minute, before turning back to their business. Jason dragged himself up two flights of stairs before they reached a door marked CO-ORDINATION AND SUPPLY.
"Kerk in here?" Jason asked.
"Sure," the boy told him. "He's in charge."
"Fine. Now you get a nice cold drink, or your lunch, or something, and meet me back here in a couple of hours. I imagine Kerk can do as good a job of looking after me as you can."
The boy stood doubtfully for a few seconds, then turned away. Jason wiped off some more sweat and pushed through the door.
There were a handful of people in the office beyond. None of them looked up at Jason or asked his business. Everything has a purpose on Pyrrus. If he came there—he must have had a good reason. No one would ever think to ask him what he wanted. Jason, used to the petty officialdom of a thousand worlds, waited for a few moments before he understood. There was only one other door. He shuffled over and opened it.
Kerk looked up from a desk strewed about with papers and ledgers. "I was wondering when you would show up," he said.
"A lot sooner if you hadn't prevented it," Jason told him as he dropped wearily into a chair. "It finally dawned on me that I could spend the rest of my life in your blood-thirsty nursery school if I didn't do something about it. So here I am."
"Ready to return to the 'civilized' worlds, now that you've seen enough of Pyrrus?"
"I am not," Jason said. "And I'm getting very tired of everyone telling me to leave. I'm beginning to think that you and the rest of the Pyrrans are trying to hide something."
Kerk smiled at the thought. "What could we have to hide? I doubt if any planet has as simple and one-directional an existence as ours."
"If that's true, then you certainly wouldn't mind answering a few direct questions about Pyrrus?"
Kerk started to protest, then laughed. "Well done. I should know better by now than to argue with you. What do you want to know?"
Jason tried to find a comfortable position on the hard chair, then gave up. "What's the population of your planet?" he asked.
For a second Kerk hesitated, then said, "Roughly thirty thousand. That is not very much for a planet that has been settled this long, but the reason for that is obvious."
"All right, population thirty thousand," Jason said. "Now how about surface control of your planet. I was surprised to find out that this city within its protective wall—the perimeter—is the only one on the planet. Let's not consider the mining camps, since they are obviously just extensions of the city. Would you say then, that you people control more or less of the planet's surface than you did in the past?"
* * * * *
Kerk picked up a length of steel pipe from the desk, that he used as a paperweight, and toyed with it as he thought. The thick steel bent like rubber at his touch, as he concentrated on his answer.
"That's hard to say offhand. There must be records of that sort of thing, though I wouldn't know where to find them. It depends on so many factors—"
"Let's forget that for now then," Jason said. "I have another question that's really more relevant. Wouldn't you say that the population of Pyrrus is declining steadily, year after year?"
There was a sharp twang as the steel snapped in Kerk's fingers, the pieces dropping to the floor. He stood, over Jason, his hands extended towards the smaller man, his face flushed and angry.
"Don't ever say that," he roared. "Don't let me ever hear you say that again!"
Jason sat as quietly as he could, talking slowly and picking out each word with care. His life hung in the balance.
"Don't get angry, Kerk. I meant no harm. I'm on your side, remember? I can talk to you because you've seen much more of the universe than the Pyrrans who have never left the planet. You are used to discussing things. You know that words are just symbols. We can talk and know you don't have to lose your temper over mere words—"
Kerk slowly lowered his arms and stepped away. Then he turned and poured himself a glass of water from a bottle on the desk. He kept his back turned to Jason while he drank.
Very little of the sweat that Jason wiped from his sopping face was caused by the heat in the room.
"I'm ... sorry I lost my temper," Kerk said, dropping heavily into his chair. "Doesn't usually happen. Been working hard lately, must have got my temper on edge." He made no mention of what Jason had said.
"Happens to all of us," Jason told him. "I won't begin to describe the condition my nerves were in when I hit this planet. I'm finally forced to admit that everything you said about Pyrrus is true. It is the most deadly spot in the system. And only native-born Pyrrans could possibly survive here. I can manage to fumble along a bit after my training, but I know I would never stand a chance on my own. You probably know I have an eight-year-old as a bodyguard. Gives a good idea of my real status here."
Anger suppressed, Kerk was back in control of himself now. His eyes narrowed in thought. "Surprises me to hear you say that. Never thought I would hear you admit that anyone could be better than you at anything. Isn't that why you came here? To prove that you were as good as any native-born Pyrran?"
"Score one for your side," Jason admitted. "I didn't think it showed that much. And I'm glad to see your mind isn't as muscle-bound as your body. Yes, I'll admit that was probably my main reason for coming, that and curiosity."
Kerk was following his own train of thoughts, and puzzled where they were leading him. "You came here to prove that you were as good as any native-born Pyrran. Yet now you admit that any eight-year-old can outdraw you. That just doesn't stack up with what I know about you. If you give with one hand, you must be taking back with the other. In what way do you still feel your natural superiority?"
Jason thought a long time before answering.
"I'll tell you," he finally said. "But don't snap my neck for it. I'm gambling that your civilized mind can control your reflexes. Because I have to talk about things that are strictly taboo on Pyrrus.
"In your people's eyes I'm a weakling because I come from off-world. Realize though, that this is also my strength. I can see things that are hidden from you by long association. You know, the old business of not being able to see the forest for the trees in the way." Kerk nodded agreement and Jason went on.
"To continue the analogy further, I landed from an airship, and at first all I could see was the forest. To me certain facts are obvious. I think that you people know them too, only you keep your thoughts carefully repressed. They are hidden thoughts that are completely taboo. I am going to say one of them out loud now and hope you can control yourself well enough to not kill me."
Kerk's great hands tightened on the arms of his chair, the only sign that he had heard. Jason talked quietly, as smoothly and easily as a lancet probing into a brain.
"Human beings are losing the war on Pyrrus. There is no chance they can win. They could leave for another planet, but that wouldn't be victory. Yet, if they stay and continue this war, they only prolong a particularly bloody form of racial suicide. With each generation the population drops. Until eventually the planet will win."
One arm of Kerk's plastic and steel chair tore loose under the crushing grasp of his fingers. He didn't notice it. The rest of his body was rock-still and his eyes fixed on Jason.
Looking away from the fractured chair, Jason sought for the right words.
"This is not a real war, but a disastrous treating of symptoms. Like cutting off cancerous fingers one by one. The only result can be ultimate death. None of you seem to realize that. All you see are the trees. It has never occurred to you that you could treat the causes of this war and end it forever."
Kerk dropped the arm of the chair clattering to the floor. He sat up, astonished. "What the devil do you mean? You sound like a grubber."
Jason didn't ask what a grubber was—but he filed the name.
"Call me a Pyrran by adoption. I want this planet to survive as much as you do. I think this war can be ended by finding the causes—and changing them, whatever they are."
"You're talking nonsense," Kerk said. "This is just an alien world that must be battled. The causes are self-obvious facts of existence."
"No, they're not," Jason insisted. "Consider for a second. When you are away for any length of time from this planet, you must take a refresher course. To see how things have changed for the worse while you were gone. Well, that's a linear progression. If things get worse when you extend into the future, then they have to get better if you extend into the past. It is also good theory—though I don't know if the facts will bear me out—to say that if you extend it far enough into the past you will reach a time when mankind and Pyrrus were not at war with each other."
Kerk was beyond speech now, only capable of sitting and listening while Jason drove home the blows of inescapable logic.
"There is evidence to support this theory. Even you will admit that I, if I am no match for Pyrran life, am surely well versed in it. And all Pyrran flora and fauna I've seen have one thing in common. They're not functional. None of their immense armory of weapons is used against each other. Their toxins don't seem to operate against Pyrran life. They are good only for dispensing death to Homo sapiens. And that is a physical impossibility. In the three hundred years that men have been on this planet, the life forms couldn't have naturally adapted in this manner."
"But they have done it!" Kerk bellowed.
"You are so right," Jason told him calmly. "And if they have done it there must be some agency at work. Operating how—I have no idea. But something has caused the life on Pyrrus to declare war, and I'd like to find out what that something is. What was the dominant life form here when your ancestors landed?"
"I'm sure I wouldn't know," Kerk said. "You're not suggesting, are you, that there are sentient beings on Pyrrus other than those of human descent? Creatures who are organizing the planet to battle us?"
"I'm not suggesting it—you are. That means you're getting the idea. I have no idea what caused this change, but I would sure like to find out. Then see if it can be changed back. Nothing promised, of course. You'll agree, though, that it is worth investigating."
* * * * *
Fist smacking into his palm, his heavy footsteps shaking the building, Kerk paced back and forth the length of the room. He was at war with himself. New ideas fought old beliefs. It was so sudden—and so hard not to believe.
Without asking permission Jason helped himself to some chilled water from the bottle, and sank back into the chair, exhausted. Something whizzed in through the open window, tearing a hole in the protective screen. Kerk blasted it without changing stride, without even knowing he had done it.
The decision didn't take long. Geared to swift activity, the big Pyrran found it impossible not to decide quickly. The pacing stopped and a finger stabbed at Jason.
"I don't say you have convinced me, but I find it impossible to find a ready answer to your arguments. So until I do, we will have to operate as if they are true. Now what do you plan to do, what can you do?"
Jason ticked the points off on his fingers. "One, I'll need a place to live and work that is well protected. So instead of spending my energies on just remaining alive I can devote some study to this project. Two, I want someone to help me—and act as a bodyguard at the same time. And someone, please, with a little more scope of interest than my present watchdog. I would suggest Meta for the job."
"Meta?" Kerk was surprised. "She is a space pilot and defense-screen operator, what good could she possibly be on a project like this?"
"The most good possible. She has had experience on other worlds and can shift her point of view—at least a bit. And she must know as much about this planet as any other educated adult and can answer any questions I ask." Jason smiled. "In addition to which she is an attractive girl, whose company I enjoy."
Kerk grunted. "I was wondering if you would get around to mentioning that last reason. The others make sense though, so I'm not going to argue. I'll round up a replacement for her and have Meta sent here. There are plenty of sealed buildings you can use."
After talking to one of the assistants from the outer office, Kerk made some calls on the screen. The correct orders were quickly issued. Jason watched it all with interest.
"Pardon me for asking," he finally said. "But are you the dictator of this planet? You just snap your fingers and they all jump."
"I suppose it looks that way," Kerk admitted. "But that is just an illusion. No one is in complete charge on Pyrrus, neither is there anything resembling a democratic system. After all, our total population is about the size of an army division. Everyone does the job they are best qualified for. Various activities are separated into departments with the most qualified person in charge. I run Co-ordination and Supply, which is about the loosest category. We fill in the gaps between departments and handle procuring from off-planet."
* * * * *
Meta came in then and talked to Kerk. She completely ignored Jason's presence. "I was relieved and sent here," she said. "What is it? Change in flight schedule?"
"You might call it that," Kerk said. "As of now you are dismissed from all your old assignments and assigned to a new department: Investigation and Research. That tired-looking fellow there is your department head."
"A sense of humor," Jason said. "The only native-born one on Pyrrus. Congratulations, there's hope for the planet yet."
Meta glanced back and forth between them. "I don't understand. I can't believe it. I mean a new department—why?"
"I'm sorry," Kerk said. "I didn't mean to be cruel. I thought perhaps you might feel more at ease. What I said was true. Jason has a way—or may have a way—to be of immense value to Pyrrus. Will you help him?"
Meta had her composure back. And a little anger. "Do I have to? Is that an order? You know I have work to do. I'm sure you will realize it is more important than something a person from off-planet might imagine. He can't really understand—"
"Yes. It's an order." The snap was back in Kerk's voice. Meta flushed at the tone.
"Perhaps I can explain," Jason broke in. "After all the whole thing is my idea. But first I would like your co-operation. Will you take the clip out of your gun and give it to Kerk?"
Meta looked frightened, but Kerk nodded in solemn agreement. "Just for a few minutes, Meta. I have my gun so you will be safe here. I think I know what Jason has in mind, and from personal experience I'm afraid he is right."
Reluctantly Meta passed over the clip and cleared the charge in the gun's chamber. Only then did Jason explain.
"I have a theory about life on Pyrrus, and I'm afraid I'll have to shatter some illusions when I explain. To begin with, the fact must be admitted that your people are slowly losing the war here and will eventually be destroyed—"
Before he was half through the sentence, Meta's gun was directed between his eyes and she was wildly snapping the trigger. There was only hatred and revulsion in her expression. Kerk took her by the shoulders and sat her in his chair, before anything worse happened. It took a while before she could calm down enough to listen to Jason's words. It is not easy to have the carefully built-up falsehoods of a lifetime shattered. Only the fact that she had seen something of other worlds enabled her to listen at all.
The light of unreason was still in her eyes when he had finished, telling her the things he and Kerk had discussed. She sat tensely, pushed forward against Kerk's hands, as if they were the only things that stopped her from leaping at Jason.
"Maybe that is too much to assimilate at one sitting," Jason said. "So let's put it in simpler terms. I believe we can find a reason for this unrelenting hatred of humans. Perhaps we don't smell right. Maybe I'll find an essence of crushed Pyrran bugs that will render us immune when we rub it in. I don't know yet. But whatever the results, we must make the investigation. Kerk agrees with me on that."
Meta looked at Kerk and he nodded agreement. Her shoulders slumped in sudden defeat. She whispered the words.
"I ... can't say I agree, or even understand all that you said. But I'll help you. If Kerk thinks that it is the right thing."
"I do," he said. "Now, do you want the clip back for your gun? Not planning to take any more shots at Jason?"
"That was foolish of me," she said coldly while she reloaded the gun. "I don't need a gun. If I had to kill him, I could do it with my bare hands."
"I love you, too," Jason smiled at her. "Are you ready to go now?"
"Of course." She brushed a fluffy curl of hair into place. "First we'll find a place where you can stay. I'll take care of that. After that the work of the new department is up to you."
There were empty rooms in one of the computer buildings. These were completely sealed to keep stray animal life out of the delicate machinery. While Meta checked a bed-roll out of stores, Jason painfully dragged a desk, table and chairs in from a nearby empty office. When she returned with a pneumatic bed he instantly dropped on it with a grateful sigh. Her lip curled a bit at his obvious weakness.
"Get used to the sight," he said. "I intend to do as much of my work as I can, while maintaining a horizontal position. You will be my strong right arm. And right now, Right Arm, I wish you could scare me up something to eat. I also intend to do most of my eating in the previously mentioned prone condition."
Snorting with disgust, Meta stamped out. While she was gone, Jason chewed the end of a stylus thoughtfully, then made some careful notes.
After they had finished the almost-tasteless meal he began the search.
"Meta, where can I find historical records of Pyrrus?"
"I've never heard of any ... I really don't know."
"But there has to be something—somewhere," he insisted. "Even if your present-day culture devotes all of its time and energies to survival, you can be sure it wasn't always that way. All the time it was developing, people were keeping records, making notes. Now where do we look? Do you have a library here?"
"Of course," she said. "We have an excellent technical library. But I'm sure there wouldn't be any of that sort of thing there."
Trying not to groan, Jason stood up. "Let me be the judge of that. Just lead the way."
* * * * *
Operation of the library was completely automatic. A projected index gave the call number for any text that had to be consulted. The tape was delivered to the charge desk thirty seconds after the number had been punched. Returned tapes were dropped through a hopper and refiled automatically. The mechanism worked smoothly.
"Wonderful," Jason said, pushing away from the index. "A tribute to technological ingenuity. Only it contains nothing of any value to us. Just reams of textbooks."
"What else should be in a library?" Meta sounded sincerely puzzled.
Jason started to explain, then changed his mind. "Later we will go into that," he said. "Much later. Now we have to find a lead. Is it possible that there are any tapes—or even printed books—that aren't filed through this machine?"
"It seems unlikely, but we could ask Poli. He lives here somewhere and is in charge of the library—filing new books and tending the machinery."
The single door into the rear of the building was locked, and no amount of pounding could rouse the caretaker.
"If he's alive, this should do it," Jason said. He pressed the out-of-order button on the control panel. It had the desired affect. Within five minutes the door opened and Poli dragged himself through it.
Death usually came swiftly on Pyrrus. If wounds slowed a man down, the ever-ready forces of destruction quickly finished the job. Poli was the exception to this rule. Whatever had attacked him originally had done an efficient job. Most of the lower part of his face was gone. His left arm was curled and useless. The damage to his body and legs had left him with the bare capability to stumble from one spot to the next.
Yet he still had one good arm as well as his eyesight. He could work in the library and relieve a fully fit man. How long he had been dragging the useless husk of a body around the building, no one knew. In spite of the pain that filled his red-rimmed, moist eyes, he had stayed alive. Growing old, older than any other Pyrran as far as Jason had seen. He tottered forward and turned off the alarm that had called him.
When Jason started to explain the old man took no notice. Only after the librarian had rummaged a hearing aid out of his clothes, did Jason realize he was deaf as well. Jason explained again what he searched for. Poli nodded and printed his answer on a tablet.
there are many old books—in the storerooms below
Most of the building was taken up by the robot filing and sorting apparatus. They moved slowly through the banks of machinery, following the crippled librarian to a barred door in the rear. He pointed to it. While Jason and Meta fought to open the age-incrusted bars, he wrote another note on his tablet.
not opened for many years, rats
Jason's and Meta's guns appeared reflexively in their hands as they read the message. Jason finished opening the door by himself. The two native Pyrrans stood facing the opening gap. It was well they did. Jason could never have handled what came through that door.
He didn't even open it for himself. Their sounds at the door must have attracted all the vermin in the lower part of the building. Jason had thrown the last bolt and started to pull on the handle—when the door was pushed open from the other side.
* * * * *
Open the gateway to hell and see what comes out. Meta and Poli stood shoulder to shoulder firing into the mass of loathsomeness that boiled through the door. Jason jumped to one side and picked off the occasional animal that came his way. The destruction seemed to go on forever.
Long minutes passed before the last clawed beast made its death rush. Meta and Poli waited expectantly for more, they were happily excited by this chance to deal destruction. Jason felt a little sick after the silent ferocious attack. A ferocity that the Pyrrans reflected. He saw a scratch on Meta's face where one of the beasts had caught her. She seemed oblivious to it.
Pulling out his medikit, Jason circled the piled bodies. Something stirred in their midst and a crashing shot ploughed into it. Then he reached the girl and pushed the analyzer probes against the scratch. The machine clicked and Meta jumped as the antitoxin needle stabbed down. She realized for the first time what Jason was doing.
"Thank you," she said.
Poli had a powerful battery lamp and, by unspoken agreement, Jason carried it. Crippled though he was, the old man was still a Pyrran when it came to handling a gun. They slowly made their way down the refuse-laden stairs.
"What a stench," Jason grimaced.
At the foot of the stairs they looked around. There had been books and records there at one time. They had been systematically chewed, eaten and destroyed for decades.
"I like the care you take with your old books," Jason said disgustedly.
"They could have been of no importance," Meta said coolly, "or they would be filed correctly in the library upstairs."
Jason wandered gloomily through the rooms. Nothing remained of any value. Fragments and scraps of writing and printing. Never enough in one spot to bother collecting. With the toe of one armored boot, he kicked angrily at a pile of debris, ready to give up the search. There was a glint of rusty metal under the dirt.
"Hold this!" He gave the light to Meta and began scratching aside the rubble. A flat metal box with a dial lock built into it, was revealed.
"Why that's a log box!" Meta said, surprised.
"That's what I thought," Jason said.
Resealing the cellar, they carried the box back to Jason's new office. Only after spraying with decontaminant, did they examine it closely. Meta picked out engraved letters on the lid.
"S. T. POLLUX VICTORY—that must be the name of the spacer this log came from. But I don't recognize the class, or whatever it is the initials S. T. stand for."
"Stellar Transport," Jason told her, as he tried the lock mechanism. "I've heard of them but I've never seen one. They were built during the last wave of galactic expansion. Really nothing more than gigantic metal containers, put together in space. After they were loaded with people, machinery and supplies, they would be towed to whatever planetary system had been chosen. These same tugs and one-shot rockets would brake the S. T.'s in for a landing. Then leave them there. The hull was a ready source of metal and the colonists could start right in building their new world. And they were big. All of them held at least fifty thousand people ..."
Only after he said it, did he realize the significance of his words. Meta's deadly stare drove it home. There were now less people on Pyrrus than had been in the original settlement.
And human population, without rigid birth controls, usually increased geometrically. Jason dinAlt suddenly remembered Meta's itchy trigger finger.
"But we can't be sure how many people were aboard this one," he said hurriedly. "Or even if this is the log of the ship that settled Pyrrus. Can you find something to pry this open with? The lock is corroded into a single lump."
Meta took her anger out on the box. Her fingers managed to force a gap between lid and bottom. She wrenched at it. Rusty metal screeched and tore. The lid came off in her hands and a heavy book thudded to the table.
The cover legend destroyed all doubt.
LOG OF S. T. POLLUX VICTORY. OUTWARD BOUND—SETANI TO PYRRUS. 55,000 SETTLERS ABOARD.
Meta couldn't argue now. She stood behind Jason with tight-clenched fists and read over his shoulder as he turned the brittle, yellowed pages. He quickly skipped through the opening part that covered the sailing preparations and trip out. Only when he had reached the actual landing did he start reading slowly. The impact of the ancient words leaped out at him.
"Here it is," Jason shouted. "Proof positive that we're on the right trail. Even you will have to admit that. Read it, right here."
... Second day since the tugs left, we are completely on our own now. The settlers still haven't grown used to this planet, though we have orientation talks every night. As well as the morale agents who I have working twenty hours a day. I suppose I really can't blame the people, they all lived in the underways of Setani and I doubt if they saw the sun once a year. This planet has weather with a vengeance, worse than anything I've seen on a hundred other planets. Was I wrong during the original planning stages not to insist on settlers from one of the agrarian worlds? People who could handle the outdoors.
These citified Setanians are afraid to go out in the rain. But of course they have adapted completely to their native 1.5 gravity so the two gee here doesn't bother them much. That was the factor that decided us. Anyway—too late now to do anything about it. Or about the unending cycle of rain, snow, hail, hurricanes and such. Answer will be to start the mines going, sell the metals and build completely enclosed cities.
The only thing on this forsaken planet that isn't actually against us are the animals. A few large predators at first, but the guards made short work of them. The rest of the wild life leaves us alone. Glad of that! They have been fighting for existence so long that I have never seen a more deadly looking collection. Even the little rodents no bigger than a man's hand are armored like tanks ...
"I don't believe a word of it," Meta broke in. "That can't be Pyrrus he's writing about ..." Her words died away as Jason wordlessly pointed to the title on the cover.
He continued scanning the pages, flipping them quickly. A sentence caught his eye and he stopped. Jamming his finger against the place, he read aloud.
"'... And troubles keep piling up. First Har Palo with his theory that the vulcanism is so close to the surface that the ground keeps warm and the crops grow so well. Even if he is right—what can we do? We must be self-dependent if we intend to survive. And now this other thing. It seems that the forest fire drove a lot of new species our way. Animals, insects and even birds have attacked the people. (Note for Har: check if possible seasonal migration might explain attacks.) There have been fourteen deaths from wounds and poisoning. We'll have to enforce the rules for insect lotion at all times. And I suppose build some kind of perimeter defense to keep the larger beasts out of the camp.'
"This is a beginning," Jason said. "At least now we are aware of the real nature of the battle we're engaged in. It doesn't make Pyrrus any easier to handle, or make the life forms less dangerous, to know that they were once better disposed towards mankind. All this does is point the way. Something took the peaceful life forms, shook them up, and turned this planet into one big deathtrap for mankind. That something is what I want to uncover."
Further reading of the log produced no new evidence. There was a good deal more information about the early animal and plant life and how deadly they were, as well as the first defenses against them. Interesting historically, but of no use whatsoever in countering the menace. The captain apparently never thought that life forms were altering on Pyrrus, believing instead that dangerous beasts were being discovered. He never lived to change his mind. The last entry in the log, less than two months after the first attack, was very brief. And in a different handwriting.
Captain Kurkowski died today, of poisoning following an insect bite. His death is greatly mourned.
The "why" of the planetary revulsion had yet to be uncovered.
"Kerk must see this book," Jason said. "He should have some idea of the progress being made. Can we get transportation—or do we walk to city hall?"
"Walk, of course," Meta said.
"Then you bring the book. At two G's I find it very hard to be a gentleman and carry the packages."
They had just entered Kerk's outer office when a shrill screaming burst out of the phone-screen. It took Jason a moment to realize that it was a mechanical signal, not a human voice.
"What is it?" he asked.
Kerk burst through the door and headed for the street entrance. Everyone else in the office was going the same way. Meta looked confused, leaning towards the door, then looking back at Jason.
"What does it mean? Can't you tell me?" He shook her arm.
"Sector alarm. A major breakthrough of some kind at the perimeter. Everyone but other perimeter guards has to answer."
"Well, go then," he said. "Don't worry about me. I'll be all right."
His words acted like a trigger release. Meta's gun was in her hand and she was gone before he had finished speaking. Jason sat down wearily in the deserted office.
The unnatural silence in the building began to get on his nerves. He shifted his chair over to the phone-screen and switched it on to receive. The screen exploded with color and sound. At first Jason could make no sense of it at all. Just a confused jumble of faces and voices. It was a multi-channel set designed for military use. A number of images were carried on the screen at one time, rows of heads or hazy backgrounds where the user had left the field of view. Many of the heads were talking at the same time and the babble of their voices made no sense whatsoever.
After examining the controls and making a few experiments, Jason began to understand the operation. Though all stations were on the screen at all times, their audio channels could be controlled. In that way two, three or more stations could be hooked together in a link-up. They would be in round-robin communication with each other, yet never out of contact with the other stations.
Identification between voice and sound was automatic. Whenever one of the pictured images spoke, the image would glow red. By trial and error Jason brought in the audio for the stations he wanted and tried to follow the course of the attack.
Very quickly he realized this was something out of the ordinary. In some way, no one made it clear, a section of the perimeter had been broken through and emergency defenses had to be thrown up to encapsulate it. Kerk seemed to be in charge, at least he was the only one with an override transmitter. He used it for general commands. The many, tiny images faded and his face appeared on top of them, filling the entire screen.
"All perimeter stations send twenty-five per cent of your complement to Area Twelve."
The small images reappeared and the babble increased, red lights flickering from face to face.
"... Abandon the first floor, acid bombs can't reach."
"If we hold we'll be cut off, but salient is past us on the west flank. Request support."
"DON'T MERVV ... IT'S USELESS!"
"... And the napalm tanks are almost gone. Orders?"
"The truck is still there, get it to the supply warehouse, you'll find replacements ..."
* * * * *
Out of the welter of talk, only the last two fragments made any sense. Jason had noticed the signs below when he came in. The first two floors of the building below him were jammed with military supplies. This was his chance to get into the act.
Just sitting and watching was frustrating. Particularly when it was a desperate emergency. He didn't overvalue his worth, but he was sure there was always room for another gun.
By the time he had dragged himself down to the street level a turbo-truck had slammed to a stop in front of the loading platform. Two Pyrrans were rolling out drums of napalm with reckless disregard for their own safety. Jason didn't dare enter that maelstrom of rolling metal. He found he could be of use tugging the heavy drums into position on the truck while the others rolled them up. They accepted his aid without acknowledgment.
It was exhausting, sweaty work, hauling the leaden drums into place against the heavy gravity. After a minute Jason worked by touch through a red haze of hammering blood. He realized the job was done only when the truck suddenly leaped forward and he was thrown to the floor. He lay there, his chest heaving. As the driver hurled the heavy vehicle along, all Jason could do was bounce around in the bottom. He could see well enough, but was still gasping for breath when they braked at the fighting zone.
To Jason, it was a scene of incredible confusion. Guns firing, flames, men and women running on all sides. The napalm drums were unloaded without his help and the truck vanished for more. Jason leaned against a wall of a half-destroyed building and tried to get his bearings. It was impossible. There seemed to be a great number of small animals: he killed two that attacked him. Other than that he couldn't determine the nature of the battle.
A Pyrran, tan face white with pain and exertion, stumbled up. His right arm, wet with raw flesh and dripping blood, hung limply at his side. It was covered with freshly applied surgical foam. He held his gun in his left hand, a stump of control cable dangling from it. Jason thought the man was looking for medical aid. He couldn't have been more wrong.
Clenching the gun in his teeth, the Pyrran clutched a barrel of napalm with his good hand and hurled it over on its side. Then, with the gun once more in his hand, he began to roll the drum along the ground with his feet. It was slow, cumbersome work, but he was still in the fight.
Jason pushed through the hurrying crowd and bent over the drum. "Let me do it," he said. "You can cover us both with your gun."
The man wiped the sweat from his eyes with the back of his arm and blinked at Jason. He seemed to recognize him. When he smiled it was a grimace of pain, empty of humor. "Do that. I can still shoot. Two half men—maybe we equal one whole." Jason was laboring too hard to even notice the insult.
* * * * *
An explosion had blasted a raw pit in the street ahead. Two people were at the bottom, digging it even deeper with shovels. The whole thing seemed meaningless. Just as Jason and the wounded man rolled up the drum the diggers leaped out of the excavation and began shooting down into its depths. One of them turned, a young girl, barely in her teens.
"Praise Perimeter!" she breathed. "They found the napalm. One of the new horrors is breaking through towards Thirteen, we just found it." Even as she talked she swiveled the drum around, kicked the easy-off plug, and began dumping the gelid contents into the hole. When half of it had gurgled down, she kicked the drum itself in. Her companion pulled a flare from his belt, lit it, and threw it after the drum.
"Back quick. They don't like heat," he said.
This was putting it very mildly. The napalm caught, tongues of flame and roiling, greasy smoke climbed up to the sky. Under Jason's feet the earth shifted and moved. Something black and long stirred in the heart of the flame, then arched up into the sky over their heads. In the midst of the searing heat it still moved with alien, jolting motions. It was immense, at least two meters thick and with no indication of its length. The flames didn't stop it at all, just annoyed it.
Jason had some idea of the thing's length as the street cracked and buckled for fifty meters on each side of the pit. Great loops of the creature began to emerge from the ground. He fired his gun, as did the others. Not that it seemed to have any effect. More and more people were appearing, armed with a variety of weapons. Flame-throwers and grenades seemed to be the most effective.
"Clear the area ... we're going to saturate it. Fall back."
The voice was so loud it jarred Jason's ear. He turned and recognized Kerk, who had arrived with truckloads of equipment. He had a power speaker on his back, the mike hung in front of his lips. His amplified voice brought an instant reaction from the crowd. They began to move.
There was still doubt in Jason's mind what to do. Clear the area? But what area? He started towards Kerk, before he realized that the rest of the Pyrrans were going in the opposite direction. Even under two gravities they moved.
Jason had a naked feeling of being alone on the stage. He was in the center of the street, and the others had vanished. No one remained. Except the wounded man Jason had helped. He stumbled towards Jason, waving his good arm. Jason couldn't understand what he said. Kerk was shouting orders again from one of the trucks. They had started to move too. The urgency struck home and Jason started to run.
It was too late. On all sides the earth was buckling, cracking, as more loops of the underground thing forced its way into the light. Safety lay ahead. Only in front of it rose an arch of dirt-encrusted gray.
* * * * *
There are seconds of time that seem to last an eternity. A moment of subjective time that is grabbed and stretched to an infinite distance. This was one of those moments. Jason stood, frozen. Even the smoke in the sky hung unmoving. The high-standing loop of alien life was before him, every detail piercingly clear.
Thick as a man, ribbed and gray as old bark. Tendrils projected from all parts of it, pallid and twisting lengths that writhed slowly with snakelike life. Shaped like a plant, yet with the motions of an animal. And cracking, splitting. This was the worst.
Seams and openings appeared. Splintering, gaping mouths that vomited out a horde of pallid animals. Jason heard their shriekings, shrill yet remote. He saw the needlelike teeth that lined their jaws.
The paralysis of the unknown held him there. He should have died. Kerk was thundering at him through the power speaker, others were firing into the attacking creature. Jason knew nothing.
Then he was shot forward, pushed by a rock-hard shoulder. The wounded man was still there, trying to get Jason clear. Gun clenched in his jaws he dragged Jason along with his good arm. Towards the creature. The others stopped firing. They saw his plan and it was a good one.
A loop of the thing arched into the air, leaving an opening between its body and the ground. The wounded Pyrran planted his feet and tightened his muscles. One-handed, with a single thrust, he picked Jason off the ground and sent him hurtling under the living arch. Moving tendrils brushed fire along his face, then he was through, rolling over and over on the ground. The wounded Pyrran leaped after him.
It was too late. There had been a chance for one person to get out. The Pyrran could have done it easily—instead he had pushed Jason first. The thing was aware of movement when Jason brushed its tendrils. It dropped and caught the wounded man under its weight. He vanished from sight as the tendrils wrapped around him and the animals swarmed over. His trigger must have pulled back to full automatic because the gun kept firing a long time after he should have been dead.
Jason crawled. Some of the fanged animals ran towards him, but were shot. He knew nothing about this. Then rude hands grabbed him up and pulled him forward. He slammed into the side of a truck and Kerk's face was in front of his, flushed and angry. One of the giant fists closed on the front of Jason's clothes and he was lifted off his feet, shaken like a limp bag of rags. He offered no protest and could not have even if Kerk had killed him.
When he was thrown to the ground, someone picked him up and slid him into the back of the truck. He did not lose consciousness as the truck bounced away, yet he could not move. In a moment the fatigue would go away and he would sit up. That was all he was, just a little tired. Even as he thought this he passed out.
"Just like old times," Jason said when Brucco came into the room with a tray of food. Without a word Brucco served Jason and the wounded men in the other beds, then left. "Thanks," Jason called after his retreating back.
A joke, a twist of a grin, like it always was. Sure. But even as he grinned and his lips shaped a joke, Jason felt them like a veneer on the outside. Something plastered on with a life of its own. Inside he was numb and immovable. His body was stiff as his eyes still watched that arch of alien flesh descend and smother the one-armed Pyrran with its million burning fingers.
He could feel himself under the arch. After all, hadn't the wounded man taken his place? He finished the meal without realizing that he ate.
Ever since that morning, when he had recovered consciousness, it had been like this. He knew that he should have died out there in that battle-torn street. His life should have been snuffed out, for making the mistake of thinking that he could actually help the battling Pyrrans. Instead of being underfoot and in the way. If it hadn't been for Jason, the man with the wounded arm would have been brought here to the safety of the reorientation buildings. He knew he was lying in the bed that belonged to that man.
The man who had given his life for Jason's.
The man whose name he didn't even know.
There were drugs in the food and they made him sleep. The medicated pads soaked the pain and rawness out of the burns where the tentacles had seared his face. When he awoke the second time, his touch with reality had been restored.
A man had died so he could live. Jason faced the fact. He couldn't restore that life, no matter how much he wanted to. What he could do was make the man's death worth while. If it can be said that any death was worth while ... He forced his thoughts from that track.
Jason knew what he had to do. His work was even more important now. If he could solve the riddle of this deadly world, he could repay in part the debt he owed.
Sitting up made his head spin and he held to the edge of the bed until it slowed down. The others in the room ignored him as he slowly and painfully dragged on his clothes. Brucco came in, saw what he was doing, and left again without a word.
Dressing took a long time, but it was finally done. When Jason finally left the room he found Kerk waiting for him.
"Kerk ... I want to tell you ..."
"Tell me nothing!" The thunder of Kerk's voice bounced back from the ceiling and walls. "I'm telling you. I'll tell you once and that will be the end of it. You're not wanted on Pyrrus, Jason dinAlt, neither you nor your precious off-world schemes are wanted here. I let you convince me once with your twisted tongue. Helped you at the expense of more important work. I should have known what the result of your 'logic' would be. Now I've seen. Welf died so you could live. He was twice the man you will ever be."
"Welf? Was that his name?" Jason asked stumblingly. "I didn't know—"
"You didn't even know." Kerk's lips pulled back from his teeth in a grimace of disgust. "You didn't even know his name—yet he died that you might continue your miserable existence." Kerk spat, as if the words gave a vile flavor to his speech, and stamped towards the exit lock. Almost as an afterthought he turned back to Jason.
"You'll stay here in the sealed buildings until the ship returns in two weeks. Then you will leave this planet and never come back. If you do, I'll kill you instantly. With pleasure." He started through the lock.
"Wait," Jason shouted. "You can't decide like that. You haven't even seen the evidence I've uncovered. Ask Meta—" The lock thumped shut and Kerk was gone.
* * * * *
The whole thing was just too stupid. Anger began to replace the futile despair of a moment before. He was being treated like an irresponsible child, the importance of his discovery of the log completely ignored.
Jason turned and saw for the first time that Brucco was standing there. "Did you hear that?" Jason asked him.
"Yes. And I quite agree. You can consider yourself lucky."
"Lucky!" Jason was the angry one now. "Lucky to be treated like a moronic child, with contempt for everything I do—"
"I said lucky," Brucco snapped. "Welf was Kerk's only surviving son. Kerk had high hopes for him, was training him to take his place eventually." He turned to leave but Jason called after him.
"Wait. I'm sorry about Welf. I can't be any sorrier knowing that he was Kerk's son. But at least it explains why Kerk is so quick to throw me out—as well as the evidence I have uncovered. The log of the ship—"
"I know, I've seen it," Brucco said. "Meta brought it in. Very interesting historical document."
"That's all you can see it as—an historical document? The significance of the planetary change escapes you?"
"It doesn't escape me," Brucco answered briefly, "but I cannot see that it has any relevancy today. The past is unchangeable and we must fight in the present. That is enough to occupy all our energies."
Jason felt too exhausted to argue the point any more. He ran into the same stone wall with all the Pyrrans. Theirs was a logic of the moment. The past and the future unchangeable, unknowable—and uninteresting. "How is the perimeter battle going?" he asked, wanting to change the subject.
"Finished. Or in the last stages at least," Brucco was almost enthusiastic as he showed Jason some stereos of the attackers. He did not notice Jason's repressed shudder.
"This was one of the most serious breakthroughs in years, but we caught it in time. I hate to think what would have happened if they hadn't been detected for a few weeks more."
"What are those things?" Jason asked. "Giant snakes of some kind?"
"Don't be absurd," Brucco snorted. He tapped the stereo with his thumbnail. "Roots. That's all. Greatly modified, but still roots. They came in under the perimeter barrier, much deeper than anything we've had before. Not a real threat in themselves as they have very little mobility. Die soon after being cut. The danger came from their being used as access tunnels. They're bored through and through with animal runs, and two or three species of beasts live in a sort of symbiosis inside.
"Now we know what they are we can watch for them. The danger was they could have completely undermined the perimeter and come in from all sides at once. Not much we could have done then."
The edge of destruction. Living on the lip of a volcano. The Pyrrans took satisfaction from any day that passed without total annihilation. There seemed no way to change their attitude. Jason let the conversation die there. He picked up the log of the Pollux Victory from Brucco's quarters and carried it back to his room. The wounded Pyrrans there ignored him as he dropped onto the bed and opened the book to the first page.
For two days he did not leave his quarters. The wounded men were soon gone and he had the room to himself. Page by page he went through the log, until he knew every detail of the settlement of Pyrrus. His notes and cross-references piled up. He made an accurate map of the original settlement, superimposed over a modern one. They didn't match at all.
It was a dead end. With one map held over the other, what he had suspected was painfully clear. The descriptions of terrain and physical features in the log were accurate enough. The city had obviously been moved since the first landing. Whatever records had been kept would be in the library—and he had exhausted that source. Anything else would have been left behind and long since destroyed.
Rain lashed against the thick window above his head, lit suddenly by a flare of lightning. The unseen volcanoes were active again, vibrating the floor with their rumblings deep in the earth.
The shadow of defeat pressed heavily down on Jason. Rounding his shoulders and darkening, even more, the overcast day.
Jason spent one depressed day lying on his bunk counting rivets, forcing himself to accept defeat. Kerk's order that he was not to leave the sealed building tied his hands completely. He felt himself close to the answer—but he was never going to get it.
One day of defeat was all he could take. Kerk's attitude was completely emotional, untempered by the slightest touch of logic. This fact kept driving home until Jason could no longer ignore it. Emotional reasoning was something he had learned to mistrust early in life. He couldn't agree with Kerk in the slightest—which meant he had to utilize the ten remaining days to solve the problem. If it meant disobeying Kerk, it would still have to be done.
He grabbed up his noteplate with a new enthusiasm. His first sources of information had been used up, but there must be others. Chewing the scriber and needling his brain, he slowly built up a list of other possibilities. Any idea, no matter how wild, was put down. When the plate was filled he wiped the long shots and impossibles—such as consulting off-world historical records. This was a Pyrran problem, and had to be settled on this planet or not at all.
The list worked down to two probables. Either old records, notebooks or diaries that individual Pyrrans might have in their possession, or verbal histories that had been passed down the generations by word of mouth. The first choice seemed to be the most probable and he acted on it at once. After a careful check of his medikit and gun he went to see Brucco.
"What's new and deadly in the world since I left?" he asked.
Brucco glared at him. "You can't go out, Kerk has forbidden it."
"Did he put you in charge of guarding me to see if I obeyed?" Jason's voice was quiet and cold.
Brucco rubbed his jaw and frowned in thought. Finally he just shrugged. "No, I'm not guarding you—nor do I want the job. As far as I know this is between you and Kerk and it can stay that way. Leave whenever you want. And get yourself killed quietly some place so there will be an end to the trouble you cause once and for all."
"I love you, too," Jason said. "Now brief me on the wildlife."
The only new mutation that routine precautions wouldn't take care of was a slate-colored lizard that spit a fast nerve poison with deadly accuracy. Death took place in seconds if the saliva touched any bare skin. The lizards had to be looked out for, and shot before they came within range. An hour of lizard-blasting in a training chamber made him proficient in the exact procedure.
* * * * *
Jason left the sealed buildings quietly and no one saw him go. He followed the map to the nearest barracks, shuffling tiredly through the dusty streets. It was a hot, quiet afternoon, broken only by rumblings from the distance, and the occasional crack of his gun.
It was cool inside the thick-walled barracks buildings, and he collapsed onto a bench until the sweat dried and his heart stopped pounding. Then he went to the nearest recreation room to start his search.
Before it began it was finished. None of the Pyrrans kept old artifacts of any kind and thought the whole idea was very funny. After the twentieth negative answer Jason was ready to admit defeat in this line of investigation. There was as much chance of meeting a Pyrran with old documents as finding a bundle of grandfather's letters in a soldier's kit bag.
This left a single possibility—verbal histories. Again Jason questioned with the same lack of results. The fun had worn off the game for the Pyrrans and they were beginning to growl. Jason stopped while he was still in one piece. The commissary served him a meal that tasted like plastic paste and wood pulp. He ate it quickly, then sat brooding over the empty tray, hating to admit to another dead end. Who could supply him with answers? All the people he had talked to were so young. They had no interest or patience for story-telling. That was an old folks' hobby—and there were no oldsters on Pyrrus.
With one exception that he knew of, the librarian, Poli. It was a possibility. A man who worked with records and books might have an interest in some of the older ones. He might even remember reading volumes now destroyed. A very slim lead indeed, but one that had to be pursued.
Walking to the library almost killed Jason. The torrential rains made the footing bad, and in the dim light it was hard to see what was coming. A snapper came in close enough to take out a chunk of flesh before he could blast it. The antitoxin made him dizzy and he lost some blood before he could get the wound dressed. He reached the library, exhausted and angry.
Poli was working on the guts of one of the catalogue machines. He didn't stop until Jason had tapped him on the shoulder. Switching on his hearing aid, the Pyrran stood quietly, crippled and bent, waiting for Jason to talk.
"Have you any old papers or letters that you have kept for your personal use?"
A shake of the head, no.
"What about stories—you know, about great things that have happened in the past, that someone might have told you when you were young?" Negative.
Results negative. Every question was answered by a shake of Poli's head, and very soon the old man grew irritated and pointed to the work he hadn't finished.
"Yes, I know you have work to do," Jason said. "But this is important." Poli shook his head an angry no and reached to turn off his hearing aid. Jason groped for a question that might get a more positive answer. There was something tugging at his mind, a word he had heard and made a note of, to be investigated later. Something that Kerk had said ...
"That's it!" It was right there—on the tip of his tongue. "Just a second, Poli, just one more question. What is a 'grubber'? Have you ever seen one or know what they do, or where they can be found—"
The words were cut off as Poli whirled and lashed the back of his good arm into Jason's face. Though the man was aged and crippled, the blow almost fractured Jason's jaw, sending him sliding across the floor. Through a daze he saw Poli hobbling towards him, making thick bubbling noises in his ruined throat; what remained of his face twisted and working with anger.
This was no time for diplomacy. Moving as fast as he could, with the high-G, foot-slapping shuffle, Jason headed for the sealed door. He was no match for any Pyrran in hand-to-hand combat, young and small or old and crippled. The door thunked open, as he went through, and barely closed in Poli's face.
Outside the rain had turned to snow and Jason trudged wearily through the slush, rubbing his sore jaw and turning over the only fact he had. Grubber was a key—but to what? And who did he dare ask for more information? Kerk was the man he had talked to best, but not any more. That left only Meta as a possible source. He wanted to see her at once, but sudden exhaustion swept through him. It took all of his strength to stumble back to the school buildings.
* * * * *
In the morning he ate and left early. There was only a week left. It was impossible to hurry and he cursed as he dragged his double-weight body to the assignment center. Meta was on night perimeter duty and should be back to her quarters soon. He shuffled over there and was lying on her bunk when she came in.
"Get out," she said in a flat voice. "Or do I throw you out?"
"Patience, please," he said as he sat up. "Just resting here until you came back. I have a single question, and if you will answer it for me I'll go and stop bothering you."
"What is it?" she asked, tapping her foot with impatience. But there was also a touch of curiosity in her voice. Jason thought carefully before he spoke.
"Now please, don't shoot me. You know I'm an off-worlder with a big mouth, and you have heard me say some awful things without taking a shot at me. Now I have another one. Will you please show your superiority to the other people of the galaxy by holding your temper and not reducing me to component atoms?"
His only answer was a tap of the foot, so he took a deep breath and plunged in.
"What is a 'grubber'?"
For a long moment she was quiet, unmoving. Then she curled her lips back in disgust. "You find the most repulsive topics."
"That may be so," he said, "but it still doesn't answer my question."
"It's ... well, the sort of thing people just don't talk about."
"I do," he assured her.
"Well, I don't! It's the most disgusting thing in the world, and that's all I'm going to say. Talk to Krannon, but not to me." She had him by the arm while she talked and he was half dragged to the hall. The door slammed behind him and he muttered "lady wrestler" under his breath. His anger ebbed away as he realized that she had given him a clue in spite of herself. Next step, find out who or what Krannon was.
Assignment center listed a man named Krannon, and gave his shift number and work location. It was close by and Jason walked there. A large, cubical, and windowless building, with the single word food next to each of the sealed entrances. The small entrance he went through was a series of automatic chambers that cycled him through ultrasonics, ultraviolet, antibio spray, rotating brushes and three final rinses. He was finally admitted, damper but much cleaner to the central area. Men and robots were stacking crates and he asked one of the men for Krannon. The man looked him up and down coldly and spat on his shoes before answering.
Krannon worked in a large storage bay by himself. He was a stocky man in patched coveralls whose only expression was one of intense gloom. When Jason came in he stopped hauling bales and sat down on the nearest one. The lines of unhappiness were cut into his face and seemed to grow deeper while Jason explained what he was after. All the talk of ancient history on Pyrrus bored him as well and he yawned openly. When Jason finished he yawned again and didn't even bother to answer him.
Jason waited a moment, then asked again. "I said do you have any old books, papers, records or that sort of thing?"
"You sure picked the right guy to bother, off-worlder," was his only answer. "After talking to me you're going to have nothing but trouble."
"Why is that?" Jason asked.
"Why?" For the first time he was animated with something besides grief. "I'll tell you why! I made one mistake, just one, and I get a life sentence. For life—how would you like that? Just me alone, being by myself all the time. Even taking orders from the grubbers."
Jason controlled himself, keeping the elation out of his voice. "Grubbers? What are grubbers?"
The enormity of the question stopped Krannon, it seemed impossible that there could be a man alive who had never heard of grubbers. Happiness lifted some of the gloom from his face as he realized that he had a captive audience who would listen to his troubles.
"Grubbers are traitors—that's what they are. Traitors to the human race and they ought to be wiped out. Living in the jungle. The things they do with the animals—"
"You mean they're people ... Pyrrans like yourself?" Jason broke in.
"Not like me, mister. Don't make that mistake again if you want to go on living. Maybe I dozed off on guard once so I got stuck with this job. That doesn't mean I like it or like them. They stink, really stink, and if it wasn't for the food we get from them they'd all be dead tomorrow. That's the kind of killing job I could really put my heart into."
"If they supply you with food, you must give them something in return?"
"Trade goods, beads, knives, the usual things. Supply sends them over in cartons and I take care of the delivery."
"How?" Jason asked.
"By armored truck to the delivery site. Then I go back later to pick up the food they've left in exchange."
"Can I go with you on the next delivery?"
Krannon frowned over the idea for a minute. "Yeah, I suppose it's all right if you're stupid enough to come. You can help me load. They're between harvests now, so the next trip won't be for eight days—"
"But that's after the ship leaves—it'll be too late. Can't you go earlier?"
"Don't tell me your troubles, mister," Krannon grumbled, climbing to his feet. "That's when I go and the date's not changing for you."
Jason realized he had got as much out of the man as was possible for one session. He started for the door, then turned.
"One thing," he asked. "Just what do these savages—the grubbers—look like?"
"How do I know," Krannon snapped. "I trade with them, I don't make love to them. If I ever saw one, I'd shoot him down on the spot." He flexed his fingers and his gun jumped in and out of his hand as he said it. Jason quietly let himself out.
Lying on his bunk, resting his gravity-weary body, he searched for a way to get Krannon to change the delivery date. His millions of credits were worthless on this world without currency. If the man couldn't be convinced, he had to be bribed. With what? Jason's eyes touched the locker where his off-world clothing still hung, and he had an idea.
It was morning before he could return to the food warehouse—and one day closer to his deadline. Krannon didn't bother to look up from his work when Jason came in.
"Do you want this?" Jason asked, handing the outcast a flat gold case inset with a single large diamond. Krannon grunted and turned it over in his hands.
"A toy," he said. "What is it good for?"
"Well, when you press this button you get a light." A flame appeared through a hole in the top. Krannon started to hand it back.
"What do I need a little fire for? Here, keep it."
"Wait a second," Jason said, "that's not all it does. When you press the jewel in the center one of these comes out." A black pellet the size of his fingernail dropped into his palm. "A grenade, made of solid ulranite. Just squeeze it hard and throw. Three seconds later it explodes with enough force to blast open this building."
This time Krannon almost smiled as he reached for the case. Destructive and death-dealing weapons are like candy to a Pyrran. While he looked at it Jason made his offer.
"The case and bombs are yours if you move the date of your next delivery up to tomorrow—and let me go with you."
"Be here at 0500," Krannon said. "We leave early."
The truck rumbled up to the perimeter gate and stopped. Krannon waved to the guards through the front window, then closed a metal shield over it. When the gates swung open the truck—really a giant armored tank—ground slowly forward. There was a second gate beyond the first, that did not open until the interior one was closed. Jason looked through the second-driver's periscope as the outer gate lifted. Automatic flame-throwers flared through the opening, cutting off only when the truck reached them. A scorched area ringed the gate, beyond that the jungle began. Unconsciously Jason shrank back in his seat.
All the plants and animals he had seen only specimens of, existed here in profusion. Thorn-ringed branches and vines laced themselves into a solid mat, through which the wild life swarmed. A fury of sound hurled at them, thuds and scratchings rang on the armor. Krannon laughed and closed the switch that electrified the outer grid. The scratchings died away as the beasts completed the circuit to the grounded hull.
It was slow-speed, low-gear work tearing through the jungle. Krannon had his face buried in the periscope mask and silently fought the controls. With each mile the going seemed to get better, until he finally swung up the periscope and opened the window armor. The jungle was still thick and deadly, but nothing like the area immediately around the perimeter. It appeared as if most of the lethal powers of Pyrrus were concentrated in the single area around the settlement. Why? Jason asked himself. Why this intense and planetary hatred?
The motors died and Krannon stood up, stretching. "We're here," he said. "Let's unload."
There was bare rock around the truck, a rounded hillock that projected from the jungle, too smooth and steep for vegetation to get a hold. Krannon opened the cargo hatches and they pushed out the boxes and crates. When they finished Jason slumped down, exhausted, onto the pile.
"Get back in, we're leaving," Krannon said.
"You are, I'm staying right here."
Krannon looked at him coldly. "Get in the truck or I'll kill you. No one stays out here. For one thing you couldn't live an hour alone. But worse than that the grubbers would get you. Kill you at once, of course, but that's not important. But you have equipment that we can't allow into their hands. You want to see a grubber with a gun?"
While the Pyrran talked, Jason's thoughts had rushed ahead. He hoped that Krannon was as thick of head as he was fast of reflex.
Jason looked at the trees, let his gaze move up through the thick branches. Though Krannon was still talking, he was automatically aware of Jason's attention. When Jason's eyes widened and his gun jumped into his hand, Krannon's own gun appeared and he turned in the same direction.
"There—in the top!" Jason shouted, and fired into the tangle of branches. Krannon fired, too. As soon as he did, Jason hurled himself backwards, curled into a ball, rolling down the inclined rock. The shots had covered the sounds of his movements, and before Krannon could turn back the gravity had dragged him down the rock into the thick foliage. Crashing branches slapped at him, but slowed his fall. When he stopped moving he was lost in the tangle. Krannon's shots came too late to hit him.
Lying there, tired and bruised, Jason heard the Pyrran cursing him out. He stamped around on the rock, fired a few shots, but knew better than to enter the trees. Finally he gave up and went back to the truck. The motor gunned into life and the treads clanked and scraped down the rock and back into the jungle. There were muted rumblings and crashes that slowly died away.
Then Jason was alone.
* * * * *
Up until that instant he hadn't realized quite how alone he would be. Surrounded by nothing but death, the truck already vanished from sight. He had to force down an overwhelming desire to run after it. What was done was done.
This was a long chance to take, but it was the only way to contact the grubbers. They were savages, but still they had come from human stock. And they hadn't sunk so low as to stop the barter with the civilized Pyrrans. He had to contact them, befriend them. Find out how they had managed to live safely on this madhouse world.
If there had been another way to lick the problem, he would have taken it; he didn't relish the role of martyred hero. But Kerk and his deadline had forced his hand. The contact had to be made fast and this was the only way.
There was no telling where the savages were, or how soon they would arrive. If the woods weren't too lethal he could hide there, pick his time to approach them. If they found him among the supplies, they might skewer him on the spot with a typical Pyrran reflex.
Walking warily he approached the line of trees. Something moved on a branch, but vanished as he came near. None of the plants near a thick-trunked tree looked poisonous, so he slipped behind it. There was nothing deadly in sight and it surprised him. He let his body relax a bit, leaning against the rough bark.
Something soft and choking fell over his head, his body was seized in a steel grip. The more he struggled the tighter it held him until the blood thundered in his ears and his lungs screamed for air.
Only when he grew limp did the pressure let up. His first panic ebbed a little when he realized that it wasn't an animal that attacked him. He knew nothing about the grubbers, but they were human so he still had a chance.
His arms and legs were tied, the power holster ripped from his arm. He felt strangely naked without it. The powerful hands grabbed him again and he was hurled into the air, to fall face down across something warm and soft. Fear pressed in again, it was a large animal of some kind. And all Pyrran animals were deadly.
When the animal moved off, carrying him, panic was replaced by a feeling of mounting elation. The grubbers had managed to work out a truce of some kind with at least one form of animal life. He had to find out how. If he could get that secret—and get it back to the city—it would justify all his work and pain. It might even justify Welf's death if the age-old war could be slowed or stopped.
Jason's tightly bound limbs hurt terribly at first, but grew numb with the circulation shut off. The jolting ride continued endlessly, he had no way of measuring the time. A rainfall soaked him, then he felt his clothes steaming as the sun came out.
The ride was finally over. He was pulled from the animal's back and dumped down. His arms dropped free as someone loosed the bindings. The returning circulation soaked him in pain as he lay there, struggling to move. When his hands finally obeyed him he lifted them to his face and stripped away the covering, a sack of thick fur. Light blinded him as he sucked in breath after breath of clean air.
Blinking against the glare, he looked around. He was lying on a floor of crude planking, the setting sun shining into his eyes through the doorless entrance of the building. There was a ploughed field outside, stretching down the curve of hill to the edge of the jungle. It was too dark to see much inside the hut.
Something blocked the light of the doorway, a tall animallike figure. On second look Jason realized it was a man with long hair and thick beard. He was dressed in furs, even his legs were wrapped in fur leggings. His eyes were fixed on his captive, while one hand fondled an ax that hung from his waist.
"Who're you? What y'want?" the bearded man asked suddenly.
Jason picked his words slowly, wondering if this savage shared the same hair-trigger temper as the city dwellers.
"My name is Jason. I come in peace. I want to be your friend ..."
"Lies!" the man grunted, and pulled the ax from his belt. "Junkman tricks. I saw y'hide. Wait to kill me. Kill you first." He tested the edge of the blade with a horny thumb, then raised it.
"Wait!" Jason said desperately. "You don't understand."
The ax swung down.
"I'm from off-world and—"
A solid thunk shook him as the ax buried itself in the wood next to his head. At the last instant the man had twitched it aside. He grabbed the front of Jason's clothes and pulled him up until their faces touched.
"S'true?" he shouted. "Y'from off-world?" His hand opened and Jason dropped back before he could answer. The savage jumped over him, towards the dim rear of the hut.
"Rhes must know of this," he said as he fumbled with something on the wall. Light sprang out.
All Jason could do was stare. The hairy, fur-covered savage was operating a communicator. The calloused, dirt-encrusted fingers deftly snapped open the circuits, dialed a number.
It made no sense. Jason tried to reconcile the modern machine with the barbarian and couldn't. Who was he calling? The existence of one communicator meant there was at least another. Was Rhes a person or a thing?
With a mental effort he grabbed hold of his thoughts and braked them to a stop. There was something new here, factors he hadn't counted on. He kept reassuring himself there was an explanation for everything, once you had your facts straight.
Jason closed his eyes, shutting out the glaring rays of the sun where it cut through the tree tops, and reconsidered his facts. They separated evenly into two classes; those he had observed for himself, and those he had learned from the city dwellers. This last class of "facts" he would hold, to see if they fitted with what he learned. There was a good chance that most, or all, of them would prove false.
"Get up," the voice jarred into his thoughts. "We're leaving."
His legs were still numb and hardly usable. The bearded man snorted in disgust and hauled him to his feet, propping him against the outer wall. Jason clutched the knobby bark of the logs when he was left alone. He looked around, soaking up impressions.
It was the first time he had been on a farm since he had run away from home. A different world with a different ecology, but the similarity was apparent enough to him. A new-sown field stretched down the hill in front of the shack. Ploughed by a good farmer. Even, well cast furrows that followed the contour of the slope. Another, larger log building was next to this one, probably a barn.
There was a snuffling sound behind him and Jason turned quickly—and froze. His hand called for the missing gun and his finger tightened down on a trigger that wasn't there.
It had come out of the jungle and padded up quietly behind him. It had six thick legs with clawed feet that dug into the ground. The two-meter long body was covered with matted yellow and black fur, all except the skull and shoulders. These were covered with overlapping horny plates. Jason could see all this because the beast was that close.
He waited to die.
The mouth opened, a froglike division of the hairless skull, revealing double rows of jagged teeth.
"Here, Fido," the bearded man said, coming up behind Jason and snapping his fingers at the same time. The thing bounded forward, brushing past the dazed Jason, and rubbed his head against the man's leg. "Nice doggy," the man said, his fingers scratching under the edge of the carapace where it joined the flesh.
The bearded man had brought two of the riding animals out of the barn, saddled and bridled. Jason barely noticed the details of smooth skin and long legs as he swung up on one. His feet were quickly lashed to the stirrups. When they started the skull-headed beast followed them.
"Nice doggy!" Jason said, and for no reason started to laugh. The bearded man turned and scowled at him until he was quiet.
* * * * *
By the time they entered the jungle it was dark. It was impossible to see under the thick foliage, and they used no lights. The animals seemed to know the way. There were scraping noises and shrill calls from the jungle around them, but it didn't bother Jason too much. Perhaps the automatic manner in which the other man undertook the journey reassured him. Or the presence of the "dog" that he felt rather than saw. The trip was a long one, but not too uncomfortable.
The regular motion of the animal and his fatigue overcame Jason and he dozed into a fitful sleep, waking with a start each time he slumped forward. In the end he slept sitting up in the saddle. Hours passed this way, until he opened his eyes and saw a square of light before them. The trip was over.
His legs were stiff and galled with saddle sores. After his feet were untied getting down was an effort, and he almost fell. A door opened and Jason went in. It took his eyes some moments to get used to the light, until he could make out the form of a man on the bed before him.
"Come over here and sit down." The voice was full and strong, accustomed to command. The body was that of an invalid. A blanket covered him to the waist, above that the flesh was sickly white, spotted with red nodules, and hung loosely over the bones. There seemed to be nothing left of the man except skin and skeleton.
"Not very nice," the man on the bed said, "but I've grown used to it." His tone changed abruptly. "Naxa said you were from off-world. Is that true?"
Jason nodded yes, and his answer stirred the living skeleton to life. The head lifted from the pillow and the red-rimmed eyes sought his with a desperate intensity.
"My name is Rhes and I'm a ... grubber. Will you help me?"
Jason wondered at the intensity of Rhes' question, all out of proportion to the simple content of its meaning. Yet he could see no reason to give anything other than the first and obvious answer that sprang to his lips.
"Of course I'll help you, in whatever way I can. As long as it involves no injury to anyone else. What do you want?"
The sick man's head had fallen back limply, exhausted, as Jason talked. But the fire still burned in the eyes.
"Feel assured ... I want to injure no others," Rhes said. "Quite the opposite. As you see I am suffering from a disease that our remedies will not stop. Within a few more days I will be dead. Now I have seen ... the city people ... using a device, they press it over a wound or an animal bite. Do you have one of these machines?"
"That sounds like a description of the medikit." Jason touched the button at his waist that dropped the medikit into his hand. "I have mine here. It analyzes and treats most ..."
"Would you use it on me?" Rhes broke in, his voice suddenly urgent.
"I'm sorry," Jason said. "I should have realized." He stepped forward and pressed the machine over one of the inflamed areas on Rhes' chest. The operation light came on and the thin shaft of the analyzer probe slid down. When it withdrew the device hummed, then clicked three times as three separate hypodermic needles lanced into the skin. Then the light went out.
"Is that all?" Rhes asked, as he watched Jason stow the medikit back in his belt.
Jason nodded, then looked up and noticed the wet marks of tears on the sick man's face. Rhes became aware at the same time and brushed at them angrily.
"When a man is sick," he growled, "the body and all its senses become traitor. I don't think I have cried since I was a child—but you must realize it's not myself I'm crying for. It's the untold thousands of my people who have died for lack of that little device you treat so casually."
"Surely you have medicines, doctors of your own?"
"Herb doctors and witch doctors," Rhes said, consigning them all to oblivion with a chop of his hand. "The few hard-working and honest men are hampered by the fact that the faith healers can usually cure better than their strongest potion."
The talking had tired Rhes. He stopped suddenly and closed his eyes. On his chest, the inflamed areas were already losing their angry color as the injections took affect. Jason glanced around the room, looking for clues to the mystery of these people.
* * * * *
Floor and walls were made of wood lengths fitted together, free of paint or decoration. They looked simple and crude, fit only for the savages he had expected to meet. Or were they crude? The wood had a sweeping, flamelike grain. When he bent close he saw that wax had been rubbed over the wood to bring out this pattern. Was this the act of savages—or of artistic men seeking to make the most of simple materials? The final effect was far superior to the drab paint and riveted steel rooms of the city-dwelling Pyrrans. Wasn't it true that both ends of the artistic scale were dominated by simplicity? The untutored aborigine made a simple expression of a clear idea, and created beauty. At the other extreme, the sophisticated critic rejected over-elaboration and decoration and sought the truthful clarity of uncluttered art. At which end of the scale was he looking now?
These men were savages, he had been told that. They dressed in furs and spoke a slurred and broken language, at least Naxa did. Rhes admitted he preferred faith healers to doctors. But, if all this were true, where did the communicator fit into the picture? Or the glowing ceiling that illuminated the room with a soft light?
Rhes opened his eyes and stared at Jason, as if seeing him for the first time. "Who are you?" he asked. "And what are you doing here?"
There was a cold menace in his words and Jason understood why. The city Pyrrans hated the "grubbers" and, without a doubt, the feeling was mutual. Naxa's ax had proved that. Naxa had entered silently while they talked, and stood with his fingers touching the haft of this same ax. Jason knew his life was still in jeopardy, until he gave an answer that satisfied these men.
He couldn't tell the truth. If they once suspected he was spying among them to aid the city people, it would be the end. Nevertheless, he had to be free to talk about the survival problem.
The answer hit him as soon as he had stated the problem. All this had only taken an instant to consider, as he turned back to face the invalid, and he answered at once. Trying to keep his voice normal and unconcerned.
"I'm Jason dinAlt, an ecologist, so you see I have the best reasons in the universe for visiting this planet—"
"What is an ecologist?" Rhes broke in. There was nothing in his voice to indicate whether he meant the question seriously, or as a trap. All traces of the ease of their earlier conversation were gone, his voice had the deadliness of a stingwing's poison. Jason chose his words carefully.
"Simply stated, it is that branch of biology that considers the relations between organisms and their environment. How climatic and other factors affect the life forms, and how the life forms in turn affect each other and the environment." That much Jason knew was true—but he really knew very little more about the subject so he moved on quickly.
"I heard reports of this planet, and finally came here to study it firsthand. I did what work I could in the shelter of the city, but it wasn't enough. The people there think I'm crazy, but they finally agreed to let me make a trip out here."
"What arrangements have been made for your return?" Naxa snapped.
"None," Jason told him. "They seemed quite sure that I would be killed instantly and had no hope of me coming back. In fact, they refused to let me go and I had to break away."
This answer seemed to satisfy Rhes and his face cracked into a mirthless smile. "They would think that, those junkmen. Can't move a meter outside their own walls without an armor-plated machine as big as a barn. What did they tell you about us?"
Again Jason knew a lot depended on his answer. This time he thought carefully before speaking.
"Well ... perhaps I'll get that ax in the back of my neck for saying this ... but I have to be honest. You must know what they think. They told me you were filthy and ignorant savages who smelled. And you ... well, had curious customs you practiced with the animals. In exchange for food, they traded you beads and knives ..."
Both Pyrrans broke into a convulsion of laughter at this. Rhes stopped soon, from weakness, but Naxa laughed himself into a coughing fit and had to splash water over his head from a gourd jug.
"That I believe well enough," Rhes said, "it sounds like the stupidity they would talk. Those people know nothing of the world they live in. I hope the rest of what you said is true, but even if it is not, you are welcome here. You are from off-world, that I know. No junkman would have lifted a finger to save my life. You are the first off-worlder my people have ever known and for that you are doubly welcome. We will help you in any way we can. My arm is your arm."
These last words had a ritual sound to them, and when Jason repeated them, Naxa nodded at the correctness of this. At the same time, Jason felt that they were more than empty ritual. Interdependence meant survival on Pyrrus, and he knew that these people stood together to the death against the mortal dangers around them. He hoped the ritual would include him in that protective sphere.
"That is enough for tonight," Rhes said. "The spotted sickness had weakened me, and your medicine has turned me to jelly. You will stay here, Jason. There is a blanket, but no bed at least for now."
Enthusiasm had carried Jason this far, making him forget the two-gee exertions of the long day. Now fatigue hit him a physical blow. He had dim memories of refusing food and rolling in the blanket on the floor. After that, oblivion.
Every square inch of his body ached where the doubled gravity had pressed his flesh to the unyielding wood of the floor. His eyes were gummy and his mouth was filled with an indescribable taste that came off in chunks. Sitting up was an effort and he had to stifle a groan as his joints cracked.
"Good day, Jason," Rhes called from the bed. "If I didn't believe in medicine so strongly, I would be tempted to say there is a miracle in your machine that has cured me overnight."
There was no doubt that he was on the mend. The inflamed patches had vanished and the burning light was gone from his eyes. He sat, propped up on the bed, watching the morning sun melt the night's hailstorm into the fields.
"There's meat in the cabinet there," he said, "and either water or visk to drink."
The visk proved to be a distilled beverage of extraordinary potency that instantly cleared the fog from Jason's brain, though it did leave a slight ringing in his ears. And the meat was a tenderly smoked joint, the best food he had tasted since leaving Darkhan. Taken together they restored his faith in life and the future. He lowered his glass with a relaxed sigh and looked around.
With the pressures of immediate survival and exhaustion removed, his thoughts returned automatically to his problem. What were these people really like—and how had they managed to survive in the deadly wilderness? In the city he had been told they were savages. Yet there was a carefully tended and repaired communicator on the wall. And by the door a crossbow—that fired machined metal bolts, he could see the tool marks still visible on their shanks. The one thing he needed was more information. He could start by getting rid of some of his misinformation.
"Rhes, you laughed when I told you what the city people said, about trading you trinkets for food. What do they really trade you?"
"Anything within certain limits," Rhes said. "Small manufactured items, such as electronic components for our communicators. Rustless alloys we can't make in our forges, cutting tools, atomic electric converters that produce power from any radioactive element. Things like that. Within reason they'll trade anything we ask that isn't on the forbidden list. They need the food badly."
"And the items on the forbidden list—?"
"Weapons, of course, or anything that might be made into a powerful weapon. They know we make gunpowder so we can't get anything like large castings or seamless tubing we could make into heavy gun barrels. We drill our own rifle barrels by hand, though the crossbow is quiet and faster in the jungle. Then they don't like us to know very much, so the only reading matter that gets to us are tech maintenance manuals, empty of basic theory.
"The last banned category you know about—medicine. This is the one thing I cannot understand, that makes me burn with hatred with every death they might have prevented."
"I know their reasons," Jason said.
"Then tell me, because I can think of none."
"Survival—it's just that simple. I doubt if you realize it, but they have a decreasing population. It is just a matter of years before they will be gone. Whereas your people at least must have a stable—if not slightly growing population—to have existed without their mechanical protections. So in the city they hate you and are jealous of you at the same time. If they gave you medicine and you prospered, you would be winning the battle they have lost. I imagine they tolerate you as a necessary evil, to supply them with food, otherwise they wish you were all dead."
"It makes sense," Rhes growled, slamming his fist against the bed. "The kind of twisted logic you expect from junkmen. They use us to feed them, give us the absolute minimum in return, and at the same time cut us off from the knowledge that will get us out of this hand to mouth existence. Worse, far worse, they cut us off from the stars and the rest of mankind." The hatred on his face was so strong that Jason unconsciously drew back.
"Do you think we are savages here, Jason? We act and look like animals because we have to fight for existence on an animal level. Yet we know about the stars. In that chest over there, sealed in metal, are over thirty books, all we have. Fiction most of them, with some history and general science thrown in. Enough to keep alive the stories of the settlement here and the rest of the universe outside. We see the ships land in the city and we know that up there are worlds we can only dream about and never see. Do you wonder that we hate these beasts that call themselves men, and would destroy them in an instant if we could? They are right to keep weapons from us—for sure as the sun rises in the morning we would kill them to a man if we were able, and take over the things they have withheld from us."
* * * * *
It was a harsh condemnation, but essentially a truthful one. At least from the point of view of the outsiders. Jason didn't try to explain to the angry man that the city Pyrrans looked on their attitude as being the only possible and logical one. "How did this battle between your two groups ever come about?" he asked.
"I don't know," Rhes said, "I've thought about it many times, but there are no records of that period. We do know that we are all descended from colonists who arrived at the same time. Somewhere, at some time, the two groups separated. Perhaps it was a war, I've read about them in the books. I have a partial theory, though I can't prove it, that it was the location of the city."
"Location—I don't understand."
"Well, you know the junkmen, and you've seen where their city is. They managed to put it right in the middle of the most savage spot on this planet. You know they don't care about any living thing except themselves, shoot and kill is their only logic. So they wouldn't consider where to build their city, and managed to build it in the stupidest spot imaginable. I'm sure my ancestors saw how foolish this was and tried to tell them so. That would be reason enough for a war, wouldn't it?"
"It might have been—if that's really what happened," Jason said. "But I think you have the problem turned backwards. It's a war between native Pyrran life and humans, each fighting to destroy the other. The life forms change continually, seeking that final destruction of the invader."
"Your theory is even wilder than mine," Rhes said. "That's not true at all. I admit that life isn't too easy on this planet ... if what I have read in the books about other planets is true ... but it doesn't change. You have to be fast on your feet and keep your eyes open for anything bigger than you, but you can survive. Anyway, it doesn't really matter why. The junkmen always look for trouble and I'm happy to see that they have enough."
Jason didn't try to press the point. The effort of forcing Rhes to change his basic attitudes wasn't worth it—even if possible. He hadn't succeeded in convincing anyone in the city of the lethal mutations even when they could observe all the facts. Rhes could still supply information though.
"I suppose it's not important who started the battle," Jason said for the other man's benefit, not meaning a word of it, "but you'll have to agree that the city people are permanently at war with all the local life. Your people, though, have managed to befriend at least two species that I have seen. Do you have any idea how this was done?"
"Naxa will be here in a minute," Rhes said, pointing to the door, "as soon as he's taken care of the animals. Ask him. He's the best talker we have."
"Talker?" Jason asked. "I had the opposite idea about him. He didn't talk much, and what he did say was, well ... a little hard to understand at times."
"Not that kind of talking." Rhes broke in impatiently. "The talkers look after the animals. They train the dogs and doryms, and the better ones like Naxa are always trying to work with other beasts. They dress crudely, but they have to. I've heard them say that the animals don't like chemicals, metal or tanned leather, so they wear untanned furs for the most part. But don't let the dirt fool you, it has nothing to do with his intelligence."
"Doryms? Are those your carrying beasts—the kind we rode coming here?"
Rhes nodded. "Doryms are more than pack animals, they're really a little bit of everything. The large males pull the ploughs and other machines, while the younger animals are used for meat. If you want to know more, ask Naxa, you'll find him in the barn."
"I'd like to do that," Jason said, standing up. "Only I feel undressed without my gun—"
"Take it, by all means, it's in that chest by the door. Only watch out what you shoot around here."
* * * * *
Naxa was in the rear of the barn, filing down one of the spadelike toenails of a dorym. It was a strange scene. The fur-dressed man with the great beast—and the contrast of a beryllium-copper file and electroluminescent plates lighting the work.
The dorym opened its nostrils and pulled away when Jason entered; Naxa patted its neck and talked softly until it quieted and stood still, shivering slightly.
Something stirred in Jason's mind, with the feeling of a long unused muscle being stressed. A hauntingly familiar sensation.
"Good morning," Jason said. Naxa grunted something and went back to his filing. Watching him for a few minutes, Jason tried to analyze this new feeling. It itched and slipped aside when he reached for it, escaping him. Whatever it was, it had started when Naxa had talked to the dorym.
"Could you call one of the dogs in here, Naxa? I'd like to see one closer up."
Without raising his head from his work, Naxa gave a low whistle. Jason was sure it couldn't have been heard outside of the barn. Yet within a minute one of the Pyrran dogs slipped quietly in. The talker rubbed the beast's head, mumbling to it, while the animal looked intently into his eyes.
The dog became restless when Naxa turned back to work on the dorym. It prowled around the barn, sniffing, then moved quickly towards the open door. Jason called it back.
At least he meant to call it. At the last moment he said nothing. Nothing aloud. On sudden impulse he kept his mouth closed—only he called the dog with his mind. Thinking the words come here, directing the impulse at the animal with all the force and direction he had ever used to manipulate dice. As he did it he realized it had been a long time since he had even considered using his psi powers.
The dog stopped and turned back towards him.
It hesitated, looking at Naxa, then walked over to Jason.
Seen this closely the beast was a nightmare hound. The hairless protective plates, tiny red-rimmed eyes, and countless, saliva-dripping teeth did little to inspire confidence. Yet Jason felt no fear. There was a rapport between man and animal that was understood. Without conscious thought he reached out and scratched the dog along the back, where he knew it itched.
"Didn't know y're a talker," Naxa said. As he watched them, there was friendship in his voice for the first time.
"I didn't know either—until just now," Jason said. He looked into the eyes of the animal before him, scratched the ridged and ugly back, and began to understand.
The talkers must have well developed psi facilities, that was obvious now. There is no barrier of race or alien form when two creatures share each other's emotions. Empathy first, so there would be no hatred or fear. After that direct communication. The talkers might have been the ones who first broke through the barrier of hatred on Pyrrus and learned to live with the native life. Others could have followed their example—this might explain how the community of "grubbers" had been formed.