[Transcriber's note: This etext was produced from the 1962 book publication of the story, which was originally published in Analog Science Fact-Science Fiction, Sept.-Nov. 1961. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the copyright on this publication was renewed.]
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Brion entered the temple and stood as if rooted to the ground. There was a horror in this place—it clung to everything. Muffled and hooded men stood silent and unmoving about the room, their attention rigidly focused on a figure in the center. Brion wondered how he knew they were men—only their eyes showed, eyes completely empty of expression yet somehow reminding him of a bird of prey.
* * * * *
Then suddenly the figure in the center moved. It was a weird, crazily menacing action—and in an instant Brion knew he had found the enemy, the source of the evil that infected the PLANET OF THE DAMNED.
Bantam Books by Harry Harrison
Ask your bookseller for the books you have missed.
DEATHWORLD DEATHWORLD II PLANET OF THE DAMNED TWO TALES AND EIGHT TOMORROWS THE JUPITER LEGACY (PLAGUE FROM SPACE)
PLANET OF THE DAMNED
BY HARRY HARRISON
A NATIONAL GENERAL COMPANY
PLANET OF THE DAMNED
A Bantam Book / published January 1962 New Bantam edition published February 1971
All rights reserved. Copyright (C) 1962, by Harry Harrison.
This book may not be reproduced in whole or in part, by mimeograph or any other means, without permission.
For information address: Bantam Books, Inc.
* * * * *
Published simultaneously in the United States and Canada
* * * * *
Bantam Books are published by Bantam Books, Inc., a National General company. Its trade-mark, consisting of the words "Bantam Books" and the portrayal of a bantam, is registered in the United States Patent Office and in other countries. Marca Registrada. Bantam Books, Inc., 666 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10019.
* * * * *
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
For my Mother and Father—
RIA AND LEO HARRISON
A man said to the universe: "Sir, I exist!" "However" replied the universe, "The fact has not created in me A sense of obligation."
Sweat covered Brion's body, trickling into the tight loincloth that was the only garment he wore. The light fencing foil in his hand felt as heavy as a bar of lead to his exhausted muscles, worn out by a month of continual exercise. These things were of no importance. The cut on his chest, still dripping blood, the ache of his overstrained eyes—even the soaring arena around him with the thousands of spectators—were trivialities not worth thinking about. There was only one thing in his universe: the button-tipped length of shining steel that hovered before him, engaging his own weapon. He felt the quiver and scrape of its life, knew when it moved and moved himself to counteract it. And when he attacked, it was always there to beat him aside.
A sudden motion. He reacted—but his blade just met air. His instant of panic was followed by a small sharp blow high on his chest.
"Touch!" A world-shaking voice bellowed the word to a million waiting loudspeakers, and the applause of the audience echoed back in a wave of sound.
"One minute," a voice said, and the time buzzer sounded.
Brion had carefully conditioned the reflex in himself. A minute is not a very large measure of time and his body needed every fraction of it. The buzzer's whirr triggered his muscles into complete relaxation. Only his heart and lungs worked on at a strong, measured rate. His eyes closed and he was only distantly aware of his handlers catching him as he fell, carrying him to his bench. While they massaged his limp body and cleansed the wound, all of his attention was turned inward. He was in reverie, sliding along the borders of consciousness. The nagging memory of the previous night loomed up then, and he turned it over and over in his mind, examining it from all sides.
It was the very unexpectedness of the event that had been so unusual. The contestants in the Twenties needed undisturbed rest, therefore nights in the dormitories were as quiet as death. During the first few days, of course, the rule wasn't observed too closely. The men themselves were too keyed up and excited to rest easily. But as soon as the scores began to mount and eliminations cut into their ranks, there was complete silence after dark. Particularly so on this last night, when only two of the little cubicles were occupied, the thousands of others standing with dark, empty doors.
Angry words had dragged Brion from a deep and exhausted sleep. The words were whispered but clear—two voices, just outside the thin metal of his door. Someone spoke his name.
"... Brion Brandd. Of course not. Whoever said you could was making a big mistake and there is going to be trouble—"
"Don't talk like an idiot!" The other voice snapped with a harsh urgency, clearly used to command. "I'm here because the matter is of utmost importance, and Brandd is the one I must see. Now stand aside!"
"I don't give a damn about your games, hearty cheers and physical exercises. This is important, or I wouldn't be here!"
The other didn't speak—he was surely one of the officials—and Brion could sense his outraged anger. He must have drawn his gun, because the intruder said quickly, "Put that away. You're being a fool!"
"Out!" was the single snarled word of the response. There was silence then and, still wondering, Brion was once more asleep.
The voice chopped away Brion's memories and he let awareness seep back into his body. He was unhappily conscious of his total exhaustion. The month of continuous mental and physical combat had taken its toll. It would be hard to stay on his feet, much less summon the strength and skill to fight and win a touch.
"How do we stand?" he asked the handler who was kneading his aching muscles.
"Four-four. All you need is a touch to win!"
"That's all he needs too," Brion grunted, opening his eyes to look at the wiry length of the man at the other end of the long mat. No one who had reached the finals in the Twenties could possibly be a weak opponent, but this one, Irolg, was the pick of the lot. A red-haired mountain of a man, with an apparently inexhaustible store of energy. That was really all that counted now. There could be little art in this last and final round of fencing. Just thrust and parry, and victory to the stronger.
Brion closed his eyes again and knew the moment he had been hoping to avoid had arrived.
Every man who entered the Twenties had his own training tricks. Brion had a few individual ones that had helped him so far. He was a moderately strong chess player, but he had moved to quick victory in the chess rounds by playing incredibly unorthodox games. This was no accident, but the result of years of work. He had a standing order with off-planet agents for archaic chess books, the older the better. He had memorized thousands of these ancient games and openings. This was allowed. Anything was allowed that didn't involve drugs or machines. Self-hypnosis was an accepted tool.
It had taken Brion over two years to find a way to tap the sources of hysterical strength. Common as the phenomenon seemed to be in the textbooks, it proved impossible to duplicate. There appeared to be an immediate association with the death-trauma, as if the two were inextricably linked into one. Berserkers and juramentados continue to fight and kill though carved by scores of mortal wounds. Men with bullets in the heart or brain fight on, though already clinically dead. Death seemed an inescapable part of this kind of strength. But there was another type that could easily be brought about in any deep trance—hypnotic rigidity. The strength that enables someone in a trance to hold his body stiff and unsupported except at two points, the head and heels. This is physically impossible when conscious. Working with this as a clue, Brion had developed a self-hypnotic technique that allowed him to tap this reservoir of unknown strength—the source of "second wind," the survival strength that made the difference between life and death.
It could also kill—exhaust the body beyond hope of recovery, particularly when in a weakened condition as his was now. But that wasn't important. Others had died before during the Twenties, and death during the last round was in some ways easier than defeat.
Breathing deeply, Brion softly spoke the auto-hypnotic phrases that triggered the process. Fatigue fell softly from him, as did all sensations of heat, cold and pain. He could feel with acute sensitivity, hear, and see clearly when he opened his eyes.
With each passing second the power drew at the basic reserves of life, draining it from his body.
When the buzzer sounded he pulled his foil from his second's startled grasp, and ran forward. Irolg had barely time to grab up his own weapon and parry Brion's first thrust. The force of his rush was so great that the guards on their weapons locked, and their bodies crashed together. Irolg looked amazed at the sudden fury of the attack—then smiled. He thought it was a last burst of energy, he knew how close they both were to exhaustion. This must be the end for Brion.
They disengaged and Irolg put up a solid defense. He didn't attempt to attack, just let Brion wear himself out against the firm shield of his defense.
Brion saw something close to panic on his opponent's face when the man finally recognized his error. Brion wasn't tiring. If anything, he was pressing the attack. A wave of despair rolled out from Irolg—Brion sensed it and knew the fifth point was his.
Thrust—thrust—and each time the parrying sword a little slower to return. Then the powerful twist that thrust it aside. In and under the guard. The slap of the button on flesh and the arc of steel that reached out and ended on Irolg's chest over his heart.
Waves of sound—cheering and screaming—lapped against Brion's private world, but he was only remotely aware of their existence. Irolg dropped his foil, and tried to shake Brion's hand, but his legs suddenly gave way. Brion had an arm around him, holding him up, walking towards the rushing handlers. Then Irolg was gone and he waved off his own men, walking slowly by himself.
Except that something was wrong and it was like walking through warm glue. Walking on his knees. No, not walking, falling. At last. He was able to let go and fall.
Ihjel gave the doctors exactly one day before he went to the hospital. Brion wasn't dead, though there had been some doubt about that the night before. Now, a full day later, he was on the mend and that was all Ihjel wanted to know. He bullied and strong-armed his way to the new Winner's room, meeting his first stiff resistance at the door.
"You're out of order, Winner Ihjel," the doctor said. "And if you keep on forcing yourself in here, where you are not wanted, rank or no rank, I shall be obliged to break your head."
Ihjel had just begun to tell him, in some detail, just how slim his chances were of accomplishing that, when Brion interrupted them both. He recognized the newcomer's voice from the final night in the barracks.
"Let him in, Dr. Caulry," he said. "I want to meet a man who thinks there is something more important than the Twenties."
While the doctor stood undecided, Ihjel moved quickly around him and closed the door in his flushed face. He looked down at the Winner in the bed. There was a drip plugged into each one of Brion's arms. His eyes peered from sooty hollows; the eyeballs were a network of red veins. The silent battle he fought against death had left its mark. His square, jutting jaw now seemed all bone, as did his long nose and high cheekbones. They were prominent landmarks rising from the limp greyness of his skin. Only the erect bristle of his close-cropped hair was unchanged. He had the appearance of having suffered a long and wasting illness.
"You look like sin," Ihjel said. "But congratulations on your victory."
"You don't look so very good yourself—for a Winner," Brion snapped back. His exhaustion and sudden peevish anger at this man let the insulting words slip out. Ihjel ignored them.
But it was true; Winner Ihjel looked very little like a Winner, or even an Anvharian. He had the height and the frame all right, but it was draped in billows of fat—rounded, soft tissue that hung loosely from his limbs and made little limp rolls on his neck and under his eyes. There were no fat men on Anvhar, and it was incredible that a man so gross could ever have been a Winner. If there was muscle under the fat it couldn't be seen. Only his eyes appeared to still hold the strength that had once bested every man on the planet to win the annual games. Brion turned away from their burning stare, sorry now he had insulted the man without good reason. He was too sick, though, to bother about apologizing.
Ihjel didn't care either. Brion looked at him again and felt the impression of things so important that he himself, his insults, even the Twenties were of no more interest than dust motes in the air. It was only a fantasy of a sick mind, Brion knew, and he tried to shake the feeling off. The two men stared at each other, sharing a common emotion.
The door opened soundlessly behind Ihjel and he wheeled about, moving as only an athlete of Anvhar can move. Dr. Caulry was halfway through the door, off balance. Two men in uniform came close behind him. Ihjel's body pushed against them, his speed and the mountainous mass of his flesh sending them back in a tangle of arms and legs. He slammed the door and locked it in their faces.
"I have to talk to you," he said, turning back to Brion. "Privately," he added, bending over and ripping out the communicator with a sweep of one hand.
"Get out," Brion told him. "If I were able—"
"Well, you're not, so you're just going to have to lie there and listen. I imagine we have about five minutes before they decide to break the door down, and I don't want to waste any more of that. Will you come with me offworld? There's a job that must be done; it's my job, but I'm going to need help. You're the only one who can give me that help.
"Now refuse," he added as Brion started to answer.
"Of course I refuse," Brion said, feeling a little foolish and slightly angry, as if the other man had put the words into his mouth. "Anvhar is my planet—why should I leave? My life is here and so is my work. I also might add that I have just won the Twenties. I have a responsibility to remain."
"Nonsense. I'm a Winner, and I left. What you really mean is you would like to enjoy a little of the ego-inflation you have worked so hard to get. Off Anvhar no one even knows what a Winner is—much less respects one. You will have to face a big universe out there, and I don't blame you for being a little frightened."
Someone was hammering loudly on the door.
"I haven't the strength to get angry," Brion said hoarsely. "And I can't bring myself to admire your ideas when they permit you to insult a man too ill to defend himself."
"I apologize," Ihjel said, with no hint of apology or sympathy in his voice. "But there are more desperate issues involved than your hurt feelings. We don't have much time now, so I want to impress you with an idea."
"An idea that will convince me to go offplanet with you? That's expecting a lot."
"No, this idea won't convince you—but thinking about it will. If you really consider it you will find a lot of your illusions shattered. Like everyone else on Anvhar, you're a scientific humanist, with your faith firmly planted in the Twenties. You accept both of these noble institutions without an instant's thought. All of you haven't a single thought for the past, for the untold billions who led the bad life as mankind slowly built up the good life for you to lead. Do you ever think of all the people who suffered and died in misery and superstition while civilization was clicking forward one more slow notch?"
"Of course I don't think about them," Brion retorted. "Why should I? I can't change the past."
"But you can change the future!" Ihjel said. "You owe something to the suffering ancestors who got you where you are today. If Scientific Humanism means anything more than just words to you, you must possess a sense of responsibility. Don't you want to try and pay off a bit of this debt by helping others who are just as backward and disease-ridden today as great-grandfather Troglodyte ever was?"
The hammering on the door was louder. This and the drug-induced buzzing in Brion's ear made thinking difficult. "Abstractly, I of course agree with you," he said haltingly. "But you know there is nothing I can do personally without being emotionally involved. A logical decision is valueless for action without personal meaning."
"Then we have reached the crux of the matter," Ihjel said gently. His back was braced against the door, absorbing the thudding blows of some heavy object on the outside. "They're knocking, so I must be going soon. I have no time for details, but I can assure you upon my word of honor as a Winner that there is something you can do. Only you. If you help me we might save seven million human lives. That is a fact."
The lock burst and the door started to open. Ihjel shouldered it back into the frame for a final instant.
"Here is the idea I want you to consider. Why is it that the people of Anvhar, in a galaxy filled with warring, hate-filled, backward planets, should be the only ones who base their entire existence on a complicated series of games?"
This time there was no way to hold the door. Ihjel didn't try. He stepped aside and two men stumbled into the room. He walked out behind their backs without saying a word.
"What happened? What did he do?" the doctor asked, rushing in through the ruined door. He swept a glance over the continuous recording dials at the foot of Brion's bed. Respiration, temperature, heart, blood pressure—all were normal. The patient lay quietly and didn't answer him.
For the rest of that day, Brion had much to think about. It was difficult. The fatigue, mixed with the tranquilizers and other drugs, had softened his contact with reality. His thoughts kept echoing back and forth in his mind, unable to escape. What had Ihjel meant? What was that nonsense about Anvhar? Anvhar was that way because—well, it just was. It had come about naturally. Or had it?
The planet had a very simple history. From the very beginning there had never been anything of real commercial interest on Anvhar. Well off the interstellar trade routes, there were no minerals worth digging and transporting the immense distances to the nearest inhabited worlds. Hunting the winter beasts for their pelts was a profitable but very minor enterprise, never sufficient for mass markets. Therefore no organized attempt had ever been made to colonize the planet. In the end it had been settled completely by chance. A number of offplanet scientific groups had established observation and research stations, finding unlimited data to observe and record during Anvhar's unusual yearly cycle. The long-duration observations encouraged the scientific workers to bring their families and, slowly but steadily, small settlements grew up. Many of the fur hunters settled there as well, adding to the small population. This had been the beginning.
Few records existed of those early days, and the first six centuries of Anvharian history were more speculation than fact. The Breakdown occurred about that time, and in the galaxy-wide disruption Anvhar had to fight its own internal battle. When the Earth Empire collapsed it was the end of more than an era. Many of the observation stations found themselves representing institutions that no longer existed. The professional hunters no longer had markets for their furs, since Anvhar possessed no interstellar ships of its own. There had been no real physical hardship involved in the Breakdown as it affected Anvhar, since the planet was completely self-sufficient. Once they had made the mental adjustment to the fact that they were now a sovereign world, not a collection of casual visitors with various loyalties, life continued unchanged. Not easy—living on Anvhar is never easy—but at least without difference on the surface.
The thoughts and attitudes of the people were, however, going through a great transformation. Many attempts were made to develop some form of stable society and social relationship. Again, little record exists of these early trials, other than the fact of their culmination in the Twenties.
To understand the Twenties, you have to understand the unusual orbit that Anvhar tracks around its sun, 70 Ophiuchi. There are other planets in this system, all of them more or less conforming to the plane of the ecliptic. Anvhar is obviously a rogue, perhaps a captured planet of another sun. For the greatest part of its 780-day year it arcs far out from its primary, in a high-angled sweeping cometary orbit. When it returns there is a brief, hot summer of approximately eighty days before the long winter sets in once more. This severe difference in seasonal change has caused profound adaptations in the native life forms. During the winter most of the animals hibernate, the vegetable life lying dormant as spores or seeds. Some of the warm-blooded herbivores stay active in the snow-covered tropics, preyed upon by fur-insulated carnivores. Though unbelievably cold, the winter is a season of peace in comparison to the summer.
For summer is a time of mad growth. Plants burst into life with a strength that cracks rocks, growing fast enough for the motion to be seen. The snowfields melt into mud and within days a jungle stretches high into the air. Everything grows, swells, proliferates. Plants climb on top of plants, fighting for the life-energy of the sun. Everything is eat and be eaten, grow and thrive in that short season. Because when the first snow of winter falls again, ninety per cent of the year must pass until the next coming of warmth.
Mankind has had to adapt to the Anvharian cycle in order to stay alive. Food must be gathered and stored, enough to last out the long winter. Generation after generation had adapted until they look on the mad seasonal imbalance as something quite ordinary. The first thaw of the almost nonexistent spring triggers a wide-reaching metabolic change in the humans. Layers of subcutaneous fat vanish and half-dormant sweat glands come to life. Other changes are more subtle than the temperature adjustment, but equally important. The sleep center of the brain is depressed. Short naps or a night's rest every third or fourth day becomes enough. Life takes on a hectic and hysterical quality that is perfectly suited to the environment. By the time of the first frost, rapid-growing crops have been raised and harvested, sides of meat either preserved or frozen in mammoth lockers. With this supreme talent of adaptability mankind has become part of the ecology and guaranteed his own survival during the long winter.
Physical survival has been guaranteed. But what about mental survival? Primitive Earth Eskimos can fall into a long doze of half-conscious hibernation. Civilized men might be able to do this, but only for the few cold months of terrestrial midwinter. It would be impossible to do during a winter that is longer than an Earth year. With all the physical needs taken care of, boredom became the enemy of any Anvharian who was not a hunter. And even the hunters could not stay out on solitary trek all winter. Drink was one answer, and violence another. Alcoholism and murder were the twin terrors of the cold season, after the Breakdown.
It was the Twenties that ended all that. When they became a part of normal life the summer was considered just an interlude between games. The Twenties were more than just a contest—they became a way of life that satisfied all the physical, competitive and intellectual needs of this unusual planet. They were a decathlon—rather a double decathlon—raised to its highest power, where contests in chess and poetry composition held equal place with those in ski-jumping and archery. Each year there were two planet-wide contests held, one for men and one for women. This was not an attempt at sexual discrimination, but a logical facing of facts. Inherent differences prevented fair contests—for example, it is impossible for a woman to win a large chess tournament—and this fact was recognized. Anyone could enter for any number of years. There were no scoring handicaps.
When the best man won he was really the best man. A complicated series of playoffs and eliminations kept contestants and observers busy for half the winter. They were only preliminary to the final encounter that lasted a month, and picked a single winner. That was the title he was awarded. Winner. The man—and woman—who had bested every other contestant on the entire planet and who would remain unchallenged until the following year.
Winner. It was a title to take pride in. Brion stirred weakly on his bed and managed to turn so he could look out of the window. Winner of Anvhar. His name was already slated for the history books, one of the handful of planetary heroes. School children would be studying him now, just as he had read of the Winners of the past. Weaving daydreams and imaginary adventures around Brion's victories, hoping and fighting to equal them someday. To be a Winner was the greatest honor in the universe.
Outside, the afternoon sun shimmered weakly in a dark sky. The endless icefields soaked up the dim light, reflecting it back as a colder and harsher illumination. A single figure on skis cut a line across the empty plain; nothing else moved. The depression of the ultimate fatigue fell on Brion and everything changed, as if he looked in a mirror at a previously hidden side.
He saw suddenly—with terrible clarity—that to be a Winner was to be absolutely nothing. Like being the best flea, among all the fleas on a single dog.
What was Anvhar after all? An ice-locked planet, inhabited by a few million human fleas, unknown and unconsidered by the rest of the galaxy. There was nothing here worth fighting for; the wars after the Breakdown had left them untouched. The Anvharians had always taken pride in this—as if being so unimportant that no one else even wanted to come near you could possibly be a source of pride. All the other worlds of man grew, fought, won, lost, changed. Only on Anvhar did life repeat its sameness endlessly, like a loop of tape in a player....
Brion's eyes were moist; he blinked. Tears! Realization of this incredible fact wiped the maudlin pity from his mind and replaced it with fear. Had his mind snapped in the strain of the last match? These thoughts weren't his. Self-pity hadn't made him a Winner—why was he feeling it now? Anvhar was his universe—how could he even imagine it as a tag-end planet at the outer limb of creation? What had come over him and induced this inverse thinking?
As he thought the question, the answer appeared at the same instant. Winner Ihjel. The fat man with the strange pronouncements and probing questions. Had he cast a spell like some sorcerer—or the devil in Faust? No, that was pure nonsense. But he had done something. Perhaps planted a suggestion when Brion's resistance was low. Or used subliminal vocalization like the villain in Cerebrus Chained. Brion could find no adequate reason on which to base his suspicions. But he knew, with sure positiveness, that Ihjel was responsible.
He whistled at the sound-switch next to his pillow and the repaired communicator came to life. The duty nurse appeared in the small screen.
"The man who was here today," Brion said, "Winner Ihjel. Do you know where he is? I must contact him."
For some reason this flustered her professional calm. The nurse started to answer, excused herself, and blanked the screen. When it lit again a man in guard's uniform had taken her place.
"You made an inquiry," the guard said, "about Winner Ihjel. We are holding him here in the hospital, following the disgraceful way in which he broke into your room."
"I have no charges to make. Will you ask him to come and see me at once?"
The guard controlled his shock. "I'm sorry, Winner—I don't see how we can. Dr. Caulry left specific orders that you were not to be—"
"The doctor has no control over my personal life." Brion interrupted. "I'm not infectious, nor ill with anything more than extreme fatigue. I want to see that man. At once."
The guard took a deep breath, and made a quick decision. "He is on the way up now," he said, and rung off.
"What did you do to me?" Brion asked as soon as Ihjel had entered and they were alone. "You won't deny that you have put alien thoughts in my head?"
"No, I won't deny it. Because the whole point of my being here is to get those 'alien' thoughts across to you."
"Tell me how you did it," Brion insisted. "I must know."
"I'll tell you—but there are many things you should understand first, before you decide to leave Anvhar. You must not only hear them, you will have to believe them. The primary thing, the clue to the rest, is the true nature of your life here. How do you think the Twenties originated?"
Before he answered, Brion carefully took a double dose of the mild stimulant he was allowed. "I don't think," he said; "I know. It's a matter of historical record. The founder of the games was Giroldi, the first contest was held in 378 A.B. The Twenties have been held every year since then. They were strictly local affairs in the beginning, but were soon well established on a planet-wide scale."
"True enough," Ihjel said. "But you're describing what happened. I asked you how the Twenties originated. How could any single man take a barbarian planet, lightly inhabited by half-mad hunters and alcoholic farmers, and turn it into a smooth-running social machine built around the artificial structure of the Twenties? It just couldn't be done."
"But it was done!" Brion insisted. "You can't deny that. And there is nothing artificial about the Twenties. They are a logical way to live a life on a planet like this."
Ihjel laughed, a short ironic bark. "Very logical," he said; "but how often does logic have anything to do with the organization of social groups and governments? You're not thinking. Put yourself in founder Giroldi's place. Imagine that you have glimpsed the great idea of the Twenties and you want to convince others. So you walk up to the nearest louse-ridden, brawling, superstitious, booze-embalmed hunter and explain clearly. How a program of his favorite sports—things like poetry, archery and chess—can make his life that much more interesting and virtuous. You do that. But keep your eyes open at the same time, and be ready for a fast draw."
Even Brion had to smile at the absurdity of the suggestion. Of course it couldn't happen that way. Yet, since it had happened, there must be a simple explanation.
"We can beat this back and forth all day," Ihjel told him, "and you won't get the right idea unless—" He broke off suddenly, staring at the communicator. The operation light had come on, though the screen stayed dark. Ihjel reached down a meaty hand and pulled loose the recently connected wires. "That doctor of yours is very curious—and he's going to stay that way. The truth behind the Twenties is none of his business. But it's going to be yours. You must come to realize that the life you lead here is a complete and artificial construction, developed by Societics experts and put into application by skilled field workers."
"Nonsense!" Brion broke in. "Systems of society can't be dreamed up and forced on people like that. Not without bloodshed and violence."
"Nonsense, yourself," Ihjel told him. "That may have been true in the dawn of history, but not any more. You have been reading too many of the old Earth classics; you imagine that we still live in the Ages of Superstition. Just because fascism and communism were once forced on reluctant populations, you think this holds true for all time. Go back to your books. In exactly the same era democracy and self-government were adapted by former colonial states, like India and the Union of North Africa, and the only violence was between local religious groups. Change is the lifeblood of mankind. Everything we today accept as normal was at one time an innovation. And one of the most recent innovations is the attempt to guide the societies of mankind into something more consistent with the personal happiness of individuals."
"The God complex," Brion said; "forcing human lives into a mold whether they want to be fitted into it or not."
"Societies can be that," Ihjel agreed. "It was in the beginning, and there were some disastrous results of attempts to force populations into a political climate where they didn't belong. They weren't all failures—Anvhar here is a striking example of how good the technique can be when correctly applied. It's not done this way any more, though. As with all of the other sciences, we have found out that the more we know, the more there is to know. We no longer attempt to guide cultures towards what we consider a beneficial goal. There are too many goals, and from our limited vantage point it is hard to tell the good ones from the bad ones. All we do now is try to protect the growing cultures, give a little jolt to the stagnating ones—and bury the dead ones. When the work was first done here on Anvhar the theory hadn't progressed that far. The understandably complex equations that determine just where in the scale from a Type I to a Type V a culture is, had not yet been completed. The technique then was to work out an artificial culture that would be most beneficial for a planet, then bend it into the mold."
"How can that be done?" Brion asked. "How was it done here?"
"We've made some progress—you're finally asking 'how.' The technique here took a good number of agents, and a great deal of money. Personal honor was emphasized in order to encourage dueling, and this led to a heightened interest in the technique of personal combat. When this was well intrenched Giroldi was brought in, and he showed how organized competitions could be more interesting than haphazard encounters. Tying the intellectual aspects onto the framework of competitive sports was a little more difficult, but not overwhelmingly so. The details aren't important; all we are considering now is the end product. Which is you. You're needed very much."
"Why me?" Brion asked. "Why am I special? Because I won the Twenties? I can't believe that. Taken objectively, there isn't that much difference between myself and the ten runner-ups. Why don't you ask one of them? They could do your job as well as I."
"No, they couldn't. I'll tell you later why you are the only man I can use. Our time is running out and I must convince you of some other things first." Ihjel glanced at his watch. "We have less than three hours to dead-deadline. Before that time I must explain enough of our work to you to enable you to decide voluntarily to join us."
"A very tall order," Brion said. "You might begin by telling me just who this mysterious 'we' is that you keep referring to."
"The Cultural Relationships Foundation. A non-governmental body, privately endowed, existing to promote peace and ensure the sovereign welfare of independent planets, so that all will prosper from the good will and commerce thereby engendered."
"Sounds as if you're quoting," Brion told him. "No one could possibly make up something that sounds like that on the spur of the moment."
"I was quoting, from our charter of organization. Which is all very fine in a general sense, but I'm talking specifically now. About you. You are the product of a tightly knit and very advanced society. Your individuality has been encouraged by your growing up in a society so small in population that a mild form of government control is necessary. The normal Anvharian education is an excellent one, and participation in the Twenties has given you a general and advanced education second to none in the galaxy. It would be a complete waste of your entire life if you now took all this training and wasted it on some rustic farm."
"You give me very little credit. I plan to teach—"
"Forget Anvhar!" Ihjel cut him off with a chop of his hand. "This world will roll on quite successfully whether you are here or not. You must forget it, think of its relative unimportance on a galactic scale, and consider instead the existing, suffering hordes of mankind. You must think what you can do to help them."
"But what can I do—as an individual? The day is long past when a single man, like Caesar or Alexander, could bring about world-shaking changes."
"True—but not true," Ihjel said. "There are key men in every conflict of forces, men who act like catalysts applied at the right instant to start a chemical reaction. You might be one of these men, but I must be honest and say that I can't prove it yet. So in order to save time and endless discussion, I think I will have to spark your personal sense of obligation."
"Obligation to whom?"
"To mankind, of course, to the countless billions of dead who kept the whole machine rolling along that allows you the full, long and happy life you enjoy today. What they gave to you, you must pass on to others. This is the keystone of humanistic morals."
"Agreed. And a very good argument in the long run. But not one that is going to tempt me out of this bed within the next three hours."
"A point of success," Ihjel said. "You agree with the general argument. Now I apply it specifically to you. Here is the statement I intend to prove. There exists a planet with a population of seven million people. Unless I can prevent it, this planet will be completely destroyed. It is my job to stop that destruction, so that is where I am going now. I won't be able to do the job alone. In addition to others, I need you. Not anyone like you—but you, and you alone."
"You have precious little time left to convince me of all that," Brion told him, "so let me make the job easier for you. The work you do, this planet, the imminent danger of the people there—these are all facts that you can undoubtedly supply. I'll take a chance that this whole thing is not a colossal bluff, and admit that given time, you could verify them all. This brings the argument back to me again. How can you possibly prove that I am the only person in the galaxy who can help you?"
"I can prove it by your singular ability, the thing I came here to find."
"Ability? I am different in no way from the other men on my planet."
"You're wrong," Ihjel said. "You are the embodied proof of evolution. Rare individuals with specific talents occur constantly in any species, man included. It has been two generations since an empathetic was last born on Anvhar, and I have been watching carefully most of that time."
"What in blazes is an empathetic—and how do you recognize it when you have found it?" Brion chuckled, this talk was getting preposterous.
"I can recognize one because I'm one myself—there is no other way. As to how projective empathy works, you had a demonstration of that a little earlier, when you felt those strange thoughts about Anvhar. It will be a long time before you can master that, but receptive empathy is your natural trait. This is mentally entering into the feeling, or what could be called the spirit of another person. Empathy is not thought perception; it might better be described as the sensing of someone else's emotional makeup, feelings and attitudes. You can't lie to a trained empathetic, because he can sense the real attitude behind the verbal lies. Even your undeveloped talent has proved immensely useful in the Twenties. You can outguess your opponent because you know his movements even as his body tenses to make them. You accept this without ever questioning it."
"How do you know?" This was Brion's understood, but never voiced secret.
Ihjel smiled. "Just guessing. But I won the Twenties too, remember, also without knowing a thing about empathy at the time. On top of our normal training, it's a wonderful trait to have. Which brings me to the proof we mentioned a minute ago. When you said you would be convinced if I could prove you were the only person who could help me. I believe you are—and that is one thing I cannot lie about. It's possible to lie about a belief verbally, to have a falsely based belief, or to change a belief. But you can't lie about it to yourself.
"Equally important—you can't lie about a belief to an empathetic. Would you like to see how I feel about this? 'See' is a bad word—there is no vocabulary yet for this kind of thing. Better, would you join me in my feelings? Sense my attitudes, memories and emotions just as I do?"
Brion tried to protest, but he was too late. The doors of his senses were pushed wide and he was overwhelmed.
"Dis ..." Ihjel said aloud. "Seven million people ... hydrogen bombs ... Brion Brandd." These were just key words, landmarks of association. With each one Brion felt the rushing wave of the other man's emotions.
There could be no lies here—Ihjel was right in that. This was the raw stuff that feelings are made of, the basic reactions to the things and symbols of memory.
DIS ... DIS ... DIS ... it was a word it was a planet and the word thundered like a drum a drum the sound of its thunder surrounded and was a wasteland a planet of death a planet where living was dying and dying was very better than living
crude barbaric DIS hot burning scorching backward miserable wasteland of sands dirty beneath and sands and sands and consideration sands that burned had planet burned will burn forever the people of this planet so crude dirty miserable barbaric sub-human in-human less-than-human but they were going to be DEAD
and DEAD they would be seven million blackened corpses that would blacken your dreams all dreams dreams forever because those H Y D R O G E N B O M B S were waiting to kill them unless .. unless .. unless .. you Ihjel stopped it you Ihjel (DEATH) you (DEATH) you (DEATH) alone couldn't do it you (DEATH) must have BRION BRANDD wet-behind-the-ears-raw-untrained- Brion-Brandd-to-help-you he was the only one in the galaxy who could finish the job..................................
As the flow of sensation died away, Brion realized he was sprawled back weakly on his pillows, soaked with sweat, washed with the memory of the raw emotion. Across from him Ihjel sat with his face bowed in his hands. When he lifted his head Brion saw within his eyes a shadow of the blackness he had just experienced.
"Death," Brion said. "That terrible feeling of death. It wasn't just the people of Dis who would die. It was something more personal."
"Myself," Ihjel said, and behind this simple word were the repeated echoes of night that Brion had been made aware of with his newly recognized ability. "My own death, not too far away. This is the wonderfully terrible price you must pay for your talent. Angst is an inescapable part of empathy. It is a part of the whole unknown field of psi phenomena that seems to be independent of time. Death is so traumatic and final that it reverberates back along the time line. The closer I get, the more aware of it I am. There is no exact feeling of date, just a rough location in time. That is the horror of it. I know I will die soon after I get to Dis—and long before the work there is finished. I know the job to be done there, and I know the men who have already failed at it. I also know you are the only person who can possibly complete the work I have started. Do you agree now? Will you come with me?"
"Yes, of course," Brion said. "I'll go with you."
"I've never seen anyone quite as angry as that doctor," Brion said.
"Can't blame him." Ihjel shifted his immense weight and grunted from the console, where he was having a coded conversation with the ship's brain. He hit the keys quickly, and read the answer from the screen. "You took away his medical moment of glory. How many times in his life will he have a chance to nurse back to rugged smiling health the triumphantly exhausted Winner of the Twenties?"
"Not many, I imagine. The wonder of it is how you managed to convince him that you and the ship here could take care of me as well as his hospital could."
"I could never convince him of that," Ihjel said. "But I and the Cultural Relationships Foundation have some powerful friends on Anvhar. I'm forced to admit I brought a little pressure to bear." He leaned back and read the course tape as it streamed out of the printer. "We have a little time to spare, but I would rather spend it waiting at the other end. We'll blast as soon as I have you tied down in a stasis field."
The completeness of the stasis field leaves no impressions on the body or mind. In it there is no weight, no pressure, no pain—no sensation of any kind. Except for a stasis of very long duration, there is no sensation of time. To Brion's consciousness, Ihjel flipped the switch off with a continuation of the same motion that had turned it on. The ship was unchanged, only outside of the port was the red-shot blankness of jump-space.
"How do you feel?" Ihjel asked.
Apparently the ship was wondering the same thing. Its detector unit, hovering impatiently just outside of Brion's stasis field, darted down and settled on his bare forearm. The doctor back on Anvhar had given the medical section of the ship's brain a complete briefing. A quick check of a dozen factors of Brion's metabolism was compared to the expected norm. Apparently everything was going well, because the only reaction was the expected injection of vitamins and glucose.
"I can't say I'm feeling wonderful yet," Brion answered, levering himself higher on the pillows. "But every day it's a bit better—steady progress."
"I hope so, because we have about two weeks before we get to Dis. Do you think you'll be back in shape by that time?"
"No promises," Brion said, giving a tentative squeeze to one bicep. "It should be enough time, though. Tomorrow I start mild exercise and that will tighten me up again. Now—tell me more about Dis and what you have to do there."
"I'm not going to do it twice, so just save your curiosity awhile. We're heading for a rendezvous point now to pick up another operator. This is going to be a three-man team, you, me and an exobiologist. As soon as he is aboard I'll do a complete briefing for you both at the same time. What you can do now is get your head into the language box and start working on your Disan. You'll want to speak it perfectly by the time we touchdown."
With an autohypno for complete recall, Brion had no difficulty in mastering the grammar and vocabulary of Disan. Pronunciation was a different matter altogether. Almost all the word endings were swallowed, muffled or gargled. The language was rich in glottal stops, clicks and guttural strangling sounds. Ihjel stayed in a different part of the ship when Brion used the voice mirror and analysis scope, claiming that the awful noises interfered with his digestion.
Their ship angled through jump-space along its calculated course. It kept its fragile human cargo warm, fed them and supplied breathable air. It had orders to worry about Brion's health, so it did, checking constantly against its recorded instructions and noting his steady progress. Another part of the ship's brain counted microseconds with moronic fixation, finally closing a relay when a predetermined number had expired in its heart. A light flashed and a buzzer hummed gently but insistently.
Ihjel yawned, put away the report he had been reading, and started for the control room. He shuddered when he passed the room where Brion was listening to a playback of his Disan efforts.
"Turn off that dying brontosaurus and get strapped in," he called through the thin door. "We're coming to the point of optimum possibility and we'll be dropping back into normal space soon."
The human mind can ponder the incredible distances between the stars, but cannot possibly contain within itself a real understanding of them. Marked out on a man's hand an inch is a large unit of measure. In interstellar space a cubical area with sides a hundred thousand miles long is a microscopically fine division. Light crosses this distance in a fraction of a second. To a ship moving with a relative speed far greater than that of light, this measuring unit is even smaller. Theoretically, it appears impossible to find a particular area of this size. Technologically, it was a repeatable miracle that occurred too often to even be interesting.
Brion and Ihjel were strapped in when the jump-drive cut off abruptly, lurching them back into normal space and time. They didn't unstrap, but just sat and looked at the dimly distant pattern of stars. A single sun, apparently of fifth magnitude, was their only neighbor in this lost corner of the universe. They waited while the computer took enough star sights to triangulate a position in three dimensions, muttering to itself electronically while it did the countless calculations to find their position. A warning bell chimed and the drive cut on and off so quickly that the two acts seemed simultaneous. This happened again, twice, before the brain was satisfied it had made as good a fix as possible and flashed a NAVIGATION POWER OFF light. Ihjel unstrapped, stretched, and made them a meal.
Ihjel had computed their passage time with precise allowances. Less than ten hours after they arrived a powerful signal blasted into their waiting receiver. They strapped in again as the NAVIGATION POWER ON signal blinked insistently.
A ship had paused in flight somewhere relatively near in the vast volume of space. It had entered normal space just long enough to emit a signal of radio query on an assigned wave length. Ihjel's ship had detected this and instantly responded with a verifying signal. The passenger spacer had accepted this assurance and gracefully laid a ten-foot metal egg in space. As soon as this had cleared its jump field the parent ship vanished towards its destination, light years away.
Ihjel's ship climbed up the signal it had received. This signal had been recorded and examined minutely. Angle, strength and Doppler movement were computed to find course and distance. A few minutes of flight were enough to get within range of the far weaker transmitter in the drop-capsule. Homing on this signal was so simple, a human pilot could have done it himself. The shining sphere loomed up, then vanished out of sight of the viewports as the ship rotated to bring the spacelock into line. Magnetic clamps cut in when they made contact.
"Go down and let the bug-doctor in," Ihjel said. "I'll stay and monitor the board in case of trouble."
"What do I have to do?"
"Get into a suit and open the outer lock. Most of the drop sphere is made of inflatable metallic foil, so don't bother to look for the entrance. Just cut a hole in it with the oversize can-opener you'll find in the tool box. After Dr. Morees gets aboard jettison the thing. Only get the radio and locator unit out first—it gets used again."
The tool did look like a giant can-opener. Brion carefully felt the resilient metal skin that covered the lock entrance, until he was sure there was nothing on the other side. Then he jabbed the point through and cut a ragged hole in the thin foil. Dr. Morees boiled out of the sphere, knocking Brion aside.
"What's the matter?" Brion asked.
There was no radio on the other's suit; he couldn't answer. But he did shake his fist angrily. The helmet ports were opaque, so there was no way to tell what expressions went with the gesture. Brion shrugged and turned back to salvaging the equipment pack, pushing the punctured balloon free and sealing the lock. When pressure was pumped back to ship-normal, he cracked his helmet and motioned the other to do the same.
"You're a pack of dirty lying dogs!" Dr. Morees said when the helmet came off. Brion was completely baffled. Dr. Lea Morees had long dark hair, large eyes, and a delicately shaped mouth now taut with anger. Dr. Morees was a woman.
"Are you the filthy swine responsible for this atrocity?" Dr. Morees asked menacingly.
"In the control room," Brion said quickly, knowing when cowardice was preferable to valor. "A man named Ihjel. There's a lot of him to hate, you can have a good time doing it. I just joined up myself...." He was talking to her back as she stormed from the room. Brion hurried after her, not wanting to miss the first human spark of interest in the trip to date.
"Kidnapped! Lied to, and forced against my will! There is no court in the galaxy that won't give you the maximum sentence, and I'll scream with pleasure as they roll your fat body into solitary—"
"They shouldn't have sent a woman," Ihjel said, completely ignoring her words. "I asked for a highly qualified exobiologist for a difficult assignment. Someone young and tough enough to do field work under severe conditions. So the recruiting office sends me the smallest female they can find, one who'll melt in the first rain."
"I will not!" Lea shouted. "Female resiliency is a well-known fact, and I'm in far better condition than the average woman. Which has nothing to do with what I'm telling you. I was hired for a job in the university on Moller's World and signed a contract to that effect. Then this bully of an agent tells me the contract has been changed—read subparagraph 189-C or some such nonsense—and I'll be transhipping. He stuffed me into that suffocating basketball without a by-your-leave and they threw me overboard. If that is not a violation of personal privacy—"
"Cut a new course, Brion," Ihjel broke in. "Find the nearest settled planet and head us there. We have to drop this woman and find a man for this job. We are going to what is undoubtedly the most interesting planet an exobiologist ever conceived of, but we need a man who can take orders and not faint when it gets too hot."
Brion was lost. Ihjel had done all the navigating and Brion had no idea how to begin a search like this.
"Oh, no you don't," Lea said. "You don't get rid of me that easily. I placed first in my class, and most of the five hundred other students were male. This is only a man's universe because the men say so. What is the name of this garden planet where we are going?"
"Dis. I'll give you a briefing as soon as I get this ship on course." He turned to the controls and Lea slipped out of her suit and went into the lavatory to comb her hair. Brion closed his mouth, aware suddenly it had been open for a long time. "Is that what you call applied psychology?" he asked.
"Not really. She was going to go along with the job in the end—since she did sign the contract even if she didn't read the fine print—but not until she had exhausted her feelings. I just shortened the process by switching her onto the male-superiority hate. Most women who succeed in normally masculine fields have a reflexive antipathy there; they have been hit on the head with it so much."
He fed the course tape into the console and scowled. "But there was a good chunk of truth in what I said. I wanted a young, fit and highly qualified biologist from recruiting. I never thought they would find a female one—and it's too late to send her back now. Dis is no place for a woman."
"Why?" Brion asked, as Lea appeared in the doorway.
"Come inside, and I'll show you both," Ihjel said.
"Dis," Ihjel said, consulting a thick file, "third planet out from its primary, Epsilon Eridani. The fourth planet is Nyjord—remember that, because it is going to be very important. Dis is a place you need a good reason to visit and no reason at all to leave. Too hot, too dry; the temperature in the temperate zones rarely drops below a hundred Fahrenheit. The planet is nothing but scorched rock and burning sand. Most of the water is underground and normally inaccessible. The surface water is all in the form of briny, chemically saturated swamps—undrinkable without extensive processing. All the facts and figures are here in the folder and you can study them later. Right now I want you just to get the idea that this planet is as loathsome and inhospitable as they come. So are the people. This is a solido of a Disan."
Lea gasped at the three-dimensional representation on the screen. Not at the physical aspects of the man; as a biologist trained in the specialty of alien life she had seen a lot stranger sights. It was the man's pose, the expression on his face—tensed to leap, his lips drawn back to show all of this teeth.
"He looks as if he wanted to kill the photographer," she said.
"He almost did—just after the picture was taken. Like all Disans, he has an overwhelming hatred and loathing of offworlders. Not without good reason, though. His planet was settled completely by chance during the Breakdown. I'm not sure of the details, but the overall picture is clear, since the story of their desertion forms the basis of all the myths and animistic religions on Dis.
"Apparently there were large-scale mining operations carried on there once; the world is rich enough in minerals and mining them is very simple. But water came only from expensive extraction processes and I imagine most of the food came from offworld. Which was good enough until the settlement was forgotten, the way a lot of other planets were during the Breakdown. All the records were destroyed in the fighting, and the ore carriers were pressed into military service. Dis was on its own. What happened to the people there is a tribute to the adaptation possibilities of homo sapiens. Individuals died, usually in enormous pain, but the race lived. Changed a good deal, but still human. As the water and food ran out and the extraction machinery broke down, they must have made heroic efforts to survive. They couldn't do it mechanically, but by the time the last machine collapsed, enough people were adjusted to the environment to keep the race going.
"Their descendants are still there, completely adapted to the environment. Their body temperatures are around a hundred and thirty degrees. They have specialized tissue in the gluteal area for storing water. These are minor changes, compared to the major ones they have done in fitting themselves for this planet. I don't know the exact details, but the reports are very enthusiastic about symbiotic relationships. They assure us that this is the first time homo sapiens has been an active part of either commensalism or inquilinism other than in the role of host."
"Wonderful!" Lea exclaimed.
"Is it?" Ihjel scowled. "Perhaps from the abstract scientific point of view. If you can keep notes perhaps you might write a book about it some time. But I'm not interested. I'm sure all these morphological changes and disgusting intimacies will fascinate you, Dr. Morees. But while you are counting blood types and admiring your thermometers, I hope you will be able to devote a little time to a study of the Disans' obnoxious personalities. We must either find out what makes these people tick—or we are going to have to stand by and watch the whole lot blown up!"
"Going to do what!" Lea gasped. "Destroy them? Wipe out this fascinating genetic pool? Why?
"Because they are so incredibly loathsome, that's why!" Ihjel said. "These aboriginal hotheads have managed to lay their hands on some primitive cobalt bombs. They want to light the fuse and drop these bombs on Nyjord, the next planet. Nothing said or done can convince them differently. They demand unconditional surrender, or else. This is impossible for a lot of reasons—most important, because the Nyjorders would like to keep their planet for their very own. They have tried every kind of compromise but none of them works. The Disans are out to commit racial suicide. A Nyjord fleet is now over Dis and the deadline has almost expired for the surrender of the cobalt bombs. The Nyjord ships carry enough H-bombs to turn the entire planet into an atomic pile. That is what we must stop."
Brion looked at the solido on the screen, trying to make some judgment of the man. Bare, horny feet. A bulky, ragged length of cloth around the waist was the only garment. What looked like a piece of green vine was hooked over one shoulder. From a plaited belt were suspended a number of odd devices made of hand-beaten metal, drilled stone and looped leather. The only recognizable item was a thin knife of unusual design. Loops of piping, flared bells, carved stones tied in senseless patterns of thonging gave the rest of the collection a bizarre appearance. Perhaps they had some religious significance. But the well-worn and handled look of most of them gave Brion an uneasy sensation. If they were used—what in the universe could they be used for?
"I can't believe it," he finally concluded. "Except for the exotic hardware, this lowbrow looks as if he has sunk back into the Stone Age. I don't see how his kind can be any real threat to another planet."
"The Nyjorders believe it, and that's good enough for me," Ihjel said. "They are paying our Cultural Relationships Foundation a good sum to try and prevent this war. Since they are our employers, we must do what they ask." Brion ignored this large lie, since it was obviously designed as an explanation for Lea. But he made a mental note to query Ihjel later about the real situation.
"Here are the tech reports." Ihjel dropped them on the table. "Dis has some spacers as well as the cobalt bombs—though these aren't the real threat. A tramp trader was picked up leaving Dis. It had delivered a jump-space launcher that can drop those bombs on Nyjord while anchored to the bedrock of Dis. While essentially a peaceful and happy people, the Nyjorders were justifiably annoyed at this and convinced the tramp's captain to give them some more information. It's all here. Boiled down, it gives a minimum deadline by which time the launcher can be set up and start throwing bombs."
"When is that deadline?" Lea asked.
"In ten more days. If the situation hasn't been changed drastically by then, the Nyjorders are going to wipe all life from the face of Dis. I assure you they don't want to do it. But they will drop the bombs in order to assure their own survival."
"What am I supposed to do?" Lea asked, flipping the pages of the report. "I don't know a thing about nucleonics or jump-space. I'm an exobiologist, with a supplementary degree in anthropology. What help could I possibly be?"
Ihjel looked down at her, stroking his jaw, fingers sunk deep into the rolls of flesh. "My faith in our recruiters is restored," he said. "That's a combination that is probably rare—even on Earth. You're as scrawny as an underfed chicken, but young enough to survive if we keep a close eye on you." He cut off Lea's angry protest with a raised hand. "No more bickering. There isn't time. The Nyjorders must have lost over thirty agents trying to find the bombs. Our foundation has had six people killed—including my late predecessor in charge of the project. He was a good man, but I think he went at this problem the wrong way. I think it is a cultural one, not a physical one."
"Run it through again with the power turned up," Lea said, frowning. "All I hear is static."
"It's the old problem of genesis. Like Newton and the falling apple, Levy and the hysteresis in the warp field. Everything has a beginning. If we can find out why these people are so hell-bent on suicide we might be able to change the reasons. Not that I intend to stop looking for the bombs or the jump-space generator either. We are going to try anything that will avert this planetary murder."
"You're a lot brighter than you look," Lea said, rising and carefully stacking the sheets of the report. "You can count on me for complete cooperation. Now I'll study all this in bed if one of you overweight gentlemen will show me to a room with a strong lock on the inside of the door. Don't call me; I'll call you when I want breakfast."
Brion wasn't sure how much of her barbed speech was humor and how much was serious, so he said nothing. He showed her to an empty cabin—she did lock the door—then looked for Ihjel. The Winner was in the galley adding to his girth with an immense gelatin dessert that filled a good-sized tureen.
"Is she short for a native Terran?" Brion asked. "The top of her head is below my chin."
"That's the norm. Earth is a reservoir of tired genes. Weak backs, vermiform appendixes, bad eyes. If they didn't have the universities and the trained people we need I would never use them."
"Why did you lie to her about the Foundation?"
"Because it's a secret—isn't that reason enough?" Ihjel rumbled angrily, scraping the last dregs from the bowl. "Better eat something. Build up the strength. The Foundation has to maintain its undercover status if it is going to accomplish anything. If she returns to Earth after this it's better that she should know nothing of our real work. If she joins up, there'll be time enough to tell her. But I doubt if she will like the way we operate. Particularly since I plan to drop some H-bombs on Dis myself—if we can't turn off the war."
"I don't believe it!"
"You heard me correctly. Don't bulge your eyes and look moronic. As a last resort I'll drop the bombs myself rather than let the Nyjorders do it. That might save them."
"Save them—they'd all be radiated and dead!" Brion's voice rose in anger.
"Not the Disans. I want to save the Nyjorders. Stop clenching your fists and sit down and have some of this cake. It's delicious. The Nyjorders are all that counts here. They have a planet blessed by the laws of chance. When Dis was cut off from outside contact, the survivors turned into a gang of swampcrawling homicidals. It did the opposite for Nyjord. You can survive there just by pulling fruit off a tree. The population was small, educated, intelligent. Instead of sinking into an eternal siesta they matured into a vitally different society. Not mechanical—they weren't even using the wheel when they were rediscovered. They became sort of cultural specialists, digging deep into the philosophical aspects of interrelationship—the thing that machine societies never have had time for. Of course this was ready-made for the Cultural Relationships Foundation, and we have been working with them ever since. Not guiding so much as protecting them from any blows that might destroy this growing idea. But we've fallen down on the job. Nonviolence is essential to these people—they have vitality without needing destruction. But if they are forced to blow up Dis for their own survival—against every one of their basic tenets—their philosophy won't endure. Physically they'll live on, as just one more dog-eat-dog planet with an A-bomb for any of the competition who drop behind."
"Sounds like paradise now."
"Don't be smug. It's just another worldful of people with the same old likes, dislikes and hatreds. But they are evolving a way of living together, without violence, that may some day form the key to mankind's survival. They are worth looking after. Now get below and study your Disan and read the reports. Get it all pat before we land."
"Identify yourself, please." The quiet words from the speaker in no way appeared to coincide with the picture on the screen. The spacer that had matched their orbit over Dis had recently been a freighter. A quick conversion had tacked the hulking shape of a primary weapons turret on top of her hull. The black disc of the immense muzzle pointed squarely at them. Ihjel switched open the ship-to-ship communication channel.
"This is Ihjel. Retinal pattern 490-BJ4-67—which is also the code that is supposed to get me through your blockade. Do you want to check that pattern?"
"There will be no need, thank you. If you will turn on your recorder I have a message relayed to you from Prime-four."
"Recording and out," Ihjel said. "Damn! Trouble already, and four days to blowup. Prime-four is our headquarters on Dis. This ship carries a cover cargo so we can land at the spaceport. This is probably a change of plan and I don't like the smell of it."
There was something behind Ihjel's grumbling this time, and without conscious effort Brion could sense the chilling touch of the other man's angst. Trouble was waiting for them on the planet below. When the message was typed by the decoder Ihjel hovered over it, reading each word as it appeared on the paper. When it was finished he only snorted and went below to the galley. Brion pulled the message out of the machine and read it.
IHJEL IHJEL IHJEL SPACEPORT LANDING DANGER NIGHT LANDING PREFERABLE COORDINATES MAP 46 J92 MN75 REMOTE YOUR SHIP VION WILL MEET END END END
Dropping into the darkness was safe enough. It was done on instruments, and the Disans were thought to have no detection apparatus. The altimeter dials spun backwards to zero and a soft vibration was the only indication they had landed. All of the cabin lights were off except for the fluorescent glow of the instruments. A white-speckled grey filled the infra-red screen, radiation from the still warm sand and stone. There were no moving blips on it, not the characteristic shape of a shielded atomic generator.
"We're here first," Ihjel said, opaqueing the ports and turning on the cabin lights. They blinked at each other, faces damp with perspiration.
"Must you have the ship this hot?" Lea asked, patting her forehead with an already sodden kerchief. Stripped of her heavier clothing, she looked even tinier to Brion. But the thin cloth tunic—reaching barely halfway to her knees—concealed very little. Small she may have appeared to him: unfeminine she was not. Her breasts were full and high, her waist tiny enough to offset the outward curve of her hips.
"Shall I turn around so you can stare at the back too?" she asked Brion. Five days' experience had taught him that this type of remark was best ignored. It only became worse if he tried to make an intelligent answer.
"Dis is hotter than this cabin," he said, changing the subject. "By raising the interior temperature we can at least prevent any sudden shock when we go out—"
"I know the theory—but it doesn't stop me from sweating," she said curtly.
"Best thing you can do is sweat." Ihjel said. He looked like a glistening captive balloon in shorts. Finishing a bottle of beer, he took another from the freezer. "Have a beer."
"No, thank you. I'm afraid it would dissolve the last shreds of tissue and my kidneys would float completely away. On Earth we never—"
"Get Professor Morees' luggage for her," Ihjel interrupted. "Vion's coming, there's his signal. I'm sending this ship up before any of the locals spot it."
When he cracked the outer port the puff of air struck them like the exhaust from a furnace, dry and hot as a tongue of flame. Brion heard Lea's gasp in the darkness. She stumbled down the ramp and he followed her slowly, careful of the weight of packs and equipment he carried. The sand, still hot from the day, burned through his boots. Ihjel came last, the remote-control unit in his hand. As soon as they were clear he activated it and the ramp slipped back like a giant tongue. As soon as the lock had swung shut, the ship lifted and drifted upwards silently towards its orbit, a shrinking darkness against the stars.
There was just enough starlight to see the sandy wastes around them, as wave-filled as a petrified sea. The dark shape of a sand car drew up over a dune and hummed to a stop. When the door opened Ihjel stepped towards it and everything happened at once.
Ihjel broke into a blue nimbus of crackling flame, his skin blackening, charred. He was dead in an instant. A second pillar of flame bloomed next to the car, and a choking scream was cut off at the moment it began. Ihjel died silently.
Brion was diving even as the electrical discharges still crackled in the air. The boxes and packs dropped from him and he slammed against Lea, knocking her to the ground. He hoped she had the sense to stay there and be quiet. This was his only conscious thought, the rest was reflex. He was rolling over and over as fast as he could.
The spitting electrical flames flared again, playing over the bundles of luggage he had dropped. This time Brion was expecting it, pressed flat on the ground a short distance away. He was facing the darkness away from the sand car and saw the brief, blue glow of the ion-rifle discharge. His own gun was in his hand. When Ihjel had given him the missile weapon he had asked no questions, but had just strapped it on. There had been no thought that he would need it this quickly. Holding it firmly before him in both hands, he let his body aim at the spot where the glow had been. A whiplash of explosive slugs ripped the night air. They found their target and something thrashed voicelessly and died.
In the brief instant after he fired, a jarring weight landed on his back and a line of fire circled his throat. Normally he fought with a calm mind, with no thoughts other than of the contest. But Ihjel, a friend, a man of Anvhar, had died a few seconds before, and Brion found himself welcoming this physical violence and pain.
There are many foolish and dangerous things that can be done, such as smoking next to high-octane fuel and putting fingers into electrical sockets. Just as dangerous, and equally deadly, is physically attacking a Winner of the Twenties.
Two men hit Brion together, though this made very little difference. The first died suddenly as hands like steel claws found his neck and in a single spasmodic contraction did such damage to the large blood vessels there that they burst and tiny hemorrhages filled his brain. The second man had time for a single scream, though he died just as swiftly when those hands closed on his larynx.
Running in a crouch, partially on his knuckles, Brion swiftly made a circle of the area, gun ready. There were no others. Only when he touched the softness of Lea's body did the blood anger seep from him. He was suddenly aware of the pain and fatigue, the sweat soaking his body and the breath rasping in his throat. Holstering the gun, he ran light fingers over her skull, finding a bruised spot on one temple. Her chest was rising and falling regularly. She had struck her head when he pushed her. It had undoubtedly saved her life.
Sitting down suddenly, he let his body relax, breathing deeply. Everything was a little better now, except for the pain at his throat. His fingers found a thin strand on the side of his neck with a knobby weight on the end. There was another weight on his other shoulder and a thin line of pain across his neck. When he pulled on them both, the strangler's cord came away in his hand. It was thin fiber, strong as a wire. When it had been pulled around his neck it had sliced the surface skin and flesh like a knife, halted only by the corded bands of muscle below. Brion threw it from him, into the darkness where it had come from.
He could think again, and he carefully kept his thoughts from the men he had killed. Knowing it was useless, he went to Ihjel's body. A single touch of the scorched flesh was enough. Behind him Lea moaned with returning consciousness and he hurried on to the sand car, stepping over the charred body outside the door. The driver slumped, dead, killed perhaps by the same strangling cord that had sunk into Brion's throat. He laid the man gently on the sand and closed the lids over the staring horror of the eyes. There was a canteen in the car and he brought it back to Lea.
"My head—I've hurt my head," she said groggily.
"Just a bruise," he reassured her. "Drink some of this water and you'll soon feel better. Lie back. Everything's over for the moment and you can rest."
"Ihjel's dead!" Lea said with sudden shocked memory. "They've killed him! What's happened?" she tensed, tried to rise, and he pressed her back gently.
"I'll tell you everything. Just don't try to get up yet. There was an ambush and they killed Vion and the driver of the sand car, as well as Ihjel. Three men did it and they're all dead now too. I don't think there are any more around, but if there are I'll hear them coming. We're just going to wait a few minutes until you feel better, then we're getting out of here in the car."
"Bring the ship down!" There was a thin note of hysteria in her voice. "We can't stay here alone. We don't know where to go or what to do. With Ihjel dead, the whole thing's spoiled. We have to get out...."
There are some things that can't sound gentle, no matter how gently they are said. This was one of them. "I'm sorry, Lea, but the ship is out of our reach right now. Ihjel was killed with an ion gun and it fused the control unit into a solid lump. We must take the car and get to the city. We'll do it now. See if you can stand up—I'll help you."
She rose, not saying anything, and as they walked towards the car a single, reddish moon cleared the hills behind them. In its light Brion saw a dark line bisecting the rear panel of the sand car. He stopped abruptly. "What's the matter?" Lea asked.
The unlocked engine cover could have only one significance and he pushed it open, knowing in advance what he would see. The attackers had been very thorough and fast. In the short time available to them they had killed the driver and the car as well. Ruddy light shone on torn wires, ripped out connections. Repair would be impossible.
"I think we'll have to walk," he told her, trying to keep the gloom out of his voice. "This spot is roughly a hundred and fifty kilometres from the city of Hovedstad, where we have to go. We should be able to—"
"We're going to die. We can't walk anywhere. This whole planet is a death trap. Let's get back in the ship!" The shrillness of hysteria was at the edge of her voice, as well as a subtle slurring of sounds.
Brion didn't try to reason with her or bother to explain. She had a concussion from the blow, that much was obvious. He had her sit and rest while he made what preparations he could for the long walk.
Clothing first. With each passing minute the desert air was growing colder as the day's heat ebbed away. Lea was beginning to shiver, and he took some heavier clothing from her charred bag and made her pull it on over her light tunic. There was little else that was worth carrying—the canteen from the car and a first-aid kit he found in one of the compartments. There were no maps and no radio. Navigation was obviously done by compass on this almost featureless desert. The car was equipped with an electrically operated gyrocompass, of no use to him now. But he did use it to check the direction of Hovedstad, as he remembered it from the map, and found it lined up perfectly with the tracks the car had cut into the sand. It had come directly from the city. They could find their way by back-tracking.
Time was slipping away. He would have liked to bury Ihjel and the men from the car, but the night hours were too valuable to be wasted. The best he could do was put the three corpses in the car, for protection from the Disan animals. He locked the door and threw the key as far as he could into the blackness. Lea had slipped into a restless sleep and he carefully shook her awake.
"Come," Brion said. "We have a little walking to do."
With the cool air and firmly packed sand under foot, walking should have been easy. Lea spoiled that. The concussion seemed to have temporarily cut off the reasoning part of her brain, leaving a direct connection to her vocal cords. As she stumbled along, only half conscious, she mumbled all of her darkest fears that were better left unvoiced. Occasionally there was relevancy in her complaints. They would lose their way, never find the city, die of thirst, freezing, heat or hunger. Interspersed and entwined with these were fears from her past that still floated, submerged in the timeless ocean of her subconscious. Some Brion could understand, though he tried not to listen. Fears of losing credits, not getting the highest grade, falling behind, a woman alone in a world of men, leaving school, being lost, trampled among the nameless hordes that struggled for survival in the crowded city-states of Earth.
There were other things she was afraid of that made no sense to a man of Anvhar. Who were the alkians that seemed to trouble her? Or what was canceri? Daydle and haydle? Who was Manstan, whose name kept coming up, over and over, each time accompanied by a little moan?
Brion stopped and picked her up in both arms. With a sigh she settled against the hard width of his chest and was instantly asleep. Even with the additional weight he made better time now, and he stretched to his fastest, kilometre-consuming stride to make good use of these best hours.
Somewhere on a stretch of gravel and shelving rock he lost the track of the sand car. He wasted no time looking for it. By carefully watching the glistening stars rise and set he had made a good estimate of the geographic north. Dis didn't seem to have a pole star; however, a boxlike constellation turned slowly around the invisible point of the pole. Keeping this positioned in line with his right shoulder guided him on the westerly course he needed.
When his arms began to grow tired he lowered Lea gently to the ground; she didn't wake. Stretching for an instant, before taking up his burden again, Brion was struck by the terrible loneliness of the desert. His breath made a vanishing mist against the stars; all else was darkness and silence. How distant he was from his home, his people, his planet! Even the constellations of the night sky were different. He was used to solitude, but this was a loneliness that touched some deep-buried instinct. A shiver that wasn't from the desert cold touched lightly along his spine, prickling at the hairs on his neck.
It was time to go on. He shrugged the disquieting sensations off and carefully tied Lea into the jacket he had been wearing. Slung like a pack on his back, it made the walking easier. The gravel gave way to sliding dunes of sand that seemed to continue to infinity. It was a painful, slipping climb to the top of each one, then an equally difficult descent to the black-pooled hollow at the foot of the next.
With the first lightening of the sky in the east he stopped, breath rasping in his chest, to mark his direction before the stars faded. One line scratched in the sand pointed due north, a second pointed out the course they should follow. When they were aligned to his satisfaction he washed his mouth out with a single swallow of water and sat on the sand next to the still form of the girl.
Gold fingers of fire searched across the sky, wiping out the stars. It was magnificent; Brion forgot his fatigue in appreciation. There should be some way of preserving it. A quatrain would be best. Short enough to be remembered, yet requiring attention and skill to compact everything into it. He had scored high with his quatrains in the Twenties. This would be a special one. Taind, his poetry mentor, would have to get a copy.
"What are you mumbling about?" Lea asked, looking up at the craggy blackness of his profile against the reddening sky.
"Poem," he said. "Shhh. Just a minute."
It was too much for Lea, coming after the tension and dangers of the night. She began to laugh, laughing even harder when he scowled at her. Only when she heard the tinge of growing hysteria did she make an attempt to break off the laughter. The sun cleared the horizon, washing a sudden warmth over them. Lea gasped.
"Your throat's been cut! You're bleeding to death!"
"Not really," he said, touching his fingertips lightly against the blood-clotted wound that circled his neck. "Just superficial."
Depression sat on him as he suddenly remembered the battle and death of the previous night. Lea didn't notice his face; she was busy digging in the pack he had thrown down. He had to use his fingers to massage and force away the grimace of pain that twisted his mouth. Memory was more painful than the wound. How easily he had killed! Three men. How close to the surface of the civilized man the animal dwelled! In countless matches he had used those holds, always drawing back from the exertion of the full killing power. They were part of a game, part of the Twenties. Yet when his friend had been killed he had become a killer himself. He believed in nonviolence and the sanctity of life—until the first test, when he had killed without hesitation. More ironic was the fact he really felt no guilt, even now. Shock at the change, yes. But no more than that.
"Lift your chin," Lea said, brandishing the antiseptic applicator she had found in the medicine kit. He lifted his chin obligingly and the liquid drew a cool, burning line across his neck. Antibio pills would do a lot more good, since the wound was completely clotted by now, but he didn't speak his thoughts aloud. For the moment Lea had forgotten herself in taking care of him. He put some of the antiseptic on her scalp bruise and she squeaked, pulling back. They both swallowed the pills.
"That sun is hot already," Lea said, peeling off her heavy clothing. "Let's find a nice cool cave or an air-cooled saloon to crawl into for the day."