home   |   À-ß   |   A-Z   |   ìåíþ


TEN

That other Ben Pertin, who distinguished himself with the middle name “Yale,” sat, filthy, bruised, and exhausted, ravenously tearing with his teeth at the flesh of a kind of watersnake, watching the skinny boy croon at the monster called an org.

He was delighted that the other human—or near- human, the one called Redlaw—had found his equipment and brought it to him. But it was badly damaged. He had managed to repair the Pmal translator enough to get across a few words to the man and the boy; but it was not functioning well. All he had been able to understand was that they wanted to use him to fight some enemies—no doubt the ones they called “Watchers.” Why, he did not know. He also did not know if he had any freedom of choice about fighting. Was he an ally or a draftee?

But at least he was alive, and he had not expected that much when the boy caught him trying to break open the egg. The first thing Ben Yale tried to get across through his Pmal translator was an apology for that. He hadn’t known it was a pet. He had only been hungry. Whether the boy had understood or not, he could not tell. That lean, sharp Indian face was hard to read. The boy’s words through the spottily functioning Pmal had hardly been reassuring: “Mine … not kill … punish!”

Now the org was perched on a rock, swaying uncertainly as it regarded the watersnake in Ben Yale’s hands. Pertin half-turned, watching the creature over his shoulder. It was still learning to keep its balance. Wings not yet unfolded, it looked ridiculous, like a trunk-faced, big-eyed fish with bird legs.

The exploring trunk reached out toward him, and Ben Yale swore under his breath, tore off a shred of the watersnake and threw it to the org. The boy cried something, which the Pmal clucked over without producing a single intelligible word. From the curtain of spray that concealed lie cave, the man named Redlaw said: “He says: ‘Meat not spoiled? Not make org sick?’”

Ben Yale shook his head. “It doesn’t taste very good, but it doesn’t seem to be harming me any,” he said. The giant muttered something to the boy, who stared ap- praisingly at Pertin then, reluctantly, bobbed his head.

“Can give more,” the giant said generously through the Pmal.

“I think Td rather have a drink,” said Pertin, not caring whether the translator dealt with it or not. He pushed past the giant, under the shrouding waterfall and out toward the lake.

The boy followed him, carefully scanning the sky. Pertin was not flattered. He knew the boy’s concern was not for his own safety, but for fear he might attract the attention of some predator or enemy to the rest of them. Particularly to the org.

Pertin knelt on the gravel beach and leaned forward on his spread hands to drink. The water was cold and good, but it gave him little pleasure.

His position, when he thought it over carefully, was not very happy. The giant, Redlaw, seemed to want to talk only about weapons, and he had none; they had not been in the junk the giant had carried from the wreckage of his ship. To the younger man, Org Rider, he appeared to be only an inconvenience, possibly useful to taste doubtful meat for the org but otherwise a net liability. Neither of them seemed in the least interested in Pertin’s reason for being on their world. What he had tried to tell them of the great universe outside had been received by the giant without comment, and by Org Rider, apparendy, without understanding; the Pmal translator, in its damaged condition, seemed to function sporadically with Redlaw and almost not at all with the boy.

Ben Yale Pertin stood up and looked around him. He did not even notice the beauty of the scene: the deep, rock-walled valley in which he stood, the lazy waterfall behind him, the cold little lake with water so deep it looked black, the strange, colorful vegetation. Back on the orbiter the prospect of exploring these jungles had seemed interesting, to the extent that anything could interest him more than his own misery and loss without his wife and future. Back on Sun One, when he and Zara had been together, it would have seemed enchanting, a marvelous holiday surrounded by beauty. And farther back still, on Earth, before he had ever submitted to tachyon transmission, when there was still only one of him and that one knew nothing but cities and crowding, this whole scene would have seemed a total fantasy.

Now his eyes did not even register its color or its strangeness. It meant no more to him than a cell.

By the side of the lake Redlaw and the boy were building a fire, roasting nuts they had gathered, muttering to each other, too far away for the Pmal to pick up what they were saying and try to render it into English.

The giant stood up and walked easily toward Pertin. His green eyes were cold and judging. He put his fists on his hips as he stood before Pertin, towering over him nearly two feet, and spoke in his liquid tongue, rapidly and at length.

The Pmal, stammering to keep up, produced bursts of words: “Orgs gone. Watchers gone. Safe to travel. Can now find other slamming machine, other man like you. Can find killing things!”

Ben Yale Pertin kicked a pebble aimlessly into the water. “Travel?” he repeated. “You want me to come with you somewhere, to find another ship with weapons?”

Redlaw nodded vigorously, the bright beard bobbing. “Go soon now, two hundred breaths,” the Pmal rattled. “Travel long, hard. You become ready.”

Get ready? Pertin looked around him, almost smiling. What was there to do to get ready? What to pack, what to miss? He was ready to go anywhere anytime …

But for Ben Yale Pertin where was there to go?

They did not dare fly, and Org Rider’s muscles began to ache very soon with the unaccustomed strain of trying to move at ground level, under the cover of the trees. The young org—he called it “Babe,” lovingly— wanted desperately to fly, and so Org Rider’s task was twice as hard, for sometimes he carried the fledgling, and sometimes kept up a running stream of talk with it, encouraging it to keep hopping along on its wobbly legs, cajoling it back when it attempted to fly. That was what his mother had taught him to do: talk to the infant org, let it know always that you were there. She swore that the orgs could even understand words after a while, like human children. And indeed Babe had already seemed to know what words like “fish” and “water” and “meat” meant.

That was more than the dumpy stranger knew. Org Rider did not like him. He had gotten over the superstitious fear he had felt when he first saw him bending over Babe’s unhatched egg; he could not understand how this man could be alive when a dozen sleeps before he had seen him dead. But the puzzle had receded into the back of his mind and lost its power to instill fear. He wanted desperately to ask the man about it, but the clacking machine the stranger talked through did not seem to work well with him, and Redlaw only shrugged and reported that he could not understand what the man had said to him. “The words are clear enough,” Redlaw rumbled. “He says it was another him. How can there be another? He could not say.”

When they had eaten four times they decided to sleep. They were a good distance from the last place they had seen either orgs or Watchers, and so they risked building another fire and roasting more of the green nuts that hung all about them. The stranger moved a little way apart from them and flung himself on the ground; in a moment he began to snore.

Org Rider stroked Babe softly along the gently squirming length of its trunk and listened to what Red- law was saying about the stranger: “He says he comes from another world. He knows arts the Watchers don’t—arts that I think are strange and frightening to them. But he only speaks of these things, he does not have the weapons to prove them.” Redlaw scowled at the fire.

“What is ‘another world’?” Org Rider asked.

Redlaw shrugged morosely. “What he says about his world is not to be believed. He says it is not flat.”

“Not flat? You mean mountainous?”

“No, not mountainous. Round. A little ball, so tiny that men have gone all the way around it.”

“That is unlikely,” Org Rider agreed.

“What is even more unlikely,” continued Redlaw, glowering across the fire at the sleeping stranger, “is that he says our world is also curved like a ball. This is clearly false, but he holds to it. He says that in his place everything is very heavy. A man can’t jump much above his own height. And he says, let me see—oh, yes. He says that although there are trees and plants and clouds on his world, they do not glow of their own light. None of them.”

“How strange! It must be a gloomy place. How does one see?”

“There is one cloud,” Redlaw said. “He does not call it a cloud, but it is in the sky, so what else could it be? It is so bright that its light hurts your eyes, and so high that it looks quite small.”

“I have never seen such a thing,” Org Rider declared. He peered around, squinting through the leaves at the great flank of Knife-in-the-Sky rising above them. “Where is the way to such a place? Over the mountain?”

“Farther! Htf says you climb beyond the rain clouds and beyond the flying rocks. He says you come up into a darkness where there is nothing at all. The darkness is bigger than you can imagine—so big that, when you begin to cross it, our flatworld shrinks to a point you can’t even see, like an org flying out of sight toward the top of the mountain.”

“It is all too strange for me,” Org Rider said uneasily, stroking Babe. “If his world is so far away, how is it that he is just a man?”

“He does not know, he says,” Redlaw growled. “He says he and his friends came here for learning, and that is one of the things they wish to learn: how it is that he is so like a human person, though from so far away.”

“I wish him luck,” Org Rider said dubiously. “I saw the machine he came in. It made a great noise in the sky, like slam-bang-bang, slam-bang-bang. But in spite of all the noise, it was slower than the orgs. They ripped the wings off it and tore it apart in the sky. And when the Watchers caught him, he died.” Org Rider added thoughtfully, “I do not understand how that can be, either. But I have seen it, so it is so.”

Redlaw rumbled impatiently, “It was another like him, he says. Part of that is nonsense, for he says it is him and says it isn’t him, both.

“What is not nonsense,” he added somberly, “is that he has something the Watchers fear. I must have that from him, or he must die.”

They traveled fast and far, and the strain began to tell on all of them. Even Redlaw grew short-tempered and gaunt-faced. In some ways his was the most difficult job of all. Ben Yale Pertin was ill and injured; Org Rider had Babe to care for and often to carry; so it fell to Redlaw to keep alert for Watchers or for wild orgs, and there was never a moment while they were moving when he could relax. When they rested over the campfire they no longer talked amiably, they bickered. It troubled Org Rider that Redlaw seemed sometimes to believe in the stranger’s insane stories, and other times to hate and mistrust him. He could not hear the stranger directly; whatever the machine was that Ben Yale Pertin had worn on his armbands, it seemed to respond only to the squeals and whistles of the language of the Watchers, not to normal human speech. So Org Rider could only communicate with him through Redlaw’s imperfect understanding, and he was not sine how much was getting across.

Conscience made him try to correct some of the stranger’s errors. “I have thought,” he told Redlaw gravely, “and Ben Yale Pertin is wrong about our flat- world. It is not round; my mother has told me this. And also I understand how he looks so like us.”

Redlaw scowled at him, then guffawed. When he was done laughing he chirped for a moment in the language of the Watchers, and then turned to Org Rider. “Ben Yale wishes to be enlightened, young one,” he said, his tone half laughing but not pleasantly. “So do I. Please tell us what your mother has to contribute.”

The boy said stubbornly, “It is truth, all people in my tribe agreed to that. The flatworld was made by the makers.” He peered into the fire, trying to remember exactly. “My mother used to say they were terrible beings, taller than people, shining with light of their own. They sang death songs, and the songs themselves killed those who displeased them.”

He waited for Redlaw to finish translating, chuckling, then went on:

“My_ people came from seven eggs the makers had made, in a cave down under the bottom of the world. The eggs were guarded by seven keepers, but still they were stolen by the Watchers. The evil creatures first blinded the keepers with death-weed dust, and then stole the eggs for a feast. As our guest would have done with my org,” he added carefully.

Redlaw chocked, but managed to translate and receive a reply. “He apologizes again for that,” he reported. “He says he was hungry and did not know better.”

Org Rider nodded and went on: “The feast was to be at the top of the Watchman’s tower, where the blinded keepers couldn’t climb. But the makers were angry, when they found the keepers blinded and the eggs gone. They did not sing their death song, but they sang a special song for the wild orgs. And the orgs heard it as they flew over Knife-in-the-Sky.

“Seven wild orgs dived on the feast, and carried the seven eggs in different directions, all around Knife-in- the-Sky. The orgs hovered over the eggs, keeping them warm. When each egg hatched, it produced a boy and a girl, and two of every creature that is useful to a man.

“But the Watchers spied where the orgs had gone, all but one. One by one, they found the eggs just as they hatched, and devoured die hatchling creatures, and killed the orgs that guarded them.

“But the seventh org they did not kill. It flew out into the shadowworld, where Knife-in-the-Sky hides the flatworld from the Watchman’s tower. Here the hatch- lings escaped. Green grass sprouted from the droppings of the creatures. The boy baby and the girl baby were nursed by the wild org that had saved them. They grew to be man and woman, and the parents of all our people.

“And what has come to me,” Org Rider ended gravely, “is that one of the other eggs did in fact get safely away, and its hatchlings were the parents of Ben Yale Pertin!”

The giant was laughing boisterously. Org Rider paused. “What’s the matter?” he demanded.

“What rot, boy!” Redlaw boomed. “Ignorant superstition!”

Org Rider leaped to his feet. “It is as my mother told it to me, Redlaw.”

“It is nonsense,” Redlaw insisted. “You should spend a few sleeps with the Watchers some time! You’ll learn the difference between savage myths and scientific truths. I do not know whose superstitions are worse, yours or Ben Yale Pertin’s.”

“And what then is truth, all-knowing Redlaw?” the boy demanded stiffly.

“Ah, that I don’t know,” the giant confessed. “Some of the things Ben Yale Pertin says may have truth in them somewhere. He says our world may be hollow—”

“Hollow!” Org Rider cried scornfully.

“Yes. Does that seem unlikely? It does to me, too, and yet I know there are levels below. The tower of the Watchman guards one of the gates to those levels. I have been there while a captive of the Watchers, and I know. And there is some truth in what your mother told you, too, I think. There are such things as keepers and Watchers, and that is where they live. But—”

He was silent for a time, staring across the fire at the sleeping stranger. Then he stood up.

“It is time to sleep,” he said, his voice hardening. “We are wasting time.”

Fast and low, they kept going. They were halfway around the thrust of Knife-in-the-Sky’s largest bastion, carried by Redlaw’s driving purpose. For Org Rider that purpose seemed strange and remote; he could understand Redlaw’s burning hatred of the Watchers, who had enslaved him and threatened his life; but now that they were free of the Watchers it seemed pointless to seek revenge. The boy himself was most occupied with his young org, who seemed to grow in size and intelligence and maturity with every breath. When Org Rider woke, the infant org was hopping unsteadily toward him, seeking not food—he was capable of finding his own well enough by then—but affection, the ritual rub- down of his golden fur with a handful of moss. Org Rider did not neglect the duties his mother had described to him. In particular he talked to the org, crooningly, repetitiously, and was rewarded by having Babe repeat some of the words to him. It was not rote replaying, like an earthly parrot’s; it was almost like the first experimental use of language of a human child. The org’s delicate high-pitched voice could repeat words like “food” when it was hungry, “sleep” when tired, and a dozen others. If it mangled some of the syllables, it nevertheless made itself clear.

Babe’s stubby wings began to unfold as the boy groomed them. Tapered triangular fins, they had been molded invisibly into his sleek flanks. They looked almost too thick and too narrow to be useful in flight, but the boy’s caressing fingers could feel their muscular power.

When they were fully spread, the boy determined to show Babe how they were used. He climbed a rock, the org hopping after him, spread his arms, and leaped toward another rock, flapping his arms.

To his surprise, Babe understood at once—so quickly that before Org Rider had reached his goal, Babe came sailing over him on quivering wings.

“Oh, good for you, Babe!” the boy shouted in delight. But the delight faded and congealed into panic, as the org kept going, past him and up, up over the sheltering leaves of the forest screen. He wheeled in a climbing spiral and screamed with a sound the boy had never heard him make.

Fear took the boy’s breath. Was Babe calling to the wild orgs above the cliffs? He looked back to his companions for help; they were no help—Redlaw sound asleep under a mossy rock, Ben Yale Pertin watching apathetically. Without thinking, Org Rider crouched on the rock and kicked himself into the air, using every bit of strength in his legs and body, leaping a dozen times his own height, straight at the wheeling org.

Babe saw him and joyously dove to meet him. His young clumsiness made them collide, spinning the boy off balance, knocking the breath out of his body. But the org was up to the needs of the moment. Org Rider felt the velvet trunk coil around him protectingly. Strong and supple, it held him, then lifted him to the org’s sleek-furred back, just above the rippling wings.

The boy lifted his voice in a shout of breathless triumph. “Now I am truly Org Rider!” he crowed. “Faster, Babe! Faster and higher!” And the org echoed in its piping voice: “Faster, Babe! Faster, faster!” Org Rider clung with his knees, fists locked in the golden fur, leaning against the wind of their flight. The throb of wings became a purr as Babe dived across the treetops, climbed again, then wheeled toward a clearing, so close above the yellow-bladed shrubs that the boy saw the giant moths fluttering about in terror. The boy’s first alarm became a wild elation. His own wings had never lifted him with such speed or strength. He clapped the org’s golden flank and called into the wind. “Good, Babe! Good!”

And the org piped happily, “Good Babe!” as it circled and dived again.

At last the boy found that Babe would respond to voice and tug of fists and kick of heels. Thoughtfully he drove the org back toward the clearing where the giant moths fluttered and cried, “Food, Babe! Eat! Get it!”

“Food Babe!” the org echoed, and showed its understanding by diving at one of the moths to catch it in spread talons. “Home Babe?” it piped questioningly, and Org Rider cried:

“Yes, Babe, home. We’ll cook it and eat it. You’ve earned your food this time!”

They flew high, while the boy searched the flank of the mountain for the place where they had left Redlaw and Ben Yale Pertin. All the trees looked alike to him, all the clearings much the same. He caught a glimpse of something metallic, high above them on an outcropping, but it was not small enough to be Redlaw’s cleaver or the stranger’s peculiar instruments. He began to feel dismay … and then realized that Babe knew better than he; while he was searching the treetops for a clue, the org had already zeroed in on their campsite and was beating toward it powerfully.

When they landed, the boy got off his org’s back and said solemnly, “Now I am truly Org Rider, and no longer a boy!”

Redlaw was staring at him with anger, and a touch of wry admiration. “No longer a boy, yes,” he rumbled. “But a fool anyway! Listen, Org Rider who is no longer a boy. What do you hear?”

The boy, perplexed, stood still, ears tuned to—what? That distant shrill whistie?

“Do you hear it? Do you see it?” Redlaw demanded. “Over there—beyond the bee-tree. High in the sky!”

The boy looked. He had not heard it, because of the whistle of wind in his own ears, but now he heard it clearly and saw it, too, falling like a thick, blunt spear toward the slope of the mountain. A ship of the Watchers!

“If they saw you,” Redlaw muttered, “then, man who is no longer a boy, you will not live to be a man very long.”

The sputtering Pmal translator on Ben Yale Pertin’s wrist caught only a few words, but they were enough to warn him. The Watchers were nearby.

Pertin did not need to hear more; he had encountered the Watchers. They were the ones who had shot his ship out of the sky of Cuckoo. Jn any other world they would have killed him, for he had fallen more than a mile to earth; but in Cuckoo’s gentle surface gravitation he had survived with only cuts and bruises—and would have missed those if he had been less panicked and in better shape, he knew.

That kind of knowledge was no comfort. Pertin feared the Watchers. He feared dying, even when he welcomed it; there was no kind of future that looked good to him, unless by some miracle Zara should appear and offer a new life here. That was fantasy. Reality was that he would die here, and he would hate it.

The boy, ignoring the danger from the sky, was splitting and skinning the body of the golden-furred creature like a moth, spitting it over the fire. The yellow dust from the creature’s fur gave Pertin a fit of sneezing, but soon the aroma of its roasting meat reconciled him to the dust. When it was done, Pertin humbly waited his turn. The best bits went to the org. Redlaw had second choice, then the boy; then last came Pertin. But there was still plenty left, and it was delicious.

By the time they had finished it had begun to rain, great fat slow drops that touched the fire and extinguished it. Gray clouds came dropping in to the tops of the trees.

The red haired giant bounded chuckling and happy over to him, and whistled something that the Pmal translator rendered as: “Rain clouds hide us from Watchers. Now we go! Youth has seen your ship, we find it, get weapons to kill Watchers!”

“But you have been to the wreckage of my ship,” Pertin objected, perplexed. “I had no weapons—”

“Not your ship, like-your ship!” the Pmal crackled in response to the giant’s squeals. Pertin gave up the struggle to understand; it did not matter. What mattered was that they were to move again. This time the boy did not need to worry about his org, who flew on above them, so he and the giant, unfettered, made very fast time. It was all Pertin could do to keep up with them. They kept on, and kept on. They did not stop even to eat, only paused long enough to pass Pertin a handful of hard roasted moss nuts, now cold and almost tasteless; he munched them as best he could while they went. Three times they ate, pausing once to drink at a vine-covered stream and to relieve their bowels and bladders, each time hurrying on.

Then Redlaw and the boy stopped and waited for Pertin to struggle up next to him.

“There!” the giant crowed. “Look! Beyond the gray moss, between the boulders. See! What do you see?”

Dizzy with Weariness, Pertin tried to focus his eyes. See? Yes, there was something there, something bright that caught his eye.

The glint of light was metal. He glanced at the others, then joined them in a stumbling, hopping run up the gentle slope, and there, half-hidden by purple- flowered moss, was the wreck of a machine.

It was not his ship. It was smaller, and it dearly had been there for a long time. The moss had overgrown it completely, except for a few lengths of metal …

Metal? Yes, clearly it was metal. But there was something strange about it. The color was not clean silver, but stained with a watery bluish radiance that look unfamiliar, but vaguely ominous.

He scurried toward it. It must have been a man- carrying machine. Perhaps the machine one of his predecessors had used? He could not say. It was so torn and broken that he could not be sure. He tore at the moss, peering inside through a dark opening rimmed with shattered crystal. A sharp scent stung his nostrils; it did not seem to be coming from the moss, but from the bluish coating on the metal itself. Now that he touched it, it felt slick, slippery, moist—quite repellent …

A shrill squeal came from behind him, and his Pmal rapped out: “Do not touch! Not! Not!”

Confused, he stood up. Redlaw and Org Rider were coming toward him, anger and concern on their faces. “What’s the matter?”

They looked at him—curiously, they were looking mosdy at his hands, it seemed—then at each other. They did not speak for a moment, then Redlaw spoke, his voice oddly gentle. “Clean hands,” the Pmal translator rapped. “Wipe on moss. Nol No! Do not touch metal!”

He shrugged, not understanding. He seemed to have got some of the blue slime on his fingers. Obediently, he bent and rubbed his hands on the soft gray moss—

What he was rubbing against, he suddenly realized with a heart-stopping sensation of nausea, had the shape and texture of a human skull.

He clawed at the moss. It was a skull! A whole skeleton, in fact, the flesh rotted away, but the bones still queerly dressed, under the moss, in the imperishable plastics of an explorer’s jungle garb, red top, orange- and-yellow pants, great white gauntlets, and on the shrunken forearm bones the coils of translator, recorder, direction-finder, timekeeper, and all the other instruments one wore.

The giant spoke, and the Pmal chattered: “Danger! Do not touch stranger bones. Serious! Be warned!”

Pertin looked up at them, aware of the bluish radiance that clung to the bones, aware that it still befouled his fingers, in spite of his efforts to rub them clean.

“Danger?” he repeated dully. “Yes, I suppose so, if you say so. But you’re wrong about one thing. They’re not a stranger’s bones. I know those bones very well, and I know the clothes they wear, too. I ought to. They’re mine.”



ïðåäûäóùàÿ ãëàâà | Farthest Star | ELEVEN



Loading...