"Just like old times," Jason said when Brucco came into the room with a tray of food. Without a word Brucco served Jason and the wounded men in the other beds, then left. "Thanks," Jason called after his retreating back.
A joke, a twist of a grin, like it always was. Sure. But even as he grinned and his lips shaped a joke, Jason felt them like a veneer on the outside. Something plastered on with a life of its own. Inside he was numb and immovable. His body was stiff as his eyes still watched that arch of alien flesh descend and smother the one-armed Pyrran with its million burning fingers.
He could feel himself under the arch. After all, hadn't the wounded man taken his place? He finished the meal without realizing that he ate.
Ever since that morning, when he had recovered consciousness, it had been like this. He knew that he should have died out there in that battle-torn street. His life should have been snuffed out, for making the mistake of thinking that he could actually help the battling Pyrrans. Instead of being underfoot and in the way. If it hadn't been for Jason, the man with the wounded arm would have been brought here to the safety of the reorientation buildings. He knew he was lying in the bed that belonged to that man.
The man who had given his life for Jason's.
The man whose name he didn't even know.
There were drugs in the food and they made him sleep. The medicated pads soaked the pain and rawness out of the burns where the tentacles had seared his face. When he awoke the second time, his touch with reality had been restored.
A man had died so he could live. Jason faced the fact. He couldn't restore that life, no matter how much he wanted to. What he could do was make the man's death worth while. If it can be said that any death was worth while … He forced his thoughts from that track.
Jason knew what he had to do. His work was even more important now. If he could solve the riddle of this deadly world, he could repay in part the debt he owed.
Sitting up made his head spin and he held to the edge of the bed until it slowed down. The others in the room ignored him as he slowly and painfully dragged on his clothes. Brucco came in, saw what he was doing, and left again without a word.
Dressing took a long time, but it was finally done. When Jason finally left the room he found Kerk waiting for him.
"Kerk … I want to tell you … "
"Tell me nothing!" The thunder of Kerk's voice bounced back from the ceiling and walls. "I'm telling you. I'll tell you once and that will be the end of it. You're not wanted on Pyrrus, Jason dinAlt, neither you nor your precious off-world schemes are wanted here. I let you convince me once with your twisted tongue. Helped you at the expense of more important work. I should have known what the result of your 'logic' would be. Now I've seen. Welf died so you could live. He was twice the man you will ever be."
"Welf? Was that his name?" Jason asked stumblingly. "I didn't know—"
"You didn't even know." Kerk's lips pulled back from his teeth in a grimace of disgust. "You didn't even know his name—yet he died that you might continue your miserable existence." Kerk spat, as if the words gave a vile flavor to his speech, and stamped towards the exit lock. Almost as an afterthought he turned back to Jason.
"You'll stay here in the sealed buildings until the ship returns in two weeks. Then you will leave this planet and never come back. If you do, I'll kill you instantly. With pleasure." He started through the lock.
"Wait," Jason shouted. "You can't decide like that. You haven't even seen the evidence I've uncovered. Ask Meta—" The lock thumped shut and Kerk was gone.
The whole thing was just too stupid. Anger began to replace the futile despair of a moment before. He was being treated like an irresponsible child, the importance of his discovery of the log completely ignored.
Jason turned and saw for the first time that Brucco was standing there. "Did you hear that?" Jason asked him.
"Yes. And I quite agree. You can consider yourself lucky."
"Lucky!" Jason was the angry one now. "Lucky to be treated like a moronic child, with contempt for everything I do—"
"I said lucky," Brucco snapped. "Welf was Kerk's only surviving son. Kerk had high hopes for him, was training him to take his place eventually." He turned to leave but Jason called after him.
"Wait. I'm sorry about Welf. I can't be any sorrier knowing that he was Kerk's son. But at least it explains why Kerk is so quick to throw me out—as well as the evidence I have uncovered. The log of the ship—"
"I know, I've seen it," Brucco said. "Meta brought it in. Very interesting historical document."
"That's all you can see it as—an historical document? The significance of the planetary change escapes you?"
"It doesn't escape me," Brucco answered briefly, "but I cannot see that it has any relevancy today. The past is unchangeable and we must fight in the present. That is enough to occupy all our energies."
Jason felt too exhausted to argue the point any more. He ran into the same stone wall with all the Pyrrans. Theirs was a logic of the moment. The past and the future unchangeable, unknowable—and uninteresting. "How is the perimeter battle going?" he asked, wanting to change the subject.
"Finished. Or in the last stages at least," Brucco was almost enthusiastic as he showed Jason some stereos of the attackers. He did not notice Jason's repressed shudder.
"This was one of the most serious breakthroughs in years, but we caught it in time. I hate to think what would have happened if they hadn't been detected for a few weeks more."
"What are those things?" Jason asked. "Giant snakes of some kind?"
"Don't be absurd," Brucco snorted. He tapped the stereo with his thumbnail. "Roots. That's all. Greatly modified, but still roots. They came in under the perimeter barrier, much deeper than anything we've had before. Not a real threat in themselves as they have very little mobility. Die soon after being cut. The danger came from their being used as access tunnels. They're bored through and through with animal runs, and two or three species of beasts live in a sort of symbiosis inside.
"Now we know what they are we can watch for them. The danger was they could have completely undermined the perimeter and come in from all sides at once. Not much we could have done then."
The edge of destruction. Living on the lip of a volcano. The Pyrrans took satisfaction from any day that passed without total annihilation. There seemed no way to change their attitude. Jason let the conversation die there. He picked up the log of the Pollux Victory from Brucco's quarters and carried it back to his room. The wounded Pyrrans there ignored him as he dropped onto the bed and opened the book to the first page.
For two days he did not leave his quarters. The wounded men were soon gone and he had the room to himself. Page by page he went through the log, until he knew every detail of the settlement of Pyrrus. His notes and cross-references piled up. He made an accurate map of the original settlement, superimposed over a modern one. They didn't match at all.
It was a dead end. With one map held over the other, what he had suspected was painfully clear. The descriptions of terrain and physical features in the log were accurate enough. The city had obviously been moved since the first landing. Whatever records had been kept would be in the library—and he had exhausted that source. Anything else would have been left behind and long since destroyed.
Rain lashed against the thick window above his head, lit suddenly by a flare of lightning. The unseen volcanoes were active again, vibrating the floor with their rumblings deep in the earth.
The shadow of defeat pressed heavily down on Jason. Rounding his shoulders and darkening, even more, the overcast day.