Jason spent one depressed day lying on his bunk counting rivets, forcing himself to accept defeat. Kerk's order that he was not to leave the sealed building tied his hands completely. He felt himself close to the answer—but he was never going to get it.
One day of defeat was all he could take. Kerk's attitude was completely emotional, untempered by the slightest touch of logic. This fact kept driving home until Jason could no longer ignore it. Emotional reasoning was something he had learned to mistrust early in life. He couldn't agree with Kerk in the slightest—which meant he had to utilize the ten remaining days to solve the problem. If it meant disobeying Kerk, it would still have to be done.
He grabbed up his noteplate with a new enthusiasm. His first sources of information had been used up, but there must be others. Chewing the scriber and needling his brain, he slowly built up a list of other possibilities. Any idea, no matter how wild, was put down. When the plate was filled he wiped the long shots and impossibles—such as consulting off-world historical records. This was a Pyrran problem, and had to be settled on this planet or not at all.
The list worked down to two probables. Either old records, notebooks or diaries that individual Pyrrans might have in their possession, or verbal histories that had been passed down the generations by word of mouth. The first choice seemed to be the most probable and he acted on it at once. After a careful check of his medikit and gun he went to see Brucco.
"What's new and deadly in the world since I left?" he asked.
Brucco glared at him. "You can't go out, Kerk has forbidden it."
"Did he put you in charge of guarding me to see if I obeyed?" Jason's voice was quiet and cold.
Brucco rubbed his jaw and frowned in thought. Finally he just shrugged. "No, I'm not guarding you—nor do I want the job. As far as I know this is between you and Kerk and it can stay that way. Leave whenever you want. And get yourself killed quietly some place so there will be an end to the trouble you cause once and for all."
"I love you, too," Jason said. "Now brief me on the wildlife."
The only new mutation that routine precautions wouldn't take care of was a slate-colored lizard that spit a fast nerve poison with deadly accuracy. Death took place in seconds if the saliva touched any bare skin. The lizards had to be looked out for, and shot before they came within range. An hour of lizard-blasting in a training chamber made him proficient in the exact procedure.
Jason left the sealed buildings quietly and no one saw him go. He followed the map to the nearest barracks, shuffling tiredly through the dusty streets. It was a hot, quiet afternoon, broken only by rumblings from the distance, and the occasional crack of his gun.
It was cool inside the thick-walled barracks buildings, and he collapsed onto a bench until the sweat dried and his heart stopped pounding. Then he went to the nearest recreation room to start his search.
Before it began it was finished. None of the Pyrrans kept old artifacts of any kind and thought the whole idea was very funny. After the twentieth negative answer Jason was ready to admit defeat in this line of investigation. There was as much chance of meeting a Pyrran with old documents as finding a bundle of grandfather's letters in a soldier's kit bag.
This left a single possibility—verbal histories. Again Jason questioned with the same lack of results. The fun had worn off the game for the Pyrrans and they were beginning to growl. Jason stopped while he was still in one piece. The commissary served him a meal that tasted like plastic paste and wood pulp. He ate it quickly, then sat brooding over the empty tray, hating to admit to another dead end. Who could supply him with answers? All the people he had talked to were so young. They had no interest or patience for story-telling. That was an old folks' hobby—and there were no oldsters on Pyrrus.
With one exception that he knew of, the librarian, Poli. It was a possibility. A man who worked with records and books might have an interest in some of the older ones. He might even remember reading volumes now destroyed. A very slim lead indeed, but one that had to be pursued.
Walking to the library almost killed Jason. The torrential rains made the footing bad, and in the dim light it was hard to see what was coming. A snapper came in close enough to take out a chunk of flesh before he could blast it. The antitoxin made him dizzy and he lost some blood before he could get the wound dressed. He reached the library, exhausted and angry.
Poli was working on the guts of one of the catalogue machines. He didn't stop until Jason had tapped him on the shoulder. Switching on his hearing aid, the Pyrran stood quietly, crippled and bent, waiting for Jason to talk.
"Have you any old papers or letters that you have kept for your personal use?"
A shake of the head, no.
"What about stories—you know, about great things that have happened in the past, that someone might have told you when you were young?" Negative.
Results negative. Every question was answered by a shake of Poli's head, and very soon the old man grew irritated and pointed to the work he hadn't finished.
"Yes, I know you have work to do," Jason said. "But this is important." Poli shook his head an angry no and reached to turn off his hearing aid. Jason groped for a question that might get a more positive answer. There was something tugging at his mind, a word he had heard and made a note of, to be investigated later. Something that Kerk had said …
"That's it!" It was right there—on the tip of his tongue. "Just a second, Poli, just one more question. What is a 'grubber'? Have you ever seen one or know what they do, or where they can be found—"
The words were cut off as Poli whirled and lashed the back of his good arm into Jason's face. Though the man was aged and crippled, the blow almost fractured Jason's jaw, sending him sliding across the floor. Through a daze he saw Poli hobbling towards him, making thick bubbling noises in his ruined throat; what remained of his face twisted and working with anger.
This was no time for diplomacy. Moving as fast as he could, with the high-G, foot-slapping shuffle, Jason headed for the sealed door. He was no match for any Pyrran in hand-to-hand combat, young and small or old and crippled. The door thunked open, as he went through, and barely closed in Poli's face.
Outside the rain had turned to snow and Jason trudged wearily through the slush, rubbing his sore jaw and turning over the only fact he had. Grubber was a key—but to what? And who did he dare ask for more information? Kerk was the man he had talked to best, but not any more. That left only Meta as a possible source. He wanted to see her at once, but sudden exhaustion swept through him. It took all of his strength to stumble back to the school buildings.
In the morning he ate and left early. There was only a week left. It was impossible to hurry and he cursed as he dragged his double-weight body to the assignment center. Meta was on night perimeter duty and should be back to her quarters soon. He shuffled over there and was lying on her bunk when she came in.
"Get out," she said in a flat voice. "Or do I throw you out?"
"Patience, please," he said as he sat up. "Just resting here until you came back. I have a single question, and if you will answer it for me I'll go and stop bothering you."
"What is it?" she asked, tapping her foot with impatience. But there was also a touch of curiosity in her voice. Jason thought carefully before he spoke.
"Now please, don't shoot me. You know I'm an off-worlder with a big mouth, and you have heard me say some awful things without taking a shot at me. Now I have another one. Will you please show your superiority to the other people of the galaxy by holding your temper and not reducing me to component atoms?"
His only answer was a tap of the foot, so he took a deep breath and plunged in.
"What is a 'grubber'?"
For a long moment she was quiet, unmoving. Then she curled her lips back in disgust. "You find the most repulsive topics."
"That may be so," he said, "but it still doesn't answer my question."
"It's … well, the sort of thing people just don't talk about."
"I do," he assured her.
"Well, I don't! It's the most disgusting thing in the world, and that's all I'm going to say. Talk to Krannon, but not to me." She had him by the arm while she talked and he was half dragged to the hall. The door slammed behind him and he muttered "lady wrestler" under his breath. His anger ebbed away as he realized that she had given him a clue in spite of herself. Next step, find out who or what Krannon was.
Assignment center listed a man named Krannon, and gave his shift number and work location. It was close by and Jason walked there. A large, cubical, and windowless building, with the single word food next to each of the sealed entrances. The small entrance he went through was a series of automatic chambers that cycled him through ultrasonics, ultraviolet, antibio spray, rotating brushes and three final rinses. He was finally admitted, damper but much cleaner to the central area. Men and robots were stacking crates and he asked one of the men for Krannon. The man looked him up and down coldly and spat on his shoes before answering.
Krannon worked in a large storage bay by himself. He was a stocky man in patched coveralls whose only expression was one of intense gloom. When Jason came in he stopped hauling bales and sat down on the nearest one. The lines of unhappiness were cut into his face and seemed to grow deeper while Jason explained what he was after. All the talk of ancient history on Pyrrus bored him as well and he yawned openly. When Jason finished he yawned again and didn't even bother to answer him.
Jason waited a moment, then asked again. "I said do you have any old books, papers, records or that sort of thing?"
"You sure picked the right guy to bother, off-worlder," was his only answer. "After talking to me you're going to have nothing but trouble."
"Why is that?" Jason asked.
"Why?" For the first time he was animated with something besides grief. "I'll tell you why! I made one mistake, just one, and I get a life sentence. For life—how would you like that? Just me alone, being by myself all the time. Even taking orders from the grubbers."
Jason controlled himself, keeping the elation out of his voice. "Grubbers? What are grubbers?"
The enormity of the question stopped Krannon, it seemed impossible that there could be a man alive who had never heard of grubbers. Happiness lifted some of the gloom from his face as he realized that he had a captive audience who would listen to his troubles.
"Grubbers are traitors—that's what they are. Traitors to the human race and they ought to be wiped out. Living in the jungle. The things they do with the animals—"
"You mean they're people … Pyrrans like yourself?" Jason broke in.
"Not like me, mister. Don't make that mistake again if you want to go on living. Maybe I dozed off on guard once so I got stuck with this job. That doesn't mean I like it or like them. They stink, really stink, and if it wasn't for the food we get from them they'd all be dead tomorrow. That's the kind of killing job I could really put my heart into."
"If they supply you with food, you must give them something in return?"
"Trade goods, beads, knives, the usual things. Supply sends them over in cartons and I take care of the delivery."
"How?" Jason asked.
"By armored truck to the delivery site. Then I go back later to pick up the food they've left in exchange."
"Can I go with you on the next delivery?"
Krannon frowned over the idea for a minute. "Yeah, I suppose it's all right if you're stupid enough to come. You can help me load. They're between harvests now, so the next trip won't be for eight days—"
"But that's after the ship leaves—it'll be too late. Can't you go earlier?"
"Don't tell me your troubles, mister," Krannon grumbled, climbing to his feet. "That's when I go and the date's not changing for you."
Jason realized he had got as much out of the man as was possible for one session. He started for the door, then turned.
"One thing," he asked. "Just what do these savages—the grubbers—look like?"
"How do I know," Krannon snapped. "I trade with them, I don't make love to them. If I ever saw one, I'd shoot him down on the spot." He flexed his fingers and his gun jumped in and out of his hand as he said it. Jason quietly let himself out.
Lying on his bunk, resting his gravity-weary body, he searched for a way to get Krannon to change the delivery date. His millions of credits were worthless on this world without currency. If the man couldn't be convinced, he had to be bribed. With what? Jason's eyes touched the locker where his off-world clothing still hung, and he had an idea.
It was morning before he could return to the food warehouse—and one day closer to his deadline. Krannon didn't bother to look up from his work when Jason came in.
"Do you want this?" Jason asked, handing the outcast a flat gold case inset with a single large diamond. Krannon grunted and turned it over in his hands.
"A toy," he said. "What is it good for?"
"Well, when you press this button you get a light." A flame appeared through a hole in the top. Krannon started to hand it back.
"What do I need a little fire for? Here, keep it."
"Wait a second," Jason said, "that's not all it does. When you press the jewel in the center one of these comes out." A black pellet the size of his fingernail dropped into his palm. "A grenade, made of solid ulranite. Just squeeze it hard and throw. Three seconds later it explodes with enough force to blast open this building."
This time Krannon almost smiled as he reached for the case. Destructive and death-dealing weapons are like candy to a Pyrran. While he looked at it Jason made his offer.
"The case and bombs are yours if you move the date of your next delivery up to tomorrow—and let me go with you."
"Be here at 0500," Krannon said. "We leave early."