Deathworld

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Chapter 16

It made no sense. Jason tried to reconcile the modern machine with the barbarian and couldn't. Who was he calling? The existence of one communicator meant there was at least another. Was Rhes a person or a thing?

With a mental effort he grabbed hold of his thoughts and braked them to a stop. There was something new here, factors he hadn't counted on. He kept reassuring himself there was an explanation for everything, once you had your facts straight.

Jason closed his eyes, shutting out the glaring rays of the sun where it cut through the tree tops, and reconsidered his facts. They separated evenly into two classes; those he had observed for himself, and those he had learned from the city dwellers. This last class of "facts" he would hold, to see if they fitted with what he learned. There was a good chance that most, or all, of them would prove false.

"Get up," the voice jarred into his thoughts. "We're leaving."

His legs were still numb and hardly usable. The bearded man snorted in disgust and hauled him to his feet, propping him against the outer wall. Jason clutched the knobby bark of the logs when he was left alone. He looked around, soaking up impressions.

It was the first time he had been on a farm since he had run away from home. A different world with a different ecology, but the similarity was apparent enough to him. A new-sown field stretched down the hill in front of the shack. Ploughed by a good farmer. Even, well cast furrows that followed the contour of the slope. Another, larger log building was next to this one, probably a barn.

There was a snuffling sound behind him and Jason turned quickly—and froze. His hand called for the missing gun and his finger tightened down on a trigger that wasn't there.

It had come out of the jungle and padded up quietly behind him. It had six thick legs with clawed feet that dug into the ground. The two-meter long body was covered with matted yellow and black fur, all except the skull and shoulders. These were covered with overlapping horny plates. Jason could see all this because the beast was that close.

He waited to die.

The mouth opened, a froglike division of the hairless skull, revealing double rows of jagged teeth.

"Here, Fido," the bearded man said, coming up behind Jason and snapping his fingers at the same time. The thing bounded forward, brushing past the dazed Jason, and rubbed his head against the man's leg. "Nice doggy," the man said, his fingers scratching under the edge of the carapace where it joined the flesh.

The bearded man had brought two of the riding animals out of the barn, saddled and bridled. Jason barely noticed the details of smooth skin and long legs as he swung up on one. His feet were quickly lashed to the stirrups. When they started the skull-headed beast followed them.

"Nice doggy!" Jason said, and for no reason started to laugh. The bearded man turned and scowled at him until he was quiet.

 

By the time they entered the jungle it was dark. It was impossible to see under the thick foliage, and they used no lights. The animals seemed to know the way. There were scraping noises and shrill calls from the jungle around them, but it didn't bother Jason too much. Perhaps the automatic manner in which the other man undertook the journey reassured him. Or the presence of the "dog" that he felt rather than saw. The trip was a long one, but not too uncomfortable.

The regular motion of the animal and his fatigue overcame Jason and he dozed into a fitful sleep, waking with a start each time he slumped forward. In the end he slept sitting up in the saddle. Hours passed this way, until he opened his eyes and saw a square of light before them. The trip was over.

His legs were stiff and galled with saddle sores. After his feet were untied getting down was an effort, and he almost fell. A door opened and Jason went in. It took his eyes some moments to get used to the light, until he could make out the form of a man on the bed before him.

"Come over here and sit down." The voice was full and strong, accustomed to command. The body was that of an invalid. A blanket covered him to the waist, above that the flesh was sickly white, spotted with red nodules, and hung loosely over the bones. There seemed to be nothing left of the man except skin and skeleton.

"Not very nice," the man on the bed said, "but I've grown used to it." His tone changed abruptly. "Naxa said you were from off-world. Is that true?"

Jason nodded yes, and his answer stirred the living skeleton to life. The head lifted from the pillow and the red-rimmed eyes sought his with a desperate intensity.

"My name is Rhes and I'm a … grubber. Will you help me?"

Jason wondered at the intensity of Rhes' question, all out of proportion to the simple content of its meaning. Yet he could see no reason to give anything other than the first and obvious answer that sprang to his lips.

"Of course I'll help you, in whatever way I can. As long as it involves no injury to anyone else. What do you want?"

The sick man's head had fallen back limply, exhausted, as Jason talked. But the fire still burned in the eyes.

"Feel assured … I want to injure no others," Rhes said. "Quite the opposite. As you see I am suffering from a disease that our remedies will not stop. Within a few more days I will be dead. Now I have seen … the city people … using a device, they press it over a wound or an animal bite. Do you have one of these machines?"

"That sounds like a description of the medikit." Jason touched the button at his waist that dropped the medikit into his hand. "I have mine here. It analyzes and treats most … "

"Would you use it on me?" Rhes broke in, his voice suddenly urgent.

"I'm sorry," Jason said. "I should have realized." He stepped forward and pressed the machine over one of the inflamed areas on Rhes' chest. The operation light came on and the thin shaft of the analyzer probe slid down. When it withdrew the device hummed, then clicked three times as three separate hypodermic needles lanced into the skin. Then the light went out.

"Is that all?" Rhes asked, as he watched Jason stow the medikit back in his belt.

Jason nodded, then looked up and noticed the wet marks of tears on the sick man's face. Rhes became aware at the same time and brushed at them angrily.

"When a man is sick," he growled, "the body and all its senses become traitor. I don't think I have cried since I was a child—but you must realize it's not myself I'm crying for. It's the untold thousands of my people who have died for lack of that little device you treat so casually."

"Surely you have medicines, doctors of your own?"

"Herb doctors and witch doctors," Rhes said, consigning them all to oblivion with a chop of his hand. "The few hard-working and honest men are hampered by the fact that the faith healers can usually cure better than their strongest potion."

The talking had tired Rhes. He stopped suddenly and closed his eyes. On his chest, the inflamed areas were already losing their angry color as the injections took affect. Jason glanced around the room, looking for clues to the mystery of these people.

 

Floor and walls were made of wood lengths fitted together, free of paint or decoration. They looked simple and crude, fit only for the savages he had expected to meet. Or were they crude? The wood had a sweeping, flamelike grain. When he bent close he saw that wax had been rubbed over the wood to bring out this pattern. Was this the act of savages—or of artistic men seeking to make the most of simple materials? The final effect was far superior to the drab paint and riveted steel rooms of the city-dwelling Pyrrans. Wasn't it true that both ends of the artistic scale were dominated by simplicity? The untutored aborigine made a simple expression of a clear idea, and created beauty. At the other extreme, the sophisticated critic rejected over-elaboration and decoration and sought the truthful clarity of uncluttered art. At which end of the scale was he looking now?

These men were savages, he had been told that. They dressed in furs and spoke a slurred and broken language, at least Naxa did. Rhes admitted he preferred faith healers to doctors. But, if all this were true, where did the communicator fit into the picture? Or the glowing ceiling that illuminated the room with a soft light?

Rhes opened his eyes and stared at Jason, as if seeing him for the first time. "Who are you?" he asked. "And what are you doing here?"

There was a cold menace in his words and Jason understood why. The city Pyrrans hated the "grubbers" and, without a doubt, the feeling was mutual. Naxa's ax had proved that. Naxa had entered silently while they talked, and stood with his fingers touching the haft of this same ax. Jason knew his life was still in jeopardy, until he gave an answer that satisfied these men.

He couldn't tell the truth. If they once suspected he was spying among them to aid the city people, it would be the end. Nevertheless, he had to be free to talk about the survival problem.

The answer hit him as soon as he had stated the problem. All this had only taken an instant to consider, as he turned back to face the invalid, and he answered at once. Trying to keep his voice normal and unconcerned.

"I'm Jason dinAlt, an ecologist, so you see I have the best reasons in the universe for visiting this planet—"

"What is an ecologist?" Rhes broke in. There was nothing in his voice to indicate whether he meant the question seriously, or as a trap. All traces of the ease of their earlier conversation were gone, his voice had the deadliness of a stingwing's poison. Jason chose his words carefully.

"Simply stated, it is that branch of biology that considers the relations between organisms and their environment. How climatic and other factors affect the life forms, and how the life forms in turn affect each other and the environment." That much Jason knew was true—but he really knew very little more about the subject so he moved on quickly.

"I heard reports of this planet, and finally came here to study it firsthand. I did what work I could in the shelter of the city, but it wasn't enough. The people there think I'm crazy, but they finally agreed to let me make a trip out here."

"What arrangements have been made for your return?" Naxa snapped.

"None," Jason told him. "They seemed quite sure that I would be killed instantly and had no hope of me coming back. In fact, they refused to let me go and I had to break away."

This answer seemed to satisfy Rhes and his face cracked into a mirthless smile. "They would think that, those junkmen. Can't move a meter outside their own walls without an armor-plated machine as big as a barn. What did they tell you about us?"

Again Jason knew a lot depended on his answer. This time he thought carefully before speaking.

"Well … perhaps I'll get that ax in the back of my neck for saying this … but I have to be honest. You must know what they think. They told me you were filthy and ignorant savages who smelled. And you … well, had curious customs you practiced with the animals. In exchange for food, they traded you beads and knives … "

Both Pyrrans broke into a convulsion of laughter at this. Rhes stopped soon, from weakness, but Naxa laughed himself into a coughing fit and had to splash water over his head from a gourd jug.

"That I believe well enough," Rhes said, "it sounds like the stupidity they would talk. Those people know nothing of the world they live in. I hope the rest of what you said is true, but even if it is not, you are welcome here. You are from off-world, that I know. No junkman would have lifted a finger to save my life. You are the first off-worlder my people have ever known and for that you are doubly welcome. We will help you in any way we can. My arm is your arm."

These last words had a ritual sound to them, and when Jason repeated them, Naxa nodded at the correctness of this. At the same time, Jason felt that they were more than empty ritual. Interdependence meant survival on Pyrrus, and he knew that these people stood together to the death against the mortal dangers around them. He hoped the ritual would include him in that protective sphere.

"That is enough for tonight," Rhes said. "The spotted sickness had weakened me, and your medicine has turned me to jelly. You will stay here, Jason. There is a blanket, but no bed at least for now."

Enthusiasm had carried Jason this far, making him forget the two-gee exertions of the long day. Now fatigue hit him a physical blow. He had dim memories of refusing food and rolling in the blanket on the floor. After that, oblivion.

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