Deathworld

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Chapter 17

Every square inch of his body ached where the doubled gravity had pressed his flesh to the unyielding wood of the floor. His eyes were gummy and his mouth was filled with an indescribable taste that came off in chunks. Sitting up was an effort and he had to stifle a groan as his joints cracked.

"Good day, Jason," Rhes called from the bed. "If I didn't believe in medicine so strongly, I would be tempted to say there is a miracle in your machine that has cured me overnight."

There was no doubt that he was on the mend. The inflamed patches had vanished and the burning light was gone from his eyes. He sat, propped up on the bed, watching the morning sun melt the night's hailstorm into the fields.

"There's meat in the cabinet there," he said, "and either water or visk to drink."

The visk proved to be a distilled beverage of extraordinary potency that instantly cleared the fog from Jason's brain, though it did leave a slight ringing in his ears. And the meat was a tenderly smoked joint, the best food he had tasted since leaving Darkhan. Taken together they restored his faith in life and the future. He lowered his glass with a relaxed sigh and looked around.

With the pressures of immediate survival and exhaustion removed, his thoughts returned automatically to his problem. What were these people really like—and how had they managed to survive in the deadly wilderness? In the city he had been told they were savages. Yet there was a carefully tended and repaired communicator on the wall. And by the door a crossbow—that fired machined metal bolts, he could see the tool marks still visible on their shanks. The one thing he needed was more information. He could start by getting rid of some of his misinformation.

"Rhes, you laughed when I told you what the city people said, about trading you trinkets for food. What do they really trade you?"

"Anything within certain limits," Rhes said. "Small manufactured items, such as electronic components for our communicators. Rustless alloys we can't make in our forges, cutting tools, atomic electric converters that produce power from any radioactive element. Things like that. Within reason they'll trade anything we ask that isn't on the forbidden list. They need the food badly."

"And the items on the forbidden list—?"

"Weapons, of course, or anything that might be made into a powerful weapon. They know we make gunpowder so we can't get anything like large castings or seamless tubing we could make into heavy gun barrels. We drill our own rifle barrels by hand, though the crossbow is quiet and faster in the jungle. Then they don't like us to know very much, so the only reading matter that gets to us are tech maintenance manuals, empty of basic theory.

"The last banned category you know about—medicine. This is the one thing I cannot understand, that makes me burn with hatred with every death they might have prevented."

"I know their reasons," Jason said.

"Then tell me, because I can think of none."

"Survival—it's just that simple. I doubt if you realize it, but they have a decreasing population. It is just a matter of years before they will be gone. Whereas your people at least must have a stable—if not slightly growing population—to have existed without their mechanical protections. So in the city they hate you and are jealous of you at the same time. If they gave you medicine and you prospered, you would be winning the battle they have lost. I imagine they tolerate you as a necessary evil, to supply them with food, otherwise they wish you were all dead."

"It makes sense," Rhes growled, slamming his fist against the bed. "The kind of twisted logic you expect from junkmen. They use us to feed them, give us the absolute minimum in return, and at the same time cut us off from the knowledge that will get us out of this hand to mouth existence. Worse, far worse, they cut us off from the stars and the rest of mankind." The hatred on his face was so strong that Jason unconsciously drew back.

"Do you think we are savages here, Jason? We act and look like animals because we have to fight for existence on an animal level. Yet we know about the stars. In that chest over there, sealed in metal, are over thirty books, all we have. Fiction most of them, with some history and general science thrown in. Enough to keep alive the stories of the settlement here and the rest of the universe outside. We see the ships land in the city and we know that up there are worlds we can only dream about and never see. Do you wonder that we hate these beasts that call themselves men, and would destroy them in an instant if we could? They are right to keep weapons from us—for sure as the sun rises in the morning we would kill them to a man if we were able, and take over the things they have withheld from us."

 

It was a harsh condemnation, but essentially a truthful one. At least from the point of view of the outsiders. Jason didn't try to explain to the angry man that the city Pyrrans looked on their attitude as being the only possible and logical one. "How did this battle between your two groups ever come about?" he asked.

"I don't know," Rhes said, "I've thought about it many times, but there are no records of that period. We do know that we are all descended from colonists who arrived at the same time. Somewhere, at some time, the two groups separated. Perhaps it was a war, I've read about them in the books. I have a partial theory, though I can't prove it, that it was the location of the city."

"Location—I don't understand."

"Well, you know the junkmen, and you've seen where their city is. They managed to put it right in the middle of the most savage spot on this planet. You know they don't care about any living thing except themselves, shoot and kill is their only logic. So they wouldn't consider where to build their city, and managed to build it in the stupidest spot imaginable. I'm sure my ancestors saw how foolish this was and tried to tell them so. That would be reason enough for a war, wouldn't it?"

"It might have been—if that's really what happened," Jason said. "But I think you have the problem turned backwards. It's a war between native Pyrran life and humans, each fighting to destroy the other. The life forms change continually, seeking that final destruction of the invader."

"Your theory is even wilder than mine," Rhes said. "That's not true at all. I admit that life isn't too easy on this planet … if what I have read in the books about other planets is true … but it doesn't change. You have to be fast on your feet and keep your eyes open for anything bigger than you, but you can survive. Anyway, it doesn't really matter why. The junkmen always look for trouble and I'm happy to see that they have enough."

Jason didn't try to press the point. The effort of forcing Rhes to change his basic attitudes wasn't worth it—even if possible. He hadn't succeeded in convincing anyone in the city of the lethal mutations even when they could observe all the facts. Rhes could still supply information though.

"I suppose it's not important who started the battle," Jason said for the other man's benefit, not meaning a word of it, "but you'll have to agree that the city people are permanently at war with all the local life. Your people, though, have managed to befriend at least two species that I have seen. Do you have any idea how this was done?"

"Naxa will be here in a minute," Rhes said, pointing to the door, "as soon as he's taken care of the animals. Ask him. He's the best talker we have."

"Talker?" Jason asked. "I had the opposite idea about him. He didn't talk much, and what he did say was, well … a little hard to understand at times."

"Not that kind of talking." Rhes broke in impatiently. "The talkers look after the animals. They train the dogs and doryms, and the better ones like Naxa are always trying to work with other beasts. They dress crudely, but they have to. I've heard them say that the animals don't like chemicals, metal or tanned leather, so they wear untanned furs for the most part. But don't let the dirt fool you, it has nothing to do with his intelligence."

"Doryms? Are those your carrying beasts—the kind we rode coming here?"

Rhes nodded. "Doryms are more than pack animals, they're really a little bit of everything. The large males pull the ploughs and other machines, while the younger animals are used for meat. If you want to know more, ask Naxa, you'll find him in the barn."

"I'd like to do that," Jason said, standing up. "Only I feel undressed without my gun—"

"Take it, by all means, it's in that chest by the door. Only watch out what you shoot around here."

 

Naxa was in the rear of the barn, filing down one of the spadelike toenails of a dorym. It was a strange scene. The fur-dressed man with the great beast—and the contrast of a beryllium-copper file and electroluminescent plates lighting the work.

The dorym opened its nostrils and pulled away when Jason entered; Naxa patted its neck and talked softly until it quieted and stood still, shivering slightly.

Something stirred in Jason's mind, with the feeling of a long unused muscle being stressed. A hauntingly familiar sensation.

"Good morning," Jason said. Naxa grunted something and went back to his filing. Watching him for a few minutes, Jason tried to analyze this new feeling. It itched and slipped aside when he reached for it, escaping him. Whatever it was, it had started when Naxa had talked to the dorym.

"Could you call one of the dogs in here, Naxa? I'd like to see one closer up."

Without raising his head from his work, Naxa gave a low whistle. Jason was sure it couldn't have been heard outside of the barn. Yet within a minute one of the Pyrran dogs slipped quietly in. The talker rubbed the beast's head, mumbling to it, while the animal looked intently into his eyes.

The dog became restless when Naxa turned back to work on the dorym. It prowled around the barn, sniffing, then moved quickly towards the open door. Jason called it back.

At least he meant to call it. At the last moment he said nothing. Nothing aloud. On sudden impulse he kept his mouth closed—only he called the dog with his mind. Thinking the words come here, directing the impulse at the animal with all the force and direction he had ever used to manipulate dice. As he did it he realized it had been a long time since he had even considered using his psi powers.

The dog stopped and turned back towards him.

It hesitated, looking at Naxa, then walked over to Jason.

Seen this closely the beast was a nightmare hound. The hairless protective plates, tiny red-rimmed eyes, and countless, saliva-dripping teeth did little to inspire confidence. Yet Jason felt no fear. There was a rapport between man and animal that was understood. Without conscious thought he reached out and scratched the dog along the back, where he knew it itched.

"Didn't know y're a talker," Naxa said. As he watched them, there was friendship in his voice for the first time.

"I didn't know either—until just now," Jason said. He looked into the eyes of the animal before him, scratched the ridged and ugly back, and began to understand.

The talkers must have well developed psi facilities, that was obvious now. There is no barrier of race or alien form when two creatures share each other's emotions. Empathy first, so there would be no hatred or fear. After that direct communication. The talkers might have been the ones who first broke through the barrier of hatred on Pyrrus and learned to live with the native life. Others could have followed their example—this might explain how the community of "grubbers" had been formed.

Now that he was concentrating on it, Jason was aware of the soft flow of thoughts around him. The consciousness of the dorym was matched by other like patterns from the rear of the barn. He knew without going outside that more of the big beasts were in the field back there.

"This is all new to me," Jason said. "Have you ever thought about it, Naxa? What does it feel like to be a talker? I mean, do youknow why it is you can get the animals to obey you while other people have no luck at all?"

Thinking of this sort troubled Naxa. He ran his fingers through his thick hair and scowled as he answered. "Nev'r thought about it. Just do it. Just get t'know the beast real good, then y'can guess what they're going t'do. That's all."

It was obvious that Naxa had never thought about the origin of his ability to control the animals. And if he hadn't—probably no one else had. They had no reason to. They simply accepted the powers of talkers as one of the facts of life.

Ideas slipped towards each other in his mind, like the pieces of a puzzle joining together. He had told Kerk that the native life of Pyrrus had joined in battle against mankind, he didn't know why. Well—he still didn't know why, but he was getting an idea of the "how."

"About how far are we from the city?" Jason asked. "Do you have an idea how long it would take us to get there by dorym?"

"Half a day there—half back. Why? Y'want to go?"

"I don't want to get into the city, not yet. But I would like to get close to it," Jason told him.

"See what Rhes say," was Naxa's answer.

 

Rhes granted instant permission without asking any questions. They saddled up and left at once, in order to complete the round trip before dark.

They had been traveling less than an hour before Jason knew they were going in the direction of the city. With each minute the feeling grew stronger. Naxa was aware of it too, stirring in the saddle with unvoiced feelings. They had to keep touching and reassuring their mounts which were growing skittish and restless.

"This is far enough," Jason said. Naxa gratefully pulled to a stop.

The wordless thought beat through Jason's mind, filling it. He could feel it on all sides—only much stronger ahead of them in the direction of the unseen city. Naxa and the doryms reacted in the same way, restlessly uncomfortable, not knowing the cause.

One thing was obvious now. The Pyrran animals were sensitive to psi radiation—probably the plants and lower life forms as well. Perhaps they communicated by it, since they obeyed the men who had a strong control of it. And in this area was a wash of psi radiation such as he had never experienced before. Though his personal talents specialized in psychokinesis—the mental control of inanimate matter—he was still sensitive to most mental phenomena. Watching a sports event he had many times felt the unanimous accord of many minds expressing the same thought. What he felt now was like that.

Only terribly different. A crowd exulted at some success on the field, or groaned at a failure. The feeling fluxed and changed as the game progressed. Here the wash of thought was unending, strong and frightening. It didn't translate into words very well. It was part hatred, part fear—and all destruction.

"KILL THE ENEMY" was as close as Jason could express it. But it was more than that. An unending river of mental outrage and death.

"Let's go back now," he said, suddenly battered and sickened by the feelings he had let wash through him. As they started the return trip he began to understand many things.

His sudden unspeakable fear when the Pyrran animal had attacked him that first day on the planet. And his recurrent nightmares that had never completely ceased, even with drugs. Both of these were his reaction to the hatred directed at the city. Though for some reason he hadn't felt it directly up to now, enough had reached through to him to get a strong emotional reaction.

Rhes was asleep when they got back and Jason couldn't talk to him until morning. In spite of his fatigue from the trip, he stayed awake late into the night, going over in his mind the discoveries of the day. Could he tell Rhes what he had found out? Not very well. If he did that, he would have to explain the importance of his discovery and what he meant to use it for. Nothing that aided the city dwellers would appeal to Rhes in the slightest. Best to say nothing until the entire affair was over.

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