Deathworld

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Chapter 20

FROM the beginning now," Kerk said. "And leave out nothing."

"There is very little more that I can add to the physical facts. I saw the animals, understood the message. I even experimented with some of them and they reacted to my mental commands. What I must do now is track down the source of the orders that keep this war going.

"I'll tell you something that I have never told anyone else. I'm not only lucky at gambling. I have enough psi ability to alter probability in my favor. It's an erratic ability that I have tried to improve for obvious reasons. During the past ten years I managed to study at all of the centers that do psi research. Compared to other fields of knowledge it is amazing how little they know. Basic psi talents can be improved by practice, and some machines have been devised that act as psionic amplifiers. One of these, used correctly, is a very good directional indicator."

"You want to build this machine?" Kerk asked.

"Exactly. Build it and take it outside the city in the ship. Any signal strong enough to keep this centuries-old battle going should be strong enough to track down. I'll follow it, contact the creatures who are sending it, and try to find out why they are doing it. I assume you'll go along with any reasonable plan that will end this war?"

"Anything reasonable," Kerk said coldly. "How long will it take you to build this machine?"

"Just a few days if you have all the parts here," Jason told him.

"Then do it. I'm canceling the flight that's leaving now and I'll keep the ship here, ready to go. When the machine is built I want you to track the signal and report back to me."

"Agreed," Jason said, standing up. "As soon as I have this hole in my back looked at I'll draw up a list of things needed."

A grim, unsmiling man named Skop was assigned to Jason as a combination guide and guard. He took his job very seriously, and it didn't take Jason long to realize that he was a prisoner-at-large. Kerk had accepted his story, but that was no guarantee that he believed it. At a single word from him, the guard could turn executioner.

The chill thought hit Jason that undoubtedly this was what would happen. Whether Kerk accepted the story or not—he couldn't afford to take a chance. As long as there was the slightest possibility Jason had contacted the grubbers, he could not be allowed to leave the planet alive. The woods people were being simple if they thought a plan this obvious might succeed. Or had they just gambled on the very long chance it might work? They certainly had nothing to lose by it.

Only half of Jason's mind was occupied with the work as he drew up a list of materials he would need for the psionic direction finder. His thoughts plodded in tight circles, searching for a way out that didn't exist. He was too deeply involved now to just leave. Kerk would see to that. Unless he could find a way to end the war and settle the grubber question he was marooned on Pyrrus for life. A very short life.

When the list was ready he called Supply. With a few substitutions, everything he might possibly need was in stock, and would be sent over. Skop sank into an apparent doze in his chair and Jason, his head propped against the pull of gravity by one arm, began a working sketch of his machine.

Jason looked up suddenly, aware of the silence. He could hear machinery in the building and voices in the hall outside. What kind of silence then—?

Mental silence. He had been so preoccupied since his return to the city that he hadn't noticed the complete lack of any kind of psi sensation. The constant wash of animal reactions was missing, as was the vague tactile awareness of his PK. With sudden realization he remembered that it was always this way inside the city.

He tried to listen with his mind—and stopped almost before he began. There was a constant press of thought about him that he was made aware of when he reached out. It was like being in a vessel far beneath the ocean, with your hand on the door that held back the frightening pressure. Touching the door, without opening it, you could feel the stresses, the power pushing in and waiting to crush you. It was this way with the psi pressure on the city. The unvoiced hate-filled screams of Pyrrus would instantly destroy any mind that received them. Some function of his brain acted as a psi-circuit breaker, shutting off awareness before his mind could be blasted. There was just enough leak-through to keep him aware of the pressure—and supply the raw materials for his constant nightmares.

There was only one fringe benefit. The lack of thought pressure made it easier for him to concentrate. In spite of his fatigue the diagram developed swiftly.

 

Meta arrived late that afternoon, bringing the parts he had ordered. She slid the long box onto the workbench, started to speak, but changed her mind and said nothing. Jason looked up at her and smiled.

"Confused?" he asked.

"I don't know what you mean," she said, "I'm not confused. Just annoyed. The regular trip has been canceled and our supply schedule will be thrown off for months to come. And instead of piloting or perimeter assignment all I can do is stand around and wait for you. Then take some silly flight following your directions. Do you wonder that I'm annoyed?"

Jason carefully set the parts out on the chassis before he spoke. "As I said, you're confused. I can point out how you're confused—which will make you even more confused. A temptation that I frankly find hard to resist."

She looked across the bench at him, frowning. One finger unconsciously curling and uncurling a short lock of hair. Jason liked her this way. As a Pyrran operating at full blast she had as much personality as a gear in a machine. Once out of that pattern she reminded him more of the girl he had known on that first flight to Pyrrus. He wondered if it was possible to really get across to her what he meant.

"I'm not being insulting when I say 'confused,' Meta. With your background you couldn't be any other way. You have an insular personality. Admittedly, Pyrrus is an unusual island with a lot of high-power problems that you are an expert at solving. That doesn't make it any less of an island. When you face a cosmopolitan problem you are confused. Or even worse, when your island problems are put into a bigger context. That's like playing your own game, only having the rules change constantly as you go along."

"You're talking nonsense," she snapped at him. "Pyrrus isn't an island and battling for survival is definitely not a game."

"I'm sorry," he smiled. "I was using a figure of speech, and a badly chosen one at that. Let's put the problem on more concrete terms. Take an example. Suppose I were to tell you that over there, hanging from the doorframe, was a stingwing—"

Meta's gun was pointing at the door before he finished the last word. There was a crash as the guard's chair went over. He had jumped from a half-doze to full alertness in an instant, his gun also searching the doorframe.

"That was just an example," Jason said. "There's really nothing there." The guard's gun vanished and he scowled a look of contempt at Jason, as he righted the chair and dropped into it.

"You both have proved yourself capable of handling a Pyrran problem." Jason continued. "But what if I said that there is a thing hanging from the doorframe that looks like a stingwing, but is really a kind of large insect that spins a fine silk that can be used to weave clothes?"

The guard glared from under his thick eyebrows at the empty doorframe, his gun whined part way out, then snapped back into the holster. He growled something inaudible at Jason, then stamped into the outer room, slamming the door behind him. Meta frowned in concentration and looked puzzled.

"It couldn't be anything except a stingwing," she finally said. "Nothing else could possibly look like that. And even if it didn't spin silk, it would bite if you got near, so you would have to kill it." She smiled with satisfaction at the indestructible logic of her answer.

"Wrong again," Jason said. "I just described the mimic-spinner that lives on Stover's Planet. It imitates the most violent forms of life there, does such a good job that it has no need for other defenses. It'll sit quietly on your hand and spin for you by the yard. If I dropped a shipload of them here on Pyrrus, you never could be sure when to shoot, could you?"

"But they are not here now," Meta insisted.

"Yet they could be quite easily. And if they were, all the rules of your game would change. Getting the idea now? There are some fixed laws and rules in the galaxy—but they're not the ones you live by. Your rule is war unending with the local life. I want to step outside your rule book and end that war. Wouldn't you like that? Wouldn't you like an existence that was more than just an endless battle for survival? A life with a chance for happiness, love, music, art—all the enjoyable things you have never had the time for."

All the Pyrran sternness was gone from her face as she listened to what he said, letting herself follow these alien concepts. He had put his hand out automatically as he talked, and had taken hers. It was warm and her pulse fast to his touch.

Meta suddenly became conscious of his hand and snapped hers away, rising to her feet at the same time. As she started blindly towards the door, Jason's voice snapped after her.

"The guard, Skop, ran out because he didn't want to lose his precious two-value logic. It's all he has. But you've seen other parts of the galaxy, Meta, you know there is a lot more to life than kill-and-be-killed on Pyrrus. You feel it is true, even if you won't admit it."

She turned and ran out the door.

Jason looked after her, his hand scraping the bristle on his chin thoughtfully. "Meta, I have the faint hope that the woman is winning over the Pyrran. I think that I saw—perhaps for the first time in the history of this bloody war-torn city—a tear in one of its citizen's eyes."

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