Deathworld

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Chapter 21

"Drop that equipment and Kerk will undoubtedly pull both your arms off," Jason said. "He's over there now, looking as sorry as possible that I ever talked him into this."

Skop cursed under the bulky mass of the psi detector, passing it up to Meta who waited in the open port of the spaceship. Jason supervised the loading, and blasted all the local life that came to investigate. Horndevils were thick this morning and he shot four of them. He was last aboard and closed the lock behind him.

"Where are you going to install it?" Meta asked.

"You tell me," Jason said. "I need a spot for the antenna where there will be no dense metal in front of the bowl to interfere with the signal. Thin plastic will do, or if worst comes to worst I can mount it outside the hull with a remote drive."

"You may have to," she said. "The hull is an unbroken unit, we do all viewing by screen and instruments. I don't think … wait … there is one place that might do."

She led the way to a bulge in the hull that marked one of the lifeboats. They went in through the always-open lock, Skop struggling after them with the apparatus.

"These lifeboats are half buried in the ship," Meta explained. "They have transparent front ports covered by friction shields that withdraw automatically when the boat is launched."

"Can we pull back the shields now?"

"I think so," she said. She traced the launching circuits to a junction box and opened the lid. When she closed the shield relay manually, the heavy plates slipped back into the hull. There was a clear view, since most of the viewport projected beyond the parent ship.

"Perfect," Jason said. "I'll set up here. Now how do I talk to you in the ship?"

"Right here," she said. "There's a pre-tuned setting on this communicator. Don't touch anything else—and particularly not this switch." She pointed to a large pull-handle set square into the center of the control board. "Emergency launching. Two seconds after that is pulled the lifeboat is shot free. And it so happens this boat has no fuel."

"Hands off for sure," Jason said. "Now have Husky there run me in a line with ship's power and I'll get this stuff set up."

The detector was simple, though the tuning had to be precise. A dish-shaped antenna pulled in the signal for the delicately balanced detector. There was a sharp fall-off on both sides of the input so direction could be precisely determined. The resulting signal was fed to an amplifier stage. Unlike the electronic components of the first stage, this one was drawn in symbols on white paper. Carefully glued-on input and output leads ran to it.

When everything was ready and clamped into place, Jason nodded to Meta's image on the screen. "Take her up—and easy please. None of your nine-G specials. Go into a slow circle around the perimeter, until I tell you differently."

 

Under steady power the ship lifted and grabbed for altitude, then eased into its circular course. They made five circuits of the city before Jason shook his head.

"The thing seems to be working fine, but we're getting too much noise from all the local life. Get thirty kilometers out from the city and start a new circuit."

The results were better this time. A powerful signal came from the direction of the city, confined to less than a degree of arc. With the antenna fixed at a right angle to the direction of the ship's flight, the signal was fairly constant. Meta rotated the ship on its main axis, until Jason's lifeboat was directly below.

"Going fine now," he said. "Just hold your controls as they are and keep the nose from drifting."

After making a careful mark on the setting circle, Jason turned the receiving antenna through one hundred eighty degrees of arc. As the ship kept to its circle, he made a slow collecting sweep of any signals beamed at the city. They were halfway around before he got a new signal.

It was there all right, narrow but strong. Just to be sure he let the ship complete two more sweeps, and he noted the direction on the gyro-compass each time. They coincided. The third time around he called to Meta.

"Get ready for a full right turn, or whatever you call it. I think I have our bearing. Get ready—now."

It was a slow turn and Jason never lost the signal. A few times it wavered, but he brought it back on. When the compass settled down Meta pushed on more power.

They set their course towards the native Pyrrans.

An hour's flight at close to top atmospheric speed brought no change. Meta complained, but Jason kept her on course. The signal never varied and was slowly picking up strength. They crossed the chain of volcanoes that marked the continental limits, the ship bucking in the fierce thermals. Once the shore was behind and they were over water, Skop joined Meta in grumbling. He kept his turret spinning, but there was very little to shoot at this far from land.

When the islands came over the horizon the signal began to dip.

"Slow now," Jason called. "Those islands ahead look like our source!"

A continent had been here once, floating on Pyrrus' liquid core. Pressures changed, land masses shifted, and the continent had sunk beneath the ocean. All that was left now of the teeming life of that land mass was confined to a chain of islands, once the mountain peaks of the highest range of mountains. These islands, whose sheer, sides rose straight from the water, held the last inhabitants of the lost continent. The weeded-out descendants, of the victors of uncountable violent contests. Here lived the oldest native Pyrrans.

"Come in lower," Jason signaled. "Towards that large peak. The signals seem to originate there."

They swooped low over the mountain, but nothing was visible other than the trees and sun-blasted rock.

The pain almost took Jason's head off. A blast of hatred that drove through the amplifier and into his skull. He tore off the phones, and clutched his skull between his hands. Through watering eyes he saw the black cloud of flying beasts hurtle up from the trees below. He had a single glimpse of the hillside beyond, before Meta blasted power to the engines and the ship leaped away.

"We've found them!" Her fierce exultation faded as she saw Jason through the communicator. "Are you all right? What happened?"

"Feel … burned out … I've felt a psi blast before, but nothing like that! I had a glimpse of an opening, looked like a cave mouth, just before the blast hit. Seemed to come from there."

"Lie down," Meta said. "I'll get you back as fast as I can. I'm calling ahead to Kerk, he has to know what happened."

 

A group of men were waiting in the landing station when they came down. They stormed out as soon as the ship touched, shielding their faces from the still-hot tubes. Kerk burst in as soon as the port was cracked, peering around until he spotted Jason stretched out on an acceleration couch.

"Is it true?" he barked. "You've traced the alien criminals who started this war?"

"Slow, man, slow," Jason said. "I've traced the source of the psi message that keeps your war going. I've found no evidence as to who started this war, and certainly wouldn't go so far as to call them criminals—"

"I'm tired of your word-play," Kerk broke in. "You've found these creatures and their location has been marked."

"On the chart," Meta said, "I could fly there blindfolded."

"Fine, fine," Kerk said, rubbing his hands together so hard they could hear the harsh rasp of the callouses. "It takes a real effort to grasp the idea that, after all these centuries, the war might be coming to an end. But it's possible now. Instead of simply killing off these self-renewing legions of the damned that attack us, we can get to the leaders. Search them out, carry the war to them for a change—and blast their stain from the face of this planet!"

"Nothing of the sort!" Jason said, sitting up with an effort. "Nothing doing! Since I came to this planet I have been knocked around, and risked my life ten times over. Do you think I have done this just to satisfy your blood-thirsty ambitions? It's peace I'm after—not destruction. You promised to contact these creatures, attempt to negotiate with them. Aren't you a man of honor who keeps his word?"

"I'll ignore the insult—though I'd have killed you for it at any other time," Kerk said. "You've been of great service to our people, we are not ashamed to acknowledge an honest debt. At the same time—do not accuse me of breaking promises that I never made. I recall my exact words. I promised to go along with any reasonable plan that would end this war. That is just what I intend to do. Your plan to negotiate a peace is not reasonable. Therefore we are going to destroy the enemy."

"Think first," Jason called after Kerk, who had turned to leave. "What is wrong with trying negotiation or an armistice? Then, if that fails, you can try your way."

The compartment was getting crowded as other Pyrrans pushed in. Kerk, almost to the door, turned back to face Jason.

"I'll tell you what's wrong with armistice," he said. "It's a coward's way out, that's what it is. It's all right for you to suggest it, you're from off-world and don't know any better. But do you honestly think I could entertain such a defeatist notion for one instant? When I speak, I speak not only for myself, but for all of us here. We don't mind fighting, and we know how to do it. We know that if this war was over we could build a better world here. At the same time, if we have the choice of continued war or a cowardly peace—we vote for war. This war will only be over when the enemy is utterly destroyed!"

The listening Pyrrans shouted in agreement, and when Kerk pushed out through the crowd some of them patted his shoulder as he went by. Jason slumped back on the couch, worn out by his exertions and exhausted by the attempt to win the violent Pyrrans over to a peaceful point of view.

When he looked up they were gone—all except Meta. She had the same look of blood-thirsty elation as the others, but it drained away when she glanced at him.

"What about it, Meta?" he asked bitterly. "No doubts? Do you think that destruction is the only way to end this war?"

"I don't know," she said. "I can't be sure. For the first time in my life I find myself with more than one answer to the same question."

"Congratulations," he said. "It's a sign of growing up."

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