Deathworld

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Chapter 24

For a strange length of time after that, there were only hazy patches of memory that impressed themselves on Jason. A sense of movement and large beasts around him. Walls, wood-smoke, the murmur of voices. None of it meant very much and he was too tired to care. It was easier and much better just to let go.

 

"About time," Rhes said. "A couple more days lying there like that and we would have buried you, even if you were still breathing."

Jason blinked at him, trying to focus the face that swam above him. He finally recognized Rhes, and wanted to answer him. But talking only brought on a spell of body-wracking coughing. Someone held a cup to his lips and sweet fluid trickled down his throat. He rested, then tried again.

"How long have I been here?" The voice was thin and sounded far away. Jason had trouble recognizing it for his own.

"Eight days. And why didn't you listen when I talked to you?" Rhes said.

"You should have stayed near the ship when you crashed. Didn't you remember what I said about coming down anywhere on this continent? No matter, too late to worry about that. Next time listen to what I say. Our people moved fast and reached the site of the wreck before dark. They found the broken trees and the spot where the ship had sunk, and at first thought whoever had been in it had drowned. Then one of the dogs found your trail, but lost it again in the swamps during the night. They had a fine time with the mud and the snow and didn't have any luck at all in finding the spoor again. By the next afternoon they were ready to send for more help when they heard your firing. Just made it, from what I hear. Lucky one of them was a talker and could tell the wild dogs to clear out. Would have had to kill them all otherwise, and that's not healthy."

"Thanks for saving my neck," Jason said. "That was closer than I like to come. What happened after? I was sure I was done for, I remember that much. Diagnosed all the symptoms of pneumonia. Guaranteed fatal in my condition without treatment. Looks like you were wrong when you said most of your remedies were useless—they seemed to work well on me."

His voice died off as Rhes shook his head in a slow no, lines of worry sharp-cut into his face. Jason looked around and saw Naxa and another man. They had the same deeply unhappy expressions as Rhes.

"What is it?" Jason asked, feeling the trouble. "If your remedies didn't work—what did? Not my medikit. That was empty. I remember losing it or throwing it away."

"You were dying," Rhes said slowly. "We couldn't cure you. Only a junkman medicine machine could do that. We got one from the driver of the food truck."

"But how?" Jason asked, dazed. "You told me the city forbids you medicine. He couldn't give you his own medikit. Not unless he was—"

Rhes nodded and finished the sentence. "Dead. Of course he was dead. I killed him myself, with a great deal of pleasure."

This hit Jason hard. He sagged against the pillows and thought of all those who had died since he had come to Pyrrus. The men who had died to save him, died so he could live, died because of his ideas. It was a burden of guilt that he couldn't bear to think about. Would it stop with Krannon—or would the city people try to avenge his death?

"Don't you realize what that means!" he gasped out the words. "Krannon's death will turn the city against you. There'll be no more supplies. They'll attack you when they can, kill your people—"

"Of course we know that!" Rhes leaned forward, his voice hoarse and intense. "It wasn't an easy decision to come to. We have always had a trading agreement with the junkmen. The trading trucks were inviolate. This was our last and only link to the galaxy outside and eventual hope of contacting them."

"Yet you broke that link to save me—why?"

"Only you can answer that question completely. There was a great attack on the city and we saw their walls broken, they had to be moved back at one place. At the same time the spaceship was over the ocean, dropping bombs of some kind—the flash was reported. Then the ship returned and you left it in a smaller ship. They fired at you but didn't kill you. The little ship wasn't destroyed either, we are starting to raise it now. What does it all mean? We had no way of telling. We only knew it was something vitally important. You were alive, but would obviously die before you could talk. The small ship might be repaired to fly, perhaps that was your plan and that is why you stole it for us. We couldn't let you die, not even if it meant all-out war with the city. The situation was explained to all of our people who could be reached by screen and they voted to save you. I killed the junkman for his medicine, then rode two doryms to death to get here in time.

"Now tell us—what does it mean? What is your plan? How will it help us?"

 

Guilt leaned on Jason and stifled his mouth. A fragment of an ancient legend cut across his mind, about the jonah who wrecked the spacer so all in it died, yet he lived. Was that he? Had he wrecked a world? Could he dare admit to these people that he had taken the lifeboat only to save his own life?

The three Pyrrans leaned forward, waiting for his words. Jason closed his eyes so he wouldn't see their faces. What could he tell them? If he admitted the truth they would undoubtedly kill him on the spot, considering it only justice. He wasn't fearful for his own life any more, but if he died the other deaths would all have been in vain. And there still was a way to end this planetary war. All the facts were available now, it was just a matter of putting them together. If only he wasn't so tired, he could see the solution. It was right there, lurking around a corner in his brain, waiting to be dragged out.

Whatever he did, he couldn't admit the truth now. If he died all hope died. He had to lie to gain time, then find the true solution as soon as he was able. That was all he could do.

"You were right," Jason said haltingly. "The small ship has an interstellar drive in it. Perhaps it can still be saved. Even if it can't there is another way. I can't explain now, but I will tell you when I am rested. Don't worry. The fight is almost over."

They laughed and pounded each other on the back. When they came to shake his hand as well, he closed his eyes and made believe he was asleep. It is very hard to be a hypocrite if you aren't trained for it.

Rhes woke him early the next morning. "Do you feel well enough to travel?" he asked.

"Depends what you mean by travel," Jason told him. "If you mean under my own power, I doubt if I could get as far as that door."

"You'll be carried," Rhes broke in. "We have a litter swung between two doryms. Not too comfortable, but you'll get there. But only if you think you are well enough to move. We called all the people within riding distance and they are beginning to gather. By this afternoon we will have enough men and doryms to pull the ship out of the swamp."

"I'll come," Jason said, pushing himself to a sitting position. The effort exhausted him, bringing a wave of nausea. Only by leaning his full weight against the wall could he keep from falling back. He sat, propped there, until he heard shouts and the stamping of heavy feet outside, and they came to carry him out.

The trip drained away his small store of energy, and he fell into an exhausted sleep. When he opened his eyes the doryms were standing knee deep in the swamp and the salvage operation had begun. Ropes vanished out of sight in the water while lines of struggling animals and men hauled at them. The beasts bellowed, the men cursed as they slipped and fell. All of the Pyrrans tugging on the lines weren't male, women were there as well. Shorter on the average than the men, they were just as brawny. Their clothing was varied and many-colored, the first touch of decoration Jason had seen on this planet.

Getting the ship up was a heart-breaking job. The mud sucked at it and underwater roots caught on the vanes. Divers plunged time and again into the brown water to cut them free. Progress was incredibly slow, but the work never stopped. Jason's brain was working even slower. The ship would be hauled up eventually—what would he do then? He had to have a new plan by that time, but thinking was impossible work. His thoughts corkscrewed and he had to fight down the rising feeling of panic.

The sun was low when the ship's nose finally appeared above the water. A ragged cheer broke out at first sight of that battered cone of metal and they went ahead with new energy.

Jason was the first one who noticed the dorym weaving towards them. The dogs saw it, of course, and ran out and sniffed. The rider shouted to the dogs and kicked angrily at the sides of his mount. Even at this distance Jason could see the beast's heaving sides and yellow foam-flecked hide. It was barely able to stagger now and the man jumped down, running ahead on foot. He was shouting something as he ran that couldn't be heard above the noise.

There was a single moment when the sounds slacked a bit and the running man's voice could be heard. He was calling the same word over and over again. It sounded like wait, but Jason couldn't be sure. Others had heard him though, and the result was instantaneous. They stopped, unmoving, where they were. Many of those holding the ropes let go of them. Only the quick action of the anchor men kept the ship from sliding back under, dragging the harnessed doryms with it. A wave of silence washed across the swamp in the wake of the running man's shouts. They could be heard clearly now.

"Quake! Quake on the way! South—only safe way is south!"

One by one the ropes dropped back into the water and the Pyrrans turned to wade to solid land. Before they were well started Rhes' voice cracked out.

"Stay at work! Get the ship up, it's our only hope now. I'll talk to Hananas, find out how much time we have."

These solitary people were unused to orders. They stopped and milled about, reason fighting with the urgent desire to run. One by one they stepped back to the ropes as they worked out the sense of Rhes' words. As soon as it was clear the work would continue he turned away.

"What is it? What's happening?" Jason called to him as he ran by.

"It's Hananas," Rhes said, stopping by the litter, waiting for the newcomer to reach him. "He's a quakeman. They know when quakes are coming, before they happen."

Hananas ran up, panting and tired. He was a short man, built like a barrel on stubby legs, a great white beard covering his neck and the top of his chest. Another time Jason might have laughed at his incongruous waddle, but not now. There was a charged difference in the air since the little man had arrived.

"Why didn't … you have somebody near a plate? I called all over this area without an answer. Finally … had to come myself—"

"How much time do we have?" Rhes cut in. "We have to get that ship up before we pull out."

"Time! Who knows about time!" the graybeard cursed. "Get out or you're dead."

"Calm down, Han," Rhes said in a quieter voice, taking the oldster's arms in both his hands. "You know what we're doing here—and how much depends on getting the ship up. Now how does it feel? This going to be a fast one or a slow one?"

"Fast. Faster than anything I felt in a long time. She's starting far away though, if you had a plate here I bet Mach or someone else up near the firelands would be reporting new eruptions. It's on the way and, if we don't get out soon, we're not getting out t'all."

 

There was a burble of water as the ship was hauled out a bit farther. No one talked now and there was a fierce urgency in their movements. Jason still wasn't sure exactly what had happened.

"Don't shoot me for a foreigner," he said, "but just what is wrong? Are you expecting earthquakes here, are you sure?"

"Sure!" Hananas screeched. "Of course I'm sure. If I wasn't sure I wouldn't be a quakeman. It's on the way."

"There's no doubt of that," Rhes added. "I don't know how you can tell on your planet when quakes or vulcanism are going to start, machines maybe. We have nothing like that. But quakemen, like Hananas here, always know about them before they happen. If the word can be passed fast enough, we get away. The quake is coming all right, the only thing in doubt is how much time we have."

The work went on and there was a good chance they would die long before it was finished. All for nothing. The only way Jason could get them to stop would be to admit the ship was useless. He would be killed then and the grubber chances would die with him. He chewed his lip as the sun set and the work continued by torchlight.

Hananas paced around, grumbling under his breath, halting only to glance at the northern horizon. The people felt his restlessness and transmitted it to the animals. Dogfights broke out and the doryms pulled reluctantly at their harnesses. With each passing second their chances grew slimmer and Jason searched desperately for a way out of the trap of his own constructing.

"Look—" someone said, and they all turned. The sky to the north was lit with a red light. There was a rumble in the ground that was felt more than heard. The surface of the water blurred, then broke into patterns of tiny waves. Jason turned away from the light, looking at the water and the ship. It was higher now, the top of the stern exposed. There was a gaping hole here, blasted through the metal by the spaceship's guns.

"Rhes," he called, his words jammed together in the rush to get them out. "Look at the ship, at the hole blasted in her stern. I landed on the rockets and didn't know how badly she was hit. But the guns hit the star drive!"

Rhes gaped at him unbelievingly as he went on. Improvising, playing by ear, trying to manufacture lies that rang of the truth.

"I watched them install the drive—it's an auxiliary to the other engines. It was bolted to the hull right there. It's gone now, blown up. The boat will never leave this planet, much less go to another star."

He couldn't look Rhes in the eyes after that. He sank back into the furs that had been propped behind him, feeling the weakness even more. Rhes was silent and Jason couldn't tell if his story had been believed. Only when the Pyrran bent and slashed the nearest rope did he know he had won.

The word passed from man to man and the ropes were cut silently. Behind them the ship they had labored so hard over, sank back into the water. None of them watched. Each was locked in his own world of thought as they formed up to leave. As soon as the doryms were saddled and packed they started out, Hananas leading the way. Within minutes they were all moving, a single file that vanished into the darkness.

Jason's litter had to be left behind, it would have been smashed to pieces in the night march. Rhes pulled him up into the saddle before him, locking his body into place with a steel-hard arm. The trek continued.

When they left the swamp they changed directions sharply. A little later Jason knew why, when the southern sky exploded. Flames lit the scene brightly, ashes sifted down and hot lumps of rock crashed into the trees. They steamed when they hit, and if it hadn't been for the earlier rain they would have been faced with a forest fire as well.

Something large loomed up next to the line of march, and when they crossed an open space Jason looked at it in the reflected light from the sky.

"Rhes—" he choked, pointing. Rhes looked at the great beast moving next to them, shaggy body and twisted horns as high as their shoulders, then looked away. He wasn't frightened or apparently interested. Jason looked around then and began to understand.

All of the fleeing animals made no sound, that's why he hadn't noticed them before. But on both sides dark forms ran between the trees. Some he recognized, most of them he didn't. For a few minutes a pack of wild dogs ran near them, even mingling with the domesticated dogs. No notice was taken. Flying things flapped overhead. Under the greater threat of the volcanoes all other battles were forgotten. Life respected life. A herd of fat, piglike beasts with curling tusks, blundered through the line. The doryms slowed, picking their steps carefully so they wouldn't step on them. Smaller animals sometimes clung to the backs of the bigger ones, riding untouched a while, before they leaped off.

Pounded mercilessly by the saddle, Jason fell wearily into a light sleep. It was shot through with dreams of the rushing animals, hurrying on forever in silence. With his eyes open or shut he saw the same endless stream of beasts.

It all meant something, and he frowned as he tried to think what. Animals running, Pyrran animals.

He sat bolt upright suddenly, wide awake, staring down in comprehension.

"What is it?" Rhes asked.

"Go on," Jason said. "Get us out of this, and get us out safely. I told you the lifeboat wasn't the only answer. I know how your people can get what they want—end the war now. There is a way, and I know how it can be done."

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