Deathworld

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Chapter 3

The building they stopped at was one of the finer residences in Cassylia. As they had driven, Jason counted the money and separated his share. Almost sixteen million credits. It still didn't seem quite real. When they got out in front of the building he gave Kerk the rest.

"Here's your three billion, don't think it was easy," he said.

"It could have been worse," was his only answer.

The recorded voice scratched in the speaker over the door.

"Sire Ellus has retired for the night, would you please call again in the morning. All appointments are made in advan—"

The voice broke off as Kerk pushed the door open. He did it almost effortlessly with the flat of his hand. As they went in Jason looked at the remnants of torn and twisted metal that hung in the lock and wondered again about his companion.

Strength—more than physical strength—he's like an elemental force. I have the feeling that nothing can stop him.

It made him angry—and at the same time fascinated him. He didn't want out of the deal until he found out more about Kerk and his planet. And "they" who had died for the money he gambled.

Sire Ellus was old, balding and angry, not at all used to having his rest disturbed. His complaints stopped suddenly when Kerk threw the money down on the table.

"Is the ship being loaded yet, Ellus? Here's the balance due." Ellus only fumbled the bills for a moment before he could answer Kerk's question.

"The ship—but, of course. We began loading when you gave us the deposit. You'll have to excuse my confusion, this is a little irregular. We never handle transactions of this size in cash."

"That's the way I like to do business," Kerk answered him, "I've canceled the deposit, this is the total sum. Now how about a receipt."

Ellus had made out the receipt before his senses returned. He held it tightly while he looked uncomfortably at the three billion spread out before him.

"Wait—I can't take it now, you'll have to return in the morning, to the bank. In normal business fashion," Ellus decided firmly.

Kerk reached over and gently drew the paper out of Ellus' hand.

"Thanks for the receipt," he said. "I won't be here in the morning so this will be satisfactory. And if you're worried about the money I suggest you get in touch with some of your plant guards or private police. You'll feel a lot safer."

When they left through the shattered door Ellus was frantically dialing numbers on his screen. Kerk answered Jason's next question before he could ask it.

"I imagine you would like to live to spend that money in your pocket, so I've booked two seats on an interplanetary ship," he glanced at the car clock. "It leaves in about two hours so we have plenty of time. I'm hungry, let's find a restaurant. I hope you have nothing at the hotel worth going back for. It would be a little difficult."

"Nothing worth getting killed for," Jason said. "Now where can we go to eat—there are a few questions I would like to ask you."

 

They circled carefully down to the transport levels until they were sure they hadn't been followed. Kerk nosed the car into a darkened loading dock where they abandoned it.

"We can always get another car," he said, "and they probably have this one spotted. Let's walk back to the freightway, I saw a restaurant there as we came by."

Dark and looming shapes of overland freight carriers filled the parking lot. They picked their way around the man-high wheels and into the hot and noisy restaurant. The drivers and early morning workers took no notice of them as they found a booth in the back and dialed a meal.

Kerk chiseled a chunk of meat off the slab in front of him and popped it cheerfully into his mouth. "Ask your questions," he said. "I'm feeling much better already."

"What's in this ship you arranged for tonight—what kind of a cargo was I risking my neck for?"

"I thought you were risking your neck for money," Kerk said dryly. "But be assured it was in a good cause. That cargo means the survival of a world. Guns, ammunition, mines, explosives and such."

Jason choked over a mouthful of food. "Gun-running! What are you doing, financing a private war? And how can you talk about survival with a lethal cargo like that? Don't try and tell me they have a peaceful use. Who are you killing?"

Most of the big man's humor had vanished, he had that grim look Jason knew well.

"Yes, peaceful would be the right word. Because that is basically all we want. Just to live in peace. And it is not who are we killing—it is what we are killing."

Jason pushed his plate away with an angry gesture. "You're talking in riddles," he said. "What you say has no meaning."

"It has meaning enough," Kerk told him, "but only on one planet in the universe. Just how much do you know about Pyrrus?"

"Absolutely nothing."

For a moment Kerk sat wrapped in memory, scowling distantly. Then he went on.

"Mankind doesn't belong on Pyrrus—yet has been there for almost three hundred years now. The age expectancy of my people is sixteen years. Of course most adults live beyond that, but the high child mortality brings the average down.

"It is everything that a humanoid world should not be. The gravity is nearly twice Earth normal. The temperature can vary daily from arctic to tropic. The climate—well you have to experience it to believe it. Like nothing you've seen anywhere else in the galaxy."

"I'm frightened," Jason said dryly. "What do you have—methane or chlorine reactions? I've been down on planets like that—"

 

Kerk slammed his hand down hard on the table. The dishes bounced and the table legs creaked. "Laboratory reactions!" he growled. "They look great on a bench—but what happens when you have a world filled with those compounds? In an eye-wink of galactic time all the violence is locked up in nice, stable compounds. The atmosphere may be poisonous for an oxygen breather, but taken by itself it's as harmless as weak beer.

"There is only one setup that is pure poison as a planetary atmosphere. Plenty of H2O, the most universal solvent you can find, plus free oxygen to work on—"

"Water and oxygen!" Jason broke in. "You mean Earth—or a planet like Cassylia here? That's preposterous."

"Not at all. Because you were born in this kind of environment you accept it as right and natural. You take it for granted that metals corrode, coastlines change, and storms interfere with communication. These are normal occurrences on oxygen-water worlds. On Pyrrus these conditions are carried to the nth degree.

"The planet has an axial tilt of almost forty-two degrees, so there is a tremendous change in temperature from season to season. This is one of the prime causes of a constantly changing icecap. The weather generated by this is spectacular to say the least."

"If that's all," Jason said, "I don't see why—"

"That's not all—it's barely the beginning. The open seas perform the dual destructive function of supplying water vapor to keep the weather going, and building up gigantic tides. Pyrrus' two satellites, Samas and Bessos, combine at times to pull the oceans up into thirty meter tides. And until you've seen one of these tides lap over into an active volcano you've seen nothing.

"Heavy elements are what brought us to Pyrrus—and these same elements keep the planet at a volcanic boil. There have been at least thirteen super-novas in the immediate stellar neighborhood. Heavy elements can be found on most of their planets of course—as well as completely unbreathable atmospheres. Long-term mining and exploitation can't be done by anything but a self-sustaining colony. Which meant Pyrrus. Where the radioactive elements are locked in the planetary core, surrounded by a shell of lighter ones. While this allows for the atmosphere men need, it also provides unceasing volcanic activity as the molten plasma forces its way to the surface."

For the first time Jason was silent. Trying to imagine what life could be like on a planet constantly at war with itself.

"I've saved the best for last," Kerk said with grim humor. "Now that you have an idea of what the environment is like—think of the kind of life forms that would populate it. I doubt if there is one off-world species that would live a minute. Plants and animals on Pyrrus are tough. They fight the world and they fight each other. Hundreds of thousands of years of genetic weeding-out have produced things that would give even an electronic brain nightmares. Armor-plated, poisonous, claw-tipped and fanged-mouthed. That describes everything that walks, flaps or just sits and grows. Ever see a plant with teeth—that bite? I don't think you want to. You'd have to be on Pyrrus and that means you would be dead within seconds of leaving the ship. Even I'll have to take a refresher course before I'll be able to go outside the landing buildings. The unending war for survival keeps the life forms competing and changing. Death is simple, but the ways of dealing it too numerous to list."

Unhappiness rode like a weight on Kerk's broad shoulders. After long moments of thought he moved visibly to shake it off. Returning his attention to his food and mopping the gravy from his plate, he voiced part of his feelings.

"I suppose there is no logical reason why we should stay and fight this endless war. Except that Pyrrus is our home." The last piece of gravy-soaked bread vanished and he waved the empty fork at Jason.

"Be happy you're an off-worlder and will never have to see it."

"That's where you're wrong." Jason said as calmly as he could. "You see, I'm going back with you."

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