Once the ship was in orbit the captain sent for Jason and Kerk. Kerk took the floor and was completely frank about the previous night's activities. The only fact of importance he left out was Jason's background as a professional gambler. He drew a beautiful picture of two lucky strangers whom the evil forces of Cassylia wanted to deprive of their gambling profits. All this fitted perfectly the captain's preconceptions of Cassylia. In the end he congratulated his officer on the correctness of his actions and began the preparation of a long report to his government. He gave the two men his best wishes as well as the liberty of the ship.
It was a short trip. Jason barely had time to catch up on his sleep before they grounded on Darkhan. Being without luggage they were the first ones through customs. They left the shed just in time to see another ship landing in a distant pit. Kerk stopped to watch it and Jason followed his gaze. It was a gray, scarred ship. With the stubby lines of a freighter—but sporting as many guns as a cruiser.
"Yours, of course," Jason said.
Kerk nodded and started towards the ship. One of the locks opened as they came up but no one appeared. Instead a remote-release folding ladder rattled down to the ground. Kerk swarmed up it and Jason followed glumly. Somehow, he felt, this was overdoing the no-frills-and-nonsense attitude.
Jason was catching on to Pyrran ways though. The reception aboard ship for the ambassador was just what he expected. Nothing. Kerk closed the lock himself and they found couches as the take-off horn sounded. The main jets roared and acceleration smashed down on Jason.
It didn't stop. Instead it grew stronger, squeezing the air out of his lungs and the sight from his eyes. He screamed but couldn't hear his own voice through the roaring in his ears. Mercifully he blacked out.
When consciousness returned the ship was at zero-G. Jason kept his eyes closed and let the pain seep out of his body. Kerk spoke suddenly, he was standing next to the couch.
"My fault, Meta, I should have told you we had a 1-G passenger aboard. You might have eased up a bit on your usual bone-breaking take-off."
"It doesn't seem to have harmed him much—but what's he doing here?"
Jason felt mild surprise that the second voice was a girl's. But he wasn't interested enough to go to the trouble of opening his sore eyes.
"Going to Pyrrus. I tried to talk him out of it, of course, but I couldn't change his mind. It's a shame, too, I would like to have done more for him. He's the one who got the money for us."
"Oh, that's awful," the girl said. Jason wondered why it was awful. It didn't make sense to his groggy mind. "It would have been much better if he stayed on Darkhan," the girl continued. "He's very nice-looking. I think it's a shame he has to die."
That was too much for Jason. He pried one eye open, then the other. The voice belonged to a girl about twenty-one who was standing next to the bed, gazing down at Jason. She was beautiful.
Jason's eyes opened wider as he realized she was very beautiful—with the kind of beauty never found in the civilized galaxy. The women he had known all ran to pale skin, hollow shoulders, gray faces covered with tints and dyes. They were the product of centuries of breeding weaknesses back into the race, as the advance of medicine kept alive more and more non-survival types.
This girl was the direct opposite in every way. She was the product of survival on Pyrrus. The heavy gravity that produced bulging muscles in men, brought out firm strength in straplike female muscles. She had the figure of a goddess, tanned skin and perfectly formed face. Her hair, which was cut short, circled her head like a golden crown. The only unfeminine thing about her was the gun she wore in a bulky forearm holster. When she saw Jason's eyes open she smiled at him. Her teeth were as even and as white as he had expected.
"I'm Meta, pilot of this ship. And you must be—"
"Jason dinAlt. That was a lousy take-off, Meta."
"I'm really very sorry," she laughed. "But being born on a two-G planet does make one a little immune to acceleration. I save fuel too, with the synergy curve—"
Kerk gave a noncommittal grunt. "Come along, Meta, we'll take a look at the cargo. Some of the new stuff will plug the gaps in the perimeter."
"Oh yes," she said, almost clapping her hands with happiness. "I read the specs, they're simply wonderful."
Like a schoolgirl with a new dress. Or a box of candy. That's a great attitude to have towards bombs and flame-throwers.Jason smiled wryly at the thought as he groaned off the couch. The two Pyrrans had gone and he pulled himself painfully through the door after them.
It took him a long time to find his way to the hold. The ship was big and apparently empty of crew. Jason finally found a man sleeping in one of the brightly lit cabins. He recognized him as the driver who had turned the car over to them on Cassylia. The man, who had been sleeping soundly a moment before, opened his eyes as soon as Jason drifted into the room. He was wide awake.
"How do I get to the cargo hold?" Jason asked.
The other told him, closed his eyes and went instantly back to sleep before Jason could even say thanks.
In the hold, Kerk and Meta had opened some of the crates and were chortling with joy over their lethal contents. Meta, a pressure canister in her arms, turned to Jason as he came through the door.
"Just look at this," she said. "This powder in here—why you can eat it like dirt, with less harm. Yet it is instantly deadly to all forms of vegetable life … " She stopped suddenly as she realized Jason didn't share her extreme pleasure. "I'm sorry. I forgot for a moment there that you weren't a Pyrran. So you don't really understand, do you?"
Before he could answer, the PA speaker called her name.
"Jump time," she said. "Come with me to the bridge while I do the equations. We can talk there. I know so little about any place except Pyrrus that I have a million questions to ask."
Jason followed her to the bridge where she relieved the duty officer and began taking readings for the jump-setting. She looked out of place among the machines, a sturdy but supple figure in a simple, one-piece shipsuit. Yet there was no denying the efficiency with which she went about her job.
"Meta, aren't you a little young to be the pilot of an interstellar ship?"
"Am I?" She thought for a second. "I really don't know how old pilots are supposed to be. I have been piloting for about three years now and I'm almost twenty. Is that younger than usual?"
Jason opened his mouth—then laughed. "I suppose that all depends on what planet you're from. Some places you would have trouble getting licensed. But I'll bet things are different on Pyrrus. By their standards you must rank as an old lady."
"Now you're making a joke," Meta said serenely as she fed a figure into the calculator. "I've seen old ladies on some planets. They are wrinkled and have gray hair. I don't know how old they are, I asked one but she wouldn't tell me her age. But I'm sure they must be older than anyone on Pyrrus, no one looks like that there."
"I don't mean old that way," Jason groped for the right word. "Not old—but grown-up, mature. An adult."
"Everyone is grown-up," she answered. "At least soon after they leave the wards. And they do that when they're six. My first child is grown-up, and the second one would be, too, only he's dead. So I surely must be."
That seemed to settle the question for her, though Jason's thoughts jumped with the alien concepts and background, inherent behind her words.
Meta punched in the last setting, and the course tape began to chunk out of the case. She turned her attention back to Jason. "I'm glad you're aboard this trip, though I am sorry you are going to Pyrrus. But we'll have lots of time to talk. There are so many things I want to find out about other planets, and why people go around acting the way they do. Not at all like home where you know why people are doing things all the time." She frowned over the tape for a moment, then turned her attention back to Jason. "What is your home planet like?"
One after another the usual lies he told people came to his lips, and were pushed away. Why bother lying to a girl who really didn't care if you were serf or noble? To her there were only two kinds of people in the galaxy—Pyrrans, and the rest. For the first time since he had fled from Porgorstorsaand he found himself telling someone the truth of his origin.
"My home planet? Just about the stuffiest, dullest, dead-end in the universe. You can't believe the destructive decay of a planet that is mainly agrarian, caste-conscious and completely satisfied with its own boring existence. Not only is there no change—but no onewants change. My father was a farmer, so I should have been a farmer too—if I had listened to the advice of my betters. It was unthinkable, as well as forbidden for me to do anything else. And everything I wanted to do was against the law. I was fifteen before I learned to read—out of a book stolen from a noble school. After that there was no turning back. By the time I stowed aboard an off-world freighter at nineteen I must have broken every law on the planet. Happily. Leaving home for me was just like getting out of prison."
Meta shook her head at the thought. "I just can't imagine a place like that. But I'm sure I wouldn't like it there."
"I'm sure you wouldn't," Jason laughed. "So once I was in space, with no law-abiding talents or skills, I just wandered into one thing and another. In this age of technology I was completely out of place. Oh, I suppose I could have done well in some army, but I'm not so good at taking orders. Whenever I gambled I did well, so little by little I just drifted into it. People are the same everywhere, so I manage to make out well wherever I end up."
"I know what you mean about people being alike—but they are so different," she said. "I'm not being clear at all, am I? What I mean is that at home I know what people will do and why they do it at the same time. People on all the other planets do act alike, as you said, yet I have very much trouble understanding why. For instance, I like to try the local food when we set down on a planet, and if there is time I always do. There are bars and restaurants near every spaceport so I go there. And I always have trouble with the men. They want to buy me drinks, hold my hand—"
"Well, a single girl in those port joints has to expect a certain amount of interest from the men."
"Oh, I know that," she said. "What I don't understand is why they don't listen when I tell them I am not interested and to go away. They just laugh and pull up a chair, usually. But I have found that one thing works wherever I am. I tell them if they don't stop bothering me I'll break their arm."
"Does that stop them?" Jason asked.
"No, of course not. But after I break their arm they go away. And the others don't bother me either. It's a lot of fuss to go through and the food is usually awful."
Jason didn't laugh. Particularly when he realized that this girl could break the arm of any spaceport thug in the galaxy. She was a strange mixture of naivete and strength, unlike anyone he had ever met before. Once again he realized that he had to visit the planet that produced people like her and Kerk.
"Tell me about Pyrrus," he asked. "Why is it that you and Kerk assume automatically that I will drop dead as soon as I land? What is the planet like?"
All the warmth was gone from her face now. "I can't tell you. You will have to see for yourself. I know that much after visiting some of the other worlds. Pyrrus is like nothing you galaxy people have ever experienced. You won't really believe it until it is too late. Will you promise me something?"
"No," he answered. "At least not until after I hear what it is and decide."
"Don't leave the ship when we land. You should be safe enough aboard, and I'll be flying a cargo out within a few weeks."
"I'll promise nothing of the sort. I'll leave when I want to leave." Jason knew there was logic in her words, but his back was up at her automatic superiority.
Meta finished the jump settings without another word. There was a tension in the room that prevented them both from talking.
It was the next shipday before he saw her again, then it was completely by accident. She was in the astrogation dome when he entered, looking up at the sparkling immensity of the jump sky. For the first time he saw her off duty, wearing something other than a shipsuit. This was a loose, soft robe that accentuated her beauty.
She smiled at him. "The stars are so wonderful," she said. "Come look." Jason came close to her and with an unthinking, almost automatic movement, put his arm around her. Neither did she resent it, for she covered his hand with hers. Then they kissed and it was just the way he knew it would be.