Deathworld

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Chapter 9

Real as they had been, the training chambers had not prepared him for the surface of Pyrrus. There was the basic similarity of course. The feel of the poison grass underfoot and the erratic flight of a stingwing in the last instant before Grif blasted it. But these were scarcely noticeable in the crash of the elements around him.

A heavy rain was falling, more like a sheet of water than individual drops. Gusts of wind tore at it, hurling the deluge into his face. He wiped his eyes clear and could barely make out the conical forms of two volcanoes on the horizon, vomiting out clouds of smoke and flame. The reflection of this inferno was a sullen redness on the clouds that raced by in banks above them.

There was a rattle on his hard hat and something bounced off to splash to the ground. He bent over and picked up a hailstone as thick as his thumb. A sudden flurry of hail hammered painfully at his back and neck, he straightened hurriedly.

As quickly as it started the storm was over. The sun burned down, melting the hailstones and sending curls of steam up from the wet street. Jason sweated inside his armored clothing. Yet before they had gone a block it was raining again and he shook with chill.

Grif trudged steadily along, indifferent to the weather or the volcanoes that rumbled on the horizon and shook the ground beneath their feet. Jason tried to ignore his discomfort and match the boy's pace.

The walk was a depressing one. The heavy, squat buildings loomed grayly through the rain, more than half of them in ruins. They walked on a pedestrian way in the middle of the street. The occasional armored trucks went by on both sides of them. The midstreet sidewalk puzzled Jason until Grif blasted something that hurtled out of a ruined building towards them. The central location gave them some chance to see what was coming. Suddenly Jason was very tired.

"Grif, this city of yours is sure down at the heels. I hope the other ones are in better shape."

"I don't know what you mean talking about heels. But there are no other cities. Some mining camps that can't be located inside the perimeter. But no other cities."

This surprised Jason. He had always visualized the planet with more than one city. There were a lot of things he didn't know about Pyrrus, he realized suddenly. All of his efforts since landing had been taken up with the survival studies. There were a number of questions he wanted to ask. But ask them of somebody other than his grouchy eight-year-old bodyguard. There was one person who would be best equipped to tell him what he wanted to know.

"Do you know Kerk?" he asked the boy. "Apparently he's your ambassador to a lot of places, but his last name—"

"Sure, everybody knows Kerk. But he's busy, you shouldn't see him."

Jason shook a finger at him. "Minder of my body you may be. But minder of my soul you are not. What do you say I call the shots and you go along to shoot the monsters? O.K.?"

 

They took shelter from a sudden storm of fist-sized hailstones. Then, with ill grace, Grif led the way to one of the larger, central buildings. There were more people here and some of them even glanced at Jason for a minute, before turning back to their business. Jason dragged himself up two flights of stairs before they reached a door marked CO-ORDINATION AND SUPPLY.

"Kerk in here?" Jason asked.

"Sure," the boy told him. "He's in charge."

"Fine. Now you get a nice cold drink, or your lunch, or something, and meet me back here in a couple of hours. I imagine Kerk can do as good a job of looking after me as you can."

The boy stood doubtfully for a few seconds, then turned away. Jason wiped off some more sweat and pushed through the door.

There were a handful of people in the office beyond. None of them looked up at Jason or asked his business. Everything has a purpose on Pyrrus. If he came there—he must have had a good reason. No one would ever think to ask him what he wanted. Jason, used to the petty officialdom of a thousand worlds, waited for a few moments before he understood. There was only one other door. He shuffled over and opened it.

Kerk looked up from a desk strewed about with papers and ledgers. "I was wondering when you would show up," he said.

"A lot sooner if you hadn't prevented it," Jason told him as he dropped wearily into a chair. "It finally dawned on me that I could spend the rest of my life in your blood-thirsty nursery school if I didn't do something about it. So here I am."

"Ready to return to the 'civilized' worlds, now that you've seen enough of Pyrrus?"

"I am not," Jason said. "And I'm getting very tired of everyone telling me to leave. I'm beginning to think that you and the rest of the Pyrrans are trying to hide something."

Kerk smiled at the thought. "What could we have to hide? I doubt if any planet has as simple and one-directional an existence as ours."

"If that's true, then you certainly wouldn't mind answering a few direct questions about Pyrrus?"

Kerk started to protest, then laughed. "Well done. I should know better by now than to argue with you. What do you want to know?"

Jason tried to find a comfortable position on the hard chair, then gave up. "What's the population of your planet?" he asked.

For a second Kerk hesitated, then said, "Roughly thirty thousand. That is not very much for a planet that has been settled this long, but the reason for that is obvious."

"All right, population thirty thousand," Jason said. "Now how about surface control of your planet. I was surprised to find out that this city within its protective wall—the perimeter—is the only one on the planet. Let's not consider the mining camps, since they are obviously just extensions of the city. Would you say then, that you people control more or less of the planet's surface than you did in the past?"

 

Kerk picked up a length of steel pipe from the desk, that he used as a paperweight, and toyed with it as he thought. The thick steel bent like rubber at his touch, as he concentrated on his answer.

"That's hard to say offhand. There must be records of that sort of thing, though I wouldn't know where to find them. It depends on so many factors—"

"Let's forget that for now then," Jason said. "I have another question that's really more relevant. Wouldn't you say that the population of Pyrrus is declining steadily, year after year?"

There was a sharp twang as the steel snapped in Kerk's fingers, the pieces dropping to the floor. He stood, over Jason, his hands extended towards the smaller man, his face flushed and angry.

"Don't ever say that," he roared. "Don't let me ever hear you say that again!"

Jason sat as quietly as he could, talking slowly and picking out each word with care. His life hung in the balance.

"Don't get angry, Kerk. I meant no harm. I'm on your side, remember? I can talk to you because you've seen much more of the universe than the Pyrrans who have never left the planet. You are used to discussing things. You know that words are just symbols. We can talk and know you don't have to lose your temper over mere words—"

Kerk slowly lowered his arms and stepped away. Then he turned and poured himself a glass of water from a bottle on the desk. He kept his back turned to Jason while he drank.

Very little of the sweat that Jason wiped from his sopping face was caused by the heat in the room.

"I'm … sorry I lost my temper," Kerk said, dropping heavily into his chair. "Doesn't usually happen. Been working hard lately, must have got my temper on edge." He made no mention of what Jason had said.

"Happens to all of us," Jason told him. "I won't begin to describe the condition my nerves were in when I hit this planet. I'm finally forced to admit that everything you said about Pyrrus is true. It is the most deadly spot in the system. And only native-born Pyrrans could possibly survive here. I can manage to fumble along a bit after my training, but I know I would never stand a chance on my own. You probably know I have an eight-year-old as a bodyguard. Gives a good idea of my real status here."

Anger suppressed, Kerk was back in control of himself now. His eyes narrowed in thought. "Surprises me to hear you say that. Never thought I would hear you admit that anyone could be better than you at anything. Isn't that why you came here? To prove that you were as good as any native-born Pyrran?"

"Score one for your side," Jason admitted. "I didn't think it showed that much. And I'm glad to see your mind isn't as muscle-bound as your body. Yes, I'll admit that was probably my main reason for coming, that and curiosity."

Kerk was following his own train of thoughts, and puzzled where they were leading him. "You came here to prove that you were as good as any native-born Pyrran. Yet now you admit that any eight-year-old can outdraw you. That just doesn't stack up with what I know about you. If you give with one hand, you must be taking back with the other. In what way do you still feel your natural superiority?"

Jason thought a long time before answering.

"I'll tell you," he finally said. "But don't snap my neck for it. I'm gambling that your civilized mind can control your reflexes. Because I have to talk about things that are strictly taboo on Pyrrus.

"In your people's eyes I'm a weakling because I come from off-world. Realize though, that this is also my strength. I can see things that are hidden from you by long association. You know, the old business of not being able to see the forest for the trees in the way." Kerk nodded agreement and Jason went on.

"To continue the analogy further, I landed from an airship, and at first all I could see was the forest. To me certain facts are obvious. I think that you people know them too, only you keep your thoughts carefully repressed. They are hidden thoughts that are completely taboo. I am going to say one of them out loud now and hope you can control yourself well enough to not kill me."

Kerk's great hands tightened on the arms of his chair, the only sign that he had heard. Jason talked quietly, as smoothly and easily as a lancet probing into a brain.

"Human beings are losing the war on Pyrrus. There is no chance they can win. They could leave for another planet, but that wouldn't be victory. Yet, if they stay and continue this war, they only prolong a particularly bloody form of racial suicide. With each generation the population drops. Until eventually the planet will win."

One arm of Kerk's plastic and steel chair tore loose under the crushing grasp of his fingers. He didn't notice it. The rest of his body was rock-still and his eyes fixed on Jason.

Looking away from the fractured chair, Jason sought for the right words.

"This is not a real war, but a disastrous treating of symptoms. Like cutting off cancerous fingers one by one. The only result can be ultimate death. None of you seem to realize that. All you see are the trees. It has never occurred to you that you could treat thecauses of this war and end it forever."

Kerk dropped the arm of the chair clattering to the floor. He sat up, astonished. "What the devil do you mean? You sound like a grubber."

Jason didn't ask what a grubber was—but he filed the name.

"Call me a Pyrran by adoption. I want this planet to survive as much as you do. I think this war can be ended by finding the causes—and changing them, whatever they are."

"You're talking nonsense," Kerk said. "This is just an alien world that must be battled. The causes are self-obvious facts of existence."

"No, they're not," Jason insisted. "Consider for a second. When you are away for any length of time from this planet, you must take a refresher course. To see how things have changed for the worse while you were gone. Well, that's a linear progression. If things get worse when you extend into the future, then they have to get better if you extend into the past. It is also good theory—though I don't know if the facts will bear me out—to say that if you extend it far enough into the past you will reach a time when mankind and Pyrrus were not at war with each other."

Kerk was beyond speech now, only capable of sitting and listening while Jason drove home the blows of inescapable logic.

"There is evidence to support this theory. Even you will admit that I, if I am no match for Pyrran life, am surely well versed in it. And all Pyrran flora and fauna I've seen have one thing in common. They're not functional. None of their immense armory of weapons is used against each other. Their toxins don't seem to operate against Pyrran life. They are good only for dispensing death to Homo sapiens. And that is a physical impossibility. In the three hundred years that men have been on this planet, the life forms couldn't have naturally adapted in this manner."

"But they have done it!" Kerk bellowed.

"You are so right," Jason told him calmly. "And if they have done it there must be some agency at work. Operating how—I have no idea. But something has caused the life on Pyrrus to declare war, and I'd like to find out what that something is. What was the dominant life form here when your ancestors landed?"

"I'm sure I wouldn't know," Kerk said. "You're not suggesting, are you, that there are sentient beings on Pyrrus other than those of human descent? Creatures who are organizing the planet to battle us?"

"I'm not suggesting it—you are. That means you're getting the idea. I have no idea what caused this change, but I would sure like to find out. Then see if it can be changed back. Nothing promised, of course. You'll agree, though, that it is worth investigating."

 

Fist smacking into his palm, his heavy footsteps shaking the building, Kerk paced back and forth the length of the room. He was at war with himself. New ideas fought old beliefs. It was so sudden—and so hard not to believe.

Without asking permission Jason helped himself to some chilled water from the bottle, and sank back into the chair, exhausted. Something whizzed in through the open window, tearing a hole in the protective screen. Kerk blasted it without changing stride, without even knowing he had done it.

The decision didn't take long. Geared to swift activity, the big Pyrran found it impossible not to decide quickly. The pacing stopped and a finger stabbed at Jason.

"I don't say you have convinced me, but I find it impossible to find a ready answer to your arguments. So until I do, we will have to operate as if they are true. Now what do you plan to do, what can you do?"

Jason ticked the points off on his fingers. "One, I'll need a place to live and work that is well protected. So instead of spending my energies on just remaining alive I can devote some study to this project. Two, I want someone to help me—and act as a bodyguard at the same time. And someone, please, with a little more scope of interest than my present watchdog. I would suggest Meta for the job."

"Meta?" Kerk was surprised. "She is a space pilot and defense-screen operator, what good could she possibly be on a project like this?"

"The most good possible. She has had experience on other worlds and can shift her point of view—at least a bit. And she must know as much about this planet as any other educated adult and can answer any questions I ask." Jason smiled. "In addition to which she is an attractive girl, whose company I enjoy."

Kerk grunted. "I was wondering if you would get around to mentioning that last reason. The others make sense though, so I'm not going to argue. I'll round up a replacement for her and have Meta sent here. There are plenty of sealed buildings you can use."

After talking to one of the assistants from the outer office, Kerk made some calls on the screen. The correct orders were quickly issued. Jason watched it all with interest.

"Pardon me for asking," he finally said. "But are you the dictator of this planet? You just snap your fingers and they all jump."

"I suppose it looks that way," Kerk admitted. "But that is just an illusion. No one is in complete charge on Pyrrus, neither is there anything resembling a democratic system. After all, our total population is about the size of an army division. Everyone does the job they are best qualified for. Various activities are separated into departments with the most qualified person in charge. I run Co-ordination and Supply, which is about the loosest category. We fill in the gaps between departments and handle procuring from off-planet."

 

Meta came in then and talked to Kerk. She completely ignored Jason's presence. "I was relieved and sent here," she said. "What is it? Change in flight schedule?"

"You might call it that," Kerk said. "As of now you are dismissed from all your old assignments and assigned to a new department: Investigation and Research. That tired-looking fellow there is your department head."

"A sense of humor," Jason said. "The only native-born one on Pyrrus. Congratulations, there's hope for the planet yet."

Meta glanced back and forth between them. "I don't understand. I can't believe it. I mean a new department—why?"

"I'm sorry," Kerk said. "I didn't mean to be cruel. I thought perhaps you might feel more at ease. What I said was true. Jason has a way—or may have a way—to be of immense value to Pyrrus. Will you help him?"

Meta had her composure back. And a little anger. "Do I have to? Is that an order? You know I have work to do. I'm sure you will realize it is more important than something a person from off-planet might imagine. He can't really understand—"

"Yes. It's an order." The snap was back in Kerk's voice. Meta flushed at the tone.

"Perhaps I can explain," Jason broke in. "After all the whole thing is my idea. But first I would like your co-operation. Will you take the clip out of your gun and give it to Kerk?"

Meta looked frightened, but Kerk nodded in solemn agreement. "Just for a few minutes, Meta. I have my gun so you will be safe here. I think I know what Jason has in mind, and from personal experience I'm afraid he is right."

Reluctantly Meta passed over the clip and cleared the charge in the gun's chamber. Only then did Jason explain.

"I have a theory about life on Pyrrus, and I'm afraid I'll have to shatter some illusions when I explain. To begin with, the fact must be admitted that your people are slowly losing the war here and will eventually be destroyed—"

Before he was half through the sentence, Meta's gun was directed between his eyes and she was wildly snapping the trigger. There was only hatred and revulsion in her expression. Kerk took her by the shoulders and sat her in his chair, before anything worse happened. It took a while before she could calm down enough to listen to Jason's words. It is not easy to have the carefully built-up falsehoods of a lifetime shattered. Only the fact that she had seen something of other worlds enabled her to listen at all.

The light of unreason was still in her eyes when he had finished, telling her the things he and Kerk had discussed. She sat tensely, pushed forward against Kerk's hands, as if they were the only things that stopped her from leaping at Jason.

"Maybe that is too much to assimilate at one sitting," Jason said. "So let's put it in simpler terms. I believe we can find a reason for this unrelenting hatred of humans. Perhaps we don't smell right. Maybe I'll find an essence of crushed Pyrran bugs that will render us immune when we rub it in. I don't know yet. But whatever the results, we must make the investigation. Kerk agrees with me on that."

Meta looked at Kerk and he nodded agreement. Her shoulders slumped in sudden defeat. She whispered the words.

"I … can't say I agree, or even understand all that you said. But I'll help you. If Kerk thinks that it is the right thing."

"I do," he said. "Now, do you want the clip back for your gun? Not planning to take any more shots at Jason?"

"That was foolish of me," she said coldly while she reloaded the gun. "I don't need a gun. If I had to kill him, I could do it with my bare hands."

"I love you, too," Jason smiled at her. "Are you ready to go now?"

"Of course." She brushed a fluffy curl of hair into place. "First we'll find a place where you can stay. I'll take care of that. After that the work of the new department is up to you."

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