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Authors: Sheri S. Tepper

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BOOK: Raising The Stones
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Where the felted mattress of fiber lay, something was slowly created. A cell grew there, a seed, a scion, a nucleus, something quite tiny, something that grew a little with each warming, day by day.

Beneath the soil lay Birribat Shum: what was left of him; what he had become.

TWO

 


After receiving their
orientation from Horgy Endure, Theor Close and Betrun Jun took themselves to the vehicle park, checked out a flier, and—during the brief but boring flight to Settlement One—told one another their original impression of Hobbs Land had been wholly substantiated. The world was uniformly dull. The two engineers came from volcano-lit Phansure, ocean-girt Phansure, cosmopolitan Phansure, with its ten thousand cities and clustered billions of mostly very clever persons. All Phansuris knew their world was the most beautiful and only civilized world in System, perhaps in Galaxy, and Betrun and Theor were unreservedly Phansuri.

They were not chauvinists, however. They told themselves that Hobbs Land was probably quite nice, just underendowed to start with and pitifully underdeveloped. Each assured the other they should be kind to Sam Girat, poor fellow, having to live in such a place.

Sam, meantime, gave himself similar assurances. Since Mysore Hobbs II was always sending batches of Phansuri engineers and designers to the Belt worlds to improve this or that, playing host was something Sam did fairly frequently. Before welcoming such visitors, Sam always reminded himself of what his upper-school teacher had said about Phansure, sneering just a little. Too many people, she had said. Like a swarm, she had said. Hardly any forests, almost no animals, and everyone living in each others’ armpits. When the various Phansuri visitors introduced themselves to Sam with their flourishes and politenesses, as Phansuri were wont to do, Sam was always very kind.

With both sides trying so hard, their mutual greetings were protracted and exceedingly warm, and only when the rituals were over did Theor Close and Betrun Jun refer to the problems Sam had listed in anticipation of their visit. After a brief discussion, the three of them went down to the heavy equipment barn, where they looked first at a blackened launcher.

“We didn’t design this,” said Theor Close with distaste.

“I know,” said Sam patiently. “If you’d designed it, we wouldn’t have the problem.” Phansuris were all geniuses. Everyone knew that. They didn’t need to rub it in.

Theor preened. “What’s the problem?”

“A settler got burned, on the face and neck. He was too close to the thing, and the back blast off that fire shield got him.”

“What do you use if for?” asked Betrun Jun.

“Certain trace elements in the soil get used up and we need to restore them. The quantities are so minuscule, it’s not economical to try to mix them evenly into the bulk fertilizers, so we wait for the wind to be right, then we go way, way upwind of the settlement, and use this launcher to kick an explosive cannister up about two miles. The mix is very fine, the dust gets wind-spread over hundreds of square miles and it drifts down for days. It’s primitive and untidy, but it’s effective and efficient.”

“The launcher needs a blast control chamber,” said Betrun Jun. “A torus-shaped ring at the base.” He sketched rapidly, holding out the result. “With baffles.”

Sam snorted. “It’s funny-looking. Like a doughnut with a pipe through it.”

“Well, whatever it looks like, the blast will buffet around in the ring shaped chamber without getting loose to burn anybody. This one is easy, and we’ll see to it at once. How many do you need?”

“Eleven, one for each settlement, plus a few spares.”

Jun added the eleven settlements to his list of Hobbs Land facilities, which already included the mines, the fertilizer plant, and Central Management.

“What’s next.”

Sam ticked off the second item. “There’s something faulty in the fuel feed on that 1701 cultivator over there. We had a driver sick from gozon fumes.”

“Anybody hurt?”

“Just the driver. He was kind of woozy and angry, that’s all.”

“You’re lucky,” said Theor Close. “We had an operator on Pedaria get a good whiff of gozon and kill three people before they finally stopped him.”

“Funny the chemists can’t come up with something safer,” said Sam.

“They have. It just isn’t as efficient. With the proper safeguards, gozon is all right.” Theor Close took a protective mask from his tool kit, put it on, then opened the pod hatch on the 1701 and drew out the pod. “Where shall I put this?”

Sam looked around and indicated a bare work bench standing to one side.

Theor laid the pod upon it, then returned to the pod hatch. “If you’ve got fumes, likely the problem is in the seal-valve unit. That was the problem on Pedaria. We’re redesigning the whole assembly, and you’ll have these replaced very soon.”

“And until then?”

“Until then, we’ll fix this one.” Theor inserted himself into the hatch and mumbled to himself. Then he came out, with an audible pop, and said to Betrun Jun, “Will you look at it? There’s got to be a flaw in the sphincter-gasket, but I can’t find it.”

A settler drove into the barn on a small multipurpose tractor towing a spray unit behind it.

Betrun inserted himself into the hatch. After a time, he said, “You can’t find one because there isn’t one.” His voice reverberated in the closed space, before he popped out, like a ferf out of a hole. “Are you sure this is the unit, Sam?”

“This is the one,” said Sam, firmly, checking the number painted on the hatch against the one on his list.

The man at the door began to back the tractor.

Jun took another look and popped out again. “The flaw has to be in the fuel pod itself. Where did you put it?”

Sam turned, seeing the pod and the bench and the tractor all in one terrible vision, the sprayer hitting the table, the table falling, the faulty pod going over with it, and the cloud of violet mist that erupted from it, catching the tractor driver in its midst.

“God,” whispered Theor Close, jerking open his tool kit and finding another mask. He shoved it at Sam, who took it almost without thinking. Sam’s eyes were fixed on the driver, who had gone completely blank-faced, like a manikin. Then, slowly, the blankness was replaced, first with craftiness, then with rage. The driver looked around and saw the three of them. He began, slowly, to get down from the tractor.

“He’ll kill us if he gets a chance,” said Betrun Jun, almost calmly. “Us or anything else he can find.”

The man picked up a steel brace bar from the floor and came toward them. He was a very large man, Theor thought. A very large man, moving with the inexorability of a robot.

“Hever,” said Sam. “Give me the bar.”

“He won’t hear you,” whispered Close. “He can’t. He’s all shut in on himself.”

“Hever,” said Sam again. “Give me the bar. Give it to me.” He moved away from the others, drawing the driver’s eyes after him, his feet dancing slowly to one side, so the driver would not lose sight of him.

“Is there an antidote,” asked Sam, almost conversationally.

“No,” said Close. “Not here.”

“Do you have something that will put him out?” asked Sam.

“No,” said Close. “Not with me.”

“What the hell good are you?” asked Sam, still dancing. “There’s an emergency medical kit on the wall over there. That red thing. You’ll find a full kit of painkillers, in slap ampules. You think you could get your hands on those?”

“You have a weapon on your belt,” Jun pointed out. “You’ve got a plate cutter.”

“You have some particular reason for wanting Hever dead?” Sam asked, his voice conveying slight astonishment. “Or maimed? He will come out of this, won’t he?”

“Eventually,” said Close, from a dry throat as he watched Jun backing toward the medical kit. “I’m just not sure painkillers will put him out. Those fumes he breathed make the victims three or four times as strong and quick as usual.”

“We can try, can’t we?” Sam asked, still dancing. He had led the ominous, silent driver almost to the door and was now turning to bring him back again. “Can’t risk leading him outside. He might see somebody else moving.

“I’ve got the ampules,” whispered Jun.

“You think you could … ah, put them down somewhere in the direction I’m moving in. Like on the breaker guard of that small harvester?”

Jun moved quietly toward the harvester and sneaked the kit onto the guard.

“Open!” pleaded Sam. “For God’s sake, man, I’m not going to have time to open it.”

Jun took the kit down again and opened it, shaking half a dozen of the ampules into his hand and laying them in a pile on the flat guard.

“Now,” said Sam, still conversationally, still dancing, still keeping the man moving, the bar moving, the expressionless, silent man moving. “Now, there’s an emergency med alert over by the kit. Would you please go press that button and say, very clearly, that we need restraints and immobilizers.”

“Sam, you could at least take that cutter into your hand,” pleaded Close.

“I need my hands,” said Sam. “Why don’t you get over behind that harvester, Theor. So Hever won’t see you when we come around.”

Theor went.

The silent man attacked, rushing Sam, swinging the bar in a lethal arc. Sam moved to one side, put out a foot, tripped his attacker and danced away, toward the harvester. The ampules were within reach and he grabbed them, dropping all but two into his pocket. He stripped off the needle guards and palmed the two ampules. As Hever came up off the floor, Sam sped by, slapping him on the back with both hands.

He dropped the empty ampules and palmed two more.

“Come on, Hever,” he whispered. “Give old Sam the bar, like a nice guy, will you.”

Hever did not hear, did not care, did not change expression. The two ampules might as well have been water. If anything, he moved slightly faster. The bar swung again, missing Sam’s head by inches. Sam ducked under the swing and slapped Hever on the chest with both hands. Hever clutched at him. Sam dropped and rolled, coming to his feet with his hands already at his pocket, reaching for the last two ampules.

“Restraints and immobilizers,” Jun was saying, over and over again. “There’s been a fuel pod leak. We need restraints and immobilizers. Hurry, please.”

“Sam, for God’s sake,” pleaded Theor Close. “You could at least take off one of his legs. He can be sent to Phansure and grow a new one!”

“Not soon he can’t,” panted Sam. “He’d be out of commission for a long time, and I need him. Production’s already down.” He darted forward, then back, then forward. “Besides, it’s painful losing a limb. It’s painful growing new ones!”

The bar swung again. This time it caught Sam a glancing blow, a mere brush down one arm, and the arm fell at his side, the hand clenching, the ampule dropping.

“Damn,” said Sam. “Oh, damn.” He dropped to one knee and picked the ampule up again, trying to bend the arm. It moved reluctantly.

Hever moved in, the bar swinging ….

And then he fell. All at once. Forward, almost where Sam was kneeling. He fell, and squirmed briefly, and was still.

Three settlers appeared at the barn door with restraints and immobilizer guns.

“Is he dead?” asked one.

“He’s got four ampules of painkiller in him,” said Sam. “And he could still come out of that raging. Don’t take any chances with him.”

“What about you, Sam?”

Sam shrugged with a decidedly pained expression. “I think my arm is broken.”

Theor and Betrun went with Sam to the infirmary, and stayed with him while his arm was examined and put into an immobilizer, while he was given a shot of quick-heal, while he was given a painkiller of his own and told to go home and rest for the remainder of the day.

“Sorry,” said Sam to the Phansuris. “It’s not broken, but I don’t feel much like going back to work.”

“That’s all right,” murmured Theor Close. “Really, Sam, that’s all right.”

“You can go back and finish what we’d started,” Sam suggested. He stumbled a little, and they both caught him, one at either side and turned him in the direction of his brotherhouse.

“We could do that,” said Betrun Jun. “Tell me, Sam, was that man—Hever, was he a friend of yours?”

Sam looked at him blankly. “Not particularly. No.”

“Ah,” said Jun. “Well. I guess we could go do a little work. Then maybe we could … oh, go sightseeing until you’re feeling better.”

“I don’t know what you’d sightsee. It’s all pretty much like this,” Sam gestured at the fields around them with his good arm. “North of us is the escarpment,” he pointed again, toward the single upland that twisted like an angular snake around the girdle of the world, edged on both sides by precipitous and columned cliffs. “That’s where all the ruins of the Owlbrit villages are, if you’re interested in ruins. There are some lakes up there, some wildlife, a thing called the upland omnivore. It eats most everything, including rocks for its gizzard. You might see one of those.”

dangerous, I mean, I’d rather like someone like that to be in charge.”

“I’d already decided that.”

Theor patted his colleague on the shoulder. “Let’s go get that fuel pod put away before someone else gets hurt.”


Sam went into
his brotherhouse in no very pleasant mood. He was hurting, and now that the whole incident was over, he felt a little foolish getting injured that way. It wasn’t … well, it wasn’t heroic. He should have moved faster. Old Hever wasn’t that quick, not usually. The painkiller was making him feel drugged and remote, and on top of all that he was annoyed at the two Phansuris. He knew Hobbs Land wasn’t much, from the point of view of adventure—Theseus himself said that—but it wasn’t up to two damned smart-ass Phansuris to tell him so.

Sam dug a bottle of wine from the place he had hidden it and sat down in his own room to drink it and play with his books until he got sleepy or felt better, one. Playing with his books generally improved his mood.

He had taken up the craft of bookbinding a few years before he became Topman, and he kept it up, despite the many claims on his attention and the assumptions of others that he would not be able to continue with the hobby.

BOOK: Raising The Stones
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