Authors: Jack Vance
Tags: #Science Fiction
“Don’t forget the Maevites!” cried Paddy enthusiastically. “Ah, them beautiful women!”
“—then there are the Loristanese, the Creepers, the Green-bags—and all the rest of the inbred overmen. It’s truly wonderful how the planetary influence acts.”
Paddy snorted. “Earth populates them and a hundred years later they come returning like curses to spite their grandsires.”
Fay laughed. “We shouldn’t be too arrogant, Paddy. It was the same differentiation and specialization that split the original simian stock into gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, a dozen types of submen—finally the true Cro-Magnon.
“The situation has backfired now, Paddy. Today we’re the root-stock, and all these splits and changes brought about by the differences in light, food, atmosphere, gravity—they
produce a race as much better than men as men were superior to the proto-simians.”
Paddy snorted, “That I’ll believe when—”
“Consider,” said Fay seriously. “The Shauls can do complex mathematical operations in their heads. In a contest for survival that depended on mathematical ability they’d win. The Loristanese are physically keen. They can telepathize to some extent, and they’re subtle in person-to-person dealings. They’re the merchants of the universe and wonders at group enterprise.
“These Eagles here—their curiosity is insatiable and they’re so naturally persistent that there’s no word for the quality in their language. Any more than the Earthers have a word for the will to live.
“Men will shrug off a problem or a task but the Eagles will work till they’ve accomplished what they’ve started. The Asmasians have that pineal pleasure-lobe. It doesn’t give them much survival value but how they enjoy their lives! Sometimes I wish I were an Asmasian.”
Paddy said contemptuously, “I’ve heard all of that in grade school. The Kotons are the ruthless chess-players, the daring ones, the soldiers. I think of them as the devils that figured out the most horrible tortures. Then there’s the Canopes, that hive together like bees. What of it? None of them have a little of everything like the Earthers.”
Fay said seriously, “That’s by our standards. We’re taking ourselves as the base of comparison. By the standards of these other races we’re at one extreme or another.”
Paddy grumbled, “Better that old Sam Langtry had smothered in his cradle. Look at the mess and jumble, men of all varieties. It was so simple before.”
Fay tilted her head back, laughed. “Don’t be silly, Paddy. Human history has always been a series—a cycle of differentiation, then the mingling of the surviving stock back to uniformity. Bight now we’re going through the cycle of differentiation.”
“And may the best man win,” said Paddy dourly.
“So far,” said Fay, “we’re not winning.”
Paddy shoved out his head, crooked his elbows. “Well, they went and tied up the space-drive on us. That’s like blindfolding a man before he gets in a free-for-all. Give us Earthers an even crack at it—we’d have ’em backed to the boards, crying and pleading for mercy. What a joke! It was an Earther that discovered the gadget and gave them their lives.”
“Accident,” said Fay, kicking at a pebble. “Langtry was only trying to accelerate mesons in a tungsten cylinder.”
“That’s the man who’s responsible for all this trouble!” cried Paddy. “Langtry! If I had the spalpeen here I’d give him a piece of my mind.”
“I would too,” said Fay. “But mostly for giving the secret to his five sons instead of the Earth Parliament.”
“Well—the five sons, then. Greedy devils, they’re the ones I’d rail at. What did they need, each with a planet to himself?”
Fay made a careless gesture. “Love of power. The empire-building instinct. Or bad blood. Call it anything you like. They left Earth for the stars and settled along the Langtry line, each to a world, and set themselves up in the business of selling space-drives to the home-world. Their descendants get the secret, no one else. I suppose nobody would be more surprised then old Sam Langtry at the way things have turned out.”
“If I had him here, you know what I’d be doing with him?”
“Yes—you told me. You’d be giving him a piece of your mind.”
“Ah, you’re mocking me now. But no, I’d send him back to guard our boat. And we’d beat his bones raw if divil an Eagle laid a finger on the polish.”
Fay looked up the ridge ahead. “You’d better be saving your breath for the climbing.”
The road bent up toward North Peak in a gradually steepening rise. Below and to their right spread the sea of dull gas, out as far as the eye could reach. Back along the shore the whirling fetishes of a thousand little villages flashed in the yellow light of Alpheratz. To the left, around the hook of the cape, was Sugksu, a city built on the same general plan as the villages. There was a central obelisk, surrounding circles of buildings.
Fay clutched Paddy’s arm. “Look! See there—maybe you’re right after all…”
It was a spindly trestle of steel, crowned with a whirling fetish, on the very lips of the cliff.
“Those things are sacred to something or somebody. We’ll have to look for a Sacred Sign.”
Standing around the edge of the cliff was a group of Eagles, males with scarlet or orange-dyed crests, females with greens and blues, all wearing the same black-brown sheath of fabric that covered their bony bodies from breast to knee, the same flat shoes.
“Tourists,” whispered Fay. “We’ll have to wait till they leave.”
“Naturally,” said Paddy.
For twenty minutes they waited, looking out over the vast spread of view, eyeing the Eagles sidelong.
A voice spoke at their elbow. An Eagle had stepped up beside them unnoticed. Paddy’s Adam’s apple twitched. The Eagle wore the official medallion of the Pherasic government.
“Tourists?” asked the Eagle.
“We’re loving every minute of it,” said Fay enthusiastically. “The view is marvelous! The city is beautiful…”
The Eagle nodded. “It is indeed. This is one of our finest spectacles. Even the Revered Son of Langtry himself ascends from time to time to take the north airs.”
Fay glanced at Paddy significantly. Paddy raised one eyebrow. Evidently the death of the five Sons had not been announced to the universe at large. The Eagle was saying, “And when you get down to Sugksu be sure to take the deep-sea tour and see the strange sights under the gas. Have you been on the planet long?”
“Not too long. But we’ve lost track of time,” she added coyly. “You see, we’re on our honeymoon. But we couldn’t resist coming to see Alpheratz A.”
The Eagle nodded sagely. “Wise—very wise. We have a world from which much may be learned.” And he stalked on.
Paddy spat. “Damned meddlers. It’s hard to know when their curiosity is official and when it’s just curiosity.”
“Sh,” said Fay. “They’re leaving.”
Three minutes later the top of the peak was bare to the sweep of the wind.
“Now,” said Fay. “A Sacred Sign—where is it? And how do we know it’s sacred when we see it?”
Paddy vaulted up on the base of the trestle, glanced appraisingly up at the spinning vanes of orange and blue and red. “That whirlymagig must be it.”
He scrambled up like a monkey until he came under the sweeping blades. He reached up, wrenched down the whole tangle of fiber, metal and feathers.
Fay yelled, “You fool! They can see that from below!”
Paddy said, “I had to if I wanted to see what was under.”
“Nothing,” Paddy said uncomfortably.
“Get down then for heavens sake. The riot squad will be here in five minutes.”
They walked briskly down the slope. Hardly had they gone a hundred yards when Fay put out her hand. “Listen!”
A fierce anxious sound, still faint—
. Far below a pair of motorcycles turned into the road, started up the grade. The sound grew louder, keening, whining. It stopped short. A moment later two Eagles, each with official medallion on his uniform, roared to a halt beside them.
One alighted. “Who caused the destruction? He who is guilty will receive the severest of treatments.”
Fay said in a worried voice, “We’re not guilty. It was a party of Kotons and they went down the other way, I think.”
“There is no other way.”
“Ah, but they were wearing sky-skates,” said Paddy hopefully.
“They were drunk, the scoundrels,” said Fay.
The Eagle officials inspected them skeptically. Paddy sighed, cracked his knuckles behind his back. He speculated about the Pherasic jails. Were they more comfortable, he wondered, than the old brick fort at Akhabats?
The chief of the Eagles said to the subordinate, “I’ll continue to the top. You wait here. We will presume them guilty until I find otherwise.”
He twisted power on his motorcycle, continued up the hill.
“We’re in the soup, Paddy,” said Fay in Earth-talk. “I’ll distract his attention. We want that motor-bike.”
Paddy stared at her, aghast. “It’s a long chance.”
“Of course it is,” she snapped. “It’s our
change. We’ve got to get away. If they arrest us, march us in, check our psychographs…”
Paddy grimaced. “Very well.”
Fay stepped around in front of the wheel. The Eagle blew his cheeks out, pulled back his narrow head. “Clout him, Paddy,” yelled Fay.
The Eagle turned his head just in time to meet Paddy’s fist. In a great thrash of rickety arms and legs the Eagle sprawled over backwards into the road.
“Now we’ve really done it,” said Paddy ruefully. “It’s long years picking oakum for this.”
“Shut up—jump on that bike. Let’s get moving,” panted Fay.
“I don’t know how to run the thing,” Paddy grumbled. “Run it! We’ll coast! Let’s go!”
Paddy threw his leg over the narrow seat and Fay jumped on behind. He turned it downhill, threw levers till he found the brake. With a lurch the motorcycle started.
“Wheel” yelled Fay in Paddy’s ear. “This is like the roller coaster at Santa Cruz.”
Paddy stared big-eyed down the hill and the wind whipped water from his eyes.
“I don’t know how to stop her!” yelled Paddy. “I can’t remember where the brake is!” The rush of wind tore the words from his lips. He pulled frantically at unfamiliar knobs, levers, handles and at last chanced on a pedal that seemed to have some effect.
“Watch that side-road,” screamed Fay in his ear. “It goes down to the city!”
Paddy leaned and the motorcycle screeched around a party of pedestrians, who shouted raucous insults at their backs. And now to Paddy’s horror the brake pedal had lost its effect.
“Slow down, Paddy,” cried Fay. “For heaven’s sake; you reckless fool—”
“I wish I could,” gritted Paddy. “It’s my dearest wish.”
“Throw in the drive!” She leaned past him, pointed. There—try that knob!”
Paddy pulled the lever a notch toward him. There was a loud whine and the motorcycle slowed so rapidly as almost to toss them off. It wobbled to a halt. Paddy put out his leg.
“Get off,” hissed Fay. There’s that little path, and right over that ridge of rock is our boat.”
From far above them a nerve-tingling sound, urgent and shrill.
“Here comes the other,” said Paddy. “Swooping like a panther.”
“Run,” said Fay. “Over the ridge. We’ve got to get to our ship and fast.”
Too late,” said Paddy. “He’d shoot us while we run. Come here with me. Watch this now.”
He pulled her off the road, down behind a rock.
The sound of the motor increased in volume but dropped in pitch as the officer approached slowly, cautiously. He trundled past the boulder.
“Boo!” yelled Paddy, jumping out. The Eagle squawked. Paddy heaved at the handle bars, the motorcycle left the path, bounded, bumped down a steep ravine. The last they saw was the Eagle frantically trying to steer the machine around outcrops and boulders, his crest tense, elbows wide, legs spraddled out into the air.
There was a crash, then silence.
Paddy sighed. Fay said, “You’re not so smart. You wouldn’t believe me when I said the point was not on the cliff but at the base.”
Paddy was disposed to argue. “How could it be? There was the Sacred Sign just as the sheet said.”
“Nonsense,” said Fay. “You’ll see.”
Their boat had not been touched. They crawled in, sealed the port, Fay climbed into the pilot’s seat. “You keep watch.”
She lifted the boat, slid it off the table, let it sink under the gas, which showed luminous yellow through the observation window.
The color is from suspended dust,” said Fay off-handedly. The gas is dense and the dust seeks the level of its own specific gravity and there it floats forever. A little deeper the gas will be clear—or so I’ve been told.”
“What’s the composition of the gas?” asked Paddy. “Or is it known?”
“It’s neon kryptonite.”
“That’s a strange pairing,” remarked Paddy.
“It’s a strange gas,” replied Fay tartly.
Now she let the boat fall. The sun-drenched dust disappeared and they found themselves looking out at a marvelous new landscape. It was like nothing else either had seen before, like nothing imagined.
The yellow light of Alpheratz was toned to an old gold suffusion, a tawny light that changed the landscape below to an unreal hazy fairyland. Underneath them was a great valley with hills and dales fading off into golden murk. To the left loomed the great cliff of Kolkhorit Island, rising up and out of sight above. Fay followed the cliff till it jutted out, fell back.
“There’s North Cape,” she said. “And there on the little plateau—that’s exactly the right spot.”
Paddy said in a subdued voice, “Yes, by all that’s holy, you seem to be right for once.”
“Look,” said Fay. “See that thing like a sundial? That’s what we want.”
Paddy said dubiously, “How’re we to get it?”
She said angrily, “In your space-suit, of course! And hurry! They’ll be after us any minute.”
Paddy gloomily let himself out through the space-lock, stalked across the plateau. Bathed in the eerie golden light he advanced on the pedestal. On its face was inlaid a red and gold pentagram.
He tried to lift—nothing happened. He pushed, felt a quiver, a wrench. He put his shoulder down, heaved. The pedestal fell over. In a little lead-lined cavity was a brass cylinder.
Badau lay below, an opulent blue-green planet with a thick blanket of atmosphere.
Paddy pinched Fay’s calves, felt her thighs. She jerked, turned to him a startled glance.
“Now, now—I was merely testing to see if you might be fit to walk on the planet,” explained Paddy. “You’ll be monstrous heavy, you know.”
Fay laughed ruefully. “I thought for a moment you were making love Skibbereen-style.”
Paddy screwed up his features. “You’re not my type. It’s the cow-girls of Maeve for me with all their upholstery. Now—as I’ve just discovered—you’ve hardly enough flesh to keep the air away from your bones. You’re so pale and peaked. No, for some you might do but not for Paddy Blackthorn.”
But he was smiling and she laughed back and Paddy said, “In truth, sometimes when you’ve got that devil’s gleam in your eye and you’re showing your teeth in a grin, you’re almost pretty in a puckish sort of way.”
“Thank you very much. Enough of the blarney. Where are we going?”
“It’s a place called the Kamborogian Arrowhead.”
“And where’s that, I wonder?”
Paddy studied the charts. “There’s no mention of it here. It sounds like an inn or hotel or something of the sort. Once we land we’ll be able to find out for sure. And you’ll be frightful tired, for the gravity’s strong as a bull here.”
“I’m not worried about the gravity,” said Fay. “I’m worried whether or not the Badou police have received our description yet.”
Paddy pursed his lips. “Badau’s a popular place with Earth tourists, gravity or none. Though why they come surpasses my understanding, since it’s nothing but insults and slights and arrogance they get from the Hunks, the conceited omadhauns.”
“It’s a very beautiful planet,” mused Fay. “So gentle and green-looking with those million little lakes and rolling valleys.
“There’s no mountains,” said Paddy, “because the water tears them down as fast as they’re pushed up.
“What do you call that?” Fay pointed to a tremendous palisade flung across the countryside.
“Ah, that’s a big segment of land being pulled
,” said Paddy. “With so much gravity there’s these great movements of the crust and these great cliffs. The Badaus build dams across all the waterfalls and make use of the power. Then the water doesn’t tear a great gully into the land.”
“Land, land, land,” said Fay. “That first Son of Langtry was a glutton for land.”
“And the Langtry clan still owns all Badau. It’s a feudalism or so it says in the book. Langtrys own the big estates, rent out to lesser noblemen, who rent out again, and sometimes there’s another subletting and another until it’s the little farmer that’s supporting them all.
“And marvelous crops they grow here, Fay. The finest fruits and vegetables—all Earth imports, since the original growth was rank poison. And the plants have changed as much as the men when they came to be Badaus.”
Paddy looked at Fay earnestly. “This is Mary’s own truth now I’m telling you and as I’m Patrick Delorcy Blackthorn I’ve been here before and I know the country. You won’t believe it when you see oranges growing on vines and them as big as pumpkins.
“And they grow a wheat that comes in heads the size of my foot, low to the ground, with a pair of leaves like lilypads. They’ve got grapes now with a brittle end that you knock off and a gallon of wine pours out. They’re marvelous good botanists, these Badaus.”
Fay was studying the chart. “There’s Slettevold—that’s the largest city. A clearing-house for export and import, it says. We could land there and maybe have our boat vapor-plated. A nice dull green instead of this gunmetal. I don’t think we’d be conspicuous.”
Paddy squinted down at the wide bright face of Badau. “There’s such a lather of little boats flipping in and out of here that an Earther would hardly believe it, not knowing the secrets of Langtry’s sons. One little space-boat the more or the less will hardly be looked at.”
“They might think it strange for Earthers to own a space-boat. Not many do. Mostly they come by the passenger packets.”
Paddy rubbed his chin. “If we land at Outer Slett Field about dusk—there’s no control or examination there—we should be able to walk into Slettevold without question.”
“It’s about dusk now at Slettevold,” said Fay. “There’s the field so let’s set down before they send a warhead up after us.”