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Authors: Jack Vance

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The Potter of Firsk and Other Stories (45 page)

BOOK: The Potter of Firsk and Other Stories
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Smith, standing at the chart-room port, glimpsed a series of large yellow cubical structures. From a liquid gleam at their centers it seemed as if they might be tanks.

A low ridge cut off the view; the ship grounded. Almost immediately he heard the exit port jar open, and Captain Plum, in a heavy space-suit, crossed the foreground, walking out of his vision.

Knees shaking under unaccustomed gravity, Smith joined Fetch on the bridge. Fetch threw him a swift side-look and turned away.

Smith asked, “What’s Plum gone out for?”

“See how the land lies. If it’s not safe we’ll take off.”

Smith peered up into the smoky yellow sky. “What’s the atmosphere?”

“Hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, SO
3
, oxygen, halogen acids, inert odds and ends.”

“My word,” murmured Smith. “Rather unpleasant stuff to breathe.”

Jack Fetch nodded. “Last trip the atmosphere ate holes in our space-suits; that’s why we left so soon. This time we’ve got specials.”

“What were those square tanks?”

“The fuzz-balls live in them.”

Plum’s lumbering form came into view over the brow of the hill.

“Look,” said Jack Fetch, “there’s a fuzz-ball. Plum doesn’t see him yet.”

Following Fetch’s finger, Smith saw a mustard-colored creature on the hillside. It was four feet high, two feet thick—a hybrid of barrel cactus and sea urchin, with flexible feelers projecting from all sides, ceaselessly squirming, reaching, feeling. A glint of green came from the tip of its body.

“Blind, deaf, dumb.” Fetch grinned like a fox. “And there goes Plum. Looks like he wants to start work at once. Never saw a man so keen after the loot.”

Plum had paused in his stride; now he turned, moved cautiously toward the yellow-brown creature.

Smith leaned forward like a man at a drama. “Blind, deaf, dumb,” he heard Fetch say again. Plum sprang forward, the blade of a knife flashed in the murky air. “Like taking candy from a baby.” Plum held up the glint of green in a gesture of triumph, and the fuzz-ball was a toppled mass of brittle matter.

“Murderous brute!” said Smith under his breath. He felt Fetch’s sardonic scrutiny and froze into himself.

Plum stood in the locker. Smith heard the hiss of the rinses: first a sodium carbonate solution, then water. The inner door opened; Plum stamped up to the bridge.

“Couldn’t be better,” he announced, with vast gusto. “Six big castles over the hill. We’ll clean up fast and get out.”

Smith muttered under his breath; Plum turned, looked him over. Fetch said maliciously, “Smith isn’t convinced we’re doing the right thing.”

“Eh?” Plum stared at Smith blankly. “More of your damn belly-aching?”

“Murder is murder,” muttered Smith.

Plum scrutinized him with eyes like black beads. “I’m planning another this minute.”

Smith raised his voice recklessly. “You’ll have all of us killed.”

Plum twitched, took a step forward. “You damn croaker—”

“Just a minute, Cap,” said Jack Fetch. “Let’s hear what he’s talking about.”

“Put yourself in the place of these creatures,” said Smith rapidly. “They can’t see or hear; they have no idea what’s destroying them. Picture a similar situation on Earth—something invisible killing men and women.” He paused, then asked vehemently, “Would we sit back and do nothing about it? Wouldn’t we strain every ounce of brain-power toward destroying the murderers?”

Plum’s face was wooden. He twirled his nose-mustache.

“You don’t know the mental capacity of these creatures,” Smith continued. “It might be high. Because you can kill them so easily means nothing. If an invisible monster dropped down on Earth, we’d be as helpless as these things here seem to be. But for just a short time. Then we’d start devising traps. And pretty soon we’d catch one or two of our visitors and deal pretty roughly with them.”

Plum laughed rudely. “You’ve talked yourself into a job, young fellow. Get into a suit.”

Smith stood stiffly. “What for?”

“Never mind what for!” Plum snatched a weapon from his belt. “Get into that suit, or you’ve had the last breath of your life!”

Smith went slowly to the locker.

Plum said, “Maybe you’re right, maybe you’re wrong. If you’re wrong—well, we’ll figure out something else to do with you. If you’re right—then, by Heaven!” and he cackled a throaty laugh “—you’ll be doing us a good turn.”

“Oh,” said Smith. “I’m to be the stalking horse.”

“You’re the decoy. You’re the lad that moves in front.”

Smith went to the locker and donned a space-suit. On sudden thought he felt at the belt where hung a holster for a gun. It was empty.

Fetch was slipping into his own suit, lithe as an eel. Bones the steward and the men from the engine room were likewise dressing themselves. The quartermaster took up his perch at the gangway.

Plum motioned. “Outside.”

Smith went to the double chamber with Fetch. A moment later they stood on the surface of Rho—a brown-yellow hardpan, sprinkled here and there with bits of black gravel and little yellow chips, like cheese parings. Condensations in the atmosphere swirled like dust devils.

This was Smith’s first contact with alien soil. For a moment he stood looking around the horizon; the strangeness of the world weighing upon him almost as a force. Yellow, yellow, yellow—all tones, from cream to oil-black. Right, left, up, down—no other color occurred in his range of vision except the varicolored space-suits.

Plum’s voice rasped through the earphones. “Up the hill—spread out. Every one of the fuzz-balls you see, carve him. We can’t have any spreading of the news.”

Spreading the news? thought Smith. How could these creatures, blind and deaf as they were, communicate? Although it was inconceivable, this must be a civilization—no matter how crude—without communication. He twisted the dial of the space-suit radio. Silence up the band. Up—higher, higher, almost to the limit of the set’s sensitivity. Then a harsh crackle, a sputtering of a million dots and dashes.

He listened an instant, turned the knob further. The sputtering fluctuated, then cut off abruptly. Smith twisted the dial back to Captain Plum and just in time.

“—Bones next, and where’s that supercargo? Smith, you come along the outside right; if you want to wander off and lose yourself, that’s your own damned lookout.”

Smith thought dourly, it might be just as well; there was nothing in his future but the ultimate dose of aratin, or a bullet.

The line of men moved forward, up the slope. Smith looked tentatively back toward the ship. If it were deserted, if he could get inside, lock the port, he would have Plum at his mercy. But the outer door was clamped, and through the bull’s-eye he caught the white flash of the quartermaster’s face.

Smith sighed and trudged up the slope. He heard Plum’s harsh cry of satisfaction. “Two by God—two at once. Keep your eyes open, men. The sooner we make up a cargo and get off, the better.”

Smith twisted the dial up to the band he had discovered. Clicking sounded loud and sharp, so loud that he came to a surprised halt.

He now stood among a tumble of sharp brown boulders a hundred feet from Bones and slightly to the rear; it was unlikely, he thought, that any of the others were watching him. He scanned the ground in his immediate vicinity. There was nothing. He climbed the slope; the noise grew louder. He veered left toward Bones. The noise lessened. He turned off to the right.

Behind a jagged black and yellow pinnacle he found the fuzz-ball—an aimless thing, groping a slow way up the hillside. In the very apex of its torso the green jewel winked and blinked like an electronic eye.

Smith bent close, fascinated. He noted that as the spangle of light formed in the green jewel, so did the radio sputter and sound. Each spangle was different from the one previous; Smith suspected that if the radio wave-pattern were made visible on an oscilloscope, there would be concordance with the pattern of the spangle.

The fuzz-ball seemed harmless enough; Smith decided to experiment. With his transceiver tuned to the fuzz-ball’s frequency, he clicked his tongue into the microphone. “Ch’k, ch’k, ch’k.”

The fuzz-ball made a series of odd sidewise jerks and came to a halt, as if puzzled. The feelers waved querulously. Smith said, “Take it easy, fellow.” The fuzz-ball teetered dangerously to the side; the feelers performed a disorganized throbbing. From the speaker came an angry clicking. The fuzz-ball stood stock-still. Smith watched in amazement.

He said again, “Take it easy, fellow.”

The fuzz-ball behaved exactly as before, tottering awkwardly to the side. Smith watched narrowly. The feelers seemingly had clenched in the precise pattern as before.

Once more he said, “Take it easy, fellow,” in identical tones.

Once more the fuzz-ball reacted, in identical fashion.

Smith counted. “One, two, three, four, five.”

The fuzz-ball twisted to the left, writhed certain of its feelers.

Smith counted again. “One, two, three, four, five.”

The fuzz-ball twisted to the left, writhed the same feelers in the same way.

“This is odd,” muttered Smith to himself. “The thing seems geared to radio stimuli, as if—”

He stared at the ground. A heavy black shadow showed, motionless.

He whirled. Silhouetted on the yellow sky was Captain Plum.

Plum’s face was set in pale rage. He was speaking. Smith hurriedly turned the dial back to intercommunication.

“—lucky I came over to look. You was talking to the thing, you was ratting on us. Well, it’s the last time.” His hand went to his belt, came up clamped around his gun.

Smith feverishly dodged behind the black and yellow pinnacle. A bolt left a flickering, smoky trail in the atmosphere.

No use playing peek-a-boo, thought Smith desperately. He was a goner anyway. He clambered up the pinnacle in a frenzy, over a bit of a saddle, looked down at the back of Captain Plum’s neck, advancing around the rock.

Bones’ voice rang in his ear. “Look out, Cap’n; he’s over your head.”

Plum looked up. Smith jumped into his face.

Plum stumbled, sprawled. Smith fell staggering to the ground, jerked himself to his feet. Plum was hauling himself erect. Smith ground his foot on Plum’s wrist. The fingers opened, the gun lay loose. Smith grabbed. In his ear sounded voices, anxious questions. “You okay, Cap?”

Smith aimed the gun at Plum. Plum dodged and fell. Smith caught movement from the corner of his eye—Jack Fetch. Rapidly he backed into the clutter of rock. Captain Plum lay quiet. Jack Fetch showed himself cautiously. Smith raised his arm. Fetch saw the motion, and as Smith pulled the trigger he fell to the ground. The nose of the gun sputtered, melted to a blob of metal. The crystal had broken when Plum fell.

Fetch came crouching, sidling forward, and Smith retreated behind the rocks.

Plum roared, “Don’t shoot him; let him be. Shooting’s too fast for the skunk. He likes the place so much, he can make his home here, for a few hours anyway.” Irrationally he raised his voice. “Smith, you hear me?”

“Yes, I hear you.”

“You show your face, we’ll shoot it off; we’ll be watching for you. You’re on your own now, snooper. You take it from here.”

V

 

From a crevice between crags of black sulfur, Smith watched the men march up the hill. He glanced at the oxygen indicator. Six hours.

Cautiously he rose to his feet, looked back toward the
Dog
. The port was still locked and impregnable.

He watched the crew march up over the rise, looming on the sky. He had one chance: ambush one of them, get his gun, kill the others. One chance—dangerous, desperate, bloody.

He scrambled swiftly up the slope and peered over the ridge. There were no men in his immediate range of vision. But there were the castles—six great blocks sixty feet high, built of a dull tufa-like substance.

Smith circled to the right, around the ridge. He climbed a mound of granular stuff, like lemon-yellow sugar, and slid down the other side.

He caught a glimpse of Bones a quarter of a mile distant. No good—Bones was out in the open, and in any event Bones carried no gun. It had to be Plum, Jack Fetch, or one of the engine-room gang.

He dialed his radio up the band. A loud crackling told him he was near a fuzz-ball. There it was, a hundred feet distant. Smith watched it, fascinated. If it responded to the random noise he made, was he to assume that it had no mind of its own? If so, who or what guided it? What was its purpose?

Smith cautiously approached the creature. It moved over the ground, and now Smith saw that from its underside hung a tube which swept over the ground. When it passed over one of the yellow flakes that sprinkled the ground, it jerked, and the flake was gone.

Smith reached for one of the flakes. It came free of the ground with a trace of resistance; Smith saw a trailing mesh of dependent fibrils—a small sulfurous plant. The fuzz-balls walked abroad, gathering little bits of Rho Ophiuchus vegetables. For their own consumption?

Smith surveyed the valley. From where he stood, an easy way led down the hill, across a saddle, up a kind of rough ramp to the lip of the nearest castle, which was perhaps two hundred yards distant. Smith descended slowly into the saddle; and here the crew of the
Dog
came into view.

BOOK: The Potter of Firsk and Other Stories
3.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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