Authors: Terry Carr
Tags: #Science Fiction
“I told you not to trust them!” Manning snapped. “Now if you can't even match wits with a senile horsehead....”
“You were the one who said they might be more adept at telepathy than we are,” Rynason said. “It was a chance we had to take.”
“There's a difference between taking chances and handing them information on a silver platter,” Manning said angrily. “Did you make any effort at all to keep him from finding out too much about us?”
Rynason shrugged. “I kept him pretty busy. All of the time I was running through Tebron's memories I could feel Horng screaming somewhere; he must have been too upset to do any probing in my mind.”
Manning was silent for a moment. “Let's hope so,” he said shortly. “If they find out how weak we are, how long it would take us to get reinforcements out here....”
“They're still just a dying race, remember,” Rynason said. “They're not the Outsiders. What makes you so sure that they're dangerous?”
, Lee! Think! They're in contact with the Outsiders; you said so yourself. And just remember this:
the Outsiders obviously considered it inevitable that there would be war between us
. Now put those two facts together and tell me the horses aren't dangerous!”
Rynason said slowly, “It isn't as simple as that. The order given to Tebron was to stop all scientific progress and stifle any military development, and he seems to have done just that. The idea was that if the Hirlaji were harmless when we found them there might be no need for fighting.”
“Perhaps. But we weren't supposed to know that they were in contact with the Outsiders, either—that was probably part of the purpose of the block in the race-memory. But we got through the block, and they know it, and presumably by now the Outsiders know it. That changes the picture, and I'd like to know just how much it changes it.”
“They're not in contact with the Outsiders any longer,” said Rynason.
“What makes you so sure of that?”
“Tebron broke the contact—that was in the orders too. The priesthood, which had been the connecting link with the Outsiders through the machine, was disbanded. When Tebron died he didn't appoint a successor; the machine hasn't been used since.”
Manning thought about that, still frowning. “Where is the machine?”
“I don't know. If it hasn't been kept in repair it might not even be usable any more, wherever it is.”
“I'll tell you something, Lee,” said Manning. “There's still too much that we don't know—and too much that the Hirlaji
know, now. Whether or not your horse-buddy was picking your brains, they know we're not as strong as they thought we were. It took us eight thousand years to get here instead of five thousand. Let's just hope they don't think about that too much.”
He stopped, and paced to the window again. “Look around you, Lee—out on the street, in the town. We've hardly put our feet down on this planet; we've got very little in the way of weapons with us and it will take weeks to get any more in here; there's practically no organization here yet. We could be wiped off this planet before we knew what hit us. We're sitting ducks.”
He came back to stand before Rynason. “And what about the Outsiders? They think of us strictly in terms of war, and they've been keeping themselves away from us all this time. That's obviously why they pulled out of this sector of space. Up until now we'd thought they were dead. But now we find they've been in contact with this planet ... all right, it was eight thousand years ago. But that's a lot more recent than the last evidences we've had of them, and they've obviously been watching us.
“Now, you've been in direct contact with the horses' minds; you've practically been one of them yourself, for awhile. All right, what's their reaction going to be when they realize that the Outsiders, their god, overestimated us? What will they do?”
Rynason thought about that. He tried to remember the minds he had touched during the linkage with Horng: Tebron, the ancient warrior-king, and the young Hirlaji staring at the buildings of one of the ancient cities, and the old, dying one who had decided not to plant again one year ... and Horng himself, tired and calm on the edge of the Flat, amid the ruins of a city. He remembered the others in that crumbling last home of an entire race ... slow, quiet, uncaring.
“I don't think they'll do anything. They wouldn't see any point to it.” He paused, remembering. “They lost all their purpose eight thousand years ago,” he said quietly.
Manning grunted. “Somehow I lack your touching faith in them.”
“And somehow,” Rynason said, “I lack your burning ambition to find an enemy, a handy menace to crush. You argue too hard, Manning.”
Manning raised an eyebrow. “I suppose I haven't even put a doubt in your mind about them? Not one doubt?”
Rynason turned away and didn't answer.
Manning sighed. “Maybe it's time I went out there myself and had a seance with the horses.” He set down his glass of brandy, which he had been turning in his hand as he spoke. “Lee, I want you to check back here with me in two hours ... by then I should have things straightened up and ready to go.”
He strode to the supply closet at one end of the room and took from it a belt and holster, from which he removed a recent-model regulation stunner. “This is as powerful a weapon as we have here so far, except for the heavy stuff. I hope we never have to use any of that—clearing it for use is a lot of red tape.” He looked up and saw the cold expression on Rynason's face. “Of course, I hope we don't have to use the stunners, either,” he said calmly.
Rynason turned without a word and went to the door. He stopped there for a moment and watched Manning checking over the weapon. He was thinking of the disintegrators he had seen on the steps of the Temple of Kor, and of the shell of a body tumbling out of the shadows.
“I'll see you at 600,” he said.
Rynason spent the next two hours in town, moving through the windy streets and thinking about what Manning had said. He was right, in a way: this was no more than a foothold for the Earthmen, a touchdown point. It wasn't even a community yet; buildings were still going up, prices varied widely not only between landings of spacers but also according to who did the selling. A lot of the men here were trying some mining out on the west Flat; their findings had so far been small but they brought the only real income the planet had so far yielded. The rest of the town was rising on its own weight: bars, rooming houses, laundries, and diners—establishments which thrived only because there were men here to patronize them. Several weeks before a few of the men had tried killing and eating the small animals who darted through the alleys, but too many of those men had died and the practice had been quickly abandoned. And they had noticed that when those animals foraged in the refuse heaps outside the town, they died too.
A few of the big corporations had sent out field men to look around, but it was too soon for any industry to have established itself here; all the planet offered so far was room to expand. Despite the wide expansion of the Earthmen through the stars, a planet where conditions were at all favorable for living was not to be overlooked; the continuing population explosion, despite tight regulations on the inner worlds, had kept up with the colonization of these worlds, and new room was constantly needed.
But the planetfall on Hirlaj was still new. A handful of Earthmen had come, but they had not yet brought their civilization with them. They stood precariously on the Flat, waiting for more settlers to come in and build with them. If there should be trouble before more men arrived....
At 600 Rynason walked out on the dirt-packed street to Manning's quarters. He met Marc Stoworth and Jules Lessingham coming out the door. They looked worried.
“What's wrong?” he said.
They didn't stop as they went by. “Ask the old man,” said Stoworth, going past with an uncharacteristically hurried step.
Rynason went on in through the open door. Manning was in the front room, amid several crates of stunner-units. He looked up quickly as Rynason entered and waved brusquely to him.
“Help me get this stuff unloaded, Lee.”
Rynason fished for his sheath-knife and started cutting open one of the crates. “Why are you unloading the arsenal?”
“Because we may need it. Couple of the boys were just out at the horse-pasture, and they say the friendly natives have disappeared.”
“Jules and Stoworth? I met them on the way in.”
“They were doing some follow-up work out there ... or at least they were going to. There's not a single one of them there, not a trace of them.”
Rynason frowned. “They were all there this morning.”
“They're not there now!” Manning snapped. “I don't like it, not after what you've told me. We're going to look for them.”
“Yes. Right now Mara is out at the field clearing several of the fliers to use in scouting for them.”
Rynason stacked the boxes of weapons and power-packs on the floor where Manning indicated. There were about forty of them—blunt-barrelled guns with thick casing around the powerpacks, weighing about ten pounds each. They looked as statically blunt as anvils, but they could stun any animal at two hundred yards; within a two-foot range, they could shake a rock wall down.
“How many men are we taking with us?” Rynason asked, eying the stacks on the floor.
Manning looked up at him briefly. “As many as we can get. I'm calling a militia; Stoworth and Lessingham went into town to round up some men.”
So he was going ahead with the power-grab; Malhomme had been right. No danger had been proven yet, but that wouldn't stop Manning—nor the drifters he'd been buying in the town. Killing was an everyday thing to them.
“How many of the Hirlaji do you think we'll have to kill to make it look important to the Council?” Rynason asked after a moment, his voice deliberately inflectionless.
Manning looked up at him with a calculating eye. Rynason met his gaze directly, daring the man to take offense. He didn't.
“All right, it's a break for me,” Manning shrugged. “What did you expect? There's precious little opportunity on this desert rock for leadership in any sense that you might approve of.” He paused. “I don't know if it will be necessary to kill any of them. Take it easy and we'll see.”
Rynason's eyes were cold. “All right, we'll see. But just remember, I'll be watching just as closely as you. If you start any violence that isn't necessary....”
“What will you do, Lee?” said Manning. “Report me to the Council? They'll listen to me before they'd pay attention to complaints from a nobody who's been drifting around the outworlds for most of his life. That's all you are, you know, Lee—a drifter, a bum, like the rest of them. That's what everybody out here on the Edge is ... unless he does something about it.
“I hold the reins right now. If I decide to do something that you don't like, you won't be able to stop me ... neither you, nor your female friend.”
“So Mara's against you too?” Rynason said.
“She made a few remarks earlier,” Manning said calmly. “She may regret it soon enough.”
Rynason looked at the man through narrowed eyes for a moment, then strapped on a gunbelt and loaded one of the stunners. He snapped it into the holster carefully, wondering just what Manning had meant by his last remark. Was it a threat in any real sense, or was Manning just letting off steam? Well, they'd see about that too ... and Rynason would be watching.
Within half an hour close to sixty men had collected outside Manning's door. They were dirty and unshaven; some of them were working in the town, a few were miners, but most of them were drifters who had followed the advance of the star frontier, who drank and brawled in the streets of the town, sleeping by day and raising hell at night. They stole when they could, killed when they wanted.
The drifters were men who had been all over the worlds of the Edge, who had spent years watching the new planets opened for colonization and exploitation, but had never got their own piece. They knew the feel of these planetfall towns on the Edge, and could talk for hours about the worlds they had seen. But they were city men, all of them; they had seen the untamed worlds, but only from the streets. They hadn't taken part in the exploring or the building, only in the initial touchdowns. When the building was done, they signed on to the spacers again and drifted to the next world, farther out.
Rynason looked at their faces from where he stood in the doorway, listening to Manning talking to them. They were hard men, mean and sometimes vicious. Nameless faces, all of them, having no place in the more developed areas of the Terran civilization. And maybe that was their own fault. But Rynason knew that they were running, not to anything, but from the civilization itself. Running ... because when an area was settled and started to become respectable, they began to see what they did not have. The temporary quarters would come down, to be replaced by permanent buildings that were meant to be lived in, not just as places for sleeping. Closets, and shelters for landcars; quadsense receivers and food integrators. They didn't want to see that ... because they hated it, or because they wanted it? It didn't matter, Rynason decided. They ran, and now they were here on the Edge with all their anger and frustration, and Manning was ready to give them a way to let it out.
At the side of the mob he saw a familiar grey shock of hair—Rene Malhomme. Was he with them, then? Rynason craned his neck for a better view, and for a moment the crowd parted enough to let him see Malhomme's face. He was looking directly toward Rynason, holding a dully gleaming knife flat against his thick chest ... and his lips were drawn back into the crooked, sardonic smile which Rynason had seen many times. No, Malhomme at least was not part of this mob.
“We already know which direction they went,” Manning was saying. “Lessingham will be in charge of the main body, and you'll follow him. If he gives you an order,
. This is a serious business; we won't have room for bickering.
“Some of us will be scouting with the flyers. Well be in radio contact with you. When we find out where they are we'll reconnoiter and make our plans from there.”