It was nearly winter when the ship arrived. Pete Farnam never knew if the timing had been planned that way or not. It might have been coincidence that it came just when the colony was predicting its first real bumper crop of all time. When it was all over, Pete and Mario and the rest tried to figure it out, but none of them ever knew for sure just what had happened back on Earth, or when it had actually happened. There was too little information to go on, and practically none that they could trust. All Pete Farnam really knew, that day, was that this was the wrong year for a ship from Earth to land on Baron IV.
Pete was out on the plantation when it landed. As usual, his sprayer had gotten clogged; tarring should have been started earlier, before it got so cold that the stuff clung to the nozzle and hardened before the spray could settle into the dusty soil. The summer past had been the colony’s finest in the fourteen years he’d been there, a warm, still summer with plenty of rain to keep the dirt down and let the taaro get well rooted and grow up tall and gray against the purple sky. But now the taaro was harvested. It was waiting, compressed and crated, ready for shipment, and the heavy black clouds were scudding nervously across the sky, faster with every passing day. Two days ago Pete had asked Mario to see about firing up the little furnaces the Dusties had built to help them fight the winter. All that remained now was tarring the fields, and then buckling down beneath the wind shields before the first winter storms struck.
Pete was trying to get the nozzle of the tar sprayer cleaned out when Mario’s jeep came roaring down the rutted road from the village in a cloud of dust. In the back seat a couple of Dusties were bouncing up and down like happy five-year-olds. The brakes squealed and Mario bellowed at him from the road. “Pete! The ship’s in! Better get hopping!”
Pete nodded and started to close up the sprayer. One of the Dusties tumbled out of the jeep and scampered across the field to give him a hand. It was an inexpert hand to say the least, but the Dusties seemed so proud of the little they were able to learn about mechanized farming that nobody had the heart to shoo them away. Pete watched the fuzzy brown creature get its paws thoroughly gummed up with tar before he pulled him loose and sent him back to the jeep with a whack on the backside. He finished the job himself, grabbed his coat from the back of the sprayer, and pulled himself into the front seat of the jeep.
Mario started the little car back down the road. The young colonist’s face was coated with dust, emphasizing the lines of worry around his eyes. “I don’t like it, Pete. There isn’t any ship due this year.”
“When did it land?”
“About twenty minutes ago. Won’t be cool for a while yet.”
Pete laughed. “Maybe Old Schooner is just getting lonesome to swap tall stories with us. Maybe he’s even bringing us a locker of T-bones. Who knows?”
“Maybe,” said Mario without conviction.
Pete looked at him, and shrugged. “Why complain if they’re early? Maybe they’ve found some new way to keep our fields from blowing away on us every winter.” He stared across at the heavy windbreaks between the fields--long, ragged structures built in hope of outwitting the vicious winds that howled across the land during the long winter. Pete picked bits of tar from his beard, and wiped the dirt from his forehead with the back of his hand. “This tarring is mean,” he said wearily. “Glad to take a break.”
“Maybe Cap Schooner will know something about the rumors we’ve been hearing,” Mario said gloomily.
Pete looked at him sharply. “About Earth?”
Mario nodded. “Schooner’s a pretty good guy, I guess. I mean, he’d tell us if anything was really wrong back home, wouldn’t he?”
Pete nodded, and snapped his fingers. One of the Dusties hopped over into his lap and began gawking happily at the broad fields as the jeep jogged along. Pete stroked the creature’s soft brown fur with his tar-caked fingers. “Maybe someday these little guys will show us where they go for the winter,” he said. “They must have it down to a science.”
Somehow the idea was funny, and both men roared. If the Dusties had anything down to a science, nobody knew what. Mario grinned and tweaked the creature’s tail. “They sure do beat the winter, though,” he said.
“So do we. Only we have to do it the human way. These fellas grew up in the climate.” Pete lapsed into silence as the village came into view. The ship had landed quite a way out, resting on its skids on the long shallow groove the colonists had bulldozed out for it years before, the first year they had arrived on Baron IV. Slowly Pete turned Mario’s words over in his mind, allowing himself to worry a little. There had been rumors of trouble back on Earth, persistent rumors he had taken care to soft-pedal, as mayor of the colony. There were other things, too, like the old newspapers and magazines that had been brought in by the lad from Baron II, and the rare radio message they could pick up through their atmospheric disturbance. Maybe something was going wrong back home. But somehow political upheavals on Earth seemed remote to these hardened colonists. Captain Schooner’s visits were always welcome, but they were few and far between. The colony was small; one ship every three years could supply it, and even then the taaro crates wouldn’t half fill up the storage holds. There were other colonies far closer to home that sent back more taaro in one year than Baron IV could grow in ten.
But when a ship did come down, it was a time of high excitement. It meant fresh food from Earth, meat from the frozen lockers, maybe even a little candy and salt. And always for Pete a landing meant a long evening of palaver with the captain about things back home and things on Baron IV.
Pete smiled to himself as he thought of it. He could remember Earth, of course, with a kind of vague nostalgia, but Baron IV was home to him now and he knew he would never leave it. He had too many hopes invested there, too many years of heartache and desperate hard work, too much deep satisfaction in having cut a niche for himself on this dusty, hostile world, ever to think much about Earth any more.
Mario stopped in front of the offices, and one of the Dusties hopped out ahead of Pete. The creature strode across the rough gravel to the door, pulling tar off his fingers just as he had seen Pete do. Pete followed him to the door, and then stopped, frowning. There should have been a babble of voices inside, with Captain Schooner’s loud laugh roaring above the excitement. But Pete could hear nothing. A chill of uneasiness ran through him; he pushed open the door and walked inside. A dozen of his friends looked up silently, avoiding the eyes of the uniformed stranger in the center of the room. When he saw the man, Pete Farnam knew something was wrong indeed.
It wasn’t Captain Schooner. It was a man he’d never seen before.
The Dustie ran across the room in front of Pete and hopped up on the desk as though he owned it, throwing his hands on his hips and staring at the stranger curiously. Pete took off his cap and parka and dropped them on a chair. “Well,” he said. “This is a surprise. We weren’t expecting a ship so soon.”
The man inclined his head stiffly and glanced down at the paper he held in his hand. “You’re Peter Farnam, I suppose? Mayor of this colony?”
“That’s right. And you?”
“Varga is the name,” the captain said shortly. “Earth Security and Supply.” He nodded toward the small, frail-looking man in civilian clothes, sitting beside him. “This is Rupert Nathan, of the Colonial Service. You’ll be seeing a great deal of him.” He held out a small wallet of papers. “Our credentials, Farnam. Be so good as to examine them.”
Pete glanced around the room. John Tegan and Hank Mario were watching him uneasily. Mary Turner was following the proceedings with her sharp little eyes, missing nothing, and Mel Dorfman stood like a rock, his heavy face curiously expressionless as he watched the visitors. Pete reached out for the papers, flipped through them, and handed them back with a long look at Captain Varga.
He was younger than Captain Schooner, with sandy hair and pale eyes that looked up at Pete from a soft baby face. Clean-shaven, his whole person seemed immaculate as he leaned back calmly in the chair. His civilian companion, however, had indecision written in every line of his pink face. His hands fluttered nervously, and he avoided the colonist’s eyes.
Pete turned to the captain. “The papers say you’re our official supply ship,” he said. “You’re early, but an Earth ship is always good news.” He clucked at the Dustie, who was about to go after one of the shiny buttons on the captain’s blouse. The little brown creature hopped over and settled on Pete’s knee. “We’ve been used to seeing Captain Schooner.”
The captain and Nathan exchanged glances. “Captain Schooner has retired from Security Service,” the captain said shortly. “You won’t be seeing him again. But we have a cargo for your colony. You may send these people over to the ship to start unloading now, if you wish--” his eye swept the circle of windburned faces--”while Nathan and I discuss certain matters with you here.”
Nobody moved for a moment. Then Pete nodded to Mario. “Take the boys out to unload, Jack. We’ll see you back here in an hour or so.”
“Pete, are you sure--”
“Don’t worry. Take Mel and Hank along to lend a hand.” Pete turned back to Captain Varga. “Suppose we go inside to more comfortable quarters,” he said. “We’re always glad to have word from Earth.”
They passed through a dark, smelly corridor into Pete’s personal quarters. For a colony house, if wasn’t bad--good plastic chairs, a hand-made rug on the floor, even one of Mary Turner’s paintings on the wall, and several of the weird, stylized carvings the Dusties had done for Pete. But the place smelled of tar and sweat, and Captain Varga’s nose wrinkled in distaste. Nathan drew out a large silk handkerchief and wiped his pink hands, touching his nose daintily.
The Dustie hopped into the room ahead of them and settled into the biggest, most comfortable chair. Pete snapped his fingers sharply, and the brown creature jumped down again like a naughty child and climbed up on Pete’s knee. The captain glanced at the chair with disgust and sat down in another. “Do you actually let those horrid creatures have the run of your house?” he asked.
“Why not?” Pete said. “We have the run of their planet. They’re quite harmless, really. And quite clean.”
The captain sniffed. “Nasty things. Might find a use for the furs, though. They look quite soft.”
“We don’t kill Dusties,” said Pete coolly. “They’re friendly, and intelligent too, in a childish sort of way.” He looked at the captain and Nathan, and decided not to put on the coffee pot. “Now what’s the trouble?”
“No trouble at all,” the captain said, “except the trouble you choose to make. You have your year’s taaro ready for shipping?”
The captain took out a small pencil on a chain and began to twirl it. “How much, to be exact?”
“Twenty thousand, Earth weight.”
Pete shook his head. “Hundredweight.”
The captain raised his eyebrows. “I see. And there are--” he consulted the papers in his hand--”roughly two hundred and twenty colonists here on Baron IV. Is that right?”
“Seventy-four men, eighty-one women, and fifty-nine children, to be exact?”
“I’d have to look it up. Margaret Singman had twins the other night.”
“Well, don’t be ridiculous,” snapped the captain. “On a planet the size of Baron IV, with seventy-four men, you should be producing a dozen times the taaro you stated. We’ll consider that your quota for a starter, at least. You have ample seed, according to my records. I should think, with the proper equipment--”
“Now wait a minute,” Pete said softly. “We’re fighting a climate here, captain. You should know that. We have only a two-planting season, and the ‘proper equipment,’ as you call it, doesn’t operate too well out here. It has a way of clogging up with dust in the summer, and rusting in the winter.”
“Really,” said Captain Varga. “As I was saying, with the proper equipment, you could cultivate a great deal more land than you seem to be using. This would give you the necessary heavier yield. Wouldn’t you say so, Nathan?”
The little nervous man nodded. “Certainly, captain. With the proper organization of labor.”
“That’s nonsense,” Pete said, suddenly angry. “Nobody can get that kind of yield from this planet. The ground won’t give it, and the men won’t grow it.”
The captain gave him a long look. “Really?” he said. “I think you’re wrong. I think the men will grow it.”
Pete stood up slowly. “What are you trying to say? This business about quotas and organization of labor--”
“You didn’t read our credentials as we instructed you, Farnam. Mr. Nathan is the official governor of the colony on Baron IV, as of now. You’ll find him most co-operative, I’m sure, but he’s answerable directly to me in all matters. My job is administration of the entire Baron system. Clear enough?”
Pete’s eyes were dark. “I think you’d better draw me a picture,” he said tightly. “A very clear picture.”
“Very well. Baron IV is not paying for its upkeep. Taaro, after all, is not the most necessary of crops in the universe. It has value, but not very much value, all things considered. If the production of taaro here is not increased sharply, it may be necessary to close down the colony altogether.”
“You’re a liar,” said Pete shortly. “The Colonization Board makes no production demands on the colonies. Nor does it farm out systems for personal exploitation.”
The captain smiled. “The Colonization Board, as you call it, has undergone a slight reorganization,” he said.
“Reorganization! It’s a top-level board in the Earth Government! Nothing could reorganize it but a wholesale--” He broke off, his jaw sagging as the implication sank in.
“You’re rather out on a limb, you see,” said the captain coolly. “Poor communications and all that. The fact is that the entire Earth Government has undergone a slight reorganization also.”
The Dustie knew that something had happened.
Pete didn’t know how he knew. The Dusties couldn’t talk, couldn’t make any noise, as far as Pete knew. But they always seemed to know when something unusual was happening. It was wrong, really, to consider them unintelligent animals. There are other sorts of intelligence than human, and other sorts of communication, and other sorts of culture. The Baron IV colonists had never understood the queer perceptive sense that the Dusties seemed to possess, any more than they knew how many Dusties there were, or what they ate, or where on the planet they lived. All they knew was that when they landed on Baron IV, the Dusties were there.
At first the creatures had been very timid. For weeks the men and women, busy with their building, had paid little attention to the skittering brown forms that crept down from the rocky hills to watch them with big, curious eyes. They were about half the size of men, and strangely humanoid in appearance, not in the sense that a monkey is humanoid (for they did not resemble monkeys) but in some way the colonists could not quite pin down. It may have been the way they walked around on their long, fragile hind legs, the way they stroked their pointed chins as they sat and watched and listened with their pointed ears lifted alertly, watching with soft gray eyes, or the way they handled objects with their little four-fingered hands. They were so remarkably human-like in their elfin way that the colonists couldn’t help but be drawn to the creatures.
That whole first summer, when the colonists were building the village and the landing groove for the ships, the Dusties were among them, trying pathetically to help, so eager for friendship that even occasional rebuffs failed to drive them away. They liked the colony. They seemed, somehow, to savor the atmosphere, moving about like solemn, fuzzy overseers as the work progressed through the summer. Pete Farnam thought that they had even tried to warn the people about the winter. But the colonists couldn’t understand, of course. Not until later. The Dusties became a standing joke, and were tolerated with considerable amusement--until the winter struck.
It had come with almost unbelievable ferocity. The houses had not been completed when the first hurricanes came, and they were smashed into toothpicks. The winds came, vicious winds full of dust and sleet and ice, wild erratic twisting gales that ripped the village to shreds, tearing off the topsoil that had been broken and fertilized--merciless, never-ending winds that wailed and screamed the planet’s protest. The winds drove sand and dirt and ice into the heart of the generators, and the heating units corroded and jammed and went dead. The jeeps and tractors and bulldozers were scored and rusted. The people began dying by the dozens as they huddled down in the pitiful little pits they had dug to try to keep the winds away.
Few of them were still conscious when the Dusties had come silently, in the blizzard, eyes closed tight against the blast, to drag the people up into the hills, into caves and hollows that still showed the fresh marks of carving tools. They had brought food--what kind of food nobody knew, for the colony’s food had been destroyed by the first blast of the hurricane--but whatever it was it had kept them alive. And somehow, the colonists had survived the winter which seemed never to end. There were frozen legs and ruined eyes; there was pneumonia so swift and virulent that even the antibiotics they managed to salvage could not stop it; there was near-starvation--but they were kept alive, until the winds began to die, and they walked out of their holes in the ground to see the ruins of their first village.