Reddish-yellow sunlight filtered through the thick quartz windows into the sleep-compartment. Tony Rossi yawned, stirred a little, then opened his black eyes and sat up quickly. With one motion he tossed the covers back and slid to the warm metal floor. He clicked off his alarm clock and hurried to the closet.
It looked like a nice day. The landscape outside was motionless, undisturbed by winds or dust-shift. The boy’s heart pounded excitedly. He pulled his trousers on, zipped up the reinforced mesh, struggled into his heavy canvas shirt, and then sat down on the edge of the cot to tug on his boots. He closed the seams around their tops and then did the same with his gloves. Next he adjusted the pressure on his pump unit and strapped it between his shoulder blades. He grabbed his helmet from the dresser, and he was ready for the day.
In the dining-compartment his mother and father had finished breakfast. Their voices drifted to him as he clattered down the ramp. A disturbed murmur; he paused to listen. What were they talking about? Had he done something wrong, again?
And then he caught it. Behind their voices was another voice. Static and crackling pops. The all-system audio signal from Rigel IV. They had it turned up full blast; the dull thunder of the monitor’s voice boomed loudly. The war. Always the war. He sighed, and stepped out into the dining-compartment.
“Morning,” his father muttered.
“Good morning, dear,” his mother said absently. She sat with her head turned to one side, wrinkles of concentration webbing her forehead. Her thin lips were drawn together in a tight line of concern. His father had pushed his dirty dishes back and was smoking, elbows on the table, dark hairy arms bare and muscular. He was scowling, intent on the jumbled roar from the speaker above the sink.
“How’s it going?” Tony asked. He slid into his chair and reached automatically for the ersatz grapefruit. “Any news from Orion?”
Neither of them answered. They didn’t hear him. He began to eat his grapefruit. Outside, beyond the little metal and plastic housing unit, sounds of activity grew. Shouts and muffled crashes, as rural merchants and their trucks rumbled along the highway toward Karnet. The reddish daylight swelled; Betelgeuse was rising quietly and majestically.
“Nice day,” Tony said. “No flux wind. I think I’ll go down to the n-quarter awhile. We’re building a neat spaceport, a model, of course, but we’ve been able to get enough materials to lay out strips for--”
With a savage snarl his father reached out and struck the audio roar immediately died. “I knew it!” He got up and moved angrily away from the table. “I told them it would happen. They shouldn’t have moved so soon. Should have built up Class A supply bases, first.”
“Isn’t our main fleet moving in from Bellatrix?” Tony’s mother fluttered anxiously. “According to last night’s summary the worst that can happen is Orion IX and X will be dumped.”
Joseph Rossi laughed harshly. “The hell with last night’s summary. They know as well as I do what’s happening.”
“What’s happening?” Tony echoed, as he pushed aside his grapefruit and began to ladle out dry cereal. “Are we losing the battle?”
“Yes!” His father’s lips twisted. “Earthmen, losing to--to beetles. I told them. But they couldn’t wait. My God, there’s ten good years left in this system. Why’d they have to push on? Everybody knew Orion would be tough. The whole damn beetle fleet’s strung out around there. Waiting for us. And we have to barge right in.”
“But nobody ever thought beetles would fight,” Leah Rossi protested mildly. “Everybody thought they’d just fire a few blasts and then--”
“They have to fight! Orion’s the last jump-off. If they don’t fight here, where the hell can they fight?” Rossi swore savagely. “Of course they’re fighting. We have all their planets except the inner Orion string--not that they’re worth much, but it’s the principle of the thing. If we’d built up strong supply bases, we could have broken up the beetle fleet and really clobbered it.”
“Don’t say ‘beetle, ‘“ Tony murmured, as he finished his cereal. “They’re Pas-udeti, same as here. The word ‘beetle’ comes from Betelgeuse. An Arabian word we invented ourselves.”
Joe Rossi’s mouth opened and closed. “What are you, a goddamn beetle-lover?”
“Joe,” Leah snapped. “For heaven’s sake.”
Rossi moved toward the door. “If I was ten years younger I’d be out there. I’d really show those shiny-shelled insects what the hell they’re up against. Them and their junky beat-up old hulks. Converted freighters!” His eyes blazed. “When I think of them shooting down Terran cruisers with our boys in them--”
“Orion’s their system,” Tony murmured.
“Their system! When the hell did you get to be an authority on space law? Why, I ought to--” He broke off, choked with rage. “My own kid,” he muttered. “One more crack out of you today and I’ll hang one on you you’ll feel the rest of the week.”
Tony pushed his chair back. “I won’t be around here today. I’m going into Karnet, with my EEP.”
“Yeah, to play with beetles!”
Tony said nothing. He was already sliding his helmet in place and snapping the clamps tight. As he pushed through the back door, into the lock membrane, he unscrewed his oxygen tap and set the tank filter into action. An automatic response, conditioned by a lifetime spent on a colony planet in an alien system.
A faint flux wind caught at him and swept yellow-red dust around his boots. Sunlight glittered from the metal roof of his family’s housing unit, one of endless rows of squat boxes set in the sandy slope, protected by the line of ore-refining installations against the horizon. He made an impatient signal, and from the storage shed his EEP came gliding out, catching the sunlight on its chrome trim.
“We’re going down into Karnet,” Tony said, unconsciously slipping into the Pas dialect. “Hurry up!”
The EEP took up its position behind him, and he started briskly down the slope, over the shifting sand, toward the road. There were quite a few traders out, today. It was a good day for the market; only a fourth of the year was fit for travel. Betelgeuse was an erratic and undependable sun, not at all like Sol (according to the edutapes, fed to Tony four hours a day, six days a week--he had never seen Sol himself).
He reached the noisy road. Pas-udeti were everywhere. Whole groups of them, with their primitive combustion-driven trucks, battered and filthy, motors grinding protestingly. He waved at the trucks as they pushed past him. After a moment one slowed down. It was piled with tis, bundled heaps of gray vegetables dried, and prepared for the table. A staple of the Pas-udeti diet. Behind the wheel lounged a dark-faced elderly Pas, one arm over the open window, a rolled leaf between his lips. He was like all other Pas-udeti; lank and hard-shelled, encased in a brittle sheath in which he lived and died.
“You want a ride?” the Pas murmured--required protocol when an Earthman on foot was encountered.
“Is there room for my EEP?”
The Pas made a careless motion with his claw. “It can run behind.” Sardonic amusement touched his ugly old face. “If it gets to Karnet we’ll sell it for scrap. We can use a few condensers and relay tubing. We’re short on electronic maintenance stuff.”
“I know,” Tony said solemnly, as he climbed into the cabin of the truck. “It’s all been sent to the big repair base at Orion I. For your warfleet.”
Amusement vanished from the leathery face. “Yes, the warfleet.” He turned away and started up the truck again. In the back, Tony’s EEP had scrambled up on the load of tis and was gripping precariously with its magnetic lines.
Tony noticed the Pas-udeti’s sudden change of expression, and he was puzzled. He started to speak to him--but now he noticed unusual quietness among the other Pas, in the other trucks, behind and in front of his own. The war, of course. It had swept through this system a century ago; these people had been left behind. Now all eyes were on Orion, on the battle between the Terran warfleet and the Pas-udeti collection of armed freighters.
“Is it true,” Tony asked carefully, “that you’re winning?”
The elderly Pas grunted. “We hear rumors.”
Tony considered. “My father says Terra went ahead too fast. He says we should have consolidated. We didn’t assemble adequate supply bases. He used to be an officer, when he was younger. He was with the fleet for two years.”
The Pas was silent a moment. “It’s true,” he said at last, “that when you’re so far from home, supply is a great problem. We, on the other hand, don’t have that. We have no distances to cover.”
“Do you know anybody fighting?”
“I have distant relatives.” The answer was vague; the Pas obviously didn’t want to talk about it.
“Have you ever seen your warfleet?”
“Not as it exists now. When this system was defeated most of our units were wiped out. Remnants limped to Orion and joined the Orion fleet.”
“Your relatives were with the remnants?”
“Then you were alive when this planet was taken?”
“Why do you ask?” The old Pas quivered violently. “What business is it of yours?”
Tony leaned out and watched the walls and buildings of Karnet grow ahead of them. Karnet was an old city. It had stood thousands of years. The Pas-udeti civilization was stable; it had reached a certain point of technocratic development and then leveled off. The Pas had inter-system ships that had carried people and freight between planets in the days before the Terran Confederation. They had combustion-driven cars, audiophones, a power network of a magnetic type. Their plumbing was satisfactory and their medicine was highly advanced. They had art forms, emotional and exciting. They had a vague religion.
“Who do you think will win the battle?” Tony asked.
“I don’t know.” With a sudden jerk the old Pas brought the truck to a crashing halt. “This is as far as I go. Please get out and take your EEP with you.”
Tony faltered in surprise. “But aren’t you going--?”
Tony pushed the door open. He was vaguely uneasy; there was a hard, fixed expression on the leathery face, and the old creature’s voice had a sharp edge he had never heard before. “Thanks,” he murmured. He hopped down into the red dust and signaled his EEP. It released its magnetic lines, and instantly the truck started up with a roar, passing on inside the city.
Tony watched it go, still dazed. The hot dust lapped at his ankles; he automatically moved his feet and slapped at his trousers. A truck honked, and his EEP quickly moved him from the road, up to the level pedestrian ramp. Pas-udeti in swarms moved by, endless lines of rural people hurrying into Karnet on their daily business. A massive public bus had stopped by the gate and was letting off passengers. Male and female Pas. And children. They laughed and shouted; the sounds of their voices blended with the low hum of the city.
“Going in?” a sharp Pas-udeti voice sounded close behind him. “Keep moving--you’re blocking the ramp.”
It was a young female, with a heavy armload clutched in her claws. Tony felt embarrassed; female Pas had a certain telepathic ability, part of their sexual make-up. It was effective on Earthmen at close range.
“Here,” she said. “Give me a hand.”
Tony nodded his head, and the EEP accepted the female’s heavy armload. “I’m visiting the city,” Tony said, as they moved with the crowd toward the gates. “I got a ride most of the way, but the driver let me off out here.”
“You’re from the settlement?”
She eyed him critically. “You’ve always lived here, haven’t you?”
“I was born here. My family came here from Earth four years before I was born. My father was an officer in the fleet. He earned an Emigration Priority.”
“So you’ve never seen your own planet. How old are you?”
“Ten years. Terran.”
“You shouldn’t have asked the driver so many questions.”
They passed through the decontamination shield and into the city. An information square loomed ahead; Pas men and women were packed around it. Moving chutes and transport cars rumbled everywhere. Buildings and ramps and open-air machinery; the city was sealed in a protective dust-proof envelope. Tony unfastened his helmet and clipped it to his belt. The air was stale-smelling, artificial, but usable.
“Let me tell you something,” the young female said carefully, as she strode along the foot-ramp beside Tony. “I wonder if this is a good day for you to come into Karnet. I know you’ve been coming here regularly to play with your friends. But perhaps today you ought to stay at home, in your settlement.”
“Because today everybody is upset.”
“I know,” Tony said. “My mother and father were upset. They were listening to the news from our base in the Rigel system.”
“I don’t mean your family. Other people are listening, too. These people here. My race.”
“They’re upset, all right,” Tony admitted. “But I come here all the time. There’s nobody to play with at the settlement, and anyhow we’re working on a project.”
“A model spaceport.”
“That’s right.” Tony was envious. “I sure wish I was a telepath. It must be fun.”
The female Pas-udeti was silent. She was deep in thought. “What would happen,” she asked, “if your family left here and returned to Earth?”
“That couldn’t happen. There’s no room for us on Earth. C-bombs destroyed most of Asia and North America back in the Twentieth Century.”
“Suppose you had to go back?”
Tony did not understand. “But we can’t. Habitable portions of Earth are overcrowded. Our main problem is finding places for Terrans to live, in other systems.” He added, “And anyhow, I don’t particularly want to go to Terra. I’m used to it here. All my friends are here.”
“I’ll take my packages,” the female said. “I go this other way, down this third-level ramp.”
Tony nodded to his EEP and it lowered the bundles into the female’s claws. She lingered a moment, trying to find the right words.
“Good luck,” she said.
She smiled faintly, ironically. “With your model spaceport. I hope you and your friends get to finish it.”
“Of course we’ll finish it,” Tony said, surprised. “It’s almost done.” What did she mean?
The Pas-udeti woman hurried off before he could ask her. Tony was troubled and uncertain; more doubts filled him. After a moment he headed slowly into the lane that took him toward the residential section of the city. Past the stores and factories, to the place where his friends lived.
The group of Pas-udeti children eyed him silently as he approached. They had been playing in the shade of an immense hengelo, whose ancient branches drooped and swayed with the air currents pumped through the city. Now they sat unmoving.
“I didn’t expect you today,” B’prith said, in an expressionless voice.
Tony halted awkwardly, and his EEP did the same. “How are things?” he murmured.
“I got a ride part way.”
Tony squatted down in the shade. None of the Pas children stirred. They were small, not as large as Terran children. Their shells had not hardened, had not turned dark and opaque, like horn. It gave them a soft, unformed appearance, but at the same time it lightened their load. They moved more easily than their elders; they could hop and skip around, still. But they were not skipping right now.
“What’s the matter?” Tony demanded. “What’s wrong with everybody?”
No one answered.
“Where’s the model?” he asked. “Have you fellows been working on it?”
After a moment Llyre nodded slightly.
Tony felt dull anger rise up inside him. “Say something! What’s the matter? What’re you all mad about?”
“Mad?” B’prith echoed. “We’re not mad.”
Tony scratched aimlessly in the dust. He knew what it was. The war, again. The battle going on near Orion. His anger burst up wildly. “Forget the war. Everything was fine yesterday, before the battle.”
“Sure,” Llyre said. “It was fine.”
Tony caught the edge to his voice. “It happened a hundred years ago. It’s not my fault.”
“Sure,” B’prith said.
“This is my home. Isn’t it? Haven’t I got as much right here as anybody else? I was born here.”
“Sure,” Llyre said, tonelessly.