Oomphel in the Sky

by H. Beam Piper

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Since Logic derives from postulates, it never has, and never will, change a postulate. And a religious belief is a system of postulates. so how can a man fight a native superstition with logic? Or anything else...?

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Miles Gilbert watched the landscape slide away below him, its quilt of rounded treetops mottled red and orange in the double sunlight and, in shaded places, with the natural yellow of the vegetation of Kwannon. The aircar began a slow swing to the left, and Gettler Alpha came into view, a monstrous smear of red incandescence with an optical diameter of two feet at arm’s length, slightly flattened on the bottom by the western horizon. In another couple of hours it would be completely set, but by that time Beta, the planet’s G-class primary, would be at its midafternoon hottest. He glanced at his watch. It was 1005, but that was Galactic Standard Time, and had no relevance to anything that was happening in the local sky. It did mean, though, that it was five minutes short of two hours to ‘cast-time.

He snapped on the communication screen in front of him, and Harry Walsh, the news editor, looked out of it at him from the office in Bluelake, halfway across the continent. He wanted to know how things were going.

“Just about finished. I’m going to look in at a couple more native villages, and then I’m going to Sanders’ plantation to see Gonzales. I hope I’ll have a personal statement from him, and the final situation-progress map, in time for the ‘cast. I take it Maith’s still agreeable to releasing the story at twelve-hundred?”

“Sure; he was always agreeable. The Army wants publicity; it was Government House that wanted to sit on it, and they’ve given that up now. The story’s all over the place here, native city and all.”

“What’s the situation in town, now?”

“Oh, it’s still going on. Some disorders, mostly just unrest. Lot of street meetings that could have turned into frenzies if the police hadn’t broken them up in time. A couple of shootings, some sleep-gassing, and a lot of arrests. Nothing to worry about--at least, not immediately.”

That was about what he thought. “Maybe it’s not bad to have a little trouble in Bluelake,” he considered. “What happens out here in the plantation country the Government House crowd can’t see, and it doesn’t worry them. Well, I’ll call you from Sanders’.”

He blanked the screen. In the seat in front, the native pilot said: “Some contragravity up ahead, boss.” It sounded like two voices speaking in unison, which was just what it was. “I’ll have a look.”

The pilot’s hand, long and thin, like a squirrel’s, reached up and pulled down the fifty-power binoculars on their swinging arm. Miles looked at the screen-map and saw a native village just ahead of the dot of light that marked the position of the aircar. He spoke the native name of the village aloud, and added:

“Let down there, Heshto. I’ll see what’s going on.”

The native, still looking through the glasses, said, “Right, boss.” Then he turned.

His skin was blue-gray and looked like sponge rubber. He was humanoid, to the extent of being an upright biped, with two arms, a head on top of shoulders, and a torso that housed, among other oddities, four lungs. His face wasn’t even vaguely human. He had two eyes in front, close enough for stereoscopic vision, but that was a common characteristic of sapient life forms everywhere. His mouth was strictly for eating; he breathed through separate intakes and outlets, one of each on either side of his neck; he talked through the outlets and had his scent and hearing organs in the intakes. The car was air-conditioned, which was a mercy; an overheated Kwann exhaled through his skin, and surrounded himself with stenches like an organic chemistry lab. But then, Kwanns didn’t come any closer to him than they could help when he was hot and sweated, which, lately, had been most of the time.

“A V and a half of air cavalry, circling around,” Heshto said. “Making sure nobody got away. And a combat car at a couple of hundred feet and another one just at treetop level.”

He rose and went to the seat next to the pilot, pulling down the binoculars that were focused for his own eyes. With them, he could see the air cavalry--egg-shaped things just big enough for a seated man, with jets and contragravity field generators below and a bristle of machine gun muzzles in front. A couple of them jetted up for a look at him and then went slanting down again, having recognized the Kwannon Planetwide News Service car.

The village was typical enough to have been an illustration in a sociography textbook--fields in a belt for a couple of hundred yards around it, dome-thatched mud-and-wattle huts inside a pole stockade with log storehouses built against it, their flat roofs high enough to provide platforms for defending archers, the open oval gathering-place in the middle. There was a big hut at one end of this, the khamdoo, the sanctum of the adult males, off limits for women and children. A small crowd was gathered in front of it; fifteen or twenty Terran air cavalrymen, a couple of enlisted men from the Second Kwannon Native Infantry, a Terran second lieutenant, and half a dozen natives. The rest of the village population, about two hundred, of both sexes and all ages, were lined up on the shadier side of the gathering-place, most of them looking up apprehensively at the two combat cars which were covering them with their guns.

Miles got to his feet as the car lurched off contragravity and the springs of the landing-feet took up the weight. A blast of furnacelike air struck him when he opened the door; he got out quickly and closed it behind him. The second lieutenant had come over to meet him; he extended his hand.

“Good day, Mr. Gilbert. We all owe you our thanks for the warning. This would have been a real baddie if we hadn’t caught it when we did.”

He didn’t even try to make any modest disclaimer; that was nothing more than the exact truth.

“Well, lieutenant, I see you have things in hand here.” He glanced at the line-up along the side of the oval plaza, and then at the selected group in front of the khamdoo. The patriarchal village chieftain in a loose slashed shirt; the shoonoo, wearing a multiplicity of amulets and nothing else; four or five of the village elders. “I take it the word of the swarming didn’t get this far?”

“No, this crowd still don’t know what the flap’s about, and I couldn’t think of anything to tell them that wouldn’t be worse than no explanation at all.”

He had noticed hoes and spades flying in the fields, and the cylindrical plastic containers the natives bought from traders, dropped when the troops had surprised the women at work. And the shoonoo didn’t have a fire-dance cloak or any other special regalia on. If he’d heard about the swarming, he’d have been dressed to make magic for it.

“What time did you get here, lieutenant?”

“Oh-nine-forty. I just called in and reported the village occupied, and they told me I was the last one in, so the operation’s finished.”

That had been smart work. He got the lieutenant’s name and unit and mentioned it into his memophone. That had been a little under five hours since he had convinced General Maith, in Bluelake, that the mass labor-desertion from the Sanders plantation had been the beginning of a swarming. Some division commanders wouldn’t have been able to get a brigade off the ground in that time, let alone landed on objective. He said as much to the young officer.

“The way the Army responded, today, can make the people of the Colony feel a lot more comfortable for the future.”

“Why, thank you, Mr. Gilbert.” The Army, on Kwannon, was rather more used to obloquy than praise. “How did you spot what was going on so quickly?”

This was the hundredth time, at least, that he had been asked that today.

“Well, Paul Sanders’ labor all comes from neighboring villages. If they’d just wanted to go home and spend the end of the world with their families, they’d have been dribbling away in small batches for the last couple of hundred hours. Instead, they all bugged out in a bunch, they took all the food they could carry and nothing else, and they didn’t make any trouble before they left. Then, Sanders said they’d been building fires out in the fallow ground and moaning and chanting around them for a couple of days, and idling on the job. Saving their strength for the trek. And he said they had a shoonoo among them. He’s probably the lad who started it. Had a dream from the Gone Ones, I suppose.”

“You mean, like this fellow here?” the lieutenant asked. “What are they, Mr. Gilbert; priests?”

He looked quickly at the lieutenant’s collar-badges. Yellow trefoil for Third Fleet-Army Force, Roman IV for Fourth Army, 907 for his regiment, with C under it for cavalry. That outfit had only been on Kwannon for the last two thousand hours, but somebody should have briefed him better than that.

He shook his head. “No, they’re magicians. Everything these Kwanns do involves magic, and the shoonoon are the professionals. When a native runs into something serious, that his own do-it-yourself magic can’t cope with, he goes to the shoonoo. And, of course, the shoonoo works all the magic for the community as a whole--rain-magic, protective magic for the village and the fields, that sort of thing.”

The lieutenant mopped his face on a bedraggled handkerchief. “They’ll have to struggle along somehow for a while; we have orders to round up all the shoonoon and send them in to Bluelake.”

“Yes.” That hadn’t been General Maith’s idea; the governor had insisted on that. “I hope it doesn’t make more trouble than it prevents.”

The lieutenant was still mopping his face and looking across the gathering-place toward Alpha, glaring above the huts.

“How much worse do you think this is going to get?” he asked.

“The heat, or the native troubles?”

“I was thinking about the heat, but both.”

“Well, it’ll get hotter. Not much hotter, but some. We can expect storms, too, within twelve to fifteen hundred hours. Nobody has any idea how bad they’ll be. The last periastron was ninety years ago, and we’ve only been here for sixty-odd; all we have is verbal accounts from memory from the natives, probably garbled and exaggerated. We had pretty bad storms right after transit a year ago; they’ll be much worse this time. Thermal convections; air starts to cool when it gets dark, and then heats up again in double-sun daylight.”

It was beginning, even now; starting to blow a little after Alpha-rise.

“How about the natives?” the lieutenant asked. “If they can get any crazier than they are now--”

“They can, and they probably will. They think this is the end of the world. The Last Hot Time.” He used the native expression, and then translated it into Lingua Terra. “The Sky Fire--that’s Alpha--will burn up the whole world.”

“But this happens every ninety years. Mean they always acted this way at periastron?”

He shook his head. “Race would have exterminated itself long ago if they had. No, this is something special. The coming of the Terrans was a sign. The Terrans came and brought oomphel to the world; this a sign that the Last Hot Time is at hand.”

“What the devil is oomphel?” The lieutenant was mopping the back of his neck with one hand, now, and trying to pull his sticky tunic loose from his body with the other. “I hear that word all the time.”

“Well, most Terrans, including the old Kwannon hands, use it to mean trade-goods. To the natives, it means any product of Terran technology, from paper-clips to spaceships. They think it’s ... well, not exactly supernatural; extranatural would be closer to expressing their idea. Terrans are natural; they’re just a different kind of people. But oomphel isn’t; it isn’t subject to any of the laws of nature at all. They’re all positive that we don’t make it. Some of them even think it makes us.”

When he got back in the car, the native pilot, Heshto, was lolling in his seat and staring at the crowd of natives along the side of the gathering-place with undisguised disdain. Heshto had been educated at one of the Native Welfare Commission schools, and post-graded with Kwannon Planetwide News. He could speak, read and write Lingua Terra. He was a mathematician as far as long division and decimal fractions. He knew that Kwannon was the second planet of the Gettler Beta system, 23,000 miles in circumference, rotating on its axis once in 22.8 Galactic Standard hours and making an orbital circuit around Gettler Beta once in 372.06 axial days, and that Alpha was an M-class pulsating variable with an average period of four hundred days, and that Beta orbited around it in a long elipse every ninety years. He didn’t believe there was going to be a Last Hot Time. He was an intellectual, he was.

He started the contragravity-field generator as soon as Miles was in his seat. “Where now, boss?” he asked.

“Qualpha’s Village. We won’t let down; just circle low over it. I want some views of the ruins. Then to Sanders’ plantation.”

“O.K., boss; hold tight.”

He had the car up to ten thousand feet. Aiming it in the map direction of Qualpha’s Village, he let go with everything he had--hot jets, rocket-booster and all. The forest landscape came hurtling out of the horizon toward them.

Qualpha’s was where the trouble had first broken out, after the bug-out from Sanders; the troops hadn’t been able to get there in time, and it had been burned. Another village, about the same distance south of the plantation, had also gone up in flames, and at a dozen more they had found the natives working themselves into frenzies and had had to sleep-gas them or stun them with concussion-bombs. Those had been the villages to which the deserters from Sanders’ had themselves gone; from every one, runners had gone out to neighboring villages--”The Gone Ones are returning; all the People go to greet them at the Deesha-Phoo. Burn your villages; send on the word. Hasten; the Gone Ones return!”

Saving some of those villages had been touch-and-go, too; the runners, with hours lead-time, had gotten there ahead of the troops, and there had been shooting at a couple of them. Then the Army contragravity began landing at villages that couldn’t have been reached in hours by foot messengers. It had been stopped--at least for the time, and in this area. When and where another would break out was anybody’s guess.

The car was slowing and losing altitude, and ahead he could see thin smoke rising above the trees. He moved forward beside the pilot and pulled down his glasses; with them he could distinguish the ruins of the village. He called Bluelake, and then put his face to the view-finder and began transmitting in the view.

It had been a village like the one he had just visited, mud-and-wattle huts around an oval gathering-place, stockade, and fields beyond. Heshto brought the car down to a few hundred feet and came coasting in on momentum helped by an occasional spurt of the cold-jets. A few sections of the stockade still stood, and one side of the khamdoo hadn’t fallen, but the rest of the structures were flat. There wasn’t a soul, human or parahuman, in sight; the only living thing was a small black-and-gray quadruped investigating some bundles that had been dropped in the fields, in hope of finding something tasty. He got a view of that--everybody liked animal pictures on a newscast--and then he was swinging the pickup over the still-burning ruins. In the ashes of every hut he could see the remains of something like a viewscreen or a nuclear-electric stove or a refrigerator or a sewing machine. He knew how dearly the Kwanns cherished such possessions. That they had destroyed them grieved him. But the Last Hot Time was at hand; the whole world would be destroyed by fire, and then the Gone Ones would return.

So there were uprisings on the plantations. Paul Sanders had been lucky; his Kwanns had just picked up and left. But he had always gotten along well with the natives, and his plantation house was literally a castle and he had plenty of armament. There had been other planters who had made the double mistake of incurring the enmity of their native labor and of living in unfortified houses. A lot of them weren’t around, any more, and their plantations were gutted ruins.

And there were plantations on which the natives had destroyed the klooba plants and smashed the crystal which lived symbiotically upon them. They thought the Terrans were using the living crystals to make magic. Not too far off, at that; the properties of Kwannon biocrystals had opened a major breakthrough in subnucleonic physics and initiated half a dozen technologies. New kinds of oomphel. And down in the south, where the spongy and resinous trees were drying in the heat, they were starting forest fires and perishing in them in hecatombs. And to the north, they were swarming into the mountains; building great fires there, too, and attacking the Terran radar and radio beacons.

Fire was a factor common to all these frenzies. Nothing could happen without magical assistance; the way to bring on the Last Hot Time was People.

Maybe the ones who died in the frenzies and the swarmings were the lucky ones at that. They wouldn’t live to be crushed by disappointment when the Sky Fire receded as Beta went into the long swing toward apastron. The surviving shoonoon wouldn’t be the lucky ones, that was for sure. The magician-in-public-practice needs only to make one really bad mistake before he is done to some unpleasantly ingenious death by his clientry, and this was going to turn out to be the biggest magico-prophetic blooper in all the long unrecorded history of Kwannon.

A few minutes after the car turned south from the ruined village, he could see contragravity-vehicles in the air ahead, and then the fields and buildings of the Sanders plantation. A lot more contragravity was grounded in the fallow fields, and there were rows of pneumatic balloon-tents, and field-kitchens, and a whole park of engineering equipment. Work was going on in the klooba-fields, too; about three hundred natives were cutting open the six-foot leafy balls and getting out the biocrystals. Three of the plantation airjeeps, each with a pair of machine guns, were guarding them, but they didn’t seem to be having any trouble. He saw Sanders in another jeep, and had Heshto put the car alongside.

“How’s it going, Paul?” he asked over his radio. “I see you have some help, now.”

“Everybody’s from Qualpha’s, and from Darshat’s,” Sanders replied. “The Army had no place to put them, after they burned themselves out.” He laughed happily. “Miles, I’m going to save my whole crop! I thought I was wiped out, this morning.”

He would have been, if Gonzales hadn’t brought those Kwanns in. The klooba was beginning to wither; if left unharvested, the biocrystals would die along with their hosts and crack into worthlessness. Like all the other planters, Sanders had started no new crystals since the hot weather, and would start none until the worst of the heat was over. He’d need every crystal he could sell to tide him over.


“The Welfarers’ll make a big forced-labor scandal out of this,” he predicted.

“Why, such an idea.” Sanders was scandalized. “I’m not forcing them to eat.”

“The Welfarers don’t think anybody ought to have to work to eat. They think everybody ought to be fed whether they do anything to earn it or not, and if you try to make people earn their food, you’re guilty of economic coercion. And if you’re in business for yourself and want them to work for you, you’re an exploiter and you ought to be eliminated as a class. Haven’t you been trying to run a plantation on this planet, under this Colonial Government, long enough to have found that out, Paul?”

Brigadier General Ramón Gonzales had taken over the first--counting down from the landing-stage--floor of the plantation house for his headquarters. His headquarters company had pulled out removable partitions and turned four rooms into one, and moved in enough screens and teleprinters and photoprint machines and computers to have outfitted the main newsroom of Planetwide News. The place had the feel of a newsroom--a newsroom after a big story has broken and the ‘cast has gone on the air and everybody--in this case about twenty Terran officers and non-coms, half women--standing about watching screens and smoking and thinking about getting a follow-up ready.

Gonzales himself was relaxing in Sanders’ business-room, with his belt off and his tunic open. He had black eyes and black hair and mustache, and a slightly equine face that went well with his Old Terran Spanish name. There was another officer with him, considerably younger--Captain Foxx Travis, Major General Maith’s aide.

“Well, is there anything we can do for you, Miles?” Gonzales asked, after they had exchanged greetings and sat down.

“Why, could I have your final situation-progress map? And would you be willing to make a statement on audio-visual.” He looked at his watch. “We have about twenty minutes before the ‘cast.”

“You have a map,” Gonzales said, as though he were walking tiptoe from one word to another. “It accurately represents the situation as of the moment, but I’m afraid some minor unavoidable inaccuracies may have crept in while marking the positions and times for the earlier phases of the operation. I teleprinted a copy to Planetwide along with the one I sent to Division Headquarters.”

He understood about that and nodded. Gonzales was zipping up his tunic and putting on his belt and sidearm. That told him, before the brigadier general spoke again, that he was agreeable to the audio-visual appearance and statement. He called the recording studio at Planetwide while Gonzales was inspecting himself in the mirror and told them to get set for a recording. It only ran a few minutes; Gonzales, speaking without notes, gave a brief description of the operation.

“At present,” he concluded, “we have every native village and every plantation and trading-post within two hundred miles of the Sanders plantation occupied. We feel that this swarming has been definitely stopped, but we will continue the occupation for at least the next hundred to two hundred hours. In the meantime, the natives in the occupied villages are being put to work building shelters for themselves against the anticipated storms.”

“I hadn’t heard about that,” Miles said, as the general returned to his chair and picked up his drink again.

“Yes. They’ll need something better than these thatched huts when the storms start, and working on them will keep them out of mischief. Standard megaton-kilometer field shelters, earth and log construction. I think they’ll be adequate for anything that happens at periastron.”

Anything designed to resist the heat, blast and radiation effects of a megaton thermonuclear bomb at a kilometer ought to stand up under what was coming. At least, the periastron effects; there was another angle to it.

“The Native Welfare Commission isn’t going to take kindly to that. That’s supposed to be their job.”

“Then why the devil haven’t they done it?” Gonzales demanded angrily. “I’ve viewed every native village in this area by screen, and I haven’t seen one that’s equipped with anything better than those log storage-bins against the stockades.”

“There was a project to provide shelters for the periastron storms set up ten years ago. They spent one year arguing about how the natives survived storms prior to the Terrans’ arrival here. According to the older natives, they got into those log storage-houses you were mentioning; only about one out of three in any village survived. I could have told them that. Did tell them, repeatedly, on the air. Then, after they decided that shelters were needed, they spent another year hassling over who would be responsible for designing them. Your predecessor here, General Nokami, offered the services of his engineer officers. He was frostily informed that this was a humanitarian and not a military project.”

Ramón Gonzales began swearing, then apologized for the interruption. “Then what?” he asked.

“Apology unnecessary. Then they did get a shelter designed, and started teaching some of the students at the native schools how to build them, and then the meteorologists told them it was no good. It was a dugout shelter; the weathermen said there’d be rainfall measured in meters instead of inches and anybody who got caught in one of those dugouts would be drowned like a rat.”

“Ha, I thought of that one.” Gonzales said. “My shelters are going to be mounded up eight feet above the ground.”

“What did they do then?” Foxx Travis wanted to know.

“There the matter rested. As far as I know, nothing has been done on it since.”

“And you think, with a disgraceful record of non-accomplishment like that, that they’ll protest General Gonzales’ action on purely jurisdictional grounds?” Travis demanded.

“Not jurisdictional grounds, Foxx. The general’s going at this the wrong way. He actually knows what has to be done and how to do it, and he’s going right ahead and doing it, without holding a dozen conferences and round-table discussions and giving everybody a fair and equal chance to foul things up for him. You know as well as I do that that’s undemocratic. And what’s worse, he’s making the natives build them themselves, whether they want to or not, and that’s forced labor. That reminds me; has anybody started raising the devil about those Kwanns from Qualpha’s and Darshat’s you brought here and Paul put to work?”

Gonzales looked at Travis and then said: “Not with me. Not yet, anyhow.”

“They’ve been at General Maith,” Travis said shortly. After a moment, he added: “General Maith supports General Gonzales completely; that’s for publication. I’m authorized to say so. What else was there to do? They’d burned their villages and all their food stores. They had to be placed somewhere. And why in the name of reason should they sit around in the shade eating Government native-type rations while Paul Sanders has fifty to a hundred thousand sols’ worth of crystals dying on him?”

“Yes; that’s another thing they’ll scream about. Paul’s making a profit out of it.”

“Of course he’s making a profit,” Gonzales said. “Why else is he running a plantation? If planters didn’t make profits, who’d grow biocrystals?”

“The Colonial Government. The same way they built those storm-shelters. But that would be in the public interest, and if the Kwanns weren’t public-spirited enough to do the work, they’d be made to--at about half what planters like Sanders are paying them now. But don’t you realize that profit is sordid and dishonest and selfish? Not at all like drawing a salary-cum-expense-account from the Government.”

“You’re right, it isn’t,” Gonzales agreed. “People like Paul Sanders have ability. If they don’t, they don’t stay in business. You have ability and people who don’t never forgive you for it. Your very existence is a constant reproach to them.”

“That’s right. And they can’t admit your ability without admitting their own inferiority, so it isn’t ability at all. It’s just dirty underhanded trickery and selfish ruthlessness.” He thought for a moment. “How did Government House find out about these Kwanns here?”

“The Welfare Commission had people out while I was still setting up headquarters,” Gonzales said. “That was about oh-seven-hundred.”

“This isn’t for publication?” Travis asked. “Well, they know, but they can’t prove, that our given reason for moving in here in force is false. Of course, we can’t change our story now; that’s why the situation-progress map that was prepared for publication is incorrect as to the earlier phases. They do not know that it was you who gave us our first warning; they ascribe that to Sanders. And they are claiming that there never was any swarming; according to them, Sanders’ natives are striking for better pay and conditions, and Sanders got General Maith to use troops to break the strike. I wish we could give you credit for putting us onto this, but it’s too late now.”

He nodded. The story was that a battalion of infantry had been sent in to rescue a small detail under attack by natives, and that more troops had been sent in to re-enforce them, until the whole of Gonzales’ brigade had been committed.

“That wasted an hour, at the start,” Gonzales said. “We lost two native villages burned, and about two dozen casualties, because we couldn’t get our full strength in soon enough.”

“You’d have lost more than that if Maith had told the governor general the truth and requested orders to act. There’d be a hundred villages and a dozen plantations and trading posts burning, now, and Lord knows how many dead, and the governor general would still be arguing about whether he was justified in ordering troop-action.” He mentioned several other occasions when something like that had happened. “You can’t tell that kind of people the truth. They won’t believe it. It doesn’t agree with their preconceptions.”

Foxx Travis nodded. “I take it we are still talking for nonpublication?” When Miles nodded, he continued: “This whole situation is baffling, Miles. It seems that the government here knew all about the weather conditions they could expect at periastron, and had made plans for them. Some of them excellent plans, too, but all based on the presumption that the natives would co-operate or at least not obstruct. You see what the situation actually is. It should be obvious to everybody that the behavior of these natives is nullifying everything the civil government is trying to do to ensure the survival of the Terran colonists, the production of Terran-type food without which we would all starve, the biocrystal plantations without which the Colony would perish, and even the natives themselves. Yet the Civil Government will not act to stop these native frenzies and swarmings which endanger everything and everybody here, and when the Army attempts to act, we must use every sort of shabby subterfuge and deceit or the Civil Government will prevent us. What ails these people?”

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