West of the Sun
This was dawn: vision out of the dark: ripples of music coalescent in one forest voice moving toward a crescendo of daytime.
Paul watched a spreading of color in the leaves, a shift from black to gray to a loveliness more green than red; the trees were massively old, with varied bark of green or purple-brown. Phantoms in the more distant shadows could be understood now that light was advancing: they were thick trees with a white bark like that of the never-forgotten birches of New Hampshire. Underfoot Paul felt a humus that might have been a thousand years in growing; he prodded it with his knife--a white worm curled in mimic death.
Everywhere purple-leaved vines, vastly proliferating, climbed in a riot of greed for the sunlight of the forest ceiling. Paul sensed a mute cruelty in them, a shoving lust of growth. It might have been these, elastically yielding, that had saved the lifeboat from total ruin.
Overnight the gravity of Lucifer had become natural. His close-knit body accepted and relished it, finding a new pleasure in strength: thirty-seven years old and very young.
One tiny voice was near, persistent. Paul walked around the boat, where Dorothy and Wright still slept. The starboard wing, parting from the lifeboat, had gashed a tree trunk, littering the ground with branches. The source of the voice was a brown lump, twenty feet up, clinging head downward, a body small as a sparrow’s, wings folded like a bat’s. As he watched they spread, quivered, and relaxed. Head and ears were mousy, the neck long, with a hump at its base. The throat pulsed at each cry. Near Paul’s foot lay a fabric like an oriole’s nest, fastened to a twig that had been torn from the tree. Three young had tumbled out. One was not mangled but all were dead, hairless, poignantly ugly. “Sorry, baby--our first act on Lucifer.” The parent creature made another abortive motion as Paul took up the young.
Its high lament was not what he and Dorothy had heard in the night. That had been continuing when he slipped out to watch for dawn, and it had ended at some unnoticed moment--profoundly different, surely far off...
He tried to study the dead things as Sears Oliphant would want to do. Two were hopelessly torn; he dug a hole in the humus and dropped those in, smoothing the surface, wondering at his need for an act which could mean nothing to the unhappy morsel of perception on the tree trunk. The third, and the nest, he carried around the boat where the light was better.
All seven digits of the forelimb spread into a membranous wing; the hind leg divided at the ankle, three toes anchoring the wing, the other four fused into a slim foot which had suction pads. He cradled the bit of mortality in his palm, recalling a thing Wright had said when they entered the lifeboat. Captain Jensen, waiting for take-off at the spaceport, trying, as he drank sherry with Christopher Wright, to look at the venture under the aspect of eternity, had said he liked the philosophical implications of Argo’s converter, into which his own body was strangely soon to pass. What was Wright’s comment eleven years later? “All life is cannibalism, benign or not: we are still eating the dinosaurs.” There had been more, which Paul could not remember. So, man drove eleven years through space and killed three babies. But there was no element of malevolence...
Perhaps there was none in most of man’s actions over the millennia.
Wright crawled out, stiff-limbed and unrested.
“‘Morning, Doc. Let me introduce Enigma Luciferensis.”
“‘Luciferensis’ won’t do.” Wright peered down. “Everything is ‘Luciferensis,’ including the posterity Dot mentioned. Well now, what----”
“A nestling. Our crash broke the nest and killed the young.”
Wright fingered the fabric. “Beautiful. Leaves gummed together with some secretion.” With a doctor’s intentness he added: “How d’you feel?”
A shadow circled Paul, settled on his arm, hobbling toward his palm and what it held. He felt the suction cups; with a careful mouth the creature took up its dead and flew away. “I’ve been remembering something you said: life eating life--without too much concern for the second law of thermodynamics. Forgive us our trespasses ... Good morning, lady.”
“What did I miss?” Dorothy had glimpsed the departure.
“Lucifer’s idea of a bat. I think that big flying thing I saw from the lifeboat was shaped like this midget. Haven’t seen any birds.”
Dorothy hugged his arm. “Not even one measly robin?”
“Sorry, Whifflepuff--fresh out of robins.”
Wright blinked at his compass. “Meadow that way.” Paul was inattentive, needing the warm quiet of the woman beside him. Wright added: “First, breakfast.” He broke the seal of a ration package and snarled. “Thirty days, I b’lieve you said. Antique garbage--dehydrated hay.”
Dorothy said, “You’re nicest when you’re mad, Doc. We’ll soon have to try the local stuff, I suppose.”
“Uh-huh. But no guinea-pig work for you or Ann.”
She was startled. “Why not? I can digest boilerplate.”
“Two women on Lucifer: valuable livestock.” Wright smiled with his mouth full. “I’m boss, remember? For guinea-pig work, the men draw lots.”
She was grave. “I won’t argue. It so happens----” She peeked into the nest. “Poor little fuzzies lined it with fur. Their own, I’ll bet.”
“It so happens what, dear?”
“Ah ... This eleven-year-old gookum claims to be coffee. Can we make a fire? Looks like dead wood over there.”
The branches burned aromatically; the morning was growing into deep warmth, but still with freshness. Wright said, “Coffee my shirt.”
Dorothy tasted it. “Brr... ! I was about to say when I interrupted myself, it so happens I’m six or seven weeks pregnant, I think.”
“Six----” Wright set his aluminum cup carefully upside down. Paul mumbled, “That’s what’s been on your mind.”
Behind her eyes he glimpsed the primitive thing, deeper than thought, not like a part of her but a force that sustained her, himself, all others: the three billion of Earth, the small grieving spirit now flown away into the trees. “Yes, Adam. I would have told you sooner, but we all had a lot on our minds.”
“Even before we got in orbit, you saw us settling--staying----”
Dorothy grinned then. “No-o, Paul. I just wanted the baby. Could have been born on the ship. The Federation said no, but...”
Gradually Paul began to realize it. “But you said yes.”
She leaned to him, no longer smiling. “I said yes...”
The forest floor hushed footsteps; some coolness lingered. Paul walked in front, then Dorothy, and Wright marked blazes on the tree trunks. Paul glanced backward often, to capture the receding patterns. At the third such pause the lifeboat was no longer visible--only a sameness of trees and sparse young life groping through shadow for the food of the sun. In this depth of forest there was no brush; the going was easy except for the nuisance of purple vines that sometimes looped from tree to tree. Paul searched for any change of light ahead.
The boat held all but what they wore, the two rifles, the three pistols holstered at their hips, the three knives, three sealed ration packages. Damage had prevented locking the door of the boat: to rob, an inhabitant of Lucifer would need only intelligence enough to solve the sliding mechanism. They had seen no life but that huge nocturnal leaf eater, the small fliers, a white worm, and now a few timid ten-legged scuttlers on the warm ground and midge-like specks dancing in shafts of sunlight. Too quietly, Wright said, “Stop.”
Paul raised his rifle as he turned. Only untroubled forest. Wright’s warning hand lowered. “Almost saw it. Heard nothing, just felt a--watching. Might be in my head. Let’s go on. And don’t hurry.”
It would have been possible to hurry, even with an eye on the compass. It would have been possible, Paul thought, to run in panic, fall whimpering and waiting. But you wouldn’t do it...