West of the Sun
Paul Mason stared into blue calm: airy motion of branches against the sky, a mystery remembered from long ago, in a place called New Hampshire. Those years were not dead: secretly the mind had brought them here. _What a small journey! Less than five light-years: on a star map you could hardly represent it with the shortest of lines... _ He was without pain, and cool. Time? Why, that amiable thud of a heart in a firm, familiar body (his own, surely?), that was indicating time. The boy in New Hampshire, after sprawling on his lazy back and discovering the miracle of sky--hadn’t he tried to paint it, even then? Messed about with his uncle’s palette, creating a daub that had--oh, something, a little something. _Very well. Once upon a time there was a painter named Paul Mason_ ... Dorothy...
“You’re back--oh, darling! No, Paul, don’t sit up fast or your head’ll hurt. Mine did.” Now she was curling into the hollow of his arm, laughing and weeping. “You’re back...”
A thin old man sat cross-legged on gray moss. Paul asked him, “How long?”
Christopher Wright smiled, twisting and teasing the skin of his gaunt throat, gray with a thick beard stubble. “A day and a night, the nurse says. You know--the nurse? You were kissing her a moment ago. It’s early morning again, Paul. She was never quite unconscious, she claims. I recovered an hour ago. No ill effects. It knocked out the others at nightfall--predictable. They were exposed to Lucifer’s air thirteen hours later than we were.” Paul saw them now, lying on beds of the gray--moss? And where he and Dorothy clung to each other was the same pleasant stuff--dry, spongy, with an odor like clover hay. “Beds by courtesy of Mijok.” Wright nodded toward the gray giant, who had also brought moss for himself and now sprawled belly down, breathing silently, the bulge between his shoulder blades lightly rising and falling. Mijok’s face was on his arm, turned away toward the purple shadow of forest.
Dorothy whispered, “He watched over us all night.”
“So you were conscious all the time? Tell me.”
Dorothy kept her voice low. Paul noticed the towering slimness of the lifeboat beyond the barrier of branches, reversed--Ed Spearman’s work, he supposed. It pointed toward the west. Turned so, the jet would blast toward the lake, harming nothing. Its shadow held away the heat of the sun, a gleaming artifact of twenty-first century man, the one alien thing in this wilderness morning. The sickness, Dorothy said, had taken her with a sudden paralysis: she could see, hear, be aware of boiling fever, but could not move. Then even the sense of heat left her--she was only observing eyes, ears, and a brain. She had had a fantasy that she was dead, no longer breathing. “But I breathed.” Her small brown face crinkled with a laughter rich in more than amusement. “It’s a habit I don’t mean to abandon.”
“Neurotoxin,” said Wright, “and a damn funny one. Back on Earth, when I believed myself to be a doctor, I never heard of anything like it.”
The condition had lasted all day, she said; at nightfall her sense of touch had gradually returned. She could move her hands, later her feet and head. At length she had sat up, briefly blinded by pain in the forehead, then she had given way to an overwhelming need for sleep. “I got a glimpse of you, Paul, and tumbled off into a set of dreams that were--not so bad, not so bad. I woke before sunrise. Different. Don’t ask me how. Never felt healthier. Not even weak, as you should be after a fever. But Doc--what if the illness--”
Wright looked away from the terror that had crossed her face. “If you go on feeling all right, we can assume nothing’s wrong with the baby. Don’t borrow trouble, sugarpuss--we’ve got enough.”
“Maybe,” Paul suggested, “the illness was just--oh, some of our Earth metabolism getting burned out of us. A stiff acclimation course.” Wright grunted, pinching his long nose. Paul said, “Wish it had burned out the yen for a cigarette that I’ve had for eleven years.”
Sears Oliphant, the only other with some medical knowledge, had taken charge immediately after their collapse. “He is--scared, Paul,” Dorothy murmured. “Of Lucifer, I mean. I could feel it when I was just a pair of eyes and ears. More physical shrinking in him than in the rest of us, and he’s fighting it back with all he’s got. He’s a very big man, Paul...” Sears looked peaceful enough now, in the dark sleep of the sickness, his moon face bristling with black beard growth but relaxed and bland. On another couch of moss, Spearman was more restless, powerful arms twitching as if he needed to fight the disaster even in sleep. Ann Bryan was deeply flushed and moaned a little now and then. “Ed was all right too. Considerate. Took all Sears’ orders without any fuss or question; I don’t think he’s much scared. He feels he can bull his way through anything, and maybe he’s right.” Dorothy’s helpless eyes had also seen Mijok bringing moss in great armfuls. This, she thought, had helped Ed Spearman to accept the giant as a man and perhaps as a friend. She remembered Mijok raising Paul and herself in one careful swing of his arms to set them down beside each other on the moss. Later she had watched him turning the lifeboat under direction of Spearman’s blunt gestures. Its length was thirty-four feet, its weight over three tons Earth gravity--more here. One gray-white arm had lifted the tail and swung the boat on its landing gear as a man might push a light automobile. “I wasn’t afraid. After dark, when I knew the sickness had got the others, I still wasn’t afraid. Believe me? I could see Mijok moving around. Once I heard him growl--I think he was driving something off. And then while the red moon was coming up, he sat by us--his eyes are red in the dark, Paul, not green. He smells musky at close range, but clean. I wasn’t afraid. Now and then he’d look us over and smile with his funny black lips and touch the furry back of his finger to our foreheads ... I could see the blue fireflies, Paul. Someday you’ll make up stories about them for the baby ... I heard that crying again--much nearer than when we heard it that first night by the other lifeboat. Like a group of children crying, if you can imagine that synchronized, almost musical. Mijok growled and fretted when it began, but it came no nearer. It had stopped when I woke.”
“Some of Earth’s critters sounded human--panthers, owls, frogs--”
“Ye-es. Just possibly something like tree frogs...”
Wright said, “Mijok brought us raw meat this morning before he went to sleep, something like a deer haunch. The fire bothers him--he evidently didn’t go near it last night after the others collapsed.”
“Ed tried to show him about fire,” Dorothy said. “I remember. Mijok was scared, and Sears told Ed to let it wait.”
“Meat was good too.” Wright smirked. “We got the fire going, and Mijok did try some cooked and liked it. You and Dorothy can have some tomorrow if I don’t turn purple.”
“Not guinea-pig,” said Dorothy. “Just pig.”
“Hungry?” Wright tossed Paul a ration package.
“Gah!” But he opened it. “Learned any more of Mijok’s words?”
“No. He won’t have many. Nouns, simple descriptives. Must have some continuing association with his own breed, or he’d have no words at all. A hunter--with only nature’s weapons, I think. That haunch was torn, not cut--some hoofed animal smaller than a pony, fresh-killed and well bled. He must have got it while Dorothy slept. It may have strayed into the camp during the night. I think Mijok lives in the woods, maybe not even a shelter or a permanent mate. Anthropology IA.” said Wright, and bowed in mimic apology to the sleeping giant. “Those pygmies will be something else again--Neolithic. Wish I understood that bulge between the shoulder blades. All the creatures we’ve seen have it--even that damn black reptile, I believe, though things were too mixed up to be sure.”
Mijok woke--all at once, like a cat. He stretched, extending his arms twelve feet from wrist to wrist. He smiled down at Paul. He studied the helpless ones, peering longest at Ann Bryan; the black-haired girl was breathing harshly, fidgeting. Now and then her eyes flickered open and perhaps they saw. Softly as smoke Mijok stepped into the shadow of the trees and listened. Wright remarked, “Speaking of that reptile, we should set up a monument to it. Nothing luckier could have happened than that chance to lend Mijok a hand.” His gray eyes fixed on Paul, lids lowered in a speculative smile. “I’m not the only one who remembers, Paul, that you were the first to go to his help. He hasn’t forgotten ... Dot, you’re sure Ed understood that we have a friend there?”
“He seemed to, Doc. I watched them. They got along--practically buddies.”
Paul saw the bandage was still on Mijok’s arm, earth-stained and with fragments of gray moss, but not disarranged; the bandage on his own shoulder had been removed. The flying beast’s attack had left only a heavy scratch, which looked clean; there was no pain, only an itching. The meadow was empty of brown wings. The dead fish were gone from the lake. Perhaps other scavengers had been busy in the thirteen-hour night. The water was an innocent blue, a luminous stillness under the sun.
Mijok stole out into the grass, gazing westward along the line where meadow met jungle. Returning, he squatted by Wright and muttered, “Migan.” He spread a hand three feet above the ground; two fingers drooped and indicated the motion of walking legs. Paul suggested: “Pygmies?”
“Could be.” Mijok stared eloquently at Wright’s rifle then crouched at the barrier of branches, complaining in his throat. Taking up his own rifle, Paul joined him. Dorothy hurried to the lifeboat and came back with field glasses for him and Wright and herself. In spite of the great planet’s heavy pull, her body moved with even more light easiness than it had shown in the unreal years of Argo. With the glasses, vague motion a quarter mile away in the meadow leaped shockingly into precision.