Numb with the terror that had dogged him from the moment he regained consciousness and found himself naked and weaponless, Farrell had no idea how long he had been lost in the honeycombed darkness of the Hymenop dome.
The darkness and damp chill of air told him that he was far underground, possibly at the hive’s lowest level. Somewhere above him, the silent audience chambers lay shrouded in lesser gloom, heavy with the dust of generations and peopled only by cryptic apian images. Outside the dome, in a bend of lazy silver river, sprawled the Sadr III village with its stoic handful of once-normal Terran colonists and, on the hillside above the village, Gibson and Stryker and Xavier would be waiting for him in the disabled Marco Four.
Waiting for him...
They might as well have been back on Terra, five hundred light-years away.
Six feet away on either side, the corridor walls curved up faintly, a flattened oval of tunneling designed for multiple alien feet, lighted for faceted eyes demanding the merest fraction of light necessary for an Earthman’s vision. For two yards Farrell could see dimly, as through a heavy fog; beyond was nothing but darkness and an outlandish labyrinth of cross-branching corridors that spiraled on forever without end.
Behind him, his pursuers--human natives or Hymenop invaders, he had no way of knowing which--drew nearer with a dry minor rustling whose suggestion of imminent danger sent Farrell plunging blindly on into the maze.
--To halt, sweating, when a sound exactly similar came to him from ahead.
It was what he had feared from the beginning. He could not go on, and he could not go back.
He made out the intersecting corridor to his right, then a vague oval opening that loomed faintly grayer than the wall about it. He darted into it as into a sanctuary, and realized too late that the choice had been forced upon him.
It had been intended from the start that he should take this way. He had been herded here like a halterless beast, driven by the steady threat of action never quite realized. They had known where he was going, and why.
But there was light down there somewhere at the end of the tunnel’s aimless wanderings. If, once there, he could see--
He did not find light, only a lesser darkness. The tunnel led him into a larger place whose outer reaches were lost in shadow, but whose central area held a massive cylindrical machine at once alien and familiar.
He went toward it hesitantly, confused for the moment by a paramnesiac sense of repeated experience, the specious recognition of déjà vu.
It was a Ringwave generator, and it was the thing he had ventured into the dome to find.
His confusion stemmed from its resemblance to the disabled generator aboard the Marco Four, and from the stereo-sharp associations it evoked: Gibson working over the ship’s power plant, his black-browed face scowling and intent, square brown body moving with a wrestler’s easy economy of motion; Stryker, bald and fat and worried, wheezing up and down the companionway from engine bay to chart room, his concern divided between Gibson’s task and Farrell’s long silence in the dome.
Stryker at this moment would be regretting the congenital optimism that had prompted him to send his navigator where he himself could not go. Sweating anxiety would have replaced Stryker’s pontifical assurance, dried up his smug pattering of socio-psychological truisms lifted from the Colonial Reclamations Handbook...
“So far as adaptability is concerned,” Stryker had said an eternal evening before, “homo sapiens can be a pretty weird species. More given to mulish paradox, perhaps, than any alien life-form we’re ever likely to run across out here.”
He had shifted his bulk comfortably on the grass under the Marco Four’s open port, undisturbed by the busy clatter of tools inside the ship where Gibson and Xavier, the Marco’s mechanical, worked over the disabled power plant. He laced his fingers across his fat paunch and peered placidly through the dusk at Farrell, who lay on his back, smoking and watching the stars grow bright in the evening sky.
“Isolate a human colony from its parent planet for two centuries, enslave it for half that time to a hegemony as foreign as the Hymenops’ hive-culture before abandoning it to its own devices, and anything at all in the way of eccentric social controls can develop. But men remain basically identical, Arthur, in spite of acquired superficial changes. They are inherently incapable of evolving any system of control mechanisms that cannot be understood by other men, provided the environmental circumstances that brought that system into being are known. At bottom, these Sadr III natives are no different from ourselves. Heredity won’t permit it.”
Farrell, half listening, had been staring upward between the icy white brilliance of Deneb and the twin blue-and-yellow jewels of Albireo, searching for a remote twinkle of Sol. Five hundred light-years away out there, he was thinking, lay Earth. And from Earth all this gaudy alien glory was no more than another point of reference for backyard astronomers, a minor configuration casually familiar and unremarkable.
A winking of lighted windows springing up in the village downslope brought his attention back to the scattered cottages by the river, and to the great disquieting curve of the Hymenop dome that rose above them like a giant above pygmies. He sat up restlessly, the wind ruffling his hair and whirling the smoke of his cigarette away in thin flying spirals.
“You sound as smug as the Reorientation chapter you lifted that bit from,” Farrell said. “But it won’t apply here, Lee. The same thing happened to these people that happened to the other colonists we’ve found, but they don’t react the same. Either those Hymenop devils warped them permanently or they’re a tribe of congenital maniacs.”
Stryker prodded him socratically: “Particulars?”
“When we crashed here five weeks ago, there were an even thousand natives in the village, plus or minus a few babes in arms. Since that time they’ve lost a hundred twenty-six members, all suicides or murders. At first the entire population turned out at sunrise and went into the dome for an hour before going to the fields; since we came, that period has shortened progressively to a few minutes. That much we’ve learned by observation. By direct traffic we’ve learned exactly nothing except that they can speak Terran Standard, but won’t. What sort of system is that?”
Stryker tugged uncomfortably at the rim of white hair the years had left him. “It’s a stumper for the moment, I’ll admit ... if they’d only talk to us, if they’d tell us what their wants and fears and problems are, we’d know what is wrong and what to do about it. But controls forced on them by the Hymenops, or acquired since their liberation, seem to have altered their original ideology so radically that--”
“That they’re plain batty,” Farrell finished for him. “The whole setup is unnatural, Lee. Consider this: We sent Xavier out to meet the first native that showed up, and the native talked to him. We heard it all by monitoring; his name was Tarvil, he spoke Terran Standard, and he was amicable. Then we showed ourselves, and when he saw that we were human beings like himself and not mechanicals like Xav, he clammed up. So did everyone in the village. It worries me, Lee. If they didn’t expect men to come out of the Marco, then what in God’s name did they expect?”
He sat up restlessly and stubbed out his cigarette. “It’s an unimportant world anyway, all ocean except for this one small continent. I think we ought to write it off and get the hell out as soon as the Marco‘s Ringwave is repaired.”
“We can’t write it off,” Stryker said. “Besides reclaiming a colony, we may have added a valuable marine food source to the Federation. Arthur, you’re not letting a handful of disoriented people get under your skin, are you?”
Farrell made an impatient sound and lit another cigarette. The brief flare of his lighter pierced the darkness and picked out a hurried movement a short stone’s throw away, between the Marco Four and the village.
“There’s one reason why I’m edgy,” Farrell said. “These Sadrians may be harmless, but they make a point of posting a guard over us. There’s a sentry out there in the grass flats again tonight.” He turned on Stryker uneasily. “I’ve watched on the infra-scanner while those sentries changed shifts, and they don’t speak to each other. I’ve tracked them back to the village, but I’ve never seen one of them turn in a--”
Down in the village a man screamed, a raw, tortured sound that brought both men up stiffly. A frantic drumming of running feet came to them, unmistakable across the little distance. The fleeing man came up from the dark huddle of cottages by the river and out across the grass flats, screaming.
Pursuit overtook him halfway to the ship. There was a brief scuffling, a shadowy dispersal of silent figures. After that, nothing.
“They did it again,” Farrell said. “One of them tried to come up here to us. The others killed him, and who’s to say what sort of twisted motive prompted them? They go to the dome together every morning, not speaking. They work all day in the fields without so much as looking at each other. But every night at least one of them tries to escape from the village and come up here--and this is what happens. We couldn’t trust them, Lee, even if we could understand them!”
“It’s our job to understand them,” Stryker said doggedly. “Our function is to find colonies disoriented by the Hymenops and to set them straight if we can. If we can’t, we call in a long-term reorientation crew, and within three generations the culture will pass again for Terran. The fact that slave colonies invariably lose their knowledge of longevity helps; they don’t get it back until they’re ready for it.
“I’ve seen some pretty foul results of Hymenop experimenting on human colonies, Arthur. There was the ninth planet of Beta Pegasi--rediscovered in 3910, I think it was--that developed a religious fixation on fertility, a mania fostered by the Hymenops to supply expendable labor for their mines. The natives stopped mining when the Hymenops gave up the invasion and went back to 70 Ophiuchi, but they were still multiplying like rabbits when we found them. They followed a cultural conviction something like that observed in Oriental races of ancient Terran history, but they didn’t pursue the Oriental tradition of sacrosancts. They couldn’t--there were too many of them. By the time they were found, they numbered fourteen billions and they were eating each other. Still it took only three generations to set them straight.”
He took one of Farrell’s cigarettes and puffed it placidly.
“For that matter, Earth had her own share of eccentric cultures. I recall reading about one that existed as late as the twentieth century and equaled anything we’re likely to find here. Any society should be geared to a set of social controls designed to furnish it, as a whole with a maximum of pleasure and a minimum of discomfort, but these ancient Terrestrial Dobuans--island aborigines, as I remember it--had adjusted to their total environment in a manner exactly opposite. They reversed the norm and became a society of paranoiacs, hating each other in direct ratio to nearness of relationship. Husbands and wives detested each other, sons and fathers--”
“Now you’re pulling my leg,” Farrell protested. “A society like that would be too irrational to function.”
“But the system worked,” Stryker insisted. “It balanced well enough, as long as they were isolated. They accepted it because it was all they knew, and an abrupt reversal that negated their accustomed habits would create an impossible societal conflict. They were reoriented after the Fourth War, and succeeding generations adjusted to normal living without difficulty.”
A sound from overhead made them look up. Gibson was standing in the Marco’s open port.
“Conference,” Gibson said in his heavy baritone, and went back inside.
They followed Gibson quickly and without question, more disturbed by the terse order than by the killing in the grass flats. Knowing Gibson, they realized that he would not have wasted even that one word unless emergency justified it.
They found him waiting in the chart room with Xavier. For the thousandth time, seeing the two together, Farrell found himself comparing them: the robot, smoothly functional from flexible gray plastoid body to featureless oval faceplate, blandly efficient, totally incapable of emotion; Gibson, short and dark and competent heavy-browed and humorless. Except for initiative, Farrell thought, the two of them could have traded identities and no one would have been able to notice any difference.
“Xav and I found our Ringwave trouble,” Gibson said. “The generator is functioning, but the warp isn’t going out. Something here on Sadr III is neutralizing it.”
They stared at him as if he had just told them the planet was flat.
“But a Ringwave can’t be stopped completely, once it is started,” Stryker protested. “You’d have to dismantle it to shut it off, Gib!”
“The warping field can be damped out, though,” Gibson said. “Adjacent generators operating at different phase levels will heterodyne at a frequency representing the mean variance between levels. The resulting beat-phase will be too low to maintain either field, and one or the other, or both, will blank out. If you remember, all Terran-designed power plants are set to the same phase for that reason.”
“But these natives can’t have a Ringwave plant!” Farrell argued. “There’s only this one village on Sadr III, Gib, an insignificant little agrarian township! If they had the Ringwave, they’d be mechanized. They’d have vehicles, landing ports...”
“The Hymenops had the Ringwave,” Gibson interrupted. “And they left the dome down there, the first undamaged one we’ve found. Figure it out for yourselves.”
They digested the statement in silence. Stryker paled slowly, as if it needed time for apprehension to work its way through his fat bulk. Farrell’s uneasiness, sourceless until now, grew to chill certainty.
“I think I’ve expected this, without realizing it, since my first flight,” he said. “It stood to reason that the Hymenops would quit running somewhere, that we’d bump into them eventually out here on the fringes. Twenty thousand light-years back to 70 Ophiuchi is a long way to retreat ... Gib, do you think they’re still here?”
Gibson did not shrug, but his voice seemed to. “It won’t matter one way or the other unless we can clear the Marco’s generator.”
From another man it might have been irony. Knowing Gibson, Farrell and Stryker accepted it as a bald statement of fact.
“Then we’re up against a Hymenop hive-mind,” Stryker said. “And we can’t run away from it. Any suggestions?”
“We’ll have to find the interfering generator and stop it,” Farrell offered, knowing that was the only obvious solution.
“One alternative,” Gibson corrected. “If we can determine what phase-level the interfering warp uses, we may be able to adjust the Marco’s generator to match it. Once they’re in resonance, they won’t interfere.” He caught Stryker’s unspoken question and answered it. “It would take a week. Maybe longer.”
Stryker vetoed the alternative. “Too long. If there are Hymenops here, they won’t give us that much time.”
Farrell switched on the chart room scanning screen and centered it on the village downslope. Scattered cottages with dark tiled roofs and lamp-bright windows showed up clearly. Out of their undisciplined grouping swept the great hemispherical curve of the dome, glinting dully metallic in the starshine.
“Maybe we’re jumping to conclusions,” he said. “We’ve been here for five weeks without seeing a trace of Hymenops, and from what I’ve read of them, they’d have jumped us the minute we landed. Chances are that they left Sadr III in too great a hurry to wreck the dome, and their Ringwave power plant is still running.”
“You may be right,” Stryker said, brightening. “They carried the fight to us from the first skirmish, two hundred years ago, and they damned near beat us before we learned how to fight them.”
He looked at Xavier’s silent plastoid figure with something like affection. “We’d have lost that war without Xave’s kind. We couldn’t match wits with Hymenop hive-minds, any more than a swarm of grasshoppers could stand up to a colony of wasps. But we made mechanicals that could. Cybernetic brains and servo-crews, ships that thought for themselves...”
He squinted at the visiscreen with its cryptic, star-streaked dome. “But they don’t think as we do. They may have left a rear guard here, or they may have boobytrapped the dome.”
“One of us will have to find out which it is,” Farrell said. He took a restless turn about the chart room, weighing the probabilities. “It seems to fall in my department.”
Stryker stared. “You? Why?”
“Because I’m the only one who can go. Remember what Gib said about changing the Marco’s Ringwave to resonate with the interfering generator? Gib can make the change; I can’t. You’re--”
“Too old and fat,” Stryker finished for him. “And too damned slow and garrulous. You’re right, of course.”
They let it go at that and put Xavier on guard for the night. The mechanical was infinitely more alert and sensitive to approach than any of the crew, but the knowledge did not make Farrell’s sleep the sounder.
He dozed fitfully, waking a dozen times during the night to smoke cigarettes and to speculate fruitlessly on what he might find in the dome. He was sweating out a nightmare made hideous by monstrous bees that threatened him in buzzing alien voices when Xavier’s polite monotone woke him for breakfast.
Farrell was halfway down the grassy slope to the village when he realized that the Marco was still under watch. Approaching close enough for recognition, he saw that the sentry this time was Tarvil, the Sadrian who had first approached the ship. The native’s glance took in Farrell’s shoulder-pack of testing tools and audiphone, brushed the hand-torch and blast gun at the Terran’s belt, and slid away without trace of expression.