Arthur Lanceford slapped futilely at the sith buzzing hungrily around his head. The outsized eight-legged parody of a mosquito did a neat half roll and zoomed out of range, hanging motionless on vibrating wings a few feet away.
A raindrop staggered it momentarily, and for a fleeting second, Lanceford had the insane hope that the arthropod would fall out of control into the mud. If it did, that would be the end of it, for Niobian mud was as sticky as flypaper. But the sith righted itself inches short of disaster, buzzed angrily and retreated to the shelter of a nearby broadleaf, where it executed another half roll and hung upside down, watching its intended meal with avid anticipation.
Lanceford eyed the insect distastefully as he explored his jacket for repellent and applied the smelly stuff liberally to his face and neck. It wouldn’t do much good. In an hour, his sweat would remove whatever the rain missed--but for that time, it should discourage the sith. As far as permanent discouraging went, the repellent was useless. Once one of those eight-legged horrors checked you off, there were only two possible endings to the affair--either you were bitten or you killed the critter.
It was as simple as that.
He had hoped that he would be fast enough to get the sith before it got him. He had been bitten once already and the memory of those paralyzed three minutes while the bloodsucker fed was enough to last him for a lifetime. He readjusted his helmet, tucking its fringe of netting beneath his collar. The netting, he reflected gloomily, was like its owner--much the worse for wear. However, this trek would be over in another week and he would be able to spend the next six months at a comfortable desk job at the Base, while some other poor devil did the chores of field work.
He looked down the rain-swept trail winding through the jungle. Niobe--a perfect name for this wet little world. The Bureau of Extraterrestrial Exploration couldn’t have picked a better, but the funny thing about it was that they hadn’t picked it in the first place. Niobe was the native word for Earth, or perhaps “the world” would be a more accurate definition. It was a coincidence, of course, but the planet and its mythological Greek namesake had much in common.
Niobe, like Niobe, was all tears--a world of rain falling endlessly from an impenetrable overcast, fat wet drops that formed a grieving background sound that never ceased, sobbing with soft mournful noises on the rubbery broadleaves, crying with obese splashes into forest pools, blubbering with loud, dismal persistence on the sounding board of his helmet. And on the ground, the raindrops mixed with the loesslike soil of the trail to form a gluey mud that clung in huge pasty balls to his boots.
Everywhere there was water, running in rivulets of tear-streaks down the round cheeks of the gently sloping land--rivulets that merged and blended into broad shallow rivers that wound their mourners’ courses to the sea. Trekking on Niobe was an amphibious operation unless one stayed in the highlands--a perpetual series of fords and river crossings.
And it was hot, a seasonless, unchanging, humid heat that made a protection suit an instrument of torture that slowly boiled its wearer in his own sweat. But the suit was necessary, for exposed human flesh was irresistible temptation to Niobe’s bloodsucking insects. Many of these were no worse than those of Earth, but a half dozen species were deadly. The first bite sensitized. The second killed--anaphylactic shock, the medics called it. And the sith was one of the deadly species.
Lanceford shrugged fatalistically. Uncomfortable as a protection suit was, it was better to boil in it than die without it.
He looked at Kron squatting beside the trail and envied him. It was too bad that Earthmen weren’t as naturally repellent to insects as the dominant native life. Like all Niobians, the native guide wore no clothing--ideal garb for a climate like this. His white, hairless hide, with its faint sheen of oil, was beautifully water-repellent.
Kron, Lanceford reflected, was a good example of the manner in which Nature adapts the humanoid form for survival on different worlds. Like the dominant species on every intelligent planet in the explored galaxy, he was an erect, bipedal, mammalian being with hands that possessed an opposable thumb. Insofar as that general description went, Kron resembled humanity--but there were differences.
Squatting, the peculiar shape of Kron’s torso and the odd flexibility of his limbs were not apparent. One had the tendency to overlook the narrow-shouldered, cylindrical body and the elongated tarsal and carpal bones that gave his limbs four major articulations rather than the human three, and to concentrate upon the utterly alien head.
It jutted forward from his short, thick neck, a long-snouted, vaguely doglike head with tiny ears lying close against the hairless, dome-shaped cranium. Slitlike nostrils, equipped with sphincter muscles like those of a terrestrial seal, argued an originally aquatic environment, and the large intelligent eyes set forward in the skull to give binocular vision, together with the sharp white carnassial teeth and pointed canines, indicated a carnivorous ancestry. But the modern Niobians, although excellent swimmers, were land dwellers and ate anything.
Lanceford couldn’t repress an involuntary shudder at some of the things they apparently enjoyed. Tastes differed--enormously so between Earthmen and Niobians.
There was no doubt that the native was intelligent, yet he, like the rest of his race, was a technological moron. It was strange that a race which had a well-developed philosophy and an amazing comprehension of semantics could be so backward in mechanics. Even the simpler of the BEE’s mechanisms left the natives confused. It was possible that they could learn about machinery, but Lanceford was certain that it would take a good many years before the first native mechanic would set up a machine shop on this planet.
Lanceford finished tucking the last fold of face net under his collar, and as he did so, Kron stood up, rising to his five-foot height with a curious flexible grace. Standing, he looked something like a double-jointed alabaster Anubis--wearing swim fins. His broad, webbed feet rested easily on the surface of the mud, their large area giving him flotation that Lanceford envied. As a result, his head was nearly level with that of the human, although there was better than a foot difference in their heights.
Lanceford looked at Kron inquiringly. “You have a place in mind where we can sleep tonight?”
“Sure, Boss. We’ll be coming to hunthouse soon. We go now?”
“Lead on,” Lanceford said, groaning silently to himself--another hunthouse with its darkness and its smells. He shrugged. He could hardly expect anything else up here in the highlands. Oh, well, he’d managed to last through the others and this one could be no worse. At that, even an airless room full of natives was preferable to spending a night outside. And the sith wouldn’t follow them. It didn’t like airless rooms filled with natives.
He sighed wearily as he followed Kron along the dim path through the broadleaf jungle. Night was coming, and with darkness, someone upstairs turned on every faucet and the sheets of rain that fell during the day changed abruptly into a deluge. Even the semi-aquatic natives didn’t like to get caught away from shelter during the night.
The three moved onward, immersed in a drumming wilderness of rain--the Niobian sliding easily over the surface of the mud, the Earthman plowing painfully through it, and the sith flitting from the shelter of one broadleaf to the next, waiting for a chance to feed.
The trail widened abruptly, opening upon one of the small clearings that dotted the rain-forest jungle. In the center of the clearing, dimly visible through the rain and thickening darkness, loomed the squat thatch-roofed bulk of a hunthouse, a place of shelter for the members of the hunters’ guild who provided fresh meat for the Niobian villages. Lanceford sighed a mingled breath of relief and unpleasant anticipation.
As he stepped out into the clearing, the sith darted from cover, heading like a winged bullet for Lanceford’s neck. But the man was not taken by surprise. Pivoting quickly, he caught the iridescent blur of the bloodsucker’s wings. He swung his arm in a mighty slap. The high-pitched buzz and Lanceford’s gloved hand met simultaneously at his right ear. The buzz stopped abruptly. Lanceford shook his head and the sith fell to the ground, satisfactorily swatted. Lanceford grinned--score one for the human race.
He was still grinning as he pushed aside the fiber screen closing the low doorway of the hunthouse and crawled inside. It took a moment for his eyes to become accustomed to the gloom within, but his nose told him even before his eyes that the house was occupied. The natives, he thought wryly, must be born with no sense of smell, otherwise they’d perish from sheer propinquity. One could never honestly say that familiarity with the odor of a Niobian bred contempt--nausea was the right word.
The interior was typical, a dark rectangle of windowless limestone walls enclosing a packed-dirt floor and lined with a single deck of wooden sleeping platforms. Steeply angled rafters of peeled logs intersected at a knife-sharp ridge pierced with a circular smokehole above the firepit in the center of the room. Transverse rows of smaller poles lashed to the rafters supported the thick broadleaf thatch that furnished protection from the rain and sanctuary for uncounted thousands of insects.
A fire flickered ruddily in the pit, hissing as occasional drops of rain fell into its heart from the smokehole, giving forth a dim light together with clouds of smoke and steam that rose upward through the tangled mass of greasy cobwebs filling the upper reaches of the rafters. Some of the smoke found its way through the smokehole, but most of it hung in an acrid undulating layer some six feet above the floor.
The glow outlined the squatting figures of a dozen or so natives clustered around the pit, watching the slowly rotating carcass of a small deerlike rodent called a sorat, which was broiling on a spit above the flames. Kron was already in the ring, talking earnestly to one of the hunters--a fellow-tribesman, judging from the tattoo on his chest.
To a Niobian, the scene was ordinary, but to Lanceford it could have been lifted bodily from the inferno. He had seen it before, but the effect lost nothing by repetition. There was a distinctly hellish quality to it--to the reds and blacks of the flickering fire and the shadows. He wouldn’t have been particularly surprised if Satan himself appeared in the center of the firepit complete with horns, hoofs and tail. A hunthouse, despite its innocuousness, looked like the southeast corner of Hades.
Clustered around the fire, the hunters turned to look at him curiously and, after a single eye-filling stare, turned back again. Niobians were almost painfully polite. Although Earthmen were still enough of a curiosity to draw attention, one searching look was all their customs allowed. Thereafter, they minded their own business. In some ways, Lanceford reflected, native customs had undeniable merit.
Presently Kron rose from his place beside the fire and pointed out two empty sleeping platforms where they would spend the night. Lanceford chose one and sank wearily to its resilient surface. Despite its crude construction, a Niobian sleeping platform was comfortable. He removed his pack, pulled off his mud-encrusted boots and lay back with a grunt of relaxation. After a day like this, it was good to get off his feet. Weariness flowed over him.
He awoke to the gentle pressure of Kron’s hand squeezing his own. “The food is cooked,” the Niobian said, “and you are welcomed to share it.”
Lanceford nodded, his stomach crawling with unpleasant anticipation. A native meal was something he would prefer to avoid. His digestive system could handle the unsavory mess, but his taste buds shrank from the forthcoming assault. What the natives classed as a delicate and elusive flavor was sheer torture to an Earthman.
Possibly there was some connection between their inefficient olfactory apparatus and their odd ideas of flavor, but whatever the physical explanation might be, it didn’t affect the fact that eating native food was an ordeal. Yet he couldn’t refuse. That would be discourteous and offensive, and one simply didn’t offend the natives. The BEE was explicit about that. Courtesy was a watchword on Niobe.
He took a place by the fire, watching with concealed distaste as one of the hunters reached into the boiling vat beside the firepit with a pair of wooden tongs and drew forth the native conception of a hors d’oeuvre. They called it vorkum--a boiled sorat paunch stuffed with a number of odorous ingredients. It looked almost as bad as it smelled.
The hunter laid the paunch on a wooden trencher, scraped the greenish scum from its surface and sliced it open. The odor poured out, a gagging essence of decaying vegetables, rotten eggs and overripe cheese.
Lanceford’s eyes watered, his stomach tautened convulsively, but the Niobians eyed the reeking semi-solid eagerly. No meal on Niobe was considered worthy of the name unless a generous helping of vorkum started it off.
An entree like that could ruin the most rugged human appetite, but when it was the forerunner of a main dish of highly spiced barbecue, vorkum assumed the general properties of an emetic. Lanceford grimly controlled the nausea and tactfully declined the greasy handful which Kron offered. The Niobian never seemed to learn. At every meal they had eaten during their past month of travel on Niobe, Kron had persistently offered him samples of the mess. With equal persistence, he had refused. After all, there were limits.
But polite convention required that he eat something, so he took a small portion of the barbecued meat and dutifully finished it. The hunters eyed him curiously, apparently wondering how an entity who could assimilate relatively untasty sorat should refuse the far greater delicacy of vorkum. But it was a known fact that the ways of Earthmen were strange and unaccountable.
The hunters didn’t protest when he retired to his sleeping platform and the more acceptable concentrates from his pack. His hunger satisfied, he lay back on the resilient vines and fell into a sleep of exhaustion. It had been a hard day.
Lanceford’s dreams were unpleasant. Nightmare was the usual penalty of sitting in on a Niobian meal and this one was worse than usual. Huge siths, reeking of vorkum, pursued him as he ran naked and defenseless across a swampy landscape that stretched interminably ahead. The clinging mud reduced his speed to a painful crawl as he frantically beat off the attacks of the blood-suckers.
The climax was horror. One of the siths slipped through his frantically beating hands and bit him on the face. The shocking pain of the bite wakened him, a cry of terror and anguish still on his lips.
He looked around wildly. He was still in the hunthouse. It was just a dream.
He chuckled shakily. These nightmares sometimes were too real for comfort. He was drenched with sweat, which was not unusual, but there was a dull ache in his head and the hot tense pain that encompassed the right side of his face had not been there when he had fallen asleep.
He touched his face with a tentative finger, exploring the hot puffiness and the enormously swollen ear with a gentle touch. It was where he had struck the sith, but surely he couldn’t have hit that hard.
He gasped, a soft breath of dismay, as realization dawned. He had smashed the sith hard enough to squeeze some of the insect’s corrosive body juices through his face net--and they had touched his skin! That wouldn’t normally have been bad, but the sith bite he had suffered a week ago had sensitized him. He was developing an anaphylactic reaction--a severe one, judging from the swelling.
That was the trouble with exploration; one occasionally forgot that a world was alien. Occasionally danger tended to recede into a background of familiarity--he had smashed the sith before it had bitten him, so therefore it couldn’t hurt him. He grimaced painfully, the movement bringing another twinge to his swollen face. He should have known better.
He swore mildly as he opened his Aid Kit and extracted a sterile hypo. The super-antihistamine developed by the Bureau was an unpredictable sort of thing. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. He removed the screw cap that sealed the needle and injected the contents of the syringe into his arm. He hoped that this was one of the times the drug worked. If it wasn’t, he reflected grimly, he wouldn’t be long for this world.
He sighed and lay back. There wasn’t anything more to do now. All he could do was wait and see if the anti-allergen worked.
The Bureau of Extraterrestrial Exploration had discovered Niobe barely three years ago, yet already the planet was famous not only for its peculiar climate, but also for the number of men who had died upon its watery surface. Knowledge of this planet was bought with life, grim payment to decrease the lag between discovery and the day men could live and work on Niobe without having to hide beneath domes or behind protection suits. Lanceford never questioned the necessity or the inevitable price that must be paid. Like every other BEE agent, he knew that Niobe was crash priority--a world that had to be understood in minimum time.
For Niobe was a made to order herbarium for a swampland plant called viscaya. The plant was originally native to Algon IV, but had been spread to practically every suitable growth center in the Galaxy. It was the source of a complex of alkaloids known as gerontin, and gerontin had the property of tripling or quadrupling the normal life span of mammals.
It was obvious that viscayaculture should have a tremendous distribution throughout the Confederation worlds. But unfortunately the right conditions existed in very few places in the explored galaxy. Despite the fact that most life is based on carbon, oxygen and water, there is still very little free water in the Galaxy. Most planets of the Confederation are semi-arid, with the outstanding exceptions of Terra and Lyrane. But these two worlds were the seats of human and humanoid power for so long that all of their swampland had been drained and reclaimed centuries ago.
And it was doubly unfortunate that gerontin so far defied synthesis. According to some eminent chemists, the alkaloid would probably continue to do so until some facet of the Confederation reached a Class VIII culture level. Considering that Terra and Lyrane, the two highest cultures, were only Class VII, and that Class level steps took several thousands of years to make, a policy of waiting for synthesis was not worth considering.
The result was that nobody was happy until Niobe was discovered. The price of illicit gerontin was astronomical and most of the Confederation’s supply of the drug was strictly rationed to those whom the government thought most valuable to the Confederation as a whole. Of course, the Confederation officialdom was included, which caused considerable grumbling. In the nick of time, Niobe appeared upon the scene, and Niobe had environment in abundance!
The wheels of the Confederation began to turn. The BEE was given a blank check and spurred on by a government which, in turn, was being spurred on by the people who composed it. The exploration of Niobe proceeded at all possible speed. With so many considerations weighed against them, what did a few lives matter? For the sake of the billions of humanoids in the Confederation, their sacrifice was worthwhile even if only a few days or hours were saved between discovery and exploitation.
Lanceford groaned as a violent pain shot through his head. The anti-allergin apparently wasn’t going to work, for it should have had some effect by now. He shrugged mentally--it was the chance one took in this business. But he couldn’t say that he hadn’t been warned. Even old Sims had told him, called him a unit in the BEE’s shortcut trial and error scheme--an error, it looked like now.
Seemed rather silly--a Class VII civilization using techniques that were old during the Dark Ages before the Atomic Revolution, sending foot parties to explore a world in the chance that they might discover something that the search mechs missed--anything that would shorten the lag time. It was incomprehensible, but neither Sims nor the BEE would do a thing like this without reason. And whatever it was, he wasn’t going to worry about it. In fact, there wasn’t much time left to worry. The reaction was observably and painfully worse.
It was important that the news of his death and the specimens he had collected get back to Base Alpha. They might have value in this complex game Alvord Sims was playing with men, machines and Niobe. But Base Alpha was a good hundred miles away and, in his present condition, he couldn’t walk a hundred feet.
For a moment, he considered setting up the powerful little transmitter he carried in his pack, but his first abortive motion convinced him it was useless. The blinding agony that swept through him at the slightest movement left no doubt that he would never finish the business of setting up the antenna, let alone send a message.
It was a crime that handie-talkies couldn’t be used here on Niobe, but their range, limited at best, was practically nonexistent on a planet that literally seemed to be one entire “dead spot.” A fixed-frequency job broadcasting on a directional beam was about the only thing that could cover distance, and that required a little technical know-how to set up the antenna and focus it on Base Alpha. There would be no help from Kron. Despite his intelligence, the native could no more assemble a directional antenna than spread pink wings and fly.
There was only one thing to do--get a note off to Sims, if he could still write, and ask Kron to deliver the note and his pack to the Base.
He fumbled with his jacket, and with some pain produced a stylus and a pad. But it was difficult to write. Painful, too. Better get Kron over here while he could still talk and tell him what he wanted.
The stylus slipped from numb fingers as Lanceford called hoarsely, “Kron! Come here! I need you!”
Kron looked down compassionately at the swollen features of the Earthman. He had seen the kef effect before, among the young of his people who were incautious or inexperienced, but he had never seen it among the aliens. Surprisingly, the effects were the same--the livid swellings, the gasping breath, the pain. Strange how these foreigners reacted like his own people.
He scratched his head and pulled thoughtfully at one of his short ears. It was his duty to help Lanceford, but how could he? The Earthman had denied his help for weeks, and Niobians simply didn’t disregard another’s wishes. Kron scowled, the action lending a ferocious cast to his doglike face. Tolerance was a custom hallowed by ages of practice. It went to extremes--even with life at stake, a person’s wishes and beliefs must be respected.
Kron buried his long-snouted head in his hands, a gesture that held in it all the frustration which filled him.
The human was apparently resolved to die. He had told Kron his last wishes, which didn’t include a request for help, but merely to get his pack back to the others in their glass dome. It was astonishing that such an obviously intelligent species should have so little flexibility. They didn’t understand the first principles of adaptation. Always and forever, they held to their own ways, trying with insensate stubbornness to mold nature to their will--and when nature overcome their artificial defenses, they died, stubborn, unregenerate, inflexible to the end. They were odd, these humans--odd and a little frightening.
Lanceford breathed wheezily. The swelling had invaded the inner tissues of his throat and was beginning to compress his windpipe. It was uncomfortable, like inhaling liquid fire, and then there was the constant desire to cough and the physical inability to do so.
“Dirty luck,” he whispered. “Only a week more and I’d have had it made--the longest trek a man’s made on this benighted planet.”
Kron nodded, but then belatedly realized that the human was muttering to himself. He listened. There might be something important in these dying murmurings, something that might explain their reasons for being here and their strange driving haste that cared nothing for life.
“It’s hard to die so far from one’s people, but I guess that can’t be helped. Old Sims gave me the score. Like he said, a man doesn’t have much choice of where he dies in the BEE.”
“You don’t want to die!” Kron exploded.
“Of course not,” Lanceford said with weak surprise. He hadn’t dreamed that Kron was nearby. This might well destroy the Imperturbable Earthman myth that the BEE had fostered.
“Not even if it is in accord with your customs and rituals?”
“Your clothing, your eating habits, your ointments--are these not part of your living plan?”
Despite the pain that tore at his throat, Lanceford managed a chuckle. This was ridiculous. “Hell, no! Our only design for living is to stay alive, particularly on jobs like this one. We don’t wear these suits and repellent because we like to. We do it to stay alive. If we could, we’d go around nearly as naked as you do.”
“Do you mind if I help you?” Kron asked diffidently. “I think I can cure you.” He leaned forward anxiously to get the man’s reply.
“I’d take a helping hand from the devil himself, if it would do any good.”
Kron’s eyes were brilliant. He hummed softly under his breath, the Niobian equivalent of laughter. “And all the time we thought--” he began, and then broke off abruptly. Already too much time was wasted without losing any more in meditating upon the ironies of life.
He turned toward the firepit, searched for a moment among the stones, nodded with satisfaction and returned to where Lanceford lay. The hunthouse was deserted save for himself and the Earthman. With characteristic Niobian delicacy, the hunters had left, preferring to endure the night rain than be present when the alien died. Kron was thankful that they were gone, for what he was about to do would shock their conservative souls.
Lanceford was dimly conscious of Kron prying his swollen jaws apart and forcing something wet and slippery down his throat. He swallowed, the act a tearing pain to the edematous membranes of his gullet, but the stuff slid down, leaving a trail of fire in its wake. The act triggered another wave of pain that left him weak and gasping. He couldn’t take much more of this. It wouldn’t be long now before the swelling invaded his lungs to such a degree that he would strangle. It wasn’t a pleasant way to die.
And then, quite suddenly, the pain eased. A creeping numbness spread like a warm black blanket over his outraged nervous system. The stuff Kron had given him apparently had some anesthetic properties. He felt dimly grateful, even though the primitive native nostrum would probably do no good other than to ease the pain.
The blackness went just far enough to paralyze the superficial areas of his nervous system. It stopped the pain and left him unable to move, but the deeper pathways of thought and reason remained untouched. He was conscious, although no external sensation intruded on his thoughts. He couldn’t see Kron--the muscles that moved his eyes were as paralyzed as the other muscles of his body and the native was outside his field of vision--but somehow he knew exactly what the Niobian was doing. He was washing mucus from his hands in a bowl of water standing beside the fire pit _and he was wondering wryly whether forced feeding was on the list of human tabus_!
Lanceford’s mind froze, locked in a peculiar contact that was more than awareness. The sensation was indescribable. It was like looking through an open door into the living room of a stranger’s house.
He was aware of the incredible complexity and richness of Kron’s thoughts, of oddly sardonic laughter, of pity and regret that such a little thing as understanding should cause death and suffering through its lack, of bewildered admiration for the grim persistence of the alien Earthmen, mixed with a wondering curiosity about what kept them here--what the true reasons were for their death-defying persistence and stubbornness--of an ironic native paraphrase for the Terran saying, “Every man to his own taste,” and a profound speculation upon what fruits might occur from true understanding between his own race and the aliens.
It was a strangely jumbled kaleidoscopic flash that burned across the explorer’s isolated mind, a flash that passed almost as soon as it had come, as though an invisible door had closed upon it.
But one thing in that briefly shocking contact stood out with great clarity. The Niobians were as eager as the BEE to establish a true contact, a true understanding, for the message was there, plain in Kron’s mind that he was thinking not only for himself but for a consensus of his people, a decision arrived at as a result of discussion and thought--a decision of which every Niobian was aware and with which most Niobians agreed.