In the village clearing, under the diffuse red sun of Hedlot, Chet Barfield listened intently. Mostly he heard the villagers, the Agvars, noisy with the disregard for sound that comes of defective hearing.
But above their clamor was another note. No ... Yes! There it was again--the swish-roar-scream of a spaceship!
Chet’s heart lifted to the altitude of that ship. Rescue! Rescue was at hand for him, after three years as a prisoner.
Thought of it momentarily overcame the passivity that years of starvation had made his habit. He even forgot himself enough to walk erect a few steps, staring skyward--heavenward!--within cupped hands.
But the dense hardwood chain on his ankle brought him up short. When it tightened, he remembered, and slouched to all fours again, moving with the gorilla-like gait of the Agvars toward the unshaded post he was chained to.
He’d been observed. Pawfulls of dirt stung his bent and whip-scarred back, and a treble chorus stung his ears and nerves. The village boys were chanting derisively. Chet had never been able to learn the language, but the tone of voice was unmistakable.
He huddled against the post, knees to chin, hands clasped around his matted hair, awaiting the inevitable sticks and slops. He heard the children’s voices fade as they scattered throughout the village of haphazard lean-tos in search of especially sickening things to throw. For a few minutes, then, he’d have a breather. But not for long--they wouldn’t forget...
No. But the fellows hadn’t forgotten him, either. He could stand this for a day or two more. A week or a month, even. It didn’t matter. This would end--soon.
His turn would come! He’d make these devils suffer as he had suffered. He swore it!
He was glad he’d stayed alive for this. It had been a fight to live, a struggle he’d often thought futile while he made it. Learning to eat whatever he could get, training himself to breathe the local atmosphere in the special rhythm its composition required, accepting degradations too cruel for a captive animal, avoiding the resistance that would have brought merciful murder ... All that, yet it felt strange, now, to be so glad he was alive.
He heard the children returning, and crouched lower. A few clots of garbage spattered against the post--teasers, to make him angry, so he’d turn to howl his rage, and offer his face as a target.
Good memories, these little beasts had. It was almost a year since he’d last done that...
Well, he had a memory, too. And while they pelted him--from fairly close range, now, with sharp rocks among the wads of filth--he could take refuge in the memory of those last glorious days on Earth.
Remembrance was itself a change brought by the roaring ship; usually he moped in a vegetative daze. But now he recalled how he’d looked in the tight white uniform: six feet of well-fed muscle accentuated by the garment’s lines, the blue stars on each lapel just matching his eyes, the peak of his cap harmonizing with the straight line of his jaw.
He remembered how he’d sounded, speaking words of nonchalant and unfelt modesty in the soft Southern voice the girls had liked so well. He could have had his pick of girls. He’d been a picked man himself.
Highly selected--that was the phrase. He was highly selected, Chet reminded himself, shrinking as the children came closer and their missiles began to really hurt.
He’d been highly selected since his eighteenth year. At 25 he’d had seven years of pre-flight training--seven years of indoctrination specifically designed to give him self-confidence enough to face the void itself without flinching.
Now he flinched from children ... Still, the schooling had worked, he acknowledged--so well that when their ship crashed into this planet Hedlot’s salty sea, his first reaction had been indignation at the elements.
His second thought had been for his comrades. But they went down with the ship; he alone had been hurled clear. Learning that, he’d swum resolutely in the direction he knew the shore to be, and made it.
Exhausted, all right--shocked, naked, half-dead really. But quite ready to point out his rank and identity to the first passer-by.
Lucky for him, Chet mused, that he’d had no chance to express his callow arrogance. Shock saved his life--sank him into a stupor, so when the Agvars found him, he was helpless. He knew it was only because it had seemed perfectly safe that they’d tied him up and brought him to the village, instead of killing him then and there.
By the time he’d recovered somewhat from the initial shock and exhaustion, they were used to him, convinced he was harmless if well chained-up. And they played it safe by giving him nothing but a little water--no clothing, no shelter, no food...
They let him live, amused by the thirst that drove him to lap up each morning’s drenching dew, fascinated by his ravenous appetite for the garbage they flung at him.
The Agvars--furry, savage half-men, with something of the dog and something of the ape and little of the man about them--the Agvars let him live, Chet realized, for exactly one reason: he made them feel superior.
They’d learn now! Even though the children had stopped shrieking and gone away, disgusted at his passivity, no villager’s insensitive ears could yet hear the ship.
In their boastfulness, the Agvars had invited other tribes to come and look at him and poke at him and laugh at him. His presence was known over the whole planet. He’d be found, no matter where on Hedlot the spaceship landed.
And then would come the showdown!
But the showdown came earlier than he expected, speeded because the ship landed close by. Chet told himself he should have counted on that kind of accuracy, but he’d underestimated his fellow pilots.
He had himself signalled Earthside, just before the crash, that his ship was about to land. He’d given his position--described sea and shoreline. They’d find him, if he stayed chained to the post.
But he didn’t. Taken unaware by the Agvars who loosed him, Chet was docile, happy even--certain they wouldn’t hurt him now, but would try to minimize their former cruelty as they turned him over to the spacemen.
When they put new chains on him, around neck and waist, he thought it was only to make sure he didn’t run away before they could deliver him ostentatiously to the ship.
A dozen adult males had gathered in the clearing, but that was hardly an unusual event. Even when they all started out, on a winding trail that didn’t head in the direction of the ship’s recent landing-sounds, Chet was convinced they were just circling some geographic obstacle.
He was interested in the forest of 20-foot mosses and 50-foot evergreen hardwoods pressing densely on each side of the trail. Unconscious when they’d carried him from the beach, he’d never been out of the village since, had never inspected these woods. And he thought his mates from Earth would want to know about them.
Chet could easily have outdistanced the clumsy Agvars if not forced to imitate their crouching walk. But he knew from experience that to show off his erect stance and 18-inch height advantage would make them find some unpleasant way to put him in his place.
They’d shown him that quite often. He’d show them--but later, not just yet. And after showing them, he’d put these Agvars behind him--them, their filthy planet, and their scorching sun.
It had often tortured him, that gauzy, amorphous solar blaze, but never more than now. For the sun of Hedlot, when he glanced at it vengefully, proved from its position that he was not being taken to the ship, but away from it.
Disappointment didn’t rouse Chet to a fighting pitch--it caused him to become crafty. Slyness and deceit, the indirect weapons of the powerless, were not attributes schooled into a student space-pilot. But he’d learned them tied naked to a sunbaked post. That, too, is an effective school.
He hung back, faking fatigue. Malingering brought him pokes and jerks, made the Agvars choke him and beat him and harangue him in their sullen mutter of clicks and growls and glottal catches. But some sense of urgency drove them to give up their fruitless sadism after a while, and drag him through the trail’s blue mud by brute strength, two on the neck-chain, two hauling at his waist.
He let them. Not that he was inured to pain--he just was stubborn.
He wondered, once when they all stopped at a spring for a drink and some rest, whether their haranguing showed the Agvars were sorry they hadn’t taught him their language. Probably not, he decided; probably they didn’t want to think he could have learned it.
He’d tried, in the absence of lessons, by repeating what he heard around him. He’d learned a few words, of course. And for a while, a couple of villagers had seemed to enjoy and encourage his parrot-like attempts to recite whole sentences they voiced for him. But after a few beatings, Chet gathered that he’d only been mouthing obscenities. And that experience, plus inertia, had made him give up the attempt.
Just as well, he now decided. If they’d known of his technical skills, if they’d let him raise their standards, the Agvars might be carrying bows and arrows, instead of mere slings and sticks.
Their hard luck! What they didn’t know, they’d never learn from him! The mere presence of a spaceship on the same planet gave him a buoyant feeling of contempt.
But though contempt helped him endure that journey through the tall mosses and taller trees, it couldn’t ward off exhaustion. When the party stopped at the foot of a sheer rock spire that rose four or five hundred feet above the tallest growth, he collapsed and slept.
They woke him in the pre-dawn twilight and another group of Agvars took over. These--there were only three--looked older than the familiar villagers. And they’d smeared their faces with bands of red and yellow mud. He wondered...
He stopped wondering when they passed a pile of bones at the base of the spire. Among the grisly relics were skulls--brow-ridged, pointed, unmistakably Agvar. Sacrifices!
He was to be killed, then, to propitiate his own rescuers. His three guides--or guards--must be witch-doctors! He let them drag him along while he thought about it.
They’d give him no breakfast, not even water. If they’d eaten themselves, it was while he still slept. The scraps, if any, hadn’t been flung in his face, and there’d been no smooth post to lick the dew from.
Hunger and thirst were nothing new, but neither was the resulting lethargy. Realizing his danger, Chet could only hang back.
Today though that was an old stall; the witch-doctors seemed to expect it. They broke branches from the trees and beat him till he bled. And when the climb up the rocks began, they put one of their number behind him to push, set the other two in front to pull, and tried by main strength to haul him up the five hundred foot rock-face.
Hazily, not hastily, Chet tried to think of a way out. His starved brain could come up with nothing. That, he finally decided, was only natural; it was not thinking that was needed, but action.
Still, he wasn’t precipitate. Caution reinforced his habitual lassitude while trying to dispell it. Half a dozen times he tensed for combat, only to relax hopelessly. But finally he found a place--and the will--to make a stand.
He passed up a wide shelf, and let them tug him along a narrow ledge without much objection. He chose a near-vertical pitch about a hundred feet from the bottom--a mere crack that slanted upward to the right, offering the shallowest of hand- and foot-holds.
He could only hope that he wasn’t in sight from the trail--or else that the villagers had left. He couldn’t see through the treetops to make sure. But he hadn’t the strength to worry.
He froze to the rock, pulling as if in fright. The two witch-doctors in single file above him jerked on the chains they held. But they needed a hand apiece to hold on with, and couldn’t lift him.
The one below, standing on a six-inch ledge, tried to push. When that didn’t work, he broke off a chunk of rock and beat Chet’s left foot with it.
Spurred by the sudden pain, Chet kicked the witch-doctor in the face. The Agvar fell, screaming--until he crashed through the treetops and was still.
To Chet, forgetful of his hearing superiority, it seemed as if that outcry would be heard on Earth itself. Certainly he expected it to alarm the countryside. Still, unless the swift foot-thrust had been seen, no one would be sure the witch-doctor’s fall was not an accident...
Chet had tasted victory for the first time in three years! He’d had a little revenge, and he wanted more. He could take the other two witch-doctors with him to death!
He put all his weight on the chains they held. But they chose not to die--let go, instead, to save themselves. The chain-ends rattled past, dislodging a small avalanche of dust and gravel and bruising stones--dislodging him when the full weights jerked at neck and waist.
Prepared, he didn’t let himself be pulled away from the cliff’s face. He slid down it to the ledge from which the Agvar below him had fallen. There he teetered a moment, balancing precariously on toes scraped raw in his slide. Clawing fingers found a crack to the right, a knob to the left--safety! He clung there breathless.
No time for resting! Rattling stones warned of pursuit. He looked quickly around, found a route, and after a short traverse let himself slide to a long talus-slope. Down it he ran barefoot through sharp debris into concealing mosses.
The silence alarmed him. But it freed him from the need for craft; he didn’t know what to avoid nor where it might be lurking, so he set out for the spaceship by what he hoped was the shortest way.
In the village, he’d located the landing-place by sound, fixed it by sun. The sun would guide him now. Not accurately, but well enough.
The ship would have landed in a clearing. Standing on its tail, it should loom high over the woods. And its men would scatter--he ought to run into one.
Run he did, trotting under thirty pounds of hardwood chain on reserves of strength dredged from a deep pit of desperation, through a forest overgrown with menace, full of life he could always sense but seldom see--of noises whose origin he couldn’t guess.
The Agvars, for all their inferior hearing, could at least interpret what they heard. Chet couldn’t. Every whispered cry, wild grunt and muttered growl was completely unfamiliar. He didn’t know which sound signalled danger. He feared them all.
But more than sounds he feared the silence that chinked the logs of time between each nerve-wracking noise. Often he had to stop and rest, and silence threatened him then like the ominous quiet of bated breath. When he’d force himself to go on, each tree seemed like a porchful of malicious old women, pretending to disregard him as he passed, certain to make trouble when he’d gone. The buzz of small life-forms was a deprecatory murmur, ready at any second to burst into condemnation and terror...
What was that sound? And that? Noises that seemed out of place in their familiarity pinned him to the forest floor.
It was only the village. Satisfied, he worked up courage to skirt the place and walk on toward the ship.
But he was near collapse. When he heard human voices he could only yell incoherently once or twice, sob, and pass out.
Dimly through succeeding days Chet was aware of the ship’s sickbay, of the enlisted attendants, the hovering doctor, the silent commander. Later he realized he’d been kept under opiates so his body could recover while his mind rested. At the time, he felt only the dimness.
It wore off abruptly. He was in a civilized cot, stretching luxuriously, aware of warmth and comfort and a cheerful voice that seemed familiar.
He opened his eyes. A fat young corpsman had been watching.
“How do you feel, sir?” the boy said. “Ready for coffee?”
“Sure,” Chet answered. And grinned lazily as he sat up to sip the proffered cup. “You’ve taken good care of me.”
“Used to be a barber in civilian life,” the boy said smugly. And Chet found with an exploratory hand that he’d been shaven and shorn, bathed, bandaged where necessary--even, he saw, clad in a pair of fancy red broadcloth pajamas.
“You’ve got me cleaned up, all right,” he said. “Whose p.j.’s have I got on?”
“Dr. Pine’s, sir. You’ll see him in a couple of minutes--he and the Old Man been waiting to question you. There’s a robe and slippers, if you want me to help you get up...”
“I’m not helpless,” Chet said, boasting in his turn. He proved it by climbing--gingerly--out of the cot. The boy helped him into the robe, found the slippers, pushed the small room’s one chair an inch closer to the open porthole, and left, closing the door behind him.
Vaguely Chet found he knew the two men who soon entered the room--they’d been there before. But this was his first fully conscious look at them. Commander Seymour, the C.O., looked surprisingly young for his job. He was young, Chet decided--not over thirty-five--and his short slight figure made him seem younger still.
He had few words. “You’re looking fine, Barfield,” he said, and sat on the edge of the cot, thin face impassive, gray eyes alert.