The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Ii Part 110

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Pete shook his head. "Hundredweight."

The captain raised his eyebrows. "I see. And there are--" he consulted the papers in his hand--"roughly two hundred and twenty colonists here on Baron IV. Is that right?"

"That's right."

"Seventy-four men, eighty-one women, and fifty-nine children, to be exact?"

"I'd have to look it up. Margaret Singman had twins the other night."



"Well, don't be ridiculous," snapped the captain. "On a planet the size of Baron IV, with seventy-four men, you should be producing a dozen times the taaro you stated. We'll consider that your quota for a starter, at least. You have ample seed, according to my records. I should think, with the proper equipment--"

"Now wait a minute," Pete said softly. "We're fighting a climate here, captain. You should know that. We have only a two-planting season, and the 'proper equipment,' as you call it, doesn't operate too well out here. It has a way of clogging up with dust in the summer, and rusting in the winter."

"Really," said Captain Varga. "As I was saying, with the proper equipment, you could cultivate a great deal more land than you seem to be using. This would give you the necessary heavier yield. Wouldn't you say so, Nathan?"

The little nervous man nodded. "Certainly, captain. With the proper organization of labor."

"That's nonsense," Pete said, suddenly angry. "n.o.body can get that kind of yield from this planet. The ground won't give it, and the men won't grow it."

The captain gave him a long look. "Really?" he said. "I think you're wrong. I think the men will grow it."

Pete stood up slowly. "What are you trying to say? This business about quotas and organization of labor--"

"You didn't read our credentials as we instructed you, Farnam. Mr. Nathan is the official governor of the colony on Baron IV, as of now. You'll find him most co-operative, I'm sure, but he's answerable directly to me in all matters. My job is administration of the entire Baron system. Clear enough?"

Pete's eyes were dark. "I think you'd better draw me a picture," he said tightly. "A very clear picture."

"Very well. Baron IV is not paying for its upkeep. Taaro, after all, is not the most necessary of crops in the universe. It has value, but not very much value, all things considered. If the production of taaro here is not increased sharply, it may be necessary to close down the colony altogether."

"You're a liar," said Pete shortly. "The Colonization Board makes no production demands on the colonies. Nor does it farm out systems for personal exploitation."

The captain smiled. "The Colonization Board, as you call it, has undergone a slight reorganization," he said.

"Reorganization! It's a top-level board in the Earth Government! Nothing could reorganize it but a wholesale--" He broke off, his jaw sagging as the implication sank in.

"You're rather out on a limb, you see," said the captain coolly. "Poor communications and all that. The fact is that the entire Earth Government has undergone a slight reorganization also."

The Dustie knew that something had happened.

Pete didn't know how he knew. The Dusties couldn't talk, couldn't make any noise, as far as Pete knew. But they always seemed to know when something unusual was happening. It was wrong, really, to consider them unintelligent animals. There are other sorts of intelligence than human, and other sorts of communication, and other sorts of culture. The Baron IV colonists had never understood the queer perceptive sense that the Dusties seemed to possess, any more than they knew how many Dusties there were, or what they ate, or where on the planet they lived. All they knew was that when they landed on Baron IV, the Dusties were there.

At first the creatures had been very timid. For weeks the men and women, busy with their building, had paid little attention to the skittering brown forms that crept down from the rocky hills to watch them with big, curious eyes. They were about half the size of men, and strangely humanoid in appearance, not in the sense that a monkey is humanoid (for they did not resemble monkeys) but in some way the colonists could not quite pin down. It may have been the way they walked around on their long, fragile hind legs, the way they stroked their pointed chins as they sat and watched and listened with their pointed ears lifted alertly, watching with soft gray eyes, or the way they handled objects with their little four-fingered hands. They were so remarkably human-like in their elfin way that the colonists couldn't help but be drawn to the creatures.

That whole first summer, when the colonists were building the village and the landing groove for the s.h.i.+ps, the Dusties were among them, trying pathetically to help, so eager for friends.h.i.+p that even occasional rebuffs failed to drive them away. They liked the colony. They seemed, somehow, to savor the atmosphere, moving about like solemn, fuzzy overseers as the work progressed through the summer. Pete Farnam thought that they had even tried to warn the people about the winter. But the colonists couldn't understand, of course. Not until later. The Dusties became a standing joke, and were tolerated with considerable amus.e.m.e.nt--until the winter struck.

It had come with almost unbelievable ferocity. The houses had not been completed when the first hurricanes came, and they were smashed into toothpicks. The winds came, vicious winds full of dust and sleet and ice, wild erratic twisting gales that ripped the village to shreds, tearing off the topsoil that had been broken and fertilized--merciless, never-ending winds that wailed and screamed the planet's protest. The winds drove sand and dirt and ice into the heart of the generators, and the heating units corroded and jammed and went dead. The jeeps and tractors and bulldozers were scored and rusted. The people began dying by the dozens as they huddled down in the pitiful little pits they had dug to try to keep the winds away.

Few of them were still conscious when the Dusties had come silently, in the blizzard, eyes closed tight against the blast, to drag the people up into the hills, into caves and hollows that still showed the fresh marks of carving tools. They had brought food--what kind of food n.o.body knew, for the colony's food had been destroyed by the first blast of the hurricane--but whatever it was it had kept them alive. And somehow, the colonists had survived the winter which seemed never to end. There were frozen legs and ruined eyes; there was pneumonia so swift and virulent that even the antibiotics they managed to salvage could not stop it; there was near-starvation--but they were kept alive, until the winds began to die, and they walked out of their holes in the ground to see the ruins of their first village.

From that winter on, n.o.body considered the Dusties funny any more. What had motivated them no one knew, but the colony owed them their lives. The Dusties tried to help the people rebuild. They showed them how to build winds.h.i.+elds that would keep houses intact and anch.o.r.ed to the ground when the winds came again. They built little furnaces out of dirt and rock which defied the winds and gave great heat. They showed the colonists a dozen things they needed to know for life on the rugged planet. The colonists in turn tried to teach the Dusties something about Earth, and how the colonists had lived, and why they had come. But there was a barrier of intelligence that could not be crossed. The Dusties learned simple things, but only slowly and imperfectly. They seemed content to take on their mock overseer's role, moving in and about the village, approving or disapproving, but always trying to help. Some became personal pets, though "pet" was the wrong word, because it was more of a strange personal friends.h.i.+p limited by utter lack of communication, than any animal-and-master relations.h.i.+p. The colonists made sure that the Dusties were granted the respect due them as rightful masters of Baron IV. And somehow the Dusties perceived this att.i.tude, and were so grateful for the acceptance and friends.h.i.+p that there seemed nothing they wouldn't do for the colonists.

There had been many discussions about them. "You'd think they'd resent our moving in on them," Jack Mario had said one day. "After all, we are usurpers. And they treat us like kings. Have you noticed the way they mimic us? I saw one chewing tobacco the other day. He hated the stuff, but he chewed away, and spat like a trooper."

One of the Dusties had been sitting on Pete's knee when Captain Varga had been talking, and he had known that something terrible was wrong. Now he sat on the desk in the office, moving uneasily back and forth as Pete looked up at Mario's dark face, and then across at John Tegan and Mel Dorfman. John's face was dark with anger as he ran his fingers through the heavy gray beard that fell to his chest. Mel sat stunned, shaking his head helplessly. Mario was unable to restrain himself. His face was bitter as he stomped across the room, then returned to shake his fist under Pete's nose. "But did you see him?" he choked. "Governor of the colony! What does he know about growing taaro in this kind of soil? Did you see those hands? Soft, dainty, pink! How could a man with hands like that govern a colony?"

Pete looked over at John Tegan. "Well, John?"

The big man looked up, his eyes hollow under craggy brows. "It's below the belt, Pete. But if the government's been overthrown, then the captain is right. It leaves us out on a limb."

Pete shook his head. "I can't give him an answer," he said. "The answer has got to come from the colony. All I can do is speak for the colony."

Tegan stared at the floor. "We're an Earth colony," he said softly. "I know that. I was born in New York. I lived there for many years. But Earth isn't my home any more. This is." He looked at Pete. "I built it, and so did you. All of us built it, even when things were getting stormy back home. Maybe that's why we came, maybe somehow we saw the handwriting on the wall."

"But when did it happen?" Mel burst out suddenly. "How could anything so big happen so fast?"

"Speed was the secret," Pete said gloomily. "It was quick, it was well organized, and the government was unstable. We're just caught in the edge of it. Pity the ones living there, now. But the new government considers the colonies as areas for exploitation instead of development."

"Well, they can't do it," Mario cried. "This is our land, our home. n.o.body can tell us what to grow in our fields."

Pete's fist slammed down on the desk. "Well, how are you going to stop them? The law of the land is sitting out there in that s.h.i.+p. Tomorrow morning he's coming back here to install his fat little friend as governor. He has guns and soldiers on that s.h.i.+p to back him up. What are you going to do about it?"

"Fight it," Mario said.

"How?"

Jack Mario looked around the room. "There are only a dozen men on that s.h.i.+p," he said softly. "We've got seventy-four. When Varga comes back to the village tomorrow, we tell him to take his friend back to the s.h.i.+p and shove off. We give him five minutes to get turned around, and if he doesn't, we start shooting."

"Just one little thing," said Pete quietly. "What about the supplies? Even if we fought them off and won, what about the food, the clothing, the replacement parts for the machines?"

"We don't need machinery to farm this land," said Mario eagerly. "There's food here, food we can live on; the Dusties showed us that the first winter. And we can farm the land for our own use and let the machinery rust. There's nothing they can bring us from Earth that we can't do without."

"We couldn't get away with it!" Mel Dorfman shook his head bitterly. "You're asking us to cut ourselves off from Earth completely. But they'd never let us. They'd send s.h.i.+ps to bomb us out."

"We could hide, and rebuild after they had finished."

Pete Farnam sighed. "They'd never leave us alone, Jack. Didn't you see that captain? His kind of mind can't stand opposition. We'd just be a thorn in the side of the new Earth Government. They don't want any free colonies."

"Well, let's give them one." Mario sat down tiredly, snapping his fingers at the Dustie. "Furs!" he snarled. He looked up, his dark eyes burning. "It's no good, Pete. We can't let them get away with it. Produce for them, yes. Try to raise the yield for them, yes. But not a governor. If they insist on that we can throw them out, and keep them out."

"I don't think so. They'd kill every one of us first."

John Tegan sat up, and looked Pete Farnam straight in the eye. "In that case, Peter, it might just be better if they did."

Pete stared at him for a moment and slowly stood up. "All right," he said. "Call a general colony meeting. We'll see what the women think. Then we'll make our plans."

The s.h.i.+p's jeep skidded to a halt in a cloud of dust. Captain Varga peered through the winds.h.i.+eld. Then he stood up, staring at the three men blocking the road at the edge of the village. The little pink-faced man at his side turned white when he saw their faces, and his fingers began to tremble. Each of the men had a gun.

"You'd better clear the road," the captain snapped. "We're driving through."

Pete Farnam stepped forward. He pointed to Nathan. "Take your friend there back to the s.h.i.+p. Leave him there. We don't want him here."

Nathan turned to Varga. "I told you," he said viciously. "Too big for their boots. Go on through."

The captain laughed and gunned the motor, started straight for the men blocking the road. Then Jack Mario shot a hole in his front tire. The jeep lurched to a stop. Captain Varga stood up, glaring at the men. "Farnam, step out here," he said.

"You heard us," Pete said, without moving. "Crops, yes. We'll try to increase our yield. But no overseer. Leave him here and we'll kill him."

"Once more," said the captain, "clear the way. This man is your new governor. He will be regarded as the official agent of the Earth Government until the final production capacity of this colony is determined. Now clear out."

The men didn't move. Without another word, the captain threw the jeep into reverse, jerked back in a curve, and started the jeep, flat tire and all, back toward the s.h.i.+p in a billow of dust.

Abruptly the village exploded into activity. Four men took up places behind the row of windbreaks beyond the first row of cabins. Pete turned and ran back into the village. He found John Tegan commandeering a squad of ten dirty-faced men. "Are the women and children all out?" he shouted.

"All taken care of." Tegan spat tobacco juice, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

"Where's Mel?"

"Left flank. He'll try to move in behind them. Gonna be tough, Pete, they've got good weapons."

"What about the boys last night?"

John was checking the bolt on his ancient rifle. "Hank and Ringo? Just got back an hour ago. If Varga wants to get his surface planes into action, he's going to have to dismantle them and rebuild them outside. The boys jammed up the launching ports for good." He spat again. "Don't worry, Pete. This is going to be a ground fight."

"Okay." Pete held out his hand to the old man. "This may be it. And if we turn them back, there's bound to be more later."

"There's a lot of planet to hide on," said Tegan. "They may come back, but after a while they'll go again."

Pete nodded. "I just hope we'll still be here when they do."

They waited. It seemed like hours. Pete moved from post to post among the men, heavy-faced men he had known all his life, it seemed. They waited with whatever weapons they had available--pistols, home-made revolvers, ortho-guns, an occasional rifle, even knives and clubs. Pete's heart sank. They were bitter men, but they were a mob with no organization, no training for fighting. They would be facing a dozen of Security's best-disciplined shock troops, armed with the latest weapons from Earth's electronics laboratories. The colonists didn't stand a chance.

Pete got his rifle and made his way up the rise of ground overlooking the right flank of the village. Squinting, he could spot the cloud of dust rising up near the glistening s.h.i.+p, moving toward the village. And then, for the first time, he realized that he hadn't seen any Dusties all day.

It puzzled him. They had been in the village in abundance an hour before dawn, while the plans were being laid out. He glanced around, hoping to see one of the fuzzy brown forms at his elbow, but he saw nothing. And then, as he stared at the cloud of dust coming across the valley, he thought he saw the ground moving.

He blinked, and rubbed his eyes. With a gasp he dragged out his binoculars and peered down at the valley floor. There were thousands of them, hundreds of thousands, their brown bodies moving slowly out from the hills surrounding the village, converging into a broad, liquid column between the village and the s.h.i.+p. Even as he watched, the column grew thicker, like a heavy blanket being drawn across the road, a mult.i.tude of Dusties lining up.

Pete's hair p.r.i.c.kled on the back of his neck. They knew so little about the creatures, so very little. As he watched the brown carpet rolling out, he tried to think. Could there be a weapon in their hands, could they somehow have perceived the evil that came from the s.h.i.+p, somehow sensed the desperation in the men's voices as they had laid their plans? Pete stared, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. They were there in the road, thousands upon thousands of them, standing there, waiting--for what?

Three columns of dust were coming from the road now. Through the gla.s.ses Pete could see the jeeps, filled with men in their gleaming gray uniforms, crash helmets tight about their heads, blasters glistening in the pale light. They moved in deadly convoy along the rutted road, closer and closer to the crowd of Dusties overflowing the road.

The Dusties just stood there. They didn't move. They didn't s.h.i.+ft, or turn. They just waited.

The captain's car was first in line. He pulled up before the line with a screech of brakes, and stared at the sea of creatures before him. "Get out of there!" he shouted.

The Dusties didn't move.

The captain turned to his men. "Fire into them," he snapped. "Clear a path."

There was a blaze of fire, and a half a dozen Dusties slid to the ground, convulsing. Pete felt a chill pa.s.s through him, staring in disbelief. The Dusties had a weapon, he kept telling himself, they must have a weapon, something the colonists had never dreamed of. The guns came up again, and another volley echoed across the valley, and a dozen more Dusties fell to the ground. For every one that fell, another moved stolidly into its place.

With a curse the captain sat down in the seat, gunned the motor, and started forward. The jeep struck the fallen bodies, rolled over them, and plunged straight into the wall of Dusties. Still they didn't move. The car slowed and stopped, mired down. The other cars picked up momentum and plunged into the brown river of creatures. They too ground to a stop.

The captain started roaring at his men. "Cut them down! We're going to get through here!" Blasters began roaring into the faces of the Dusties, and as they fell the jeeps moved forward a few feet until more of the creatures blocked their path.

Pete heard a cry below him, and saw Jack Mario standing in the road, gun on the ground, hands out in front of him, staring in horror as the Dusties kept moving into the fire. "Do you see what they're doing!" he screamed. "They'll be slaughtered, every one of them!" And then he was running down the road, shouting at them to stop, and so were Pete and Tegan and the rest of the men.

Something hit Pete in the shoulder as he ran. He spun around and fell into the dusty road. A dozen Dusties closed in around him, lifted him up bodily, and started back through the village with him. He tried to struggle, but vaguely he saw that the other men were being carried back also, while the river of brown creatures held the jeeps at bay. The Dusties were hurrying, half carrying and half dragging him back through the village and up a long ravine into the hills beyond. At last they set Pete on his feet again, plucking urgently at his s.h.i.+rt sleeve as they hurried him along.

He followed them willingly, then, with the rest of the colonists at his heels. He didn't know what the Dusties were doing, but he knew they were trying to save him. Finally they reached a cave, a great cleft in the rock that Pete knew for certain had not been there when he had led exploring parties through these hills years before. It was a huge opening, and already a dozen of the men were there, waiting, dazed by what they had witnessed down in the valley, while more were stumbling up the rocky incline, tugged along by the fuzzy brown creatures.

Inside the cavern, steps led down the side of the rock, deep into the dark coolness of the earth. Down and down they went, until they suddenly found themselves in a mammoth room lit by blazing torches. Pete stopped and stared at his friends who had already arrived. Jack Mario was sitting on the floor, his face in his hands, sobbing. Tegan was sitting, too, blinking at Pete as if he were a stranger, and Dorfman was trembling like a leaf. Pete stared about him through the dim light, and then looked where Tegan was pointing at the end of the room.

He couldn't see it clearly, at first. Finally, he made out a raised platform with four steps leading up. A torch lighted either side of a dais at the top, and between the torches, rising high into the gloom, stood a statue.

It was a beautifully carved thing, hewn from the heavy granite that made up the core of this planet, with the same curious styling as other carving the Dusties had done. The design was intricate, the lines carefully turned and polished. At first Pete thought it was a statue of a Dustie, but when he moved forward and squinted in the dim light, he suddenly realized that it was something else indeed. And in that moment he realized why they were there and why the Dusties had done this incredible thing to protect them.

The statue was weirdly beautiful, the work of a dedicated master sculptor. It was a figure, standing with five-fingered hands on hips, head raised high. Not a portrait, but an image seen through other eyes than human, standing high in the room with the lights burning reverently at its feet.

Unmistakably it was the statue of a man.

They heard the bombs, much later. The granite roof and floor of the cavern trembled, and the men and women stared at each other, helpless and sick as they huddled in that great hall. But presently the bombing stopped. Later, when they stumbled out of that grotto into the late afternoon light, the s.h.i.+p was gone.

They knew it would be back. Possibly it would bring back search parties to hunt down the rebels in the hills; perhaps it would just wait and again bomb out the new village when it rose. But searching parties would never find their quarry, and the village would rise again and again, if necessary.

And in the end, somehow, Pete knew that the colonists would find a way to survive here and live free as they had always lived. It might be a bitter struggle, but no matter how hard the fight, there would be one strange and wonderful thing they could count on.

No matter what they had to do, he knew the Dusties would help them.

Contents

A SLAVE IS A SLAVE.

BY H. BEAM PIPER.

The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Ii Part 110

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