The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Vii Part 51

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Aletha regarded it with bright eyes.

"Beautiful!" she said happily. "Isn't it?"

"Personally," said Bordman, "I never saw a place that looked less homelike or attractive."

Aletha laughed.

"My eyes see it differently."



Which was true. It was accepted, nowadays, that humankind might be one species but was many races, and each saw the cosmos in its own fas.h.i.+on. On Kalmet III there was a dense, predominantly Asiatic population which terraced its mountainsides for agriculture and deftly mingled modern techniques with social customs not to be found on--say--Demeter I, where there were many red-tiled stucco towns and very many olive groves. In the llano planets of the Equis cl.u.s.ter, Amerinds--Aletha's kin--zestfully rode over plains dotted with the descendants of buffalo and antelope and cattle brought from ancient Earth. On the oases of Rustam IV there were date palms and riding camels and much argument about what should be subst.i.tuted for the direction of Mecca at the times for prayer, while wheat fields spanned provinces on Canna I and highly civilized emigrants from the continent of Africa on Earth stored jungle gums and l.u.s.trous gems in the warehouses of their s.p.a.ceport city of Timbuk.

So it was natural for Aletha to look at this wind-carved wilderness otherwise than as Bordman did. Her racial kindred were the pioneers of the stars, these days. Their heritage made them less than appreciative of urban life. Their inborn indifference to heights made them the steel-construction men of the cosmos, and more than two-thirds of the landing grids in the whole galaxy had their coup-feather symbols on the key posts. But the planet government on Algonka V was housed in a three-thousand-foot white stone tepee, and the best horses known to men were raised by ranchers with bronze skins and high cheekbones on the llano planet Chagan.

Now, here, in the Warlock's landing boat, the engineer snorted. A vehicle came around a cliff wall, clanking its way on those eccentric caterwheels that new-founded colonies find so useful. The vehicle glittered. It crawled over tumbled boulders, and flowed over fallen scree. It came briskly toward them. The engineer snorted again.

"That's my cousin Ralph!" said Aletha in pleased surprise.

Bordman blinked and looked again. He did not quite believe his eyes. But they told the truth. The figure controlling the ground car was Indian--Amerind--wearing a breechcloth and thick-soled sandals and three streamlined feathers in a band about his head. Moreover, he did not ride in a seat. He sat astride a semi-cylindrical part of the ground car, over which a gaily-colored blanket had been thrown.

The s.h.i.+p's engineer rumbled disgustedly. But then Bordman saw how sane this method of riding was--here. The ground vehicle lurched and swayed and rolled and pitched and tossed as it came over the uneven ground. To sit in anything like a chair would have been foolish. A back rest would throw one forward in a frontward lurch, and give no support in case of a backward one. A sidewise tilt would tend to throw one out. Riding a ground car as if in a saddle was sense!

But Bordman was not so sure about the costume. The engineer opened the port and spoke hostilely out of it: "D'you know there's a lady in this thing?"

The young Indian grinned. He waved his hand to Aletha, who pressed her nose against a viewport. And just then Bordman did understand the costume or lack of it. Air came in the open exit port. It was hot and desiccated. It was furnace-like!

"How, 'Letha," called the rider on the caterwheel steed. "Either dress for the climate or put on a heat-suit before you come out of there!"

Aletha chuckled. Bordman heard a stirring behind him. Then Aletha climbed to the exit port and swung out. Bordman heard a dour muttering from the engineer. Then he saw her greeting her cousin. She had slipped out of the conventionalized Amerind outfit to which Bordman was accustomed. Now she was clad as Anglo-Saxon girls dressed for beaches on the cool-temperature planets.

For a moment Bordman thought of sunstroke, with his own eyes dazzled by the still-partly-filtered sunlight. But Aletha's Amerind coloring was perfectly suited to suns.h.i.+ne even of this intensity. Wind blowing upon her body would cool her skin. Her thick, straight black hair was at least as good protection against sunstroke as a heat-helmet. She might feel hot, but she would be perfectly safe. She wouldn't even sunburn. But he, Bordman---- He grimly stripped to underwear and put on the heat-suit from his bag. He filled its canteens from the boat's water tank. He turned on the tiny, battery-powered motors. The suit ballooned out. It was intended for short periods of intolerable heat. The motors kept it inflated--away from his skin--and cooled its interior by the evaporation of sweat plus water from its canteen tanks. It was a miniature air-conditioning system for one man, and it should enable him to endure temperatures otherwise lethal to someone with his skin and coloring. But it would use a lot of water.

He climbed to the exit port and went clumsily down the exterior ladder to the tail fin. He adjusted his goggles. He went over to the chattering young Indians, young man and girl. He held out his gloved hand.

"I'm Bordman," he said painfully. "Here to make a degree-of-completion survey. What's wrong that we had to land by boat?"

Aletha's cousin shook hands cordially.

"I'm Ralph Redfeather," he said, introducing himself. "Project engineer. About everything's wrong. Our landing grid's gone. We couldn't contact your s.h.i.+p in time to warn it off. It was in our gravity field before it answered, and its Lawlor drive couldn't take it away--not working because of the field. Our power, of course, went with the landing grid. The s.h.i.+p you came in can't get back, and we can't send a distress message anywhere, and our best estimate is that the colony will be wiped out--thirst and starvation--in six months. I'm sorry you and Aletha have to be included."

Then he turned to Aletha and said amiably: "How's Mike Thundercloud and Sally Whitehorse and the gang in general, 'Letha?"

The Warlock rolled on in her newly-established orbit about Xosa II. The landing boat was aground, having removed the two pa.s.sengers. It would come back. n.o.body on the s.h.i.+p wanted to stay aground, because they knew the conditions and the situation below--unbearable heat and the complete absence of hope. But n.o.body had anything to do! The s.h.i.+p had been maintained in standard operating condition during its two-months' voyage from Trent to here. No repairs or overhaulings were needed. There was no maintenance-work to speak of. There would be only stand-by watches until something happened. There would be nothing to do on those watches. There would be off-watch time for twenty-one out of every twenty-four hours, and no purposeful activity to fill even half an hour of it. In a matter of--probably--years, the Warlock should receive aid. She might be towed out of her orbit to s.p.a.ce in which the Lawlor drive could function, or the crew might simply be taken off. But meanwhile, those on board were as completely frustrated as the colony. They could not do anything at all to help themselves.

In one fas.h.i.+on the crewmen were worse off than the colonists. The colonists had at least the colorful prospect of death before them. They could prepare for it in their several ways. But the members of the Warlock's crew had nothing ahead but tedium.

The skipper faced the future with extreme, grim distaste.

The ride to the colony was torment. Aletha rode behind her cousin on the saddle-blanket, and apparently suffered little if at all. But Bordman could only ride in the ground-car's cargo s.p.a.ce, along with the sack of mail from the s.h.i.+p. The ground was unbelievably rough and the jolting intolerable. The heat was literally murderous. In the metal cargo s.p.a.ce, the temperature reached a hundred and sixty degrees in the suns.h.i.+ne--and given enough time, food will cook in no more heat than that. Of course a man has been known to enter an oven and stay there while a roast was cooked, and to come out alive. But the oven wasn't throwing him violently about or bringing sun-heated--blue-white-sun heated--metal to press his heat-suit against him.

The suit did make survival possible, but that was all. The contents of its canteens gave out just before arrival, and for a short time Bordman had only sweat for his suit to work with. It kept him alive by forced ventilation, but he arrived in a state of collapse. He drank the iced salt water they gave him and went to bed. He'd get back his strength with a proper sodium level in his blood. But he slept for twelve hours straight.

When he got up, he was physically normal again, but abysmally ashamed. It did no good to remind himself that Xosa II was rated minimum-comfort cla.s.s D--a blue-white sun and a mean temperature of one hundred and ten degrees. Africans could take such a climate--with night-relief quarters. Amerinds could do steel construction work in the open, protected only by insulated shoes and gloves. But Bordman could not venture out-of-doors except in a heat-suit. He couldn't stay long then. It was not a weakness. It was a matter of genetics. But he was ashamed.

Aletha nodded to him when he found the Project Engineer's office. It occupied one of the hulls in which colony-establishment materials had been lowered by rocket power. There were forty of the hulls, and they had been emptied and arranged for inter-communication in three separate communities, so that an individual could change his quarters and ordinary a.s.sociates from time to time and colony fever--frantic irritation with one's companions--was minimized.

Aletha sat at a desk, busily making notes from a loose leaf volume before her. The wall behind the desk was fairly lined with similar volumes.

"I made a spectacle of myself!" said Bordman, bitterly.

"Not at all!" Aletha a.s.sured him. "It could happen to anybody. I wouldn't do too well on Timbuk."

There was no answer to that. Timbuk was essentially a jungle planet, barely emerging from the carboniferous stage. Its colonists thrived because their ancestors had lived on the sh.o.r.es of the Gulf of Guinea, on Earth. But Anglos did not find its climate healthful, nor would many other races. Amerinds died there quicker than most.

"Ralph's on the way here now," added Aletha. "He and Dr. Chuka were out picking a place to leave the records. The sand dunes here are terrible, you know. When an explorer-s.h.i.+p does come to find out what's happened to us, these buildings could be covered up completely. Any place could be. It isn't easy to pick a record-cache that's quite sure to be found."

"When," said Bordman skeptically, "there's n.o.body left alive to point it out. Is that it?"

"That's it," agreed Aletha. "It's pretty bad all around. I didn't plan to die just yet."

Her voice was perfectly normal. Bordman snorted. As a senior Colonial Survey officer, he'd been around. But he'd never yet known a human colony to be extinguished when it was properly equipped and after a proper pre-settlement survey. He'd seen panic, but never real cause for a matter-of-fact acceptance of doom.

There was a clanking noise outside the hulk which was the Project Engineer's headquarters. Bordman couldn't see clearly through the filtered ports. He reached over and opened a door. The brightness outside struck his eyes like a blow. He blinked them shut instantly and turned away. But he'd seen a glistening, caterwheel ground car stopping not far from the doorway.

He stood wiping tears from his light-dazzled eyes as footsteps sounded outside. Aletha's cousin came in, followed by a huge man with remarkably dark skin. The dark man wore eyegla.s.ses with a curiously thick, corklike nosepiece to insulate the necessary metal of the frame from his skin. It would blister if it touched bare flesh.

"This is Dr. Chuka," said Redfeather pleasantly, "Mr. Bordman. Dr. Chuka's the director of mining and mineralogy here."

Bordman shook hands with the ebony-skinned man. He grinned, showing startlingly white teeth. Then he began to s.h.i.+ver.

"It's like a freeze-box in here," he said in a deep voice. "I'll get a robe and be with you."

He vanished through a doorway, his teeth chattering audibly. Aletha's cousin took half a dozen deliberate deep breaths and grimaced.

"I could s.h.i.+ver myself," he admitted "but Chuka's really acclimated to Xosa. He was raised on Timbuk."

Bordman said curtly: "I'm sorry I collapsed on landing. It won't happen again. I came here to do a degree-of-completion survey that should open the colony to normal commerce, let the colonists' families move in, tourists, and so on. But I was landed by boat instead of normally, and I am told the colony is doomed. I would like an official statement of the degree of completion of the colony's facilities and an explanation of the unusual points I have just mentioned."

The Indian blinked at him. Then he smiled faintly. The dark man came back, zipping up an indoor warmth-garment. Redfeather dryly brought him up to date by repeating what Bordman had just said. Chuka grinned and sprawled comfortably in a chair.

"I'd say," he remarked humorously, in that astonis.h.i.+ngly deep-toned voice of his, "sand got in our hair. And our colony. And the landing grid. There's a lot of sand on Xosa. Wouldn't you say that was the trouble?"

The Indian said with elaborate gravity: "Of course wind had something to do with it."

Bordman fumed.

"I think you know," he said fretfully, "that as a senior Colonial Survey officer, I have authority to give any orders needed for my work. I give one now. I want to see the landing grid--if it is still standing. I take it that it didn't fall down?"

Redfeather flushed beneath the bronze pigment of his skin. It would be hard to offend a steelman more than to suggest that his work did not stand up.

"I a.s.sure you," he said politely, "that it did not fall down."

"Your estimate of its degree of completion?"

"Eighty per cent," said Redfeather formally.

"You've stopped work on it?"

"Work on it has been stopped," agreed the Indian.

"Even though the colony can receive no more supplies until it is completed?"

"Just so," said Redfeather without expression.

"Then I issue a formal order that I be taken to the landing-grid site immediately," said Bordman angrily. "I want to see what sort of incompetence is responsible! Will you arrange it--at once?"

Redfeather said in a completely emotionless voice: "You want to see the site of the landing grid. Very good. Immediately."

He turned and walked out into the incredible, blinding suns.h.i.+ne. Bordman blinked at the momentary blast of light, and then began to pace up and down the office. He fumed. He was still ashamed of his collapse from the heat during the travel from the landed rocket-boat to the colony. Therefore he was touchy and irritable. But the order he had given was strictly justifiable.

He heard a small noise. He whirled. Dr. Chuka, huge and black and spectacled, rocked back and forth in his seat, suppressing laughter.

"Now, what the devil does that mean?" demanded Bordman suspiciously. "It certainly isn't ridiculous to ask to see the structure on which the life of the colony finally depends!"

"Not ridiculous," said Dr. Chuka. "It's--hilarious!"

He boomed laughter in the office with the rounded ceiling of a remade robot hull. Aletha smiled with him, though her eyes were grave.

"You'd better put on a heat-suit," she said to Bordman.

He fumed again, tempted to defy all common sense because its dictates were not the same for everybody. But he marched away, back to the cubbyhole in which he had awakened. Angrily, he donned the heat-suit that had not protected him adequately before, but had certainly saved his life. He filled the canteens topping full--he suspected he hadn't done so the last time. He went back to the Project Engineer's office with a feeling of being burdened and absurd.

Out a filter-window, he saw that men with skins as dark as Dr. Chuka's were at work on a ground car. They were equipping it with a sunshade and curious s.h.i.+elds like wings. Somebody pushed a sort of caterwheel handtruck toward it. They put big, heavy tanks into its cargo s.p.a.ce. Dr. Chuka had disappeared, but Aletha was back at work making notes from the loose-leaf volume on the desk.

"May I ask," asked Bordman with some irony, "what your work happens to be just now?"

She looked up.

"I thought you knew," she said in surprise. "I'm here for the Amerind Historical Society. I can certify coups. I'm taking coup-records for the Society. They'll go in the record-cache Ralph and Dr. Chuka are arranging, so no matter what happens to the colony, the record of the coups won't be lost."

"Coups?" demanded Bordman. He knew that Amerinds painted feathers on the key-posts of steel structures they'd built, and he knew that the posting of such "coup-marks" was a cherished privilege and undoubtedly a survival or revival of some American Indian tradition back on Earth. But he did not know what they meant.

"Coups," repeated Aletha matter-of-factly. "Ralph wears three eagle-feathers. You saw them. He has three coups. Pinions, too! He built the landing grids on Norlath and--Oh, you don't know!"

"I don't," admitted Bordman, his temper not of the best because of what seemed unnecessary condescensions on Xosa II.

Aletha looked surprised.

"In the old days," she explained, "back on Earth, if a man scalped an enemy, he counted coup. The first to strike an enemy in a battle counted coup, too--a lesser one. Nowadays a man counts coups for different things, but Ralph's three eagle-feathers mean he's ent.i.tled to as much respect as a warrior in the old days who, three separate times, had killed and scalped an enemy warrior in the middle of his own camp. And he is, too!"

Bordman grunted.

"Barbarous, I'd say!"

"If you like," said Aletha. "But it's something to be proud of--and one doesn't count coup for making a lot of money!" Then she paused and said curtly: "The word 'sn.o.bbish' fits it better than 'barbarous.' We are sn.o.bs! But when the head of a clan stands up in Council in the Big Tepee on Algonka, representing his clan, and men have to carry the ends of the feather headdress with all the coups the members of his clan have earned--why one is proud to belong to that clan!" She added defiantly, "Even watching it on a vision-screen!"

Dr. Chuka opened the outer door. Blinding light poured in. He did not enter--and his body glistened with sweat.

"Ready for you, Mr. Bordman!"

Bordman adjusted his goggles and turned on the motors of his heat-suit. He went out the door.

The heat and light outside were oppressive. He darkened the goggles again and made his way heavily to the waiting, now-shaded ground car. He noted that there were other changes beside the sunshade. The cover-deck of the cargo s.p.a.ce was gone, and there were cylindrical riding seats like saddles in the back. The odd lower s.h.i.+elds reached out sidewise from the body, barely above the caterwheels. He could not make out their purpose and irritably failed to ask.

"All ready," said Redfeather coldly. "Dr. Chuka's coming with us. If you'll get in here, please----"

Bordman climbed awkwardly into the boxlike back of the car. He bestrode one of the cylindrical arrangements. With a saddle on it, it would undoubtedly have been a comfortable way to cover impossibly bad terrain in a mechanical carrier. He waited. About him there were the squatty hulls of the s.p.a.ce-barges which had been towed here by a colony s.h.i.+p, each one once equipped with rockets for landing. Emptied of their cargoes, they had been huddled together into the three separate, adjoining communities. There were separate living quarters and mess halls and recreation rooms for each, and any colonist lived in the community of his choice and s.h.i.+fted at pleasure, or visited, or remained solitary. For mental health a man has to be a.s.sured of his free will, and over-regimentation is deadly in any society. With men psychologically suited to colonize, it is fatal.

Above--but at a distance, now--there was a monstrous scarp of mountains, colored in glaring and unnatural tints. Immediately about there was raw rock. But it was peculiarly smooth, as if sand grains had rubbed over it for uncountable aeons and carefully worn away every trace of unevenness. Half a mile to the left, dunes began and went away to the horizon. The nearer ones were small, but they gained in size with distance from the mountains--which evidently affected the surface-winds hereabouts--and the edge of seeing was visibly not a straight line. The dunes yonder must be gigantic. But of course on a world the size of ancient Earth, and which was waterless save for snow-patches at its poles, the size to which sand dunes could grow had no limit. The surface of Xosa II was a sea of sand, on which islands and small continents of wind-swept rock were merely minor features.

Dr. Chuka adjusted a small metal object in his hand. It had a tube dangling from it. He climbed into the cargo s.p.a.ce and fastened it to one of the two tanks previously loaded.

"For you," he told Bordman. "Those tanks are full of compressed air at rather high pressure--a couple of thousand pounds. Here's a reduction-valve with an adiabatic expansion feature, to supply extra air to your heat-suit. It will be pretty cold, expanding from so high a pressure. Bring down the temperature a little more."

Bordman again felt humiliated. Chuka and Redfeather, because of their races, were able to move about nine-tenths naked in the open air on this planet, and they thrived. But he needed a special refrigerated costume to endure the heat. More, they provided him with sunshades and refrigerated air that they did not need for themselves. They were thoughtful of him. He was as much out of his element, where they fitted perfectly, as he would have been making a degree-of-completion survey on an underwater project. He had to wear what was practically a diving suit and use a special air supply to survive!

He choked down the irritation his own inadequacy produced.

"I suppose we can go now," he said as coldly as he could.

Aletha's cousin mounted the control-saddle--though it was no more than a blanket--and Dr. Chuka mounted beside Bordman. The ground car got under way. It headed for the mountains.

The smoothness of the rock was deceptive. The caterwheel car lurched and b.u.mped and swayed and rocked. It rolled and dipped and wallowed. n.o.body could have remained in a normal seat on such terrain, but Bordman felt hopelessly undignified riding what amounted to a hobbyhorse. Under the sunshade it was infuriatingly like a horse on a carousel. That there were three of them together made it look even more foolish. He stared about him, trying to take his mind from his own absurdity. His goggles made the light endurable, but he felt ashamed.

"Those side-fins," said Chuka's deep voice pleasantly, "the bottom ones, make things better for you. The shade overhead cuts off direct sunlight, and they cut off the reflected glare. It would blister your skin even if the sun never touched you directly."

The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Vii Part 51

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