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Masters of Everon

Gordon R. Dickson



  Gordon R. Dickson

  Nelson Doubleday, Inc. Garden City, New York

  Copyright © 1979 by Gordon R. Dickson

  All rights reserved

  Published by arrangement with Ace Books A Division of Charter Communications, Inc. A Grosset & Dunlap Company 360 Park Avenue South New York, New York 10010

  Printed in the United States of America

  Chapter One

  mikey called.

  It was not a loud sound, but it was loud enough. As if triggered by the light of the sign on the wall of the spaceship's debarkation lounge that announced they were now breathing Everon's planetary air, the immature maolot's massive, leonine head lifted from Jef Robini's lap. The unopened eyes stared blindly and from the half-parted jaws came a deep bass hum of excitement. A sad bitterness rose like the foretaste of sickness in Jef's throat and chest.

  "Shh..." he said softly, closing his hand around the powerful, open jaws. "Easy..."

  But the damage was done.

  In the lounge, rotating freely now on its gimbals in preparation for landing, the fresh air was now heavy with a new silence. Forty-two passengers, most of them first-wave Everon colonists returning from vacation to Earth, and the rest Earth people with business on Everon, had abruptly broken off their conversations. Shielded by the partitions hastily erected around this bank of seats to enclose Mikey and himself, Jef could not see their faces; but he did not need to.

  "Did you hear that?" The hoarse voice of a man rose in the stillness.

  A pause, while the other voices still waited. "I said—did you hear that just now?"

  Another pause.

  "The board of directors on this spaceline'll hear from me," went on the voice. "As if we don't have enough of those vermin growing and breeding here naturally, they have to let someone reimport one from Earth; and carry it in here, with the rest of us, in the passenger area..."

  The voice grumbled down into unintelligibility. Most of the homecoming passengers were hung over from the last-night party aboard the evening before; and some of them were still drunk. These were not the people Jef had been expecting to find out on one of the new worlds. Not these people with their overuse of Earth colognes, their obsession with Earth fashions, their apparent dislike of talking about anything connected with their newly-settled worlds—and, above all, their deep hatred of the Everon-native wildlife such as Mikey.

  Men and women, they had drawn aside from Jef all during the voyage, even without having seen Mikey, only knowing that he had been traveling on special permit in Jef's cabin.

  Jef stared out over the maolot's head now at the brass plate with the name and symbol of the spaceship line on the partition wall opposite him. The sad bitterness was still in him—an ugly feeling that he knew too well. For generations in his family the Robini temper had been infamous. But Jef's father had struggled to keep his family alive in the Bad Years, when the U.S. had become an impoverished nation, after letting languish and die its lead in the development of space. In a country become bankrupt, starving for lack of the space-based industries that would let it compete economically with the rest of the world, a temper was an unaffordable luxury. Ira Robini had determined that his younger son, at least, would not have to carry that disability.

  In form he had made it so, if not in fact. Ordinary anger was buried so deeply in Jef now that only the most extreme provocation could evoke it. In its place was the sensation he was feeling at this moment, and which he had lived with for most of his existence, the grim feeling of sad bitterness that sometimes seemed as if it would tear him apart inwardly. He was lonely—but he was self-controlled.

  He had not been expecting to feel it so, on this ship to Everon.

  After his parents' death, he had thought he was beyond being touched by anything more. Also, being here at last with Mikey, funded at last and free to do the work with Mikey that he had dreamed of doing for years, he had expected to enjoy this trip. The last thing he had anticipated was isolation from his fellow passengers and their obvious hatred.

  He sat, stroking Mikey and hearing the now-unintelligible grumbling of the voice behind him. In the highly reflective surface of the partition holding the brass plate, he saw himself darkly reflected. A tall, lean man in his early twenties, big-boned and slightly long-faced, with dark hair and even darker eyes. Masters of Everon, announced the engraving on the brass plate. It was the name of the corporation formed by the original colonists of this world to which he was descending, this world that was Mikey's birthplace.

  Mikey butted his massive head against Jef's chest, comfortingly. There was a rapport between Jef and the Everon native, even in his arrested immaturity the size of a large St. Bernard dog, which seemed close to telepathy at times.

  "It's all right, Mikey. All right..." he murmured to the maolot.

  He made an effort to shut his mind to the other passengers. Reaching into his jacket pocket, he took out the single sheet of paper he had found after his father's death among the few letters his older half-brother William had written home. The paper showed a crude map drawn in black ink, showing a route from Everon City on the coast, back through the grass country and into the mountains. The dotted line marking the route ended at a point marked Valley of Thrones; and there were three words written and encircled beside that name.

  "Found Mikey here."

  It had been Jef's hope that taking the Earth-raised maolot back to the place of its birth would turn up the reason why Mikey had never opened his eyes, nor developed to full physical maturity. At the very least it had seemed not unreasonable that, once back on his home world, Mikey would show some response to justify Jef's Ph.D. thesis—that in the maolots lay a clue to the greater understanding of Everon itself, and perhaps to the greater understanding of other colonized worlds. It was that hope and that thesis that had put Jef on the search for the research funds that had now brought them both here. Which was why he must not let the attitudes of his fellow passengers get to him. Things could not be allowed to go wrong after all this, not matter what he and the maolot were called on to endure. He put the map away.

  The man who had spoken before was raising his voice again. Jef tried to ignore it. An empty feeling in him had come to join hands with the sad bitterness. These people, and others like them, would be the fellow humans he would be depending on for existence and help once he was down on Everon's surface. How was he going to enlist their help if they were determined to react like this?

  The voice would not be ignored. It was rising to the audible level again; and the sad bitterness suddenly took control of Jef. He put one hand on the seat beside him, ready to lift himself to his feet and go back to have it out with the speaker. But on the bare heels of that thought, with the startling response the maolot had always shown to Jef's emotions, Mikey's head came up again. Catlike and supple, his heavy body tensed. The great lion-head turned back toward the invisible speaker; the upper lip curled back from the scimitar-shaped teeth, already capable of shearing off a human arm; and the unopened eyes stared straight in the direction of the voice. Stared, as if the maolot could see not only the metal partition and the human bodies that would be beyond it, but through them to the speaker himself.

  "No, no," whispered Jef, jarred back to self-control. "It's all right... all right, Mikey. Lie down!"

  "If it was up to me—" The voice rose again above the lighter chatter of the other passengers. "If it was only up to me—"

  "Ah, and if only it was," another voice unexpectedly interrupted: a light brisk baritone with an odd lilt to it that sounded almost Irish, or perhaps Welsh, and had almost a faint sneer hidden in its tone. "If it were up to you, sir, the universe would be run a deal more sensibly, no
doubt. But now then, it isn't—is it? And the beast'd hardly be here instead of the baggage section unless there was some good reason for it and an equally good permit. Aren't I right about that now, my dear sir?"

  The voice had been approaching Jef as it spoke. Now a tall, wiry, black-haired man with a wide, thin-lipped mouth under a thin, black mustache and green eyes, appeared suddenly around the corner of the partition behind Jef's seat section. The mustache and the eyes, taken together, gave the man's whole face a sardonic, devilish look. He was no one Jef had seen before during the two weeks of their trip out from Earth; but then Jef had stayed close to Mikey in their own compartment most of the time. Now, reaching them, the other smiled and dropped into the facing double-seat opposite without waiting for an invitation.

  Jef looked at him warily. Neither life nor his father had taught a belief in unexpected friends. Part of him even resented the intrusion of the other. There was no good reason this individual should come to their rescue; and right now Jef was in no mood to talk to any of his fellow humans. But the other was obviously trying to be helpful; and for poor people nowadays on Earth, and particularly for poor people from North America, good manners were so much a necessity for survival that they came close to being a compulsion.

  "You are, sir," Jef said formally. "I do have a permit and the maolot needs to be with me all the time."

  "Indeed. How else?" said the black-haired man. His voice carried. Both voice and attitude were a little too ironic and sharp-edged to be completely pleasant; but for some odd reason Jef did not find these things putting him off as much as he had at the other's first appearance. The man was no one Jef recognized, but Jef could not put off a feeling of familiarity. It was almost as if the other was someone he had known for some time beyond memory. A strange feeling. With the death of his mother and father, he had come to feel himself completely alone among the trillions of people who now made up the human race. He found himself warming toward the stranger in spite of himself.

  "Martin Curragh's the name," the other was saying. "And you, sir?"

  "Jef Aram Robini," said Jef. "This is Mikey."

  He leaned forward in his seat to shake hands. The movement disturbed Mikey, who lifted his head briefly to point it toward Martin Curragh, then inexplicably dropped it back down on Jef's knee without showing any curiosity at all in the newcomer.

  "Thanks," said Jef.

  Martin lifted his black brows questioningly.

  "I mean," Jef said, "thanks for not trying to pet him. People seem to be either one extreme or another—scared to death of him, or they want to handle him."

  "And that's not advised?"

  "No," said Jef. "He's an Everon life form, not an Earth one. His instincts and reactions aren't an Earth animal's. If a stranger touches him—and he can always tell a stranger's touch from mine —he gets frightened."

  "A dangerous beast, then." But this Martin Curragh did not sound like he really believed his own words. "Perhaps the gentleman just speaking was right."

  "Not when I'm with him," said Jef shortly.

  "And is that, too, a fact?" Martin Curragh's voice again seemed to sneer a little, but once more Jef found his strange liking for the man overriding his ordinary reactions.

  "That's right," he said. "I raised him from a cub. I've taken the place of his mother. Maolots stay blind until they're adult—as you may know—blind and dependent on the dam that bore them. He trusts me, and he does what I say."

  "So, what're the two of you doing coming to Everon, then? Emigrating? Don't tell me you came all the way just to take the beast home to his own kind?"

  "As a matter of fact, yes—" Uncharacteristically, Jef found himself with a sudden strong urge to explain himself to this first friendly fellow traveler he had encountered. Words had been locked up inside him for so long now, with no one to listen. "You see, he's been on Earth for experimental observation since just after his birth. Now he's eight years old. His eyes ought to be open and he ought to be three times as big as he is—"

  "Three times? Come now, Mr. Robini!"

  "Yes, sir. Three times this size. But for some reason he hasn't matured. The assumption—my assumption—is that there was something lacking to him on Earth; so I've managed to bring him back here to see if, on his home world, he'll mature after all."

  "Your assumption, you say?" The question was almost sharp.

  Jef was suddenly wary, conscious of perhaps having flooded this stranger too suddenly with more information than it was prudent to give. But there was no easy way to stop talking now.

  "Mikey grew up with me," he said. "My family were docents with the Xenological Research station in Philadelphia. When I went after a doctorate in alien intelligences, I took him for the subject of my thesis; and the thesis helped get me the grant to bring him back here for further observation."

  "So," said Martin Curragh, "you're an off-Earth zoologist, are you?"

  The touch of wariness redoubled.

  "Not exactly," he said. "Not yet. The only reason I got the grant was that no one could try this work with Mikey except me. There's no lack of people with qualifications to push me aside, if it hadn't been for the fact that I was the only human he'd respond to—after my father and mother died."

  Martin looked at him during a small moment of silence.

  "They're dead, then, are they?" he asked.

  "Two years ago. An undersea traffic tunnel collapsed." Even after this length of time Jef did not like to talk about it. "At any rate, that's why I'm here."

  "All because you were lucky enough to be named a docent to this interesting beast eight years ago."

  "It wasn't exactly luck," said Jef.

  "Oh?" Martin's eyebrows raised. "What do you call it then?"

  "String-pulling, I suppose," said Jef. "My older brother was a Colony Representative for the Ecological Corps here on Everon. I suppose you know what such people do?"

  "What do they do?"

  "They operate something like glorified agricultural advisers to new colonies in their First Mortgage most of the time," said Jef a little bitterly. "In this case Will was up in the mountains here on Everon and he found a new-born maolot cub, not far from where his mother had been killed in a rockslide. He managed to keep the cub alive and ended up sending him back to Earth for observation as he grew up. So it was probably his recommendation that turned the trick in getting us named as docents—though my father was a fully qualified and thoroughly experienced zoologist and he was working for the Xenological Research Service. Only—well, you know how much influence a North American would have in the intercultural services."

  "Not the greatest, certainly," said Martin.

  For a second the impulse passed through Jef to ask Martin if he was himself a North American. But his accent made it unlikely and the question teetered on the edge of invading the other's privacy.

  "So," said Jef, "as I say, Mikey and I grew up together. Apparently—I say apparently because no one had ever succeeded in keeping one alive in captivity before—they attach to a single person only. He'd do anything my father or mother asked him, but the only one he really responded to was me. That's why there was no point in sending him back here with anyone else, and why I got the research grant."

  "And this brother of yours—the one who found him—" said Martin, "the beast wouldn't respond to him, either? Not a matter of imprinting, then."

  "No. Baby ducks, and some Earth creatures like them, may imprint and follow around the first moving object they encounter, but Mikey belongs to Everon. Not to speak of the fact that he's a lot more intelligent than any duck; or for that matter, in my opinion, more than anything else Earth-born except a human. But, in any case, William never saw him after those first few days."

  "He never came visiting home to Earth?"

  "He died somewhere in the upcountry here on Everon," said Jef a little shortly. He was now having strong second thoughts about spreading all this intimate history out before a complete stranger. "That was a few weeks af
ter he sent Mikey to us."

  "Did he, now?" There was no noticeable note of sympathy in Martin's voice. "I suppose you'll be trying to find his grave, and all that."

  In fact that was one of the things that Jef had planned to do, if it was still possible to locate that grave after nearly eight years. A recently colonized world was not the easiest place to track down matters that had probably only been casually recorded to begin with.

  "Perhaps." Jef had not meant the conversation to get into these personal areas. At all costs he must put a period to it. "In any case that's a private matter."

  "Oh, indeed?"

  It seemed to Jef that what he now heard was an open sneer in Martin's voice.

  "That's right, Mr. Curragh," he said. "I've a right to privacy, I think?"

  "Oh, you have that." Martin rose to his feet in one smooth movement. "You needn't fear I'll pry into your secret business. You may be a very John Smith now, and no one suspecting it. Good day, Mr. Robini."

  He turned and walked off.

  Jef sat where he was, torn between resentment at Martin's attitude and a feeling that he had perhaps rebuffed the man too strongly. But though Martin would have no way of knowing it, he had struck a painful nerve with his gibe about Jef being a "John Smith," that name which was the cover identity for those top-ranking members of the interworld Ecological Corps, the Planetary Inspectors. The Inspectors held awesome powers to recommend economic sanctions by the family of inhabited planets against any world not managing its ecology properly; and the "John Smith" cover name was designed to protect these men and women in their personal lives, from political and other pressures. No one but the Corps knew the real identity of any John Smith.

  Jef had dreamed once of being an E. Corps Inspector, himself. That had been before Will, the older brother he could barely remember had applied for the position and been rejected by the Corps. That had been sixteen years ago; but Jef could remember the heavy blow of disappointment on the family household when word of Will's rejection arrived. Jef's father had endured that defeat, too, without a word. But, young as he had been then, Jef had felt the pain lying deeply within the elder Robini, silent but inextinguishable.