SpacepawGordon R. Dickson
A BERKLEY MEDALLION BOOK
BERKLEY PUBLISHING CORPORATION
Copyright © 1969 by Gordon Dickson All rights reserved
Published by arrangement with the author’s agent
BERKLEY MEDALLION EDITION, JULY, 1969
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Spiraling down toward the large, blue world below, in the shuttle boat from the spaceship which had delivered him here to Dilbia. Bill Waltham reflected dismally upon his situation. Most of the five-day trip he had spent wearing a hypno-helmet. But in spite of the fact that his head was now a-throb with a small encyclopedia of information about the world below and its oversize inhabitants—their language, customs, and psychology—he felt that he knew less than nothing about this job into which he had been drafted.
The shuttle boat would land him near the Lowland village of Muddy Nose. There, presumably, he would be met on disembarking by Lafe Greentree, the human Agricultural Resident here, and by Greentree’s other trainee-assistant—an Earth girl named Anita Lyme who had, incredible as it seemed, volunteered for her pre-college field training here, just as Bill had originally volunteered himself for the Deneb-Seventeen terraforming project. These two would introduce Bill to his native associate—an Upland Dilbian named the Hill Bluffer. The Hill Bluffer would in turn introduce him to the local Lowland farmers who had their homes in Muddy Nose, and Bill could get down to the apparently vital job for which he had been drafted here. He could hear himself now …
“… This is a spade. You hold it by this end. You stick the other end in the earth. Yes, deep in the earth. Then you tilt it, like this. Then you lift it tip with the dirt still on it and put the dirt aside. Fine. You are now digging a hole in the ground …”
He checked the current of his thoughts sharply. There was no point, he told himself grimly, in being bitter about it. He was here now, and he would have to make the best of it. But in spite of himself, his mind’s eye persisted in dwelling on the succession of days stretching ahead through two years of unutterable dullness and boredom. He thought again of the great symphony of engineering and development that was a terraforming project—changing the surface and weather of a whole world to make it humanly habitable; and he compared that with this small, drab job to which he was now headed. There seemed no comparison between the two occupations— no comparison at all.
But once more he took a close rein on his thoughts and emotions. Some day he could be a part of a terraforming project. Meanwhile, it would be well to remember that he would be given an efficiency rating for his work on Dilbia, just as if it was the job he had originally intended to do. That efficiency rating could not be high if he started out hating everything about the huge, bearlike natives and everything connected with them. At least, he thought, the Dilbians had a sense of humor—judging by the names they gave each other.
This last thought was not as cheering as it might have been, however. It reminded Bill of something the reassignment officer had said at the space terminal on Arcturus Three, where his original travel orders had been lifted and new ones issued. The officer had been a tall, lath-thin, long-nosed man, who had taken Bill’s being drafted away from the Deneb-Seventeen Project much more calmly than had Bill.
“… Oh, and of course,” the reassignment officer had said cheerfully, “you’ll find you’ve been given a Dilbian name yourself, by the time you get there …”
Bill scowled, remembering. His only experience previously with a nickname had not been a happy one. On the swimming team at pre-engineering school, he had failed to rejoice in the given name of “Ape”—not so much because of anything apelike about either his open and rather ordinary face under its cap of black hair, or his flat-muscled, square-boned body. The name had arisen because he was the only member of the team with anything resembling hair on his chest. Bill made a mental note to keep his shirt on when Dilbians were about, during the next two years—just in case. Of course he reflected now, they had hair all over their own bodies….
The chime of the landing signal rang through the shuttle boat. Bill looked out of the window beside his seat behind the pilot and saw they were drifting down into a fair-sized meadow, perhaps half a mile away across plowed fields alternating with stands of trees from a cluster of buildings that would probably be the village of Muddy Nose. He looked down below him, searching for a glimpse of Greenleaf or his assistant—but he saw no human figures waiting there. In fact, he saw no figures there at all. Where was his welcoming committee?
He was still wondering that, five minutes later, as he stood in the clearing alone, with his luggage case at his feet and the shuttle boat falling rapidly skyward above his head. The shuttle-boat pilot had not been helpful. He knew nothing about who was to meet Bill, he had said. Furthermore, he was due back at the ship as soon as possible. He had handed Bill’s luggage case out the hatch to him, closed the hatch, and taken off.
Bill looked up at the rich yellow of the local sun, standing in the midafternoon quarter of the sky. It was a beautiful, near-cloudless day. The air was warm, and from the stand of trees surrounding him a little distance, some species of local bird or animal was singing in high liquid chirpings. Well, thought Bill, at least one good thing was the fact that Dilbia’s gravity was a little lighter than Earth’s. That would make carrying his luggage case up to the Residency a little easier. He might as well get started. He picked up the luggage case and headed off in the general direction of the village as he remembered seeing it from the air.
He trudged out of the clearing, through the trees, and had just emerged into a second clearing when he heard a shouting directly ahead of him through the farther stand of trees. He stopped abruptly.
The shouting came again, in a chorus of incredibly deep bass voices, deeper than any human voice Bill had ever heard, and, it seemed to him in that first moment, more threatening.
He was about to change course so as to detour prudently around the noisy area, when his hypnoed information of the Dilbian language somewhat belatedly rendered the shouts into recognizable words and the words into parts of a song. Only “song” was not exactly the word for it, Dilbian singing being a sort of atonal chanting. Very crudely translated into English, the so-called singing he heard was going something like this:
Drink it down, old friend Tin Ear,
Drink it down!
Drink it down, old friend Tin Ear,
Drink it down!
Here’s to you and your sweet wife,
May you have her all your life!
Better you than one of us.
Drink it down!
Drink it down … etc.
Here’s to you and your new plow!
Does it make your back to bow?
Well, better you than one of us.
Bill abruptly changed his mind. If the song was any indication, a happy gathering of some sort was in progress on the other side of the trees. All the hypnoed information he had absorbed on the way to Dilbia had indicated that the Dilbians were normally good-humored and generally friendly enough— if somewhat boisterous and inclined to take pride in observing the letter of the law, while carefully avoiding the spirit of it. Besides, Muddy Nose Village had a treaty agreement with the human members of the Agricultural Assistance Program, and that officially put him under the protection of any member of that local community.
So there should be no reason not to join the gathering and at least get directi
ons to the Residency, if not some help as well in carrying his luggage to the village. The situation would also give him a chance to size up the natives before Greenleaf gathered him in and gave him Greenleafs own, possibly biased, point of view about them. Bill was still not clear why a pre-engineering student with a prospective major in mechanical engineering should be needed to explain simple things like hoes and rakes to the Dilbians.
Accordingly, he picked up his traveling case from where he had put it down, and tramped ahead in under the trees before him. The grove was not more than fifty to seventy-five feet thick, and he reached the other side shortly, stepping out into what appeared to be the front yard of a log farmhouse.
In the yard a plank table had been set up on trestles, and at that table were half a dozen towering, bearlike individuals, nearly nine feet tall, and covered with brown-black hair plus a few straps, from which each had hung a monstrous sword, as well as various pouches or satchels. The crowd at the table was eating and drinking out of large wooden mugs refilled constantly from a nearby barrel with its top broken in. A dozen feet or so from the table was a pile of what appeared to be sacks of root vegetables, half a carcass resembling a side of beef, and an unopened barrel like the one from which they were drinking—together with some odds and ends, including a three-legged wooden stool. A small piglike animal was tied by a cord to one of the heavy vegetable sacks, and it was granting and chewing on the cord. It was plain the creature would soon be loose.
But no one in the farmyard was paying any attention to the animal as Bill joined them. They had stopped singing and their attention was all directed to a smaller, more rounded— you might actually say fat—native, a good head shorter than the nine-footers at the table, and with a voice a good octave or two higher than the rest. From which, in addition to the fact that this one wore no sword, Bill concluded that she was a female. She was standing back a dozen feet from the table and shouting at the others—at one in particular who Bill now noticed was also not wearing a sword, but who sat rather more drunkenly than the others, at the head of the table facing down at her.
“… Look at him!” she was shouting, as Bill stepped into the yard and approached the table without any of them apparently noticing him. “He likes it! Isn’t it bad enough that we have to live here outside the village because he won’t _ speak up for our right to live at the Inn, when he knows I’m More Jam’s dead wife’s own blood cousin. No, he’s got to sit down and get drunk with rascals and no-goods like the rest of you. Why do you put up with it, Tin Ear? Well, answer me!”
“They’re making me,” muttered the individual at the top of the table who was evidently called Tin Ear. His tongue was a little thick, but his expression, as far as Bill could read it on his furry face, was far from unhappy.
“Well, why do you let them? Why don’t you fight them like a man? If I was a man—”
“Impolite not drink guests,” protested Tin Ear thickly.
“Impolite! Guests!” shouted the female. “Ex-Upland runagates, reivers, thieves …”
“Hold on, there, Thing-or-Two! No need to get nasty!” rumbled one of the sworded drinkers warningly. “Fair’s fair. If there’s something in that stack there”—he pointed to the pile to which the animal was tied—“you really can’t spare, you’re free to trot yourself over and talk to Bone Breaker—”
“Oh yes!” cried Thing-or-Two. “Talk to Bone Breaker, is it? He’s no better than the rest of you—letting Sweet Thing stick her nose in the air and treat him the way she does! If there were any real men around here, they’d have settled the hash of men like him and you, long ago! When I was a girl, if a girl didn’t want to leave home just yet, much she had to say about it. The man who wanted her just came in one day and swept her off her feet and carried her off—”
“Like Tin Ear, here, did to you? Is that it?” interrupted the male with the sword—and the whole table exploded into gargantuan laughter that made Bill’s ears ring. Even Tin Ear choked appreciatively on the contents of the wooden mug from which he was swallowing, in spite of being, as far as Bill could see, in some measure the butt of the joke.
Thing-or-Two shouted back at them, but her words were lost in the laughter, which took a few minutes to die down.
“Why, I heard it was you, Thing-or-Two, who broke into Tin Ear’s daddy’s house one dark night and carried him off!” bellowed the speaker at the table, as soon as he could be heard, and the laughter mounted skyward again.
This last sally apparently had the unusual effect of rendering Thing-or-Two momentarily speechless. Taking advantage of this, and the gradual diminishing of the laughter, Bill decided it was time to call the attention of the gathering to himself. He had been standing in plain daylight right beside the table all this time, but for some strange reason no one seemed to have noticed him. Now he stepped up to the side of the Dilbian who had been trading insults with Thing-or-Two and poked him in the ribs.
“Hey!” said Bill.
The head of the Dilbian jerked around. Seated, his hairy face was on a level with Bill’s and he stared at Bill now from a distance of less than three feet. His jaw dropped. Behind him, the laughter and other sounds died out, giving way to a stony silence as everyone at the table goggled incredulously at Bill.
“Sorry to bother you,” said Bill, stiffly, in his best Dilbian, “but I’ve just got here, and I’m on my way to the Shorty Residency building, in Muddy Nose Village. Maybe one of you would be kind enough to point me in the right direction for the village, and maybe even one of you wouldn’t mind coming along and giving me a hand with my luggage case?”
He waited, but they only continued to stare at him in fascinated silence. So he added, cautiously, knowing that bargaining was as much a part of Dilbian culture as breathing:
“I could probably scrape up a half-pint of nails for anyone who’d like to help me.”
Again he waited. But there was no answer. Amazingly, the silence of the Dilbians persisted. They were still staring at Bill as if he were some strange creature, materialized out of thin air. Bill felt a slight uneasiness stir inside him. It seemed to him they were gaping at him as if they had never seen a human before, which was strange. His hypnoed information plainly informed him that Shorties—as humans were called by the Dilbians—were well known to the Muddy Nosers. Perhaps he had made a mistake in stopping here, after all.
“A Shorty!” gasped the Dilbian he had spoken to, finally breaking the silence. “As I live and breathe! A real, walking, talking, little Shorty! Out here, all by himself!”
He turned about in his seat and slowly reached out a long arm, which Bill avoided by backing away out of reach.
“Come here, Shorty!” said the Dilbian.
“No thanks,” said Bill, now fully alerted to the fact that there was something very wrong in the situation. He kept backing away. “Forget I asked.” It was high time to remind them of his protected status, he decided. The sworded individual he had been speaking to was already beginning to rise from the table with every obvious intention of laying hands upon him.
“It was just a thought—that I might get one of you to help me,” Bill said rapidly. “I’m a member of the Residency, myself, you know.”
The Dilbian was now on his feet and others were rising. Alarm rang as clearly in Bill as the clanging of a fire bell.
“What’s the matter with you?” he shouted at the oncoming Dilbian. “Don’t you know we Shorties have a treaty with the Muddy Nosers? According to that treaty, you all owe me protection and assistance!”
The male Dilbians, still rising from the table, froze and stared once again for a long second before suddenly bursting out into wild whoops of laughter, wilder and louder than Bill had yet heard from them.
Bill stared at them, amazed.
“Why, you crazy little Shorty!” cried the voice of Thing-or-Two furiously behind him. “Can’t you tell the differences between people, when you see them? These aren’t honest folk like us here around the village! They’re those thi
eves and plunderers and no-goods from the Outlaw Valley! They’re outlaws—and they never signed any kind of treaty with anybody!”
Thing-or-Two’s shouted warning explained matters, but it came, if anything, a little late. By the time she had finished speaking, the leading outlaw was almost upon Bill, and Bill was already in motion.
He dropped his luggage case and ducked desperately as the big Dilbian hands made a grab for him. They missed, and he spun about only to find himself running in the wrong direction. With whoops and yells the whole crew of outlaws was after him. Every way he turned, he found a towering, nine-foot figure barring his escape.
Not that an immediate attempt to escape would do him any good at the moment, he realized almost at once. Bill’s first reaction had been that of any small animal being chased by larger ones—to duck and dodge and take advantage of his reflexes, which were faster simply because he was smaller. The Dilbian outlaws, being all nearly twice Bill’s size and several times his weight, were by that very fact slower and clumsier than he was. In fact, after the first leap to escape, he found himself evading their clutches with relative ease.
But even as he realized he could do this, he saw the spot he was in. At first he had been dodging about only in order to find a clear space in which he could make a run for the forest. Now he realized that simply running away was no solution. The reflexes of the Dilbians might be slower than his, but their huge strides could cover the same amount of ground at double his speed. They could catch him in no time if he simply tried to outrun them in a straight-away chase.
His only hope, he realized now, still dodging desperately about the farmyard, was to keep evading them in this small area until they began to grow winded, and then take his chances on outrunning them. If he could only keep this up, he thought—ducking under a flailing dark-furred arm as thick as a man’s thigh—for just a few minutes more …