OtherGordon R. Dickson
Gordon R. Dickson
OTHER © 1994 by Gordon R. Dickson.
First Start Science Fiction edition 2013.
All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without the express written consent of the publisher, except in the case of brief excerpts in critical reviews or articles. All inquiries should be addressed to Start Science Fiction, 609 Greenwich Street, 6th Floor, New York, NY 10014.
All characters in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Published by Start Science Fiction,
an imprint of Start Publishing LLC
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This book is dedicated to Marguerite Brodie Dickson
I’m indebted to the following people, for their remarkable helpfulness with this book:
Harry Frank Joe Haldeman Yoji Kondo Dennis Lien Michael Longcor John Miesel Sandra Miesel Dr. Robert Passovoy Dave Wixon
It was not until the small hours of the morning that Henry MacLean had finished the cleaning and reassembly of his power pistol, that had lain buried deep these twenty years.
It was only then, when he put the energizer coil into the thick handle, that he found his right hand suddenly white-knuckled on the pistol, the heel of his left hand resting where he had slapped it in—as he would have done with a fresh reserve coil, in combat as a Soldier of God.
For a moment, it all came back; the sound of weapons, the smell of burning buildings—and the dying Militia soldier, that one time, who had taken a burst of needles in his throat. Who begged him, with gestures, to hold his bloodless hands together and be his voice, in a final prayer before death.
For a moment he paused, bowed his head and put the edges of his joined hands for a moment against the edge of the table.
“God,” he prayed, “he is like a son. Like Joshua—and like Will, who is in Thy arms now. I love him equally. Thou knowest why I must do this.”
He sat for a moment more, then parted his hands again and raised his head. He had mastered the image and the long-dead reflex, risen from the grave of memory. They were gone. He put the pistol with its shoulder rig into his suitcase, with what few other possessions he was taking.
Only a little later, before he left, Henry stopped in the pre-dawn darkness of the kitchen to leave on the kitchen table a letter to Joshua and Joshua’s family. A single sheet of paper on which he told them where he was going, that all that had been his was now theirs, and that he loved them.
Then, soundlessly in his stocking feet, and carrying his boots and suitcase, he went to the front door, opened it and let himself out, softly closing it again behind him.
He stood on the top one of the three wooden steps for a moment before putting his boots on. It was the end of the brief few days of spring here, on the planet of Association, under the star of Epsilon Eridani, after the long, long rainy winter and before the mounting heat of the equally long summer.
There had been only a brief shower during the night. Now the air was still; and in that moment on the top step, he felt the cool pleasant dampness that would so soon pass away.
Dawn was just below the horizon. But a whiteness from the east had already washed the stars from the cloudless sky overhead. About him lay the gray earth with its fields already tilled and sown. Epsilon Eridani’s light, even from just below the horizon, made everything seem to stand out, strangely clear and three-dimensional. Even a puddle in the trodden earth about the steps made a clear and perfect mirror. Beyond the puddle, the yard was wetly dark; so that, here and there, the clean-washed tops of white-veined blue stones, like those that plagued their fields, projected from the earth, sharply visible.
The puddle threw back at him the whiteness off the cloudless dawn sky; and, against it, his own lean, square-shouldered, tight-knit figure, hardly showing the beginnings of middle age.
Now, with his everyday boots, his dark, heavy pants below his equally dark and heavy jacket, he was in the winter wear of an Association farmer, such as he had been for so many years now. Only the white shirt and dark beret, which were normally reserved for church-going, and the tie that made a black cross at his throat, made a difference.
The suitcase he now carried, heavy with the pistol, its holster and his scant burden of other belongings, was of scuffed brown plastic. He set it down again for a moment; and bent over to tuck his trousers into the tops of his ankle-high boots, with one neat fold apiece. Then he picked up the suitcase and walked out of the yard, over the railless bridge that crossed the ditch by the road; and turned to his right, in the direction he had determined to go.
An unusual stillness held the air about him. No breeze stirred. Even the variform and native insects were silent; the night insects had ceased their voices and the day insects not yet taken up the chorus. There were no native birds—and no variform birds; it had been decided that it would be an unnecessary luxury to import them from Old Earth. Parasites among the variform insects kept their part of the ecology in balance.
But the vegetation about him was almost all of Earth variforms. All the trees and the hedges that divided the fields owed their original genes to the home planet. Only, alongside the road down which he walked, was a species of the original native vegetation of this world.
These were the so-called Praying Trees. They were like nothing so much as a temperate zone version of Earth’s saguaro cactus, but with thick white bark. They had the same candle-like branches as the saguaros; although these limbs grew out horizontally at regular intervals up two sides of the tree-high plant, each one opposite from the one below and the one above; and then crooked themselves after four or five feet to grow straight upward.
They were like sentinels lining his path. In the early light of the pre-dawn sky, they, like everything else, threw faint ghost-like shadows, stretching long back the way he had come, and away from the way he was going.
A little more than a kilometer down the road, he passed the small church to which he and his family had belonged all these years. Gregg, the minister, always held a morning service for those who could get here at that hour, in this rural community. But in all his years here, Henry had never been able to get free from the work of the farm to attend. Now he paused for a moment to listen, as the small congregation within burst out strongly into the morning hymn—“Greet We the Day!”
Greet we the day! The day of work and striving The day of God’s contriving Greet we the day!
Greet we the sun! The sun that rises o’er us The sun the Lord made for us Greet we the sun!
Greet we the earth!
The earth that keeps and feeds us…
The song ran on to its end and ceased. Gregg’s resonant voice, so large for such a small, crippled man, announced the text for the sermon.
“Joshua 8:26.” The words reached clearly to Henry’s ear. “Joshua drew not his hand back wherewith he stretched out the spear.”
A cold memory touched Henry at the sound of the text—but the beginning of the sermon itself went unheard. Behind him now was the sound of an approaching hovercar. He turned to see the vehicle coming toward him.
He put the suitcase down and stood, waiting. The white hovercar, already splashed from the road ruts, though it had been fresh-washed at the time Henry had left home, pulled up beside him, and sank to the roadway as the air-jets on which it traveled ceased blowing.
In the back were his son’s wife and his two grandsons, aged three and four. At the control stick in the front sat Joshua, his oldest—and now his only—son; since Will, the younger, had been killed on Ceta, as one of a levy sol
d off to fight there by Association’s government.
Joshua touched the control that threw open the door of the front seat on Henry’s side, and spoke across the short space now open between them. His square face under its brown hair was angry with unhappiness.
“Why?” he demanded.
“I told you why,” said Henry, calmly. His light baritone was, as always, level and self-contained. “I told you in the letter I left for you.”
“But you’re leaving us for Bleys!”
Henry took a step closer and lowered his head to speak into the car itself. He looked at the strong face of Joshua under his brown hair and above his stocky frame.
“Bleys needs me,” said Henry, in a quieter tone. “You no longer need me, my son. You’ve got your wife and children. You can handle the farm as well or better than I can. It was always yours, anyway. You don’t need me now. But Bleys does.”
“Bleys has Dahno!” said Joshua. “He has money and power. How can he need you more than we do?”
“Your life is safe,” said Henry. “As a married man with children and the farm, you’re not draftable, as Will was. Your souls are secure in God’s keeping; and I do not fear for them or you. But, I fear greatly for Bleys. He has fallen into Satan’s hands and only I can protect him—perhaps—so that he lives to the time when he can break loose.”
“Father—” Joshua ran out of words. His father’s decisions had always been as immovable as a mountain, in all things human, worldly and spiritual. He stared at the spare man before him, so lightly untouched by time despite the gray showing in his brown hair. Still strong. Still certain.
“We’d hoped you’d always be with us—all of us,” he said, his voice breaking on the word “us.” “With me, Ruth, and your grandsons.”
“Man proposes, God disposes,” said Henry. “In spirit and love, you know I’ll be with you always.”
There was a long moment more in which they simply looked at each other. Then Joshua made an abrupt gesture, beckoning his father into the car.
“Where did you think you were going, on foot?” he demanded harshly. “Were you going to walk all the way to Ecumeny?”
“Only to the store, to catch the Thursday bus,” said Henry. “The car is yours now.”
“I’ll drive you in it, to Ecumeny and Bleys!” Joshua repeated his gesture. “Get in!”
Henry got in beside him; and Joshua closed the door, putting the hovercar once more in motion.
They drove in silence for a few moments. The main highway, with its built-in control cable, was only minutes away by magnetic-levitation vehicle or hovercar. The single-story store with its living quarters in the background flickered past them, seen through the right windows of the hovercar. Henry suddenly heard and felt a small, warm and breathy voice almost inside his left ear.
It was the voice of William, the three-year-old, named after Henry’s dead son buried on Ceta. He swiveled his car seat around and opened his arms to those in the backseat.
“My children,” he said.
They all came into his arms together. Four-year-old Luke clung as tightly as young Willie; and Ruth, their mother, also hugged him, the faces of all three pressed against his chest and shoulders.
He held them tightly, and kissed the top of the three heads; the two light-blond ones of the boys, that would darken with age to the color of their father’s hair, and the wavy reddish-brown of Ruth’s. They simply held together without speaking as the long moments slipped slowly by; and then suddenly they were enveloped in gloom, as the window glass of the vehicle automatically darkened around them. Their sun, so like that of Earth’s, had broken clear of the horizon and was shining directly upon them.
“I’ll come and see you whenever I can,” he murmured to the three, gave them all an extra squeeze, then let go and turned back his seat toward the front. The windshield had darkened automatically almost to black, except for one spot of brightness where Epsilon Eridani, directly ahead, burned through in a glow that carried the same signature the star wrote on the sky above.
“It’s all right,” said Joshua. “We’re on the cable road now. On automatic.”
Following the impulses from the cable buried in the concrete surface beneath its cushion of air, the hovercar rushed onward, guiding itself toward Ecumeny.
Henry did not answer.
He had opened the package compartment in the dashboard panel before him, and was rummaging within it. After a moment he found and drew out one of the several spindles of recordings that were kept there. He closed the compartment and slid the forefinger-length, pencil-thin spindle into the player.
Immediately the space around the compartment disappeared, to give place to a three-dimensional image of a room with a desk. Behind the desk, a tall, young, remarkably handsome man, in a shirt as white as Henry’s but with a black cloak lined in red hanging from his shoulders, sat and spoke. It was clearly a broadcast speech, recorded.
“Call me Bleys,” said the figure in a soft but resonant baritone that had the ability to send a thrill—of what, they did not know—through those now listening, even though they knew the man who used it. His eyes were dark brown, dark almost to blackness, under level brows and equally dark brown, slightly wavy hair, cut short about his head.
“I speak for no church,” he said in that oddly memorable, compelling voice, “for no political party or policy. If I am anything, I am only a philosopher. A philosopher in love with humanity, and concerned about its future…”
The voice went on, filling the car, holding the five people in it captive with its sound and its words, in spite of their familiarity with the message and the one who spoke it. Only Joshua, glancing for a moment sideways at his father’s face, saw that Henry’s eyes had gone as hard as the blue-white stones of yard and field.
Bleys Ahrens paced.
It was an hour since he had come back from an early-morning recording session. The brilliant daylight that had dawned on Henry’s farm struck through the window wall that was one full side of his private lounge, with daylight at an angle of nearly noon.
The scarlet-lined black cloak that was his trademark had been thrown aside on one of the lounge’s chairfloats. One edge of it half-hid the pages of an ancient printed book on Old Earth avian fauna, left open on the float, leaving revealed the image of a hunting gyrfalcon of Old Earth, head upright and turned sideways, beak closed and fierce, eye cruel.
Bleys was no longer aware of it. Without thinking, since he had started to pace the strides of his long legs had unconsciously lengthened until they crossed the spacious lounge in only six steps. His unusually tall, slim but powerful figure in its black jacket, narrow gray trousers and ankle-high boots seemed to tower under the ample ceiling
of the room. Even without the cape, he appeared too large for the available space, as a falcon might, locked in a cage spacious enough for several canaries but not for a single, swift-winged hunter like himself. —An impatient falcon, who did not intend to remain long in any cage and soon would be found gone from it.
He had never intended to remain, in any case. It was more than seven years since he had faced the decision of which way he should go in life. As he saw it then, and as he still did see it, he had only two choices. He could live out his years with humanity as it now was and let it confine him in its own limited society.
—Or he could try to change everything else.
Those years and thousands of hours of relentless training had made his body and mind into the tools and weapons he would need. Sixteen years now since he had first come to his Uncle Henry MacLean’s farm here on Association, banished there after forcing his mother to send him from her by making himself a living reminder of a truth about herself. He had spent his first seven years becoming aware of his terrible loneliness, and two more coming to realize that among the billions of people on the sixteen worlds, there could be no one to understand him. And at last two years deciding to push his m
other to the point of putting him out of her life.
Still, because religion was a way of life for Henry and his two sons, and because hope of belonging somewhere, somehow, was not entirely dead within him, Bleys had tried to find his own future in the faith they held. But he could not believe, and he could not pretend to believe. In the end when the religious community of farmers around the little church where Henry’s family also worshiped had driven him out, he had gone gladly; and for the past years with his older half-brother Dahno (possibly full brother—someday Bleys must find out) he had faced his decision.
For the lonely way he would have to go, and for what he needed to do, he required strengths. He had realized that, those seven years past, and had set out to build them in himself. And now he was satisfied with the weapons he had gained—all but one of them.
He had learned to face the fact that he stood apart from all other people; and that meant that he had to have a power to reach across the gap to them—he had to have a glittering eye that would hold them… that was a line from some Old Earth poem. Yes…
…He holds him with his glittering eye—The Wedding-Guest stood still, And listens like a three years’ child: The Mariner hath his will.
For seven years that had been the final inner power he had worked to build. Thousands of hours of training his mind and body, able to judge only by his inner feelings that each skill mastered pushed him always closer to possession of it. But he could sense he did not have it yet. That was why, with a very few minor exceptions, he had limited himself to recording what he wanted to say.
Training could do no more; this ability would need to be honed in accomplishment—like the ultimate end of a sword, found finally only in actual combat. He must leave Association to acquire it, in actual action on the other New Worlds.
Now he could not wait to go. But something barely felt in him, yet surely known, was warning him, holding him back. He was not yet fully equipped to go.
The certain knowledge of this came as such things always did to him, in an unmeasurable but unarguable signal from what he had thought of as “the back of his mind.”