The Alien WayGordon R. Dickson
THE ALIEN WAY
Gordon R. Dickson
START SCIENCE FICTION
An Imprint of Start Publishing LLC
New York, New York
THE ALIEN WAY © 1965 by Gordon R. Dickson. © 1993 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.
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...Turning in his sleep, Jason Barchar rolled over so that the weight of his head was upon the right side of his skull, under which the receiver had been implanted. The area was still tender, even two months after the operation, so that he rolled a little further, until he was almost on his stomach, and went back to dreaming about the bears.
He was dreaming that he was again out on the hillside in the Canadian Rockies, where he had actually been six years before. He was lying very still in the spring sunlight, with the wide-angle binoculars at his eyes, looking down into a small natural meadow with only a few birch and spruce scattered through it. The stiff, broken stalks of winter-killed grass among the new growth pricked his wrists where his leather jacket had pulled back to expose the skin, and his elbows were sore from contact with the rock under the damp surface skin of earth, but he paid no attention. Below there were about two-dozen of the bears, and the spring fury of mating and battles was on them. The brown and black cubs were mostly already up in the trees, and the females were hanging back. But just below him, in the weedy lists of a little open arena, two males stalked each other, up on hind legs, necks arched snakelike and heads thrust forward in rage.
They were lost in their rages. They did not see him up on the hillside, or the females hanging back, or the cubs in the trees, and they did not care. There was nothing left for either of them but the other bear facing him. They were almost formal and completely honest, in their advancings and their shuffling retreats. Jase’s heart beat with theirs. It was what had made him a naturalist-which like all important work was a way of thinking, not just the application of a lot of book knowledge as people thought-and thinking that did not understand things like this spring fighting of the bears.
They thought the urge to fight, the fighting and the winning or losing, was a simple matter of automatic instinct and easy reflex. But it was not so. There was custom to it, and a complex of experience operating on the part of each combatant. There was desire, and decision, and courage required from each bear. There was hope and fear, and the need to tell a bluff from a true threat. There were many factors entering into each situation in the meadow, each combat—and no two combats were ever alike.
So Jase dreamed that he watched and learned from the bears. While the hum of the insects in his dream blended with the hum of the air-conditioner in his bedroom window, and in the window of his living room beyond. The whole dark, brickwalled apartment in the stifling, rainy June night was a cool cave of isolation set off from the unsleeping, night-time streets of Washington, D.C., outside, where the cabs rolled all night long over the glistening asphalt, past the traffic signals and the neon signs of restaurants.
In the sleeping apartment, nothing moved. The air-conditioners hummed. The bedroom was shadowy. The distant light of a street lamp glowed faintly through the drawn blinds and touched the opposite wall beyond the bed with two ghostly faint rectangles of light. They seemed on the verge of merging, so uncertain they were, and pale.
Jase’s clothes lay lumped on the chair by the bed. The carpet beneath the chair was a plane of darkness, reaching toward the open doorway and through it into the larger space of the living room. There the walls were lit by three more ghosts of windows. The light showed bookshelves and a glass case crammed full of the study skins of small animal specimens, carefully sewn, preserved with borax, and tagged. The number of them piled in the case made them look like a horde of prisoners. Pent by the invisible glass walls as the bears were pent by invisible instinct and desire. On the bookshelves, filling the walls of the room from floor to ceiling, the faint light through the blinds barely showed some of the titles: P. Chapin, Preparation of Bird Skins for Study; H. Hediger, Wildgere in Gefangenschaft; K. P. Schmidt, Corollary and Commentary for Climate and Evolution, magazine pages extracted and bound; W. K. Gregory, Evolution Emerging…
On the desk full of papers the still-uncashed last paycheck made out to Jason S. Barchar by the newly formed Wildlife Studies Section of the U.S. Department of the Interior lay shadowy and still. It was a half-paycheck, since Jase had been on sabbatical leave the last two months. Under the check was a birthday card two weeks old on which was scribbled, “With no apologies whatever to A. A. Milne-Hippy Pappy Bithunday, love, Mele.”
Isolated, dark, the apartment slumbered-all but the receiver, the tiny microdevice implanted under Jase’s skull, with its hair-thin wire reaching into certain areas of his brain. Unsleeping, unisolated, the receiver reached outward through a tight, invisible channel of collapsed space to a cold, dark fragment of earth, manufacture, so far distant that it was just being touched just now by the same sunlight that had shone on those condemned in the Salem Witch Trials in 1692.
Close now, approaching-though he did not know it-that fragment in a vessel no larger than a thirty-five-foot motor launch on earth, came another dreamer. A dreamer who had never breathed spring mountain air, or the damp air of a Washington night, or any earthly air. Neither stuffed and preserved study specimen nor human book nor neon restaurant card could have spoken to him intelligibly. No birthday card would have made sense to him, no signed check supported him, no brown bears’ battle stirred him inwardly.
Still—he dreamed also. He sat with his hands on a sloping table covered with studs and switches. His hands, like his body, were covered with black fur. But his flesh was warm. A vital fluid, driven by a heart-like pumping organ, flowed through veins in his body, refreshed by oxygen from an atmosphere that Jase also could have breathed.
His mind moved on its own desires. He felt heat, and cold, desires, and fear, and the necessity of making decisions. There was courage in him, and hope.
And now, approaching the fragment he did not know was there, as Jase slumbered back in the humming stillness of his Washington apartment, the other dreamer dreamed. A dream of a white palace with many levels below ground but only three above in the light of a star he had not yet found. And on the topmost level, the mothers of his sons, and his sons-straight and strong and honorable and dreaming as he did then.
But it was a waking dream he dreamed. And it was the dream of Founding a Kingdom.
Therefore it happened that before the sleeper woke, Kator Secondcousin, cruising in the neighborhood of a Cepheid variable down on his charts as 47391L, but which the sleeper would have called Ursae Minoris or Polaris, the Pole Star, suddenly found himself smiled upon by the Random Factor that all seek.
Immediately, for although he was merely a Secondcousin, it was of the family of Brutogas, he grasped the opportunity that offered itself and locked the controls. Before him shone his chance of Founding his Kingdom. Therefore he planned carefully and swiftly. He fastened a tractor beam on the drifting artifact presented by the Random Factor. It was a beau
tiful artifact, even in its fragmentary condition, fully five times as large as the two-man scout in which he and Aton Maternaluncle, of the family Ochadi, had been making a routine sampling sweep of debris from the galactic drift.
Kator locked it exactly in the center of his viewing screen and leaned back in his pilot’s chair. A polished bulkhead on the left of the screen threw back his own image, and he twisted the stiff, catlike whiskers of his round face thoughtfully and with satisfaction as he reviewed the situation with all sensible speed.
The situation could hardly have been more convenient. Aton Maternaluncle was not even a connection by marriage with the family Brutogas. It was true that he, like the Brutogasi, was of the Hook persuasion, politically, rather than Rod. But on the other side of the summing up, the odds against the appearance of such a Random Factor as this to two individuals on scientific survey were astronomical.
It cancelled out Ordinary Duties and Conventions automatically. Aton Maternaluncle—had he been merely an observer outside the situation rather than the other half of the scout crew—would certainly have approved of Kator’s attempt to integrate the Random Factor positively with Kator’s own life pattern. “Besides,” thought Kator, watching his own reflection in the bulkhead and stroking his whiskers, “I am young, and my best years of life are before me.”
He got up from the pilot’s chair, loosened a connection in the body of the internal ship’s recorder, and extended the three-inch claws on his stubby fingers. He went back to the sleeping quarters behind the pilot room. On a larger ship the door to it would never have been unlocked. But on a small ship like this the scouts must endure their work without benefit of a Keysman. Aton was sleeping on the lower bunk, his back turned.
Skillfully, Kator drove his claws into the spinal cord at the base of Aton’s round, black-furred skull. Aton sighed and lay silent. He had felt nothing, Kator was certain. The stroke had been swift and sure. Kator pulled the heavy body from the bunk, carried it tenderly to the airlock, and released it into the wastes of outer space. He returned to the recorder, tightened the loose connection, and recorded the fact that Aton had attacked him without warning in a fit of insanity, knocking the recorder out of commission in his attack. Finding Kator alert and resisting, the insane Aton had then leaped into the airlock and committed suicide by discharging himself into the airlessness of the void.
It was true, thought Kator, gratefully, reflecting on his ancestry as he finished recording the account While others think, I act! had been the motto of the original Brutogas. Kator stroked his whiskers in thankfulness to his forefathers.
He suited up in his spaceclothes. A little over hall an hour later in the time-equivalents of Kator’s people, who called themselves the Rural, Kator had a close-line magnetically fastened to the explosion-ruined hull of the artifact and was hand-over-hand hauling his spacesuited body along the line toward the hull. He reached it without difficulty and set about exploring his find by the headlight of his spacesuit.
It had evidently belonged to a people very much like Kator’s own kind. The doors were the right size, the sitting devices Kator could have sat in comfortably. Unfortunately, most of the original material of this obviously space-going vessel had been blasted away by an explosion of the collapse field that had destroyed it. This was important, highly important, for the type of faster-than-light drive system used by Kator’s people also utilized a collapsed universe theory, and contained a field such as this one, which in exploding had left rainbow-colored streakings on the ruined walls of the artifact.
Of course, nearly everything not bolted down aboard the artifact had been expelled outward and lost into space as a result of the explosion…No, discovered Kator—not everything. He discovered a sort of hand carrying case with a semicircular handle wedged between the legs of one of the sitting devices. Kator unwedged it and took it back to the scout with him.
After making the routine safety tests on it, Kator got it open. The find within was magnificent. Several items of what appeared to be something like cloth-shaped like a one-piece, continuously solid, thin, all-covering body harness set—if you could imagine such a thing. There was no provision on it for fastening either honors or weapons. Nevertheless, there were honors present, in various shapes and sizes of metal in the box, mostly ring-shaped and of a size to fit perhaps fingers or arms. And what was evidently a writing utensil of soft red wax with a sharpened point and a screw device to project it from its case.
Enclosed in a clear wrapping material of plastic properties and artificial construction were two oddly shaped containers, which perhaps were foot protectors. Soil still adhered to the bottom of them, and Kator’s breath paused in his lungs as he discovered it. He detached the earth, carried it to a microscope to examine it minutely.
The Random Factor had not failed. Amid the crumbling soil he discovered and separated out the tiny dried form, the body of a dead organic creature.
A dirtworm it was, almost indistinguishable from the primitive form of the dirtworms at home.
Kator lifted it carefully from the dirt with a specimen clamp and sealed it into a small cube of transparent preservative material. This, he told himself, slipping it into his harness pouch, was his. There was plenty of material in the rest of the artifact for the examiners to work on back home, to discover the location of the race that had built the artifact. This small form, the earnest of his future Kingdom, he would keep close by him. And if the Random Factor continued to associate with the situation, there could be a use for it…
Kator logged his position and the direction of drift the artifact had been taking when he had first sighted it. He headed himself and the artifact in tow toward Homeworld, and lay down himself on Aton’s bunk for a well-earned rest.
As he drifted off to sleep, he began remembering some of the sweeps he and Aton had made together in the scout ship before this, and regret was like a hollow pain within him until the shades of slumber came to soften it.
They had never been related, it was true, even by the marriage of the most distant connections. But Kator had grown to have a deep friendship for the older Ruml, and Kator was not the sort who made acquaintances easily.
Only, he thought, drowning sorrowfully in the well of sleep, when a Kingdom beckons, what can you do?
The sleeper woke and found himself weeping. For a moment he lay without moving, face buried in the pillow he clutched under the maple headboard of the bed in the shadowy room. He could think only of the fact that Aton was dead, that he had killed him.
Then, gradually, the undeviating, comforting hum of the air-conditioner began to intrude upon the memory of Aton. The softness of the strange thing that was a pillow next to his face, the yielding, flat surface that was the bed beneath his horizontal body, began to make themselves known as things he recognized as belonging to a place where there was no empty space, no artifact, and no Founding of Kingdoms. Remembrance of another life woke in the back of the, sleeper’s brain and flooded once more through his consciousness. Wiping his face on the thin white sheet that covered him, the sleeper sat up in bed.
He was in his own bedroom. On the nightstand beside him the yellow, luminous figures and hands of his alarm clock glowed in a circle of obscurity that was the clock’s face. It was one-twenty-three in the morning. He reached out, fumbling for the black shape of the phone on the bedstand, behind the clock. His sleep-clumsy fingers knocked the receiver from its cradle before they closed on it. But he got it to his ear, pulled the cradle forward into the dim light from the windows, and dialed Mele’s number. It rang, and rang again…
“Hello—” It was her voice, sleep-fogged, suddenly answering.
“Mele…” he said, and his voice seemed to have trouble getting out of his throat. “It’s me. Jason. I’m through. I connected just now, while I was sleeping.”
“Jase—” She seemed to be waking up to the information at the other end, fumbling for a moment. Her voice came suddenly, stronger. “Jase? Are
you all right, Jase?”
“Yes.” He wiped his face with a shaking hand clumsily and breathed deeply. It was ridiculous to feel like this, under the circumstances. But he did.
“Your voice sounds strange. Jase, are you sure you’re all right?”
“Yes,” he said. “It’s just something that happened at the other end. That’s all.”
“I’ll tell you later.” He was getting control of himself now. Even to his own ears his voice sounded more in control, stronger and more sensible. Businesslike. “I’ll get dressed right away and come down to the Foundation. You’ll phone the Board?”
“Right away… You sound better now.”
“I feel better,” he said. “I’ll get dressed and packed now. I'll be leaving in about fifteen or twenty minutes. I’ll take a cab. Want me to pick you up on the way?”
“Do that.” Her voice came back. It was a bright, warm voice now that it was waking up, and he loved it very much. "I’ll call the Board people now and phone you back as soon as I have. Bye, sweetheart.”
“Good-bye… sweetheart,” he answered and heard the phone click down at her end of the line. He hung up himself and got out of bed. Standing in the lower half of his pyjamas in the dark room, feeling the furriness of the rug underfoot and the wind of the air-conditioner chilling his perspiration-damp chest, he came all the way awake.
He palmed the switch on his bedside table that turned on the lights of the room. The sudden, yellow brightness of them made the disordered bed, the familiar walls seem to jump out at him harsh and unnatural. He shook his head to get rid of the last of the feeling of being in the mind of Kator Secondcousin—but did not succeed. Taking fresh shorts and T-shirt from the dresser drawer, he walked through the door to the bathroom, opposite the door to the sitting room, which still lay dark.
He showered, and the hot water revived him. He began—and he was awake enough now to smile at the thought—to feel human again. He left the shower, lathered, and began shaving automatically. He was beginning to forget he was anything but a normal, earthbound zoologist in his twenties.