Delusion World, Page 2Gordon R. Dickson
The trouble began just a few hours ship-time out of Dunroamin, shortly after Feliz had come out of no-drive and set the course on conventional for that nearby planet. It suddenly occurred to Feliz then that he had not, after all, destroyed all personal identification aboard his craft. His hat, he remembered, had his name and Interstellar Trader’s Registry number on the sweatband in gold letters and numbers.
He got out the hat with the intention of removing this betraying item from the sweatband, and switched on the small Mark HI plastic converter on the ship’s worktable. The converter was necessary for the reason that the hat was made of cast plastic and practically indestructible, being in essence nothing but a single giant molecule stretched out into a single thread, and then cut and woven in shape by a Mark HI. A Mark HI—when it is properly constructed with a correct governor—can mold, join, or separate cast-plastic like a fairy godmother twinkling a pumpkin into a coach.
Unfortunately, when the Mark HI is properly constructed but with an incorrectly set governor, it is liable to vaporize all cast plastic within range of its beam. For example—a hat, and everything in the closet just beyond it, except one outfit that happened to be lying on the bed in the inner of the ship’s three rooms.
When this happens, a main—when he is half Micturian and can straighten out horseshoes without hardly trying—is liable to lose his temper and start mashing up the defective Mark m into a neat little lump, to be returned to the retailer who sold it at the first opportunity. Feliz was doing just this when his ship’s collision alarm blasted in his ear. Enter large trouble.
Ten seconds later, he was at the controls of his craft and doing his best to get away from a cruiser-sized ship of the Malvar. He was too close to the sun of Dunroamin to go back into no-drive safely; and the Malvar could take more acceleration than even he—with his Micturian blood—could stand. There was no place to go but Dunroamin itself, and hope against hope that it was indeed a human,sanctuary standing firm against hostile aliens.
Feliz streaked for the planet.
He was only a few thousand miles out and thinking to himself that Psi-Man Verde might have emphasized a little more the parting advice he had given Feliz—concerning the wisdom of keeping one’s emotions (and consequently one’s telepathic emissions) down to a whisper is Malvar territory. Because, unfortunately, while the Malvar could not cross the barrier of species and read what was in his mind—no more than Psi-Man Verde could read theirs—they could sense his human-type emissions, and even the tone of them, like a voice shouting in a foreign language.
The looming disk of Dunroamin was swelling in his view- screen and he was trying to cheer himself up with the fact that at least he was close enough to dive in and bum up in the planet’s atmosphere so that the Malvar in the ship behind him could not take him alive. He had done business with Malvar hither and yon about the stars, and they were fine fellows to deal with. But one would not want to be taken alive by them after being discovered spying in their territory.
His communicator sounded a dulcet note and the lean face of a Malvar replaced the image of Dunroamin on the screen. Feliz tensed instinctively, although he knew the Malvar was merely putting out a call signal and could actually have no idea whom he was talking to. Still, Feliz could not help his reaction. It was instinctive. The Malvar were really not lizards, as he had remarked to Psi-Man Verde, nor were they really double-hearted and cold-blooded. They were simply the evolutionary end-product of a different sort of ancestry than the human. They had a joined, twin-chambered organ for pumping blood, instead of the four-chambered human heart, and operated their bodies at a temperature about twelve degrees under the human.
Hie Malvar were really not lizards, and Feliz knew it. But they looked like lizards, and that did it.
“Halt!” ordered the Malvar on Feliz’s screen, in the common lingua franca of space around the human-Malvar area. “You are in Malvar territory. Please identify yourself!”
“No, no, a thousand times no,’’ hummed Feliz thinly between his teeth, stepping the acceleration up another fraction of a G. “I’d rather die than say yes."
The Malvar gained. Feliz fled.
“You must halt or be taken prisoner,” said the Malvar.
Ah, well, thought Feliz sadly, and disconnected the automatic safety that would have prevented any accidental destructive plunge into a planet’s atmosphere.
“You’ve had your last war—” The Malvar in the screen broke off suddenly. The Malvar’s picture disappeared and the green face of Dunroamin reappeared. Feliz stared. He glanced at his instruments.
The Malvar ship was curving away sunward. In the tracking scope it looked as if it was still hot on Feliz’s trail, but the telltales reported it had altered its course half a second of arc to sunward.
“Now what—” began Feliz, and was cut off short as then collision alarm blared again.
He looked at his instruments. Another object was approaching him, emerging now around the curve of the planet which had hidden it before. He punched at the screen.
The screen clouded, wavered, and finally cleared (it had needed overhauling six months now, that screen) to reveal something that could only be said to resemble a six- or seven-room house put together in a vacuum by either a child or a madman. For a long moment Feliz stared at it without comprehension, then memory of an ancient-history course he had taken years ago came back to mind.
“Twist my head off!” said Feliz. “A space station!”
He punched assorted buttons on the communicator. There was an answering beep in a broadcast range that had not been used at any time that Feliz could remember; and the screen lit up with a picture of a ramshackle room and several lank individuals in tattered black uniforms. One, who badly needed a shave, leaned into the screen and waved a handgun at Feliz.
"Surrender!" howled this unwashed character. "Surrender at once, or be destroyed. Man the guns, you men. Send a shot across his bows. Fire one! Fire two! Fire—”
And Feliz’s instruments suddenly began to report hurtling objects emanating from the space station which, it abruptly occurred to the half-Micturian, were probably loaded with high explosive—an ancient and barbarous instrument of war. He snatched at his ship’s controls.
“He runs!” yelped the speaker in the screen. “After him!”
This, since the speaker was broadcasting from a station in free fall, should have been an impossible order to obey. However, Feliz was in no mood to sit around and check on its impossibility. If the man could say it, they might be able to do it—and that was enough of that. Feliz’s ship and the station were headed directly for each other at the moment. He kicked his own vessel hastily toward the night side of the planet.
The penumbra was looming, its dark shelter just before him, and most of the shells lobbed by the station were missing him wildly, when there was a heavy shock at the rear of his ship. The lights flickered, dimmed and came on again.
And he tumbled out of control, into the night side of Dunroamin, falling planet ward.
Wobbling down on its emergency nose jets, Feliz’s ship tottered within a few dozen feet of die ground, did a back flip under the influence of its gyros, and landed heavily. For a moment there was silence under the peaceful-appealing Malvar stars in the Dunroamin sky. Then slowly die hatch opened, a boarding ladder stuck itself out to the ground below like a reluctant tongue under doctor’s orders, and a battered Feliz climbed out and down onto the turf with an ungracious grunt.
“Malvar!” he growled. “Boneheaded idiots in boneheaded space stations! Pin-headed psi-men—”
He stopped talking suddenly to listen, his massive head cocked on one side. He could have sworn he had heard the sound of a woman, weeping. After a second he decided it must have been his imagination. After all, he was out here—wherever it was—in the middle of nowhere.
He looked at the sky. It was a pleasant, warm summer night under conditions of near Earth-normal gravity. A gentle wind was bringin
g him the scent of pines—earth-ancestered pines, no doubt, adapted long since to Dunroamin conditions. To work, to work, thought Feliz. He hitched up his baggy pants and went around the ship, inspecting for damage.
There was no moon in Dunroamin’s sky; but Feliz’s Micturian relatives had been adapted to a moonless situation themselves, and consequently Feliz did not miss one at the moment. His pupils dilated like a cat’s, he poked about his ship and discovered the explosion which had crippled him had done only minor damage. It had taken off about half of one of his stabilizer fins and jammed shut three of his landing tubes. He could weld a new piece on the fin but the tubes were beyond his repairing in these primitive surroundings. No matter; now that he knew which ones were choked off, he could alter his firing pattern to balance the thrust. The rocket tubes, like the fin, of course, were only necessary in an atmosphere. Once well away from the planet he would be as good as ever.
He went back in through the hatch, regretfully tore out one of the interior partitions of the ship—reducing it to a two-room vehicle, instead of a three—and emerged once more onto the grass below with this in one hand and a welding torch in the other. He had to fold up the partition to get it through the hatch. He unfolded it now, and set about using it to repair the fin.
Something like a mutated variform of an Earth rabbit hopped up to the ship out of the darkness and barked at him.
“Go away!” snarled Feliz. Rather to his surprise, the rabbit did. Feliz paused in his welding to worry slightly. Had he perhaps offended some intelligent native life form? No, the rabbit was too small a creature to meet the physiological requirements of an intelligent life form.
But it had obeyed with suspicious swiftness.
He went back to his repairs, and was still occupied at them about an hour and a half later when the night sky began to pale. Casting a glance upward, Feliz became aware that he had not fallen as far inside the night area of the planet as he had thought, and that daylight was close upon him. Congratulating himself on the fact that he had got to work on the fin promptly, he put a few final touches on the repair job; then, torch in hand, he headed back toward the hatch and the familiar surroundings of the ship’s interior. He would, he told himself, have a bite to eat, and figure out his next move on a full stomach. A peculiar result of Feliz’s half-Micturian ancestry was a metabolism that left him hungry on at least six large meals a day. And at the moment he had not eaten for nearly ten hours.
He thought of eggs, sausage, and steak. He put his foot on the first rung of the landing ladder—and stopped, hearing something.
It was very definitely the sound of a woman crying.He realized now that he had been hearing it for some time. It was a thin little sound that—having once dismissed it as not the sound of crying—he had been vaguely identifying as the ululating of some night creature; possibly some relative of the barking rabbit. Now, however, there was no doubt of what the sound actually was. And, as he listened more attentively now, it was borne in on him that the person making the sound was either young, or pretty close to it. He was made aware of this fact by short and not uninteresting statements mixed in with the sobs.
“Oh, dear . . . what’s going to happen to me now? Why couldn’t I stay adjusted? Oh, I’m so hungry!”
The bit about being hungry struck off a spark of fellow-feeling in Feliz. He knew just how she felt. He laid the welding torch down against the ladder and went off in search of the unseen mourner.
He found her within about fifty feet, sitting on a rock and crying into her hands. She was, as he had suspected, young. He stood over her for several seconds without attracting her attention.
“Hey!” he said at last.
She paid no attention.
“Hey, you!” barked Feliz.
The girl glanced at him briefly and went back to her sobbing.
“I’m so hungry,” she sniffed. “And there just aren’t any nuts out here at all. ”
Feliz found himself disagreeing with her. There was, he felt strongly inclined to say, at least one nut growing on a rock not fifteen feet from him. However . . . perhaps she had just been brought up not to talk to strangers, or something.
Feliz went back to the ship, climbed inside, and made a thick sandwich of canned roast beef. Eying it hungrily himself, he fought a brief battle with his baser appetites, then nobly shoved these aside and returned to the girl. The sun was well up by the time he got back to her. She had stopped crying—out of moisture, was Feliz’s private opinion—and was merely seated on the rock gazing dolorously at her hands, which were none too clean.
“Will I ever paint again?” she was asking herself out loud. Feliz made no attempt to answer her. He merely shoved the sandwich into her hands.
The girl stared at it in surprise, looked up at him, back at the sandwich, and burst into a fresh wail.
“Now I’m getting tactile hallucinations!” she choked.
“Hallucinations!” exploded Feliz. “That’s real, you nitwit! Taste it!”
For the first time she really looked at him. And, in the first young light of the new day, Feliz could see in return that she was indeed young. And, in fact, pretty. Blue eyes, rather reddened at the moment, looked up at him out of a small, pointed face beneath a crown of fluffy, light-blond hair. She was dressed in sandals with a thong between the first two toes of each foot, and a sort of dress of many colors. Feliz braced himself for the embarrassment of tearful thanks.
He was afflicted by no such discomfort.
"Oh, shut up!” she said. "If I hadn’t paid any attention to you hallucinations in the first place, I’d be home in my own bed right now. I wouldn’t have to be out where nobody is and there aren’t any nuts or fruit or anything to eat.”
Feliz checked the temptation to argue the question of his own reality. The girl was obviously unbalanced.
“What are you doing out here anyway?” he demanded.
“Where else can I go?” she sniffed. “Now that I don’t exist any more?”
“You,” said Feliz, thinking perhaps shock treatment would prove effective, “are out of your head.”
“No, I’m not,” said the girl. “I’m out of my body and that’s worse.” And she began to cry again.
“Quit that!” roared Feliz. And so effective was the half-Micturian volume of his voice that she did. And sat staring at him, apparently half-stunned, with her mouth open.
"Look," said Feliz, trying to hold his voice down to tones of gentleness and reason. “Forget about hallucinations for a moment. Where’d you come from? How’d you happen to be here?”
The girl swallowed and closed her mouth.
“They disintegrated me because I kept seeing hallucinations,” she said in a small voice. “Now nobody can see or hear me.” She looked at him. “Nobody real, that is.”
Staring down at her, Feliz had an idea. It was a far-fetched notion, but what had driven this young girl into a state of imbalance might just possibly have some connection with what he had been sent here to investigate. If there was a breeding source of insanity on Dunroamin, that might explain why the Malvar left it alone.
“Here,” said Feliz, attempting, a soothing tone, “you come along with me and—” He reached for her.
The girl gave a sudden scream, tumbled backwards off the stone and rolled away from him in a frightened swirl of colors and flashing limbs Before he could move, she had bounced to her feet and run off, still carrying the sandwich.
“Stop, dammit! Stop! ” roared Feliz, and took off through the trees after her at a lumbering gallop.
The trees stretched in all directions, and the girl had vanished among them. Feliz charged in after her, tripped over a root, fell sprawling, caught a flickering glimpse of color somewhere farther on, got up and galloped on again, expecting every minute to come upon her but not doing so. Finally he collapsed against the trunk of a sturdy poplar-like tree, snorting for breath.
His body, as no one knew better^than he, was built for power rather than fleetness. For sh
ort distances he could hit up to thirty or thirty-five miles an hour, and then he bore a rather awesome resemblance to a charging rhinocerous. But he was no cross-country artist. Panting, with heaving lungs, he told himself that he was a tin-skulled idiot; that the girl, insane or not, obviously knew how to take care of herself. That it was her world, after all, and it was not any of his business anyway. That he had other things to do, and one of the best of them was to go back to the ship, eat a decent, breakfast and get himself armed before sticking his neck out any further on this nut-filled planet.
With this, having recovered his breath, he stood up away from the tree and prepared to turn back to his ship.
Only—the thought suddenly occurred to him—in what direction was the ship?
Jerked suddenly into an awareness of his situation, Feliz turned about on one heel, peering through the trees. On all sides the green corridors stretched away into solidity. Every way looked alike. Each-looked like the path back to the ship.
This, thought Feliz furiously, was ridiculous.
The ship, he told himself, must be just out of sight, one way or another. He had hardly done any more than turn his back on it. It was simply a matter of getting his bearings, of thinking the thing out.
Feliz calculated. He tried to remember over which shoulder he had first seen the sun, and how many times he had altered course while chasing the girl. After a while he decided to ignore everything but the position.of the sun, which he seemed to remember had been rising ahead of him as he chased the girl. Accordingly, he turned his back on it now and strode off.
He made good progress, but twenty minutes later found him still walking among the trees and with no open spaces in sight. He stopped again—and inspiration came to him, from a book on woodsmanship he had read in his boyhood days. Find a high spot, that book had advised. If nothing else provides, climb a tree and look about you.