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Blood and War, Page 2

Gordon R. Dickson

  It was impossible to tell Mromrosii apart except by hair color, and Karge insisted that they were able to change that. Further, the ethnologist didn't bother trying to pronounce names which he believed the Mromrosii picked at random. Since he got away with it, the rest of the team had picked up the habit also.

  The Mromrosi's eye turned again. Guibert wasn't sure whether the whole body moved, or whether the eye slid across the alien's skin beneath the layer of hair.

  "I apologize," Hairball said. "Continue."

  "They can stand sunlight for a little while," Dayly said, "though they don't have any melanin or the equivalent in their skin, so they sunburn easily."

  "You were right, chief," Karge said. "Slugs, not toads."

  "The main reason they don't come out by day is that they don't have eyes as such," Dayly continued. "There's a modulated light emitter on top of their heads—a bioluminescent laser, for all practical purposes. There are pick-ups all around the body at neck level, giving them very precise active ranging—but in daylight they're at a disadvantage to creatures which have passive receptors."

  "Eyes," Guibert translated aloud.

  "Eyes," Dayly agreed. "Also, they have excellent hearing."

  "Just how strong a laser are we talking about?" Wenzil asked with an intonation that Guibert couldn't initially place.

  "Microwatts," Dayly said. "No danger at all."

  The weapons specialist nodded sadly. "It probably wouldn't function if it were removed from the autochthon anyway," she said.

  Hairball's eye snapped around, but the Mromrosi kept silent this time.

  "The Magnicate made contact with Sawick forty-one years ago," Dayly said. "The autochthons were classified Thirty-two and were informed of their rights under the Emerging Planet Fairness Regulations. The Sawickis elected to eschew outside contact except at one village, the Big Grotto, where they've constructed a surface-level nature area as well. Sawick is believed to be very sparsely settled, but the terms of the autochthonal election make it difficult to determine the amount of sub-surface development."

  "Slugs living under rocks," Karge said. "Just the sort of thing you'd expect a pansy like McBrien to get us into."

  This wasn't helpful. "Look, Karge," Guibert said. "The only thing I know for sure about the OC's private life is that he's got a kid. Right?"

  "Big deal," Karge said. "So did Oscar Wilde. He's a poofter, trust me."

  "They sell handicrafts at Big Grotto," Dayly said. "And there's lodging on the surface there." lie squinted at the screen. "If these prices are right, I'm not going to be able to afford more than three nights on Sawick."

  "I'll talk to his parentness," Guibert said. "Anything more?"

  Dayly shrugged. "Nothing too striking in the local wildlife," he said. "Frankly, there wasn't much interest in the place except from nature freaks till the kids went missing. The scans done since would have showed up the cutter, though, no matter how small the bits it smashed into."

  Guibert sighed. "I guess we're ready when you get the hardware put back together, Wenzil," he said.

  Hairball scanned the insertion team one by one. "This should be very illuminating for you," the Mromrosi said. "Try to open your hearts and appreciate the differentness of this pure people, the Sawickis, who live at one with Nature. True nobility!"

  "Blind, white slugs," Karge muttered. "With arms and legs."

  The landing field serving the Big Grotto was paved with crushed stone. The sharp tang of quicklime made Guibert sneeze when he opened the hatch.

  "Gesundheit," said Dayly.

  Hairball looked at the data specialist. "Are you demonstrating subservience to Patriarchal Religionism, Harrier?" the Mromrosi asked suspiciously.

  "No, no," said Karge. "Simply an Aspect of Native Culture. Its a charm against the possibility of our leader expelling his soul along with the sneeze."

  "Ah," said the Mromrosi.

  "Gee, I didn't know that," Dayly said.

  From orbit, the landing field was a six-pointed star, brilliantly white against the dark green and russet of the forest covering most of the continent. A dozen ships, all of them Magnicate designs, were already on the ground. Two of them were medium-sized cruise liners.

  "Come along!" a high-pitched voice called. Guibert looked out and saw his first autochthon. "If you miss this coffle, you'll have to wait till the next ship lands. We're certainly not going to waste an escort on a mere four of you."

  Sawickis really were slugs, though their faces were broad and toadlike and the fleshy peak that held the laser-ranging organ could have passed for a dunce cap. This one, presumably a guide, wore a brown tunic made of something like bark cloth. It was decorated with geometric designs in black batik.

  Guibert hopped to the warm gravel. Twenty-odd humans, roped together, waited at the edge of the field. Two of the four pasty autochthons accompanying the group carried meter-long prods with stone tips.

  "Actually," Guibert said softly, "there's five of us." The boots of the insertion team crunched down behind him, followed by the vague whisper of Hairball's miniature feet. "And I didn't catch what you meant about 'coffle.' We're Magnicate officials on leave, you see."

  Ignoring the team leader, the autochthon bowed low to Hairball. "Illustrious sky-brother," the Sawicki said. The creatures voice was unpleasant even when he was obviously trying to be unctuous. "Welcome to the only true world. On behalf of my people, I grant you the status of an honorary Sawicki."

  Hairball fluttered in what Guibert supposed was the Mromrosi equivalent of a bow. "Thank you," he said. "Thank you. I am truly honored."

  "Naw," Karge said after a critical glance at the Mromrosi. "You don't look a bit like a toad, Hairball."

  "Maybe under the fur?" Dayly suggested.

  The Mromrosi looked at them. "Sawicki means 'True Person' in their language," he said.

  "Somehow," Guibert said, "I would have guessed that. Now, what's this coffle business?"

  "Come along, come along," their guide demanded. "You're keeping me and my fellow True Men waiting."

  He headed toward the line of humans at a lurching trot. The Sawicki wore boots made of a heavier version of the tunic material. His feet turned slightly on the gravel surface, though it seemed level enough to Guibert.

  Hairball followed, drawing the team along behind him. "To prevent visitors from damaging the delicate ecology of this planet," the Mromrosi called over his shoulder, "the Sawickis link individuals together so that they won't leave the prescribed path. A very far-sighted regulation, I must say."

  "What's delicate about this place?" Dayly asked. "It looks pretty normal to me."

  The trees were of a number of species, all with noticeably conical trunks which suggested they had less stiffening material per unit of mass than Terran varieties. The branches were whiplike and small-leafed; the undergrowth tended to spike rather than spread.

  "All ecologies must be carefully overseen to keep them in balance," Hairball said stiffly.

  True enough. Nature herself was never in equilibrium. Only outside intellects tried to restrain the natural appetite for change. Usually badly.

  "Do you suppose I could check my settings on some of those critters, sir?" Wenzil asked with more optimism than hope. She pointed with her left hand toward a bright-eyed creature clicking at the team from a scaly treetrunk.

  "Certainly not!" Hairball said.

  "Of course not," Guibert said. "What's that going to tell you that you need to know, Wenzil? It's no longer than your forearm and it seems to be an amphibian anyway!"

  All the local life-forms Guibert noticed, with the exception of the Sawickis themselves, were either wet-skinned or chitinous. Some of the latter fluttered among the trees on gossamer wings a meter across. None of the potential targets would help the weapons specialist refine her stunner program. Shooting at them, even with a stunner, would cause more trouble than Guibert needed.

  The team reached the tourists. The children were restive or shrieking, and several
of the adults glared fiercely at the Harriers. Guibert wondered how long the civilians had been kept waiting.

  "Stand here," their guide ordered, pointing to the end of the line. Two of the others grabbed Dayly by the elbows, presumably because he was small, to hustle him into place.

  Karge said, "Oops!" and staggered forward, treading heavily on the feet of one of the autochthons. The Sawicki squealed and dropped Dayly's arm.

  "Oops!" Guibert said.

  The other Sawicki holding Dayly jumped back. Guibert hopped sideways and landed on their guide's foot. The guide squealed also.

  "Mister Guibert!" Hairball cried. "Mister Karge!"

  The autochthons and tourists looked at the Mromrosi. Dayly kicked the third Sawicki in the crotch and said, "Oops!" happily. The autochthon's squeal was higher pitched than those of his fellows.

  The pair of Sawickis with goads moved closer. Wenzil stepped between them and the men of the team. Her hands were empty at waist height, and there was a dazzling smile on her face. The autochthons retreated.

  Guibert bent and fingered the rope which tied the civilians together. The tourists drew away from him to either side.

  The material was supple, but it seemed strong enough to tow barges with. "Cut from the outer skin of a mushroom that was grown for the purpose?" he guessed aloud.

  Nobody responded. Guibert smiled tightly and said to their guide, "I don't think me and the team will need this to keep us on the path. As a matter of fact, I'm afraid it would make us stumble. A lot."

  "I promise," Karge rumbled.

  Hairball's eye dithered in one direction, then the other. He didn't speak. At last the Sawicki guide said, "Since you're slaves of a True Man—"

  He bowed again to Hairball, then winced and rubbed his instep where Guibert had trod.

  "—we will make an exception in this case. However, you'll have to surrender the weapons you're carrying to me."

  "This," said Wenzil, pointing to the stunner in her cutaway holster, "is an icon of my religion. It would violate my cultural personhood to force me to give it up."

  "That's ridiculous!" the guide squeaked.

  Actually, it was pretty much true for Wenzil. "It would violate other serious strictures as well," Guibert said aloud. "Our, ah, overseer, Hairball, would have us punished severely were we to turn over equipment of such developed character to Class Thirty-two autochthones. It might poison the purity of your, ah, culture."

  "I wonder if pearls upset the digestion of swine?" Karge murmured to one of the gaping tourists.

  "They're not real weapons anyway," Wenzil said sadly.

  The Sawickis' little laser emitters flashed red as they flicked from one member of the team to the next and finally focused on Hairball.

  The Mromrosi sighed. "Yes, yes," he said, "I suppose that's correct. A technical matter only, of course—I realize that the truth that underpins your culture is proof against such baubles. But regulations are regulations, I'm afraid."

  With obvious reluctance, Hairball added, "I will take responsibility for the good behavior of these, these . . ."

  Instead of replying, the Sawicki guide turned and called, "Head 'em up and move 'em out!" One of his fellows jerked the cord around the waist of the leading tourist, pulling her down the path.

  "I wish you people would learn to behave decently!" the Mromrosi said, glaring at Guibert.

  "I wish," said Karge, stretching his long, muscular arms overhead, "that that queer McBrien was here drinking in slug culture instead of me."

  They'd walked a half kilometer from the landing field without reaching the entrance to the Big Grotto. The forests muggy heat made Guibert feel as though he'd been taking a bath in his own sweat.

  "I don't see why it's got to be this far," Dayly grumbled.

  The data specialist had more work to do during stand-down than the rest of the team. He used that circumstance to avoid compulsory attendance in the Strength through Joy Room—the Night-Blooming Cereus' gym. Dayly's cleverness was costing him shin splints if nothing else right now.

  "To keep the presence of starships from polluting the village's environment," Hairball said.

  "To make the stupid tourists walk their legs off," Karge said.

  They came around a bend in the trail. The entrance was in sight a hundred meters away, framed by a yoke made of three stone-headed spears. Either side of the trail was lined with booths from which Sawickis sold a variety of food, drink, and handicrafts.

  Tourist children began to shriek and tug against the ropes in their haste to get something to drink. Because some pulled toward the right and others to the left, the line tangled so that no one was able to reach the booths. The autochthonous escort watched, making no effort to intervene.

  The team walked over to the booths while shouting parents tried to sort out the mess. Guibert looked at a vat of yellowish fluid. Cups made of fungus caps lay beside it. Local insectoids clustered around the residue drying in the cups.

  "Ten hubbies a cup, foreign non-person!" squeaked the Sawicki behind the counter.

  "Really?" said Guibert. He took a swig from the straw to the condensing canteen woven into the back of his uniform jacket. For ten hubbies a pop, they could afford to import single-malt Scotch from Terra to sell.

  Dayly sniffed the vat. "You know . . ." he said. "I've got a feeling that if I sent a sample of that stuff in for analysis, the lab report would say, 'Your bat has gonorrhea.' "

  "You imbibed through your nostrils!" the autochthon cried. "Ten hubbies! Ten hubbies!"

  "Pardon our error," said Karge. "Permit me to return your stock to its original volume." He spat into the center of the vat.

  One of the escorts ran over to the counter clerk. The two chittered together with a great deal of gesturing. Though the Sawickis faced one another, the lasers in their pointy little heads flicked frequently toward the Harriers.

  At last the clerk turned away and pretended to be studying the forest behind his booth. His laser continued to paint the team at intervals as the members drifted down the line of booths.

  "You know . . ." said Guibert as he stood before a booth which was selling carved lanterns. "I quite like some of these designs."

  "Remarkably delicate handicrafts, aren't they?" Karge agreed. "Remarkable for troglodytes, at any rate. I think upscale boutiques in The Hub might be able to market them."

  Dayly cleared his throat. "According to the files," he said, "there's a Big Grotto Trading Association negotiating with Hub jobbers for bulk shipments."

  The data specialist looked at the display and shook his head. "I dunno," he said. "Plastic would do a lot better, it seems to me."

  Like most of the other Sawicki crafts on offer, the lanterns were made from the caps of large mushrooms, dried and scraped paper thin. The prepared hoods were chiseled into filigrees of enormous delicacy, each one unique.

  Internally lighted, the lanterns would be strikingly beautiful. Even now, hanging from the frame of the booth like so many chicken carcasses at a butcher's shop, they had a "natural" loveliness greater than that of the surrounding forest.

  The Sawicki clerk in the center of the booth looked like a grub poking its head out of a nutshell. He sneered at the humans.

  Guibert rotated one of the lanterns slightly to change the angle of the light falling across the surface. The clerk reached out, plucked the lantern from the peg on which it hung, and dropped it behind his counter. He stamped down. The delicate tracery crunched beneath his foot.

  "We True Men are above material covetousness, foreign non-person," the Sawicki squeaked.

  "Interesting," Karge said as he and the team leader turned abruptly away.

  "I wonder what they spend their hubbies on?" Dayly asked. "Besides a first-rate spaceport control system, that is. And salaries for Magnicate technicians to crew it."

  "They ought to import food," Wenzil muttered. "Do you suppose they really eat that cat-barf themselves?"

  "We've got our emergency rations," Guibert said.
"And anyway, I don't think we're going to be here longer than tomorrow morning."

  "All right, all right, foreign non-persons!" the Sawicki guide said. "You may untie yourselves now. You will now visit a village of True Men. Then you will be taken to your accommodations among the natural beauty of our planet."

  "Everybody's eaten as much as they could choke down," Karge noted. "Or a little more than that." An eight-year-old was throwing up violently at the edge of the trail while her parents—looking rather green themselves—patted her helplessly. The ejecta didn't look a great deal different from the autochthonous soup the child had swallowed moments before.

  "Thank the Ennobling Adiposity of the Mother for emergency rations," Guibert murmured.

  "Come along!" repeated the guide. He and his fellows began prodding tourists toward the entrance to the grotto, using knuckles and goads. The pasty-faced autochthons gave the team a wide berth.

  Hairball peered at the pool of vomit as he passed. "I suppose," he said in what was for him an unusually ruminative tone, "that since the Sawickis respect the lives even of plants, their meals—though perfectly natural—might not agree with digestions trained to freshly-killed food."

  "Hey, Hairball," Karge said. "Did you bring any rations?" He reached the yoke of spears and kicked it aside.

  The entrance to the Big Grotto was a large keyhole in the surface of the ground. A trail, only partly artificial, led down the side of the opening. Several smaller holes in the rock ceiling illuminated the interior with a diffused glow.

  The cavern was about a hundred meters wide and at least a half klick in length. Sawickis and scores of tourists moved among the jumbled rock on the cave floor, but Guibert's eyes weren't sufficiently dark-adapted to see details.

  "That ceiling—the cave roof?" he said, glancing upward.

  "Umm?" said Wenzil who happened to be the person directly behind Guibert on the narrow trail.

  "I'm surprised, as thin as the rock looks, that it's strong enough to hold together," Guibert explained. "I'd have expected the whole roof to come crashing down before now. Limestone rotted by ground water doesn't have particularly high tensile strength."