Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

Tony and the Beetles

Philip K. Dick

  Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team at

  TONY and the BEETLES

  by Philip K. Dick

  [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Orbit volume 1number 2, 1953. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence thatthe U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


  Reddish-yellow sunlight filtered through the thick quartz windows intothe sleep-compartment. Tony Rossi yawned, stirred a little, then openedhis black eyes and sat up quickly. With one motion he tossed the coversback and slid to the warm metal floor. He clicked off his alarm clockand hurried to the closet.

  It looked like a nice day. The landscape outside was motionless,undisturbed by winds or dust-shift. The boy's heart pounded excitedly.He pulled his trousers on, zipped up the reinforced mesh, struggled intohis heavy canvas shirt, and then sat down on the edge of the cot to tugon his boots. He closed the seams around their tops and then did thesame with his gloves. Next he adjusted the pressure on his pump unit andstrapped it between his shoulder blades. He grabbed his helmet from thedresser, and he was ready for the day.

  In the dining-compartment his mother and father had finished breakfast.Their voices drifted to him as he clattered down the ramp. A disturbedmurmur; he paused to listen. What were they talking about? Had he donesomething wrong, again?

  And then he caught it. Behind their voices was another voice. Static andcrackling pops. The all-system audio signal from Rigel IV. They had itturned up full blast; the dull thunder of the monitor's voice boomedloudly. The war. Always the war. He sighed, and stepped out into thedining-compartment.

  "Morning," his father muttered.

  "Good morning, dear," his mother said absently. She sat with her headturned to one side, wrinkles of concentration webbing her forehead. Herthin lips were drawn together in a tight line of concern. His father hadpushed his dirty dishes back and was smoking, elbows on the table, darkhairy arms bare and muscular. He was scowling, intent on the jumbledroar from the speaker above the sink.

  "How's it going?" Tony asked. He slid into his chair and reachedautomatically for the ersatz grapefruit. "Any news from Orion?"

  Neither of them answered. They didn't hear him. He began to eat hisgrapefruit. Outside, beyond the little metal and plastic housing unit,sounds of activity grew. Shouts and muffled crashes, as rural merchantsand their trucks rumbled along the highway toward Karnet. The reddishdaylight swelled; Betelgeuse was rising quietly and majestically.

  "Nice day," Tony said. "No flux wind. I think I'll go down to then-quarter awhile. We're building a neat spaceport, a model, of course,but we've been able to get enough materials to lay out strips for--"

  With a savage snarl his father reached out and struck the audio roarimmediately died. "I knew it!" He got up and moved angrily away from thetable. "I told them it would happen. They shouldn't have moved so soon.Should have built up Class A supply bases, first."

  "Isn't our main fleet moving in from Bellatrix?" Tony's mother flutteredanxiously. "According to last night's summary the worst that can happenis Orion IX and X will be dumped."

  Joseph Rossi laughed harshly. "The hell with last night's summary. Theyknow as well as I do what's happening."

  "What's happening?" Tony echoed, as he pushed aside his grapefruit andbegan to ladle out dry cereal. "Are we losing the battle?"

  "Yes!" His father's lips twisted. "Earthmen, losing to--to _beetles_. Itold them. But they couldn't wait. My God, there's ten good years leftin this system. Why'd they have to push on? Everybody knew Orion wouldbe tough. The whole damn beetle fleet's strung out around there. Waitingfor us. And we have to barge right in."

  "But nobody ever thought beetles would fight," Leah Rossi protestedmildly. "Everybody thought they'd just fire a few blasts and then--"

  "They _have_ to fight! Orion's the last jump-off. If they don't fighthere, where the hell can they fight?" Rossi swore savagely. "Of coursethey're fighting. We have all their planets except the inner Orionstring--not that they're worth much, but it's the principle of thething. If we'd built up strong supply bases, we could have broken up thebeetle fleet and really clobbered it."

  "Don't say 'beetle,'" Tony murmured, as he finished his cereal. "They'rePas-udeti, same as here. The word 'beetle' comes from Betelgeuse. AnArabian word we invented ourselves."

  Joe Rossi's mouth opened and closed. "What are you, a goddamnbeetle-lover?"

  "Joe," Leah snapped. "For heaven's sake."

  Rossi moved toward the door. "If I was ten years younger I'd be outthere. I'd really show those shiny-shelled insects what the hell they'reup against. Them and their junky beat-up old hulks. Convertedfreighters!" His eyes blazed. "When I think of them shooting down Terrancruisers with _our_ boys in them--"

  "Orion's their system," Tony murmured.

  "_Their_ system! When the hell did you get to be an authority on spacelaw? Why, I ought to--" He broke off, choked with rage. "My own kid," hemuttered. "One more crack out of you today and I'll hang one on youyou'll feel the rest of the week."

  Tony pushed his chair back. "I won't be around here today. I'm goinginto Karnet, with my EEP."

  "Yeah, to play with beetles!"

  Tony said nothing. He was already sliding his helmet in place andsnapping the clamps tight. As he pushed through the back door, into thelock membrane, he unscrewed his oxygen tap and set the tank filter intoaction. An automatic response, conditioned by a lifetime spent on acolony planet in an alien system.

  * * * * *

  A faint flux wind caught at him and swept yellow-red dust around hisboots. Sunlight glittered from the metal roof of his family's housingunit, one of endless rows of squat boxes set in the sandy slope,protected by the line of ore-refining installations against the horizon.He made an impatient signal, and from the storage shed his EEP camegliding out, catching the sunlight on its chrome trim.

  "We're going down into Karnet," Tony said, unconsciously slipping intothe Pas dialect. "Hurry up!"

  The EEP took up its position behind him, and he started briskly down theslope, over the shifting sand, toward the road. There were quite a fewtraders out, today. It was a good day for the market; only a fourth ofthe year was fit for travel. Betelgeuse was an erratic and undependablesun, not at all like Sol (according to the edutapes, fed to Tony fourhours a day, six days a week--he had never seen Sol himself).

  He reached the noisy road. Pas-udeti were everywhere. Whole groups ofthem, with their primitive combustion-driven trucks, battered andfilthy, motors grinding protestingly. He waved at the trucks as theypushed past him. After a moment one slowed down. It was piled with_tis_, bundled heaps of gray vegetables dried, and prepared for thetable. A staple of the Pas-udeti diet. Behind the wheel lounged adark-faced elderly Pas, one arm over the open window, a rolled leafbetween his lips. He was like all other Pas-udeti; lank andhard-shelled, encased in a brittle sheath in which he lived and died.

  "You want a ride?" the Pas murmured--required protocol when an Earthmanon foot was encountered.

  "Is there room for my EEP?"

  The Pas made a careless motion with his claw. "It can run behind."Sardonic amusement touched his ugly old face. "If it gets to Karnetwe'll sell it for scrap. We can use a few condensers and relay tubing.We're short on electronic maintenance stuff."

  "I know," Tony said solemnly, as he climbed into the cabin of the truck."It's all been sent to the big repair base at Orion I. For yourwarfleet."

  Amusement vanished from the leathery face. "Yes, the warfleet." Heturned away and started up the truck again. In the back, Tony's EEP hadscrambled up on the load of _tis_ and was gripp
ing precariously with itsmagnetic lines.

  Tony noticed the Pas-udeti's sudden change of expression, and he waspuzzled. He started to speak to him--but now he noticed unusualquietness among the other Pas, in the other trucks, behind and in frontof his own. The war, of course. It had swept through this system acentury ago; these people had been left behind. Now all eyes were onOrion, on the battle between the Terran warfleet and the Pas-udeticollection of armed freighters.

  "Is it true," Tony asked carefully, "that you're winning?"

  The elderly Pas grunted. "We hear rumors."

  Tony considered. "My father says Terra went ahead too fast. He says weshould have consolidated. We didn't assemble adequate supply bases. Heused to be an officer, when he was younger. He was with the fleet fortwo years."

  The Pas was silent a moment. "It's true," he said at last, "that whenyou're so far from home, supply is a great problem. We, on the otherhand, don't have that. We have no distances to cover."

  "Do you know anybody fighting?"

  "I have distant relatives." The answer was vague; the Pas obviouslydidn't want to talk about it.

  "Have you ever seen your warfleet?"

  "Not as it exists now. When this system was defeated most of our unitswere wiped out. Remnants limped to Orion and joined the Orion fleet."

  "Your relatives were with the remnants?"

  "That's right."

  "Then you were alive when this planet was taken?"

  "Why do you ask?" The old Pas quivered violently. "What business is itof yours?"

  Tony leaned out and watched the walls and buildings of Karnet grow aheadof them. Karnet was an old city. It had stood thousands of years. ThePas-udeti civilization was stable; it had reached a certain point oftechnocratic development and then leveled off. The Pas had inter-systemships that had carried people and freight between planets in the daysbefore the Terran Confederation. They had combustion-driven cars,audiophones, a power network of a magnetic type. Their plumbing wassatisfactory and their medicine was highly advanced. They had art forms,emotional and exciting. They had a vague religion.

  "Who do you think will win the battle?" Tony asked.

  "I don't know." With a sudden jerk the old Pas brought the truck to acrashing halt. "This is as far as I go. Please get out and take yourEEP with you."

  Tony faltered in surprise. "But aren't you going--?"

  "No farther!"

  Tony pushed the door open. He was vaguely uneasy; there was a hard,fixed expression on the leathery face, and the old creature's voice hada sharp edge he had never heard before. "Thanks," he murmured. He hoppeddown into the red dust and signaled his EEP. It released its magneticlines, and instantly the truck started up with a roar, passing on insidethe city.

  Tony watched it go, still dazed. The hot dust lapped at his ankles; heautomatically moved his feet and slapped at his trousers. A truckhonked, and his EEP quickly moved him from the road, up to the levelpedestrian ramp. Pas-udeti in swarms moved by, endless lines of ruralpeople hurrying into Karnet on their daily business. A massive publicbus had stopped by the gate and was letting off passengers. Male andfemale Pas. And children. They laughed and shouted; the sounds of theirvoices blended with the low hum of the city.

  "Going in?" a sharp Pas-udeti voice sounded close behind him. "Keepmoving--you're blocking the ramp."

  It was a young female, with a heavy armload clutched in her claws. Tonyfelt embarrassed; female Pas had a certain telepathic ability, part oftheir sexual make-up. It was effective on Earthmen at close range.

  "Here," she said. "Give me a hand."

  Tony nodded his head, and the EEP accepted the female's heavy armload."I'm visiting the city," Tony said, as they moved with the crowd towardthe gates. "I got a ride most of the way, but the driver let me off outhere."

  "You're from the settlement?"


  She eyed him critically. "You've always lived here, haven't you?"

  "I was born here. My family came here from Earth four years before I wasborn. My father was an officer in the fleet. He earned an EmigrationPriority."

  "So you've never seen your own planet. How old are you?"

  "Ten years. Terran."

  "You shouldn't have asked the driver so many questions."

  They passed through the decontamination shield and into the city. Aninformation square loomed ahead; Pas men and women were packed aroundit. Moving chutes and transport cars rumbled everywhere. Buildings andramps and open-air machinery; the city was sealed in a protectivedust-proof envelope. Tony unfastened his helmet and clipped it to hisbelt. The air was stale-smelling, artificial, but usable.

  "Let me tell you something," the young female said carefully, as shestrode along the foot-ramp beside Tony. "I wonder if this is a good dayfor you to come into Karnet. I know you've been coming here regularly toplay with your friends. But perhaps today you ought to stay at home, inyour settlement."


  "Because today everybody is upset."

  "I know," Tony said. "My mother and father were upset. They werelistening to the news from our base in the Rigel system."

  "I don't mean your family. Other people are listening, too. These peoplehere. My race."

  "They're upset, all right," Tony admitted. "But I come here all thetime. There's nobody to play with at the settlement, and anyhow we'reworking on a project."

  "A model spaceport."

  "That's right." Tony was envious. "I sure wish I was a telepath. It mustbe fun."

  The female Pas-udeti was silent. She was deep in thought. "What wouldhappen," she asked, "if your family left here and returned to Earth?"

  "That couldn't happen. There's no room for us on Earth. C-bombsdestroyed most of Asia and North America back in the Twentieth Century."

  "Suppose you _had_ to go back?"

  Tony did not understand. "But we can't. Habitable portions of Earth areovercrowded. Our main problem is finding places for Terrans to live, inother systems." He added, "And anyhow, I don't particularly want to goto Terra. I'm used to it here. All my friends are here."

  "I'll take my packages," the female said. "I go this other way, downthis third-level ramp."

  Tony nodded to his EEP and it lowered the bundles into the female'sclaws. She lingered a moment, trying to find the right words.

  "Good luck," she said.

  "With what?"

  She smiled faintly, ironically. "With your model spaceport. I hope youand your friends get to finish it."

  "Of course we'll finish it," Tony said, surprised. "It's almost done."What did she mean?

  The Pas-udeti woman hurried off before he could ask her. Tony wastroubled and uncertain; more doubts filled him. After a moment he headedslowly into the lane that took him toward the residential section of thecity. Past the stores and factories, to the place where his friendslived.

  The group of Pas-udeti children eyed him silently as he approached. Theyhad been playing in the shade of an immense _hengelo_, whose ancientbranches drooped and swayed with the air currents pumped through thecity. Now they sat unmoving.

  "I didn't expect you today," B'prith said, in an expressionless voice.

  Tony halted awkwardly, and his EEP did the same. "How are things?" hemurmured.


  "I got a ride part way."


  Tony squatted down in the shade. None of the Pas children stirred. Theywere small, not as large as Terran children. Their shells had nothardened, had not turned dark and opaque, like horn. It gave them asoft, unformed appearance, but at the same time it lightened their load.They moved more easily than their elders; they could hop and skiparound, still. But they were not skipping right now.

  "What's the matter?" Tony demanded. "What's wrong with everybody?"

  No one answered.

  "Where's the model?" he asked. "Have you fellows been working on it?"

  After a moment Llyre nodded slightly.

  Tony felt dull anger rise up inside him. "Say something! What's them
atter? What're you all mad about?"

  "Mad?" B'prith echoed. "We're not mad."

  Tony scratched aimlessly in the dust. He knew what it was. The war,again. The battle going on near Orion. His anger burst up wildly."Forget the war. Everything was fine yesterday, before the battle."

  "Sure," Llyre said. "It was fine."

  Tony caught the edge to his voice. "It happened a hundred years ago.It's not my fault."

  "Sure," B'prith said.

  "This is my home. Isn't it? Haven't I got as much right here as anybodyelse? I was born here."

  "Sure," Llyre said, tonelessly.

  Tony appealed to them helplessly. "Do you have to act this way? Youdidn't act this way yesterday. I was here yesterday--all of us were hereyesterday. What's happened since yesterday?"

  "The battle," B'prith said.

  "What difference does