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Authors: John Brunner

Bedlam Planet (9 page)

BOOK: Bedlam Planet
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There was room for error on man’s home world. Here, there was no margin at all.

On one island, while sleeping on a high boulder which stuck up from the middle of a sloping sandy beach surrounded by fifty yards of clear ground in every direction, he woke under the accusing gaze of the moon—now mercifully diminishing past its full—and found a curious little beast sitting on his chest and exploring him with its tufted antennae. Asgard’s animals seemed to prefer multiple sense-organs, detecting scents, vibrations and heat and cold, which could be grown back quickly after they were damaged, to irreplaceable things like eyes and tongues.

At first startled, then amused, he tried petting it, and it responded almost like a cat, arching itself to the touch. After a few minutes, it drew in its limbs and rested immobile. Shrugging, he left it there and went back to sleep. In the morning it was gone.

Later, he woke one day at dawn to find the air full of iridescent bubbles, and jumped up in excitement, realising that the Asgard bladderwrack was fruiting. He had seen it on his first visit, but only once then and not since his return. He ran to the edge of the nearest promontory and stared across the sea. Its surface was blistered with millions of little pustules; every few minutes a convulsion went through them, and another horde detached themselves and floated up into the sky.

Yoko had explained that to him, too: during the previous night, the drifting mass of bladderwrack would
have contracted its hollow fronds, forcing quantities of gas that consisted of nearly eighty per cent hydrogen into the bladders which gave its name. When the topmost layer was full, the gas started to collect in the next, and so on, until it began to distend the tenuous membranes connecting the bladders. These tore, and freed the pearly bubbles he was watching.

He reached out and caught one. It rested on his palm for a few seconds, then collapsed with a puffing noise. There was something in human skin-secretions which attacked its tissue.

In an hour there was nothing left except some shrivelled black rags of organic matter, which gave off a foetid stench and drove him away.

There were virtually no other landmarks during his trip, and yet he was far from bored. Isolation suited him. After the first few days, he no longer felt burdened with the need to think. His pattern of behavior became automatic. He let the boat carry him to the next island on the schedule, chose a camp-site, located any visible clues he could to the area where he was expected to search, such as changes in the colour of the ground or remnants of ancient vulcanism, and set to work contentedly enough, scrabbling among rock-screes and probing clay-beds with his portable sonar unit.

When he did discover diamonds, after only thirteen days of travelling and in exactly the sort of place where the computers had told him to look, he felt disappointed. He looked in puzzlement at the slightly rounded pebbles his instruments assured him were really diamonds, although they looked dull and uninteresting. One of the half-dozen or so he had picked up was nearly the size of his little fingernail, a good gem-quality stone, and the others were like grains of rice.

Mechanically he replaced them one by one in the test-slot of his crystalline analyser, noted the readings, and read them off across the table of values stamped on the device’s housing. Diamond. Unequivocally. There
was absolutely nothing he could have confused them with.

He stretched out his time at the spot as much as he could. Using his machete, he blazed a route from his landing-site through the vegetation by scoring the bark of woodplants. He marked the beach with arrows made of white pebbles, well above the high-tide level. All that was completely superfluous; he needed to do no more than call base at his usual time and ask them to fix his location with two of the orbiting weather satellites. Then, if necessary, any other member of the colony could come here and locate the diamond deposit in less than half an hour.

Sighing, he sat down on a rock overlooking the beach, passing the largest of his diamonds from hand to hand, and wondered about reporting his find immediately. It would only take him a day and a half to get back to base in a straight line from here, and he didn’t want to go back so soon. On the other hand, his purpose accomplished, he lacked the incentive to drift on aimlessly.

Perhaps he could let it depend on who answered his evening radio call. Mostly, since he set out, he had confined himself to a couple of curt sentences indicating that he was well and continuing the search. Once or twice a garrulous person had been at the other end of the radio link: Kitty, for instance, had been in the radio room by chance after running a routine check on one of her satellites, and had kept him chatting for ten minutes. From her, he had gathered obliquely that Tai was more worried than ever about their diet, but everyone else had been emphatically cheerful, as though they didn’t want him to worry while he was away from base on his own. He had no clearer idea of what had happened since his departure.

There was another hour or two to go before sunset. He peeled off his suit and spread it out on the sunward side of his boat, which he had beached as usual. He was just about to lie down and add another shade to the deep
tan he had acquired, when out of memory sprang Parvati’s voice, asking if he liked to swim.

He turned to stare at the water, wondering. He felt dirty and clammy, although he wasn’t—he had washed down daily in fresh water, using the boat’s inflatable emergency raft as a bath-tub. But that wasn’t the same as going for a swim.

Am I crazy?

But even as he asked himself the question, he found he was walking towards the water. Surely just paddling around in the shallows wouldn’t hurt! Yoko and her colleagues had been studying Asgard’s aquatic life intensively since their arrival; they hadn’t reported any danger.

The coolness was marvellous on his feet and ankles. The sand was firm, matching the best beaches of Earth. The water was clear enough for him to see anything that came his way, surely—

Abruptly he threw himself forward and struck out in a luxurious crawl, every muscle of his frame signalling pleasure at the exercise. Fifty yards from shore he trod water, shook back his wet hair, and let go a yell of pure animal delight. He porpoised up and down, surfaced, porpoised again, and rolled on his back, sighing.

Now this would be the right way to tackle Asgard! Polynesian fashion! Spending more time each day in water than on land, chasing the strange denizens of the ocean into their own—

What was that?

There had been a touch on his calf, and a momentary stinging. Alarmed, his brain ice-cold, he rolled and peered about him. Something shapeless, from which depended many reddish fronds, was darting away from him.

He put his head down, furious with himself, and swam fast for the beach. As he scissored with his legs, he felt the area on his calf turn first very cold, then very warm, prickling with heat. The reaction spread; now it was at his hip, now beginning to affect the breathing-muscles
in his belly. He gasped, glanced up to see how much further to shore, found that the shore was infinitely far away down a blue and green tunnel, scraped his knees on the bottom, and half-crawled, half-fell, the rest of the distance to his boat.

There, the universe spun, and he let go his hold on it.

XI

D
ISSOLVING

Huge arms weak as water the hero wielded and came by the land and the sea to the western shore where the ocean of oceans reached to lap the star-sphere.

Retreating …

Hotcoldhotcoldhotcold: changing with every beat of his heart, now arctic, monstrous blocks of ice sterile as the daughter of a dead star, next furnace, pounding and blazing
thump
with black slag shivering off like the crust of a red iron bar under the slam of the hammer that beats the anvil.

Exploding …

Beside some narrow path that skirts Aldebaran and the Pleiades the cool enchanter worked, webbed, wove the coat of mail, and on each separate piece he laid a
geis.
The manner of the
geasa
was multiplex: on this shirt one, on that gauntlet one, on that helm one, unalike.

Decaying …

A hand came out of heaven with a rope, and pulled the moon down.

It lay on the ocean as it had been an egg, fair and silver, steady as a solid isle, and those came who saw and marvelled, saying, “Surely it is the fabled Tir na nOc, and those who dwell there are the Tuatha dé Danann. In that blest land is no sadness but the pleasant
days of summer last yearlong. Do they crave the sweet music of harpers they but strike the air and it resounds of itself with surpassing melody; do they have lust to pleasure with a woman, such maidens come forth as were not seen in this mortal world, no, not though Deirdre herself were multiplied; do they hunger for battle and a hero’s honour, then may they lock in combat all day long, and on the morrow wounded and hale, quick and dead, assemble once more together at the festive board. There mead runs on the pebbles of the streams, there fruit makes tree-boughs creak to stand the load, there one may take such jewels as he pleases to deck his garb, the diamond and the ruby, the peridot and the pearl. And should a monster or a giant from otherwhere beyond mortal ken trespass into the land and fright the folk, then call they to their aid the Ones Who Were, and in the fray the names are heard which made the very welkin sing with joy—Nuada of the Silver Hand, Finn son of Cool, and even Cú Chulainn!”

Therefore the hero mused, and spoke at last of envy, poison-deep in his heart, to go among the Blest and match his strength to Nuada Argatlam, to play at chess with Finn the son of Cool and bait Cú Chulainn till he turned around within his skin and the hairs of his head glowed red with fire and blood.

So they took great store of provision and set it on a ship, and that ship was wide as an island and deep as an ocean gulf. In it they loaded the choicest goods and gear, into its belly they drove the royal cattle of the hero, in its great hold they laid the cauldron which he might sup from ever and not want for sustenance. He took about him the coat of mail he had, the helm he set upon his head, the gauntlets he drew over his hands that were skilled at the swordplay and the axeplay and the touch of a fair maid’s bosom, the boots he put on which he had and whatever else was needful: a loom and a wheel, an awl and a needle, a hammer and a saw.

Upon him he took his
geasa
and he did not know.

For days and nights and days he sailed to the west,
and to the west, and to the west, and before him always the shining land was seen. Fair the way was and pleasant, the silver pathway of the setting moon, and he sang as he sailed. Long time he supped of the never-failing cauldron, long time he ate of the cattle he had that like Manannán’s pigs rose on the morrow to be slain again. Storms came, and bore his ship against the land.

Then he cried for aid and none heard him, and in rage he cursed the Tir na nOc, and the first
geis
laid upon him came to pass.

That he shall knock, and, knocking, break the door.

He hurled from him the magic cauldron that he had, and it split the silver roof of Tir na nOc as it had been an egg’s shell; so gave him passage, and the second
geis.

That he shall pass the hearth, and yet not pass.

They went from him, the magic cattle, when he drove them in, and browsed at large upon the grass of that country, and grew wise; for this was the nature of the plants which were found there, that brute beasts should learn wisdom and men should learn truth. Hungered, the hero would have passed a hearth where food was made, and the savoury smell drew him. None was nigh. He dipped his finger in the pot and tried a taste; so staunched his hunger, and the final
geis.

That he shall eat the food and learn the truth.

Then he went forth mad, and as Sweeny ate the berries and the wild watercress, nested in the tops of trees with birds, and lay with beasts upon the naked sward. Thorns tore his flesh and made the red blood flow, harsh burrs tangled in his flowing hair, sharp pebbles cut his tender walking feet. Where he went the earth was planted with his gore. He could not speak save of the truth he learned: that men shall die, and …

I too am a man.

The truth grew easier to bear. The burden lightened. But to be in Tir na nOc he could not stand. He cast aside hope, care and wits, and swam back down the
moonpath of the ocean. The shore he had left grew clearer, and his feet found purchase. Stepping up the beach, he turned to ash, like the friend of Bran who melted in a moment, and blew on the wind to the four wide corners of the world.

Then, in the last moment, he knew it was a
s
í
d,
where time was altered and a day might be a thousand years. Without a mouth to shape his moans he cried the sadness and the pity of it all, and none heard.

None heard.

None heard …

“No word from Dennis?” Parvati whispered to Hassan as they took their places facing the colonists.

Hassan shook his head without looking at her. “I’ve had someone standing by the monitor all night,” he muttered. “I don’t like this at all, Parvati! Anything could have happened to him!”

“We’ll have to send out a search party,” she said. “We know approximately where he must have been by the time he was next due to call up.”

“Yes, but not immediately, I’m afraid. We must give him another day. Can I?”

“Things are bad enough without announcing that he’s sick or dead,” Parvati nodded. “And even if you didn’t say it outright, people’s imaginations are ready to invent the worst right now.” She bit her lip. Dennis’s unaccountable radio silence had terrified her; she could feel her own self-control wearing away like the bank of a river in spate.

“I guess it could just be that something went wrong with his communications gear,” she said with forced cheerfulness, and leaned back in her chair as Hassan rose to address the meeting.

It was quite different in atmosphere from any of their previous general meetings. For one thing, it was out of schedule, in the middle of a month. For another, it was the first at which signs of disease had been perceptible. On at least half the faces arrayed before Parvati she
could detect the little dark patches which indicated scurvy bruises, quick to happen, slow to heal. And not a few of the colonists had moved like old folks when they took their places, they being afflicted already with swollen, painful joints.

BOOK: Bedlam Planet
3.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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