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Authors: Robert L. Forward

Dragon's Egg (9 page)

BOOK: Dragon's Egg
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Soon the whole clan gathered at the edge of the settlement and watched as the happy, giggling hunting party returned and dumped their booty. The seeds were distributed and quickly planted in the waiting holes by a large crew, all munching on ripe pods.

Flow-Hunter spent the next turn giving a detailed account of the trip to Broken-Petal. The report of the loss of See-High caused a moment of sadness in them both, but they turned their minds back to the present and continued on.

The nearby volcano dominated their lives. Fortunately it became dormant for a while, with just a thin wisp of yellow-white smoke spiraling up into the air, but the rumbling in the crust grew worse every
turn. The crop grew well, but when the volcano became more active again, Broken-Petal decided that they had better move further away. The crop was harvested and the clan took the food and their few belongings, especially the precious broken shards of ultra-hard dragon crystal, and moved off toward the south.

There were many in the clan, and they were not in a hurry, so a modification of the hunting party path-breaker technique was used. The stronger young ones formed a broad front and pushed ahead in the hard direction. They kept up a steady pace and the rest of the clan, packed close together, followed along behind.

TIME: 14:44:14 GMT SUNDAY 22 MAY 2050

The interstellar ark, St. George, settled into its orbit around the spinning neutron star at a radius of 100,000 kilometers and with a period of thirteen minutes. The science crew began their scientific surveys. Although they would get much better data when they could go down in Dragon Slayer to look at the neutron star from only 400 kilometers away, they still could do a preliminary survey with the long-range telescopes.

Jean Kelly Thomas was belted into the seat in front of the imaging science console on St. George. The belt was adjusted to accommodate the fact that she was sitting on her crossed legs. With her cap of short red hair and her upturned nose, she looked like a pixie seated on a toadstool (with seat belt). Her bright blue eyes flicked over the features of the latest scan of the hydrogen-alpha ultraviolet imager. The computer had noticed something unusual in the last scan and had alerted her.

A blinking square drew her attention to a small oval bull’s-eye pattern that had appeared on the image of the star. In the upper corner of the screen, the computer had printed:

LYMAN-ALPHA SCAN TAKEN 14:44:05 22 MAY 2050

NEW FEATURE AT 54 W LONG, 31 N LAT

Jean leaned forward. “Identification?” The image remained, but the words were replaced with:

TENTATIVE IDENTIFICATION—ACTIVE VOLCANO.

CENTER TEMPERATURE 15,000 DEGREES.

Jean spoke again, “Switch Lyman-alpha scanner to high resolution scan of target region!”

She watched as the image was replaced on the screen with a close-up of the volcano. The image blinked five times a second as the imager took a scan at each rotation of the star. As she watched, she could see a flare-up in the central region, followed by a streak of brightness that flowed away from the center, the lava flow getting dimmer and dimmer as it moved.

A detailed history of the birth and death of a volcano was certainly worth keeping a careful watch on. Perhaps if they were lucky, the amount of matter that built up in the shield would become so great that it would initiate a starquake during their visit. That should set the whole star to vibrating and they might be able to determine the internal resonant modes of the star and get a better computer model for the thickness and density of the inner layers. The new volcano was certainly a high priority item, but it would have to take its turn. She couldn’t tie up the scanner to take pictures of only one thing.

She leaned forward again and spoke, “Assign Priority One to this target!

“Inform if any major change or if activity stops!”

She leaned back and pushed the print button.

“A volcano,” she thought. “Pierre will surely be interested in this one. He wants to study the internal dynamics of this star, and now he has some insides to
look at. However, the hot gas and dust that monster is emitting are sure going to complicate my atmospheric studies.”

TIME: 14:44:15 GMT SUNDAY 22 MAY 2050

The clan moved very slowly southward. Travel in the hard direction against the magnetic field lines was not easy, even for the young hunters, and was still more difficult for the old and the hatchlings, although they were flowing into the gaps created by the moving van of pathbreakers. The hardest thing for them all to learn was to keep close together and keep moving. If a gap developed or if anyone paused for a moment, the east-west magnetic field lines would reassert their position, pinning their bodies on the lines like beads on a wire. Unless they had the strength to begin moving south again, their only choice was to move east or west and join the tail of a portion of the group that was still moving.

The clan got better at it, and by trial and error soon developed a flying-wedge technique, with one strong hunter out front taking the full brunt of the fields, and the rest of the stronger ones in a chevron behind, opening up the gap that was created. The other adults soon learned to form secondary chevrons behind, with the hatchlings and Old Ones in between. Then if a gap developed, it was soon closed by the adults in the following chevron, and the trailing edge of the moving clan now no longer looked like a wounded Flow Slow leaving a trail of vital fluid behind.

They had progressed a good distance when Broken-Petal called a halt. He knew that they were probably still on some clan’s territory, but he decided that, because so few hunting parties were on the horizon, they were probably in a region between two other clans. Normally, this would have been a poor place to stop;
if they had had to depend on foraging to the east and west, there would have been less and less food to find the further away the hunters went. But with the ripe seeds and the knowledge of how to take the sky away from them to make them grow, the clan could stay in one place, always at full strength with all of its warriors home tending the growing plants, and going out only for game to vary their diet and to show off their prowess.

The clan settled in with relief, and a crew was sent off to a nearby cliff to get building stones for the stockades, pod bins, and the all important egg pens.

As Speckled-Egg approached the cliff with the quarry crew, the youngster grew frightened. Never before had he been so close to anything so tall. It seemed that it was going to fall directly down on him, but he certainly was not going to let his fright show on his first time with a hunting party.

“It sure is tall,” he remarked calmly.

“Sure is,” said Flow-Hunter. Her tread rumbled teasingly. “Looks as if it is going to fall right on top of you, doesn’t it?”

“Yes, but it has not fallen before, so I guess it won’t now,” Speckled-Egg said confidently.

“But it will when we get through with it,” said Flow-Hunter. Then turning serious she said, “Which end looks closer?”

The top of the cliff sloped downward toward the east. The party took off in that direction, carrying their broken shards of dragon crystal and one unbroken, round-tipped whole dragon crystal that they had found when digging holes for the seeds. They soon came to the end of the vertical fault plane and began the long, slow, arduous climb up the slope.

“It’s like traveling in the hard direction, but worse,” complained Speckled-Egg. “When you stop moving in the hard direction, you can rest. But when you are climbing up, you might as well not stop to rest. When
you do, you still have to hold on to keep from flowing back down.”

Flow-Hunter showed him her trick of waiting until she came across a small stone before stopping to rest, and then stretching her body out upwards from the stone. With the stone preventing her from flowing downward, and the hard directions holding her in from the side, she could almost relax and enjoy her food-pod in comfort. It was a tricky technique, and Speckled-Egg found his edges flowing around the stone more than once, but soon he was as accomplished a climber as any of them.

Although they had gone east for only one turn before reaching the end of the fault, it took them many turns and much food to struggle up the sloping hill in the intense gravity and make it back to the top of the cliff. Flow-Hunter formed a strong crystallium core in one of her eye-stubs, held the eye up as high as she could, then moved slowly toward the edge.

“I can see the clan camp off in the distance. This is the right place,” she said. She stood still and looked for a long time.

“What is the matter?” asked Speckled-Egg.

“Just looking,” she said. “Everything looks very funny when you can look down on it. Come and see.”

The last thing Speckled-Egg wanted to do was go near the edge, but he did, one of his eyes held high in imitation of Flow-Hunter. Together they moved forward until they could see the members of the hunting party they had left at the bottom of the cliff.

“They are so big around!” exclaimed Speckled-Egg, “And so funny looking. You can see all the lumps on their topsides.”

“You would look just as big and lumpy yourself if you could see yourself from the top instead of only from the side,” said Flow-Hunter. “You are right about the lumps though; they are funny looking. I bet that
big reddish yellow lump in the middle of Double-Seed is an egg that is about ready to be dropped.”

She pushed her way back from the edge. “Come on, we have a lot of hard work to do.”

The climbers started to work. The first thing they did was to push the large, whole dragon crystal to the edge and let it fall off. The nearly unbreakable, super-hard crystal became invisible and reappeared at the bottom, splintered into a dozen sharp shards. The waiting group at the bottom rode out the shock and then moved quickly forward to retrieve the now valuable hunting knives and digging tools.

When the dragon crystal shards had been removed, the climbers at the top moved forward to the edge and used their digging tools to gouge a long line in the top of the cliff. The gouge line was back from the edge a distance equal to the height of the stones that they could easily carry. They spread apart the fibers in the crust until there was a long, deep crack, held in place by the connections at either end of the long strip. They then went to the west end of the strip, where the nap of the crust would give them a better grip, and formed a chain with their bodies. Flow-Hunter stretched out as far as she could with the sharpest crystal shard held in front of her in a long manipulator. She concentrated for a moment and soon several short manipulators were arrayed at her back edge. Speckled-Egg and Dusty-Crust flowed above and below her and also formed manipulators to grasp hers. The rest grasped them and spread themselves out as flat as possible to form an anchor.

“Everyone ready?” asked Flow-Hunter. She then started sawing away at the end of the slit, only this time cutting across the fibers in the crust. It was slow hard work, for the fibers were the source of the real strength of the crustal material. They switched places; to Speckled-Egg’s horror, it was his turn to be sawing away when the weight of the long section of crust overcame
the strength of the remaining fibers and the face of the cliff came away in a long curling rip that extended the slit in the top surface down to the base.

The top surface of the cliff, relieved of some of its stress, rebounded with a shock wave. For the first (and he hoped only) time in his life, Speckled-Egg’s tread was not solidly in contact with the crust. He had no time to be afraid before the crust came up to meet him with a bruising smash. They all lay quietly for a moment and then pounded each other with triumph as they backed away from the crumbling edge.

They hurried back down the way they had come, pausing only now and then for a little food. They all felt like having a little fun, too, but that had to wait (except for friendly pats and treadings) until they got to the end of the cliff, where the crust was flat. By the time they had returned to the bottom of the cliff with the jumble of stones at its base, Speckled-Egg was a full-fledged hunter, having not only been a hero by being at the point when the danger was greatest, but having been given a hero’s reward and his initiation into manhood by Flow-Hunter herself.

Having felt the successful conclusion of the quarrying expedition come rumbling in through the crust, Broken-Petal had sent out an additional work crew to help drag the stones back to camp. Soon the place began to look like home again. A pod bin was the first task, so that everyone could drop his load of pods without having to worry that the constant winds would roll them away. The Old Ones were most grateful for the pod bin, for they had been tied down holding onto most of the food store while the younger ones had been working. Now they could move around and get to the more important (and pleasurable) task of turning eggs and raising hatchlings.

Next came the egg-pen, and again another great load
was taken off the clan as all the females could drop the eggs they had been hauling around since they had left the old home and started on their exodus.

For many, many turns the clan grew and prospered in their new home.

TIME: 15:48:10 GMT SUNDAY 22 MAY 2050

Pierre Carnot Niven, his long, straight hair in a halo about his head, worked away at the console keyboard, overlaying one multicolored computer display on another. His soft brown eyes peered at a complicated pattern of lava flows that would have hopelessly confused anyone but him. Pierre set the computer to calculating the load on the crust from the new lava flows. It was a complicated problem; while the computer was working, he floated out from in front of his console and went over to see what Jean was doing.

Jean was checking the plots showing the drift of the smoke from the volcano through the atmosphere, and correlating it with the magnetic field measurements and the Coriolis forces caused by the high spin speed of the rotating star. She was developing a computer model for the magnetic field structure so she could produce a detailed theory for the iron-vapor atmosphere and how it interacted with the conflicting forces of gravity, magnetism, and spin of the star.

BOOK: Dragon's Egg
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