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Authors: Avram Davidson

Rork!

BOOK: Rork!
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RORK!

AVRAM DAVIDSON

a division of F+W Media, Inc.

The author wishes to acknowledge
his debt to Grania Davidson and
Damon Knight for their help in
constructing this book.

CHAPTER ONE

Rango, the Tame Tock, sweated earnestly at his work in the little valley between Blicky-Got-Caught and Last Ridge. It was farther south than most Tocks cared to work — it was farther south than Rango cared to work, for that matter, but he was inspired by a double ambition. No one else seemed to have visited the valley lately, and it was all aflame with redwing. It was easier to go along just pulling up the plants without straightening up for as long as he could, although he would certainly pay for this later. But his back was bound to ache anyway, and this way he could get more done. A bottle of water and some baked tataplants rested in a shaded hollow, along with a bundle of longgrass. When he felt he could stoop no longer Rango was going to tie up the redwing with the grass. Eat. Rest. When the sun began its long decline, it would be time to leave and get to his housey before sundown and the endless clamor of the nocturnal crybabies marked an end to safety. Tomorrow the redwing, and all the other redwing dumped beside his housey, was going to the Tocky Store at the Guild Station to be turned in for chits. Some of the chits would buy the makings of a big pot of tockyrot and a nice, long drunk. He hadn’t had one in a long time, and he needed one.

But the other chits would go, as so many other chits had already gone, to that canny hag, Ista the Lady-doctor. And when, oh, soon there were a hundred of them, Ista was going to make him a charm to go on a long thong around his neck. With it he would be safe, quite safe, this far south and even souther if he dared — safe against rorks.

• • •

It was the third generation after the Third War for the Galaxy. Nothing as vivid as “the collapse of civilization” had taken place, but the human race — even that small portion of it in the predominantly nonhuman, and hence noncommitted, so-called “Free Worlds” — the human race was tired. Still tired, after three generations. The ancient Napoleonic Wars were said to have reduced the average height of the French by inches; the Plata Wars of the same century, to have killed off eighty percent of the over-fourteen male population of forgotten Paraguay, which had never recovered. Something like that had happened here. The cost was too great, in lives and spirit and money and material, to allow for any expansion or extra effort or advance — for anything more, in fact, than a tired and almost failing grip on stasis.

You did the job you had with a minimum of effort, and you stayed with it and were cautious and frugal and saving because your pension was meager. “The Hundred Worlds” had a nice round sound to it, and it was both pedantic and bad form to point out that before the First War the figure had grown to a hundred and thirty-one, and that after the Third War it had dwindled to seventy-four.

• • •

Of these, the most remote was Pia 2. Long
i.
You called it
Piatude
if you felt waggish, or
Ptolemy Soter
if you felt formal; that is, if you ever heard of it; but probably you never had.

Edran Lomar had, and of course so had everyone else aboard the Q Ship that put down there every fifth year; but Lomar was probably the only one of them who was glad he had. To the others it was just another dreary run to another dreary colonial outpost. To Lomar it was salvation and dreams come true. At least it had been so. Now, the long voyage from Tranfer Ten (following the long voyage from Old Earth) was beginning to wear away at his assurance.

“You
asked
to go there?” How very, very tired he was of being asked that same question in the same tone of incredulity. Even more tired than he was of the stale, stale air and the heavy, heavy pulsebeat of the ship.

People didn’t volunteer to go to Pia 2. Oh, it was no penal colony like Trismegistus, no Hell World. But it was poor and it was remote — not so much in distance, though it was far enough. There were several places much more distant. Thule. Usk. Hyperthule. Conway’s Comfort, one side bathed perpetually in the blood-red light of its great and dying sun; the other turned forever like a blind eye toward a dead black sky in which shone never more than three dim tiny stars. Loki. Gorgo. And solitary, solitary Hermes Trismegistus.

But even the farthest of these had its annual transport.

To Pia 2 the transport — one, count it, one — came every five years. In this age of least effort and least resistance it had nothing that anybody wanted enough to justify any more frequent connection. Guildsmen didn’t
go
there, they were
sent.
And not good Guildsmen, either, for that would be a waste. The fog-heads and the fog-ups. The incompetent and the noncriminal incorrigible. Those who would have been discharged in an earlier, more active age. It wasn’t Van Dieman’s Land, or the White Man’s Grave.

There were similarities, though.

But if you wanted to get away, not just far, far away, but so that whatever was behind you wouldn’t and couldn’t come crowding on after you, there could hardly (it had seemed to Ran Lomar), there could hardly be a better place.

He’d dreamed of it since he was sixteen. Now, sitting in the Oval, which was the combination library, lounge, quiet-games room, and occasional chapel of the Q, those dreams seemed no longer so vivid and convincing. He tried to ignore the mutterings of the off duty engineer seated nearby who was perpetually trying to perfect (seemingly for his own private satisfaction alone) some mathematical sequences which perpetually defied perfection, tried to ignore the taste-heavy closeness of the re-re- infinitely re-filtered air and the throb, throb, like an aching tooth, of the Q’s ancient engines…. Since he was sixteen, he’d dreamed, since things … not when they first began to get intolerable back on stuffy, rigid, fossilized Old Earth — it seemed that they had always been intolerable — but when he had first realized that it might not be impossible after all to get far, far away from them.

Ran had applied for duty on Pia 2 as early as he could, when he was twenty-one. But his majority had arrived too close to the departure of the next Q Ship. It was full, the people at the posting office had told him, with the curious looks which were to become so common. It was full; he’d have to wait. And so for five years, five fretting, fuming, finger-biting years, he had waited. He didn’t care what official duties might be assigned to him, the day on Pia 2 was thirty hours long and the work day only five. Its Station was able to grant frequent long vacations, and there was — and this was it, this was the thing, the whole thing —
there was a whole uncluttered continent to be free in!

The sudden assignment to a definite duty was thrust upon him at the last moment simply (so they solemnly told him) because he was already on the list and posted for passage in the Q and another man could not be added. It seemed reasonable, though, to assume that it had been given to Ran Lomar, and not any other on the list, because in all probability Ran Lomar was the only one on the list who hadn’t fogged up things somewhere else. It was the faintest and most left-handed of compliments. He didn’t care about that aspect of it one fig; but the assignment was quite certainly an important one, or seemed to be from the hasty and scanty information supplied him by the Assistant to the Clerk of the Delegate of the Directorate (oh, how they loved titles on Old Earth! — and the longer the better) of the Guild of the Second Academy of Science and Commerce. And this might — probably would — almost certainly would — make everything different.
How
different, Ran could not know. No one on the Q could. No one else on the Q cared, of course….

There was no mystery why his head ached so.

• • •

Second Station Aide Aquilas Arlan, looking for Commercial Aide Reldon, found him, finally, in the bar at the Shore Club. No one else would have expected to find him in his office, but a semi-total inability to distinguish the ideal from the actual was probably the reason for Arlan’s being on Pia 2.

Reldon gave over caressing his elaborately waxed, long red moustaches and lifted his glass. “Dead rorks,” he said.

“Are your records all ready?” Arlan asked, fussily as ever. “The Q is due, you know.”

“Have a drink.”

“But the Q — ”

“Maybe it’ll be late.”

An expression of astonishment closely approaching horror settled on the Station Aide’s face. “The Q is never late. The Q? Late? How can it be late? No, oh, no, it won’t be late.”

“Have a drink. Here. Dead rorks.”

With a nervous little titter Arlan took the drink, glanced automatically around for the censure (it was early, early, early) that was never forthcoming, lifted his glass. “Uh … well … you’ll have your records ready, won’t you? Oh! Dead rorks.” Titter … titter….

“Dead rorks. Boy, bring drinks, quick-quick. Ah. Finish that. Take the other. Dead rorks.”

“Dead rorks.”

“Dead rorks.”

• • •

The Mister Flinders of Flinders Crag was angry. He was angry more often than not, every bristle on his face standing out like a quill. At such times only his ancient mother dared call him “Florus.” But now he was hungry-angry. His heir-son sat stiff and almost straight, his guests were silent, the picknins hid under the table, and his wife spoke shortly and to the point — both most unusual for her.

“Where in the muck-Hell is eats?” he shouted.

“They none gots the gut to tell,” his wife said, her pale underlip trembling very slightly. “But I gots the gut. Eats? So here is eats.” She set the bowl heavily on the table. It rattled. “Eat good,” she added the ritual words with a resigned bitterness.

The Mister plunged his fist into the bowl, brought it out, opened his fingers. The heavy slugs fell back with a clatter. He glared around the table, dirty with food spots and the drippings of the stinking fish-oil lamps.

“Bullets for breckfus,” muttered the old mother. She had witnessed such scenes often enough, and had put the bowl of bullets down herself, times enough. “No eats in the camp…. I’s to starve, in me age … Floras? …” Then she lifted up her head and clawed a wisp of dusty hair from her eyes. Her mouth opened, toothless as a lizard’s, and she grimaced, shaking her tiny fists. “Be’s ya men?” she shrilled. “Be’s ya men? Be’s ya men? Or be’s ya what they calls ya to North?
Tocks! Tocks!
Not men but dirty Tocks!”

The Mister swallowed bitter spit. “Dirty be’s as dirty does,” he growled. “Guests — me shame. I’ll soon pride it.” He turned to his heir. “Strip, what’s powder?”

“Not much,” Strip said.

“Not much, says. Bullets? Alls in the bowl?”

“Most.”

For another moment The Mister Flinders growled and mumbled. “Be time for North again, I sees. How I hates it. Time to trade redwing, as gots our blood on it and our dads’ and dads’ dads’ blood. Trade for penny scraps of iron and sulfur. Time for crawl to Guild again. The pogues, the dirty muck-Hell pogues.” He slammed his fist on the table and lurched to his feet. Hastily, everyone at the board did the same.

“But none goes North on empty gut!” he shouted. “Hasn’t I took Nimmai’s muck long enough? Hasn’t I waited for that one to pay damage? Is we to gots bullet for breckfus when he gots meat and fish and flour? Hey, say?”

Strip, loudly, said, “No, Dad! Raid! Raid! Raid-raid!” Feet stamped, fists pounded.

Flinders nodded, his grievance against The Mister Nimmai up in red-hot flames again. “That one thinks he safe in Nimmai Camp with his eleven pair o’ lock, and one don’t fire!” Laughs, sneers, pounding, stamping, shouting. “Haven’t Flinders Crag gots twenty pair?” His face redder, his voice hoarser, “Haven’t Flinders Crag gots twenty pair, says?
Haven’t —

He stopped and his voice echoed and his eyes darted down the table-board. A guest, his heavy face set in long grey hair, cleared his throat. “Twenty-seven, host Mister,” he said, in phlegmy tone. Another shout, more stamping.

The other guest threw back his head. The noise stopped. The Mister Flinders faced him, more eager than angry. “Crame won’t be to walk where Haggar runs,” he said, running his grey tongue over his rough lips. “Hey, Crame? Say?”

Said the second guest, “Haggar runs as Haggar wants. Flinders’ damage be’s Flinders’ deal. I be’s friend and guest to ya, but ya knows Nimmai nursed at me mumma’s dug.”

Flinders, scornful, pale with disappointment at the loss of Crame’s ten matchlockmen, yet somewhat cautious, hopeful yet: “A dug-brother!”

“Dug-brother better to no brother.”

Flinders kicked the trestle. The table shivered but did not fall. He walked to the open door, gazed over the blacklog roofs of Flinders Camp, steaming and smoking in the grey drizzle. Only a short ways away the ground broke and fell off into the long, gaunt escarpment which was its name and its chief defense. Strip came up behind, and to him. The Mister said, without turning, “Muster the ‘locks. Take a pot of fire, but no matchlights and no powder yet. Maybe the rain s’ll break. Haggar! My pride. I’ll not shame ya.”

Crame made formal thanks and farewell. Flinders waved his hand. Hunger, anger, craft, mingled on his narrow face. “You s’ll join me yet, guest-Mister,” he said. “If we be’s Tocks, be’s Wild ones. Same blood. And there be’s quicker meat for rorks to eat than weed stalk. Move!” he cried, swinging at Strip.
“Raid!”

The Mister Crame and his men left in silence. Behind them the cry became a chant.

“Raid! Raid! Raid-raid-raid!”

• • •

The Q Ship came down, and passengers and crew blinked at the novel sight of men, rather than machinery — long lines of sweaty, dirty, ragged men — loading and unloading. Five years of supplies came ashore, were replaced by packs and packs of strong-smelling, rank-smelling redwing, bound for the distilleries on Hercules to be turned into the medical fixative which was its only use — and the only use of Guild Station/Pia 2 — and, therefore, as far as the rest of the Hundred Worlds were concerned, the only, only use of Pia 2 itself.

The Q Ship went up again, not long after — up, up, up, in a crash of sound and a shimmering mist of many colors. The noise seemed to deafen everyone below. They went around with their faces screwed up and couldn’t hear anything that was said to them. Of course little was. Of course it wasn’t the noise. Not just the
noise
of the takeoff, the physical sound. It was the other noise that echoed in their heads. Five years, five years. Five years. Five years. Five
years
— five
years
— five
years.

BOOK: Rork!
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