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Authors: Avram Davidson

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BOOK: Rork!
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Pack after pack passed beneath them as they skimmed southward. They ate the crybabies taking their diurnal sleep, they devoured the leapers as they fled, they consumed the slow and the harmless and they lapped up the ordinary carnivores of the North country with little more difficulty. The rips crunched nestlings and fledgings and jumped, again and again, after birds and daybats on the wing. Several times several of them lunged and tore at the shadow of the skimmer on the ground, and sprang toward the craft itself.

A grunt of alarm escaped Lomar as the rips hurtled aloft, bared muzzles exposing bloody tushes, glazed and seemingly sightless eyes staring insanely. Harb gave a quick burble of amusement. “We’re ten feet up,” he said, “although it may not seem so. They can’t jump more than half that distance. Oho — Last Ridge up ahead. We’ll skim down and take a look at Upper Rorkland a bit. You’ll see something there!

“And don’t let the fact that your testicles have probably retreated bother you … If I didn’t know that Starchy Manton watches over every gear, sprocket, diode and transducer in these vessels as if they were parts of his own tender flesh I wouldn’t risk my ass flying two feet over the nursery; certainly not over all the swarming rips in Creation;
hold
on!”

The skimmer slid down the angle of the air. Ran Lomar held on tightly, opened his eyes wide. Scarlet-crimson and huge were the redwing leaves in the great valley of the rorks, but what held his attention — gripped it, would not let it go — was the great wave that advanced slanting up the valley. A greyish-yellow wave —

“There they are,” said Harb, in a low voice. “Can you count them? You can count the stars, maybe, but not them.”

The rips seemed to have no end to their numbers. None at all. On and on came the wave, the skimmer hovering where she stood, the wave boiling and moiling beneath, onward and onward —

“Oh,” said Harb. “Look you there. I’ve heard it. I didn’t believe it. I’m not sure I believe it now.”

“What? What?”

“The Tocks have always said it. But I never saw it. I never saw it before. Oh, look — ”

Where he pointed and where Lomar looked was a line, a thin line, of great dark forms, bounding and leaping on spidery legs; charging forward ahead of the great grey-yellow wave of rips.

“The Tocks told me. They often told me. ‘The rork,’ they said … ‘The rork lead them on. They lead them on to attack us’.”

And the wave rolled on, rolled on, and broke upon the gaunt and granite-hard escarpment of the cliffs of Last Ridge.

• • •

The difficult ascent of the Ridge limited the number of the swarming predators that could make their way onto the plateau. Limited — hut did not stop them. Stories were told of entire Tock families devoured alive, of screaming fugitives trapped and overwhelmed within very near reach of the force fields which so safely ringed around the Station, the great generators smoothly toiling to their tasks. And one or two or a few more, attacked by single beasts, were able to defend themselves with their hacks, slashing the slashers.

For almost a month the seemingly endless swarms of rips rolled on out of the unknown interior. They reached the sea, but did not plunge into it to their destruction. There they mated, as was their practice in every breeding season, and there they laid their eggs, leathery clusters of them, and covered them with sand.

And then, afterward, for hundreds of miles, up and down the ragged shores of the sullen sea, in great numbers they died.

The silence seemed long and unnatural.

The Tocks trooped back to the outlands with much less despatch than they had fled therefrom. For those of them who had reached safety in time the whole period had been much of a lark; fed from Guild stores (reluctantly, but fed nonetheless), they had been free from their labors to roam the streets of the small settlement which was to them Babylon the Great — not that they had ever heard of it — but now it was all over.

“Some of them had the brass to turn up at the Store today for rations,” Second Aide Arlan told Lomar, with an outraged titter. “Sent them away with a flea in their ear — ‘Gather redwing, confound you,’ the fellow told them. ‘Holiday is over. Chop weed if you want to eat’.”

And gather redwing they did. For a while. But then there was an outbreak of Tock fever.

And production dropped to almost nothing.

CHAPTER THREE

The Cape of Smokes, it was said, marked the beginning of South Tockland. The name, Ran had vaguely thought, referred to some volcanic activity, past or present. But it became clear enough as the Station’s single, small watercraft came abaft of the Cape that the tiny wisp of white which presently appeared was man-made.

“Signal,” said the quartermaster. “They’ll be waiting for us.”

“Welcoming committee?” asked Ran. But the QM only grunted.

The utter failure of Lomar’s efforts with the Tame Tocks had thrown him into a depression which passed, in turn, to indifference. He went on a camp-out trip with Lindel, but it had not lasted long. It was pleasant for a while around their fire in the crisp autumnal air, but when she had tried to rally him to return to his work, he had lost his temper. What work? he demanded, angrily? Let him alone … And she had. So completely, in fact, that when he returned from a long and sullen walk she was gone.

Then he and Reldon had gone on a joint drunk together which left him with a bad hangover and a hot, confused memory of musky revels with a pubescent but artful Tocky girl.

All in all, it seemed time for some sort of change.

The redwing output of South Tockland had never amounted to as much as the highest production of the North; but, then, neither had it ever fallen below the lowest. He’d failed on what was, so to speak, home ground. What had he to lose by looking over things at the continent’s other end?

“Nothing that I can think of,” admitted SO Harb, plucking meditatively at his plump lower lip. “Don’t imagine that it will do much, if any, good either. All that they want down there are guns and gunmakings. They’d like us to issue them standard Guild weapons, if you please, you know. Ostensibly to kill rorks so the gathering can be safer — actually, to pursue their rotten little feuds of wars. Fat chance, ha. There’s only one place, after all, this whole savage world over, where they could get ammunition fit for standard weapons, and that’s right here. So every weapon the Station supplied them would forever be aimed, in the long run, right at our own heads.


Ergo,
thank you, but
no,
thank you. However … speaking of guns reminds me. There is one chap, cute, down in South Barbaria or South Savageland, who might be of some help to you, personally. Name of … name of … Fout, I can’t remember it. Squawman. Used to be Station armorer. Look him up. And now, another wee drinkie? …”

Hardly could the inhabitants be wilder than their own untamed coastland, Ran Lomar thought, as they rounded Cape of Smokes. He examined the black, bleak fiords through his farseer, hoping to line up on something human or of human provenance. The smoke, however, issued up from among a mass of broken rocks from which the fire’s makers could see without being seen. Not until they were well South did he see anything of the sort he was looking for — a long, thin boat of the open type, its bow riding high out of the water and a man at the stern with a steering oar. There was a stumpy mast and a ragged sail held by a cord on which a ragged boy had his hand.

So much he could see from afar, but they came close by after a while. The Tame Tocks had no seacraft of any kind. But a glance sufficed to tell, had Ran been in doubt, that these were no Tame Tocks. The boy had the bushy-browed look of a man, and the man had the seamed and sunken features of an old man, though his black hair and straight back showed he was not. Their odd clothes were old, but totally without the unmistakable and slummy look of Tame Tocks’ clouts.

When the two vessels were near enough for him to see all this with his naked eye, Ran waved and called in greeting. The eyes of the man and boy in the boat moved toward him as he did so. But it was their eyes alone which moved.

“Friendly,” said the quartermaster.

“The South Tockland navy, I suppose,” Lomar said, nettled.

That one long, lonesome craft had been bound on some private mission of its own — perhaps one of simple transportation, easy enough to understand if the interior was anything like the coast. But as the Station’s small ship stood on down the coast it passed a number of other boats, and all these were fishing craft. They were not, however, in the least more friendly. And, from cape to cape, headland to headland, and, finally, angling over land in a way which Lomar realized would be heading stright toward the tiny port town without the necessity of rounding the coast, the warning smokes of the signal fires went up ahead of them.

The wind got through him, by and by — it was the Cold Time and he went below to brood and drink and give his scant gear one last going-over.

• • •

The harbor was a good enough one for rafts, catamarans, and dugouts — a few specimens of all were seen — but it was not one in which the quartermaster cared to risk his ship.

“A boat may come out for you,” he said, with an air of finality.

“And if it doesn’t?”

The QM shrugged. “Can you swim?” he asked.

Finally a boat did come out, with, at the stern paddle, what might have been a twin brother of the steersman in the first Wild craft they’d passed — lank black hair, lantern jaw, seamed and sunken cheeks, and grim immobile face. It was not on him, however, that Lomar’s eyes rested, but on the only other man aboard. It could only have been “the squawman” of whom Tan Carlo Harb had spoken. He was white-haired, erect, and though his expression was serious, it was quite devoid of the constitutional dourness of the Wild Tock behind him. He wore what had once been Guildsman’s uniform, without any insigne, and scoured almost white with many washings.

“Gufidsman, what hail?” he called — and climbed aboard without waiting to be answered.

“Hello, Old Guns,” the QM said; then inclined his head toward Lomar. “Fellow wants to come ashore, stay awhile.”

The older man surveyed him calmly, then put out his hand. “Jacs Calzas,” he said. “Former rating of — but never mind that. ‘Old Guns’ will do. It’s done for this long.”

The Station ship — it had no name and needed none, there being no others to confuse it with — besides its semiannual circumnavigation of the continent, carried the old pensioner the purchases he was allowed to make from the Guild store up North. It also brought him, and this, its first trip since the Q had come and quickly gone, what little mail there was for him. All was quickly enough placed in the boat along with Lomar’s gear.

“Come ashore,” Old Guns urged the quartermaster, “and have a gam. I haven’t got a bad place here …”

But the QM shook his head. Old Guns and Lomar went ashore alone. They were halfway across the harbor when Ran thought of saying goodbye, but when he turned around the ship was already gone.

“They don’t care to tarry, somehow,” Old Guns said. “Though I can’t think why….” Some dry note in his voice indicated that he wasn’t to be taken altogether seriously.

Black was the predominate color, as it seemed to be throughout all of, at least coastal, South Tockland. Black were the hills out of which the harbor bowl had been scoured, black were the trees clutching grimly to the grim black rocks, black were the few huddled houses ahead of them, and black the very waters over which they rode.

“… but it damned well suits me. I live back in the hills at my clan-seat … actually, my old wife’s clan-seat … no, damn it! mine, too. It’s a thin, hard, cold life, but there’s something clean and pure about it — like a drink of well water first thing in the early morning. If it weren’t for the fevers and the feuds — But there’s plenty of time to talk, plenty of time.”

The skimpy pier of thin black poles drew closer, closer. The thin black boat skimmed along the dimpling surface. There were a number of people, mostly men and children, on the shore. The air was cold and damp and smelled of wetness, woodsmoke, and fish.

“I spent the better, which is to say, the worst part of twenty years up north at that nest of flatulent fools, and I hated every minute of it. One day a troop of Wild men came sailing up to trade. There was nothing of the Noble Savage about them, but I knew — the second I saw them — that they were for real. I’d have given my pension for the chance to go back with them, right then. And I came down the first chance I could, and I kept on coming down, every chance I could. And when I pensioned out I settled here to stay. And here’s where I’ll be buried.”

It seemed sure that they’d hit the pier, but the paddle splashed in the water, someone caught the flung rope just when it appeared certain that nobody would, and they came to rest at the foot of a rude ladder. In a low, musing voice, Old Guns said, “It hasn’t been easy….”

• • •

The Mister Mallardy had been dying slowly for years and saw only a few members of his own household. But his heir-son had had a long time to take hold, and things in Mallardy Camp were held firm and went well enough. The walls and fences were in sound repair, the roofs and boats scarcely leaked any more than was only natural, and from every tar-black homestead arose at least a single thread of smoke; and from some, several — a sure sign of at least modest prosperity when all the firestones were fed.

What the interiors of the other households might be like, Ran had as yet no idea; but the Old Guns’ house was certainly far from typical, with its mixture of the civilized and the barbaric: a Guild-issue bed lined neatly against a wall on which a rork-skin was pegged, a small case of books and on top of it two pikeheads and a whetstone, a worktable with a tiny solar motor and a number of modern tools, a dismantled something-or-other which seemed to be an archaic firearm of a sort, a roughhewn trestle table on which was set a tray of glasses…. So it went.

“My position here would be stronger, in one way, if I had a son instead of a daughter,” Old Guns observed, setting down his pack with a short sigh. “But if I had, he’d surely be involved in some feud or other, so I’m just as glad. Also, my wife is close kin to The Mister, and my son — if I had one — would be an heir of sorts and there’d be jealousy. So I’m content with just Norna. The child of my old age. Not that I ever had a child in my earlier age. Things are somewhat in a slump around here now, with the fever abroad. I wanted to take Norna up North when she was a tot and have her given general immunity. But I was told that it couldn’t be done … they count her as a Tock, too, of course, damn it. Oh, well. She feeds better than most around here — I see to it — and keeps herself and the house cleaner than most, and so far she’s stayed fairly well in health.

“Let’s pull up chairs and get warm …”

Old Guns had fitted up a sort of stove of scrap-metal, and the room was not only warmer than it would have been if only heated by a firestone, it was free of smoke, too.

“Now,” said Old Guns, having thrust several sticks of wood, furry with black moss, into the stove; “what’s
your
problem?”

He listened to Lomar’s story in silence broken only by mmms and hmms. Then he got up and stretched. “Shall we dine?” he asked. And then waited not for an answer, but called out,
“Eats!”

Almost immediately the doorway curtain was thrust aside and two women entered with trays and cloths. He introduced them, as they were setting the table. “My old wife, Sathy. My daughter, Norna. Take a seat, Ranny.” The two women looked very much alike, with their very white skins, straight backs, snapping black eyes and black hair fastened behind. “Old,” as a description of Sathy, was more affection than accuracy. A few gray hairs, a few fine lines near eyes and mouth, no more.

“Yes, she holds up well,” Old Guns commented, noting his guest’s glance and reading his thoughts. “I picked a good one to start off with, for one thing, and I’ve used her as a wife and a friend, not a damned slave and beast of burden. The others, you know, the Wild Tocks, they trot their wives till they’re withered and feeble. Then they prop them up in the chimney comers and make household gods and oracles out of them. They have an easy old age — ‘easy,’ as things go down here — if they live that long.

“But this one’s got quite a lot of jump and spark left in her, yet. Haven’t you, old besom?”

“Put your eats in your mouth,” the old besom said, unruffled.

“Not yet, you heathen.” He said a brief grace. Then he served the food. Over the chowder, broiled fish, and tataplants they talked of many things. In theory, and if one were writing a romance, the presence of Old Guns, with his superior knowledge and technical training, might have sparked some sort of renascence among the Wild Tocks. In plain and unfanciful fact, however, nothing of the sort had taken place. Old Guns had no missionary notions any more than anyone else in his time had. Even if he possessed them, the people he now lived among would not have been receptive, being just as narrow and rigid in their own way as anyone else. The small solar motor which he’d bought with his own money was able, during the rarer-than-not sunny days which South Tockland afforded, to charge itself for the few small tasks he used it for. His duties, when station armorer, had been exclusively concerned with simple maintain ance. The abrupt change in attitude indicated by his deciding to live among “the Wild people” was the only change he’d ever made; indeed, was likely the only one of which he’d been capable.

A faint tradition of artisanship and social structure did indeed survive here in the South, though the country’s limited resources and periodic feuding and petty wars arrested much of even such mutual aid as the people were capable of. The clan system depended not only on ties of blood but on the number of matchlocks each clan’s “Mister” was able to muster, and the matchlocks were made and repaired from the few scraps of metal gotten in trade for redwing; how much redwing they gathered depended on how many people they had in the first place, and how many of these could be spared from other work — gardening, fishing, and so on — and from feuding. Charcoal they made for themselves with difficulty; nitrate or saltpetre they were able to supply in one nasty way or another involving the husbandry of their own body wastes, but sulphur — the third essential ingredient for the crude black power that fired their ‘lock guns — they had to obtain from the Guild Station.

BOOK: Rork!
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