Authors: Gordon R. Dickson
A BERKLEY MEDALLION BOOK
BERKLEY PUBLISHING CORPORATION
Copyright © 1969 by Gordon Dickson All rights reserved
Published by arrangement with the author’s agent
BERKLEY MEDALLION EDITION, JULY, 1969
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Spiraling down toward the large, blue world below, in the shuttle boat from the spaceship which had delivered him here to Dilbia. Bill Waltham reflected dismally upon his situation. Most of the five-day trip he had spent wearing a hypno-helmet. But in spite of the fact that his head was now a-throb with a small encyclopedia of information about the world below and its oversize inhabitants—their language, customs, and psychology—he felt that he knew less than nothing about this job into which he had been drafted.
The shuttle boat would land him near the Lowland village of Muddy Nose. There, presumably, he would be met on disembarking by Lafe Greentree, the human Agricultural Resident here, and by Greentree’s other trainee-assistant—an Earth girl named Anita Lyme who had, incredible as it seemed, volunteered for her pre-college field training here, just as Bill had originally volunteered himself for the Deneb-Seventeen terraforming project. These two would introduce Bill to his native associate—an Upland Dilbian named the Hill Bluffer. The Hill Bluffer would in turn introduce him to the local Lowland farmers who had their homes in Muddy Nose, and Bill could get down to the apparently vital job for which he had been drafted here. He could hear himself now …
“… This is a spade. You hold it by this end. You stick the other end in the earth. Yes, deep in the earth. Then you tilt it, like this. Then you lift it tip with the dirt still on it and put the dirt aside. Fine. You are now digging a hole in the ground …”
He checked the current of his thoughts sharply. There was no point, he told himself grimly, in being bitter about it. He was here now, and he would have to make the best of it. But in spite of himself, his mind’s eye persisted in dwelling on the succession of days stretching ahead through two years of unutterable dullness and boredom. He thought again of the great symphony of engineering and development that was a terraforming project—changing the surface and weather of a whole world to make it humanly habitable; and he compared that with this small, drab job to which he was now headed. There seemed no comparison between the two occupations— no comparison at all.
But once more he took a close rein on his thoughts and emotions. Some day he could be a part of a terraforming project. Meanwhile, it would be well to remember that he would be given an efficiency rating for his work on Dilbia, just as if it was the job he had originally intended to do. That efficiency rating could not be high if he started out hating everything about the huge, bearlike natives and everything connected with them. At least, he thought, the Dilbians had a sense of humor—judging by the names they gave each other.
This last thought was not as cheering as it might have been, however. It reminded Bill of something the reassignment officer had said at the space terminal on Arcturus Three, where his original travel orders had been lifted and new ones issued. The officer had been a tall, lath-thin, long-nosed man, who had taken Bill’s being drafted away from the Deneb-Seventeen Project much more calmly than had Bill.
“… Oh, and of course,” the reassignment officer had said cheerfully, “you’ll find you’ve been given a Dilbian name yourself, by the time you get there …”
Bill scowled, remembering. His only experience previously with a nickname had not been a happy one. On the swimming team at pre-engineering school, he had failed to rejoice in the given name of “Ape”—not so much because of anything apelike about either his open and rather ordinary face under its cap of black hair, or his flat-muscled, square-boned body. The name had arisen because he was the only member of the team with anything resembling hair on his chest. Bill made a mental note to keep his shirt on when Dilbians were about, during the next two years—just in case. Of course he reflected now, they had hair all over their own bodies….
The chime of the landing signal rang through the shuttle boat. Bill looked out of the window beside his seat behind the pilot and saw they were drifting down into a fair-sized meadow, perhaps half a mile away across plowed fields alternating with stands of trees from a cluster of buildings that would probably be the village of Muddy Nose. He looked down below him, searching for a glimpse of Greenleaf or his assistant—but he saw no human figures waiting there. In fact, he saw no figures there at all. Where was his welcoming committee?
He was still wondering that, five minutes later, as he stood in the clearing alone, with his luggage case at his feet and the shuttle boat falling rapidly skyward above his head. The shuttle-boat pilot had not been helpful. He knew nothing about who was to meet Bill, he had said. Furthermore, he was due back at the ship as soon as possible. He had handed Bill’s luggage case out the hatch to him, closed the hatch, and taken off.
Bill looked up at the rich yellow of the local sun, standing in the midafternoon quarter of the sky. It was a beautiful, near-cloudless day. The air was warm, and from the stand of trees surrounding him a little distance, some species of local bird or animal was singing in high liquid chirpings. Well, thought Bill, at least one good thing was the fact that Dilbia’s gravity was a little lighter than Earth’s. That would make carrying his luggage case up to the Residency a little easier. He might as well get started. He picked up the luggage case and headed off in the general direction of the village as he remembered seeing it from the air.
He trudged out of the clearing, through the trees, and had just emerged into a second clearing when he heard a shouting directly ahead of him through the farther stand of trees. He stopped abruptly.
The shouting came again, in a chorus of incredibly deep bass voices, deeper than any human voice Bill had ever heard, and, it seemed to him in that first moment, more threatening.
He was about to change course so as to detour prudently around the noisy area, when his hypnoed information of the Dilbian language somewhat belatedly rendered the shouts into recognizable words and the words into parts of a song. Only “song” was not exactly the word for it, Dilbian singing being a sort of atonal chanting. Very crudely translated into English, the so-called singing he heard was going something like this:
Drink it down, old friend Tin Ear,
Drink it down!
Drink it down, old friend Tin Ear,
Drink it down!
Here’s to you and your sweet wife,
May you have her all your life!
Better you than one of us.
Drink it down!
Drink it down … etc.
Here’s to you and your new plow!
Does it make your back to bow?
Well, better you than one of us.
Bill abruptly changed his mind. If the song was any indication, a happy gathering of some sort was in progress on the other side of the trees. All the hypnoed information he had absorbed on the way to Dilbia had indicated that the Dilbians were normally good-humored and generally friendly enough— if somewhat boisterous and inclined to take pride in observing the letter of the law, while carefully avoiding the spirit of it. Besides, Muddy Nose Village had a treaty agreement with the human members of the Agricultural Assistance Program, and that officially put him under the protection of any member of that local community.
So there should be no reason not to join the gathering and at least get directions to the Residency, if not some help as well in carrying his luggage to the village. The situation would also give him a chance to size up the natives before Greenleaf gathered him in and gave him Greenleafs own, possibly biased, point of view about them. Bill was still not clear why a pre-engineering student with a prospective major in mechanical engineering should be needed to explain simple things like hoes and rakes to the Dilbians.