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The Classic Mesklin Stories
By Hal Clement
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2002 Hal Clement
All rights reserved.
1: WINTER STORM
The wind came across the bay like something living. It tore the surface so thoroughly to shreds that it was hard to tell where liquid ended and atmosphere began; it tried to raise waves that would have swamped the Bree like a chip, and blew them into impalpable spray before they had risen a foot.
The spray alone reached Barlennan, crouched high on the Bree's poop raft. His ship had long since been hauled safely ashore. That had been done the moment he had been sure that he would stay here for the winter; but he could not help feeling a little uneasy even so. Those waves were many times as high as any he had faced at sea, and somehow it was not completely reassuring to reflect that the lack of weight which permitted them to rise so high would also prevent their doing real damage if they did roll this far up the beach.
Barlennan was not particularly superstitious, but this close to the Rim of the World there was really no telling what could happen. Even his crew, an unimaginative lot by any reckoning, showed occasional signs of uneasiness. There was bad luck here, they muttered — whatever dwelt beyond the Rim and sent the fearful winter gales blasting thousands of miles into the world might resent being disturbed. At every accident the muttering broke out anew, and accidents were frequent. The fact that anyone is apt to make a misstep when he weighs about two and a quarter pounds instead of the five hundred and fifty or so to which he has been used all his life seemed obvious to the commander; but apparently an education, or at least the habit of logical thought, was needed to appreciate that.
Even Dondragmer, who should have known better ... Barlennan's long body tensed and he almost roared an order before he really took in what was going on two rafts away. The mate had picked this moment, apparently, to check the stays of one of the masts, and had taken advantage of near-weightlessness to rear almost his full length upward from the deck. It was still a fantastic sight to see him towering, balanced precariously on his six rear-most legs, though most of the Bree's crew had become fairly used to such tricks; but that was not what impressed Barlennan. At two pounds' weight, one held onto something or else was blown away by the first breeze; and no one could hold onto anything with six walking legs. When that gale struck — but already no order could be heard, even if the commander were to shriek his loudest. He had actually started to creep across the first buffer space separating him from the scene of action when he saw that the mate had fastened a set of lines to his harness and to the deck, and was almost as securely tied down as the mast he was working on.
Barlennan relaxed once more. He knew why Don had done it — it was a simple act of defiance to whatever was driving this particular storm, and he was deliberately impressing his attitude on the crew. Good fellow, thought Barlennan, and turned his attention once more to the bay.
No witness could have told precisely where the shore line now lay. A blinding whirl of white spray and nearly white sand hid everything more than a hundred yards from the Bree in every direction; and now even the ship was growing difficult to see as hard-driven droplets of methane struck bulletlike and smeared themselves over his eye shells. At least the deck under his many feet was still rocksteady; light as it now was, the vessel did not seem prepared to blow away. It shouldn't, the commander thought grimly, as he recalled the scores of cables now holding to deep-struck anchors and to the low trees that dotted the beach. It shouldn't — but his would not be the first ship to disappear while venturing this near the Rim. Maybe his crew's suspicion of the Flyer had some justice. After all, that strange being had persuaded him to remain for the winter, and had somehow done it without promising any protection to ship or crew. Still, if the Flyer wanted to destroy them, he could certainly do so more easily and certainly than by arguing them into this trick. If that huge structure he rode should get above the Bree even here where weight meant so little, there would be no more to be said. Barlennan turned his mind to other matters; he had in full measure the normal Mesklinite horror of letting himself get even temporarily under anything really solid.
The crew had long since taken shelter under the deck flaps — even the mate ceased work as the storm actually struck. They were all present; Barlennan had counted the humps under the protecting fabric while he could still see the whole ship. There were no hunters out, for no sailor had needed the Flyer's warning that a storm was approaching. None of them had been more than five miles from the security of the ship for the last ten days, and five miles was no distance to travel in this weight.
They had plenty of supplies, of course; Barlennan was no fool himself, and did his best to employ none. Still, fresh food was nice. He wondered how long this particular storm would keep them penned in; that was something the signs did not tell, clearly as they heralded the approach of the disturbance. Perhaps the Flyer knew that. In any case, there was nothing further to be done about the ship; he might as well talk to the strange creature. Barlennan still felt a faint thrill of unbelief whenever he looked at the device the Flyer had given him, and never tired of assuring himself once more of its powers.
It lay, under a small shelter flap of its own, on the poop raft beside him. It was an apparently solid block, three inches long and about half as high and wide. A transparent spot in the otherwise blank surface of one end looked like an eye, and apparently functioned as one. The only other feature was a small, round hole in one of the long faces. The block was lying with this face upward, and the "eye" end projecting slightly from under the shelter flap. The flap itself opened downwind, of course, so that its fabric was now plastered tightly against the flat upper surface of the machine.
Barlennan worked an arm under the flap, groped around until he found the hole, and inserted his pincer. There was no moving part, such as a switch or button, inside, but that did not bother him — he had never encountered such devices any more than he had met thermal, photonic, or capacity-activated relays. He knew from experience that the fact of putting anything opaque into that hole was somehow made known to the Flyer, and he knew that there was no point whatever in his attempting to figure out how it was done. It would be, he sometimes reflected ruefully, something like teaching navigation to a ten-day-old child. The intelligence might be there — it was comforting to think so, anyway — but some years of background experience were lacking.
"Charles Lackland here." The machine spoke abruptly, cutting the train of thought. "That you, Barl?"
"This is Barlennan, Charles." The commander spoke the Flyer's language, in which he was gradually becoming proficient.
"Good to hear from you. Were we right about this little breeze?"
"It came at the time you predicted. Just a moment — yes, there is snow with it. I had not noticed. I see no dust as yet, however."
"It will come. That volcano must have fed ten cubic miles of it into the air, and it's been spreading for days."
Barlennan made no direct reply to this. The volcano in question was still a point of contention between them, since it was located in a part of Mesklin which, according to Barlennan's geographical background, did not exist.
"What I really wondered about, Charles, was how long this blow was going to last. I understand your people can see it from above, and should know how big it is."
"Are you in trouble already? The winter's just starting — you have thousands of days before you can get out of here."
"I realize that. We have plenty of food, as far as quantity goes. However, we'd like something fresh occasionally, and it would be nice to know in advance when we can send out a hunting party or two."
"I see. I'm afraid it will take some rather careful timing. I was not here last winter, but I understand that during that season the storms in this area are practically continuous. Have you ever been actually to the equator before?"
"To the what?"
"To the — I guess it's what you mean when you talk of the Rim."
"No, I have never been this close, and don't see how anyone could get much closer. It seems to me that if we went much farther out to sea we'd lose every last bit of our weight and go flying off into nowhere."
"If it's any comfort to you, you are wrong. If you kept going, your weight would start up again. You are on the equator right now — the place where weight is least. That is why I am here. I begin to see why you don't want to believe there is land very much farther north. I thought it might be language trouble when we talked of it before. Perhaps you have time enough to describe to me now your ideas concerning the nature of the world? Or perhaps you have maps?"
"We have a Bowl here on the poop raft, of course. I'm afraid you wouldn't be able to see it now, since the sun has just set and Esstes doesn't give light enough to help through these clouds. When the sun rises I'll show it to you. My flat maps wouldn't be much good, since none of them covers enough territory to give a really good picture."
"Good enough. While we're waiting for sunrise could you give me some sort of verbal idea, though?"
"I'm not sure I know your language well enough yet, but I'll try.
"I was taught in school that Mesklin is a big, hollow bowl. The part where most people live is near the bottom, where there is decent weight. The philosophers have an idea that weight is caused by the pull of a big, flat plate that Mesklin is sitting on; the farther out we go toward the Rim, the less we weigh, since we're farther from the plate. What the plate is sitting on no one knows; you hear a lot of queer beliefs on that subject from some of the less civilized races."
"I should think if your philosophers were right you'd be climbing uphill whenever you traveled away from the center, and all the oceans would run to the lowest point," interjected Lackland. "Have you ever asked one of your philosophers that?"
"When I was a youngster I saw a picture of the whole thing. The teacher's diagram showed a lot of lines coming up from the plate and bending in to meet right over the middle of Mesklin. They came through the bowl straight rather than slantwise because of the curve; and the teacher said weight operated along the lines instead of straight down toward the plate," returned the commander. "I didn't understand it fully, but it seemed to work. They said the theory was proved because the surveyed distances on maps agreed with what they ought to be according to the theory. That I can understand, and it seems a good point. If the shape weren't what they thought it was, the distances would certainly go haywire before you got very far from your standard point."
"Quite right. I see your philosophers are quite well into geometry. What I don't see is why they haven't realized that there are two shapes that would make the distances come out right. After all, can't you see that the surface of Mesklin curves doumward? If your theory were true, the horizon would seem to be above you. How about that?"
"Oh, it is. That's why even the most primitive tribes know the world is bowl-shaped. It's just out here near the Rim that it looks different. I expect it's something to do with the light. After all, the sun rises and sets here even in summer, and it wouldn't be surprising if things looked a little queer. Why, it even looks as though the — horizon, you called it? — was closer to north and south than it is east and west. You can see a ship much farther away to the east or west. It's the light."
"Hmm. I find your point a little difficult to answer at the moment." Barlennan was not sufficiently familiar with the Flyer's speech to detect such a thing as a note of amusement in his voice. "I have never been on the surface far from the — er — Rim — and never can be, personally. I didn't realize that things looked as you describe, and I can't see why they should, at the moment. I hope to see it when you take that radio-vision set on our little errand."
"I shall be delighted to hear your explanation of why our philosophers are wrong," Barlennan answered politely. "When you are prepared to give it, of course. In the meantime, I am still somewhat curious as to whether you might be able to tell me when there will be a break in this storm."
"It will take a few minutes to get a report from the station on Toorey. Suppose I call you back about sunrise. I can give you the weather forecast, and there'll be light enough for you to show me your Bowl. All right?"
"That will be excellent. I will wait." Barlennan crouched where he was beside the radio while the storm shrieked on around him. The pellets of methane that splattered against his armored back failed to bother him — they hit a lot harder in the high latitudes. Occasionally he stirred to push away the fine drift of ammonia that kept accumulating on the raft, but even that was only a minor annoyance — at least, so far. Toward midwinter, in five or six thousand days, the stuff would be melting in full sunlight, and rather shortly thereafter would be freezing again. The main idea was to get the liquid away from the vessel or vice versa before the second freeze, or Barlennan's crew would be chipping a couple of hundred rafts clear of the beach. The Bree was no river boat, but a full-sized oceangoing ship.
It took the Flyer only the promised few minutes to get the required information, and his voice sounded once more from the tiny speaker as the clouds over the bay lightened with the rising sun.
"I'm afraid I was right, Barl. There is no letup in sight. Practically the whole northern hemisphere — which doesn't mean a thing to you — is boiling off its icecap. I understand the storms in general last all winter. The fact that they come separately in the higher southern latitudes is because they get broken up into very small cells by Coriolis deflection as they get away from the equator."
"By the same force that makes any projectile you throw swerve so noticeably to the left — at least, while I've never seen it under your conditions, it would practically have to on this planet."
"What is 'throw'?"
"My gosh, we haven't used that word, have we? Well, I've seen you jump — no, by gosh, I haven't either! — when you were up visiting at my shelter. Do you remember that word?"
"Well, 'throw' is when you take some other object — pick it up — and push it hard away from you so that it travels some distance before striking the ground!"
"We don't do that up in reasonable countries. There are lots of things we can do here which are either impossible or very dangerous there. If I were to 'throw' something at home, it might very well land on someone — probably me."
"Come to think of it, that might be bad. Three G's here at the equator is bad enough; you have nearly seven hundred at the poles. Still, if you could find something small enough so that your muscles could throw it, why couldn't you catch it again, or at least resist its impact?"
"I find the situation hard to picture, but I think I know the answer. There isn't time. If something is let go — thrown or not — it hits the ground before anything can be done about it. Picking up and carrying is one thing; crawling is one thing; throwing and — jumping? — are entirely different matters."
"I see — I guess. We sort of took for granted that you'd have a reaction time commensurate with your gravity, but I can see that's just man-centered thinking. I guess I get it."
"What I could understand of your talk sounded reasonable. It is certainly evident that we are different; we will probably never fully realize just how different. At least we are enough alike to talk together — and make what I hope will be a mutually profitable agreement."
"I am sure it will be. Incidentally, in furtherance of it you will have to give me an idea of the places you want to go, and I will have to point out on your maps the place where I want you to go. Could we look at that Bowl of yours now? There is light enough for this vision set."
Excerpted from Heavy Planet by Hal Clement. Copyright © 2002 Hal Clement. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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