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Hunt the Space-Witch!
Seven Adventures in Time and Space
By Robert Silverberg
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2011 Agberg, Ltd.
All rights reserved.
Dark violet shadows streaked the sky, and the forest was ugly and menacing. Lloyd Harkins leaned against the bole of a mighty red-brown tree and looked around dizzily, trying to get his bearings.
He knew he was there, not here. Here had vanished so suddenly that there had been no sense of transition or of motion — merely a strange subliminal undertone of loss, as the world he knew had melted and been replaced with — what?
He heard a distant, ground-shaking sound of thunder, growing louder. Birds with gleaming, toothy beaks and wide-sweeping wings wheeled and shrieked in the shadowed sky, and the air was cold and damp. Harkins held his ground, clinging tightly to the enormous tree as if it were his last bastion of reality in a world of dreams.
And the tree moved.
It lifted from its base, swung forward and upward, carrying Harkins with it. The sound of thunder grew nearer. Harkins shut his eyes, opened them, gaped in awe.
Some ten feet to the right, another tree was moving.
He threw his head back, stared upward into the cloud-fogged sky, and verified the fact he wanted to deny: the trees were not trees.
They were legs.
Legs of a being huge beyond belief, whose head rose fifty feet or more above the floor of the dark forest. A being who had begun to move.
Harkins dug his hands frantically into the leg, gripping it as he swung wildly through a fifteen-foot arc with each stride of the monstrous creature. Gradually, the world around him took shape again, and slowly he re-established control over his fear-frozen mind.
Through the bright green blurs of vegetation he was able to see the creature on which he rode. It was gigantic but vaguely manlike, wearing a sort of jacket and a pair of shorts which terminated some twenty-five feet above Harkins' head. From there down, firm red-brown skin the texture of wood was visible. Harkins could even distinguish dimly a face, far above, with pronounced features of a strange and alien cast.
He began to assemble his environment. It was a forest — where? On Earth, apparently — but an Earth no one had ever known before. The bowl of the sky was shot through with rich, dark colors, and the birds that screeched overhead were nightmare creatures of terrifying appearance.
The earth was brown and the vegetation green, though all else had changed.
Where am I? Harkins asked over and over again.
And — Why am I here?
And — How can I get back?
He had no answers. The day had begun in ordinary fashion, promising to be neither more nor less unusual than the day before or all the days before that. Shortly after noon, on the 21st of April, 1957, he had been on his way to the electronics laboratory, in New York City, on the planet Earth. And now he was here wherever here might be.
His host continued to stride through the forest, seemingly unconcerned about the man clinging to his calf. Harkins' arms were growing tired from the strain of hanging on, and suddenly the new thought occurred: Why not let go? He had held on only through a sort of paralysis of the initiative, but now he had regained his mental equilibrium. He dropped off.
He hit the ground solidly and sprawled out flat. The soil was warm and fertile-smelling, and for a moment he clung to it as he had to the "tree" minutes before. Then he scrambled to his feet and glanced around hastily, looking for a place to hide and reconnoiter.
There was none. And a hand was descending toward him — red-brown, enormous, tipped with gleaming, pointed fingernails six inches long. Gently, the giant hand scooped Harkins up.
There was a dizzying moment as he rose fifty feet, held tenderly in the giant's leathery embrace. The hand opened, and Harkins found himself standing on an outspread palm the size of a large table, staring at a strange oval face with deep-set, compassionate eyes and a wide, almost lipless mouth studded with triangular teeth. The being seemed to smile almost pityingly at Harkins.
"What are you?" Harkins demanded.
The creature's smile grew broader and more melancholy, but there was no reply — only the harsh wailing of the forest birds, and the distant rumbling of approaching thunder. Harkins felt himself being lowered to the giant's side, and once again the being began to move rapidly through the forest, crushing down the low-clustered shrubs as it walked. Harkins, his stomach rolling agonizingly with each step, rode cradled in the great creature's loosely-closed hand.
After what must have been ten minutes or more, the giant stopped. Harkins glanced around, surprised. The thunder was close now, and superimposed on it was the dull boom of toppling trees. The giant was standing quite still, legs planted as solidly as tree trunks, waiting.
Minutes passed — and then Harkins saw why the giant had stopped. Coming toward them was a machine — a robot, Harkins realized — some fifteen feet high. It was man-shaped, but much more compact; a unicorn-like spike projected from its gleaming nickel-jacketed forehead, and instead of legs it moved on broad treads. The robot was proceeding through the forest, pushing aside the trees that stood in its way with casual gestures of its massive forearms, sending them toppling to the right and left with what looked like a minimal output of effort.
The giant remained motionless, staring down at the ugly machine as it went by. The robot paid no attention to Harkins' host, and went barrelling on through the forest as if following some predetermined course.
Minutes later it was out of sight leaving behind it a trail of uprooted shrubs and exposed tree-roots. As the robot's thunder diminished behind them, the giant resumed his journey through the forest. Harkins rode patiently, not daring to think any more.
After a while longer a clearing appeared — and Harkins was surprised and pleased to discover a little cluster of huts. Man-sized huts, ringed in a loose circle to form a village. Moving in the center of the circle were tiny dots which Harkins realized were people, human beings, men.
A prison camp?
The people of the village spotted the giant, and gathered in a small knot, gesticulating and pointing. The giant approached within about a hundred yards of the village, stooped, and lowered Harkins delicately to the ground.
Dizzy after his long journey in the creature's hand, Harkins staggered, reeled, and fell. He half expected to see the giant scoop him up again, but instead the being was retreating into the forest, departing as mysteriously as he had come.
Harkins got to his feet. He saw people running toward him — wild-looking, dangerous people. Suddenly, he began to feel that he might have been safer in the giant's grip.CHAPTER 2
There were seven of them, five men and two women. They were probably the bravest. The rest hung back and watched from the safety of their huts.
Harkins stood fast and waited for them. When they drew near, he held up a hand.
"Friend!" he said loudly. "Peace!"
The words seemed to register. The seven paused and arrayed themselves in an uneasy semicircle before Harkins. The biggest of the men, a tall, broad-shouldered man with unruly black hair, thick features and deep-set eyes, stepped forward.
"Where are you from, stranger?" he growled in recognizable, though oddly distorted, English.
Harkins thought it over, and decided to keep acting on the assumption that they were as savage as they looked. He pointed to the forest. "From there."
"We know that," the tall man said. "We saw the Star Giant bring you. But where is your village?"
Harkins shrugged. "Far from here — far across the ocean." It was as good a story as any, he thought. And he wanted more information about these people before he volunteered any about himself. But one of the two women spoke up.
"What ocean?" Her voice was scornful. She was a squat, yellow-faced woman in a torn, dirty tunic. "There are no oceans near here." She edged up to Harkins, glared intently at him. Her breath was foul. "You're a spy," she said accusingly. "You're from the Tunnel City, aren't you?"
"The Star Giant brought him," the other woman pointed out calmly. She was tall and wild-looking, with flowing blonde hair that looked as if it had never been cut. She wore ragged shorts and two strips of cloth that covered her breasts. "The Star Giants aren't in league with the city dwellers, Elsa," the woman added.
"Quiet," snapped the burly man who had spoken first. He turned to Harkins. "Who are you?"
"My name is Lloyd Harkins. I come from far across the ocean. I don't know how I came here, but the Star Giant" — this part would be true, at least — "found me and brought me to this place." He spread his hands. "More I cannot tell you."
"Uh. Very well, Lloyd Harkins." The big man turned to the other six. "Kill him, or let him stay?"
"How unlike you to ask our opinions, Jorn!" said the squat woman named Elsa. "But I say kill him. He's from the Tunnel City. I know it!"
The man named Jorn faced the others. "What say you?"
"Let him live," replied a sleepy-looking young man. "He seems harmless."
Jorn scowled. "The rest of you?"
"Death," said a second man. "He looks dishonest."
"He looks all right to me," offered the third. "And to me," said the fourth. "But I vote for death. Elsa is seldom wrong."
Harkins chewed nervously at his lower lip. That made three votes for death, two in his favor. Jorn was staring expectantly at the sullen-faced girl with long hair.
"Your opinion, Katha?"
"Let him live," she said slowly.
Jorn grunted. "So be it. I cast my vote for him also. You may join us, stranger. But mine is the deciding vote — and if I reverse it, you die!"
They marched over the clearing single file to the village, Jorn leading, Harkins in the rear followed by the girl Katha. The rest of the villagers stared at him curiously as he entered the circle of huts.
"This is Lloyd Harkins," Jorn said loudly. "He will live among us."
Harkins glanced tensely from face to face. There were about seventy of them, altogether, ranging from gray-beards to naked children. They seemed oddly savage and civilized all at once. The village was a strange mixture of the primitive and cultured.
The huts were made of some unfamiliar dark green plastic substance, as were their clothes. A bonfire burnt in the center of the little square formed by the ring of huts. From where he stood, Harkins had a clear view of the jungle — a thickly-vegetated one, which had obviously not sprung up overnight. He could see the deeply-trampled path which the Star Giant had made.
He turned to Jorn. "I'm a stranger to this land. I don't know anything about the way you live."
"All you need to know is that I'm in charge," Jorn said. "Listen to me and you won't have any trouble."
"Where am I going to stay?"
"There's a hut for single men," Jorn said. "It's not very comfortable, but it's the best you can have." Jorn's deep eyes narrowed. "There are no spare women in this village, by the way. Unless you want Elsa, that is." He threw back his head and laughed raucously.
"Elsa's got her eyes fixed on one of the Star Giants," someone else said. "That's the only kind can satisfy her."
"Toad!" The squat woman known as Elsa sprang at the man who had spoken, and the ferocity of her assault knocked him to the ground. Elsa climbed on his chest and began banging his head against the ground. With a lazy motion, Jorn reached down and plucked her off.
"Save your energy, Elsa. We'll need you to cast spells when the Tunnel City men come."
Harkins frowned. "This Tunnel City — where is it? Who lives there?"
Jorn swung slowly around. "Either you're a simpleton or you really are a stranger here. The Tunnel City is one of the Old Places. Our enemies live there, in the ruins. They make war on us — and the Star Giants watch. It amuses them."
"These Tunnel City men — they're men, like us? I mean, not giants?"
"They're like us, all right. That's why they fight us. The different ones don't bother."
"You'll find out. Stop asking questions, will you? There's food to be gathered." Jorn turned to a corn-haired young villager nearby. "Show Harkins where he's going to stay — and then put him to work in the grain field."
A confused swirl of thoughts cascaded through Harkins' mind as the young man led him away. Slowly, the jigsaw was fitting together.
The villagers spoke a sort of English, which spiked Harkins' theory that he had somehow been cast backward in time. The alternative, hard as it was to accept, was plain: he was in the future, in a strangely altered world.
The Star Giants — who were they? Jorn had said they watched while the contending villages fought. It amused them, he said. That argued that the giants were the dominant forces in this world. Were they humans? Invaders from elsewhere? Those questions would have to wait for answers. Jorn either didn't know them; or didn't want Harkins to know.
The robot in the forest — unexplained. The Star Giant had shown it a healthy respect, though.
The tribe here — Jorn was in command, and everyone appeared to respect his authority. A fairly conventional primitive arrangement, Harkins thought. It implied an almost total breakdown of civilization some time in the past. The pieces were fitting together, though there were gaps.
The Tunnel City, home of the hated enemy. "One of the Old Places," Jorn had said. The enemies lived in the ruins. That was clear enough. But what of these "different ones"?
He shook his head. It was a strange and confusing world, and possibly the fewer questions he asked the safer he would be.
"Here's our place," the villager said. He pointed to a long hut, low and broad. "The single men stay here. Take any bed that has no clothing on it."
"Thanks," said Harkins. He stooped to enter. The interior of the hut was crude and bare, with straw pallets scattered at random here and there inside. He selected one that looked fairly clean and dropped his jacket on it. "This is mine," he said.
The other nodded. "Now to the grain fields." He pointed to a clearing behind the village.
Harkins spent the rest of that afternoon working in the fields, deliberately using as much energy as he could and trying not to think. By the time night approached, he was thoroughly exhausted. The men returned to the village, where the women served a plain but nourishing community supper.
The simple life, Harkins thought. Farming and gathering food and occasional intertribal conflicts. It was hardly a lofty position these remote descendants of his had reached, he observed wryly. And something was wrong with the picture. The breakdown must have occurred fairly recently, for them to be still sunk this low in cultural pattern — but the thickness of the forestation implied many centuries had gone by since this area had been heavily populated. There was a hole in his logical construct here, Harkins realized, and he was unable to find it.
Night came. The moon was full, and he stared at its pockmarked face longingly, feeling a strong homesickness for the crowded, busy world he had been taken from. He looked at the tribesmen sprawled on the ground, their bellies full, their bodies tired. Someone was singing a tuneless, unmelodic song. Loud snoring came from behind him. Jorn stood tensely outlined against the brightness of the moon, staring out toward the forest as if expecting a momentary invasion. From far away came the thumping sound of a robot crashing its way through the trees, or possibly a Star Giant bound on some unknown errand.
Suddenly Jorn turned. "Time for sleep," he snapped, "into your huts."
He moved around, kicking the dozers, shoving the women away from the fire. He's the boss, all right, Harkins thought. He studied Jorn's whipcord muscles appreciatively, and decided he'd do his best to avoid crossing the big man, for the duration of his stay in the village.
Later, Harkins lay on his rough bed, trying to sleep. It was impossible. The bright moonlight streamed in the open door of the hut, and in any event he was too tense for sleep to come. He craned his neck, looking around. The six men with whom he shared the hut were sound asleep, reaping the reward of their hard day's toil. They had security, he thought — the security of ignorance. He, Harkins, had too much of the civilized man's perceptivity. The night-noises from outside disturbed him, the muffled booms from the forest woke strange and deeply buried terrors in him. This was no world for nervous men.
Excerpted from Hunt the Space-Witch! by Robert Silverberg. Copyright © 2011 Agberg, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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